Strange Bedfellows

George Kateb, Commentary, August 1965.


Eyebrows were raised last summer when the New York Times reported that Harry Jaffa was writing campaign speeches for Barry Gold-water. How could it be that this student of Professor Leo Strauss, this ardent author of a brilliant book on the slavery controversy in the 1850’s, this respected teacher of political theory, would lend his intelligence to such a cause? It is bad enough that professors should be partisans; worse that professors of political theory should be partisans. But there must be limits: working for Goldwater—not just for the Republican party, at a decent remove from its temporary leader, but for the leader himself—must surely be beyond reasonable limits. Especially, one would have thought, for somebody like Jaffa. In none of his writing was there anything to prepare his readers for the news of his behavior. His first book was a patient but fully engaged study of St. Thomas’s commentary on Aristotle’sNicomachean Ethics. Done under the supervision of Prof. Strauss, at the New School, and published in 1952, Jaffa’s work dealt with a great confrontation of classical and medieval systems of moral thought. In 1959, Jaffa published his Crisis of the House Divided, a splendid analysis of the motives, strategies, ideals, and compromises of Lincoln and Douglas in their debates and activities. The book was marked by a passion for equality; and by a love for Lincoln, because of Lincoln’s matchless understanding of equality and of the limits on attaining it. Jaffa set up a genuine dialectic, according justice to Douglas, and then turning on his position the full force of Lincoln’s reasoning. In the course of examining the issues of the period, Jaffa transcended the period, and produced a book that could serve as a general introduction to the subject of equality in a democratic society. There is never any doubt as to where his sympathies lie: all in favor of human equality, a total commitment to the opening words of The Declaration of Independence.