Sunday, May 23, 2010

Harry V. Jaffa on Bloom's "Closing"

I've always wanted to read this. But the journal didn't offer online access to it. That is, until now. See pages 111-138.

[I edited something from this post for American Creation readers that does not relate to religion and the American Founding. For what I left out, see my post at Positive Liberty.]

I focus on Jaffa's criticisms of Bloom's understanding of the American Founding. Many of the points Jaffa makes are quite apt:

....Elsewhere Bloom asserts that

What was acted out in the American and French Revolutions had been thought out beforehand in the writings of Locke and Rousseau, the scenarists for the drama of modern politics (p. 162).

He adds that Hobbes had "led the way" and, as he proceeds, it becomes clear that he regards Locke as essentially Hobbes with a fig leaf covering the hedonism, atheism, and materialism that is so prominent in the former, but no less essential although concealed in the latter. We will return to this point presently. But think of it, the American and French Revolutions "scenarios" written by Locke and Rousseau! The embattled farmers who "fired the shot heard round the world" and the great protagonists in the world historical events that followed Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, are mere actors, following a script. Do we not have here an historical determinism equal to Hegel's? Only the "cunning of history" is replaced by the cunning of the modem philosophers. But this is the purest nonsense.

Leaving the French Revolution to others, I comment only on the American Revolution and the American Founding....Bloom purports to write about "the American mind." But he is perfectly oblivious of the presence of this expression in one of the most famous documents of American history. In a letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, Thomas Jefferson explained the sources, the purpose, and the manner of the writing of what Lincoln would call that "immortal emblem of humanity," and Calvin Coolidge (observing in 1926 the sesquicentennial of the event) called "the most important civil document in the world."

But with respect to our rights and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects. When forced therefore to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject; in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent . neither aiming at originality of principle nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversations, in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero. Locke. Sidney, etc.

We must...emphasi[ze]...Jefferson's emphasis upon the "one opinion" on this side of the water. There really was a "public philosophy" at the time of the Revolution and the Founding. The party conflict of the 1790s exceeded in intensity anything that has come after even that of the decade before the Civil War. Yet Jefferson, in his inaugural address in 1801, could say "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans." To speak as Jefferson did, in the letter to Lee, of the "harmonizing sentiments of the day," is to imply a consensus transcending the normal differences of opinion among a free people. Of "the elementary books of public right" mentioned by Jefferson, two are ancient, two are modern. I think it safe to assume that according to Jefferson's understanding of the American mind, that mind found harmonizing sentiments among the books of public right no less than among the conversations, letters, and printed essays. Certainly that would suggest that Americans then read John Locke's Second Treatise in its "harmonizing" sense, in which Locke quotes Hooker for authority for his doctrine, and through Hooker reaches back to Christian scholasticism, and through it to Aristotle.

Bloom not only believes that the English and American Revolutions were scenarios by Locke he says that "the new English and American regimes founded themselves according to his [Locke's] instructions" (p. 162). According to Bloom one can save oneself all the trouble of reading political and constitutional history like Bloom and just read Locke. But how does Bloom read Locke?

"Perhaps the most important discovery" upon which Locke's teaching was based, according to Bloom, was that "there was no Garden of Eden . . . Man was not provided for at the beginning God neither looks after him nor punishes him. Nature's indifference to justice is a terrible bereavement for man. He must [therefore] care for himself." (p. 163). The complete break with Biblical religion, as well as with classical philosophy, as represented by Aristotle and Cicero, is the necessary presupposition of Bloom's Locke.

Once the world has been purged of ghosts or spirits, [meaning of any belief in God or immortality] it reveals to us that the critical problem is scarcity[.] What is required is not brotherly love or faith, hope, and charity, but self-interested rational labor (p. 165).

"Americans" says Bloom,

are Lockeans: recognizing that work is necessary (no longing for a nonexistent Eden), and will produce well-being; following their natural inclinations moderately, not because they possess the virtue of moderation but because their passions are balanced and they recognize the reasonableness of that; respecting the rights of others so that theirs will be respected . From the point of view of God or heroes, all this is not very inspiring. But for the poor, the weak, the oppressed the overwhelming majority of mankind it is the promise of salvation. As Leo Strauss put it, the moderns "built on low but solid ground" (p. 167).

We need not dispute Bloom's interpretation of Locke to deny that the American mind has ever been the mind represented by that interpretation....[T]he words attributed to Strauss are not Strauss's but Churchill's albeit words Strauss himself frequently quoted. But can a regime to which a Churchill could give such unstinting devotion a regime in whose finest hour so many would come to owe so much to so few; a regime whose glory would not be of a day, but of a thousand years be a regime despised by God and heroes?

....Bloom's own account of the success of American Lockeanism is testimony to the proposition that this is precisely the kind of regime that the God of the Bible, who cares for the poor, the weak, and the oppressed would favor. Bloom to the contrary notwithstanding this is the kind of God most Americans have always believed in. This is what they believe when they sing "God bless America."

Let us again consult Jefferson, at his inaugural, declaring of the American mind that it is one

enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter (p. 333).

As far as I can see, everything Bloom says on subject of the American Founding is derived from his readings of Hobbes, Locke, or Tocqueville. I have found not a word of serious interpretation apart from his birdseed scatterings coming from an American source: not Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, or Lincoln. No one has maintained more persistently than I have, during the past thirty-five years, the importance in the American Founding of Locke's teachings as they were understood and incorporated into their handiwork by the Founding Fathers. But to say that a radical atheism discovered in Locke's esoteric teaching was part of what they understood, believed, and incorporated into their regime when every single document bearing on the question contradicts it, and there is not a shred of evidence to support it is just plain crazy.

A qualified defense of Bloom: He understood much of what Jaffa argues when he wrote the book. Of course he was aware of the "God talk" of the American Founding. He wasn't stupid and he read the documents. His, after Strauss' idea is that Hobbes' and Locke's state of nature/contract and rights ideas are at their heart atheistic and materialistic. And ideas have consequences. Therefore, dressing these ideas up in God talk doesn't negate their inherently atheistic, materialistic nature. As Bloom wrote in "Closing":

When Bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. (pp. 141-2).


Tom Van Dyke said...

The problem here is that the Founders understood the "state of nature" has a "law of nature" to bind it, i.e. "natural law."

This is explicitly clear in the D of I, "the laws of nature and nature's God."

As my favorite Straussian on the Founding, Tom West, notes---as I often have, we have James Wilson and Hamilton also explicitly supporting the view that the Founders saw no daylight between Locke and the Anglican Thomist Rev. Richard Hooker. [Even though there is.]


Bloom’s mistake about America proceeds, I believe, from two sources. First, he simply doesn’t know much about America’s origins. His own studies have been in the history of European political philosophy and European literature. And, not having studied America much himself, he has relied heavily, almost exclusively, on the facts that John Locke is America’s philosopher, and that John Locke was a secret admirer and follower of Thomas Hobbes. But it is not possible to move from these facts to an account of America’s founding that pays little or no attention to the actual writings and documents produced by the Founders themselves. For the question is, in what sense were the Founders Lockeans? Their writings show without doubt that the Founders’ understanding of their own actions was entirely contrary to the deepest intention of the deeply radical Hobbes and Locke.

Hamilton, in The Farmer Refuted:

"His [Hobbes’s] opinion was, exactly, coincident with yours [Seabury’s], relative to man in a state of nature. He held, as you do, that he [man] was then perfectly free from the restraint of law and government. Moral obligation, according to him, is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse. But the reason he ran into this absurd and impious doctrine was that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor and will be the final judge of the universe.

. . . To grant that there is a supreme intelligence who rules the world and has established laws to regulate the actions of his creatures; and still, to assert, that man, in a state of nature, may be considered as perfectly free from all restraints of law and government, appear to a common understanding, altogether irreconcilable.

Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensably, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.

This is what is called the law of nature. . . . Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind. . . ."


The key point is that Hamilton, as did the other Founders, integrated Lockean language into a moral framework they had inherited from classical and medieval political philosophy and from their manly Protestantism. Nature and nature’s God were the ultimate source of duty and right.

Against Hamilton, Bloom asserts, without the slightest attempt to prove it, that for Americans rights precede duties as a matter of course.

Like they say, read the whole thing. West was a student of Bloom's.

[Jon, sorry, I meant to write you that most of the early issues of Interpretation were PDFed and made available on the internet a few months ago. Very tall scholarly weeds for the casual reader, but at a textual political-philosophy level much deeper than our most popular historians, along the lines of J-STOR or Questia, which want 20 bucks for every paper.]

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rowe said...

No problem. I didn't have time a few months ago to delve into them. But currently I found out they are available just at the right time (I'm still busy teaching this summer, but not nearly as busy as I was this Spring). And it was your link to the Zuckert/Dworetz that tipped me off to this.

Brad Hart said...

I'm not interested in getting into a Glenn Beck debate here but I think it will take more than a few of these quotes to start calling the man an objective voice on American history. He's done too much damage to his credibility over the years.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad, I'm thinking that you meant to post this on one of the other Beck/Barton threads.

My reply is, if you want to turn the blog back to the culture wars, it would be better to criticize beck when he blows it.

I meself fought hard against embracing Beck's populism on my other groupblog, Southern Appeal, even warning he might become a Father Coughlin.

And so, I paid my dues there to comment here that I think Beck caught himself before he plunged over that cliff, and has returned to the Founders, to ground his political thought. A very proper place.


I'm a bit disappointed that Jon's thread here didn't grow more discussion. C'est la vie.

My reply to Jon per Locke, per Ben Abbott, per K of I, actually written for another forum. These questions are flying around all over America:

Could it be that _ideas_ are actually important? That the "universal language" of man-as-animal does not hold? That there must be something more?

John Locke, in an observation I've never seen addressed by scholars, made an elegant argument against "natural law," which holds even through

[American KJV]

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law to themselves

...Christ, Jesus, the Gospel, whathaveyou, would have been unnecessary to bring the Law of Love to mankind.

In American politics, Jefferson in the D of I:

that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...

I can't get around that one. Can't find it in the Hopi, not in Plato, not Rome, nowhere else, not Islamic republics like Malaysia, or Confucian republics like Singapore.

If Locke was any sort of Christian---contra Strauss and Zuckert---he might have been getting at something here, respecting man as man, and not just his negotiated political rights with the crown or government.

Even if Locke didn't mean that, it's an elegant argument anyway, that we must respect fellow man as the "workmanship of God." A phrase Locke used hisownself.

King of Ireland said...

I think less comments were made here because this gets into the graduate level arguments and above. While interesting it is over most people's head including mine. I had trouble following.

Thats not to say I did not enjoy the post and learn from it. Most of us are not there yet. Jon has a law degree and a masters and is used to that level of discussion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

OK. Thx, King.

King of Ireland said...

I might add that so are you in regards to that level of discussion.

Unknown said...

Sorry to lower the discussion to personalities but this is something I would like some honest feedback on from intelligent conservatives.

Can anyone read pages 112-113 of the journal linked in the first line of this blog post and not conclude that Harry Jaffa is outrageously bigoted on the question of homosexuality?

Here are some of the choice lines:

"Tens of thousands - perhaps hundreds of thousands - of students across the country, who never had
the least homosexual tendencies, have been seduced (and their lives mined) by the overpowering pressure of the official patronage of the gay rights propaganda. Many young men, who do not know how to deal with "liberated" women, and many
"liberated" women, who do not know how to deal with men any more (except as enemies), take refuge in sodomy and lesbianism."

-(regarding AIDS) "God and nature have exacted terrible retribution."

I should point out that I am a Straussian sympathizer, and I am fully aware of the Straussian arguments that could be made against legalizing gay marriage on the grounds of preserving the public religion, including its false elements.

But the comments I quoted are sheer brute ideology, supported by the thinnest veneer of natural law rhetoric. ("The etymology of natural is generative, gay people as gay people are not generative of other human beings, therefore they have no rights as gay people".)

AIDS is God's vengeance? The gay agenda is converting hundreds of thousands of straight boys and ruining their lives?

This is the most vulgar, ignorant, and paranoid prejudice. My disgust has nothing to do with politics.

Does anyone want to take his side here?