Capturing the breadth of political thought
My grandfather was fond of saying, when my father got to that age where some young people, smitten with a little learning, like to show off, “Oh, there goes the intellectual, so pale and ineffectual.” I never did quite figure out the source of this little line, though that does not matter. The drift is what tickles me, and, I would guess, many Americans. As a practical people, we gravitate toward — and prize — doers; the scribbling class, influential as they may be, fails to capture our imagination.
But every now and again there appears on the scene a kind of academic personality with that rare trinity of virtues — spiritedness, learnedness, conscientiousness — who molds a generation of learners, both inside and out of the classroom. Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015), who, like his great teacher Leo Strauss, never would have referred to himself as an “academic personality” and would certainly have balked at any designation as an “intellectual,” was such a man.
A long-time professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the Claremont Graduate School, Mr. Jaffa was responsible not only for teaching scores of later-influential political science professors (who would go on to populate and grow outstanding programs at schools like Hillsdale and the University of Dallas) and Washington political practitioners but also, and perhaps more interestingly, almost single-handedly reviving serious scholarly interest in the political thought of the American Founding generally, and Abraham Lincoln, in particular.
Along the way, Mr. Jaffa, whose intellectual life began as an undergraduate at Yale studying English literature, also played a role (with Allan Bloom and others) in reinvigorating the study of Shakespeare as a political theorist of the highest rank, and offered an amazing appraisal of Thomas Aquinas’ misunderstanding of Aristotelian thought. And this is merely Mr. Jaffa’s impression on the academy; much more could be written on his public debates with Robert Bork, his time as a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater, and the innumerable quarrels with leading intellectuals and public figures that was as natural to his existence as breathing air.
At this point in a hagiography it is customary to point to representative writings for the interested reader to pursue. And so, while I would of course point to Mr. Jaffa’s “Crisis of a House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates” and his later “A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War,” perhaps, like a neophyte to Plato, there is something to be said about beginning with Mr. Jaffa’s shorter writings, as an onramp to his lengthier expositions.
And here, I am at happy to recommend a wonderful, new edition, compiled and edited by two prominent Jaffaites, Edward J. Erler and Ken Masugi, of their great teacher and companion’s later essays: “The Rediscovery of America: Essays by Harry V. Jaffa on the New Birth of Politics.” This collection carefully bundles, and magnificently captures, the contours and breadth of Mr. Jaffa’s thought, in a manner accessible to all thoughtful men and women with a desire to learn.
The 10 essays, ranging from inspired, if none-to-delicate critiques of erstwhile academic and public intellectual friends, to reflections on the Dred Scott decision and the theoretical kinship between Aquinas and Thomas Jefferson, may appear, at least superficially, varied, but upon closer inspection, are possessed of a unity around a few key concerns that animate all of Mr. Jaffa’s writing. I should note, at least for first-time readers who may not be stirred — or, more likely, simply daunted — by chapter titles like “The American Founding as the Best Regime: The Bonding of Civil and Religious Liberty” or “The End of History Means the End of Freedom,” that what might appear as scholarly or narrowly academic subject matters are tackled and presented with a manly straightforwardness that quickly drives home the import of the deeper game Mr. Jaffa is after.
But forbearing against what would certainly take a course on Mr. Jaffa’s philosophic zoology, I will leave the reader with this: If you sense the American Founding is important, but are unsure why; if you suspect the relationship between religion and politics is important to understand, but are tired of the same old superficial accounts; if you feel let down by current trends in American political life and are curious about what makes a great statesman and a healthy republic; and if you care about things like the soul, morality, justice, courage, friendship — pick one of the virtues on Aristotle’s list at random — then the writings of Harry V. Jaffa, beginning with Mr. Erler and Mr. Masugi’s new edition, will serve you as a boon companion for years to come.
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