Harry V. Jaffa, 1918-2015

Bradley C. S. Watson, Modern Age, June 2015.


When Harry V. Jaffa died on January 10 of this year, he left a legacy that the conservative intellectual movement will be sifting for generations. More than anything else, he represented the constitutionalist strain of modern American conservatism. Indeed, he invented it. It was Jaffa who brought Leo Strauss’s approach to political inquiry to bear squarely on America and the American founding. For Jaffa and his students, a close reading of the Great Books of Western civilization includes a close reading of the words and deeds of America’s Founders. And it includes the words and deeds of the greatest interpreters of the Founders, especially Abraham Lincoln.

But Jaffa was an Aristotle scholar before he was a Lincoln scholar, and his approach to political inquiry–which would become known as “West Coast Straussianism” or the “Claremont School”–recognizes that politics is ultimately a practical rather than a theoretical science. Deeds matter, and particularly the deeds of great statesmen. When such statesmen can also write–as could Lincoln or Churchill, in spades–political art and understanding come together in a scrutable manner. Through this, students catch glimpses of political reality–and the higher reality toward which it points, including the primary question of the good. For Jaffa, to aim straight for the higher on the basis of philosophic rationalism is a fool’s errand. West Coast Straussians continue, on the whole, to eschew esoteric debates and have much broader sympathies than philosophy merely. They care about America and about the moral-political order. They learned such care from the master: there was never a tone of condescension in Harry’s voice when he spoke of those things, which was almost all the time.

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