January 18, 2015


Saving President Lincoln : The scholarly achievement of Harry Jaffa. (Andrew Ferguson, January 26, 2015, Weekly Standard)

Here's where Plato and Thrasymachus come in. In The Republic, Plato quotes Thrasymachus on the nature of justice: "Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger." Today we might call this view relativism--the belief that such truths have no independent existence except as a matter of opinion or as an exertion of power. The power might be pressed, and justice redefined, by an oligarchy, or a monarchy, or even a democratic majority. 

This is the essential point on which Lincoln confronted Douglas. On the cusp of the Civil War Douglas asserted that slavery would be legitimate in any territory where a majority had declared it so. No, said Jaffa's Lincoln: Either some things were just in themselves, or justice had no meaning. Slavery violated the self-evident truth on which the country was founded, that all men were created equal. This was a truth for all men in all places at all times; it varied only in how clearly it was acknowledged and acted upon. No majority vote could alter it. It was a truth that was true without regard to the say-so of passing arrangements of power or fashion. 

Jaffa put it like this, in a paragraph that distills Lincoln's mind better than any words not written by Lincoln himself. 

If self-government was a right, and not a mere fact characterizing the American scene (more or less), then it must be derived from some primary source of obligation. There must be something, Lincoln insisted, inhering in each man, as a man, which created an obligation in every other man. And if any majority anywhere, however constituted, might rightfully enslave any man or men, it could only be because there was nothing in any man which, simply because he was a man, other men were bound to respect.

"That is the issue," Lincoln said in one of the debates. "It is the eternal struggle between these two principles--right and wrong--throughout the world." Throughout the world and throughout time: from Plato to Lincoln, from Thrasymachus to Stephen Douglas, and from their day to ours. Jaffa rescued Lincoln from the petty disputes of the academic historians and the other scholar squirrels and placed him in the company he deserved. The greatest American was returned to his exalted position in the American experiment, and the American experiment to its exalted place in human history. And the rest of us, watching Jaffa pull it off, were floored--delighted--thrilled.

In the end, the republican experiment is a matter of liberty.
Posted by at January 18, 2015 10:19 AM

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