The Philosopher and the City: Harry Jaffa and the Straussians

Scot J. Zentner, Interpretation, Summer 2003.


Jaffa is identifiably conservative, perhaps more so than most Straussians (he drafted Barry Goldwater’s infamous “Extremism in the defense of liberty …” speech). However, he is notorious for his criticisms of conservative figures such as Judge Robert Bork and Chief Justice William Rehnquist (see Jaffa 1993, 1999). Jaffa has criticized these men for what he perceives to be their moral relativism, a predilection he believes they share with their liberal opponents. By questioning the conservative movement, and by arguing that it is not essentially different from ideological liberalism, Jaffa also appears as something of a philosophic gadfly. Strauss noted that the philosopher acts as an “umpire,” who, in the course of aiding the city, must raise the “ulterior question” of virtue, the question of the right way of life altogether (Strauss 1989, 54, 59). The raising of this question, in turn, brings upon the philosopher the ire of all sides in the community, even of those with whom he is ostensibly allied. By challenging his fellow conservatives, Jaffa has, indeed, suffered something of this fate.

Interpretation [pdf]