Professor Harry Jaffa has died. Born October 7, 1918, he was in the 96th year of life on Earth, a life of mind that was grounded in and yet extended far beyond Earthly limitations and concerns.
In unmatched and unique ways, Professor Jaffa connected the theoretical and the practical, the philosophic and the political, that which is ultimately Good, Beautiful, and True, with the busy activities of ordinary human life. He was a man important to many, while he focused his studies on important men, especially the great statesmen. His scholarship will continue to be important so long as people believe there exists an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, freedom and truth, the challenges of philosophy and revelation.
He is also important for me. He was my teacher.
JAFFA AND BERNS
Death was busy this past weekend, taking breath not from one but two great thinkers: Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns died within hours of each other. These men knew one another. They were each learned, serious, thoughtful, and both were students of Leo Strauss. This did not mean they agreed on everything. They disagreed on much regarding some of the most important things. They often challenged and tested one another, intellectually, over many years.
Favoring truth over formality, however – Professor Jaffa would insist of nothing less, I am confident – I remind others of Mr. Berns’s response to Jaffa. When Jaffa challenged Berns’s Hobbesian account of the American Founding, Berns responded, “Who will rid us of this pest of a priest?” It turned out, ironically, that Berns was ridded of Jaffa by the same phenomenon that ridded Jaffa of Berns, the irreversible hand of death.
Still, Berns’s quip about Professor Jaffa being a “pest of a priest” and seeking to get rid of him is deliciously ironic. Jaffa was certainly no Christian. He grew up a very un-orthodox Jew. A Christmas tree was more likely to be seen in the Jaffa house than was a Menorah.
And one cannot read Professor Jaffa’s work without seeing the central importance of the theological-political problem. Professor Jaffa himself described the principles of the American Founding as the “best regime” precisely because those principles provided the foundation for the first regime of genuine civil AND religious liberty, defusing the claims and civil conflicts that had torn men asunder so long as Christianity and its proponents, priests, and proselytizers possessed the power of government.
ALWAYS LOOKING FOR A FIGHT
Further, in the many years I have known him, never once did I hear or read Professor Jaffa express a desire to get “rid” of anyone who argued against or challenged him. Just the opposite. I am inclined to suggest that Professor Jaffa valued most those who disagreed with him.
Whether it’s been with students, or with colleagues, or with powerful and influential men and women in the academic, political, or business world, Professor Jaffa always welcomed a fight. Like his teacher Leo Strauss, Professor Jaffa would often recite the old adage regarding Aristotle: “Solet Aristoteles quaerere pugnam,” or, Aristotle was in the habit of seeking a fight.
Like Aristotle and Strauss, Professor Jaffa did not seek fights merely for thrill of fighting, though I believe he found much pleasure in it. Rather, he viewed intellectual disputes as a form of Socratic-philosophic dialectic, which is indispensible for any serious pursuit of truth. And Professor Jaffa was a Socratic soul, if ever there was one. The late Professor Harry Neumann, who co-taught a class with Professor Jaffa for many years, described Jaffa as the living Socrates. I agree. Except that he is living no more.
Professor Jaffa welcomed, valued, and even loved many of his interlocutors. He did not want to get rid of those who disagreed with him. He was not so intellectually insecure or scared that he would run and hide from a challenge. Whatever Professor Jaffa was, he was no coward in any sense of the word.
Here, an old story from the 1950s is telling about Jaffa’s character: A young man, a student at the Ohio State University – Jaffa’s first real academic appointment – who greatly disagreed with something Professor Jaffa had said in a lecture, followed him outside yelling and screaming. As the young man was in Jaffa’s face and seemed unwilling to calm down and speak civilly, Professor Jaffa dropped his books and put up his fists and said to the man, “Do you want to fight? Or do you want to sit down and talk about these matters about which we seem to disagree?” The young man, civil enough not to strike his teacher, proceeded to sit on a bench with Jaffa. They talked. That was his way. And that is one of many reasons I so loved Professor Jaffa.
Further, Professor Jaffa was never content to preach to choirs of those who thought as he did. The debates, challenges, and exchanges that cause any thinking mind to question its own assumptions, discard erroneous opinions, and discover more of what is true, were the lifeblood for Harry Jaffa. Far from getting rid of those who might challenge him, he was always looking for more. In fact, engaging him in debates, challenges, and exchanges is how I came to know this remarkable man.
MEETING PROFESSOR JAFFA
I met Professor Jaffa shortly after arriving at the Claremont Graduate School (now named the Claremont Graduate University) in California in 1994. Our first meeting was almost amusing, for more than one reason. Shortly after classes had begun, there was an announcement of a weekend conference at the University of Southern California Law School. Professor Jaffa was on the list of featured speakers, so I viewed it as my first opportunity to meet and see this legendary man in action.
But being a poor graduate student, I had no money to pay the entrance fee for the conference, which was more than $100, what then seemed to me a huge amount. So I asked my parents and they gave me the money to attend the conference. At that time, I had no idea how academic conferences went – I had no idea that students and faculty routinely attend these things at no charge. I was the first in my family to attend any kind of graduate school, after all, and I was learning on the go.
The joke was on me when I saw many of my graduate classmates at the same conference, only none of them paid anything. They teased me for being a dupe and actually paying the conference entrance fee.
But I did get an opportunity to hear Professor Jaffa speak at the event, and to speak with him personally afterward. When he learned that I alone had paid to see him, he refunded my money by way of small scholarship from the Winston Churchill Society, which he had founded. And several months later, after I had proven my mettle as a student, he offered to me his Earhart Graduate Fellowship, which funded the rest of my graduate course tuition as well as my work on the PhD dissertation, which he supervised.
More importantly, though, I had come to meet the Professor not to agree with him or cheer as some fan. I came to challenge him. I had spent the previous four years reading virtually everything Karl Marx had written. I had also dug deeply into the essays of Rousseau, and I was already becoming steeped in the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger. What I knew of Jaffa was that he was among the foremost defenders of the natural law, and the even more ancient idea of classical natural right, and I was going to refute him with my sophisticated modern and post-modern education. Or so I thought.
Boy, was I wrong. Not only could I not refute him, he proposed questions about the very post-modern literature I had been studying that I could not easily answer.
I would take to him my marked-up copies of Das Kapital, The Second Discourse, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Being And Time, challenging the depths of all natural right thought. He, in turn, would pull from his bookshelves marked-up copies of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare, Locke, and the American Founders. He introduced me to Lincoln and helped me see the philosophic and moral core of the dispute between Lincoln and Douglas in their famous debates over slavery. He helped me understand the nature of permanent questions, and how they provide a window to see the permanent things, and how the modern thesis of historicism undermined itself.
Fighting with Professor Jaffa was the greatest single educational experience of my life. It was the beginning of a long friendship. And it opened my eyes not only to insights regarding the philosophic pursuit of truth, it made me appreciate those who possess both the ability and the willingness to participate in rigorous, thoughtful, philosophic debate. Fighting with Professor Jaffa helped me see the ugliness of cowardice, and the beauty of the courage it takes to think openly, question one’s own ideas honestly, and let one’s self and one’s thoughts be subject to scrutiny and criticism. Whatever cowardice is, Professor Jaffa demonstrated throughout his life, for anyone with eyes to see, what the opposite looks like.
My meeting with Professor Jaffa in the mid-1990s was fortunate for me, and yet strange. I met him at a time when almost all graduate students in Claremont had come to ignore him.
To be sure, the Claremont Colleges attracts some of the best intellectuals and academics the world has to offer. And many on the Claremont faculties are shiny and polished and sophisticated. Jaffa is not among them. Oh, his mind and learning could keep up with the best of them, and often teach them a thing or two. But his was a rustic soul. In his manners and ways, he was a simple man. I once sat and debated Lincoln’s Second Inaugural as Jaffa clipped his toenails, which was more typical of the settings of our conversations than it was unusual.
When I met him, he had taken over a corner in the basement of Honnold-Mudd Library, the central library shared by all the Claremont Colleges. I almost always found him there alone, surrounded by books. He’d let me talk with him while he’d compose his latest critique of whomever he thought had mis-thought. I learned to write largely by writing letters and essays with him looking over my shoulder and offering edits and suggestions as I’d go along.
Soon I found myself spending time with him several days each week, whether in the library, or at his home, or going out for many lunches or dinners. I would regularly drive him or escort him on flights for his various speaking engagements around the country. And the whole time we would talk. When my phone would ring very late at night, I could be assured that it was either some friend from childhood calling in a drunken stupor, or it’d be Professor Jaffa wanting to talk about some current event or recent piece of scholarship, or maybe just to chat about a passage in one of the great books we both loved. We talked openly about everything, in good times and in not so good times. And I will miss that dearly.
No brief account can begin to explain the intellectual richness, depth, and breadth of the scholarship and teaching of Harry Jaffa. His mind knew no limits, and no subject was ever beyond consideration. And there is no substitute for reading the works of Professor Jaffa. So let me offer just an example of his unique approach.
Among those who know only something about Harry Jaffa, he is most famous for his work on Abraham Lincoln. His books Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom form two parts of a kind of historical-philosophic trilogy that Jaffa never completed. And there are critics who complain that Jaffa’s scholarship was not among the leading, cutting-edge work done by academic historians. I happen to think Jaffa’s scholarship is above the work of most historians. The difference, however, is in the kinds of questions they ask and attempt to answer.
In an 1859 letter to Henry Pierce, Lincoln suggested that the statement of human equality and equal natural rights contained within the Declaration of Independence represents “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” This is no secret to historians. Many academicians know of this letter, and some have described the historical context of all that was going on around Lincoln as he penned those words.
But Professor Jaffa has been almost alone in asking whether Lincoln was right. IS there ANY abstract truth that cuts across time and space and applies to all human beings everywhere? Or is truth always relative to time, space, culture, or other influences on human opinion? If there are timeless, abstract truths that apply to all human beings everywhere and always, is the idea of human equality among them?
Professor Jaffa is derided by some as being more polemical and less philosophic precisely because he not only raised these question, he dared to answer them as well: YES, he has argued at length and over many decades, there IS an abstract truth that applies to all people at all times, and YES the idea of equal natural rights is part of that unchanging, universal truth. NO, Jaffa has also argued, not all truth is relative to time or place or cultural “worldviews.”
It’s important to see that the questions Jaffa raised are not mere historical questions, not mere questions of who said or did what, where, when, or why. Asking whether Lincoln was correct to believe that there is “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times” is foremost a PHILOSOPHIC question. It’s a question about the nature of truth, the nature of a mind that wants to discover truth, and the nature of the universe that a mind investigates as it searches for truth. But for asking these types of questions – and thinking they might be answerable in a philosophically objective way – Professor Jaffa has earned the derision of many academics.
JAFFA AND CONSERVATISM
And it’s not merely academics who’ve been unhappy with Jaffa. Given his devotion to the principles of the American Founding as the Best Regime, Jaffa found himself more aligned with political conservatives, in general, than with progressive-style liberals. Yet he made a deep critique of the modern conservative movement no small part of his academic career.
In books, essays, letters, and lectures, Professor Jaffa demonstrated how alienated from the principles of the Founding many of the leading lights of the conservative movement are, or have been. In this regard, Walter Berns stands in the same company as Wilmore Kendall, Mel Bradford, Irving Kristol, Russell Kirk, Robert Bork, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and many others. All of them, according to Jaffa, have missed something important about the American Founding. And I believe he is correct.
For Jaffa, the truth, and the true principles of freedom, are too important to leave in the hands or minds of those who either misunderstand them or fail to understand their importance, goodness, and rightness, whether those hands and minds are political allies or not, or whether they are labeled “conservative” by others or not. Thus many conservatives and Republicans complain that Jaffa often presented himself more of a critic of conservatism than a conservative cheerleader. This is why Berns, for example, saw Jaffa as a “pest of a priest.”
Professor Jaffa also riled many within the “religious right.” I once escorted him to a conference where he spoke at length about the natural law. Immediately afterward, a man approached Jaffa with a question: “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” Jaffa responded with a simple, “no.” The man then explained that he could not accept anything Jaffa had said if Jaffa did not accept Jesus as his personal savior.
Professor Jaffa proceeded to explain that in the words of no less a Christian authority than Thomas Aquinas, the natural law represents the “rational creature’s participation in the eternal law,” by which God is alleged by Christians to rule the universe. If the mind of God reasons, and human minds reason, then human reason can understand at least something of the reason of God, and that possibility, strictly speaking, is independent of whatever faith one happens to have or not have in Jesus. But the man would hear no more and stormed off.
REASON VS. REVELATION
And here we come to one of the highest themes in the works of Jaffa: reason vs. revelation. Like his teacher Strauss, Jaffa saw the claims of reason and the claims of revelation – and the permanent conflict between the two – as the two pillars of Western Civilization, often represented by two cities, Athens and Jerusalem.
Also like Strauss, Jaffa believed that the freedom and prosperity and vitality of the West was sown into the free debates and challenges between these two poles of possible ultimate truth. A complete, total victory for either reason or revelation against the other would likely lead to either scientific tyranny (seen in the form of Soviet communism and German Nazism) or theocratic tyranny (seen in the medieval world of “divine right theory of kings”). And therefore the “tension” between the claims of reason and revelation has a salutary, because it has a moderating, affect on human political life.
Western Civilization is unique precisely because it has provided a forum for the free and open debate between the claims of reason and revelation. And nowhere is this more evidenced than in the rational, American idea of constitutionally protected religious liberty.
More, Jaffa understood that mind qua mind operates within a framework of metaphysical freedom. If mind is free, then the operations of mind cannot be reduced to scientifically explained cause and effect. And, if the operations of mind can be reduced to scientifically explained cause and effect, then the mind is not really free. And if the mind is not free, then choice – and the possibility of moral right or virtue, which depends upon free choice – is but an illusion.
Yet Jaffa never believed that moral right or virtue are illusions, because he did not believe the freedom of mind is illusion. Jaffa often compared the attempt to disprove the metaphysical freedom of mind to trying to jump over one’s shadow. Impossible. In order for mind to disprove the metaphysical freedom of mind – in a way that other minds find persuasive and truthful – mind must always assume the very metaphysical freedom that it is attempting to disprove. This, of course, has not stopped modern philosophy from trying repeatedly to demonstrate that the human mind is not truly free. And this is also why Professor Jaffa has always pushed back against the central claim of (radical) modernity.
In fact, or at least in my opinion, Jaffa’s defenses of the authority of the claims of revelation are inseparable from his defenses of the freedom of the human mind. If the mind is truly, metaphysically free, and if a truly metaphysically free being cannot be fully understood, explained, or predicted by reason or science, then mind cannot fully understand, explain, or predict…mind.
And if mind cannot fully understand, explain, or predict itself, then it cannot fully, totally, comprehensively and exhaustively understand, explain, or predict the entire world. This is why Socrates maintained that he always suffered from inadequate or imperfect knowledge of the highest thing, the ultimate Idea of the Good. And this is why Jaffa, following Strauss, maintained that reason never can fully refute or defeat the claims of revelation. How can a mind that does not fully understand itself, after all, claim full knowledge of the world and know fully that there is not and cannot be a god or gods?
But just as Jaffa was no blind cheerleader for conservatism, so too he was no blind cheerleader for Christianity or any other religious movement based on alleged revelations from divines. And just as Jaffa believed that truth is too important to trust with political allies, who often get the truth wrong, so too be believed that truth is immutable, and therefore cannot simply be the product of an arbitrary, willful divinity.
This is why when Jaffa read Genesis, for example, he saw it as a Platonic book. Every time Genesis records God as seeing an act of His own Creation as being “good,” Jaffa – like Socrates – seems more interested in the nature and meaning of the “good” that is mentioned. What is the good? If the good IS, then it IS eternally, The good has no beginning and no end. The good, therefore, cannot have been “created.” The good is a timeless, immutable idea. This view sets Socratic souls apart from pious or evangelical souls, who seem more interested in promoting, usually in the form of organized religions, the accounts of divines who acknowledge the good, rather than in investigating for themselves what that good is.
All of this merely scratches the surface of the life and mind of Professor Harry Jaffa. If people ignore or forget what I have written here, there’s no great loss. But if some decide to pick up the books and essays written by Professor Jaffa, and read them, and study them, and question and challenge them, there’s a great benefit of learning to be gained.
If that dialectical, philosophic learning continues, then the spirit of Harry Jaffa lives on, just as the spirit of Socrates lives on. In this way, the fate of the spirits of Jaffa and Socrates are united, and dependent upon us. And though we are unworthy of honoring Professor Jaffa, truly, we can serve well his memory by doing what he taught us to do: Read, think, talk, debate, and help each other as we try to discover what is True, what is Good, what is Beautiful.