Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Harry Jaffa, 1918-2015
Harry V. Jaffa died last Saturday at the age of 96. The New York Times has a good obituary.
Jaffa was famous among political theorists for his scholarly studies of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Abraham Lincoln, and the American founding. He studied with Leo Strauss at the New School for Social Research, and he earned the reputation as one of the deepest thinkers among Strauss's students. In the Strauss Wars, he was the leader of the West-coast Straussians.
Academic scholars rarely receive prominent obituaries in The New York Times. But as this obituary indicates, he gained some prominence in American history as a "conservative scholar and muse for Goldwater." I remember well watching Barry Goldwater's televised speech accepting the Republican nomination for President in 1964, which included two famous lines: "I would remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Goldwater's critics had warned that he was a right-wing extremist who was linked to extremist groups like the John Birch Society. So many people were surprised and shocked that he would boldly embrace the label of extremism. Only few people knew at the time that these words had been provided to Goldwater by Jaffa, who was involved in the writing of the speech.
I have heard that Strauss sent Jaffa a letter telling him that recommending such language to Goldwater was a big mistake, because it would contribute to Goldwater's defeat. Later, Jaffa explained that he never thought Goldwater had any realistic chance of winning in 1964, and that the real goal of the Goldwater campaign was for conservatives to take control of the Republican Party and then to elect a conservative Republican president sometime in the future. When Ronald Reagan started his political career in 1964 with a famous nationally televised speech for Goldwater, and then went on to be elected president in 1980, it seemed that Jaffa and other Goldwater Republicans had succeeded.
Jaffa's greatest contribution to the American conservative movement was in adding intellectual depth to conservative thought by showing how conservatism could be understood as part of an intellectual tradition that included Aristotle, John Locke, the American constitutional framers, and Lincoln. The appeal to Lincoln was controversial among some conservatives and libertarians who saw Lincoln as contributing to the tradition of liberal progressivism. John Barr has covered this debate over Lincoln very well in his book Loathing Lincoln.
I am especially saddened by Jaffa's death, coming as it does after the deaths in recent years of Joseph Cropsey and George Anastaplo, because these were the three men who gave me some connection to Strauss, whom I never met. Unfortunately, there was a break between Jaffa and Cropsey during their final decades of life, because of some personal disputes, despite their having been friends from childhood in New York. Jaffa and Anastaplo remained close throughout their lives, despite the fact that Anastaplo did not share Jaffa's commitment to American political conservatism.
It was a privilege for me to become one of Jaffa's friends. I remember well when he invited me to lecture on Darwin and evolutionary ethics at Claremont McKenna College in 1987, and I stayed at his home.
I am also reminded of his generosity in writing publishing blurbs for two of my books. For Darwinian Natural Right, he wrote: "Larry Arnhart is at the cutting edge of the frontiers of political philosophy today. His book on Aristotle and Darwin crowns more than a decade of research on the biological foundations of human nature. He has shown that it is no longer possible to assume that our biological nature is unrelated to our moral nature. He has therefore gone a long way to restoring the credibility of 'the laws of nature and nature's God,' and of the political science upon which this nature was founded." For Political Questions, he wrote: "This is a brilliant adaptation of Thomas Aquinas's technique of the disputed question. Thomas called the Summa Theologica a textbook for beginners, although one may wonder how many beginners ever mastered more than a small portion of it. Larry Arnhart's book really is for beginners in political philosophy, the best--I think--that there is today. It is not a substitute, but an encouragement and aid to reading these books, and to thinking about those questions. And it is profitable equally to our beginning students and to those of Thomas Aquinas."
Jaffa was especially generous in writing these endorsements, because he was skeptical about my commitment to Darwinian evolutionary science. But as is suggested by what he said about Darwinian Natural Right, he shared my belief that natural right can be rooted in human biological nature.
Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.