January 26, 2015


Harry V. Jaffa, RIP (ROBERT R. REILLY, Winter 2015, University Bookman)

Jaffa's great project was the resuscitation of natural law through his explication of Lincoln's thought and actions, going back to their roots in the Founding (and further to Aristotle). He knew that the "self-evident" truths of the Declaration were only intelligible in the natural-law context in which they were spoken and from which they arose. Lose that standard of rightness and all is lost. Jaffa knew exactly the game that is being played with the rhetoric of human rights. Today, he said, "individual rights become individual preferences." He strove mightily against this tendency by always speaking of "natural rights subject to natural law."

In the short space here, my purpose is to give a personal reminiscence of Jaffa and of what I learned from him. For four years in the mid-1970s, I was in Claremont, California as the Western director of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. During this time I also attended Claremont Graduate School. Jaffa generated considerable enthusiasm from his students because it was clear he was no ordinary teacher, but a political philosopher who was Socratically reaching for the truth and endeavoring to instill in his students the pursuit of the noble and the good.

Apparently, some East Coast Straussians thought that Jaffa was cheerleading for the American regime and that this was an unworthy endeavor. He was supposed to be making skeptical political philosophers, not loyal citizens. (In our relationship, I think one of the things that pleased Jaffa most was when I sent him one of my publications with an inscription thanking him for "teaching me how to love my country.") Some Jaffa critics, who were supposedly searching for truth, but based upon an epistemology that made it impossible to find, were really dogmatic skeptics who considered the American regime worthy only to the extent that it maintained the conditions for them to pursue their skepticism.

Jaffa knew better. In his great book, A New Birth of Freedom, he wrote: "'We hold these truths to be self-evident' is an assertion at once of a necessity and of a freedom inherent in reason and nature. It implies a freedom in the mind to apprehend truth, and a necessity in nature, a necessity external to the mind, that determines what the truth is. In the last analysis, freedom is the ability to be determined by the truth." To be determined by the truth, one must first know it.

Jaffa had something to fight for, and fight he did. 

Posted by at January 26, 2015 6:13 PM

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