Harry V. Jaffa: An Inconvenient Thinker

Harry V. Jaffa, who died January 10, at 96, may well be American conservatism’s most consequential thinker, for having attempted to re-found conservatism on the basis of its most philosophic principles and most revered figures. He was also one of the most dismissed, berated, and scorned of scholars, earning derision from former friends and those who knew him only from his writing, much of which had become acerbic.

Jaffa is the author of such classics as Crisis of the House Divided (1959), Equality and Liberty (1965), Thomism and Aristotelianism (1979), the neglected New Birth of Freedom (2000), and recent collections of essays on jurisprudence, Leo Strauss, and American political thought and conservatism. While it is true, as was sometimes said, that Jaffa applied the thought of Strauss to the study of American politics, that was no mere methodological twist; it was a Socratic insight.

The review of Equality and Liberty that Princeton political theorist George Kateb wrote for Commentary magazine in 1965 remains an excellent starting point for understanding Jaffa’s life. Kateb bemoaned Jaffa’s relationship with Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), for whom Jaffa penned the notorious “Extremism in the defense of liberty” line in the senator’s speech accepting the 1964 Republican presidential nomination:

How could it be that this student of Professor Leo Strauss, this ardent author of a brilliant book on the slavery controversy in the 1850’s, this respected teacher of political theory, would lend his intelligence to such a cause? It is bad enough that professors should be partisans; worse that professors of political theory should be partisans. But there must be limits: working for Goldwater—not just for the Republican party, at a decent remove from its temporary leader, but for the leader himself—must surely be beyond reasonable limits.

The embarrassment that (in Kateb’s mind) attached to working for Goldwater is echoed in the consternation about Jaffa among his friends, former friends, and liberal and conservative scholars alike. For Jaffa’s attacks, while always grounded in close readings of his opponents’ texts, were characteristically not polite dissent but hard-edged polemic and even mockery. Partisanship in defense of liberty is Socratic virtue!

Jaffa devoted his life to explaining the relation between theory and practice, the need to transcend elite (liberal) opinion, and a strategy to enlighten common opinion and thereby strengthen its decency. It became increasingly clear that unless the conservatism within the Republican Party were enlightened, all would be lost.

Without the proper education, the conventions of the day, corrupted even further by the radical modernity of Nietzsche, tightened their grip on the GOP and on Americans more broadly. The best response could be found in his friends. These were fellow Straussians who, though a beleaguered minority, were also the finest teachers of politics around.

But his work was not producing the effects that Harry Jaffa thought it should. The political cause was being compromised due to a philosophic failure.

Thus a list of those Jaffa offended or assailed in recent decades exceeds the roster of any number of editions of the Strauss-Cropsey History of Political Philosophy. High on the list are Irving Kristol, Walter Berns (who, poignantly, died on the very same day as Jaffa), Allan Bloom, Robert Goldwin, and Martin Diamond, just to name some of the distinguished departed. Jaffa found serious shortcomings in some of their scholarly work, compromises that would have offended Lincoln. (See especially Jaffa’s 1978 book, How to Think About the American Revolution: A Bicentennial Celebration.)

Not only that: As kind and generous as he could be with us, his students—he did not spare us or his Claremont Institute colleagues from stern judgments. To paraphrase, did the leading luminaries of American conservatism not understand the difference between Calhoun and Lincoln? That is, did they not see that Progressivism shared with Calhoun roots in Darwinism and German historical thinking? Had they thereby abandoned natural right and failed to grasp the meaning of the Civil War? Would this not make them part of the political problem?

Jaffa’s strategy was not without its flaws. Declaring differences with the proposed third edition of Strauss-Cropsey (whose first edition appeared in 1963), Jaffa even withdrew from the volume his brilliant essay on Aristotle’s Politics. Thus he deprived generations of students of its insights and made it harder for readers to discern the relationship between theory and practice in his philosophic work and Lincoln studies.

The real question here, though, is why Jaffa wrote and said such things about his former friends. A study of each case—which is impossible here—would make the Socratic purpose evident. (An overview that does this is to be found here. [1] )

Another way of gleaning this purpose is to note the themes of Jaffa’s leading books. Insisting that the Declaration of Independence is the central document of the American political tradition, Jaffa made equality its central theme. Note the impact of this insistence. It simultaneously chided conservatives—whose habit was to favor liberty, virtue, or tradition—and stole from the Left its proprietary claim to equality.

What must be understood is that, in Jaffa’s treatment, equality turns out to be the central answer to Western civilization’s central question: the theological-political question. The shorthand for that question: God or country? Revelation or reason? Or, in other words, how should human beings guide their lives? How should they understand what a human being is?

The perpetual squaring off of the ancients (the Socraticism of Plato and Aristotle) against the moderns (the divine ambition of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and their successors) expresses this fundamental puzzle or question. Men and political communities may take their bearings from Aristotle’s idea of the best regime, or they may take their bearings from the moderns’ conception of low but solid passions.

Which is America? How do we best understand Americans? The Declaration of Independence is nothing less than the American resolution—an unprecedented real-life resolution—of the problem.

Elaborating on the meaning of equality in New Birth of Freedom, Jaffa makes the social contract (another term often used, or actually abused, by the Left following its distortion by Franklin Roosevelt) the basis of limited government. But for him that social contract is about governing, ultimately forming souls, and winning wars.

Thus his call for a reconstructed conservatism. It is to be rebuilt not on the basis of markets, family, or theology, but on the basis of a constitutionalism that, because it is rooted in Western civilization, ultimately protects the reason in all three.

Jaffa gave his 1975 volume of essays the title The Conditions of Freedom. It reminds us that freedom imposes conditions on Americans. Liberty is always judged by reason—that is, philosophy. And Jaffa dared to call America the best regime, endowing it with the qualities for which Socrates searched in the Republic.

His study of the American regime showed that the way to philosophy is through politics. Put a different way, it showed that political right is the core of natural right. Jaffa’s sallies on politics, jurisprudence, foreign policy, or Churchill were always executed in this light, which is something George Kateb didn’t see and his more recent detractors did not appreciate.

For example, in jurisprudence, Jaffa insisted on an originalist constitutionalism that makes the Declaration of Independence the golden apple in the silver frame of the Constitution. The only alternative, logically speaking, to this Lincolnian stance is to understand the U.S. Constitution as pro-slavery—which would hardly be an inducement to support the rule of law.

Assailing the legal positivism of a Judge Bork or a Chief Justice Rehnquist, regardless of his agreement with those jurists’ decisions, followed naturally. An originalism without a proper understanding of the Declaration of Independence—see Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott—is yet a further devaluation of the Founding and constitutional government.

None of this should prompt us to overlook the passion Jaffa had for the fact that full human flourishing required poetry. Jaffa showed time and time again that he regarded Shakespeare as a political philosopher: Shakespeare is how Plato would have written after the advent of Christianity. Once again defying scholarly convention, Jaffa was absolutely right to urge that a chapter on Shakespeare be included in the Strauss-Cropsey History of Political Philosophy.

We can see how he found in Lincoln a divine soul testing his own passions, a refulgence for his reason, and a mind that perpetually illuminated the deepest sources of Western civilization: the Bible and Greek philosophy, the transcendent and the everyday, convention and nature.

These are not small matters, and Jaffa over time made something of a litmus test of them. His inelegantly titled Crisis of the Strauss Divided (2012) goes the furthest in laying out a “Straussian geography,” explaining the differences between Straussians in the western United States—influenced by him—and the East Coast Straussians. (Among the best studies of Jaffa are found in the essays by “West Coast” writers Thomas West and Edward Erler in the Spring, 2001 volume of Interpretation.)

The spiritedness and intellect that drove Jaffa to examine himself, his students, his friends, and his country have enriched all. Having written acclaimed books on Aristotle and Aquinas, and on Lincoln, he reexamined and critiqued his work and thereby taught how his fellow Straussians should understand themselves. Jaffa’s eulogy of Leo Strauss in The Conditions of Freedom is particularly instructive in this regard.

It can truly be said that the embarrassment of Harry Jaffa is an embarrassment of riches. But whether Jaffa actually becomes the most consequential figure of American conservatism is the challenge for all who appreciate his work. I had meant to call him last week to let him know of my revival of the Kateb review and some issues it raised. But that call will not be answered; it now rests with his students.

A telephone call from Jaffa could be a blessing or a terror. The distinguished Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo, having described Harry Jaffa’s phone calls that critiqued Guelzo’s latest books, referred to his friend as “a demanding, unapologetic man.” As accurate as this is, it may be even more appropriate to describe Jaffa as a man who demands apologies—meaning that word in the classic sense of explanations and, ultimately, explanations of how you are spending your life.

[1] In particular see Jaffa on an edition of Leo Strauss’s essays put out by Thomas L. Pangle, a review that was published originally in the Fall 1984 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Professor Pangle responded in the same journal. To which Jaffa made a reply. See also my recent Law and Liberty review of Pangle’s 2013 book on Aristotle’s Politics.