Philosophy, History, and Jaffa’s Universe

Edward J. Erler, Interpretation, Spring 2001.


I believe that Harry V. Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom is the book (or nearly the book) that Leo Strauss would have written had his principal concern been the crisis of America rather than the crisis of the West. It is Jaffa’s oft-expressed opinion that the crisis of American constitutionalism is the crisis of the West, and I doubt that Strauss would have disagreed. Strauss’s principal antagonist in his defense of the West was Heidegger. Jaffa draws a clear parallel between Heidegger’s relationship to Nazism and that of John C. Calhoun to the Confederacy. Strauss’s critique of Heidegger took place on the highest theoreti cal level; as portrayed by Jaffa, Lincoln’s critique of Calhoun took place on the highest level of statesmanship, a statesmanship understood as political philoso phy teaching by example. The forces of nihilism and historicism were no less at work in Calhoun’s constitutionalism than they were in Heidegger’s thinking. In Natural Right and History Strauss remarked that “[t]he contemporary rejec tion of natural right leads to nihilism nay, it is identical with nihilism” (p. 5). Strauss maintained that natural right was a possibility coincident with the human political condition. If man is by nature political, then natural right is more or less a part of every political regime. Politics is always concerned with right and wrong, good and evil, and just and unjust. It is Jaffa’s considered opinion, as I believe it may have been Strauss’s, that the only defense against the contemporary forces of nihilism available today is contained in the natural law and natural right principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Interpretation [pdf]