Why We Still Need Harry Jaffa

Earlier this year, Claremont McKenna College lost perhaps the most famous professor ever to teach under the Bauer Center rotunda. Harry Jaffa was 96, but still just as cantankerous as when he first came to Claremont in 1965.

Before arriving at what was then Claremont Men’s College, Jaffa beat long odds to secure positions at the University of Chicago and Ohio State University when universities weren’t hiring Jews. Jaffa’s mentor at Yale, Harvey Mansfield Sr., even tried to dissuade him from going into academia, despite his brilliance, because of the slim job prospects that awaited him there – but that only made Jaffa more resolved than ever on becoming a professor.

And it was his professors whom Jaffa looked up to more than anyone. After fleeing Yale to continue his graduate studies at the New School, Jaffa took a class with Leo Strauss, a Jewish émigré from Germany and one of Hitler’s gifts to America. Over seven years and a mutual relocation to the University of Chicago, Jaffa took 19 courses with Strauss. Guiding him on journeys through the greatest books ever written and the most profound thoughts ever speculated upon, Strauss freed Jaffa’s mind and showed him that there was more to life than the shadows on the cave wall.

“One of Strauss’s secrets was that he made you feel not a passive receptacle of his insights, but as his partner in the voyage of discovery. He was the captain of the ship. But you were part of the crew. And you sailed together,” Jaffa writes.

At Ohio State University, Jaffa wrote his magnum opus, Crisis of the House Divided, an interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. At the time of its publication in 1959, America’s perception of its greatest president had changed drastically. At best, as a new brand of scientific historicism proclaimed, Lincoln was an incompetent leader who fought an unnecessary war that more tactful diplomacy could have prevented. At worst, as many even on the Right thought, he was a power-hungry tyrant.

Jaffa’s book changed the way we think about Lincoln. He showed that Lincoln and Douglas were not simply talking about slavery or popular sovereignty, but they were having the same debate that Socrates and Thrasymachus had over 2,000 years prior in Plato’s Republic. Thrasymachus’ position is that justice is simply the will of the stronger (Douglas’ popular sovereignty), whereas Socrates argues that right and wrong are truths discernible by reason, independent of what the stronger says they are (Lincoln’s view that slavery is always immoral, even if the people want it). This is why Lincoln held the Declaration of Independence – a document that proclaims it a self-evident truth that man is endowed by his Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – in such high esteem, even above the Constitution.

Part of Douglas’ principle of popular sovereignty is that, as an Illinoisan, he has no right to say whether slavery is good or evil to someone living in another state, where the economy, customs, and even morals are supposedly different. The Founders, he argues, understood this and, therefore, implemented a federalist system of self-government and state’s rights in order to ensure that no one state’s view of morality overthrows the rest.

Douglas essentially tells Lincoln that he has no right to judge the institution of slavery in the states of which he is not a citizen. Who is Lincoln to say whether slavery is right or wrong to someone living in a culture of which he is not a part and that he fundamentally does not understand? To do so is the pinnacle of both arrogance and ignorance.

A similar sort of argument is in vogue on college campuses today. When a white student tries to speak on issues pertaining to race, or a cisgender student tries to comment on political questions relating to transgenderism, they are told that they cannot possibly understand the issues because of their identities and privileged statuses. These students are told that their opinions are not warranted and would be better kept to themselves (i.e., shut up). Substitute “white” or “cisgendered” for “Illinoisan,” and this is the same argument that Douglas makes against Lincoln.

Would those who champion identity politics really extend such a morally pusillanimous and intellectually feeble principle to the institution of slavery or to other human atrocities? Should one not denounce slavery in Georgia because he is not from Georgia, or the Holocaust as evil because he is not German? It seems that such a view is only invoked when it is politically advantageous to do so.

One of the enduring lessons of Jaffa is that moral truth is not simply a zeitgeist of the peculiar times in which we live, the background we come from, or the identities we hold. Moral truth is accessible to everyone, everywhere, because it is connected to a permanent view of human nature discernible through reason. Therefore, as Jaffa might have posited, it is irrational to claim that someone cannot understand political questions regarding race, gender, or sexuality just because he does not hold a certain identity. It is not one’s identity as black or white or straight or gay that gives one authority to comment on these questions, but one’s capacity to reason as a human being that does.

This is not to say that one’s judgment cannot become clouded by bias. Everyone holds certain prejudices that are a product of the environment in which they grow up and live. Further, just because moral truth is accessible through reason does not mean that reason is infallible. But without proper evidence to show that one has succumbed to bigoted proclivities or made an erroneous judgment, it is unreasonable to assume that a white person cannot make a contribution to dialogues centered on race, or straight people to discussions of homosexuality, because these questions are essentially different versions of the same debates – those over justice, good, evil, and human nature – that have been raging throughout history.

So, just remember, if anyone tells you that you cannot talk about certain subjects because you do not hold an identity authorized to do so, tell them to read the great Harry Jaffa, because they are beginning to sound an awful lot like Stephen Douglas.

9 thoughts on “Why We Still Need Harry Jaffa”

  1. Hi Brad,

    This is not the first time I’ve seen the word “transgenderism” used in the CI, and I’d like to point out for future reference that this term is understood by many in the trans community to be derogatory and mostly tends to be used by orgs formed to oppose rights for trans people (not suggesting CI is – just noting its usage). When describing trans issues, I hope you will switch to referring to transgender individuals and the transgender community, rather than the inappropriate “transgenderism,” just as I am sure you would defer to the preferred terms of other marginalized groups who experience extensive prejudice.

    For more info, check out GLAAD’s media guide: http://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender
    And TSER’s definitions page: http://transstudent.org/definitions

    1. Your comment perfectly illustrates the crux of Brad’s point. Conservatives can’t even voice their opinions or engage in discourse on college campuses today without progressives like yourself complaining that they have offended or marginalized a specific group. Excuse Brad for not abiding by the ever-changing terminology of the politically correct.

      1. I have no problem with Brad voicing these opinions. I respect him as a peer whose beliefs often differ from mine. My comment was motivated more by the fact that I, like Brad, am interested in student journalism and try to adhere as best as I can to editorial best practices, just like every publication ought to. I am not “censoring” him by pointing out that he’s using incorrect terminology that doesn’t align with editorial guidelines regarding the issue; in fact, the entire reason that editorial guidelines exist is so that Brad doesn’t need to go out of his way to search out appropriate terminology, because the guide will simply tell writers what’s recommended. Hate to break it to you, but language changes over the years. It comes with the territory that journalists need to keep up with that.

  2. Interesting appraisal of Jaffa, Brad. It is always fun to read about the abiding influence and importance of Strauss (particularly at CMC), but I am not sure if Jaffa is really the best student of Strauss to hold up as an authority on moral truth. You are, after all, talking about someone who has conjectured that “sodomy is… as morally offensive as incest and rape.”[0]

    Jaffa arrived at that morally absolutist position not because of his “capacity to reason as a human being,” as you want to suggest, but because of his curious alliance with America’s religious right. This is actually a serious breakage from the traditional Straussian schooling: Unlike Strauss, Jaffa actually believed that religion has more than just an esoteric function. And he used that foundation to build up a standard of morality that included the abject condemnation of homosexuality. There is surely some tension between such religious presuppositions and the principle of à priori rationality that you want to advocate. I wonder, then, if Jaffa’s stance on this moral issue in particular might actually qualify as a “judgment” that has indeed “become clouded by bias?” That would be something of an irony!

    The general argument of your article is great. Of course the philosophic pursuit of truth, on all matters, should be something that is accessible to all, and at all times! Moral relativism and historicism are dangerous trends on college campuses. Strauss is usually a excellent check against those tendencies. But Jaffa, I am afraid to say, may not be the best Straussian to invoke in this instance…

    [0] http://www.angelfire.com/la/jlush/natural_law.html

    1. Completely missed the motive behind Brad’s article. You say Jaffa isn’t the “best Straussian to invoke in this instance”, but Brad wasn’t exactly choosing among Straussians like they are trading cards. The reality is CMC just lost arguably its most famous professor, and Brad was seeking to reflect upon his legacy. It is sorta unfair to cast a shadow over the entire article by cherry-picking a couple of controversial comments from Jaffa’s prolific career.

      1. As a CMC alumnus who studied with and respected Dr. Jaffa in the 60’s, I was dismayed by his descent into coarse polemic and mean-spiritedness during the campaign for civil rights for homosexuals. These were not just a few controversial comments he made, but a series of undignified attacks on homosexuality carried out over decades.

        Harry Jaffa could justly be labeled “the Fred Phelps of philosophy.” Phelps claimed “God hates ****.” Jaffa proclaimed that God and Nature hated “Sodomites. ” I would not be very surprised to learn that he had picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral, such was the vile nature of language and reasoning that gave intellectual succor to the extreme Christian right.

        Dr. Jaffa had little respect for science, yet he pretended to be the infallible arbiter of natural law. In this way, a decent and intelligent man made a sad spectacle of himself.

  3. As unpalatable as the condemnation of homosexuality might be in our modern culture, I don’t think we’re entitled to use that as grounds for dismissing a moral stance as merely “judgmental,” or something like a mere opinion.

    I think it is correct to say that a principle of a priori reasoned morality is not congruent with religious morality. But I think it is also correct to say that a priori reasoned morality is an impossible standard to obtain for any moral theory we hold as acceptable. Even Utilitarianism, a highly rationalistic moral abacus of a theory, relies on a brute (read, unsupported) judgment that there is something which is good – happiness.

    Thus I don’t think the appeal to religion is in itself a step away from rationality, in so much as every moral theory needs to start with presupposed values of some kind.


    Good article, Brad! I do think you could be a tad bit more charitable to the left. At least, I’d like to believe that there are those who understand that one’s identity does not preclude them from understanding their moral and political arguments – who instead believe that having a particular identity is a barrier to understanding other views, but not an insurmountable one.

    But great article!

  4. “Homophobia could save your life”-Harry Jaffa
    You really gonna lionize this guy? Sounds like a paragon of reasoned morality to me. Not.

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