Why We Still Need Harry Jaffa

Earlier this year, Claremont McKenna College lost perhaps the most famous professor ever to teach under the Bauer Center rotunda. Harry Jaffa was 96, but still just as cantankerous as when he first came to Claremont in 1965.

Before arriving at what was then Claremont Men’s College, Jaffa beat long odds to secure positions at the University of Chicago and Ohio State University when universities weren’t hiring Jews. Jaffa’s mentor at Yale, Harvey Mansfield Sr., even tried to dissuade him from going into academia, despite his brilliance, because of the slim job prospects that awaited him there – but that only made Jaffa more resolved than ever on becoming a professor.

And it was his professors whom Jaffa looked up to more than anyone. After fleeing Yale to continue his graduate studies at the New School, Jaffa took a class with Leo Strauss, a Jewish émigré from Germany and one of Hitler’s gifts to America. Over seven years and a mutual relocation to the University of Chicago, Jaffa took 19 courses with Strauss. Guiding him on journeys through the greatest books ever written and the most profound thoughts ever speculated upon, Strauss freed Jaffa’s mind and showed him that there was more to life than the shadows on the cave wall.

“One of Strauss’s secrets was that he made you feel not a passive receptacle of his insights, but as his partner in the voyage of discovery. He was the captain of the ship. But you were part of the crew. And you sailed together,” Jaffa writes.

At Ohio State University, Jaffa wrote his magnum opus, Crisis of the House Divided, an interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. At the time of its publication in 1959, America’s perception of its greatest president had changed drastically. At best, as a new brand of scientific historicism proclaimed, Lincoln was an incompetent leader who fought an unnecessary war that more tactful diplomacy could have prevented. At worst, as many even on the Right thought, he was a power-hungry tyrant.

Jaffa’s book changed the way we think about Lincoln. He showed that Lincoln and Douglas were not simply talking about slavery or popular sovereignty, but they were having the same debate that Socrates and Thrasymachus had over 2,000 years prior in Plato’s Republic. Thrasymachus’ position is that justice is simply the will of the stronger (Douglas’ popular sovereignty), whereas Socrates argues that right and wrong are truths discernible by reason, independent of what the stronger says they are (Lincoln’s view that slavery is always immoral, even if the people want it). This is why Lincoln held the Declaration of Independence – a document that proclaims it a self-evident truth that man is endowed by his Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – in such high esteem, even above the Constitution.

Part of Douglas’ principle of popular sovereignty is that, as an Illinoisan, he has no right to say whether slavery is good or evil to someone living in another state, where the economy, customs, and even morals are supposedly different. The Founders, he argues, understood this and, therefore, implemented a federalist system of self-government and state’s rights in order to ensure that no one state’s view of morality overthrows the rest.

Douglas essentially tells Lincoln that he has no right to judge the institution of slavery in the states of which he is not a citizen. Who is Lincoln to say whether slavery is right or wrong to someone living in a culture of which he is not a part and that he fundamentally does not understand? To do so is the pinnacle of both arrogance and ignorance.

A similar sort of argument is in vogue on college campuses today. When a white student tries to speak on issues pertaining to race, or a cisgender student tries to comment on political questions relating to transgenderism, they are told that they cannot possibly understand the issues because of their identities and privileged statuses. These students are told that their opinions are not warranted and would be better kept to themselves (i.e., shut up). Substitute “white” or “cisgendered” for “Illinoisan,” and this is the same argument that Douglas makes against Lincoln.

Would those who champion identity politics really extend such a morally pusillanimous and intellectually feeble principle to the institution of slavery or to other human atrocities? Should one not denounce slavery in Georgia because he is not from Georgia, or the Holocaust as evil because he is not German? It seems that such a view is only invoked when it is politically advantageous to do so.

One of the enduring lessons of Jaffa is that moral truth is not simply a zeitgeist of the peculiar times in which we live, the background we come from, or the identities we hold. Moral truth is accessible to everyone, everywhere, because it is connected to a permanent view of human nature discernible through reason. Therefore, as Jaffa might have posited, it is irrational to claim that someone cannot understand political questions regarding race, gender, or sexuality just because he does not hold a certain identity. It is not one’s identity as black or white or straight or gay that gives one authority to comment on these questions, but one’s capacity to reason as a human being that does.

This is not to say that one’s judgment cannot become clouded by bias. Everyone holds certain prejudices that are a product of the environment in which they grow up and live. Further, just because moral truth is accessible through reason does not mean that reason is infallible. But without proper evidence to show that one has succumbed to bigoted proclivities or made an erroneous judgment, it is unreasonable to assume that a white person cannot make a contribution to dialogues centered on race, or straight people to discussions of homosexuality, because these questions are essentially different versions of the same debates – those over justice, good, evil, and human nature – that have been raging throughout history.

So, just remember, if anyone tells you that you cannot talk about certain subjects because you do not hold an identity authorized to do so, tell them to read the great Harry Jaffa, because they are beginning to sound an awful lot like Stephen Douglas.

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