Yesterday brought sad news of the death of Walter Berns, and today comes word from Claremont that Harry Jaffa has passed away at the age of 96. Two truly towering figures in American intellectual life for many decades, each of whom made us smarter about ourselves and more grateful for our inheritance, if often in quite different ways. What a loss all at once.
Jaffa was perhaps best known for his contributions to our understanding of Abraham Lincoln’s political thought. Even amid the staggering profusion of books about Lincoln — surely the most thoroughly examined American political figure — Jaffa’s greatest book, Crisis of the House Divided, easily stands out. It is a masterful work of analysis, filled with brilliant gems that have lost none of their shine in the 55 years since the book was published. Any scholar would be lucky to leave behind such a contribution, but Jaffa leaves behind much more than that. Although his other work tends to be overshadowed by his case for Lincoln, he was, among other things, a path-breaking and important scholar of Aristotle’s political thought and its implications, and his first book, Thomism and Aristotelianism, remains an underappreciated masterpiece. Shakespeare’s Politics, which Jaffa co-authored with Allan Bloom in 1964, also deserves an audience these days, especially for Jaffa’s chief contribution — an extended analysis of the opening scene of King Lear that stands as a model of how students of philosophy and human affairs can help draw wisdom out of great works of art.
Particularly in his younger days, Jaffa was not only a scholar of political ideas but also involved himself in the political arena. Perhaps most famously, he was a kind of adviser to Barry Goldwater in his ill-fated 1964 presidential campaign, even penning Goldwater’s famous declaration that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” (though Jaffa had not intended those lines to become part of Goldwater’s Republican-convention acceptance speech).
Throughout his many essays and books, Jaffa argued for a recovery of classical political philosophy and insisted that the American founding — launched in the Declaration of Independence, further perfected in the Constitution, and completed in Lincoln’s statesmanship — embodied those principles in practice. This was always a controversial assertion, and led Jaffa into many disputes not only with critics of the American constitutional system but even with his fellow defenders of the American founding and the American order (Walter Berns not least among them).
Jaffa had a reputation as a master of the feud, particularly with people who mostly shared his views and commitments. William F. Buckley, a friend of Jaffa’s over many decades, famously said (in a foreword to one of Jaffa’s books) “if you think it’s hard to argue with Harry Jaffa, try agreeing with him.” But as an interested observer of these feuds (mostly long after the fact) what always struck me about Jaffa’s intensity, even in cases when I have been more persuaded by his interlocutors’ arguments than his, was that it was plainly driven by a deep and earnest commitment to the truth and to the country. He took the questions at issue — questions of the principles underlying our republic and the truths that undergird all politics — to be not only important but pressing and urgent, and worth fighting over. And he taught generations of students to see that too. He pushed America to become more like its best self. Pushiness in the defense of such a cause is not only no vice but a very great virtue. He will be missed.