AS OUR CASE IS NEW
By George Forsyth
This issue of The Claremont Review of Books features a conversation which took place last winter at Rosary College, in Illinois, between Dr. Harry V. Jaffa and Dr. George Anastapolo and several other members of the faculty and students of Rosary College. What is at first most noticeable about this conversation is its personal and partisan character. Professor Jaffa begins with recent political events-the Reagan election and what it reveals about the development of the Republican Party since 1964, the emergence of Jerry Harwell and the Moral Majority, and other matters-and with events in his own life which have brought him a measure of fame, not to say notoriety. Yet it would be a mistake for Democrats or persons not in sympathy with the new religious right, to turn away from Professor Jaffa's discussion for reasons of partisanship. For Professor Jaffa, almost uniquely today, derives his partisanship from impersonal principle. And this character of his thought makes him at once a most trenchant partisan, and a most telling critic of his political allies. Professor Jaffa reveals in his remarks the full meaning of Lincoln's advice to the Whigs; advice which should be carved over the main door of every college in the land:
Stand with anybody that stands right, stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.
Professor Jaffa's discussion follows in the tradition of Socratic philosophy, beginning with the regnant opinions about the good, and moving towards the idea of the good, or the good in itself. Like Socrates, and Lincoln, Professor Jaffa avoids the twin excesses to which this mode of investigation is subject. He neither despairs of finding the good in itself, nor does he return to wage war on the here and now in the name of the good in itself. He is neither a pragmatist nor a Utopian.
Present day political life seems to be locked between these extremes. We seem to be compelled to choose between an exhausted accommodation with the establishment and a pell-mell rejection of the establishment. Between prep and punk-rock there seems to be no middle ground. Yet the apparent absolute incompatibility of these extremes is an illusion. Each is equally blind to the subtle wholeness of reality. Like the one-eyed man, each sees a part of the truth, and just by so much truth as he sees, so far does he go wrong. Our utopians and nihilists are correct when they condemn the spiritual bankruptcy of careerism. Our pragmatists are correct when they remind us that life must be gotten on with. The one forgets that we must needs live in this world and submit to its necessities; the other forgets that not wealth nor fame nor power is the end of life, but happiness. Each is guilty of despair and spiritual suicide.
The most commonly held opinion today is that our century is unique in human history. Until very recently, as such things are measured, it was thought that our age had made an unprecedented advance over all other ages. In the United States, those who held this view were known as Progressives. Abroad, the most numerous and influential exponents of this view were known as revolutionary socialists or communists. Today, in this country and in the West generally, we hear little or nothing of the optimistic branch of this school of thought. Our century is still commonly held to constitute a total break with the past, but judgment about the character of that break is much more glum than it was formerly. We are more likely to be told that ours is an age of unprecedented crisis and disintegration: in the words of a recently popular work, we must learn to live "without Marx or Jesus." This phrase suggests that twentieth century man, in surprising contrast to his unmistakable material progress over all other generations of mankind, understands himself, perhaps in part as a consequence of that material progress, as having neither spiritual nor material hope. We can look forward neither to blessedness after death nor to the perfectly just society this side of the grave. The present-day vigor of Marxism-Leninism outside of the West has its cause in this spiritual despair and in the failure of self-confidence which is its inevitable practical result.
Professor Jaffa characterizes this failure of conviction as the crisis of the West; a crisis which threatens to bring on a "dark night of the soul." Against the coming of that night, he takes his stand. And the ground of his stand is the moral and philosophical tradition of the West. The most obvious and the most common objection to his position is that it is not possible to revive the outlook and understanding of the past, nor is it desirable to restore what Hobbes called the Kingdom of Darkness. But Professor Jaffa maintains that the traditional understanding of the human things is more true than the modern understanding. To say the same thing somewhat differently, Professor Jaffa maintains that the modern critique of the traditional understanding, and especially of traditional morals, is a failure. The ascendancy of the modern critique is due not to its superior truth, but to the accidents of history and of intellectual fashion.
There was a time when the ideas of modernity worked unambiguously to the liberation of mankind. Their truth was more in their use than in the nature of things. But that time is ended. Today we find our freedom threatened as much by deterministic metaphysics and its political consequences as our fathers were threatened in their freedom by absolutism or by slavery.
It would be an ironic turn of fate, but not for that unlikely, if we were to discover that our present enemy is our former friend; if the very ideas which two centuries ago and more worked to the liberation of mankind, worked in the changed circumstances of our day to our enslavement. Such a turn of events would compel us toward a real revolution in education; that is, a return to the origins of our era of the world. This return, however, to the extent that it is possible and necessary, cannot mean a mere restoration, either of customs and institutions or of attitudes. In Lincoln's words, "as our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew." It should go without saying that to "think anew" does not mean to think as no one has ever thought before, but to rediscover the wisdom of the past in the present necessity.
Our era had its birth in the urgent necessity to wrest freedom from the hands of tyranny, and, in the words of the Framers, in the equally urgent necessity to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Professor Jaffa argues that the same necessity confronts us today, but with this difference, that formerly the enemies of freedom were "outside," or were dangerous to the body, whereas today they are "inside," they are dangerous to the soul. He warns us of the perils of the present and, through his discussion of the perils of the past, he reminds us that with the realization of necessity comes the discovery of possibility. Professor Jaffa's message is one of faith in the goodness of creation and of hope for the future of mankind.