Book Reviews

Jaffa’s American Vision

April 11, 2022

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

Harry Jaffa believed that America was an exceptional nation. He still anticipated many of today’s social ills.

This essay was originally published by Law & Liberty on April 11, 2022.

Is the political thought of Harry V. Jaffa still relevant today? Jaffa has been dead for almost a decade. Much has happened in that time. He was concerned with “the crisis of the west,” but he could not know that today’s tribal loyalties based on sex and race would coincide with the evident erosion of the modern nation-state. Jaffa seemed mostly concerned with the American Civil War—the battle where the bad guys were pre-modern, almost feudal oligarchs of the South and the good guys a modernizing democracy in the North. 

Enter Glenn Ellmers, an informal student of Jaffa’s, current fellow at the Claremont Institute, and author of The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America. Ellmers reveals Jaffa’s body of work as addressing the permanent issues of politics and philosophy as they emerge in our time. 

Today’s political crisis arises from the ongoing crisis of modernity. The crisis of modernity consists in the fact that, as Jaffa’s great teacher Leo Strauss writes, “modern western man no longer knows what he wants” and “no longer believes that he can know what is good and bad, what is right and wrong.” Absent such a moral compass, men take their bearings from the “low but solid ground” of their bodies, or mistake means like money or power for ends. People seek comfort. This seeking leads them to embrace the modern aspiration to conquer nature so that their desires can finally be satisfied. Since all human beings have these low desires, this modern project points to a “world-homogenous state,” as Ellmers writes. 

The modern crisis of meaning kills politics, religion, and philosophy. As Jaffa writes, “we are faced with an unprecedented threat to the survival of biblical religion, of autonomous human reason, and to the form and substance of political freedom. . . The threat to one of these is also a threat to all.” The modern crisis seems to undermine moral standards for action or the viability of natural right. While politics, religion, and philosophy disagree about what the good is, they agree on seeing something as good. So any coalition against the thrust of modern nihilism must access the secret recesses of the human heart where sentiments of right and wrong still speak. As Ellmers’s Jaffa sees it, the modern crisis cannot be ignored. Human beings must nevertheless get on with the tough business of politics (and philosophy and faith) in the meantime, confident that natural right is always recoverable. This is a thrilling insight that awakens people in all places to the possibility of philosophy and the nobility of politics.  

Once the possibility of natural right is acknowledged, the crisis of modernity appears as less unique. Perhaps our crisis is just the normal drama of a regime rising and falling. Ellmers shows that our house divided does not look so unique when we look at it from Aristotle’s perspective, as Jaffa did. All the permanent problems of politics appear today, if we are willing to look.  

Without the people’s consent or acquiescence, political communities would be filled with enemies; political communities cannot be based on continual exercises of force to ensure that the laws are obeyed.

The problem of faction, for instance, plagues every political community. Factional conflict generally pits the resentful democrats against the oppressive oligarchs. “Lawless mobs and demagogic tyrants,” as Jaffa, following Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address,” knew, are “apparently separate dangers” but really are “intertwined.” America’s reigning civil rights ideology encourages lawless violence in the name of racial equality. Interested demagogues turn up the heat. The whole civil rights regime, Jaffa worried during the Carter Administration, embraces “black power” and undermines “the idea of equal justice under the law.” Many benefit from this scheme. A “poverty industry” with a “huge bureaucracy” feeds on perpetual, often invented grievances. Violent, lawless Black Lives Matters riots, in the summer of Floyd, brought the problem vividly home.  Ellmers shows that Jaffa saw it coming. 

Maintaining political establishments is no easy task. Political communities must share something in common to be a community, but there is an inevitable pluralism in political communities as well. Too much emphasis on unity leads to tyranny or fanaticism. Too much emphasis on plurality leads to dissolution or civil war. Lincoln diagnosed this problem in his 1842 Temperance Address, as Ellmers tells the story. As Ellmers writes, “this phenomenon of righteous zealots, hurtling ‘anathema and denunciation,’ against those that do not meet the latest criteria of saintliness” finds its home in identity politics. Jaffa indeed railed against political correctness, which, he thought, revealed “the totalitarian impulse within the heart of modern egalitarianism.” 

Political communities struggle to mix wisdom and consent. Without the people’s consent or acquiescence, political communities would be filled with enemies; political communities cannot be based on continual exercises of force to ensure that the laws are obeyed. Since the people cannot recognize wisdom, however, frauds and charlatans can easily dupe them and gain rule. The wise may not generally be attracted to political life. The best communities mitigate this problem through some selection criteria that allows the natural aristoi to rise to the top. According to Jaffa, belief in the natural aristoi united the tradition—as Ellmers writes, “Jefferson and Strauss, Locke and Aristotle,” but democratic envy along with “the attempt to obliterate the nation’s history” reveal a radicalism in today’s late republic. The new aristoi, such as it is, is trained in science and administration to lead the world toward its democratic future. Again, Jaffa, following Aristotle, saw it all coming. 

Modernity is bad, and Aristotle points the way in political science, but Jaffa’s great life work was showing that America, the first modern nation, was nevertheless good. At least the America of Lincoln and the American Founders has been good. When Jaffa died in 2015, as Ellmers argues, Jaffa thought the American regime had resolved (as best as could be done in this vale of tears) the perennial political problems. America had reconciled the tension between reason and revelation, as far as possible. As Ellmers’s Jaffa saw it, the American regime could combine a commitment to classical natural right (establishing political rule on the basis of genuine justice) under modern conditions with the principles of natural rights and equality in the Declaration of Independence. 

Ellmers shows Jaffa resolving and reconciling throughout his varied body of work.  On the level of politics, the American regime managed to combine wisdom and consent through the representative principle in its political institutions—avoiding the manifold problems of democracy and demagoguery on one hand, and the monarchal problems of succession and dynasticism on the other hand. America managed factional problems through a distinction between public and private, where the public demands would be less onerous than they were under the strict ancient polis but where “different and unequal faculties,” to use James Madison’s phrase from Federalist 10, would flourish in the private realm. It managed the national community through the social compact theory, demanding agreement on the level of fundamental principle but not on matters extraneous to public justice.

More astounding are Jaffa’s claims on behalf of America in the name of philosophy. As an example, Jaffa tells us that America had, through the separation of church and state, “refused to make unassisted reason the arbiter of the claims of revelation, and… refused to make revelation the judge of the claims of reason.” America was the first regime “to do this, and for that reason it is, in its principles and speech (leaving aside the question of practice or deeds), the best regime.” 

To Ellmers’s great credit, he recognizes the extent of Jaffa’s influence on these matters, but few adopted the entire Jaffa line. The great Harvard political scientist Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. was, Ellmers shows, one of Jaffa’s great interlocutors. As Ellmers recounts the confrontation, Mansfield went beyond merely questioning whether America had accomplished all Jaffa had thought. He also out-Aristotled Jaffa. 

Jaffa wanted to save political equality from the modernists.

According to Mansfield, political communities all deteriorate, because they are partisan and hence imperfect. Communities advance a comprehensive claim of justice, but usually only do so up to a point and for the good of one faction. The same old cycle of regimes had come to America, as Tocqueville thought it would. The Left hijacked the principle of equality—destroying the family in the name of equality; destroying meritocratic institutions in the name of equality; building a substantial welfare and administrative state in the name of equality; justifying lawlessness and atheism in the name of equality. “A regime,” as Mansfield said, “based upon the self-evident half-truth that all men are created equal will eventually founder because of its disregard of the many ways in which men are created unequal.” 

Jaffa, by contrast, wanted to save political equality from the modernists. Jaffa acknowledged that the “leveling tendency within any popular government was always present.” The argument against radical equality was, as Ellmers’s Jaffa writes, equality rightly understood, an equality that finds its rightful place in politics but allows inequalities to survive in other parts of the moral environment. 

For Mansfield, following Tocqueville, the great chain of being had been smashed in the modern situation partly as a result of the Declaration. By contrast, Jaffa believed that the “great chain of being. . .common to Aristotle and the Declaration of Independence,” and to Aquinas and the Christian tradition, was American and (perhaps) recoverable in our situation.   

The rejection of the good America, Jaffa held, came from the intrusion of foreign influences and especially German philosophy during America’s Progressive Era. From Woodrow Wilson to Frank Goodnow and Herbert Croly, the Progressive turned to a specifically historicist and Hegelian understanding of right. As a result, America has established a shadow constitution based on administration and a rejection of natural rights. This is precisely how the Progressives understood themselves, as R.J. PestrittoCharles KeslerJim CeaserBradley C. Watson, and others have demonstrated.  

Yet this interpretation raises the same deep, regime-level questions that Mansfield raised. If America was the best regime, why was it so vulnerable to capture from this German invasion? Why weren’t the progressives laughed out of town?  Early in my career, I was bewitched by Strauss’s “Three Waves of Modernity” essay, where he broadly claimed that the seeds of later modern radicalism are sewn into the origins of modern political thought. Nothing stable or respectable, Strauss argued, could proceed from the modern notion of nature—and subsequent thinkers to Locke worked out that inner logic until there was nothing left of nature or natural rights. This explains why America, founded on a version of the modern idea of nature, was vulnerable to the German invasion. What is the alternative explanation? 

Ellmers’s fine book truly shows how Jaffa’s work sheds light on our situation. For showing that we have not transcended the political problems of the classical and Christian world, Jaffa is an unforgettable thinker. Ellmers’s book goes a long way towards ensuring that he will be remembered.