The Vindication of Harry Jaffa

It is surely fitting for the fourth of July to mention the celebration early last month that the Claremont Institute held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington for Harry V. Jaffa’s 93rd birthday, where several luminaries feted him from the podium, including a few who had been targets of Jaffa’s criticism over the years.  Norman Podhoretz recalled William F. Buckley’s great line about Jaffa—“If you think it is hard to argue with Harry Jaffa, try agreeing with him; it is nearly impossible”—and concluded with a note of trepidation that he hoped his reflections on Jaffa’s greatness would find favor with the great man’s exacting standards.  Podhoretz put his finger on the central point of Jaffa’s work, and why Jaffa was so often at odds with other conservative thinkers: It was vitally important to Jaffa that the Right be right for the right reason.  Podhoretz needn’t have worried: Jaffa was gracious and reflective when he came to the podium.

Yesterday Jaffa turned up in the most unlikely of places: the New York Times Book Review, with a review of the new translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins, just out from the University of Chicago Press.  Jaffa approves of it heartily.  There is some mischief along the way.  I’m still chortling at the thought of the thousands of Times readers who spit out their coffee or choked on their whole grain muffins yesterday when they came to the sentence that reads “the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century, Leo Strauss. . .”  Oh my goodness; I’m sure there are thousands of Times readers muttering, “How the hell did this get into our book review!”

Reading Jaffa’s thoughts on the significance of the Nicomachean Ethics took me back to my very first day of my very first seminar with Jaffa in the the spring of 1983, which was on the Nicomachean Ethics.  It took us three or four weeks just get past the first paragraph.  It didn’t matter.  Jaffa could do more with the first paragraph of the Ethics than most people can do with entire libraries. Practically the first words out of his mouth in that first session concerned “the crisis of the West.”  There was no pawing at the ground with methodological preliminaries.  He plunged headlong into the most serious issues and themes, ranging with peripatetic brilliance from Plato to Shakespeare to Thackeray; from architecture to drama, music, and poetry; modern culture and sports.  And that was just the first 15 minutes.  It was a dazzling vindication of the ancient claim that political philosophy is the queen of the sciences.

Thomas B. Silver and Peter W. Schramm observed of Jaffa on the occasion of his 65th birthday: “It was well understood on all sides that a conservative movement shaped by the thought of a Willmoore Kendall, an Ayn Rand or a Friedrich Hayek would not be the same as a conservative movement shaped by the thought of Harry Jaffa.”  This comment came back to me a few years ago when I happened into a casual conversation with one of the most prominent of the “neo-conservatives” who, in the course of things, mentioned that he thought Jaffa was rightly enjoying his vindication.  I won’t name the person since it was a private conversation, but he was someone Jaffa had frequently attacked.  “It was not clear even as late as 1980 which direction the conservative movement would take in the aftermath of Reagan’s election.  It could have gone in the direction of Russell Kirk, toward a Burkean, tradition-oriented conservatism, or in a more purely libertarian direction.  Instead, the main current of conservatism has come to focus on the American Founding and the centrality of the Declaration of Independence.  Jaffa and his students deserve a lot of credit for that.”

Happy Fourth of July everyone, and thanks again, Harry, for everything.