A review of Crisis of the Strauss Divided, by Harry V. Jaffa

Toward the end of his life, while teaching at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Leo Strauss appeared with Jacob Klein in a much anticipated logon didonai or “giving of accounts.” Now in his 95th year, Harry V. Jaffa, the first of Strauss’s students, offers his own logon didonai in Crisis of the Strauss Divided. The title, we learn, comes from a quip by one of Jaffa’s students that combines Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (1959) with the divisions, geographical and philosophical, that later emerged among Strauss’s students regarding the character of the American regime and the nature of the Straussian project. (Jaffa is the godfather of “West Coast” Straussianism, so named because he spent the majority of his career teaching at the Claremont Colleges in California.) Crisis of the Strauss Divided gathers together 19 essays, most of them by Jaffa, but a few by other of Strauss’s students, and one by Strauss, which well capture the tone and tenor of these debates. Readers familiar with some of the earlier acrimonious exchanges will be pleasantly surprised by the later entries’ civil, engaging tone.

Except for the opening essay, prompted by Jaffa’s reading of Michael and Catherine Zuckert’s comments about his work in their book The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy (2006), the pieces in this volume have all been previously published. But as the author explains, his selections, presented chronologically over a span of nearly 40 years, represent “an insight or point of view that seemed important at the time.” Jaffa does not claim that they form a unified treatise or book, and he leaves it to the reader to distill from these disparate entries whatever “Leo Strauss for the Ages” he can. In his brief “Epilogue,” Jaffa remarks that he considers Strauss “the greatest mind in political philosophy in the twentieth century, and possibly in other centuries as well.” He then makes the puzzling comment that this “is a judgment I share with very few, if any.” By illuminating what he means by political philosophy, the essays in this volume help the reader better to understand the view from the West Coast.

Part of the considerable charm of the opening chapter, “Straussian Geography: A Memoir and Commentary,” is that Jaffa, who first met Strauss as a graduate student at the New School in 1944, captures the excitement of encountering Leo Strauss before he reached the pinnacle of his influence as the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Jaffa, who had majored in English at Yale in the late ’30s, and then gone on to enroll in its political science graduate program, found his graduate studies so stultifying that he nearly dropped out during his first year. The story he tells is the now familiar one of professors in the grip of modern social science, treating the history of political theory as a series of failed arguments, rendered obsolete by David Hume’s “fact-value” distinction. George H. Sabine’s classic textbook in the history of political theory captured this approach perfectly, which Jaffa rightly describes as “a tour through a wax work museum.”

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It comes as something of a surprise to learn that, after leaving Yale, the future speechwriter for Barry Goldwater decided to work for the federal government. To improve his chances of passing the difficult civil service exam, Jaffa enrolled in a year-long course in Public Administration at the New School taught by the German jurist, Arnold Brecht. In the essay, we learn that on the same day he first reported for work, he met his future bride—”the girl in the canoe” and his lifelong companion. (The volume includes lovely photos of Marjorie and Harry.) After spending the war years in D.C., Jaffa and his wife then returned to New York, where he resumed his graduate studies, aided by a scholarship secured by Brecht.

At that time, the Graduate Faculty of the New School, or University in Exile, provided a haven for European scholars forced to flee Hitler’s Europe, and could not have been more different from Jaffa’s alma mater. Despite its shabby furnishings and lack of recognition from elite institutions, its professors may have been “the greatest faculty of its kind ever assembled under one roof.” But even among this august faculty, nothing had prepared him for his encounter with Strauss. In contrast to the stately Brecht, Strauss was physically unimpressive, but by sheer dint of his “overwhelming intellectual force,” Strauss freed the young Jaffa from “the prison of historicist dogma” and made him his “partner in a voyage of discovery.”

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And what a partnership it was. Although Strauss taught him to take classical political philosophy seriously, we learn here that it was Jaffa who first grasped the applicability of Plato and Aristotle to American politics. Reading the Lincoln-Douglas debates for the first time, Jaffa realized that Stephen Douglas was nothing more than a modern-day Thrasymachus, Socrates’s great antagonist in the Republic: popular sovereignty unrestrained by natural right was nothing more than a defense of the rule of the stronger. Strauss encouraged Jaffa to continue this line of inquiry and secured a teaching post for him in the Basic Program at the University of Chicago when Strauss moved there. As Jaffa tells it, Strauss’s graduate students, among them Martin Diamond, Robert Goldwin, and Allan Bloom, sensed a very great excitement about this new approach to the study of American politics. Although he cannot be sure, Jaffa also suggests that Strauss’s opening reference to the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence in the published version of Natural Right and History(1953) was owing to Jaffa’s insights about American politics.

“Straussian Geography” is also notable because Jaffa responds, in measured tones, to the Zuckerts’ charge that Crisis of the House Divided is marred by a central contradiction. The Zuckerts contend that although Jaffa praised Abraham Lincoln for his efforts to restore the authority of the American Founders, his criticism of the modern natural rights doctrine in Crisis undermined his argument. What, after all, was there to admire about a political philosophy grounded in an appeal to the selfish passions? The Lincoln that emerges in Crisis is the very embodiment of Aristotle’s magnanimous man; he does not so much restore the authority of the founders as re-found the American republic on nobler classical principles. Although Jaffa at first dances around this criticism, he ultimately concedes that it is not altogether “without merit.” As he explains, at that time he was very much influenced by his teacher’s “scathing indictment” of John Locke in Natural Right and History, but gradually he “came to doubt the authority” he had ascribed to it.

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This is where things get interesting because elsewhere in these essays Jaffa suggests a) that Strauss also came to see the founders in a more classical light and b) that he later developed his “own critique of Strauss’s work,” a subject on which he had “written with increasing frequency since Strauss’s death.” So, which is it? The essays do not unequivocally say. In this regard, it is worth noting that the anthology includes only one essay by Strauss, “Relativism,” a powerful dissection of Isaiah Berlin, logical positivism, and existentialism, but which says nothing about classical political philosophy, the clash between ancients and moderns, or the tension between reason and revelation. By the end of the book, one has a clear sense of where Jaffa is going, but what about Strauss?

For both Strauss and Jaffa, the great theoretical issue is the dispute between reason and revelation. As we learn in Crisis of the Strauss Divided from Robert Kraynak, in Thomism and Aristotelianism (1952) Jaffa had followed Strauss arguing first, that the clash between these two ways of knowing was irreconcilable, and second, that on a more practical level the pagan and Christian virtues were at odds. Try as Aquinas might, there was no way to reconcile the magnanimity of Aristotle’s great-souled man with Christian humility. Indeed, as Jaffa remarked in his eulogy for Strauss in 1973, Thomas’s attempts to find a common ground had resulted in a compromised syncretism. No grand synthesis was possible. Later, however, Jaffa would have second thoughts. Indeed, we are forced to wonder whether his treatment of Lincoln in Crisis of the House Divided does not already signal this turn, since, on closer analysis, Lincoln’s magnanimity has a decidedly Christian cast.

In a fascinating essay collected here, “Leo Strauss, the Bible, and Political Philosophy,” Jaffa lays out in greater detail the tension between reason and revelation. The God of the Bible (by which he means the God of the Hebrew Bible) stands outside of the created world, and is in fact its Author. And being One, there is no way for humans to form an idea of Him, for ideas presuppose that there are particular objects or things to which the ideas refer. Thus, the God of the Bible remains mysterious and unknowable, except through faith in His revealed word. For Strauss, the Hebrew Bible, with its emphasis on law, which Jews are commanded to obey, presented the most powerful challenge to reason, and although reason cannot refute the claims of revelation, the ongoing tension between the two accounts for the vitality of Western civilization. As a side note, I wish that Jaffa had expanded his discussion of the unknowability of the Biblical God to the New Testament. Given the significance that Jaffa later attaches to the triumph and spread of Christianity, what is the effect of the Christian God on his arguments? Does the Trinitarian God, and especially the doctrine of the Incarnation, make the God of the New Testament more or less mysterious? And does the Christian shift away from pious obedience to the law toward an emphasis on faith and the spirit of the law mitigate the tension between reason and revelation? Although he agrees with Strauss about the theoretical tension between reason and revelation, Jaffa enlists his teacher in order to argue that the two are united in a common project: to restore the common moral order of the Bible and classical political philosophy as a means of overcoming the modern “crisis of the West,” the loss of confidence in truth’s intelligibility resulting in moral relativism. This, Jaffa argues, is what it means to be a political philosopher. Not all of Strauss’s students see his legacy in this way, however, hence the Straussian geography. In “The Platonism of Leo Strauss,” which Jaffa includes, Thomas Pangle (considered an “Eastern” Straussian) argues that Strauss never believed that the Bible and classical political philosophy could make common cause. To which Walter Berns (another East Coaster) adds, “Strauss did not believe that he, or political philosophy, could save Western civilization.”

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Yet if Jaffa seems to agree that the tension between reason and revelation persists at the highest theoretical level (even if he adds that the two share a common project), the practical tension between ancients and moderns that Strauss also emphasized steadily recedes. In contrast to the argument he presented earlier in Crisis of the House Divided, which criticized the founders’ reliance on modern natural right, Jaffa argues in the sequel, A New Birth of Freedom (2000), that the establishment of the American republic represents the triumph of classical natural right under modern conditions. The recognition of the natural right of every individual to religious freedom means that men and women are free to pursue their highest aspirations, be they religious or philosophic, uncoerced by “political passions.” As Jaffa himself has memorably put it, had Aristotle lived in modern times, he would have been a Lockean.

Here again, Jaffa does not claim that Strauss drew the same conclusion, and he acknowledges that other of Strauss’s students disagree. Nevertheless, he cites more than once Strauss’s apparent agreement with Thomas Jefferson—that the best regime is the one that elevates the natural aristoi—as evidence that Jefferson and Aristotle agreed on natural right (though he minimizes the problem of having to secure popular consent to their rule). Jaffa further elides the disagreement between ancients and moderns by insisting that because Aristotle supported the emancipation of slaves (in Book 7 of thePolitics)he never really believed in natural slavery. Instead, he claims, Aristotle championed “a natural right of human freedom.” Turning to the moderns, Jaffa argues that the mere mention of “tyranny” and “prudence” in the Declaration confirms the founders’ essentially classical understanding of politics. To put the matter differently, Jaffa came to believe that there are not two kinds of prudence, but only one, though the counsels of prudence point in diametrically opposed directions, depending upon historical conditions. However paradoxical it may seem, he insists that the prudence of the Declaration is the same as that of the Nicomachean Ethics: natural inequality and natural equality, virtue and freedom, are not that far apart.

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In searching essays that conclude the book, Robert Kraynak and Michael Zuckert (the latter classifies himself as a “Midwest” Straussian), each in his own way, gently but firmly, argue that Jaffa’s thought has moved away from Straussian dualities—ancients and moderns, reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem, and so on—and assimilated into one great scheme Plato and Aristotle, the Roman Empire, Christianity, Shakespeare, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Or, as Kraynak puts it, Jaffa’s New Birth of Freedom offers a grand synthesis of Athens, Jerusalem, and Peoria. It is difficult to disagree, though both suspect that Jaffa may have deliberately exaggerated the convergences. For his part, Jaffa insists that Strauss himself began the convergence in his book The City and Man (1964).

Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Harry Jaffa has developed a distinctive political philosophy, one that places political and moral questions at the center of its concerns. Though sharing certain characteristics with the sweeping philosophies of history, Jaffa’s account puts reason, rather than History, firmly in the driver’s seat. What divides Strauss’s students, East and West (to say nothing of Midwest), is whether Jaffa’s mature philosophy is Straussian, and—what amounts to almost the same thing—whether it is true.