An excerpt from The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America
(Encounter, 416 pages, $31.99)

Bullets, Ballots, and Books

The bomb that detonated at Scripps College on the afternoon of February 26, 1969, didn’t injure anyone, but an innocent young woman was badly maimed when another device exploded almost simultaneously in Carnegie Hall at adjacent Pomona College. Hidden inside a shoebox wrapped in brown paper, the second bomb left 20-year-old Mary Ann Keatley blind in one eye and ripped two fingers from her right hand. Keatley, married just five months earlier to an undergraduate at Claremont Men’s College, worked as the secretary for the Pomona political science department. These two explosions, and a third two weeks later, shattered windows, and wrecked buildings. But they also rattled the confidence of those responsible for the academic mission and integrity of the Claremont Colleges. The student unrest and mayhem of the late 1960s affected many campuses besides Claremont, but what happened there is notable for other reasons, particularly the response of the academic and administrative authorities and a small minority of faculty who opposed them. 

Resistance to the Vietnam War motivated the campus violence in California and elsewhere, but so did the demands of the Black Power Movement, especially at Claremont, where protestors called for various new programs in ethnic studies as well as quotas for minority students. A leading member of this group had asked, shortly before a fire that destroyed Claremont McKenna’s historic Story House (a separate incident, in addition to the bombings), “Do you want this campus burned down this summer or next summer?”

Among the small group of faculty opposing those demands was a professor of political philosophy named Harry V. Jaffa. Though diametrically opposite in outlook and temperament, Jaffa and the radical students agreed at one level with the slogan, “No Justice, No Peace.” Jaffa had studied with Leo Strauss, the brilliant Jewish émigré scholar who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. From Strauss, Jaffa learned that this apparently outrageous statement is in fact a true observation about human life: there can’t be peace without justice, nor vice versa. Jaffa’s philosophical reasoning and explanation for this observation were nearly polar opposite of the justifications invoked by the violent protesters. But he understood that the radicals, in their passionate commitment to building a new social order, perceived something essential about political life, a truth missed or suppressed by mainstream academic thought. The protestors had a conception of justice they were extreme in pursuing and saw no virtue in moderating their demands. This was a view Jaffa understood well. 

Despite strong resistance and dire warnings from the small coterie of conservative professors, the administrators of the Claremont Colleges opened negotiations with the radicals on the assumption that those responsible for the bombings shared their faith in compromise and dialogue. The leadership of the colleges granted nearly every demand of the protestors in the vain hope that capitulation would appease those who threatened to burn down the campus. (It didn’t.) Not for the first or last time, the unwillingness of the academic establishment to defend the integrity of the university would remind Jaffa of the aphorism attributed to Winston Churchill: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”

Compromise, Jaffa noted later, “presupposes an end that the compromisers share and that it is more important to them than what they are asked to sacrifice in compromising.” The administrators’ avowed principles evidently were less important to them than the commitment of the radicals to their principles. Jaffa expressed particular disappointment over how the rhetorical bravery of the “no-nonsense” businessmen on the board of trustees melted away when courage was really needed. In a letter to a colleague years afterward, Jaffa explained:

We who opposed this policy of surrender, were very much in the position of the defenders of the Alamo. And . . . I could not detect any prospect of relief emanating from the trustees. And this, notwithstanding the bold and uncompromising talk I had so often heard over brandy and cigars from conservative trustees—when there was no danger to face. “You don’t understand,” [one trustee] declared, “Rome was not built in a day.” “You don’t understand,” I replied, “Rome is not being built, it’s being burned.”

At the time of the bombings, Jaffa, then 50 years old, already had established himself as a figure of controversy and an enemy of facile conciliation. Five years earlier, he had helped Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater jab a thumb in the eye of this same establishment crowd, those who seemed, both to Goldwater and Jaffa, too eager to sacrifice upon the altar of safety and expediency. Jaffa had grown up in a “high-spirited” Jewish family in New York, studied English at Yale, then earned a Ph.D. in political philosophy under Strauss at the New School for Social Research. In 1963, he took a temporary leave from academic life to help advise the Goldwater campaign as a noted Lincoln scholar and student of American political thought. 

At the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, he was recruited by Goldwater to write the bulk of the nomination acceptance speech. In a memo for the campaign prepared a few days earlier, after sitting through the debates of the platform committee, Jaffa had crafted the famous lines that caught Goldwater’s attention and, reformulated for the speech, would become world-famous: “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!” Though the crowd in the Cow Palace auditorium erupted in cheers, the mainstream establishment—including television commentators, prominent journalists, and moderate Republicans (not to mention Democrats)—reacted with alarm and consternation. Pat Brown, the liberal governor of California, embraced his own form of extremism and went so far as to say, “The stench of fascism is in the air.”

Today, looking back on these years from a distance of five decades, such scenes may seem depressingly familiar: social-justice warriors pulling to port and conservative demagogues keeling to starboard threaten to tear apart the ship of state. Moderation, tolerance, and civil debate are left to drown at sea. What, then, can be gained by retelling moldy stories about Jaffa’s campus skirmishes from a half-century ago? They seem only to remind us how little has changed and how fruitless must be any effort to affect the course of human affairs. The ’60s radicals grew up and became the establishment. Goldwater morphed into Reagan and then into Trump. History carries us along on her tedious course, monotonously reenacting the same “crimes, follies, and misfortunes,” and we ride as flotsam on the current. 

And yet, the very fact that our politics are so divided and bitter today demonstrates that nothing, really, has been settled—despite a century of efforts by progressives, reformers, and well-educated experts to create a modern “administrative state” overseen by nonpartisan and professional bureaucrats. If the Donald Trump presidency revealed anything, it was that the superficial consensus that dominated postwar America was an illusion. But despite today’s availability of 24-7 commentary, from every possible ideological perspective, there is little understanding of the deeper political and philosophical roots of our current crisis.

A Scholar and His Students

More so than Jaffa himself, his students have developed a body of scholarship, now built up over several decades, exploring how progressive ideas overturned the framers’ constitutionalism. Yet as early as 1986, Jaffa himself observed, with astounding prescience, what was happening to consent and self-government. In a letter to his friend Lewis Lehrman, Jaffa noted “elections are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the exercise of political power in our government as it really is.”

[The] preferences registered by the voters at the polls have been vetoed, in large part, by a combination of the media elite and the institutionalized pressure groups who control Congress and the bureaucracy. These people are, to paraphrase Keynes, the slaves of ideas that are, if not defunct, then moribund. But they are the ideas patronized by the universities, particularly those in the northeast whose prestige is the greatest. Even men as strong willed as Nixon and Reagan lose much of the confidence that they have had in the ideas they expressed before their election, when they are subject to the unrelenting bombardment of the Fourth Estate and its dependents. 

No nostalgia for “the Reagan revolution” clouded Jaffa’s judgment about the march toward an unaccountable class of ruling elites. (In 1988, he would complain in a letter that “the last years of the Reagan presidency have turned into a disaster,” describing “the old Man in the Oval Office” as “hen pecked.”) To be sure, Jaffa credited Reagan for his admirable resolution in leading the West’s victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War (an achievement of statesmanship perhaps underappreciated by those who did not live through the 1970s). But a recurring theme one finds in both Strauss and Jaffa is that triumph in arms is not necessarily triumph in minds. “That is why the present so-called victory of liberal democracy over Communism being trumpeted in Washington, London, Paris, etc. is such a delusion,” Jaffa wrote in 1991. As vital as it was to win the Cold War, there was still an ideological battle at home with which to contend.

Jaffa’s student John Marini has devoted his career to expanding on Jaffa’s observation about how the voters’ preferences are overturned or ignored. Marini explored in great depth the theoretical basis and institutional contours of this “second constitution”:

In political practice, liberals and conservatives had established a kind of symbiotic relationship that made them appear as opposite sides of the same coin. The contemporary meaning of those terms had been derived from the theories and policies that had become embodied within the administrative state. There were disagreements over how certain domestic or foreign policies should be promulgated, or when they should take effect, or how much they should cost. However, there was little partisan disagreement as to whether those policies should have been pursued, or abandoned, because there was no political standard by which to judge results in terms of success or failure. Those decisions were put in the hands of experts, or bureaucrats, whose knowledge established their authority. But the outcome of the decisions based on that supposed knowledge, whether successful or not, remained unquestioned by those who had political power. 

The authority of the intellectuals had established a theoretical, or socially constructed, reality that appeared indifferent to reality as it revealed itself in practical or political life. It seemed as though liberal and conservative intellectuals could disagree when it came to practical means, but they were in apparent agreement concerning technical ends. But it was the ends—the results or failures—that brought about the political turmoil that led to the questioning of their authority. Much of official Washington rested on the authority of the knowledge that had been invested in those technical administrative positions. And nearly all concerned had a stake in maintaining the status quo.

That is, until the big crack-up began in 2016. Although Antifa and other leftist radicals would surely bristle at the idea, the heartland unease that helped elect Trump has a common origin with the campus protest culture: they are both eruptions of the human concern for justice breaking through the artificial shell of the uniparty establishment. 

Breaking from Artificial Politics

Jaffa spent his entire long career rejecting the false consensus of the status quo intellectuals because he had learned how unnatural and even impossible it was to suppress what Strauss called our “simple experiences regarding right and wrong.” Jaffa was accused of being a superficial moralizer, a potentially great scholar who frittered away the promise of his early work through a regrettable descent into florid patriotism. But such a view cannot seriously be entertained by anyone who has examined Jaffa’s writings with any care. This book will reveal his appreciation for Churchill’s ruthlessness, Shakespeare’s Machiavellian poetry, Aristotle’s denigration of “mere” moral virtue, and Lincoln’s keen appraisal of tyranny and its singular attractions. All of these stark portraits are drawn by Jaffa with unstinting candor, not sparing the unsettling implications.

In his first great book on Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa remarks on Lincoln’s apparent contempt for “moral weaklings,” a phrase he repeats four times in the span of eight pages. In fact, the heart of Jaffa’s project was to demonstrate the shallowness and inadequacy of our modern conventional morality, which seeks to turn men into obedient sheep or mindless machines. “Purposeless politics is a human impossibility. All human beings act for the sake of ends. Action not for the sake of ends . . . is not possible.” Nor can such aspirations be mere creations of our whim or imagination. 

Former Claremont Institute President Thomas B. Silver (left) with Harry Jaffa in 2001. (Iris Schneider/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

An aimless life [is] bound to become frustrated at any time and place, no matter how perfect the opportunities offered to the human beings in that time and place. Man does not make himself, and therefore he cannot invent the ends that prescribe his well-being . . . The act of self-deception, whereby one treats the ends one has invented as if they were real, leads to nothing but fanaticism, and to the unspeakable tyrannies that have in fact characterized our time.

The attempt to avoid this problem by building a sterile regime of soulless men—the kind of regime imagined or desired by those university administrators in the 1960s, who thought everything could be negotiated—does not eliminate passion or courage; it can only make courage pointless. A purposeless world, in which all moral questions have been set aside in favor of “professional administration” simply results in the mindless slaughter represented perhaps most tragically in World War I’s Battle of Verdun. Verdun, according to Jaffa, was “the apotheosis” of what happens when the dignity of courage is separated “from either wisdom or justice.” 

The “case against politics” in its starkest form is when the political alternatives are seen as a cowardice which knows no limits of baseness, and a courage which knows no limits of prudence. In truth, they do not constitute real alternatives at all, since one will inevitably lead to the other. Either is an extreme against which human nature rebels. No one really wants to live his life dominated every moment by the fear of death, and choosing only those ends which involve no danger. Neither do human beings want to seek out danger for its own sake, and fight and kill each other as the only way to become fully alive!

Jaffa writes with luminous force about this courageous human striving for some higher purpose. But this is hardly the end of the story. It is not even, to paraphrase Churchill, the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning. 

Breaking out of the tunnel of our artificial politics, and recognizing the human need for purpose and meaning, opens up a world of entirely new, and perhaps even more serious, challenges.

Leo Strauss, invoking a famous image from Plato’s Republic, memorably suggested that our blindness and delusions about human nature had placed modern man in a cave beneath the “natural” cave of ordinary politics. Strauss’ project was to revive an older form of political and philosophic thought that could escape the socially constructed reality that turned politics into a merely technical exercise. But, mixing metaphors, this escape from the underground pit would be no more than a jump out of the frying pan. Even if it were possible to return to the natural cave, above the artificial cave, this would simply reopen the older and more fundamental questions: Whose justice? What is the best way of life? Who is entitled to rule? What is to be the basis of the political community? Such questions are nothing less than the discovery, or rediscovery, of political philosophy as practiced by Plato and Aristotle. It is through the rediscovery of these questions that one is eventually led to ask, Is there something that is right or just, not merely by opinion or convention, but always and everywhere? Is there any natural right?

Strauss’ rediscovery involved a kind of daring or boldness in even raising and taking such questions seriously. They had been buried for so long that the very possibility of asking them was (and still is) denied. But this rediscovery and reopening, once achieved, took on a life of its own. One notable effect for Jaffa was that the possibility of these questions, which had been studiously ignored by his professors at Yale, animated his intense confrontation with the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In studying those debates over the justice or injustice of slavery and its political fate, Jaffa began a lifelong meditation on the profound arguments that clarified, but could not prevent, the greatest war in American history. 

As Jaffa was to discover in his study of American political history, it was partly the terrible suffering and losses incurred in the Civil War that led many intellectuals to embrace the utopian hope of forever removing violence and factionalism from political life. This impulse, in itself, is not hard to understand. In fact, this expectation has striking similarities with the sentiments of the founding fathers of 1776, who hoped that their new republic, a novus ordo seclorum, offered a solution to the bloody religious conflicts that had afflicted Europe. 

Within less than a generation after the Union victory over the Confederacy, American political scientists, many of whom had studied in Germany or read books by German philosophers of history, had begun a project for building “the modern administrative state.” Their goal, Marini explains, was “to establish the rational or technical means to carry out the will of the people.” Commensurate with its boundless optimism, this project would exact an almost impossible price: “It required unlimited power in the state . . . to institutionalize rationality in the service of will through utilization of a universal class, the bureaucracy.” This development points to one of the great ironies of the Civil War and another element of tragedy in Lincoln’s assassination. Though he managed to drive the Union to success on the battlefield, Lincoln did not live to translate that victory into a political program guided by his statesmanship.

The Civil War, as Abraham Lincoln always insisted, was about the issue of slavery and was fought over the principle of equality. With the victory of the Union armies, it seemed likely that Lincoln’s understanding of the meaning of equality would prevail. In that case, equality would have remained the indispensable ground of national citizenship. But such was not to be the case. The Progressive intellectuals, and the new social science disciplines then being developed in the new research universities, denied the natural right foundation of the regime. They also rejected the social compact and the abstract principle of equality itself.

What Jaffa Has to Offer Today

The attempt by American political scientists to escape the challenge of natural right by putting all political decisions into the hands of nonpartisan experts was as naïve as it was disastrous, Jaffa thought. Such a project, he argued, was “the logical culmination of the quest by modern man, equipped by modern science, to solve the human problem by abolishing . . . the discipline of moral virtue.” It was precisely this misunderstanding of the true nature and limits of politics that had led most historians to overlook the real significance of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. To the degree that mid-twentieth century scholars noticed any enduring moral dimension to those debates, they considered it a failure of democracy. 

In a 1958 essay, Jaffa responds to the argument of a professor who had asserted “the simple fact” that “issues dealing with right and wrong . . . do not lend themselves to the democratic process.” But, as Jaffa notes, “if discussion is efficient only when there is nothing important to discuss, then democracy as a form of government is neither possible nor desirable.” Only in Strauss’ subterranean pit of self-delusion would political scientists attempt to create a government that avoided any discussion of right and wrong. Jaffa notes in the conclusion of his essay: “That men may be called upon to fight for [a] conviction cannot be called a failure of democracy. It would be a failure only if they refused to fight for it.” 

There is no doubt Jaffa thought the violent campus radicals of the 1960s were wrong about almost everything; their ends were wildly unreasonable, their tactics cowardly and cruel, their arguments weak. Yet for all that, the very fact that these radicals were willing to make claims about right and wrong (however misguided) and argue for a conception of justice (however grounded in passion rather than reason) put them one small step closer to the light than the bureaucratic mole-men, with their blind faith in soothing platitudes. Thus, Jaffa’s writings have something to offer the cynical and disaffected on both the Left and the Right, especially those young people who wonder what meaning they can hope to find in their lives as the establishment crumbles. 

But what Jaffa teaches is neither easy nor comforting. So far from offering his students and readers idle chatter or shallow patriotism, Jaffa sought to reveal how natural right remains a living force, pulsing with great power, as long as there are men and women who would resist the burrowing mole-men seeking safety in denial. Precisely for this reason, the ancient world considered it very much an open question whether appeals to natural right should be seen as ultimately comforting or terrifying. 

In antiquity, both Jerusalem and Athens emphasized the danger, even the sinfulness, of man’s overly bold inquisitiveness. The Bible and Greek mythology each prescribe terrible punishment for peering behind the curtain of the revealed, divine law, the law that simply is and is not to be questioned. Genesis tells of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Greek myth of Prometheus recounts a similar parable of divine punishment for intellectual hubris. But whereas the Hebrews believed in a single creator God, the Greeks worshipped the squabbling Olympian divinities. They had, therefore, a rather different metaphor for the original sin of learning “the nature of things.” Prometheus was not damned to eternal torment for giving mankind an apple; the knowledge he shared was symbolically represented by . . . fire.

Support Free & Independent Journalism Your support helps protect our independence so that American Greatness can keep delivering top-quality, independent journalism that's free to everyone. Every contribution, however big or small, helps secure our future. If you can, please consider a recurring monthly donation.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.