Harry V. Jaffa: An Appreciation by Michael Anton

Michael Anton, Claremont Review of Books, March 2015.


Jaffa knew everything, or at least everything important. Much of what will be written about him in the coming days will focus on Lincoln, American politics, and modern conservatism, which is absolutely fitting. But his mind was a museum stuffed to the rafters with masterworks. Name any “great book” and he knew it cold. Books he hadn’t studied for 50 years he could recall in detail, with total clarity. Montesquieu, Machiavelli, Marsilius—all of it. Wondering about an obscure passage in Shakespeare? Ask Professor Jaffa. First he would quote it in full, from memory, and then spend an hour explaining what it meant, in the context of that play, and in Shakespeare’s corpus. The same could be said for Plato—a philosopher about whom, unless I am very much mistaken, he never published a word beyond a passing reference. And not just the Republic and the Apology—he knew all of the dialogues. He knew every book of the Bible. And he knew more about American literature than the entire English faculties of some of our elite universities. I could tell the following story about any number of books, but I will confine myself to two. I had been obsessed with Moby Dick in my senior year of high school and freshman year of college. I found all the scholarly interpretations unsatisfying. Somehow, one day in the lair, that book came up. Jaffa launched into a lengthy—it must have been at least 90 minutes—interpretation of the whole work: its design, its symbols and themes, everything. It all came together as he spoke. Of course that’s what that means! When he was done I said, “So, Professor Jaffa, you’ve written that up—can you tell me in what journal so I can get a copy?” No, he hadn’t written it up. It would have taken ten lifetimes to write out all he knew. We later had the same conversation about Huckleberry Finn. It remains a source of profound regret that I didn’t immediately try to put down in notes as much as I could remember of what he told me.

Claremont Review of Books