Jaffa as Neo-Puritan

Peter Lawler, Library of Law & Liberty, January 21, 2015.


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.

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