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Mid-Week Book Notes

While we await the Ryan-Biden smackdown tonight, a few notes from the bookpile.  Harry Jaffa has a new collection just out: Crisis of the Strauss Divided: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussianism, East and West (Rowman & Littlefield).  It contains several essays written at the height of some of the disputes about Strauss in the 1980s, and some earlier material, such as Jaffa’s essay on the occasion of Strauss’s death in 1973 that originally appeared in National Review.  Among other highlights, it contains the essay “Leo Strauss, the Bible, and Political Philosophy,” which is one of the best short and comprehensible treatments of the intellectual dilemmas of reason and revelation ever put to paper.  It is impossible to summarize this extraordinary essay in a blog post, so I’ll just tantalize with this single short quotation: “Socratic skepticism and biblical faith stand on the same epistemological foundation.  It is impossible to restore the claims of the one without restoring the claims of the other.”  Oh my goodness!  You’ll have to get the book and read the essay to get the fullness of his analysis on this.

Harry and Marjorie Jaffa, 1941

But of most interest will be the long and recently written introductory essay, “Straussian Geography: A Memoir and Commentary.”  This is unlike anything Jaffa has ever published before.  In addition to some fascinating autobiographical detail (such as his time studying one-on-one with Eugene O’Neill at Yale back in the late 1930s), Jaffa explores the fundamental shift in his thought over time about the relation of the two critical “Ls” of the American story: Locke and Lincoln.  Specifically, Jaffa explains the shift in his thinking about the American Founding that careful readers noted between his two greatest books about the same subject, though written 40 years apart: Crisis of the House Divided, and A New Birth of Freedom.  It is an unusual moment to see a great thinker admit and explain cogently how he changed his mind about a centrally important point about the American Founding:

When I wrote Crisis I believed then—and believe now—that Lincoln represented the classical principles in the highest degree, and with the greatest purity.  But I did not think then, as I do now, that the founding to which he turned as a source of authority, represented these same classical principles.  I thought that the American Founding was a decent modern regime, because it represented what Strauss called the First Wave of Modernity, or modern natural right, particularly as set forth in the teaching of John Locke.  But Strauss’s chapter on Locke, in Natural Right and History, was a scathing indictment, and hardly calculated to inspire respect for any regime whose founders looked to the authority of the Second Treatise.  Any deprecation of the Founding Fathers in Crisis was a response to this chapter.  Gradually, however, I came to doubt the authority I had ascribed to it.

Here and in some other recent writings (especially New Birth of Freedom), Jaffa goes on to explain how he came to divine a harmony between Locke and Aristotle, a synthesis that, on close inspection, begins to resemble how Aquinas made out a harmony of Aristotle and the Bible.  Which, fittingly, is where Jaffa began his scholarly career with his first book, Thomism and Aristotelianism.   This is some very intricate stuff, and requires setting aside a good chunk to time to work through.  But worth it.

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