Friday, February 20, 2015

Aha! Harry V. Jaffa was really an esoteric East Coast Straussian

This is what Paul Gottfried writes about Jaffa.
... This thinker or myth-maker (he was both) has made good on a claim he once divulged to his boyhood friend from the Bronx, the late Francis Canavan, S.J. Jaffa told the then already eminent theologian and Edmund Burke-scholar in a moment of candor: “Frank, I’m inventing a myth and I’ll make people believe it.” I learned of this story while Father Canavan and I were attending an Edmund Burke conference about twenty years ago. The Jesuit scholar mentioned it not to disparage Jaffa, but to express admiration for someone who achieved what he said he would do when they were both much younger.
The "East Coast Straussians" (Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, Irving Kristol and some others) are notable for somewhat secretly (it's not much of a secret anymore) rejecting the metaphysical truths of revelation and the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence, while believing it's proper for the public to believe in the truths of both. Though, they caution on how much the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence ought be promoted. The liberalism of the late 18th Century, as it were, too easily slips into the liberalism of today. So, therefore, the Constitution should be understood as unmoored from the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence.

The West Coast Straussians (Jaffa and his followers) believe the Declaration of Independence should be connected to the Constitution and that its natural rights doctrine doesn't slip into modern liberalism.

But here's the key: The East Coast Straussians can be somewhat upfront about their conviction that the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration is a metaphysical fiction. Jaffa defended such as though it were true. Gottfried's testimony suggests he was artfully lying. That he too understood the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration as a metaphysical fiction, but thought it needed to be defended as though it were true to keep morality from falling apart.


The Rational Right said...

If the quote on myth making and the context are accurate, it is disappointing. (as well as a mythtake). It is even more disappointing than the denial of natural rights by from those so-called East Coasters. Conservative refinements of the concepts of liberty, equality, and rights clearly distinguish them from those right-inflating progressives. It seems foolish to adopt the reactionary rejection of natural rights just because one does not agree with the rights claims of progressives.

The Rational Right said...

And where are we now? The esoteric Jaffa on the esoteric Lincoln on the esoteric Jefferson on the esoteric Locke?


Jonathan Rowe said...

Lee as regards the East Coast Straussians. They are "philosophers" in the sense of being "open" to truth. They don't have a militant nihilistic approach; but their philosophy teaches God doesn't exist, the natural law is a fiction, and rights aren't grounded in nature.

These are all useful concepts, however.

They are convinced that the notion men have unalienable rights to liberty and equality invariably will inflate unless proper precautions/correctives are taken.

So I don't think they have a problem with the conservative refinements on liberty and equality that would say, "this is what you get and no further." In short, the rights are qualified not "unalienable."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Robert Bork, btw, wasn't any kind of "official" East Coast Straussian, but he was definitely influenced by them via Kristol, Berns and Bloom.

In Slouching Towards Gomorrah he says it pretty clearly, "liberty" and "equality" as rights, are quite alienable according to the US Constitution unmoored by the Declaration of Independence.

The Rational Right said...

Yes,I remember Jaffa taking Bork to the woodshed in the National Review over his legal positivism and denial of natural rights.

The East Coasters are correct that rights inflation is inevitable. The reaction should be vigorous debate/deliberation among ourselves as citizens--not throwing up the hands and denying liberty and equality altogether.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If not God, natural law and therefore natural rights require a metaphysics that Strauss [and we presume the East Coast Straussians] do not share.

In his seminal Natural Right and History, Strauss explicitly ties Aquinas and natural law to the Bible, that one needs the latter to embrace the former.

I don't agree

but will allow that at least an Aristotelian metaphysics ala Thomas is necessary.

Strauss was a Platonist and spoke not at all of metaphysics. In fact, I could never get my Straussian pals to formulate why the Holocaust was wrong by Straussian principles. That's the defect that Jaffa sought to repair, but as we see, it took compromises that true Straussians can't allow.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hey Lee, I like your new moniker much better. ;-)

See also

Despite Smith’s clarity and apparent fairness, he, an admitted “East Coaster,” stacks the deck against West Coast founder Harry V. Jaffa, author of Crisis of the Strauss Divided, and his allies such as Hillsdale’s Larry Arnn and Thomas G. West, Ashland’s Peter Schramm, and Claremont Review editor Charles Kesler, with his “Contra Strauss.”[ii] Might Jaffa’s project not be “against Strauss” but rather an affirmation of his purpose, as the necessary outcome of a thinking American citizen who understands Strauss and the classical best regime?

Smith takes “Strauss’s special combination of philosophical radicalism and political moderation” to cut against both Jaffa and East Coast representative Laurence Lampert. But in doing so Smith exposes the weakness of East Coast Straussians: for many of them “political moderation” means purgation of political passions and political relevance. Morality (and religion) become strictly utilitarian means for carrying on the only worthy activity of life—the pleasure of philosophizing. With Lampert exemplifying an extreme example of Strauss’s warning of “unmanly contempt for politics,” Smith focuses on Jaffa. “Jaffa’s peculiar genius — and I use that word advisedly — was to apply Strauss’s understanding of political philosophy as the study of high statesmanship to the theory and practice of American politics.”

jaffa bookstoreJaffa’s achievement was to revolutionize the serious study of American politics and political history and as well to goad American conservatism into an examination of founding principles. Not just as a Barry Goldwater speechwriter (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice….”), Jaffa may be credited with being the intellectual grandfather of the Tea Party movement.

lee said...

And contra Strauss, an Aristotelian case for natural rights . . .

Lee said...

Yes, TVD, I prefer it as well. When I first started experimenting with blogging and commenting on other peoples blogging, all variations on that name were taken. I finally found something close. Unfortunately, I deleted the blog instead of redirecting my half-dozen to dozen readers. Now I am pretty much starting over. :(

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, once you "Christianize" Aristotle ala Aquinas with imago dei and get to fundamental human equality, the case for natural rights is quite reasonable.

Which was Jaffa's project, to "correct" Strauss, just as Aquinas "corrects" the Greek and Roman pagans.