How love and Plato transformed my life

Rainer Knopff
March 1, 2015
During a backpacking tour of Europe in 1971-72, Rainer Knopff very nearly missed the train carrying his personal and political destinies. Things might have turned out very differently for the future political scientist and member of the “Calgary School” of conservative academics if the train had not returned to the station, thereby reuniting him with the woman he would marry and his (then unread) copy of Plato’s Republic.

How love and Plato transformed my life

Rainer Knopff
March 1, 2015
During a backpacking tour of Europe in 1971-72, Rainer Knopff very nearly missed the train carrying his personal and political destinies. Things might have turned out very differently for the future political scientist and member of the “Calgary School” of conservative academics if the train had not returned to the station, thereby reuniting him with the woman he would marry and his (then unread) copy of Plato’s Republic.
Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter

Knopff - Main image

The train was gone!

Thinking I had plenty of time, I had disembarked to buy a soft drink from a platform vendor. I waited in line, paid for my soda, turned around, and – my heart sank. The train that was to take Robin and me from Milan to Spain had left.

Robin was on the train, along with the two backpacks containing all our possessions. The woman I loved and hoped to marry was headed off without me! So was a book (as yet unread and hence unloved) tucked into one of the packs.

As luck would have it, I would soon be reunited with both the woman and the book. Together, they would change my life immeasurably for the better. Robin became my wife and the mother of our two wonderful sons; the book transformed my intellectual horizon and academic trajectory. At that moment on the platform, of course, I knew none of this.

Nowadays, a call or text between cellphones would have solved the problem. But this was 1971, when travelling students still picked up hardcopy letters at American Express offices.

Worse, even if I could somehow figure out where to find her among the several Spanish destinations and intermediate stops we were considering – we had to decided to “play it by ear” – my eurail pass was safely stowed in Robin’s money-belt. So were my passport and travellers cheques (remember those pre-ATM curiosities?). I stood on the platform with only the clothes on my back and perhaps enough change to buy a biscuit to go with the soft drink.

Panicking, I randomly approached people for help, using all the languages at my disposal — English, of course, but also my rusty childhood German, my rudimentary high school French, and the even more rudimentary Spanish I had picked up the previous summer at Ivan Illich’s left-wing centre in Cuernavaca Mexico. I neither spoke nor understood Italian.

Eventually a woman explained to me — in which language I cannot now remember — that the train had probably pulled out temporarily to change its departure track. She thought that might be it at the other end of the station.

I hustled over to find that the woman was right – and to be reunited with a tearful Robin, perched with our backpacks at a rail-car doorway, where she had been poised to jump off had the train not stopped and returned.

And so, our journey resumed. With stops in southern France, Robin and I made our way to Cullera, Spain, where I settled down to read the book.

Knopff - Inset Image

Some background is needed to appreciate the story of the book. In the spring of 1971, Robin and I had both graduated from McMaster University’s department of sociology. There we had encountered Howard Brotz. Soon after receiving his PhD in sociology from the London School of Economics, Brotz had an epiphany when he chanced upon an essay by Leo Strauss. Concluding that he had been “translating banalities into jargon,” he quit his job in New York City and headed to Chicago to learn directly from Strauss. Later, he would come to McMaster, where his sociology courses focused on political philosophy.

Brotz seemed, by turns, to be an Aristotelian, a Lockean, a Rousseauan, a Marxist, a Nietzschean – always adopting the perspective of whichever thinker he happened to be teaching. I found it much easier to pin down the political perspectives of other professors in the department, and although I was interested enough in Brotz’s courses to take all of them, some charismatic leftists had a stronger immediate influence on me – which explains my post-graduation visit to the Illich centre in Cuernavaca.

Upon returning from Mexico, I decided to do graduate work at McMaster. I planned to write an MA thesis demonstrating the superiority of Marx to Aristotle on the issue of property, a topic influenced by both my leftist leanings and the philosophical interests I had picked up from Howard Brotz. Somewhat perversely, for both of us, Brotz agreed to supervise the thesis.

Robin had no intention of sticking around Hamilton. She had been saving for a year of travel and was itching to go. As I began graduate studies, Robin headed off to Europe, leaving me with plenty of spare time to campaign for Stephen Lewis’s NDP in that autumn’s Ontario elections.

Well, that didn’t last long. Lovesickness got the better of me, and by December, I had quit the graduate program and chased Robin to Milan. Howard Brotz did not try to dissuade me. He merely recommended that I take to Europe a book we had not yet read together: Plato’s Republic. “Get Allan Bloom’s translation,” he said, “it has a good interpretive essay.”

Smiling politely but noncommittally, I headed home, taking my usual route through the university’s bookstore, where – providentially – Bloom’s translation of the Republic immediately caught my eye. I bought it, slipped it into my backpack, and didn’t give it another thought until Robin and I rented a flat for a month in Cullera.

Must an epiphany occur in a blinding flash or can it develop slowly over the course of a month? The latter happened in my case. The sneering marginal notes near the beginning of my now dog-eared Republic show how little I thought of it initially. But such notes petered out as, thinking back on Brotz’s courses, I found dots starting to connect.

My youthful Marxist heart leapt when Socrates and his interlocutors concluded that a kind of communism was necessary to perfect justice, and that private interest must be overcome to achieve natural meritocracy. But they demanded a steep price. Communal childrearing could overcome the unjust advantages or disadvantages conferred by parents on their differently talented children, but only if the natural preference of parents for their own children could be disrupted. For example, mothers could not be allowed to recognize their biological offspring. Simply put, the biological family, a primary source of unjust private interest, had to be destroyed.

My skepticism was aroused, and, like the dialogue’s participants, I wondered how this remarkable state of affairs could actually come about. Only through lies, it turned out, both “noble” and otherwise. Moreover, when Socrates asked how these whoppers could be sold, Glaucon replied that they would persuade only children and subsequent generations, not current adults. Somewhat enigmatically, Socrates dropped the issue, but later in the dialogue he proposed getting rid of everyone over the age of ten in order to ensure the necessary socialization. Despite Socrates’s hilarious suggestion that the adults could be persuaded to decamp voluntarily, this proposal clearly anticipated the more serious purges of modern communism.

Knopff - Inset image1

Purges and family destruction! Were these abhorrent features of modern communism the logical flip side of its idealism – my idealism? As I would later read in one of Strauss’ books, “the Republic conveys the broadest and deepest analysis of political idealism ever made.” Perhaps, I thought, some moderation – some realism – was in order.

My intellectual and political reorientation was underway – but barely underway. Knowing I still had much to learn, I applied for graduate studies in political science at the University of Toronto, where Allan Bloom had gone when Cornell University (his previous employer) caved to the demands of gun-toting student radicals in 1969.

I learned much from Bloom, who, among other things, encouraged me to bring the perspectives of political philosophy to the study of Canadian politics, as several former students of Strauss had done with American politics. A good example was Bloom’s friend Walter Berns, a fellow Cornell refugee at the University of Toronto. Also at Toronto was Peter Russell, who shared Berns’ interest in philosophic approaches to practical politics, especially constitutional politics. Russell ended up directing my Canadian-politics dissertation, with Berns serving on the supervisory committee. Bloom supervised my minor area: political philosophy. And I continued to see Howard Brotz, who lived in Toronto. Those were good years!

The title of my doctoral dissertation, In Defense of Liberal Democracy, says much about how my thinking had changed since the McMaster days. Here’s the unwieldy subtitle: An Inquiry into the Philosophical Premises Underlying French Canadian Liberalism’s Battle with Theocracy and Nationalism (Whew!). My study of liberalism’s battle with theocracy – the first half of the dissertation – turned me for practical purposes into a Laurier liberal, the kind of classical liberal who today counts as a conservative.

Even before completing the dissertation, I landed a job in the University of Calgary’s political science department, where I met Tom Flanagan, another classically liberal conservative. Three years later, Barry Cooper arrived, as did Ted Morton (who had also studied with Russell, Berns, and Bloom at the U of T). That made four conservatives. Four! In a single social science discipline not called “economics.” Nearly 20 percent of our department. Outrageous!

So outrageous – or at least noteworthy – that people began to pay attention. The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson wrote a column about the “Calgary Mafia.” Others later softened that to the “Calgary School.” And the rest, as they say, is history – a history well told by Tom Flanagan in his essay “Legends of the Calgary School: Their Guns, Their Dogs, and the Women Who Love Them” (first published in a 2013 festschrift for Barry Cooper and now also available on the VoegelinView website).

Telling my own story makes me reflect on the role of chance in our lives. Encountering the right people, the right teachers, the right books, at the right time makes all the difference. Would life have turned out the same for me had that train continued on its way instead of returning to the station? I can’t help wondering.


A political scientist at the University of Calgary, Rainer Knopff has written widely on constitutional law and politics. His books include The Charter Revolution and the Court Party and Charter Politics (both with F.L. Morton).

Love C2C Journal? Here's how you can help us grow.

More for you

Thirteen Things That Can’t Be Said About Aboriginal Law And Policy In Canada

How do you make new laws and policies or reform old ones in a democracy? You talk openly about every aspect, carefully consider the pros and cons and the long-term implications, and strive to come up with solutions that are fair to everyone. That has been the ideal, anyway, in Canada since Confederation. So what happens when vast areas of law and policy cannot even be discussed any longer? Bruce Pardy lists the things that have become perilous to say regarding Indigenous issues – but that need to be said if Canada is to maintain a legal system that is fair to all Canadians.

Democratic socialism is the new communism, but what does that mean for the people old enough to remember living under communism?

New Communism, Old Fears

Supporting or working to bring about “democratic” socialism has become an alluring option for ever-more voters across North America. It is ascending on clouds of virtuous intentions, high hopes and utopian goals, backed by elaborate theories, with good doses of anger and envy adding punch. Yet it has all been tried before – and failed calamitously, an unmitigated horror ending in ruination. Luckily, people who have personally lived through it are still around to tell the tale. Through the eyes of one survivor of Eastern European communism, Doug Firby issues a stark reminder of what real oppression looks like and a plea to younger Canadians to resist the seductive call of socialism.

What would have happened if Canada rejected "coronapsychosis"?

Rejecting “Coronapsychosis” Could Be Good for Our Health

It will remain forever unknowable how Canada would have fared had our country not largely aped the “lockdown” model adopted by most of the advanced countries. But there is meaningful evidence for those who care and dare to look – and the implications aren’t pretty for our public health officials and their political acolytes. Brian Giesbrecht examined an obscure, far-off country run by an eccentric old man who decided to do the pandemic his own way – and may well have saved not only his nation’s economy but hundreds of his compatriots as well.

More from this author

Can Canada work through its legal challenges and finally free the beer?

Why Killing the IILA Didn’t Free the Beer

As you take that satisfying summertime pull of the frothy, feel crisp cool wine on your lips or perk up to the sound of ice cubes rattling, you might pause to consider just how much your adult beverage has endured to find its way into your possession. Provincial liquor control monopolies, in particular, limit the acquisition and jack up the prices of “imported” beverages – even those produced in the next province. Hopes ran high that the most recent round of legal jousting and political fine-tuning would throw things wide open. Constitutional law expert and connoisseur of fermentation and distillation Rainer Knopff explains why, sadly, killing the IILA didn’t free the beer.

Charter Hyperbole: The New Politics of Heresy

Law, especially rights-entrenching constitutional law, has become a new sacred text, allegedly defining the legitimate community and putting apostates beyond its pale. In Canada, the pulpit hyperbole that cast Wilfrid Laurier as a heretic in late 19th Century Quebec has been replaced by the “Charter Hyperbole” now used to demonize Stephen Harper.

Share This Story

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on print


Subscribe to the C2C Weekly
It's Free!

* indicates required
By providing your email you consent to receive news and updates from C2C Journal. You may unsubscribe at any time.