1-14-15: 1:03 a.m. My mind races. How does one pay tribute to someone with whom one disagreed on several important issues? – issues about life and law and other things that matter. That question confronts me as I sit down to pay tribute to Harry Jaffa, someone who taught me much and always treated me kindly.
It’s rather late. I page through my tattered copy of Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln Douglas Debates (1959). I first read it in 1968 or thereabouts. It’s by Harry V. Jaffa, the noted conservative political philosopher. He died recently. I found out by way of a New York Times obit by Robert McFadden. (Jaffa died on the same day as Walter Berns, another political theorist.)
I stare at the black-and-white pic of the young Jaffa taken years before I met him. I peer into his distant eyes. What was he thinking at that moment in 1959 / in that bookstore / next to his newly released book / finely clad / grinning confidently / with a book of the poet C.C. Cummings lingering behind his left shoulder?
* * * *
“Since the first and most successful enterprise of the Fathers was to produce disobedience to an ancient established order, it would have been peculiarly difficult for them to inculcate reverence.”
I think more and more about Professor Jaffa as I glance at the row of books in my library bearing his name. Formally speaking, I never studied under him, though I did know him. We met in the 1970s at Claremont College where he taught with the noted constitutional historian Leonard W. Levy (1923-2006). I read Levy’s books, too, though I was never one of his students. But I knew both men rather well. Levy was quite liberal (my stripes), Jaffa was quite conservative. Both strong personality types and both friends (as far as I know).
The Students of Strauss
When I first encountered Professor Jaffa, the philosopher Leo Strauss had recently visited Claremont. Back in those days Jaffa was friendly with many of his colleagues who, like him, had been students of Strauss. There was, for example, Martin Diamond and Allan Bloom. Of them he wrote this in his Crisis book: “I owe much to the enthusiastic interest of Professors Allan Bloom . . . and Martin Diamond . . . .”
That was in the days before the name “Strauss” became politicized. It was also before Jaffa parted company (sometimes fiercely) with so many of his former friends and colleagues, including Diamond and Bloom. There was still peace in that valley, that intellectual oasis where so many young students like myself came to learn how to read and appreciate the great works of Western political thought.
I studied under other students of Strauss (Michael Ormond and Thomas S. Schrock) and thereby came to read many works by the famed University of Chicago scholar – works such as Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Natural Right and History (1953), On Tyranny (1963), and The City and Man (1964), among other books.
Of course, one of the mainstays of my liberal education back then was History of Political Philosophy (1963), a collection of thoughtful and carefully crafted essays on noted political philosophers from Plato to Dewey. Strauss and Joseph Cropsey edited the volume. There was a long essay in it on Aristotle written by Jaffa (removed in the 3rd edition at H.J.’s insistence, I believe). I studied that essay and learned much from it, so much that I set out to read more by him. In time I came to Crisis of the House Divided, which I spent many an hour savoring . . . but never as required reading.
Somehow I came to meet Professor Jaffa personally, though I do not quite remember how. By 1974 I knew him well enough to solicit something from him to publish in my law school’s law review. It was titled “Equality as a Conservative Principle,” 8 Loyola, Los Angeles, Law Review 471 (1975), reprinted in Jaffa’s How to Think About the American Revolution (1978).
In the years and decades that followed, from time to time I visited Professor Jaffa at his home with his wife Marjorie. They were routinely gracious. The talk: almost always about Plato or Aristotle or Machiavelli or Hobbes or De Tocqueville or Lincoln or Churchill or Strauss or the Declaration or the Constitution. I steered away from partisan politics. Why? Well, because what I admired about him, what was most important to me, were his talents as a teacher, someone who had carefully studied the great thinkers and was committed to teaching others how to appreciate their words and thoughts. Ideas mattered more to me than ideologies, so I veered away from Republican-Democrat talk, though I listened nonetheless when Jaffa ventured off into those worlds. Sometimes even that talk gave me pause, made me rethink a few of my own views. Then again, sometimes not.
If you would know the Harry Jaffa I knew as a mentor and a friend, read his Crisis or his Thomism and Aristotelianism: A Study of the Commentary by Thomas Aquinas on the Nicomachean Ethics (1952) or his book with Allan Bloom, Shakespeare’s Politics (1964), or his essay “The Case for a Stronger National Government,” in A Nation of States: Essays on the American Federal System (1963) edited by Robert A. Goldwin. There is, to be sure, more, but I will lay my cards there.
∇ ∇ ∇
In these ideologically torn and tormenting times, it is ever more difficult to be objective and open-minded. Friends flee. Few wish to be Socratic, open-minded, and receptive to reconsidering their gospels. Such one-directional thinking wars with the basic tenets of philosophy, properly understood. But if the ideal of liberal education still means something, and if our commitment to being an open society still stands, then it is only just to be fair — even if it means cracking open the doors of our partisan minds enough to see what we would not otherwise see. There is, after all, no truth in blind denial.
I hope I have answered the question with which I began. However that may be, kindly permit me to close with a few words by Leo Strauss, from his Liberalism: Ancient & Modern (1968):
“Liberal education, which consists in the constant intercourse with the greatest minds, is a training in the highest form of modesty, not to say of humility.”