Did Strauss himself think of contemporary Orthodoxy as more than an absurd possibility?
Harry Jaffa Divides the House
The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America
by Glenn Ellmers
(New York: Encounter, 2021)
That the author of the justly famous Crisis of the House Divided should himself be a long-running cause of division among conservatives is an irony that would be amusing if it weren’t so serious. Harry V. Jaffa often took delight in the consternation he caused with his provocations of putative allies, but, to this reviewer’s knowledge, he never drew the parallel suggested here. Jaffa once wrote in a letter that “Concerning my own ghost, I’m assured that I would much rather be attacked than ignored,” and with the arrival of the first in-depth intellectual biography of Jaffa, Glenn Ellmers’s The Soul of Politics, the unlikely prospect that Jaffa would be ignored can be laid to rest.
Ellmers has revived a whirlwind of unsettled dust from the many storms over Jaffa’s intense arguments, as any book with a degree of sympathy with Jaffa was destined to do. By the transitive properties of intellectual lineage from professor to student, we should not be surprised to see critics charge Ellmers with extending the “fractious partisanship” that was the chief criticism of Jaffa himself. Ellmers has responded ably to these critics (especially at the American Greatness website), but to dwell on those particulars is to miss his extraordinary achievement and the bigger picture he ably draws. His command of Jaffa’s complex and unfinished) corpus brings into focus the deep unity of Jaffa’s philosophical and political genius, which has often overwhelmed readers on account of its capaciousness.
“The purpose of this book,” Ellmers declares near the middle, “is not to present a hagiography of Jaffa nor to suggest he was right about everything,” and indeed Ellmers brings to light some important and unnoticed difficulties in Jaffa’s ideas that should stimulate careful thought. Before getting to some of these discoveries, let us begin “on the surface,” as Straussian hermeneutics famously recommends.
Ellmers makes abundantly evident Jaffa’s uncanny foresight, expressed as far back as 50 years ago, of our present crisis that can be summarized as “runaway wokeness.” In the late 1960s, Jaffa’s direct experience with metastasizing black radicalism on campus, and the shameful capitulation of college faculties and administrations in the face of pure gangsterism, led him to predict not only today’s regime of identity politics and “affirmative action” racial quotas, but also the character of today’s so-called “anti-racist” ideology: “’Racism’ is any kind of resistance, conscious or unconscious, to the political program of the ideological left.”
Jaffa’s late 1970s critique of Garry Wills’s ambitious project to reinterpret the American Founding through a leftist filter anticipated the 1619 Project: “Wills hates the very idea that the United States was born out of a dedication to liberty and justice.” Over to you, Nicole Hannah-Jones.
He also noticed, in the early 1980s, how it had “become almost obligatory, in some departments, to have had a ‘personal crisis’ … in which a young scholar would not even be considered for tenure unless he presented affidavits from three psychologists that he had had an ‘existential’ or ‘identity’ crisis.” Today the fixation with idiosyncratic or subjective “lived experience” has become a staple in the social sciences and humanities. A close parallel can be found in Jaffa’s blunt attacks on sexual liberation (especially gay rights), which he saw correctly as an attack on human nature itself that would lead to exactly the scene before us today, in which “gender fluidity” is the reigning orthodoxy.
And Jaffa was practically alone in the early 1990s in dissenting from the optimistic overinterpretation of the end of the Cold War and demise of the Soviet Union, writing that far from the “end of history” and the sweeping triumph of liberal democracy having arrived, Marxism would morph into new species of ideological leftism that would be more dangerous in the years ahead.
One other partial vindication of a controversial Jaffa theme can be seen unfolding in real time just now: the potential unraveling of the so-called “conservative legal movement.” Of late there have been growing fissures and even irreconcilable differences arising over how to understand or apply constitutional “originalism,” and if the Supreme Court muffs the imminent disposition of the Dobbs case on abortion, it is thought the conservative legal movement will be pitched into a crisis from which its dissolution will be the likely outcome.
Jaffa was an early outlier during the rise of conservative enthusiasm for “original intent” starting in the 1970s, arguing that an originalism that was merely a textual interpretative method, and not grounded in a robust understanding of natural right, was essentially no different or better than the liberal positivism it purported to contest. He was generally ignored (except by Clarence Thomas), but the current disarray among originalists ought to prompt some second and third thoughts.
One last stark example of his vindication in the controversies that are at the root of the rancor associated with his name is his attack, in the mid-1970s, on the American Political Science Association’s establishment of the Leo Strauss Dissertation Award. Jaffa argued that the award would come to represent the opposite of everything Strauss stood for: “Works of genuine brilliance and distinction will seldom if ever have a chance, because they will antagonize by their uncompromising superiority.”
This seemed a trivial quarrel to most everyone in the wider Straussian community. Joseph Cropsey thought Jaffa was overreacting, with “absolute conviction that what everybody else understands to be insignificant is the germ of universal calamity,” and the episode was taken to be yet another example of what Harvey Mansfield called Jaffa’s “excess of fighting spirit.” Yet APSA’s 2020 winner of the Leo Strauss Dissertation Award was Elena Gambino of Rutgers University, who “works at the intersections of feminist, queer, and critical race theories.” Title of the dissertation: “Presence in Our Own Land:’ Second Wave Feminism and the Lesbian Body Politic.”
These conflicts seem like the easier aspects of Jaffa to comprehend, but they are vitally connected to the deep layers of Jaffa’s complete thought. Jaffa’s extended arguments, Ellmers rightly says, were often “labyrinthine.” It is unfortunate that there are no recordings or transcripts of Jaffa in the classroom—as there are of Leo Strauss, whose recorded classes and transcripts are now available online and proving helpful to scholars probing further into Strauss’s thought. The Jaffa of the classroom made his complex ideas come to life through repeated encounters and restatement. The great strength of The Soul of Politics is Ellmers’s careful combing and combining of Jaffa’s ideas that are not always easily grasped in his published writing, thereby conveying Jaffa’s extraordinary range and mastery. Access to Jaffa’s voluminous letters (and one hopes they will be collected and published someday) helped add color to the picture.
Nearly every student has recollections of Jaffa offering, inside the classroom and in “casual” conversations (though no conversation with him qualified as casual), a compelling off-the-cuff discourse about thinkers, books, and topics that he never put to paper: on Moby Dick, English drama, modern novels, and the lesser Platonic dialogues that he hadn’t read in decades but recounted as vividly as this morning’s sunrise. It is clear that Jaffa could have been a great Shakespearean scholar had he chosen literature instead of political philosophy.
The single glimpse we have of the full-spectrum Jaffa of the classroom is the transcript of a free-flowing question and answer session he held at Rosary College in 1980 (published in American Conservatism and the American Founding). And it is in this, taken along with some other published work, that Ellmers notes a curious aspect of Jaffa’s thought that has been largely unnoticed up to now.
Jaffa and other students of Strauss are often criticized for ignoring or downplaying the role of Christianity in the American Founding, but this is a misreading of Jaffa. His complete account of how the “theological-political problem” played out before and during the American Founding cannot be adequately outlined here, but note this comment from the Rosary College appearance on which Ellmers directs an arclight beam: “I leave it to you to decide whether the intervention of Christianity is a matter of history, necessity, or divine intervention… I’m leaving it to you, whether my interpretation is really Hegelian.” Ellmers deadpans: “This is all very strange, of course.”
Strauss and his students are united in deploring Hegel’s role in planting historicism in the modern mind, but insofar as historicism is a secular substitute for divine Providence that emphasizes scientific progress instead of the piety and salvation of Christianity, Jaffa’s playful invocation of Hegel may be intended as a means of overthrowing Hegel and his successors. Ellmers offers an extended analysis of this point. My parallel analysis builds on the contingent historical fact that had the British army captured and executed George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence would be an obscure document today; had the Confederacy won the Civil War, Lincoln would be remembered as a failed or even reckless president and his Gettysburg Address regarded as little as Edward Everett’s speech that same day.
But Jaffa did not think the outcomes of these large historical events were purely contingent or mere accidents, nor should they be understood from Machiavelli’s perspective about conquering chance. Though he never wrote directly about Providence, stray references to the “mystery” of Providence (which he always capitalized) are found throughout his writing.
Dimly it is possible to make out, as Ellmers does well, that the mystery of Providence is wrapped with the metaphysical mystery of the human mind itself. The example of Churchill provides another clue about Jaffa’s larger understanding. In an essay about how, by the strange cunning of history, Winston Churchill’s errors helped prepare him for his greatest action, Jaffa concluded: “Contemplating life as a whole must give us faith that, in the long run, chance is not merely indifferent to human excellence.”
The relationship of thought and action is the central theme of Jaffa’s work, and his understanding of statesmanship is rooted ultimately in metaphysics. Ellmers mentions in passing that in his late phase, as he was completing A New Birth of Freedom, his long-awaited sequel to Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa began talking about how he needed to write a third volume about Lincoln to complete his case. Like the first two books, it would go well beyond Lincoln. But age prevented this project from coming to fruition. In addition to deepening and clarifying his potentially pietistic understanding of Providence, he would likely also have resolved the alleged contradiction in his thought between the natural equality of humans on the one hand and the necessity for the “great-souled” natural aristoi such as Lincoln and Churchill on the other.
The pieces of this puzzle can be found in scattered locations throughout Jaffa’s work, and Ellmers does an excellent job of showing where Jaffa’s thought pointed, involving his profound grasp of the reciprocal relation between wisdom and consent in a democracy. To the extent that Jaffa’s work can be considered unfinished, it suggests an agenda for Jaffa’s successors to figure out how that unwritten third volume would have extended our understanding.
And mentioning “Jaffa’s successors” raises a salient point about this particular moment. Another aspect of Jaffa’s legacy is that, as with Leo Strauss, a self-conscious “school” formed around his work, which cannot be said about any of Strauss’s other brilliant students. Intellectually it is known as “West Coast Straussianism,” and institutionally it is identified with the Claremont Institute. Various contretemps over John Locke, the character of the Founding, and deeper questions about the proper disposition of political philosophy itself have been going on for years, but the furies of the Trump era have scrambled the scene further. Suddenly precincts of the right that were previously hostile to Jaffa and Claremont (especially the so-called “paleocons”) have warmed up and embraced Jaffa’s circle, while former friends or fellow travelers (some of the “neocons” especially) have broken from them with considerable rancor. Ellmers reviews some of this scene, but the controversy has intensified further since he finished the manuscript.
Ellmers might have been said more—and likely will in the future—about how Jaffa’s intellectual progeny follow a trajectory similar to that of Strauss’s first-generation students, who branched out most conspicuously into American political thought, which Strauss largely passed over in his own work. Jaffa’s students, especially the late John Adams Wettergreen, Michael Uhlmann, John Marini, and R.J. Pestritto, to name just a few with one specific focus, have been instrumental in extending Jaffa’s insights about scientific politics, thereby broadening the critique of the modern administrative state and its Progressive roots, with perspectives that differ markedly from the critiques of public choice theory or pure-bred free-market libertarianism.
But tracing the paths Jaffa’s students are blazing for themselves is a subsidiary task that would have weighed down the 384 fully packed pages of this book. What Ellmers has produced is a book that is as erudite and challenging as Jaffa himself, a concordance to have at hand when reading Jaffa’s enduring body of work.
Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley and lecturer at Berkeley Law. He is the author of Patriotism Is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments that Changed American Conservatism. The reviewer thanks Prof. Linda Denno of the University of Arizona for her indispensable help.
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