So our friend Mickey Craig has sent me a link to John J. Miller’s nice overview of the life and thought of Harry Jaffa. The link is important, because it allows you to read the article without the cost of subscribing to THE NATIONAL REVIEW.

Miller’s key claim: “Modern conservatism’s focus on the Declaration and the Constitution—never absent, but increasingly prevalent in these tea-party times—owes much to Jaffa and his circle.” Well, he’s right about that.

“Jaffa thinks the Thirteenth Amendment ‘isn’t a good subject for a movie.’” I would have thought that too, prior to the actual movie.

“Jaffa proposed equality as a conservative principle—not as a rival to freedom, but as the very foundation on which freedom may flourish.” He was right to do that (notice more than one meaning of right there). But a question for discussion: Can you do that on the basis of Plato and Aristotle alone? Doesn’t equality depend on the equal dignity of all unique and irreplaceable beings made in the image of God? Second question: Is that what Lincoln thought?

Jaffa voted for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, but “switched parties following the Bay of Pigs fiasco.” His switch was caused, in other words, by really resolute anti-communism—“extremism in defense of liberty,” some (not me) might say. That alleged extremism, in my opinion, is justified by the understanding of egalitarian dignity described above. Why didn’t all conservatives share it? The other issue here, of course, is Jaffa’s connection (or lack thereof) to American conservatism prior to 1962.

Jaffa said his ferocity directed against those with opinions other than his own was based on the proposition that “Philosophers must prefer truth to friendship.” Does that mean he’s a philosopher? Or does it really mean to have friends you must have enemies?

So the Jaffa that inspired me was the one who wrote THE CRISIS OF THE HOUSE DIVIDED. Here was my takeaway: Lincoln was engaged in a poetic/theoretical subtle correction of the Founding based on the disquieting fact that Jefferson was a principled anti-slavery man but hardly at all one in practice. It’s that thought that has interested me in Tocqueville’s effort to incorporate an idealistic egalitarian/Puritanical-Christian component—a more assertively relational component—into our self-understanding. So my understanding of the Declaration is somewhat different from Jaffa’s. I don’t fault Tocqueville for not having one, necessarily. But “after Jaffa” or maybe “after Lincoln” conservatives do need to have one.

One criticism or perplexity I have with the later Jaffa is expressed in the title of this post.

The evolution of Jaffa’s thought over time has many positive and highly instructive dimensions: There’s his semi-repudiation of his condescending treatment of the thought of Thomas Aquinas in his early THOMISM AND ARISTOTELIANISM. But I don’t think he’s gotten to the point, yet, of acknowledging that many of Thomas’ gentle and unassuming corrections of Aristotle are true corrections.

Articles by Peter Lawler

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