A review of The Soul of Politics, by Glenn Ellmers (Encounter, 416 pages, $31.99)

An American Soul

The late Harry V. Jaffa, who died in 2015 at age 96, is known primarily for three things. First, for his revolutionary work on the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln, exemplified in Jaffa’s two masterworks, Crisis of the House Divided (1959) and A New Birth of Freedom (2000). Second, for penning Barry Goldwater’s famous 1964 convention speech, including its most infamous line: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” And third, for his ornery, pugilistic written feuds with former friends (e.g., Walter Berns, Martin Diamond, Allan Bloom, and Harvey Mansfield) and eminent conservatives (Mel Bradford, Willmoore Kendall, William Rehnquist, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Edwin Meese, among others).

All of that is true but doesn’t even come close to exhausting Jaffa’s range and importance. As a scholar and teacher, he was intimately familiar with seemingly every significant book or idea from the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds. As an interpreter of the modern world and man’s place in it, he was a pathbreaker and, I would say, without peer.

Jaffa’s thought is hard to summarize, for at least two reasons. First, because he wrote no systematic book or account laying it all out in one place. To understand Jaffa one must read all of him: the three stand-alone books (in addition to the two on Lincoln, there is also one, his first, on Aquinas), plus the essay collections, plus articles written for others that he never republished, plus the many little Claremont Institute monographs, plus various lectures and other articles scattered throughout the archives of various publications too numerous to mention. The “selected” bibliography at the back of The Soul of Politics runs to 20 pages! Jaffa was so prolific that, as one despairs of finding the time to read it all (it helps to go to grad school, preferably at an early age and with the firm conviction that reading is the most important thing in the world), one wonders how he managed to write it all.

The second reason is that Jaffa’s thinking changed over time. One can see the evolution in stages as one reads, in chronological order, with the mature Jaffa emerging fully and finally only with New Birth, which is easily his most difficult work, itself impossible to summarize, and the full understanding of which requires familiarity with the rest of Jaffa’s oeuvre.

Glenn Ellmers has now done what, before he did it, I would have said could not be done. He has clearly and accessibly summarized Jaffa’s thought without oversimplifying or giving (almost) anything short shrift.

Understanding Aristotle, Understanding America

Might as well get this out of the way: I knew Harry Jaffa and was, informally, his student, and, formally, the student of his students. Despite being still sharp as a tack, Jaffa had been forcibly retired from his teaching positions at Claremont McKenna College and the Claremont Graduate School five years before my arrival there. But he never left the environs and loved nothing more than talking to, and arguing with, students. He spent, or wasted, a great deal of his time with us, when he clearly had other things to do (finish New Birth, for one thing!) for which I will be forever grateful.

I have known Glenn Ellmers, another informal student of Jaffa’s, since graduate school. I commented extensively on an early draft of this book, which I found extremely impressive. So if you are one of those types who think books should only be reviewed by people who can be “objective,” with “objectivity” being defined as knowing little or nothing about the subject or author, and consider a favorable predisposition toward both to be “bias,” then this review is not for you.

Ellmers’ book is a kind of intellectual biography. It tells the story of Jaffa’s life which, predictably for a lifelong college professor, was not terribly eventful. As Allan Bloom said of their mutual teacher Leo Strauss, “the story of a life in which the only real events were thoughts is easily told.”

As for those events themselves, Ellmers sketches the evolution of Jaffa’s thought, partly in chronological, partly thematic, order. Rather than treat superficially all of the many substantive points in this intricate book, I shall instead summarize the book’s most important point, which was Jaffa’s most important contribution to political philosophy and to the understanding of America.

But first I shall mention what to me is the book’s second-most important chapter, on Aristotle and Shakespeare, the two minds who most informed Jaffa’s.

Despite having written and lectured on the Roman plays, the histories, King Lear, Macbeth, and Measure for Measure (among others), Jaffa today receives almost no credit as a Shakespeare scholar—even though his writings on the Bard are vastly superior to 99 percent of elite university English department faculty (assuming any still write on Shakespeare). Jaffa’s only real peer as a Shakespearean was Bloom, and the two of them together may be said to have founded a “school” that analyzes Shakespeare through a philosophic lens—indeed, that treats the poet as philosopher in his own right—and which has produced dozens of articles and at least 10 books by a variety of scholars, many of whom never met either man.

As for Aristotle, Jaffa wrote his dissertation on Aquinas’ commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, the book which for the rest of his life he would cherish above all others. The Politics, he would tell us, is vital to know because so many of its arguments are simply coeval with political life, but of somewhat limited use because of the profound differences between our world and Aristotle’s. But the Ethics, he enthused, is a perfect book whose lessons leap across time. Every word is directly applicable to today because Aristotle explains the permanent truth. Jaffa loved to tell the story of how a young Winston Churchill, deployed to India and realizing that his Sandhurst military education left him with many gaps, wrote to an Oxford don asking for books. H. Rackham, a translator of Ethics, sent him that volume (among others). Churchill read it, and then wrote back a note of thanks, saying (in effect) that it was all very reasonable, but really nothing more than the code of the English gentleman set to paper.

The profound changes that limit the applicability of the Politics in our time were the highest theme of Jaffa’s work and the core of Ellmers’ book. Indeed, I may say with some confidence that, before Ellmers, no one except Jaffa had ever set it all down on paper before.

The crux of the matter is this: is there a rationally knowable moral order that defines good and bad, right and wrong for the human, political world? Or is there, by contrast, only an evolving, historically contingent order? Or is there simply no order at all?

The first position may be said to be that of the ancient pagan and medieval Jewish, Christian and Islamic philosophers. The second is that of the so-called “idealists,” beginning with Rousseau and continuing through the historicists, from Hegel to Marx. The third is the argument of the “late moderns,” Nietzsche, Heidegger, and their heirs.

America the Good

A knowing reader will recognize instantly that something is missing. What about the early moderns? Aye, there’s the rub.

At first glance, the early moderns appear to agree with the ancients and medievals. They make normative statements, allege no historical contingency or changeability of truth with time, and certainly do not assert anything like nihilism.

But Jaffa’s great teacher Leo Strauss was the first to show, at least in the 20th century, that there is more to the early moderns than meets the eye. In his magisterial Natural Right and History (and also in Thoughts on Machiavelli), Strauss uncovers a hidden (or “esoteric”) depth to early moderns, a doctrine of materialistic hedonism. Strauss contrasts this doctrine with the ancient teaching on virtue and finds it wanting, both as a mirror to the truth about human nature, and as a practical teaching for man.

At first, Jaffa took this as Strauss’ last word, as did (and do) most of Strauss’ students, and students of students. “Ancients good, moderns bad” is pithy and reductionist but not inaccurate to this view of Strauss’ teaching.

The United States of America, however, appears to be very modern, and yet Harry V. Jaffa found it to be very, very good.

I may as an aside say that I found Jaffa to be the most American man I ever met. He was in many ways the polar opposite of the urbane, bespoke, globetrotting philosopher exemplified by Bloom. At the high end, he loved Melville and Twain. Aside from Shakespeare (whom he allowed himself to love under cover of Lincoln’s authority), he seemed uninterested in the Europeans, apart from the great works of philosophy, which he mined for their wisdom rather than their aesthetics. He tried his hand at classical music as a young man, but under pressure from Strauss gave it up. His mature tastes tended toward swing and big band. As for art, give him the Hudson River School, western landscapes, or Frederick Remington sculptures any day. 

In the middle, he delighted in classic poems such as “Casey at the Bat” and “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which he could recite from memory. (For those wondering why the Jewish Jaffa loved a Christmas poem, I reply that the “old man,” as we called him (though never to his face), said of himself that, like Tom Sawyer, he never attended religious services except under the sternest compulsion; he loved the verse for its Americanness, which was Jaffa’s true religion. Still and all, he knew the King James Bible better than any cleric or theologian I have ever met, in part because it, too, is a bedrock of Americanism.) And at the mundane level, he loved sports, especially the two most American, Major League Baseball and college football—and he could quote statistics like the most up-to-date Moneyball whiz-kid. 

He had nothing of the esthete or snob about him. He dressed like a Rotary Club vice president from somewhere in the Ohio River Valley. He never shed his Brooklyn accent, but in all other ways his manners and tastes were midwestern. Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. Just about the only middle-American taste Jaffa didn’t share was for beer. (Jaffa drank only on Churchill’s birthday, and then only to make a toast with one small sip of brandy.) If you were writing a movie and wanted to make a character stereotypically American, and you wrote Harry Jaffa, a studio exec would order a rewrite on the grounds that it was too corny and no one would believe it.

The Central Question

To return to our matter, Jaffa’s first attempt to solve the problem “modernity-is-bad, America-is-modern, yet America-is-good” was to read into Lincoln’s statesmanship an elevation and transformation of America. In this reading, America was once bad, or had been born bad, or at least low, but had been made good. This is the thesis of Crisis of the House Divided.

Over the course of the subsequent 40 years, Jaffa rethought and, eventually, rejected that thesis. In a sense, he lowered his estimation of Lincoln and raised his opinion of the founding. In this new understanding, Lincoln did not transform, but saved America. Jaffa himself, were he to read this, would object to my characterization of his estimation of Lincoln declining, and he would be right to do so, since his opinion of Lincoln only rose with further study. It is not untrue to Jaffa’s teaching, however, to say that the elevation of the founders required a reassessment of Lincoln, after which he no longer appeared quite so far above the heroes of 1775-1789.

The central question of Jaffa’s life’s work is whether—as many Straussians (but not Strauss!) and other critics of modern liberalism allege—America was “built on low but solid ground,” and is merely the practical edifice of dangerous, reductionist theories which the founders didn’t really understand and thus was doomed to fail from the start.

Jaffa’s eventual answer was no, a conclusion he reached just in time for the bicentennial, 17 years after the publication of Crisis. His “positive” answer took him another 24 years to fully formulate, and here we reach the heart of Jaffa’s teaching.

For Jaffa, the core task or challenge or problem facing the American founders was how to establish politics on a firm, rational basis that establishes justice, ensures domestic tranquility, provides for the common defense, promotes the general welfare, and secures the blessings of liberty to Americans and our posterity. Or—though the founders themselves never put it this way—how to port classic natural right theory into a fundamentally transformed modern world and establish it as a practical basis for sound politics.

The reason, or one reason, theory matters is that every regime, every government, makes a claim to its legitimacy; it explains, or attempts to explain, why its rule is good and just. The simple assertion that X is good and Y is bad—no matter what X and Y are—is the bedrock assertion of all politics. What should we do? What should we choose versus avoid? These questions animate all politics. No one says “we should do X because I prefer it”; they say “we should do X because it is good and not do Y because it is bad.” 

Similarly, no regime says “we’re in charge because we like it that way”; it says “we’re in charge because we deserve to be, and here’s why.” This is not, of course, to say that every, or even most, such claims are actually true or even made in good faith. It is to say that the fact that they are made says something important about human nature and the nature of politics: people want and need to believe that they are doing the right thing for the right reason. The rulers need the people to believe it of themselves, and the people want and need to believe it of themselves and of their rulers.

This is before we even consider the point that every claim that “this is good” and “that is bad” presupposes a standard of good and bad—whether religious, natural, or both—that transcends the perspective or preferences of the claimant. Since all politics at root is an argument about good and bad, politics itself presupposes a ground that is prior in nature to politics. Politics as such rejects nihilism. But not necessarily historicism, since the ground of good and bad may be historically contingent, that is, may change with time. As we shall see, and Ellmers shows, the founders, Lincoln, and Jaffa partly reject, but partly accept, this claim.

Practical Men Solving a Practical Problem

The founders’ twofold task was thus to found the United States on the basis of the truth, because any regime founded on a lie must fail—and be more or less wretched even while it lives—and to found it in such a way that its claim to legitimacy was accepted by the American people and by foreign states (hence the Declaration of Independence’s reference to “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind”).

To do so, they could not rely on any solution ported directly from the ancient world. For, despite, or because of, the founders’ impressive classical learning, they knew full well that that world had irretrievably passed.

Politics in the ancient world, at least in the West, was defined by the polis or “city”—but not city as mere urban amalgamation of people and building, but city defined as a comprehensive political community. The typical polis had an urban core and surrounding countryside and was what we today would call a “country” or “state.” The sources of its laws were its gods (or, in the case of one city, its God). The polis recognized no “private sphere,” no “separation of church and state,” no distinction between civil and religious law. Man’s loyalties in the ancient world were owed to the city, its gods, and its citizens, which were inseparable almost to the point of indistinguishability.

The unity of the polis was shattered, first, by the Roman conquest of the ancient world and incorporation of the gods of other cities into the Roman pantheon. By erasing the borders between cities, Rome in effect transformed the world into a universal empire. Under Roman rule, Athens (for instance) ceased being a polis and became merely a city as we understand the term: just another urban center, a college town and intellectual hub, you might say, a sort of ancient Boston.

Second, and more important, was the rise of Christianity, which divided men’s allegiance between this world and the next and severed the connection between civil and religious law. The division had profound spiritual and practical consequences. No citizen of a polis ever had to agonize about the contending demands of his God and his prince, nor to prioritize whose commands to obey. Christian man, by contrast, must worry about keeping his soul pure and faithful while navigating the real world of nobles and kings who might place other demands on him, which they could back up by force. And God Himself was represented by a temporal prince—His vice-regent on earth—who might also give contrary commands and who, despite being unarmed in the conventional sense, wielded the awesome power of excommunication and the threat of eternal damnation. In short, who is owed first loyalty: the pope or emperor? The archbishop or the duke? The priest or the knight?

As if these were not enough, the Roman conquest also destroyed republicanism for many centuries. Indeed, to some it seemed as if republicanism had been definitively discredited—so much so that the American founders found it necessary to spend much of the first 14 Federalist papers defending their decision to frame a republican regime for the American people.

Whatever the strengths and advantages of monarchy—and they can be considerable—one serious disadvantage is the succession problem. This takes two principal forms. The first is simple regression to the mean: eventually, inevitably, mediocrities, dolts, and degenerates will inherit the throne. The more serious problem is that politics itself becomes less about the common good and more about, literally, who rules—in the worst case, degenerating into little more than a series of dynastic wars. This is the chief lesson Jaffa gleaned from Shakespeare’s history plays and shows that his interest in the Bard was more than simply literary, but historical-philosophic.

Since return was impossible, progress was imperative. But progress toward what? Jaffa provoked many controversies throughout his long career, and perhaps his most controversial thesis is that America is not simply modern but in fact incorporates and adapts the core insights of classical political philosophy. Natural right, which in the ancient world looks something like the (indirect) rule of the wise, comes to sight in the modern world as the principles of equality and consent, and religious liberty anchored in freedom of worship. The alternatives, Jaffa showed, are historicism and nihilism—and that’s it. Every regime, including every monarchy or so-called aristocracy, ultimately traces its claim to legitimacy to one of these three fundamental philosophic positions.

America is moreover not a “city in speech” in which inconvenient questions can be abstracted away or resolved with elegant but ridiculous solutions impossible to implement in the real world. It’s a real country, with real people, who need a real government. The American founders were practical men solving a practical problem. They succeeded brilliantly, Jaffa showed.

A Lasting Legacy

And yet here we are. Is 2021 somehow their fault? That is, is there a direct line from the founders’ (or the moderns’) alleged errors that leads us straight to the present mess?

It would require a whole additional review to reply adequately to that question (the short answer is no) and most of the ground has already been covered on this website in my dialogue with the paleoconservatives. Ellmers’ book gives a longer, more thorough answer that explains how alien grafts, not anything inherent to the plant, caused its present sickness. For both nihilism and historicism, in addition to being deleterious and false, are alien imports, invasive species eating away at America’s timbers.

If I have a criticism of The Soul of Politics, it is that too little attention is given to Jaffa’s courageous and spirited defense of sexual morality and the family. In the libertine environment of the modern campus, making such arguments was anything but cost-free. Doubtless, many who might have been persuaded by Jaffa’s scholarship on the founding and Lincoln were turned off by these arguments (Jaffa’s rhetoric, while never careless and always precise, was also anything but diplomatic) and so tuned out the others. But Jaffa understood that the success and longevity of the regime depended, fundamentally, on the virtue of its people. There was, and is, no way to defend the nation without demanding much from the people.

As Ellmers shows, Jaffa himself could be gloomy about his country’s future. He knew full well that winning an argument is not the same as winning a fight, and that no victory is forever. His deepest fear, I believe, was that the founders’ monumental achievement, and Lincoln’s salvation and preservation of it, would be cast away by later generations who either hated it or didn’t understand it or both. This is why the central mission of his life was the philosophical and rhetorical explication and defense of classical natural right, the Western tradition, and the United States.

The modest ambition of this summary of a summary of a summary is to encourage you to read Ellmers’ book, which should direct you toward Jaffa, who should inspire you to read the books and speeches that informed his life’s work, which are the foundational texts of the West and of its greatest political product, the United States of America.


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About Michael Anton

Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump Administration. He formerly wrote under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus when he was a senior editor of American Greatness. He is the author most recently of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.

Photo: Hillsdale College

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