The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America, by Glenn Ellmers (Encounter Books, 394 pp., $31.99)
For those who remain faithful to the spirit of American republicanism, there is no doubt that the American political order is in the midst of a profound crisis. America’s founding principles have come under systematic assault in the worlds of journalism, the academy, social media, and in large and growing parts of the political class. The world’s most successful experiment in republican self-government, Abraham Lincoln’s “almost chosen nation” and “last best hope on earth,” is regularly denigrated as a hateful cauldron of racism, exploitation, and inequality. The new “woke racism,” as John McWhorter calls it, divides humanity into “privileged” oppressors—by definition beyond redemption—and “innocent” victims, who lack moral agency and are encouraged to blame others for their fate and to accept blindly the dictates of a tutelary bureaucratic state. In elite circles, traditional patriotism is held in contempt and legitimate national self-criticism has degenerated into pathological self-loathing. The disparities inherent in a vibrant, dynamic society and the diverse “factions” and divisions coextensive with “the system of natural liberty,” as Adam Smith called it, are now identified with systematic racism and discrimination. Doctrinaire egalitarianism, dogmatic relativism, and angry moralism coexist in a toxic mix. What are defenders of the old verities and decencies to do? Perhaps what’s most needed at this precarious moment is to gain clarity on our situation by returning to a principled understanding of the moral foundations of liberty, equality, and human dignity, in both a broadly human and specifically American context.
In a lively, gracefully written book that is at once learned, accessible, and challenging, Glenn Ellmers sets out to do precisely that. He turns to the life and writings of the late political theorist Harry V. Jaffa (1918–2015) for illumination about both “the soul of politics” and “the fight for America.” His is a welcome recommendation—but why Jaffa, at this particular moment? Let’s begin closer to the beginning.
One of the most gifted thinkers of his generation, Jaffa was an early student of the German-Jewish emigré political philosopher Leo Strauss at the New School for Social Research in New York City, before Strauss left for the University of Chicago in 1949. At Chicago, Strauss would help shape a generation of political theorists and students of American political thought who would come to challenge both the historicist assumption that all thought is explained (or explained away) by the context in which a given author lived and the relativist assumption that the primordial distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, and noble and the base are essentially arbitrary and have no foundation in the natural order of things—they are merely “values,” asserted without rational justification. For Strauss, and later Jaffa, the arbitrary severing of “facts” and “values” fundamentally distorted the meaning of the human world.
By recovering the classical political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle in a strikingly undogmatic way, Strauss made possible a reaffirmation of philosophy as a way of life that gives thinking men and women access to permanent questions and truths. In his writing and teaching, Strauss also emphasized an enduring tension between the questioning that informs philosophical inquiry and the bedrock truths at the heart of a well-constituted “city” or political regime. But he also reminded his readers (in Ellmers’s words) that “Socrates was also a defender of prephilosophical morality and piety against the Sophists, who insisted that all politics is merely rhetoric and that all justice is artificial or conventional.” Jaffa, perhaps more than any other of Strauss’s many students, refused to sever philosophical inquiry from the reasonable affirmation of natural right or natural justice. In this, he was ultimately more Aristotelian than Platonic, insisting that Socratic philosophizing and statesmanlike prudence are two complementary and essential aspects of political philosophy, rightly understood.
Some of Strauss’s students saw only “dualities” (and this might be true to some extent of Strauss too), and emphasized the radical differences between philosophy and politics, reason and revelation, the ancients and the moderns, and even philosophy and morality. In contrast, Jaffa would come to emphasize commonalities among them, in the fight to save both Western civilization and American republicanism from its internal enemies, among them a debilitating relativism and nihilism, and its external enemies, particularly Nazi and Communist totalitarianism during the twentieth century. To be sure, Jaffa joined Plato, Aristotle, and Strauss in affirming that contemplative reflection was the highest activity available to human beings, and the one most in accord with human nature. But the Claremont professor also saw dignity in a life of noble action informed by thought, and deep truth and ethical coherence in biblical religion.
In Shakespeare, Jaffa found the philosophic poet par excellence, a thinker-artist who dramatized the reality that human beings live in a “moral universe” and that therefore the choice for tyranny strikes not only at decent political life but at the human soul. (On this, see Jaffa’s insightful treatment of Macbeth that appeared in the Claremont Review of Books.) One of the great merits of Ellmers’s book is the way it illumines Jaffa’s rich engagement with Shakespeare as the supreme moral-political teacher of the Anglo-American world. Shakespeare, in Jaffa’s reading, rejected both the theocratic temptation within Christianity and the Machiavellian alternative to it that sacrificed both natural right and the Christian inheritance, in order to make politics safe from both “pious cruelty” and an excessive meekness that might also flow from Christian categories and assumptions. Unlike Machiavelli, however, Jaffa did not wish to bury Christianity (he came to deeply admire Thomas Aquinas) or biblical wisdom more broadly.
Jaffa also highlighted the multiple ways in which the encounter with Shakespeare helped mold Abraham Lincoln’s soul, fortifying his determination to defend natural justice and American republicanism against the modern defenders of chattel slavery and of “might makes right.” Where some paleoconservatives saw in Lincoln a modern messianic type, a gnostic fanatic, Jaffa saw a statesman-theorist informed by the humane but tough-minded moderation of Shakespeare, Aristotle, Cicero, and the American Founders. Drawing on these sources, Lincoln summoned the strength of soul to defend the union and liberty, both grounded in the great truth that “all men are created equal.” This is a truth which is not to be confused, insisted Jaffa against certain conservatives, with a levelling egalitarianism that can lead only to tyranny.
In two truly impressive books on the thought and statesmanship of Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided (1959) and A New Birth of Freedom (2000), Jaffa emphasized Lincoln’s crucial role in elevating equal liberty away from more narrowly utilitarian concerns to a deep concern with transcendental justice, and how Lincoln was inspired by the American Founders’ defense of civil and religious liberty. In his later years, Jaffa came to see the American regime as “the best practicable regime,” to cite Aristotle’s formulation, as long as it remained faithful to the wisdom of Lincoln and the Founders, standing firmly for natural right, religious and civil liberty, moral self-restraint, and high political prudence. For this reason, Jaffa fiercely attacked paleoconservative critics of Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence for distorting and undermining our “ancient faith.” Where some saw gnostic messianism, Jaffa saw the true, solid, and inspiring ground of a non-utopian political order that allowed wisdom and moderation to coexist. He thus reconciled many American conservatives to the dignity and nobility of the American proposition, along with the need to avoid Confederate nostalgia and sympathies. In that regard, he had particular influence on William F. Buckley, Jr. and National Review, the longtime flagship of intellectual and political conservatism in the United States.
As Ellmers observes, Jaffa loathed every appeal to historical determinism and those reductive modern doctrines that denied the soul as the true ground of human freedom. He believed in what the classics and Christians called “reflective choice”— practical reason and free will. He shared Strauss’s admiration for Winston Churchill, whom both men saw as the firmest foe of tyranny in the twentieth century and the embodiment of magnanimous statesmanship. Echoing and amplifying Strauss’s “Churchillian speech,” given on the day of the great man’s death in 1965, Jaffa renewed the study of statesmanship as the necessary correlative to politically responsible political philosophizing. Where some Straussians appealed to a rather strained pure reason, primarily doing textual analysis and thus “philosophizing above the fray,” so to speak, Jaffa saw contemplative reflection at work in the minds and souls of Lincoln and Churchill. These “great men of action” were also thinkers of note and importance, defenders of the soul against the ideological defense by demi-intellectuals of both human servitude and ideological despotism of the Communist or Nazi kind. Jaffa adds perceptively in one of the numerous missives he penned that it should not be assumed “that they [Lincoln and Churchill, first and foremost] would have been more contemplative had they not followed paths of action. Action may have stimulated them to think more deeply than they might otherwise have done.” Wise words, indeed. Jaffa thus begins with a Platonic-Straussian “duality”—the superiority of the contemplative philosopher to the acting statesman—but then moves to what Thomas Jefferson called “harmonizing sentiments.” His is not the only possible interpretation and application of Strauss’s project. But it is a legitimate and genuinely admirable one.
As Ellmers shows, Jaffa knew that the United States, and the West more broadly, were entering into a grave crisis, marked by an immense loss of (reasoned) confidence in classical prudence, philosophical wisdom, biblical truths about God and the soul, and what Strauss called the commonsense wisdom inherent in the pretheoretical experiences that give rise to the conviction that we live in a moral universe. Such a universe is not inhospitable to moral and intellectual virtue. For this reason, Jaffa could write in an article from 1990 that classical political philosophy, biblical wisdom, and the politics of freedom stand or fall together: “the threat to one of these is also a threat to all.”
Jaffa’s “ancient faith” (the phrase is Lincoln’s) was capacious enough to make room for Jerusalem, Athens, London, Philadelphia, and Lincoln’s Peoria. Some of his respectful critics, Robert Kraynak and Michael Zuckert among them, thought this was ultimately too good to be true. The assumption is that Jaffa more or less forgot the original theoretical tensions or dualities that Strauss had done so much to recover. But there is little evidence to support this judgment. In my view, despite all his harmonizing, Jaffa appreciated both the tensions and harmonies at work in the heart of Western civilization. He was no mere moralist and acknowledged the dark shadows that sometimes accompanied even decent political life.
Ellmers succeeds in convincing the fair-minded reader of Jaffa’s impressive and still highly relevant achievement. At the same time, he could have done more to highlight real or possible weaknesses in Jaffa’s intellectual case. Among them are his tendency to confuse the medieval mixed regime with despotism, his exaggeration of the real influence of the doctrine of the “divine right of kings” in the Christian centuries (a doctrine, in truth, more rejected or honored in the breach than affirmed), and his seeming inability to do justice to Alexis de Tocqueville’s pertinent distinction between the truth of democratic justice and a pernicious “passion for equality” that aims to level everything great and noble. I, for one, have never understood the insistence of some of Jaffa’s more spirited students that one must choose between the wisdom of Tocqueville and the wisdom of Lincoln.
Then there is the matter of Jaffa’s often “splenetic” polemics, as (Jaffa admirer) Charles Kesler has called them, seeing “nihilism” at work in the constitutional reflections of Judge Bork and Justice Scalia, for example, and bad faith in more traditionalist currents of conservatism which surely had their share of truth. His strident treatment of old friends, fellow students of Strauss, often struck a false note.
Warts and all, Harry Jaffa nonetheless exemplifies the “scholarship of the politics of freedom.” His mix of Aristotle, Aquinas, the Bible, Shakespeare, the Founders, and Lincoln may appear eclectic, and even somewhat incoherent—but that is a superficial assessment. Today, Jaffa’s vision is best articulated in the Claremont Review of Books, which under Kesler’s judicious editorship, has opened so-called West Coast Straussianism to a respectful dialogue with other serious currents of conservatism. In it, and in Jaffa’s best writings, too, one can discover rich resources for the revitalization of the city and the soul, for finding “republican remedies” to our present discontents, as Ellmers puts it, echoing “Publius” and the Federalist papers. Following Jaffa’s example, Ellmers suggests one path to the renewal of the morally and civically serious “natural aristoi,” who might save us yet. Indeed, Ellmers’s book is an appeal to the noble and spirited among us, including the young, to fight for what is worth preserving in our civic and civilizational inheritance. For that alone, its appearance is most welcome.
Photo by Jeff Mallet/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images