Everything that I have learned about American politics derives more or less from reading the works of Harry V. Jaffa and his most frequent subject, Abraham Lincoln. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided on the Lincoln-Douglas debates began to restore the proper understanding of Lincoln’s political thought. Historian Allen Guelzo observed in the bibliographic essay that concludes his highly regarded biography of Lincoln that Crisis is “incontestably the greatest Lincoln book of the [twentieth] century.” (I think that makes it the greatest Lincoln book period, as Andrew Ferguson avows.)
Crisis was published in 1959. Noting the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication, Peter Robinson devoted his Forbes column last week to Jaffa and Crisis. Robinson also interviewed Jaffa for NRO’s Uncommon Knowledge (part 1 of 5 here, part 2 of 5 here). I asked my friend Peter what had led him to Jaffa, now age 91. He harked back to his recent interview with Charles Kesler that we noted here:
Why an interview with Jaffa? Because Charles Kesler concluded his own interview with me, on the three waves of liberalism, by saying the American conservatives need to return to sources of their own tradition–to the Declaration, the Constitution, and Lincoln. As soon as the cameras stopped rolling–Charles and I had run out of time–I leaned across the table, asking, “What should conservatives read? Who represents the model?”
Charles replied with two words: “Harry Jaffa.”
During breaks as I interviewed him, I found a couple of comments from Jaffa–well, thrilling. Studying with Strauss during the forties, he mentioned, he had fallen in love with both Aristotle and Aquinas. He then combined the two, spending five years–five years!–studying the Nichomachean Ethics, with Aquinas’s commentary, line by line. “I didn’t learn Greek until later,” Jaffa added, a little sheepishly, “so I was reading Aristotle in Latin.” That, I thought, is a scholar, a man who would really and truly have felt utterly at home in Plato’s Academy.
The other aspect I found so impressive–so really thrilling? That for Jaffa, this political philosophy matters. He attended Yale during the nineteen-thirties, listening to Hitler on the radio, then studied under Strauss at the New School during the nineteen-forties, as Stalin consolidated his power in Eastern Europe and Truman struggled to formulate a response. The principles of correct government–Jaffa believed that, by an extended effort at reading and reasoning, they could be found. At so many universities today, political science is just the playing of games–mere cleverness. But just listen to this, from Jaffa’s introduction to Crisis of the House Divided:
“”I wished…to know, and to teach others, the principles of just govenrment.”
“I was aware that I was a member of that comparatively small class, the university professoriate, that today is the decisive source of the ruling opinions in our country….[C]hanges generated by this class have been in the direction of denying the existence of any objective standards whatever.”
“It…[is] thought to be a delusion…to believe that one might actually arrive at a judgement as to whether a govenrment was or was not legitimate by examinging whether that government was or was not in accordance with the laws of nature.”
The truth–Harry Jaffa has dedicated his life to learning the truth.
In part 1 of his interview with Jaffa, Robinson wonders how Jaffa, a scholar of political philosophy, was drawn to the Lincoln-Douglas debates:
The Lincoln-Douglas debates, Jaffa explained, turned on issues that were present at the very founding of western civilization–and that we must face again today.
“After awhile,” Jaffa says, “I realized that the issue between Lincoln and Douglas was identical to the issue between Socrates and Thrasymachus in the first book of Plato’s Republic. Not similar to it. Identical. It is a question of whether the people make the moral order or the moral order makes the people.”
In the title of Crisis Jaffa alluded to Lincoln’s great speech accepting the designation of Illinois Republicans as their candidate to run against Douglas in 1858. Jaffa’s essay on the speech — “The speech that changed the world” — is a good introduction to the work of this invaluable scholar.
Lincoln begins the speech with the observation: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Even if we know where we are, and whither we are tending, the study of Lincoln and Lincoln’s example makes us better able to judge what to do, and how to do it.