In his new book, Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man, Timothy Sandefur offers a lively and compelling overview of a complex life.
In the days since Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns passed away, the former’s angry disputes with his fellow Straussians have received a lot of commentary. There are those who say it was all quite childish. And you know, a lot of it was, precisely because the differences so often seemed small or, when examined closely, not really differences at all. Still, some of the differences are real enough to merit our close attention.
On the more general issue of which student of Strauss is more faithful to the true and complete teaching of Leo Strauss, the most obvious response is that the capable students of any great teacher always grab on to part of what he (or she) taught and confuse it with the whole. Marx and Hegel. Alexandre Kojève and Hegel. Maybe even Aristotle and Plato.
There are more complicated cases: Thomas Aquinas was an Aristotelian, in a way, who thought he was improving upon Aristotle. Frankly he sometimes did, even from a merely empirical view. Not giving that possibility more attention is the main shortcoming of Harry Jaffa’s otherwise quite remarkable commentary on Aristotle and Thomas (Thomism and Aristotelianism, 1949). And some outstanding students of Strauss, such as Stanley Rosen and Laurence Lampert, thought they had surpassed Strauss on key points. Maybe they did. But there’s little evidence they rose to his “pay grade” in the overall sense.
Strauss, a student of human nature if there ever was one, might have predicted that his followers would degenerate at times into quarrelsome sects. We can speculate that he would have been happy enough to see the sects named after two regions of his adopted country. He deliberately taught with the intent to create a proud cadre of American public intellectuals, and Strauss certainly must have felt some proper pride in his success.
All in all, the question of which Straussian or group of Straussians corresponds most perfectly to what the master actually thought shouldn’t be anyone’s bottom line. WW(L)ST? easily devolves into a silly question. More so: WWSD? He may or may not have, say, invaded Iraq. But it wouldn’t have been such a prudent move to leave that decision to the Strauss who had so many legendary practical “issues” even in the details of ordinary life. Straussians—including Berns and Jaffa—have disagreed on the prudence of invading Iraq and on about every other issue of “public policy.”
It is by Strauss, in fact, that we are so effectively reminded that in real life the best thinkers often stink at being “deciders.” There’s the extreme case of Heidegger. It might be the case (I actually doubt it) that Rousseau was a much greater thinker than Burke. But Burke was a pretty perfect decider; he was almost never wrong in his practical judgments. And the same observations can be made on the relationship between Kojève and Raymond Aron. Aron had an inferiority complex when it came to his status as a thinker in relation to both Kojève and Strauss, and it’s true enough that his theoretical efforts only soared so high. Most of Aron’s intellectual exertions were in the service of responsible political choices, and he remained clear-headed in situations when more gifted theorists were wont to disconnect theoretical aspirations from responsible, genuinely realistic practical judgment and the moral responsibility we all share.
Many Straussians seem to have learned from Leo Strauss that the philosopher—such as Strauss himself—is a “perfect man,” because he is an “investigator.” Even in that view, perfect doesn’t mean perfect in every way. The investigator, that is, ought not be confused with the wise man.
Most Straussians, it’s true, are more appreciative than not of the effectiveness of Enlightenment philosophers from Machiavelli onward in imposing a kind of humane if low-level political rationalism on the world. But those Straussians also remind us that the wise philosopher-king only exists in a book and is not to be confused with Socrates himself. The Enlightenment project was animated by an unwarranted confidence that those philosophers knew what they were doing.
Certainly their “anti-theological ire” and often rather complacent atheism shouldn’t be confused with forms of knowledge. And the later great philosophers who actually saw the results of enlightenment were generally in rebellion against a world in which God is dead and the moral and political worlds had been emptied of humanly worthy content. Here we Straussians think of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the ambiguous case of Marx. But we also have to think of the young man Leo Strauss himself.
To return to Jaffa: Let me begin by admitting that, in the disputes he got into with all of the others, I always had a soft spot for Harry, whether or not he was actually right on this or that theoretical issue. And maybe even when his practical judgments were just wrong.
He was surely the most puritanical of the Straussians. He shared the contemporary form of puritanical moralism when it came to health, being a teetotaler, fierce objector to smoking, and extremist regarding personal fitness. As a result of his puritanical personal regimen (showing that extremism in pursuit of health is no vice), he made it to 96. Transhumanists such as our friend Peter Thiel who hope to make it to the Singularity have a lot to learn from Jaffa. (Well, Berns made it to 95 even with his love of scotch.)
Jaffa was also quite the moralist when it came to “traditional family values.” His theoretical disputes with his fellow Straussians were mixed up with concerns about divorce, the gay lifestyle, and so forth. He avidly went after anyone who seemed to talk up public Epicureanism. That’s why he seemingly overreacted when Berns said what is actually true—that America and liberalism generally owe a huge debt to Hobbes. And that’s why he seemingly overreacted when Allan Bloom and Thomas Pangle implied that the only way to lead an undeceived life was to pursue the playful erotic self-indulgence of the philosopher. Morality, from that Epicurean view, is for suckers. According to Jaffa, however, Aristotle and the Bible were actually in perfect agreement in teaching that the moral life is for us all.
Jaffa seemed never to think that extremism—in speech—in defense of liberty was a vice. His best efforts were always directed against anyone who shared Stephen Douglas’s fault of moral indifference. He could readily put Douglas’s, Scalia’s, and Taney’s “positivism” on the same page, and he let it be known that any positivist or traditionalist was, in principle, as soft on slavery as John C. Calhoun.
It is yet another form of positivism for a philosopher to distinguish, especially too radically or complacently, between the transpolitical truth of philosophy and the mere conventionalism of any particular political order. For Jaffa, the absolute truth of the principles of the Declaration of Independence was in constant need of unironic or un-exoteric political defense. That defense had to be authentically rational and authentically spirited. We remember it was Strauss’s class on the Nicomachean Ethics that turned Jaffa around, or turned him on to political philosophy. The man of moral virtue knows and practices the virtues—beginning with courage, magnanimity, and justice—as someone who proudly embraces the responsibilities given him as the rational animal.
In each of his spirited philosophic quarrels with his fellow Straussians, Jaffa was, I think, highlighting a real problem in “Straussianism,” whether or not he was fair in his criticisms. And his remedy was absolute dedication to political equality, a devotion that depends on an insight about irreducible personal significance that is, in fact, Biblical. Political equality depends upon natural equality, on an unironic affirmation of the truth that all men are created equal.
As Tocqueville tells us, a devotion to political equality that was both somewhat Aristotelian and very Biblical was singularly characteristic of the original American Puritans. Tocqueville’s criticism of the Puritans turned out to be that they weren’t Christian enough—that is, that they were too focused on the legalism of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy at the expense of the teaching of Jesus that was far from reducing even sin to a crime. Jaffa of course was hardly as puritanical as the Puritans, but he, like Lincoln, owed them something.
In the end, the political philosophy of Harry Jaffa is vulnerable to challenge from a Straussian, or a Thomistic, or a puritanical point of view. The objection that could be lodged is: does his philosophic American Founding really, in all honesty, give his moral dedication an adequate foundation? That, after all, is the objection that Lincoln himself may have had to the Founders—as is so memorably revealed in Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided. Jaffa, of course came to believe he had misunderstood both the Founders and Lincoln. Another way of expressing this egalitarian objection to the allegedly excessively self-interested and un-civic founding philosophy can be found in the work of the great neo-puritanical political thinker of our time, the late Carey McWilliams.
Maybe it would have been better and truer for Jaffa to highlight the irreducibly puritanical (Calvinist/Christian) contribution to the legislative compromise that was the Declaration. And maybe it would have been better to take more seriously Thomas’ criticisms of parts of Aristotle’s Ethics. The magnanimous man, as Aristotle admits, averts his eyes from his debts or what he has been given; in fact, he doesn’t wonder about who he is. Chastening pride with gratitude, as Thomas contends, is the route to a more realistic understanding of the relationship between human greatness and human equality.
But to give Jaffa the credit he’s due, the evolution of his thought was in the Thomistic direction of harmonizing reason and revelation—and not only on the level of morality.