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Moral Order in the Western Tradition: Harry Jaffa's Grand Synthesis of Athens, Jerusalem, and Peoria

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 May 2009

Abstract

Harry V. Jaffa has inspired a generation of students in American political thought by defending the natural rights principles of the Declaration of Independence and of Abraham Lincoln. Jaffa is also a defender of Leo Strauss's idea of a “political science of natural right,” which Strauss drew primarily from classical Greek political philosophy. Jaffa's efforts to defend the several strands of the Western natural right tradition led him to develop a grand synthesis of “Athens, Jerusalem, and Peoria,” which I argue is a noble but untenable way of upholding the moral order of the West—and a departure from the intentions of Leo Strauss.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2009

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References

1 Jaffa, Harry V., A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 471.Google Scholar

2 Harry V. Jaffa, “Strauss at 100,” 1. Posted on May 14, 2003, The Claremont Institute, http://www.claremont.org/writings/030118jaffa.html

3 Leo Strauss's legacy is a topic of endless fascination in recent years, and many books have been written to clarify the controversial issues. Among the best are Pangle, Thomas L., Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Zuckert, Catherine and Zuckert, Michael, The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Smith, Steven B., Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I have benefited greatly from the account of Jaffa and his contribution to “West Coast” Straussianism in Zuckert and Zuckert, Truth about Leo Strauss, 217–27, 239–52.

4 Jaffa, Harry V., Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982)Google Scholar, Preface, vi.

5 Jaffa, Harry V., Thomism and Aristotelianism: A Study of the Commentary by Thomas Aquinas on the Nicomachean Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952)Google Scholar. All page references are to this edition.

6 See Copelston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2, Mediaeval Philosophy from Augustine to Scotus (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, Ltd., 1950), 302434Google Scholar.

7 Aquinas, St. Thomas, Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Litzinger, C.I., forward Ralph McInerny (Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1993), 779.Google Scholar Jaffa does not use this quotation, which I found in Thomas's commentary and I cite to support Jaffa's case. However, I also found evidence that contradicts Jaffa. For example, Thomas cites Julius Caesar's habit of forgetting injuries done to him as a mark of Caesar's strength—clearly an example of pagan pride which Thomas does not hesitate to mention, indicating that Thomas does not always try to soften or Christianize pagan pride.

8 See Keys, Mary M., Aquinas, Aristotle, and The Promise of the Common Good (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 165–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Keys offers an alternative to Jaffa's view by arguing that Aquinas was deliberately improving upon Aristotle rather than attributing or imputing Christian views to Aristotle.

9 Jaffa, Harry V., Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1959 and 1973; and with a new preface, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982)Google Scholar. The page numbers are the same in all editions and are indicated in parentheses.

10 Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 167Google Scholar.

11 Ibid., vii, emphasis added. I also corrected what appears to be a clear typographical error in the 1971 preface, which says, “to the reigning relativism, politivist [sic] or historicist.” Politivist is clearly meant to be positivist.

12 I have taken the phrase “natural rights republicanism” from Zuckert, Michael P.'s book, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

13 Harry V. Jaffa, “Aristotle and Locke in the American Founding,” 1–2. Posted February 10, 2001, The Claremont Institute, http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.1130/article_detail.asp

14 To see how far Jaffa traveled in his career, one should compare his two tributes to Leo Strauss—the early tribute on the occasion of Strauss's death, “Leo Strauss: 1899–1973” (written and published in 1973), and the later tribute, “Strauss at 100” (written and published in 2003).

In the early tribute, Jaffa follows Strauss in separating the elements of the Western tradition, emphasizing “the difference between ancients and moderns” and the impossibility of a “synthesis of reason and revelation” as well as the lowness of modernity for being Machiavellian-inspired and for “getting rid of the wise man as the judge of the moral man.” Reprinted in Jaffa, Harry V., The Conditions of Freedom: Essays in Political Philosophy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 38Google Scholar.

In the later tribute, Jaffa is the grand synthesizer, invoking Strauss's blessing for his scholarship on Lincoln as the restorer of classical statesmanship in the modern age. Jaffa even claims that Strauss “propelled my articulation of the connection between Plato, biblical religion, Shakespeare, and Lincoln. And Lincoln's recovery of the Founding corresponded closely with the Maimonidean recovery of the rational origins of prophecy.”

Obviously, Jaffa's evolution from a separator to a synthesizer of the elements of the Western tradition was gradual, but the two tributes to Leo Strauss document clearly the change from being an “orthodox” Straussian to a “Jaffaite” Straussian.

15 Originally published in The American Political Science Review (March 1957) and reprinted in Jaffa, Harry V., Equality and Liberty: Theory and Practice in American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 190208Google Scholar. Page references are to the reprinted edition.

16 The inclusion of Shakespeare in this list is justified by Jaffa's essay, “Macbeth and the Moral Universe,” a lecture given in 1974 and published by The Claremont Institute in February 2008, http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.1510/article_detail.asp

Jaffa argues that Shakespeare's play displays a clear “moral order” in the universe, unlike Camus's and Dostoevsky's novels. Macbeth is punished for his excessive manliness and ambition because they violate the moral order of natural right, and he is goaded by Lady Macbeth who “invokes, and rejects, the traditional distinction between beast, man, and God, which we find in Aristotle's Politics as well as in Locke's Second Treatise and in the Declaration of Independence.” And, of course, “Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address reaffirms the same power of morality as Macbeth” (8, 11). In other words, Aristotle, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Shakespeare all share a common view of moral order in the universe.

17 See Hofstadter, Richard, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage Books, 1989; originally published by Knopf, 1948)Google Scholar, chap. 5, “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth.”

18 See Thomas G. West, “Jaffa's Lincolnian Defense of the Founding: A Review of ‘A New Birth of Freedom,’ by Harry Jaffa,” Interpretation (Spring 2001) and posted in The Claremont Institute website, http://www.claremont.org/writings/011031west.html. See also Edward J. Erler, “Philosophy, History, and Jaffa's Universe,” review of Jaffa, Harry V., A New Birth of Freedom, Interpretation 28 (Spring 2001): 245–57Google Scholar.

19 For other references to Strauss, see New Birth, the epigraph to chapter 2 (73–74), three footnotes (500 n. 2, 505 nn. 17, 20), and in specific polemical setting of chapters 1 and 2.

20 See New Birth, 106, 120, 155, 370, 408, 442, and 509 n. 84.

21 Lincoln, Abraham, The Portable Abraham Lincoln, ed. Delbanco, Andrew (New York: Penguin Books, 1992)Google Scholar, “Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, Illinois, Oct. 16, 1854,” 63.

22 “Strauss at 100,” 5.

23 Ibid., 3.

24 “Macbeth and the Moral Universe,” 8.

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