Equality and Liberty.
by Harry V. Jaffa.
Oxford University Press. 229 pp. $5.75.
Eyebrows were raised last summer when the New York Times reported that Harry Jaffa was writing campaign speeches for Barry Gold-water. How could it be that this student of Professor Leo Strauss, this ardent author of a brilliant book on the slavery controversy in the 1850's, this respected teacher of political theory, would lend his intelligence to such a cause? It is bad enough that professors should be partisans; worse that professors of political theory should be partisans. But there must be limits: working for Goldwater—not just for the Republican party, at a decent remove from its temporary leader, but for the leader himself—must surely be beyond reasonable limits. Especially, one would have thought, for somebody like Jaffa. In none of his writing was there anything to prepare his readers for the news of his behavior. His first book was a patient but fully engaged study of St. Thomas's commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Done under the supervision of Prof. Strauss, at the New School, and published in 1952, Jaffa's work dealt with a great confrontation of classical and medieval systems of moral thought. In 1959, Jaffa published his Crisis of the House Divided, a splendid analysis of the motives, strategies, ideals, and compromises of Lincoln and Douglas in their debates and activities. The book was marked by a passion for equality; and by a love for Lincoln, because of Lincoln's matchless understanding of equality and of the limits on attaining it. Jaffa set up a genuine dialectic, according justice to Douglas, and then turning on his position the full force of Lincoln's reasoning. In the course of examining the issues of the period, Jaffa transcended the period, and produced a book that could serve as a general introduction to the subject of equality in a democratic society. There is never any doubt as to where his sympathies lie: all in favor of human equality, a total commitment to the opening words of The Declaration of Independence.
How then do we get to Gold-water? Could it be perversity, or at least subtlety carried so far that it resembles perversity? It is part of the profession of political theory to prize subtlety: to find in texts what others are too lazy or unimaginative to see, to view movements and events with a sense that there are always underlying meanings beyond the reach of everyone but the political theorist. Derivative from this attitude is a tendency to take sides in unpredictable ways, and expend one's ingenuity in continuing defenses of apparently indefensible positions. To bring to bear the full weight of theoretical intelligence on a mundane political matter can thus lead to strange results. In the case of Professor Strauss's students, this tendency is often unusually pronounced. Wielding incomparable pedagogic influence, especially since he moved to the University of Chicago in 1949, Strauss has trained a large number of political theorists “to read between the lines.” It is not so much the difficulty or remoteness of political theories that must make reading them, for Strauss, an exegetical art, but rather the assumption that most philosophers have not felt free to speak the truth directly. The history of political philosophy in particular is the history of disguised utterance: many thinkers have felt that the truth would get them into trouble with authority or would prove too terrible a burden, too dangerous a disclosure, for the great mass of men. Though Jaffa's work—unlike that of some of Strauss's other students—is free of excessive interpretative ingenuity, could it be that he saw in Goldwater some disguised truth, some real moral point in what otherwise seemed all too clear and all too barren? Did Jaffa treat the Goldwater candidacy in a Straussian manner?
We turn to Jaffa's latest book in the hopes of finding an answer, or at least a clue. Equality and Liberty, dedicated to Strauss, is a collection of ten articles written over the last seven years, and covering a variety of subjects. All but three of them deal wholly or partly with the issue of slavery and equality, and contribute to the story Jaffa told in Crisis of the House Divided. These pieces are of good quality, though better for the striking sentence or passage than for a thoroughly achieved argument. There is, however, not the slightest change in Jaffa's moral temper: his devotion to Lincoln's devotion to equality remains constant. Reading Jaffa on the Emancipation Proclamation, or on the Ohio campaign of 1859 in which Lincoln and Douglas took part, one would have to infer that the writer is a dedicated liberal, that his politics is humane and generous. To be sure, Jaffa stresses the necessity of limits on the will of the majority; he rejects Douglas's doctrine that a majority of settlers in a territory could decide whether or not slavery was to be permitted. A majority cannot use their freedom to deprive a minority of their freedom: there are some things even an overwhelming majority are not morally allowed to do. Here Jaffa is defending the orthodox constitutional majoritarian position. Furthermore, Jaffa denies that a democracy can exist without a measure of consensus on certain subjects. Jaffa, in contrast to the super-realists among the political scientists, affirms the need for something like democratic virtue on the part of the citizenry. He goes so far as to say that those not committed to the preservation of the democratic system, those who would use democratic freedom to undermine it or alter it into an authoritarian system—like the Nazis and the Communists—must be denied freedom in the name of freedom. Again, Jaffa does not differ from many liberals who shudder to think that Goldwater carried even six states. There are, of course, liberals farther to the left of Jaffa, on the subject of granting free speech and association to anti-democratic elements. But that fact does not affect Jaffa's basic liberalism. Let it be noted that Jaffa's reasoning, if not sustained through an entire essay, is compelling and sometimes eloquent.
Two of the essays are directed against the scientism Jaffa claims is widespread among his colleagues. One of them, “In Defense of the ‘Natural Law Thesis,’” published in 1957, is considered a standard statement of the anti-positivist theory of moral judgments. The affiliation to Leo Strauss is unmistakable. If Strauss has insisted on a characteristic way of reading the texts of political theory, he has also insisted on the correctness of the specific political theory of natural law. Not all human values are either the automatic resultant of cultural conditioning or the arbitrary expression of personal taste. Some are absolutely valid; they are inherent in the order of nature and receive their authenticity from a transcendental source. The aim of the educated intelligence is to achieve, despite the meagerness of human capacities, knowledge of the order of nature and, with it, knowledge of what is good and evil.
The doctrine of natural law, loaded with numerous philosophical perplexities, has been put to many uses through time, some of them contradictory. Pagans, Christians, Deists; radicals, liberals, reactionaries, have all appealed to natural law to vindicate a given practice or institution. Vagueness inheres in the principle. In Strauss's version of it, there are conservative, indeed illiberal, implications; for Strauss makes much of the circumscriptions that natural law supposedly places on human will, self-assertion, the right of each man to live as he pleases. Virtue, not individualism; conformity to the nature of things, not rights claimed against authority, are prized. What is remarkable is that Jaffa does not follow Strauss's lead; rather he goes back to Jefferson, and holds that the main content of natural law is human equality. Where The National Review can use a debased form of a view resembling Strauss's to justify whatever it is that the magazine justifies, Jaffa maintains that natural law is the only true foundation for equality, and that equality is a necessary deduction from natural law. The road to Goldwater is still to seek.
The very first essay of the book, “The Nature and Origin of the American Party System,” is the last hope for making the connection. One remembers that Goldwater gave a speech to the American Political Science Association last September; and a clever speech it was. He pleaded with his unfriendly audience to see through the appearances. The two-party system was at stake; forces had to be realigned; by campaigning as he was, he was doing the only possible thing to save the Republican party. Could Jaffa have helped with that speech? In any case, there is no similarity between Goldwater's speech and Jaffa's essay, which is a revision of a paper commissioned by a Republican study group in July, 1959. It is a first-rate summary description of the way in which American parties have served American democracy. But even if one made the most strenuous effort, one could not fit Goldwater into Jaffa's scheme. The Goldwater candidacy does not answer to Jaffa's expectations.
Suppose we were to be generous to Goldwater, at the risk of bad taste and of being charged with the same sort of perversity already mentioned. Exaggerating Gold-water's line of argument, we could construct the following rationale for the campaign of 1964. To avoid being a permanent minority party, the Republican party must dislodge from the Democratic party a sizable bloc of votes. Roosevelt stole large numbers of workers and Negroes from the Republicans, while holding on to traditional Democratic voters. Who is there for the Republicans to steal? Obviously the target must be the disaffected, the white Southern vote. In an election year that holds next to no chance for a Republican victory, the entire campaign should be aimed at gaining the South, at whatever the cost. Once the South is in the Re-publican ranks, it will stay in, such is the prevailing mentality of that region. Four years later, a Republican moderate can reassemble the normal Republican vote while inheriting the South. In this way, and only in this way, will the Republicans stand a chance of winning in the coming generation.
We read Jaffa's essay and find no indication of such a line of reasoning. What we find instead is the assertion that the normal politics of America is one-party politics: for long periods of time, one party is dominant, and the opposition must content itself with offering more or less the same program as the majority party, without much hope of capturing power. The majority successfully controls the definition of issues—until some great moment in American political life is reached, some occasion which generates the possibility of making an evangelical appeal to the American people. In the elections of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, we have “. . . those apocalyptic elections in which the reigning coalition was cast down from its majority position and a new majority became the center of the political solar system.” Can it be that Jaffa saw in Gold-water the leader of a new evangelism, or rather the new leader of the old evangelism? On the basis of Jaffa's essay, we would have to answer for him, and say No. He says, “The evangelical revival of the Revolutionary creed, however adapted to new circumstances, is the key to these great shifts in the structure of political power in the community.” The revivification of equality is the stimulus to electoral transformation. “Every one of the great electoral revolutions has been, in the sense in which the French use the term, a revolution of the ‘left’.” What must the Republican politicians who heard Jaffa read these words have thought? (In a foreword to the book, dated December 1964, Charles Percy of Illinois praises Jaffa for his insight.) More important, what should we, familiar with Jaffa's work and impressed with the intelligent idealism behind it, and now apprised of his specific views on party, think of his attachment to Goldwater? What should we make of it?