Posted: August 14, 2019
he Rediscovery of America contains a series of highly provocative, profound essays—some previously unpublished—by the late Harry V. Jaffa. The editors, Edward J. Erler and Ken Masugi, both former Jaffa students, have performed an invaluable service in making these available. They provide brief but helpful introductions to each of the book’s ten chapters. There’s inevitably some repetition in such a collection, but in this case the repetitions contain things that bear repeating because the issues the book addresses are perennial ones.
Consider, for instance, the recent celebration within many conservative circles of Patrick Deneen’s attacks on the American Founding. They would have been nothing new to Jaffa. This is why his responses to earlier critics remain highly pertinent. To anyone tempted to ask why Jaffa kept beating a dead horse, the answer is: because it wasn’t dead. In fact, it’s off to the races anew.
These essays are, in a way, glosses on Socrates’ argument with Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic—right makes might versus might makes right. Jaffa is particularly good at exposing contemporary controversies as rehashes of the struggle between right grounded in reason and right grounded in will, whether the will of the one or the many. Against the modern triumph of the will, he endeavored to resuscitate natural law as the ground of morality—especially through his explication of Abraham Lincoln’s thought and actions, and their roots in the founding.
Jaffa stressed that the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truths were only intelligible in the natural law/natural rights context in which they were written and from which they arose. Though Jaffa criticizes Irving Kristol a good deal in these essays, he leaves untouched this quotation from Kristol’s 1989 essay “On the Character of American Political Order”: “You have got to have a fundamental, unshakable basis for your conviction in a given set of human rights, and Harry Jaffa’s view is that the rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence, in the end, rely on the natural law and natural rights tradition which goes back through St. Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle.” This, indeed, is the position Jaffa defended, and he took on all comers.
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In this collection, the verbal pugilism for which he was so well known is on full display. The editors speak of “the kind of no-holds-barred polemical disputes that Jaffa preferred.” These are not only exhilarating (so long as one is not the target) but illuminating. In the classroom Jaffa enjoyed nothing more than being challenged. It shifted his dialectical energies into high gear, and this is when his teaching was at its most engaging and enlightening. Like Socrates, he was always arguing with someone. The arguments, however, were never adventitious. This volume offers a ringside seat to fights over the status of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence with Russell Kirk (along with T.S. Eliot), Irving Kristol (who gets whacked twice), Allan Bloom, and Harvey Mansfield. In a warm-up round, he takes out Francis Fukuyama, and Alexandre Kojève with him. Walter Berns receives only a two-page dusting, but that title fight was fought in other pages, where Berns’s contention that the founding was essentially Hobbesian got knocked out. In these matches, Jaffa never flinched. He never ducked and covered. They were fair fights, with few low blows.
There were, however, few return matches—in fact, few matches to begin with. Was this because Jaffa was too aggressive, too prone to call his opponents Confederate sympathizers? Possibly, but more likely they had a premonition that all that would be left after an encounter with him was a smoking pair of shoes. For instance, switching analogies from the fight ring to the surgical theater, Jaffa’s 38-page operation on Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind is about as complete an evisceration of a then-still-living human being (or book) as I’ve encountered. The review, first published in Interpretation in 1988, has lost none of its power. It is one of the must-reads in this collection and I don’t mean for vivisectionists, but for those who appreciate seeing doctrinaire skepticism exposed for the nihilism it really is.
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Some complained that Jaffa was wasting time in these disputes that would’ve been better spent on scholarly pursuits. But his scholarship was simply another form of pugilism. Who could read him on Stephen A. Douglas in Crisis of the House Divided (1959) and on John C. Calhoun in A New Birth of Freedom (2000) and not know these were heavyweight matches? His writing’s distinguishing characteristic is its liveliness. Jaffa seems to be speaking to a contemporary even when his interlocutor has been dead for centuries. For Jaffa, they remained alive, so long as their ideas lived. He duked it out with Calhoun because he held him responsible for the ideas animating many misguided contemporary conservatives—including some on the bench.
Some critics try to dismiss Jaffa as an enraged cheerleader for the American regime. Law & Liberty’s Mark Pulliam calls him “the vituperative political philosopher” for his “many feuds with leading conservative figures, such as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, former Attorney General Ed Meese, Judge Robert Bork…and noted constitutional litigator Chuck Cooper.” (More about Cooper anon.) Jaffa’s criticism of Justice Scalia may indeed have been harsh and imprudent, but Jaffa was right that Scalia was no natural law man. Scalia thereby placed himself at a profound disadvantage in understanding the “original intent” of the founders, who embraced natural law and natural rights. In fact, none of those Pulliam cites held natural law to be a morally indispensable foundation of positive law. Pulliam’s condescension is exposed for what it is as Jaffa bores through the underlying philosophical and metaphysical substrata of disputes to reveal bedrock.
Controversy clarifies. As Jaffa said of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Churchill, “The swords of argument that they wielded were keen because they had been tempered in the fires of controversy.” One cannot read Jaffa’s exchanges with Mansfield (a major feature of this book) and not know exactly what Jaffa thinks in the most unambiguous, forthright way. Often what begins in a blaze of polemics ends in deep philosophic insight.
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A little-known Jaffa story illustrates the relevance of what he had to say, how often it went undetected by those who could have benefited from it, and the extensive damage caused by their ignorance. It concerns attorney Charles Cooper. Though Cooper is not part of the present volume, his case is a good example of how important Jaffa’s criticism of the anti-natural law position is regarding issues essential to the republic’s survival, like the integrity of the natural family. More than 30 years ago, Jaffa debated Cooper and exposed him as a legal positivist and historicist (collected in Storm over the Constitution, 1999). In a subsequent book review of Jaffa’s Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution (1994), Cooper held that, “The American people are thus enslaved [by Jaffa] to the ‘moral and political philosophy’ of the founders, powerless to redefine their ‘legal and…moral personality.’” Because it fundamentally limits what can be changed, he said, “Jaffa’s natural justice theory of constitutional interpretation is thus the very negation of the idea of self-government.”
Ignorant of Jaffa’s critique, leaders of the pro-natural marriage movement chose Cooper as counsel to defend California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, before the U.S. District Court and then the U.S. Supreme Court. Cooper showed himself to be the Stephen Douglas of the pro-family movement, arguing that there was nothing inherently right or wrong about two people of the same gender marrying each other. “If the tables were turned,” he said, “if California’s voters had adopted gay marriage, as the voters of several states now have—I would be no less willing to defend their right to make that decision too.” Soon after losing the case, he spoke of looking forward to his stepdaughter’s lesbian “wedding.” Fully displaying his historicism, Cooper explained, “My views evolve on issues of this kind…and how I view this down the road may not be the way I view it now, or how I viewed it ten years ago.” Jaffa spoke of this as “just collateral damage from the triumph of history over nature.”
Cooper supported the very cause against which he was supposed to argue. Resenting Jaffa’s “natural justice,” he substituted for it an unnatural justice. Popular sovereignty should reign regardless of the morality of what’s chosen—or, more precisely, because the majority’s choice constitutes morality. This is the majority might-makes-right view Jaffa uncovered and criticized in most of his opponents.
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Thus we drift unawares into democratic totalitarianism. Jaffa shows that the founding principles are the best defense against this, and he is perhaps their most eloquent champion. In the chapter titled “The American Founding as the Best Regime,” he points out that James Madison’s notion of sovereignty, contra Cooper, “defines the limits of the authority of the majority by reference to whatever might be done rightfully” (emphasis in the original). The rights in the Declaration, Jaffa explains, “are rights under the ‘laws of nature and of nature’s God.’ They are not rights authorizing actions which, by those laws, are wrongs.” To say we lack an understanding of these principles today would be an understatement.
Another issue addressed in this book is the theological-political problem—in respect to which Jaffa emphasizes the unique compatibility of reason and revelation in the American Founding. He states that this combination is at the heart of American exceptionalism. Religious freedom not only freed America from sectarian religious conflict, but also “makes reason and revelation—for the first time—open friends and allies on the political level.” Jaffa argues that the founders’ “assumptions about Equality—which include assumptions about the subhuman and superhuman—are independent of the validity of any particular religious beliefs.” But by reason alone are we able to arrive at all the necessary presuppositions for democratic, constitutional order? One can point to Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero as among those who approached the necessary truths through unassisted reason, but were unable to grasp them in their fullness. It seemed to take the assistance of a certain kind of revelation to achieve that.
The primacy of the person ultimately needs theological support. But not just any god will do as the source of constitutional order: not Moloch, or Baal, or Thor, or Quetzalcoatl, or Kali. Only upon reconsideration of the basic insights of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in light of Judeo-Christian revelation was the base secured for the development of democratic constitutional order. “Long before the writings of Hobbes and Locke,” writes Jaffa, “Christianity sowed the seed of what we have come to call individualism.” He adds: “The salvation sought by Christian [of Pilgrim’s Progress] was dependent upon the state of his own soul and was independent of the goodness of his political community, or even of his family. This is the origin of modern individualism. And in its secularized version it has become the basis of free government in the post-classical world.”
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In light of this, one might say that the Declaration and the Constitution are not explicitly Christian, but they are nonetheless Christian products. The thinking about political first principles that produced them took place in a world profoundly formed and affected by that revelation. There are no Christian principles per se embedded in the Declaration and the Constitution; rather, they are embedded in Christianity. Religious beliefs are hardly indifferent to their assumptions, or their assumptions to religious beliefs. As Jaffa says, the Declaration contains an idea of God exactly compatible with democratic constitutional rule. Nonetheless, it had to state its self-evident truths—most especially the truth of the equality of all men—as closely as possible in nonsectarian terms in order for them to be “independent of the validity of any particular religious beliefs.” This is neither legerdemain nor deceit, but simply returning to the philosophical level insights attained—or reinforced—at the theological level, so that their universality could be more readily recognized and acknowledged. The Declaration fuses the God of natural religion, “Nature’s God,” reachable by reason alone, with the God of revelation—Creator, Supreme Judge, and Providence. The colonists, who were overwhelmingly Christian, could make their philosophical appeals knowing full well that they were vindicated and sustained by the God who reveals himself as the divine Logos.
In turn, writes Jaffa, “the possibility of a constructive and healthy non-sectarian religious influence in American politics depends upon the rationalism of the natural law tradition that presided over the Founding.” This cross-pollination was essential to its success. Reason is open to revelation, for it asks questions it itself cannot answer. “The claims of autonomous human reason,” writes Jaffa, “cannot be fully vindicated by that reason. It always leaves philosophers open to the possibility that the fully consistent life—the life that the philosopher himself longs for above all others—is possible only on the basis of revelation.” Yet reason doesn’t surrender to whatever answers revelation gives but is only open to those that are reasonable. Therefore, “the free exercise of religion does not include the right to human sacrifice, to suttee, to temple prostitution, to the use of hallucinatory drugs, or to any other of the thousand and one barbarous and savage religious practices that have been features of barbarous and savage religions.” Jaffa makes a similar point in respect to 20th-century ideologies: “Those who do not recognize our humanity, who would use political power to strip us of our rights as human beings, are not entitled to share in the power stemming from the protection of those rights.”
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There are a few minor issues about which I wish I could argue with Jaffa. He states that “the plurality of gods [in the ancient world] itself depended in the end upon the plurality of cities.” This is partially because each city was founded by its own god or gods. He makes this statement in preparation for his thesis that when Rome became the universal city, the inherent logic of the situation required only one God—thus the ascent of Christianity. Polytheism, however, was not primarily a function of politics (though it had a political effect), but of pantheism. If the world is eternal, as was thought in the ancient world (Jews excepted), then it is, in substance, divine. Polytheism is the natural outgrowth of this belief, not of the number of cities. Egypt was a unitary kingdom, yet contained many gods. Had it become the universal city rather than Rome, it would still have had many gods. Polytheism only ended when Christianity universalized the Jewish teaching of creation ex nihilo—that is what sounded pantheism’s death knell.
Elsewhere, Jaffa curiously says, “When Jesus said to render to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s and to God what was God’s, he was making an eminently prudent statement. Contrary to a common opinion, he was not distinguishing between church and state.” Jesus was not known for his prudence—and He was certainly making a distinction between the city of God and the city of man. (Fifty pages later, in the same chapter, Jaffa expresses the view he criticized: “The saying of Jesus, of rendering to Caesar what was Caesar’s, and to God what was God’s [is] the ultimate doctrinal source for separation of church and state.”)
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Because of the concision of these essays, they could easily be the basis for a Jaffa chrestomathy. I close with a few choice samples as a foretaste of the many pleasures contained within:
“The charge of Eurocentrism is itself Eurocentric!”
“If reason cannot decide, that does not mean there will be no decision: only that the decision will not be by reason.”
“The very idea of individual rights is derived from the fact that in a post-classical monotheistic universe, man’s relationship to God is personal.”
“Consent operates within a moral order, it is itself a creation of that order, and there is no sovereign authority outside of that order.”
“The principles of the Declaration of Independence, although not explicitly incorporated in the Constitution, are the necessary ground for distinguishing the Constitution’s principles from its compromises.”
“What united Marx and Calhoun was a belief in a determinism that subordinated reason to passion and nature to history.”
As this volume attests, Harry Jaffa stands as a champion of the primacy of reason and nature (and therefore freedom) against the primacy of will and power. Read this book and arm yourselves.