The themes of Harry Jaffa’s work, and the clarity with which he stated them, are captured in this tribute:
The utterances that have come down to us, graven in bronze and in stone, like the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, are profound meditations on human experience. In the midst of the horrors of destruction and death, and amidst the turmoil of the passions of war, they are designed to reconcile us to our fate by discerning the hand of God in events that might otherwise seem merely chaotic. Although these speeches arise out of particular events at particular times, they draw back the curtain of eternity, and allow us, as time-bound mortals, to glimpse a divine purpose within a sorrow filled present, and tell us how our lives, however brief, can nonetheless serve a deathless end.
Jaffa devoted his life to understanding the relationship between great speeches and great actions, between logos and ergon (speech and deed), and between eternity and our temporality. Underlying these contrasts is the great theme of natural right versus history, or political philosophy versus nihilism in its various forms.
Thomism and Aristotelianism
Jaffa’s first book, Thomism and Aristotelianism: A Study of the Commentary by Thomas Aquinas on the Nicomachean Ethics (1952), discusses Aristotle’s Ethics and Thomas’ understanding of it. Jaffa aims to help restore the Ethics’ importance for serious students of political philosophy, and to explore the tension between reason and revelation in the West. Although Jaffa later came to change his mind about the relationship between Aristotle and Thomas, the book remains notable for its clear discussions of Aristotle’s thought and of Thomas’ attempt to accommodate it to Christian revelation—and revelation to it.
Crisis of the House Divided
Jaffa’s second book, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959), represented a radical departure in Lincoln scholarship. It is the book that secured his reputation. Jaffa himself came to think that his later book, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (2000), conceived as a sequel to Crisis, is superior; it also stems from a change in the approach taken in his earlier work.
In Jaffa’s account, “Crisis was the first work by an academic to examine the moral reasoning implicit in the Declaration [of Independence] and in the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln. It was also perhaps the first to import into the study of the American political tradition Leo Strauss’s revival of classical political philosophy.” Moreover, Jaffa writes, “My articulation of Lincoln’s principles in Crisis was proof that classical natural right could succeed within the framework of American history and politics.” In approaching an historical event in this way, Jaffa attempted to show how history can be a living example of philosophy.
True to a dialectical exercise, Crisis begins with a lengthy “Case for Douglas,” which analyzes the statesmanship of Stephen Douglas, then the most prominent politician in the ruling American political party. Douglas’ guiding principle was to support popular sovereignty concerning slavery in the territories. This principle was dangerous, because if voting on the spread of slavery became the creed of self-governing, white supremacy might spread into every territory to which the United States could expand.
Lincoln, by contrast, recovered the principles of the Declaration of Independence for a generation of Americans grown distant from the founding. These principles of individual natural rights restricted, guided, and grounded majority rule. “The Declaration of Independence was the first case in history in which a single people made a national revolution on the assumption that its particular principles were, simultaneously, the universal principles which civilized men everywhere would recognize.”
In the Gettysburg Address, moreover, Lincoln also “incorporated the truths of the Declaration of Independence into a sacred and ritual canon, making them objects of faith as well as of cognition. Through his interpretation of the Civil War as both a Hebraic and Christian ritual atonement, this canon was made sacred to the American people as the Declaration of Independence, by itself, could not be made.”
Crisis shows how Lincoln’s pre-Civil War speeches anticipate this rhetorical and philosophic peak and guided his political strategy.
The speeches sought to educate public opinion, secure the consent of the people, and thus fortify republican self-government while cautiously working around popular prejudices. Thus Lincoln made the argument for the equal “natural right” of a black woman “to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else” whatever the view of people of his time about the “indiscriminate amalgamation” of the races. Above all, as Jaffa summarizes, there can be no “pretense of indifference to the most fundamental of all political choices, the choice between freedom and despotism.” There is no “freedom to be unfree.” Lincoln invoked the Declaration to help bring about a seemingly incongruous coalition of immigrants, nativists, temperance advocates, and antislavery and free labor supporters, and showed how its principles would even have to apply to slaves. Lincoln’s distinction between natural rights and civil rights enabled him to turn aside the question of black suffrage and later allowed him to persuade strategically crucial but slave-holding Kentucky to remain in the Union.
Forging apparent consensus on issues does not suffice for great statesmanship: we must see even in ourselves today the weaknesses of the men who turned to Douglas, who offered all sections of the country unity and peace, each on its own terms. Should we have been persuaded by Douglas’s appealing arguments (whose effect is to deny the equal natural liberty of all human beings), “we can only shudder to think what the twentieth century would be like if the United States had entered it as first and foremost of totalitarian powers.”
A New Birth of Freedom
In the twenty-five years following Crisis, Jaffa had a change of mind about his project. The culmination of this change was the publication of A New Birth of Freedom (2000).
[I]n 1959 I regarded the founders as condemning slavery from the perspective of a prudent form of modern natural rights. This, I then held was transformed by Lincoln into a prudent form of classical Aristotelianism. Now I believe that the prudent form of classical Aristotelianism was already present in the founding, and that Lincoln found it there….
The prudence of the Declaration is the prudence of Aristotle and Lincoln because there are not two kinds of prudence.
Indeed, Jaffa came to argue that America, as founded, is well-understood in terms of the ancient quest for the best regime. Ordinary politics needs to be clarified against the standards of the best regime because human nature is ultimately defined at its heights. Any regime, or political order, needs to be understood in light of the particular virtues it produces in its citizens—courage, piety, patriotism, and justice. Ultimately, this ancient understanding means that the greatest citizen—for England, Churchill; for America, Lincoln—characterizes that political order. (In Churchill Jaffa sought the same respect for Anglo-American political principles that he found in Lincoln.)
Making America a free nation, whether at the founding or in the twenty-first century, requires devotion to natural rights and therefore to the limited-government, religiously tolerant, social-contract political philosophy that underlies the Declaration and the Constitution. For many scholars, however, our grounding in modern political philosophy, in particular John Locke, also means that America is based on and ultimately limited by what they see as the selfish “possessive individualism” or even “joyless quest for joy,” in Strauss’s terminology, they find in Locke. But Jaffa argues that this orientation, whatever its merits in understanding Locke and other moderns, misses the crucial issue of how the founders themselves understood them. The founding and all politics, he argued, should be understood on the basis of the ancient virtue of prudence, not from within the horizon of modern theorizing. America’s founders adopted modern theories of limited government, which helped lead to the reduction of religious warfare, but they retained the ancient teaching on moral virtue.
The ambition of New Birth, and of his entire career, can be seen in Jaffa’s choice of opponents. In Crisis, he chose Stephen Douglas and liberal historians, such as Richard Hofstadter; in New Birth he chose John C. Calhoun and conservative scholars, public intellectuals, and jurists. In both instances he focused on what he perceived as their neglect or distortion of natural rights. Both Douglas and his defenders and Calhoun and his conscious or unconscious followers adopt assumptions about America’s political principles that make the classical virtue of prudence or the deliberate choice of statesmanship impossible. In both cases Jaffa poses natural right against the promoters of history or historicism, the doctrine that one’s historical conditions cut one off from access to truth.
For Jaffa, Shakespeare, whom he considered to be Lincoln’s teacher, was, intellectually, Plato writing after Christianity. Among Jaffa’s explorations in this vein are arresting discussions of Macbeth and Measure for Measure. Shakespeare’s English history plays, he argues, illustrate the struggle for civil and religious liberty that culminated in the American regime, and Shakespeare’s King John and various tragedies reflect on the theological-political issue of loyalty to England and to the Pope in Rome. “Shakespeare,” writes Jaffa, “was the great vehicle within the Anglo-American world for the transmission of an essentially Socratic understanding of the civilization of the West.” In the American dispensation, the Christian equality of souls became the “all men are created equal” of the Declaration.
In addition to such intriguing studies of Shakespeare, Jaffa also published original interpretations of authors such as Dostoevsky, Camus, T.S. Eliot, and, especially, Mark Twain. All of these essays take seriously versions of the same themes he uncovered in Lincoln.
Jaffa’s last book, Crisis of the Strauss Divided, raises what he held to be Leo Strauss’s leading concerns, the theological-political question and historicism, through lively engagement with different students of Strauss and Strauss’s critics. He insists that on the great political-moral questions reason and revelation, philosophy and the Bible, are in practical agreement. The work invites readers to converse on these most serious questions with Jaffa, thus constantly resurrecting his logos. His last book displays the medieval aphorism that, in a sense, characterizes the procedure and the intention that guided Jaffa’s significant works and career: Solet Aristoteles quaerere pugnam, “Aristotle is accustomed to seeking a fight.”
Read More: Shakespeare
–Essays by Ken Masugi