The following conversation took place at Rosary College, River forest, Illinois, December 4, 1980. Professor Harry V. Jaffa is Salvatori Research Professor of Political Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College (formerly Claremont Men’s College) and Professor of Government in the Claremont Graduate School. Among his numerous works are Thomism and Aristotelianism and Crisis of the House Divided. He is most recently a contributor to Shakespeare as Political Thinker and to the St. John’s Review, Autumn, 1981. Professor George Anastaplo is Lecturer in the Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago, Professor of Political Science and of Philosophy, Rosary College, and Visiting Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago. Among his publications are The Consitutionalist: Notes on the First Amendment, Human Being and Citizen: Essays on Virtue, Freedom and the Common Good, and the forthcoming The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce. Among the participants, in addition to Mssrs. Jaffa and Anastaplo, the following are members of the faculty at Rosary College: Dr. Christopher A. Colmo (Political Science), Dr. Robert Rusnak (History), and Dr. Gregory Smith (Political Science). Mssrs. Kewalek and McGrail are students at Rosary College. Special thanks are due to Mr. Robert L. Stone of the University of Chicago, for recording and transcribing the conversation, and in particular to Sister Candida Lund, President of Rosary College, for making the conversation possible.
ANASTAPLO: It is my privilege to introduce on this occasion a friend of a quarter century and a distinguished political scientist, Harry V. Jaffa, of Claremont Men’s College and Claremont Graduate School. Professor Jaffa, whose appearance at Rosary College has been made possible by the support of him by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, is available for an extended conversation with us about matters ancient and modern.
Mr. Jaffa is, to my mind, the most instructive political scientist writing in this country today. The things he writes about range from Socrates and Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas and William Shakespeare, from the Founding Fathers to Abraham Lincoln, from Tom Sawyer and Winston Churchill to contemporary politics and the joys of cycling.
I am reminded, when I encounter Mr. Jaffa, of another provocatively influential American, a great woman who died only this past weekend, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement (whom I was privileged to see close-up only once). It was true of Miss Day, as it is true of Mr. Jaffa, that it was virtually impossible for her not to be interesting about whatever she wrote. Intelligence, hard work and a gift for language no doubt contribute to this capacity to invest every discourse with significance. But fundamental to such influence is a certain integrity, even a single-minded moral fervor. Thus, it could be said of Miss Day in her obituary in the New York Times on Monday of this week that she had sought “to work so as to bring about the kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.” Much the same can be said about Mr. Jaffa. Indeed, Miss Day, in the way she lived her life, in an unrelenting effort to better the lives of the downtrodden, could be said to have put into practice the much-quoted proposition by Mr. Jaffa which was used by Senator Goldwater in his Acceptance Speech upon being nominated for the Presidency by the Republican Party in 1964. “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
A little more should be said by me about Mr. Jaffa now, if only to suggest matters that we might want to talk about on this occasion. A few differences between us, of which I was reminded when I heard him speak yesterday at Loyola University, could usefully be indicated.
Mr. Jaffa not only makes far more of exercising than I do—I limit myself to walking whenever possible and to the avoidance of elevators for ascents or descents of less than five floors—but he also is a much more vigorous moralist than I am, both in regulating his own conduct and in judging the conduct of others. I believe that I allow more than he does for good-intentioned errors, for inefficiency on the part of people, and for circumstances which account for, sometimes even justify, what seem from the outside to be moral aberrations. Compassion can be almost as important as moral indignation in these matters, particularly with respect to domestic relations, whether the subjects be abortion, divorce or homosexuality. Perhaps also I make more than he does of the importance—if only out of respect for the sensibilities of others and for the moral tone of the community—of discretion, if not even of good-natured hypocrisy.
We differ as well with respect to the conduct of foreign relations. We do share an abhorrence of tyranny, whether of the Right or of the Left. But we sometimes part company on assessments of how constitutional government and American republicanism can best be defended abroad. Thus, he was much more hopeful than I could ever be that our involvement in the Vietnam War (however noble in intention that involvement might have been and that it was, in some respects)—he was much more hopeful than I was that our Vietnam involvement could do the American or the Indo-Chinese people some good. Today we differ as to precisely what kind of a threat the Russians pose to us. I see them as much more vulnerable (both politically and militarily) than does he; and I consider all too many calculations about nuclear war “scenarios” as depending too much on game theories and not enough on political judgment. I believe, for example, that the Russian leaders are much more constrained by domestic public opinion (by a pacific, even though patriotic, public opinion) and by other factors than many of us recognize. They have suffered, at home and abroad, a considerable setback in Afghanistan; we can only hope that they, and we, do not suffer an even greater setback by a Russian invasion of Poland. But whatever happens in Poland, it is now evident that the cause of freedom is bound to be in better shape in Eastern Europe than it has been since the Second World War—in part because of what Polish workers have done in showing the world how things really stand there. The only question may be what price the Polish people will have to pay, and this may depend, in part, on their prudence and on ours.
Perhaps at the heart of the differences between Mr. Jaffa and me—whether the differences be as to the status of exercise or as to assessments of the Russians—is with respect to how much one should be concerned with the preservation of one’s life. An immoderate cherishing of what happens to be one’s own can lead, it seems to me, to psychic paralysis or to undue combativeness: either can undermine that relaxed competence which makes healthy statesmanship more likely. Certainly Mr. Jaffa responds much more than I do to the apocalyptic as against the comic, and somewhat less than I do to “liberty” as against “equality.” Obviously, we touch here on questions about the nature of human existence, of virtue, and of happiness.
On the other hand, at the heart of our deep affinities—besides the fact that we were both fortunate enough to share a great teacher in Leo Strauss—is our minority belief that fundamental to sensible political science and to a decent life as a community is a general respect for natural right and what is known as natural law. This means, among other things, that discrimination based on arbitrary racial categories cannot be defended, especially by a people dedicated to the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” It also means that the family as an institution should be supported.
I mention in passing that we do differ with respect to the Equal Rights Amendment—but here I believe that Mr. Jaffa, even though he puts what he says in terms of nature in his opposition to that amendment, has allowed himself to be unduly influenced by the antics and “principles” of a minority of the proponents of that largely symbolic grace note for our Constitution.
Be all this as it may, an informed study of nature in human things is perhaps the most pressing demand in education today—and for this Mr. Jaffa, with his profound grasp of the classical writers, of Shakespeare’s thought, and of the career of Abraham Lincoln, is an invaluable guide.
Permit me to close these introductory remarks by returning to something else that has been said about Dorothy Day, something which (with appropriate adjustments) can be applied to the tireless dedication Mr. Jaffa devotes to his “conservative” creed and to his graduate students. We are reminded by Dorothy Day’s New York Times obituary that Church officials in New York were “often sorely tempted to rebuke Miss Day—her ardent support of Catholic cemetery strikers a number of years ago especially irked Cardinal Spellman—but they never could catch her in any breach of Church regulations.” Besides, the editor of Commonweal has observed, one of the bishops she fought with, James Francis McIntyre (who later became a cardinal himself), “was afraid he just might be dealing with a saint.” “He was alluding to what has been called Miss Day’s ‘indiscriminate and uncompromising love of the Mystical Body’ as well as to her courage and her care for the poor in hospices she established in New York and elsewhere.”
But enough of this canonization of Harry Jaffa, who does remind me in certain ways of St. Augustine. Any effort at canonization, you recall, requires that the devil’s advocate have his say also. As you can see, I have had to take on more than one role in introducing to you a gifted colleague whom we are privileged to have with us today.
Some of you must have questions—but first, Mr. Jaffa may have something to say in response to the remarks I have made in an effort to guide the conversation I look forward to in the hours and years ahead.
JAFFA: Well, thank you very much, Professor Anastaplo. I must say that that is the most remarkable introduction I have ever had or that I am ever likely to have.
ANASTAPLO: This means you must come here more frequently.
JAFFA: I shall make an effort to do so. I shall not, however, climb up on that pedestal you have prepared for me. I trust that in the next hour it will have disappeared as I speak. I am not quite certain what aspect of that ambiguous canonization I should respond to. My instincts have always been to spring right at the throat of objections, to show what a dangerous man I am to praise. However, if I did that I might not be gratifying the genuine curiosity among you. I don’t know if you have read any of my “justly decried” writings and have any questions about them you would like to ask. I would like to take questions or challenges from the floor. If I turned it into a discussion of foreign policy, that might miss what you really want to talk about. I spoke at Loyola yesterday about the Moral Majority, and of the fact that the political principles of the Goldwater campaign have become respectable because of the election of Ronald Reagan. And I would remind Mr. Reagan of something he seems not to recall, namely that his political career began with a very fine speech in defense of Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964. The principles of his political career were embodied in that speech, and he has built a more successful career than Senator Goldwater was able to do, on those principles. But now that those principles have at least for the moment become respectable, the question is what terra incognita of shocking extremism I can now find to defend, to reestablish my position on the right. It is as if everyone has moved over so that I am now in the middle. Yes?
COLMO: Did they really move to the right, or did they just move away from Carter?
JAFFA: It’s quite obvious that the expressions “left, right, and center” are, to use a cliche, relative terms. What is “right” depends on where you put the center. The principles of Progressivism at the turn of the century represented radicalism. By 1936 they represented the middle of the road, and have been more or less ever since. American politics is characterized by a certain series of (to use bad Latin) “consensuses.” There is no such thing as a political consensus, that is to say an agreement, or set of agreements, among people who differ on various things, unless it is made up of some core to which or around which their concessions to each other turn. For example, the election of Lincoln in 1860: the heart of that election was the decision to limit the expansion of slavery, and a new political constellation formed around that core. You could say that the Republican party in 1860 represented, to a large extent, programmatic Federalism: the policies of Hamilton, which were the core of the old Whig Party, itself an attempt to revive Hamilton’s, and to some extent Adams’s Federalism. Those were defeated repeatedly by the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians. Federalism was the radical right, if you will, of American politics at the turn of the nineteenth century. And yet by, say, 1864, or certainly by 1868 or 1872, the Republican Party’s policies-internal improvement, tariffs, and the central banking system-revived as the heart of a new consensus, which was now the “middle of the road.” Then again, the “middle” moved to the “right” with what you might call “old-guard” Republicanism, in the person of William McKinley. McKinley served for four years in the Union Army; he left college and volunteered and served throughout the war, and, of course, Lincoln was his hero. But for him protectionism was the heart of Republicanism, once the slavery issue was ended. And the slavery issue itself would never have been the basis for a major party, unless it had been joined by that complex of economic issues which were represented by protectionism (along with internal improvements of rivers and harbors, and things like that). Yes?
COLMO: Are you suggesting that Messrs. Goldwater and Reagan are now the middle of the road?
JAFFA: Yes. Let me put it this way: what Mr. Reagan represents will be the middle of the road if he is successful, if the victory lays down the kind of program that can endure for the next generation. What was the New Deal? Certainly the New Deal represented a thorough realignment of American political life, the coming of the New Deal meant nothing less than the end of the era that was begun by Abraham Lincoln. Symbolic of this fact is that most black voters were Republican, from the Civil War until the age of Roosevelt. After that they became overwhelmingly Democrat. The same thing is true of Jews. What Roosevelt meant to Jews because of Hitler, Abraham Lincoln meant to blacks because of slavery. I am reminded, by the way, of a discussion with Willmoore Kendall years ago. He said, “Harry, what have you got against slavery? You wouldn’t be one of the slaves.” I said “Willmoore, did you ever hear of Moses?” [laughter] I said, “We Jews tried it once, and now we settle for constitutional government.”
ANASTAPLO: You were immunized.
JAFFA: That’s right. And there was that time in Chicago when George Nash was describing, from Willmoore’s letters, how he felt when he went back to Oklahoma, and to Dallas, after having been at Yale and selling his professorship, and he said he was returning to the land of his youth like a Moses returning to his people. And I got up and said, “Yes, the greatest anti-slavery leader before Lincoln.”
RUSNAK: Is it possible to summarize what you said about the Moral Majority, what it means in terms of (a) a real power base, and (b) its effects on the Reagan administration in terms of policy?
JAFFA: I will give you a couple of paragraphs, or a couple of pages, from the beginning of my prepared text at Loyola yesterday. I began this way:
Immediately after the election of Mr. Reagan I wrote that, “The silent majority, which the polls had certainly missed in 1980, has finally emerged.” I expressed the opinion that this election might prove to be a watershed election, and the Republican Party, duly reconstituted, might become the spokesman for a new majority for the next generation. Certainly there is a possibility that Mr. Reagan’s election, accompanied by decisive gains in the Senate and large gains in the House, could show us a reconstitution of American politics on the order of magnitude of that presided over by Franklin D. Roosevelt. This, of course, depends, in the first instance on the immediate crisis of the economy and of American security in the world. Mr. Reagan must have his own hundred days. If he can in this period, whatever length it may turn out to be, restore the nation’s confidence in its future, then the political movement he leads may indeed be one of many years of sunshine days (Richard II). Whether or not the “silent majority” turns into a “new majority” may in the end depend on what the Republican Party does about the “Moral Majority.” This self-proclaimed majority has been anything but silent. It has claimed much credit, as part of Mr. Reagan’s constituency, and has been more than plausible in its asserted responsibility for the defeat of such great and distinguished Old-Guard Senate liberals as Senators Bayh, McGovem, Church, Magnuson, Culver, and a number of others. The aforesaid senators have made the claims of the “Moral Majoritarians” even more plausible by blaming them–i.e. giving them credit for their own defeat. On the whole, the pundits of the press and the media have not been kind to the Moral Majority, and discussions of their role in the election have been dominated by the rather silly charge that they have transgressed the margin separating church and state by injecting religious demands into political campaigns.
I spoke at some length about that, and I said that this notion, that they were injecting religious demands into political campaigns, rests upon the assumption that morality is essentially a religious matter. And I pointed out that many of the pundits of the liberal press talk about “hangups” the way Puritans talked about original sin. Sometimes they seem to wrestle with the Ten Commandments (particularly the seventh) the way their ancestors wrestled with the Devil. I said this was an inconsistency of which they are seldom aware. But, I argued, a concern for morality, a morality supported by a non-sectarian natural theology (as in the Declaration of Independence), was an essential element of the Founding. I supported this with a number of quotations from documents, of Washington, Jefferson, and others. Here is just one, from the 15th article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights: “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue—and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.” This article is part of an enumeration in the prologue to the Virginia Constitution, adopted during the Revolution. This is called the “basis and foundation of government.” In other words, the moral virtues are seen as the foundation of republican freedom, in the sense which was articulated by political philosophers from Aristotle to Montesquieu. Republics, more than monarchies, need virtue, because the laws come from the people, and ruling and being ruled in turn depends upon morality as the foundation of legislation. In fact the most important legislation, in the classical sense, is that which provides for the virtues. So I think the whole notion that morality is not a concern of government is denied by the very language of the American founding, which embodies a very old and wise tradition. Separation of church and state was not understood; and I think cannot be understood, to mean a separation of religion and politics. Separation of church and state only means that the churches best perform their political function without any patronage of sectarian religion by the government or any discrimination among them. But the assumption is—and I think Tocqueville says this with very great clarity—that it is the support, and to some extent even the creation, of a moral consensus by the churches outside of the formal realm of political authority which makes possible majority rule and minority rights. Confidence that the majority will rule according to principles accepted by the minority depends upon a moral consensus, without which the possibility of self-government and majority rule would not be practical. Tocqueville argues, I think, that the separation of church and state makes it possible for the churches to agree on morality without having to agree on church dogma. Sectarian religion contributes to the moral consensus by enlisting, you might say, the enthusiasm of its church members for a moral consensus, which would be ruptured if people had to fight with each other over which set of revealed dogmas is to be official. The churches could not support morality together were they to quarrel politically over dogma. But by putting the dogma outside the realm of politics, they enable the churches to cooperate in a role which makes a democratic politics possible.
And I argue in my paper that, at the period of the founding, the assumption was that education, the increase of knowledge, would increase the rational religious commitment of the citizens, that it would supply more enlightened foundations for morality, and that virtue and morality would thereby contribute to good government and the happiness of mankind. But we have seen in the last several generations, perhaps from a period going back to not long after the founding, the gradual attrition of that constructive relationship between education, religion, and morality. I remind you of the resounding proposition in the Northwest Ordinance: that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” There is nothing in the Declaration of Independence itself which speaks more deeply to the soul of America than this belief that education will promote morality and reasonable religion and good government. But we now find in the schools philosophic doctrines (or, more properly, anti-philosophic doctrines) which have been patronized in the universities for more than a hundred years with a kind of cumulating force, that have culminated in doctrines of moral relativism. The notion is that the more enlightened one is the more one sees that there is no objective foundation for morality or religion, and that they are mere illusions. Morality, we are now taught in school, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder, and “choice of lifestyle” is something the human soul is free to make without any guidance from either God or nature. So education has become the enemy of the regime. And I think that the Moral Majority is in part a visceral reaction to the attack on morality by the skeptics, by the “supercilious sophisticates,” as I call them, the people who think that the case against morality was decided long ago by science, in general, and by evolution in particular.
And I mentioned in my paper the reaction to Mr. Reagan for having said in the campaign that the schools should teach creationist doctrines along with evolutionist doctrines. You would have thought from the reaction of the commentators on television and in the newspaper, that he had suddenly emerged as a new William Jennings Bryan doing battle with Clarence Darrow. But intelligent men and women have known for a very long time that the conflict between the Bible and evolution is spurious, and that the assumption that you cannot believe in one without rejecting the other has been disproved. The physicists have been patronizing the Big Bang theory for a long time now, and everybody knows that not all the seven days of Creation in Genesis can be “days” in the same sense, since the Sun was not created until the Fourth Day. In fact, the Bible even says that the Sun was created “for seasons and for days and years,” meaning that it is using “day” in two distinct senses, one of which must be symbolic. Hence neither naked evolutionism nor naked fundamentalism is sufficient ground for instructing the young. And there is no reason for thinking that they are mutually exclusive explanations of the origin of the universe. In fact they agree on what is the most important single question about that universe: that it had a beginning in time. It is the Aristotelian view, that the universe is eternal, that stands in opposition to both.
RUSNAK: Concerning the people who are broadly identified as being members of the more fundamentalist churches, I agree with what you said about the importance of separating morality and the political, but I think it is the pursuit of righteousness that may be upsetting to some people, the sense that we are not only going to remoralize the country, but you are going to be moral whether you like it or not, in the political sense.
JAFFA: If you remember the history of the Reformation, what people are afraid of is a Puritan Savonarola or of a Cromwell smashing the idols in the temple in the name of sanctity and moral purity. You could say that that is a kind of fanatical moralism which can be destructive of human freedom. That’s very possible, but you can say also that this type of fanaticism can be brought on by a regime of moral laxity which outrages the moral sentiments of decent and moderate people. Those are two extremes which one ought, as a good Aristotelian, to avoid. Extremism in defense of liberty is not extremism in defense of extremism. Rather, it is extremism in defense of moderation—that moderate regime in which people are not subject to the kind of censoriousness we associate with, say, the city of Geneva at the height of the regime of John Calvin. On the other hand, we don’t want to live in Sodom and Gomorrah either. And I think that the experience particularly of the sixties and the seventies indicated a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the spirit of Sodom and Gomorrah being loose in the land. Charles Manson’s family was one of perhaps several thousand like it scattered throughout California; this one happened to go off on a kick of murder. There is something very much in common, and worth mentioning, between Charles Manson’s murders and the Jonestown “suicides.” They were both, in a way, expressions of a kind of perverted religious sentiment. But the atmosphere was one of disintegration of traditional morality and an attempt to reconstitute a sense of community, through an act of will unguided by any rational principles. My thesis is that the Moral Majority may become a legitimate majority if it conforms to what I would consider a natural law teaching. This provides a secular foundation for morality in agreement with the religious teaching. But it also would provide a moderating influence and a rational guide to the religious sentiment which is engendered in support of religion. Tocqueville saw the natural law teaching (for example, that of the Declaration of Independence) enlisting the enthusiasm of the churches while placing rational boundaries to it. And that is exactly what I am suggesting needs to be done. Now, I would also, as a political man, like to see the Moral Majority identify itself with the Republican Party and not remain a kind of independent single-issue group outside of the party structure, which would be out to elect or defeat individual candidates solely on their “morality” without reference to the range of policies these people represent. I’d like to see them go out and mop up as many Democrats as possible and, as far as I am concerned, the Republican liberals in the primaries. But I would not want to see them opposing Republicans in the general election, even if they don’t agree with them, because I would like to see them accept the idea of a responsible party system. Among the great defects of American politics today is the continuing decline of the party system as a ground of government. And I’m not sure that is a reversible phenomenon; a lot of it is due to television. Out in California people run for election as Republicans, yet you rarely see party identification in their political advertising. Yes?
RUSNAK: Let me put it a different way. The German people thought they could simply use the Nazis and then cast them aside. Is this not what the Republican Party is trying to do with the Moral Majority? They want to use this as the “hit-group” versus the immoral minority of Democrats, who will find themselves moving a little bit toward enforced morality? Is not morality a matter of personal choice?
JAFFA: Well, yes and no. At bottom the answer is “No.” People should be well brought up. Children should be instructed in sound moral principles long before they have the power of choice as mature rational beings. This is the dilemma that Aristotle poses at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics: it’s not easy to have a good upbringing if one lives in a corrupt regime, and that is why he goes from ethics to politics—how we can make good laws so that people will be well brought up. And that problem has never changed; it is very difficult to make intelligent decisions as an adult if you have not been well brought up as a child.
RUSNAK: But who makes the judgment of what is private morality in this case?
JAFFA: The parents have to make it for the children.
RUSNAK: Then, who is making it for the parents?
JAFFA: That’s right. Who is making it for the parents? Well, we are not using the term in its literal but in its general significance—we are not barbarians. It is a matter of great good fortune that we have an inheritance as civilized beings from a tradition that is more than three thousand years old. Our possibility as human beings is decisively created for us by the civilization we have inherited, which civilization does provide us with more than one principle of moral choice, but it is not an arbitrary or infinite spectrum of choices. Aristotle says at the beginning of the Seventh Book of the Politics that the man who was a perfect coward, who was frightened by anything, and a man who would sacrifice his best friend, who was so intemperate that in order to get food or sex he would sacrifice anyone or anything for his immediate appetite, would be a miserable human being. I think we do have rational knowledge of the highest degree of certitude as to the value of the basic moral virtues for a good life. I don’t think anyone should be at liberty to choose between virtue and vice, as principles of choice. How those principles should be exercised in particular cases, this certainly provides a wide latitude for human freedom. But I think that we have inherited a body of—I won’t say merely knowledge—but of structured behavior that is more than a mere way of knowing. We don’t have to start out as children to rediscover what Newton and Einstein discovered in order to find out what the universe is like. We may study their reasoning, and part of our education is just this. But we do not count it part of our “Freedom” to pretend that they never lived. We inherit a great deal of information about the physical universe which enables us to become intelligent beings oriented in a universe of matter and form, of light and sound, of touch and taste, and smells and so on. Similarly, we are beings who are born into a world that has placed a great deal of reason and experience about morality at our disposal and which we would be mad to disregard merely in order to exercise some hypothetical freedom. The human mind has come to terms with the problem of moral choice in a variety of circumstances over some millennia, and that information has been reduced into various books, to a form which is accessible to us. And I think it would be insane to identify human freedom with the ability to disregard the experience—the reason and experience—of all these millennia.
RUSNAK: I agree with your distinctions, but, nonetheless, certain groups tend to be absolutely arbitrary on their position on the Bible, for example, or what some dogma should be. They do not partake of either experience or reason.
JAFFA: I agree with that. One of the things I am anxious to do is to share it with them. [laughter]
RUSNAK: Oh, so you intend to teach Aristotle to the Moral Majority?
JAFFA: That’s it. But let me say one thing further. I think that in all human circumstances the most important thing is to have a grasp on sound principles. But those principles of themselves do not provide simple answers or directions on how to act in every case that arises. Courage, Aristotle teaches, is a mean between fearfulness and over-confidence. Yet there may be a situation in which a man may run away from danger out of bravery, and another in which he may run into it out of folly. Yet this does not mean that the distinction between courage and cowardice is arbitrary. Aristotle also points out that courage is closer to overconfidence than it is to fearfulness. What most people need most of the time, in facing danger, is not to moderate their boldness, but to bolster up their confidence. For some generations now we have been seeing a “brute relativism” arising in the schools (and also in many of the churches), which declares that since there is no rule that governs every situation, principles are merely illusions, that there is no objective ground for morality whatever, and, perhaps most important of all, that there is no objective ground for what is called human nature. So they think that all old fashioned notions of morality are myths, and that human beings should take their pleasures where they find them. I told the story yesterday of a senior honors seminar I had in 1966 at Claremont Men’s College, when it was not coed, and when there were no young ladies present. I think there were sixteen or seventeen young men. We were going to read the Protagoras. As part of an introductory discussion—to prove that we were going to read something that was still “relevant”—I mentioned that there was a moral crisis in modernity, and suggested that perhaps Plato—or Socrates—might assist our thought about it. The class wanted to know, what did I mean by moral crisis? I had much more than sexual morality in mind, of course, but I responded by saying, “Well, Once upon a Time, [laughter] young people were instructed that they should be chaste because of the terrible penalties that are connected with unchastity, the so-called ‘natural’ sanctions: pregnancy, disease, etc.” And I said, “Of course, without these sanctions, the status of chastity as a desirable thing is more doubtful. With birth-control and penicillin the ‘natural’ sanctions would seem to be abolished.” So the class responded, I must say as a single man, “Well, what is the crisis?” [laughter] I gave them an argument, which, at least, did not have any rebuttal at the end. I won’t go through that argument now, except to say that I raised for their consideration the question, not only “What is right and wrong?” but “What is happiness?” I suggested that the conception of human “well-being” has something to tell us about human “ill-being.” There is, I said, no action, or series of actions, which does not form you into a character of a certain kind. In overcoming moral inhibitions to gratify yourself now, you make it easier to do the same thing again in the future. But you also make it difficult, if not impossible, to gratify yourself in different ways in the future. There are surprisingly few reversible consequences of moral decisions, and the price that may be paid to reverse them, if that is possible, may be greater than fools and children can easily imagine. It is easy to admire the tyrant’s pleasures—to wish to put on the ring of Gyges—but who admires the tyrant? Who would want to live without friends, surrounded by loud sycophantism and silent hatred? Read Strauss’s On Tyranny. Most people lack the thoughtfulness to take into account long range consequences of moral decisions—that was one theme of the Protagoras—and so moralists through the ages have pointed to hell-fire, disease, death, and shame, to persuade those who cannot be persuaded by the truth, which is that virtue and happiness are intrinsically compatible, and the good life is also the most pleasant. The evil done by “situation ethics” is precisely to make philosophically respectable the intellectual limitations of children and morons.
SMITH: Something that I noticed in this election, besides the emergence of the Moral Majority, was the renovation of laissez-faire capitalism, which was fairly important to Mr. Reagan. And while coalitions sometimes have strange bedfellows, Jerry Falwell and Milton Friedman sort of struck me as strange.
JAFFA: Yes, I think Jerry Falwell is exactly what Milton Friedman needed. [laughter] Because Milton Friedman’s free market economics is in itself absolutely amoral. I won’t call myself a free market economist because I’m not an economist at all. I am however a devotee of the free market as a most desirable ground for constitutional government. But I don’t regard it as a great gift in the cause of human freedom if unrestricted choice becomes an end in itself. I don’t believe that at all. I think that “freedom to choose” guided by moral considerations and by proper education becomes a great vehicle of human well-being. But only then. Yes?
KEWELAK: I was just wondering if I understand Mr. Strauss’s writings on natural right correctly: the biggest problem for the ancients was the matter of individualism. Can you explain that a little bit?
JAFFA: That was the heart of my presentation yesterday. I argue that, first of all, properly speaking, there is no such thing as individualism—for the very simple reason that there is no such thing as an individual. It’s part of our vocabulary; I can’t speak at any length without speaking of “individuals” myself. But the word “individual” is an adjective. And an adjective ain’t nothin’ ’til there’s a noun to which it is attached. It’s an attribute without a substance. There are individual dogs, individual cats, individual trees, and individual human beings. And, as a matter of fact, when you look at individual human beings, what do you see? You see individual women, or girls, and individual boys, or men. There are no human individuals that are neither the one nor the other. There are some monstrosities, but there are always monstrosities. Nature has accidents too. But, any individual human being not a monstrosity is (or grows up to be) either an individual man or an individual woman. Now, in Hobbes’s teaching the first law of nature is certainly self-preservation, and all rights are derived from the right of self-preservation. But Hobbes’s argument is radically defective, in that he sees the state of nature as one in which each “individual” is in a foxhole. He doesn’t have a wife, and he (or she) doesn’t have a child. You never are told if it’s a man or a woman in that foxhole. Yet it is right and proper to speak of self-preservation as Hobbes and Locke do, but also as James Madison does in Federalist No. 43, where he speaks of the great law of nature and of nature’s God. (That is one of the few places in the Federalist where you hear the echoes of the Declaration.) But the truth is that a cock robin will attack a cat if the cat comes too close to the nest where the hen is brooding. I know from personal observation that self-preservation in nature is primarily the preservation of the species and not of the individual. By nature, individuals act to preserve their families first. According to the old view, which I think is in Augustine’s City of God, if two human beings are adrift on a raft that can support only one, it is not unjust—it is not just, but it is not unjust—for one to shove the other off. However, we know that as a matter of nature, if the two people clinging to the raft are father and son, that the father will usually prefer the life of his son to his own life. There are very few parents who would not, I think, sacrifice their lives for their children, in the same spirit as the cock robin who attacks the cat. Radical individualism has no foundation in nature and is against natural law. The other example I give is the old rule, which is also a law of nature, that when a ship is sinking, “women and children first.” Among ancient cities, you could suffer great losses in battle among the men, but the city could come back if the women and children survived. One man might have to have several wives in the aftermath of a battle. Or, bachelors might be required to marry. That frequently happened in ancient times. That was why Socrates married. He obeyed the law which commanded him to marry after a battle in which Athenian men died in large numbers.
SMITH: Sort of the same question: you mention the Moral Majority in a commercial society. Now we don’t have a lot of magnanimous men running around these days—
JAFFA: There never were a lot.
SMITH: —but rather bourgeois types. And supposedly the argument is that if we accept a lot of economic freedom, then in the interstices there will be a lot of political freedom. What happens if you pursue this more conditional understanding of moral virtue?
JAFFA: Let me come back to the argument I made against radical individualism. I think that, merely from the point of self-preservation, the fundamental unit is not the “individual” but the family, and morality comes to sight as those things which enable the family to survive, and of course to develop, which in turn enables the members of the family eventually to take their roles as citizens. The “individual” is incomplete without the family: there are clear grounds in nature for the union of male and female to provide the fundamental form of human association without which there is no self-preservation. But the prohibition against murder, theft, adultery, and incest are all fundamental prohibitions relating to the preservation of the family and its property. Just as the family needs property to survive, so ultimately the family must, I think, become part of the city or the political community for the family to perfect itself. And, you see, in the first instance the family needs the city, partly for self-preservation but also for the enhancement of that morality which is ultimately needed but which the family really cannot provide for itself, because there must be laws, and they must be good laws. That argument, which is from the first book of Aristotle’s Politics, stands today as ever as a model of what nature is and of the role of morality in relationship to nature. But, again, what we need to be reminded of now, in this modern civilization of ours, is not to be told over and over again how complex it is. We know that. We need to be reminded about the simple elements out of which this complexity arose. We need to be reminded of what we are according to nature, to see what guidelines we can find amidst the enormously wider range of choices available to us. And one of the things I mentioned yesterday was, of course, that the family has to change; and that the law of the family has to change. Certainly the family in nature, in its primitive character, is one in which the division of labor between husband and wife is spelled out by necessity. The husband must provide food, and the wife must be in the house guarding the children and providing for them. And no other division of labor is conceivable. And, of course, the growth of the economy and of technology have changed all that, and for the most part changed it in ways that are very desirable, because our ability to survive mere nature is much greater, the life span is much longer, the lives of women are not bound down to those immediate functions which are connected with child-bearing and the consequences of child-bearing. The nature men and women share in common comes more to the fore, and the nature which distinguishes them falls more into the background. But that doesn’t mean that either the one or the other ceases to operate. To show how rapidly things have changed, and how necessary it is that we not lose our perspective on the fact of change, I said I am sure that if Mrs. Jerry Falwell were to be confronted with the situation of one of Trollope’s heroines—less than a hundred years ago—where many of the novels turn around the fact that a woman, when she married, passed from being a ward of her father to becoming a ward of her husband, I’m sure Mrs. Falwell wouldn’t tolerate the consequences of that for five minutes. And I hope that nobody would want her to. Surely, desirable changes have happened in the past, and will happen in the future, modifying the internal life of the family, because of external changes in the environment. Trollope’s novels derived from an earlier, agricultural society. The legal limitations of women in agricultural societies were not perceived as such, because they did not hinder any freedom that women actually wanted. In fact most of them were looked upon as protections for women, rather than limitations. Women were too busy performing their functions, as the queen-bee within the hive, to notice that there was any liberty that was being taken away from them. So circumstances do change, and morals, and the laws regarding morals, will, in certain contingent respects, change with them. But the notion that because some things changed everything changes, and that there is no ground for morality, or that there is nothing durable in the structure of the family, because some elements of the traditional family have shown themselves to be changeable, that is the danger we are faced with now. And the reaction of the Moral Majority, however undirected in some respects, nevertheless supplies an energy which should force us to reconsider. And I think this reconsideration should be assimilated within a framework of a civilized understanding of the changing relationship of the sexes and of the need to preserve the family within the context of those changes. Because certainly this attitude—that the traditional family must be abandoned—was common in the Sixties (a great record of this is in the “Doonesbury” cartoons): the communes and the new experiments and all sorts of things—some of them were bizarre and some were obscene, but you know what they were. Yes?
McGRAIL: Could I ask a different question about political elections in general? It seems that after different candidates are nominated they get up and give a rousing speech calling for virtue and morality. But then when they get running against their opposition they get more into pragmatic things, and then all they do is appeal to people’s self-interest, and they sort of forget that they were idealists. They are schizophrenic about it. Do we want to uphold virtue and morality? Or do we want to solve inflation? It’s like an article I saw recently in the newspaper about Army recruiters. They say, “We no longer appeal to their sense of patriotism. We say, ‘Come join the Army and learn a skill.'” It is as if we were afraid to appeal to man’s better instincts, to the democratic ideals.
JAFFA: Well, Abraham Lincoln once said that the element of will in man is a compound of moral sense and self-interest. Convince a man that something is right and in his interest, then you get action.
McGRAIL: I wouldn’t mind if they said that what is in his interest is also moral.
JAFFA: I think that if you examine political rhetoric you will find that every politician in some measure appeals to both. Now, it’s true that he might not do it at the same time. Certainly Mr. Reagan made all sorts of accommodations. For example—and I can’t think of anything more absurd from the point of view of his principles and everything he stood for—he endorsed federal aid to New York City. It reminds me of the story of F.D.R. on the drafting of his speech to be given in Boston in September, 1940. (This story is told in Sherwood’s Roosevelt and Hopkins.) It concerns the speech in which he said, “I promise you Mothers of America, a-gain and a-gain and a-gain, that your sons will not be sent to fight in any foreign wars.” And Sherwood himself, who was a red-hot interventionist, nevertheless, in his anxiety to get F.D.R. elected, said “Don’t say anything about foreign wars.” And F.D.R. exploded, “You mean to say we won’t fight if we are attacked?” So the joker was “foreign wars.” Here was F.D.R. doing everything he could to get us into war and making that promise. The voters are sophisticated enough to know that when Ronald Reagan defended both the federal aid to New York and the federal bail-out of Chrysler Corporation, he was simply bending to the pressures of the campaign, and it didn’t mean he would do such things later. It’s just that in politics you get subjected to pressures you don’t anticipate, and sometimes the heat is too strong. Remember that Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was characterized by two policies: (1) the promise in the first inaugural that he would never interfere with slavery in the States and (2) the Emancipation Proclamation, which required the Thirteenth Amendment. Remember the great peroration, at the end of his message to Congress in December, 1862. “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.” Never was an excuse for repudiating a campaign promise-and one repeated in his inaugural address—made in such beautiful language. That is politics, high and low. Because there can be noble reasons for abandoning old promises and old policies, does not mean that it is always noble to do so, anymore than the fact that such repudiations may be base does not mean that it is never noble to do so. I think that you will find, though, that it is simply against the laws of our democratic political nature for any politician to campaign without appealing to what he claims to be noble and right, and trying to connect that with base self-interest, certainly with self-interest understood at a very low level.
RUSNAK: Could you please tell us about something mentioned earlier, some of the details about your Extremism Statement in ’64: how that emerged, how it got into Goldwater’s speech, and what you think of it now?
JAFFA: I would say “imprudent.” I wrote the whole paragraph in which it was encapsulated or incorporated as a memorandum when I was attending the hearings before the Platform Committee in the week before the Republican National Convention. I was with a group of people who were being shepherded around under the auspices of John Rhodes. (We were therefore known as “Rhodes Scholars,” and that’s the only way I could ever become a Rhodes Scholar.) I wrote that statement, in part, as a repudiation of the critique of extremism that was made by Rockefeller and Scranton witnesses before the committee. Sometimes these things get out of hand. They are like letters you did not intend to send. But they blow out the window and somebody picks them up and they are delivered. And this one was delivered to the Senator, who fell in love with it and ordered that it be incorporated in his Acceptance Speech, which in turn led to my becoming the principal drafter of the speech. And, there it was. It was not my political judgment that the thing be used in the speech at all, although I must say that I was flattered at the time and didn’t think too much of what the consequences would be. I couldn’t make a political judgment myself because I was isolated from the Convention and had no contact with the political currents on the floor. The Senator liked it because he had been goaded by mean-spirited attacks through the long months of the primaries. Nothing in the political history of the country surpasses in fundamental indecency the kind of attacks that were made on Goldwater by Nelson Rockefeller and his followers. These attacks were followed up by William Scranton at the end, and also to some extent by Henry Cabot Lodge and some of the other “gurus” of the Eastern Republican Establishment-who, by the way, I think, were not merely ideologically hostile to Goldwater. If you look at the electoral process over the last twenty years, you have to bear in mind that the seemingly ideological changes in principle in the Republican platform, which I think will change and are changing the axis of the whole two-party system, are in part due to great demographic shifts going on in the country. The country is moving southwest, and it is no accident that from 1960 on all the Republican candidates, with the single exception of Gerald Ford, who wouldn’t have been the candidate except for Watergate and his appointment as Vice President followed by the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, have been from the Southwest. But I was responsible for another statement of the Senator’s, the press release he issued on the eve of the Convention when Scranton had made a particularly brutal criticism of him. I offered him some excerpts from Lincoln’s response to Horace Greeley, “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” when Greeley severely and unfairly criticized Lincoln for not issuing an emancipation proclamation. Lincoln responded with magnanimity when he said, “If there be in it [Greeley’s statement] an impatient and dictatorial tone, I pass over it in deference to an old friend whose heart I have always believed to be right….” Then he goes on, “I would save the Union … the shortest way under the Constitution.” So I was also responsible for that soothing and accommodating statement of Goldwater’s.
But I was not asked for the extremism statement; I had written it as an in-house memorandum, and it was appropriated. I’m not making an excuse for myself in saying I wasn’t responsible for it. I was certainly enthusiastically in favor of it at the time. As I said, I had not been present on the floor of the Convention, nor had I any contact with the delegates as a political observer, and so had no sense of the temper of the Convention. But the Senator did, and he knew what he was doing. I don’t blame him for his feelings, because he had been subjected to character-assassination from within the party, which was very unfair. I have one sort of sidelight on the aftermath of the whole episode. I don’t know if any of you saw the review of Equality and Liberty that George Kateb published in Commentary magazine in the spring of 1965. He praised Crisis of the House Divided and then said, in effect, “But I cannot understand how anyone who could have written Crisis of the House Divided could have supported Senator Goldwater.” He read Equality and Liberty with the sole intention of trying to find some explanation of the strange “change.” And he read through it and couldn’t find any explanation, which was good as far as it went, except that he never got around to writing a review of the book. But I met him at Amherst in late April (1980) when I was there. In the meantime Kateb had been one of the most strident campus voices against the Vietnam war. So I greeted him, and said, “George, I have an apology to make. You were right about my politics in 1964. I should never have supported a man who promised to keep us out of a land war in Asia.” [laughter]
ANASTAPLO: This raises a question: What is the role of academic people in political activity in a campaign or in an administration. Should they be in there? Is it likely that they will be misused and misunderstood?
JAFFA: I don’t think that there is any formula for that. The model for thinking about this, at least for me, was the passage in Strauss’s essay on classical political philosophy when he said that the political philosopher comes to sight as the good citizen, who attempts to moderate political conflict and move it to its resolution. But he had to really seem to be a citizen, and to some extent really be a citizen, in order to play that role. Now there is a difference of course between the political philosopher who comes to sight as a good citizen and the political philosopher who is the teacher of legislators. I think ultimately they are the same person, or they can be. There is a continuity between these roles even if they are different. I think whether or not one should be a visible and conspicuous part of the political process is a prudential decision which can only be made in the circumstances at a certain time. I think there is such a thing as “normal” times, when the “normal” party conflict engenders the kind of consensus which is necessary. At such time, I would say on the whole that political activity is not called for, may not be called for, on the part of the scholar who understands the role of political philosophy in political life. But, on the other hand, my feeling is that today we are somewhere near a terminal process in the history of western civilization—not just in the history of this republic—in which a dark night of the soul could very well be the fate of the world if certain cataclysms with which we are threatened come to pass. In that circumstance, I don’t think that there can be any conflict between one’s civic duty and one’s scholarly and professional duty. I think that either thermonuclear war in all of its horrors or the tyranny of the universal homogeneous state are evils which it behooves every man—so far as in him lies—to avert. My understanding of Marxist Communism is that—whatever its own understanding of itself—its necessary result is the extinction of the memory of the past. There will always be a fictitious memory of sorts, which will call itself a memory. But the idea of the leap into freedom—which is essential for the self-justification of Marxism—implies the radical superiority of the future over the past in all fundamental human respects. Any memory of the past, any genuine memory of the past, destroys the illusion of that superiority and hence would have to be extinguished. Remember: our identities, whether as individuals, nations, or cultures, depend on memory. The way the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is rewritten every time there is a change within the regime is, I think, a model of what would happen to the memory of everything we call civilization. History, properly so called, is nothing but civilization’s memory. In that case we would really be deprived of our heritage, as we would be deprived of our identities, without which I think there is nothing in our lives which would be essentially valuable; we would be reduced to mere subhuman animals in our relationship to nature and to each other. And even if we were animals in control of sophisticated machinery, we would have no human characteristics, no recognizable characteristics. You would have to do over again all the work which has been done since man emerged, whether by divine creation or by evolution from the nothingness of protozoic slime. I myself find the question of origins relatively uninteresting. I am not interested in what man was before he became man, nor in the efficient causes, as much as I am in the achievement itself. And as a matter of fact, I like to point out, whenever the occasion arises, that the mystery of Genesis is not an archaeological question, because if we ask how anyone begins to think at any moment in time now, we have to face the problem of Genesis. And the problem of Genesis at some remote point in archaeological time is no different from the point of how we begin to think now. So, there is always a new beginning for human life in each one of us every time we think, which is a mystery which cannot be explained. Any time it were possible to explain how men began to think, they would no longer be able to think, because that is where human freedom resides, in the mystery of the origin of the motion of the soul, in which the mind apprehends an external reality and transforms it into the symbolic forms of language and of art, which are all different forms of the expression of the grasp of an abstract reality which is separate from the thinking soul itself. Man commands the matter (or energy) in nature because there is something within him which is free from determination by that which he apprehends. All totalitarian regimes rest upon deterministic theories of the soul, upon denial of any metaphysical freedom. All theories of the soul which dominate the academy today are deterministic. The most powerful intellectual forces in the free world today are accordingly forces for despotism. And this is the problem we have to face and encounter. But I see no fundamental conflict in our duties as scholars in fighting the false theories of determinism which underlie all our relativism, and our civic duty to oppose the totalitarian political consequences of that determinism and relativism. I think that our responsibilities as scholars and as citizens are ultimately one and the same. Yes, please.
COLMO: Is there any tension between your recurrence to education and history and tradition, on the one hand, and your recurrence to nature, on the other hand?
JAFFA: Nature is the great foundation for being. I think we exist within a framework. As Leo Strauss used to say, speaking of genius, he would mention Plato sometimes, Aristotle sometimes, sometimes Shakespeare, as an example of the peak of human genius, you might say the crown of human nature as revealed in such genius. Yet he would always insist that there was one thing greater than Shakespeare, and that is the nature that made Shakespeare possible. So we must always look beyond that “individual” to the species, and when we speak of species we are speaking of course of an order within a whole. It is impossible to speak of man without speaking of human nature, but once we say “human nature,” we are making a subdivision within a larger whole, “nature,” one part of which is human nature, but not the whole. That whole, of which human nature is a part, is a greater whole and the ultimate object of speculation which we may never apprehend except in part. Even though we cannot understand the whole we can understand that there is a whole, because if there were no whole there couldn’t be a part.
COLMO: But the “nature” that makes Shakespeare possible was very much a nature transformed by man.
JAFFA: No. Shakespeare was indeed born into a culture, it was a human culture, meaning a culture that arose because human nature lay at its foundation. I mean, London existed because human beings do create civilization, in which nomos is supposed to replace phusis. But law does not replace nature. To use Burke’s phrase, “Art and nature may be opposites, but yet there is a sense in which art is man’s nature.” Nature made it possible for man to have artifacts. Bees and beavers build artifacts which are not artifacts in the same sense in which human artifacts are artifacts, because the bees can only build a beehive one way, and the dams are built only in the way nature intended beavers to build dams. But nature does not tell man how to build cities; it only requires that they make decisions about the just and the unjust, as Aristotle says at the end of the first book of the Politics. It is true that, had Shakespeare been born into some barbarian tribe, then he wouldn’t have become the William Shakespeare we know, because London and the English renaissance provided opportunities for actualizing his genius. But he had to leave Stratford for London, much as Moses had to leave the desert and return to Egypt. His genius would also have remained unfulfilled without that positive action on his part. Still, there were also circumstances that he did not create that were necessary to his art. Clearly, the actuality of the natural potentiality that was William Shakespeare required circumstances-cultural circumstances-extrinsic to his genius. But bear in mind that these circumstances were also actualizations of natural potentialities. The nature that we wonder at, the nature more wonderful than either William Shakespeare or the English renaissance, was the nature whose actuality became both Shakespeare and the renaissance. Both were manifestations of a freedom that human beings exercised, but which they did not create. Piety might lead us to call it a gift of God, but it is surely not impious to call it a gift of nature.
SMITH: It sounds as if the entire history after Shakespeare was somehow a natural necessity, because that history was contingent on one being civilized. And that is something of an act against nature as well as an outgrowth of nature itself.
JAFFA: What if I were to try to understand the essential difference between, say, a fifth-century B.C. Athenian, Sophocles or Aeschylus or Euripides, and Shakespeare? I think in particular of Sophocles. I promised, in my essay on King Lear, which I wrote almost thirty years ago, that I would somehow, sometime write a comparative analysis of Oedipus and Lear as the two peaks of pre-Socratic and Socratic tragedy. I never got around to doing that, although in some ways I set a foundation for doing such a thing (maybe somebody else will do it) in my essay on. “The Shakespearean Universe.”* In some ways Oedipus could be looked upon as a precursor of Christianity, because, remember, Oedipus becomes the scapegoat of the gods. He becomes a kind of guilt-bearer who purchases, (now I’m using Christian eschatological terms) a freedom from guilt for his people, just as he saved them earlier by answering the riddle of the sphinx. But, still, that is a pre-Socratic tragedy. Now, when I call Shakespeare a Socratic tragedian, I also mean that in some sense he is a Christian writer of tragedies, and the decisive difference between Shakespearean tragedy and Sophoclean tragedy has something to do with the intervention of Christianity. The idea of human civilization is decisively transformed in the Shakespearean universe by reason of this intervention. And Shakespeare himself comments on that. He wrote an absolutely perfect pagan tragedy in Coriolanus, where man and god were part of a continuous process, and there is no radical difference between man and god. But the radical difference between man and god, and man’s natural guiltiness and his need for redemption, complicates and even, if you will, confuses his role as a citizen. Now, I leave it to you to decide whether the intervention of Christianity is a matter of history, necessity, or divine intervention.
SMITH: [pause] I hope you’re not waiting for a decision.
JAFFA: No, I’m leaving it to you, whether or not my interpretation is really Hegelian.
STUDENT: [inaudible] I noticed you spent much time trying to separate Thomism and Aristotelianism. It seems to me that what you said was more at home with the Thomist point of view.
JAFFA: Then I was very successful in my rhetoric. [laughter]
STUDENT: Was that just rhetoric or isn’t that in your book, to separate the two?
JAFFA: Yes, and ever since then I have been putting them back together again. I think its good sometimes to look at things in separation and sometimes to look at them in combination. I would certainly think that, looking at the political crisis of our time, which is not really of yesterday, today, or tomorrow, and which is destined to last (if we survive) many generations-that there is a tradition which we are all defending, or all should be defending, a tradition constituted by the principles of reason and revelation. And I share in Leo Strauss’s analysis of the relationship between reason and revelation. Classical rationalism is always accompanied by skepticism as by its shadow, and that shadow of skepticism provides a foundation for doctrines drawing on divine revelation. I think neither side can refute each other. Both represent human possibilities, the exploration of which, and the dynamic tension between which has been the glory of Western civilization. Both reason and revelation are threatened now. Modern philosophy at its roots was an attempt to free reason from skepticism-an intellectual task which I have compared to trying to jump over one’s shadow. That’s what Cartesianism is. The famous dualism, between res extensa and res cogitans, is repeated over and over again in every characteristically modern doctrine. In Marxism it repeats itself in the fact that Marxism is the dialectic of history which reveals that all human thought-except Marxism-is ideology. It exempts itself from its own analysis of human thought, but that is what every philosopher from Descartes to Hume to Kant to Hegel has been doing. And ultimately the attempt to free rationalism from skepticism was also an attempt to free reason from the challenge of revelation by assimilating the argument for revelation into the framework of reason. Because if reason can be freed from skepticism then there would be no rational doubt to provide a ground of revealed religion. Marxism is the clearest example of this. In the attack on all revealed religion as the opiate of the people, Marxism asserts that revealed religion is an attempt to substitute false pleasures after death for real pleasures now, and thus to cheat people out of their humanity. And by this attempt to solve the problem of reason and revelation by abolishing skepticism as an attribute of reason, they attempted to abolish the tension between reason and revelation, and ultimately to abolish the claims both of reason and revelation as these were understood before. However, the modern principles ultimately destroy themselves. While I have great respect for modern science and for scientific rationalism in a limited sphere of human existence, I think that the idea is impossible that modern scientific rationalism, founded upon determinism, can say anything (not something, but any thing) about the problem of human choice. Once you accept the deterministic metaphysics and try to found a method on that, I think you are bound ultimately to end with nihilism in philosophy and with totalitarianism in politics. So, as far as Thomas and Aristotle are concerned, they may be, at a certain level, theoretical antagonists. But one of the things I admire most about Aquinas is that in trying to make Aristotle acceptable to the church authorities, he tried to make Aristotle someone who, instead of being banned, would be read. Now I think Thomas himself understood very well this tension between reason and revelation. Certainly his whole work was designed to overcome this tension. Whether his intention was to abolish it or only to seem to abolish it, so as to make possible the fruitful study of theology and philosophy without fear of punishment and persecution, I cannot say. Aquinas, as far as I know, wrote the first tract designed to produce tolerance toward Jews in the history of the West in his “Letter to the Duchess of Brabant on the Treatment of Jews.” Of course it’s not a call for the kind of freedom you would find in Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, or in Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom, but it laid the foundation for them, and probably went as far as he thought he could go in that direction. Thomas should be judged more by the direction in which he pointed than by the ground he covered. He moderated theological passion and showed that civilized men could differ, without being indifferent to truth.
STUDENT: In some sense, then, you are changing where the money is. You’re almost seeming to say that Thomas would be more important than Aristotle (but you can’t understand Thomas without Aristotle; I understand that).
JAFFA: No, I thought that in Thomas I had an enlightened teacher, an unsurpassed teacher, someone who led me, paragraph by paragraph, and sentence by sentence, through the text of the Ethics, even though I didn’t ultimately agree that the most important way to understand Aristotle was always in the way that Thomas seemed to understand him. He pointed out alternatives. As in the Summa Theologica, he would give you the objections to his position, as well as the replies to those objections. In the last analysis, he left it up to you. And you could see in the design of his interpretation the magnificent effort to show the place of every sentence in that great book in relationship to every other sentence, in a kind of architectural structure with a cathedral-like outline of the whole.
STUDENT: But Thomas and Aristotle must differ on the relationship between reason and revelation because there really was no revelation available to Aristotle.
JAFFA: As a matter of fact there was. I would say that Aristotle teaches revelation as much as any Christian theologian-in his own way. If you read the treatise On the Soul everything comes down in the end to the problem of the agent intellect, which absolutely cannot be explained. You want me to give you a brief rundown?
JAFFA: How does Aristotle explain sense perception? Let’s take sight, which is the most interesting and the most noble of the senses. In order for seeing to take place, there must be a visible object and an eye capable of seeing things. But in order for the eye which is capable of seeing to actually see, there must be a third thing, light. Now, for thinking to take place, there must be an object capable of being understood, an intelligible, and there must be a mind capable of thinking it. But there has to be a third thing. If I say “light,” I’m using a metaphor. Often when we are trying to understand something, there will be a certain moment (“now I see it”) when we do understand it. Sometimes we say that we have seen the light. What we mean, however, is that the object of our understanding has been there all the time, but it somehow became “uncovered (that is what apocalypse, or revelation, means). But who uncovered it, or who turned on the light? How were we transformed from potential seers into actual seers. I do not want to refer to the many stories of revelation within the sacred tradition as mere stories for children; only to point out that the mystery underlying reason is a genuine mystery. Within that mystery lies the mystery of human freedom. Now from Aristotle’s point of view, I think there is no necessary conflict between reason and revelation-if you get down to the real question, which is how thinking takes place. There is the tradition of reason and the tradition of revelation, but I think the problem with revelation is as much in reason itself-it has its own problem within its own structured framework. That’s the problem of the active intellect. Where does it happen? Why does it happen? How can I will to know? Here I am; I want to know something; but I still don’t know it. And then, all of a sudden, “Yes, now I see it. “Why?
STUDENT: So, what you are saying is that in the Greek world that continuum you were talking about between god and man is almost as discontinuous as in Christianity, because, after all, that is the distinction you were making before.
JAFFA: Yes, one of the explanations of this is in the Metaphysics. There is a discussion of inductive reasoning. For example, I say that I understand that this is a chair. When I say that this is a chair, that means two different things. First is the positive or affirmative statement that this particular object is a chair. But implicit in this is the proposition that if this was the only chair in the world I wouldn’t be able to make such a statement. This is a particular object constructed in such a way so as to support the body in a semi-recumbent posture. But there are an infinite number of possible ways in which that can be done. That object over there is also a chair; it doesn’t look like this one at all. But I perceive something in common between them. Now how is it that my mind makes the jump from the particular to the universal? It’s because, on the basis of a series of comparisons, I see with the eye of my mind an eidos or species, a form which is common to all possible chairs, and in virtue of which they are chairs. And yet this form lacks all the characteristics in virtue of which any particular chair is not merely possible, but actual, and hence a “this.” For the form of the chair is at once something that is like every possible chair, and yet different from any actual chair. This experience of likeness and of difference underlies what I call the miracle of the common noun, which is truly the most miraculous of all possible human experiences. For it is the essential experience which makes language-and hence man-possible. This, incidentally, is the meaning of that bad argument that Socrates uses in the first book of the Republic, in which he defeats Thrasymachus by getting him to agree that a thing is what it is like. Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, speaks about sense perception in relationship to understanding in this way. He compares it to an army which is fleeing in confusion. It has been defeated, running away, and the soldiers run pell-mell, helter-skelter away from the enemy. Everything is in disorder; everything is chaotic. And that is what sense perception is, you might say, in its purest form. Now, Aristotle says that the soldiers are fleeing, and all of a sudden one of them stops, stops running, and turns and faces the enemy. And then another forms behind him. And another. And another. And pretty soon ranks form. Chaos is replaced by cosmos. This is the genesis of which I spoke earlier. This is what happens when the mind, understanding, imposes order on sense perception. In this Aristotle anticipates Kant’s “synthetic a priori.” Unless the mind has certain a priori capacities for imposing itself, for synthesizing experience, experience doesn’t happen.
SMITH: Isn’t that phrase “impose itself” somewhat unfortunate for your position? [laughter]
SMITH: We know only what we make?
JAFFA: There is a certain natural making which takes place. Remember Jacob Klein’s lecture, “On the Nature of Nature”? Klein says that in every tree there is a little carpenter making new trees. Every acorn has a little carpenter in it, ready to make a new tree. In other words, art imitates nature, and nature imitates art. There is that affinity between art and nature. This would lead to brute positivism only if one said that the “artisan” in nature was not there, only in the eye of the beholder.
SMITH: You might call it “brute realism.”
JAFFA: No, it is not a brute projection of reality upon a screen from something that has no intrinsic cause: or four causes, or five causes, whatever, however you count them. Concede that skepticism, which follows reason as its shadow, opens the door not only for faith but also for scientific positivism. But I think that the very attempt to eliminate skepticism by scientific positivism is an ultimately self-defeating enterprise. Yes?
SMITH: You mentioned that modern science is deterministic. Do you really think that is still true?
JAFFA: It may not be true from the perspective of those who are facing the mysteries of reality on the frontiers of modern physics. The genuine sophisticates seem to be much more modest in their pretensions than the routine members of the profession. But the word doesn’t seem to have gotten down to the “philosophers” and social scientists at all.
STUDENT: Perhaps when it does it will be worse.
JAFFA: The latter-day followers of Copernicus will probably react very much as the former-day followers of Ptolemy did. I think it should be open, the whole question of what we mean by the human soul: is it a byproduct of atoms and the void, or what? Every attempt at reductionism, which finds an underlying common cause which is said to explain all higher things, is self-defeating. If again I may quote Leo Strauss, “I think we must understand the low in the light of the high, and not the high in the light of the low.” Modern science attempts to understand the high in the light of the low. And that is ultimately self-defeating because the very attempt at explanation becomes low, and hence becomes self-contradictory. For example, if you say, “I, the scientific knower of all things, know that morality is an illusion because all human freedom is an illusion,” then you have to ask, “Are you a Cretan who says that all Cretans are liars?” They’re all calling themselves liars, and at the same time proclaiming their authority as knowers of the truth. I love that Cretan who says that all Cretans are liars. He was the first modern philosopher.
ANASTAPLO: Is there a final question that has not been answered, or one that someone would like to press?
COLMO: Yes, actually. [laughter] That skeptical shadow that has been following reason around all the time. You said that it provided a sort of opening for revelation. But why can’t you say, instead, that the difference between Aristotle and a believer is that Aristotle insists on naming problems but that a believer, when confronted by some mystery like the ability to think and understand, explains it away by saying, “God made it possible.” I mean, that seems to be a much more fair presentation of it.
JAFFA: But the Bible commands us to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and all our mind, and our neighbor as ourself, and tells us the attempt to know the universe as the ground for our behavior is impossible because God himself is mysterious. But God, out of his mysterious nature, nevertheless, vouchsafes his love for us by letting us know those things that are sufficient for us to lead the right kinds of lives. And, that there are mysteries at the heart of the universe is as much a conclusion of philosophy as it is of divine revelation. Socrates would say, I think, that this mystery should preoccupy us. Although I think that the conclusions he drew with respect to human conduct are neither altogether the same, nor altogether different, from those that stem from the Biblical tradition. The Socratics, I think, go on speculating on mysteries; the children of faith worship God rather than trying to speculate on his mysteries. Those are differences. I have no fault to find with those who worship, and I’m not saying that there is any contradiction between speculating sometimes and worshipping sometimes. Those are valid human alternatives. I think that a regime like the Soviet Union—towards which I think we are tending very much, impelled by the dominant teaching of our academies—is one in which those who show awe before the mysteries of the universe are ridiculed and treated as if they are somehow the reactionary slaves of an alienated consciousness and of a false ideology.
COLMO: And you think that when that ridicule becomes directed against religion, it will also become directed against those who show that same awe in terms of philosophy?
JAFFA: Absolutely. I recommend to everyone to look at that book called Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism, which is published by Progress Publishers, Moscow, and which I think is a very sophisticated handbook of Marxism-Leninism, done by a committee of academicians on the basis of the Seventy-Fourth Party Congress, which was in 1974. There the alternative to Marxism is simply “idealism.” And philosophy and revealed religion are simply two species of “idealism.”
SMITH: But are not some forms of religion dubious?
JAFFA: Let us say that there are a variety of spurious enthusiasms which pass themselves off as religion.
SMITH: Would you care to name any?
JAFFA: Jim Jones. As Strauss says in Natural Right and History, it’s only those who think in terms of a value-free social science who cannot distinguish between high religions and vulgar enthusiasms. In some cases high religions in the persons of certain congregations and certain people degenerate. Although I admire many things about fundamentalist Protestantism, I think that what the Puritans did to the churches in the sixteenth century is indefensible. They went through with hammers smashing statues and altar pieces, everything that they thought violated the commandment against graven images-just as Moses did with the Golden Calf. I think they were wrong in interpreting their instructions from God in that way. But, still, there is no good thing in this life which cannot be perverted to bad ends by either the stupid or the evil. Plenty of people were burned at the stake for holding heretical opinions in the course of the wars of religion. And it was done by both Protestants and by Catholics. And I think that if you drew your picture of either the Catholic or the Protestant churches on the basis of the excesses of the Reformation, you would have to condemn Christianity across the board. And I think that would be wrong. The fact that Savonarola was a fanatic doesn’t mean that Thomas Aquinas was. I must say that I like Christianity best when it has a large infusion of Aristotelian moderation. But I think that it would be a great mistake for us not to utilize the enthusiasm of those who want to preserve what can be preserved of the traditional family. Here the Moral Majority has a constructive role to play. The problem of recent generations has been the attrition of the family, the destruction of the family partly because of the notion that morality is a mere matter of choice, a mere matter of opinion I should say. Human happiness for most people most of the time depends perhaps more than anything else on having a good family life. That is something which those young men in my class who thought there was no moral crisis because it was over did not understand. I tried to convince them, and I think I may have convinced some of them that the argument for chastity is in some ways an argument for happiness and for the family-which doesn’t mean you have to put a big letter “A” on everybody that you catch doing naughty things. There it is.
ANASTAPLO: Well, what it is that is has been a very interesting discussion for us. I hope we can do it again on another occasion.
JAFFA: Thank you. And thank you for your introduction, which certainly inspired me, or gave me a sense of responsibility for something that I had to live up to. [laughter]
ANASTAPLO: Very good.
* Published in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, 1981.