Friends, Enemies, and Prudent Alliances

Friendship, writes Aristotle, “seems to hold political communities together more than does justice, and legislators seem to care for it more than for justice.” 

What Aristotle means is that in a healthy and well-ordered political community, fellow citizens respect and care for one another willingly, without the threat of legal sanction. Of course, true friends will usually share the same opinions about what is just or right, because they are united in a common quest for the good life, which includes cultivating our social natures. Only beasts or gods can be truly alone.

In the United States today, political or civic friendship has almost entirely dissolved. No one can be sure what the next few years will bring, but it is hard to see a path back to “normal” political life given the current levels of animosity and distrust.

Yet a political crisis of the kind we face today is no reason to give up on the pursuit of justice . . . or friendship. Indeed, such times of stress and uncertainty can test and strengthen our virtues, and reveal for good or ill the true character of those we thought we knew. How many of us have discovered over the last few years who our political and personal friends really are—or aren’t?

In my own case, while giving talks and interviews about my new book on Harry Jaffa, I’ve often joked that I never would have guessed, back in the 1990s when I was an avid reader of The Weekly Standard and an opponent of the paleoconservatives, that I would come to hold Bill Kristol in contempt, and become not merely an ally, but even friends of a sort, with the venerable paleoconservative Paul Gottfried. 

Gottfried writes often for American Greatness, and it is nearly all terrific, as far as I’m concerned. Of course, we still have disagreements about important political and historical questions, such as Lincoln and the Civil War, tradition, and natural rights. Yet we each recognize that those differences pale before the threat posed by those who are seeking to redefine and overturn America’s constitutional government and way of life. I hope it is not presumptuous to suggest that Aristotle might call each of us a spoudaios: a morally serious gentleman capable of republican self-government. 

This moral seriousness means that Gottfried and I both take our principles seriously. Yet as with friendship and justice, principles are not the enemies of prudent alliances. On the contrary, prudence—the architectonic virtue of statesmanship—instructs us in how to put our principles into effect in the right way, at the right time, and toward the right end. If your principles are standing in the way of pursuing justice, and engaging in effective political action, Aristotle would suggest you are probably doing something wrong.

No one understood this better than the great statesman and natural Aristotelian, Winston Churchill—one of Harry Jaffa’s great heroes. Jaffa was especially fond of Churchill’s essay, “Consistency in Politics,” which explains this point with surpassing clarity. 

. . . a Statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His argument in each case when contrasted can be shown to be not only very different in character, but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: yet his object will throughout have remained the same. His resolves, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; his methods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call this inconsistency. It may in fact be claimed to be the truest consistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.

Paul Gottfried shares with those of us here at American Greatness the dominating purpose of preserving—so far as we are able—the best of American republicanism and Western Civilization, against the irrational and indecent barbarians who would destroy both. 

This alliance carries on, in a way, the cooperation and friendship of two giants of the American Right: Mel Bradford (who was a friend and mentor of Gottfried’s) and Harry Jaffa (my teacher). Bradford and Jaffa fought tenaciously, yet maintained a deep and mutual respect. As Jaffa recounts, “Above all, we shared a hatred for that acid of modernity, moral relativism . . .  which was dissolving the very basis of our civilization.” That same cause, and the same prudence, unites Gottfried and me today.

When Bradford died in 1993, Jaffa wrote a beautiful eulogy, which was published in National Review. It is a fine example of both Aristotle’s teaching about friendship, and Churchill’s lessons about political prudence.


The following is reproduced from a copy of Jaffa’s original typescript in the author’s personal collection. The inspired title was added by an editor at NR.

“In Abraham’s bosom—tribute to political historian Mel Bradford”

April 12, 1993

By Harry V. Jaffa 

No one—outside the immediate circle of his family and close friends–will miss Mel Bradford more than I. His opinions on Lincoln, the Civil War, the Declaration of Independence, equality, and slavery were so diametrically opposite to mine that they were virtually mirror images of each other. We were, more than any of our contemporaries, I think, so convinced that the conflict that centered on the figure of Abraham Lincoln was the central conflict in American, perhaps even in world, history that we came to constitute a fellowship of our own.

In his loyalty to the Old South—to the South of which he knew from what he regarded as the only ultimately reliable authority, namely “our fathers,” Mel was perfectly intransigent. He believed in tradition in the absolute sense in which the fundamental ordering of society, and above all its convictions on the ultimately important things—such as God and the universe–were transmitted by the family. Of course, this meant not any families, but the old families, such as constituted the senatorial class in ancient republican Rome, the ones who ruled by divine right because their family gods were the gods of the city. Once in a long private conversation, I pointed out to him that the only regime that was purely patriarchal—more so even than that of the Roman republic–was that of ancient Israel. This regime alone, in the form of Orthodox Judaism, had survived into the modern world. “You ought to be a Jew, Mel,” I said.

“Maybe you’re right, Harry, maybe you’re right,” he replied, in his long squeaky Texas drawl.

Of course, Mel couldn’t become a Jew, because it was not his inherited religion. That, however, illustrated the difficulty with “pure” traditionalism in a Judaeo-Christian framework. When Jesus asked: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matthew 12:48) he transformed the family of pure tradition into one constituted, not by blood, but by faith. Curiously, this is exactly what Abraham Lincoln did within the American experience.

We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors . . . perhaps half our people who are not descended [from them] . . . German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian . . . If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none . . . but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that declaration, and so they are.

Just as Jesus bridged the gap between the God of Israel and Mel Bradford’s ancestors, who were not descended from the Fathers who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, so Lincoln bridged the gap between the Revolutionary Fathers and my ancestors. When Lincoln began the Gettysburg Address by invoking “our fathers who brought forth this nation” he confirmed our community as a sacramental union of “one nation, under God.” 

Our Separate Fathers 

Mel Bradford could never accept this view of Lincoln, or of the Declaration as the source of our authentic tradition. Yet in a curious way, we shared a faith in “our fathers”—both Biblical and American—as the source of authority and tradition. Because of that shared faith, we agreed very much in our postbellum convictions. We shared a hatred of Communism abroad and socialism at home. We both loathed “race-based remedies.” We felt much the same way about the liberal statism that would replace the family and its extension in neighborhood communities, neighborhood schools, neighborhood churches and synagogues, and voluntary charitable organizations. In fact, we shared a conviction concerning states’ rights, even though Mel, following John C. Calhoun, could not see the connection that I (and Abraham Lincoln) saw between states’ and natural rights.

Above all, we shared a hatred for that acid of modernity, moral relativism, which lay at the heart of the welfare state, and which was dissolving the very basis of our civilization. In 1977 I presented a paper on Measure for Measure at a Shakespeare conference at the University of Dallas. It was entitled “Chastity as a Political Principle,” and in it, I set out what I believed to be Shakespeare’s finding of moral laxity in private life as the basis for the disintegration of public morality. Shakespeare’s play is a drama of the restoration of the family of republican Rome—as is symbolized in part by the silent presence of old Romans at the end. Mel was most enthusiastic at this presentation; both from a literary and a philosophic perspective, he felt it represented complete agreement as to what we understood conservatism to be.

Joining Lincoln’s Party

 It was accordingly not surprising that Mel called on me when he decided in 1981 to become a candidate for the chairmanship of the National Endowment of the Humanities. 

I wrote on his behalf to the Reagan White House, making plain our differences, but also giving it as my opinion that Mel was as loyal a member of the Reagan coalition as could be found. Certainly, it could not have been easy for him to join the party of Lincoln. But he saw that party, under Ronald Reagan, as holding out the only rational hope for the future. And I for one thought he deserved the most cordial welcome.

Since I have myself undergone a good deal of criticism—even from some of my friends—for having supported Mel as I did, I would like to say here that in doing so, I believed I was doing no more than I believed Abraham Lincoln would have done. Lincoln was a master of the art of patronage. No one, better than he, would have recognized the importance of moving the old Northeastern liberal wing of the Roosevelt Democratic Party coalition, along with the old Southwestern conservative wing of that same coalition, into the Reagan Republican coalition. In FDR’s case, it was patronage pure and simple that glued these opposites together. In Reagan’s case, there was a common cause to be made against the welfare state and its intellectuals. I thought Mel’s appointment would have served that cause. 

Unfortunately, the old hatred between Northeast and Southwest was too great, and Mel’s candidacy foundered. Among the ironies was the part played in the campaign against him by the circulation of his anti-Lincoln views. It just happens that those who circulated these views were, for the most part, less friendly (if possible) to Lincoln than Mel was. To them, the natural law of the Declaration was anathema. Since I was shut out of the loop for my pro-Lincoln views as effectively as Mel for his anti-Lincoln views, I never had the opportunity to explain why I thought he would have had Lincoln’s support! As I return to my book on Lincoln and the Civil War, I shall always remember that no one encouraged me to write it more than Mel. I will not now have the opportunity to hear his comments when—God willing—it is finished. But our conversation will not have come to an end. I am confident that somehow, somewhere, he and I—and Abraham Lincoln—will, in the best of tempers, go on arguing into eternity.

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