Friday, January 16, 2015

A truth that is true, regardless...

Last week two men died: Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa, each of whom made significant contributions to political philosophy. I first encountered them in the pages of National Review and then, later, in graduate school. The current issue of The Weekly Standard contains several essays about each man, from which I excerpt a few paragraphs of Andrew Ferguson's "Saving President Lincoln" about one of Jaffa's most important contributions:
.... In 1946, Jaffa was a young graduate student in philosophy at the New School in New York City, reading Plato under the famous philosopher Leo Strauss. Footloose and penniless, as grad students tend to be, Jaffa spent his free hours wandering the used bookstores that long ago lined lower Fourth Avenue.

One fall Saturday, browsing the history shelves, he came across a dusty edition of the debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, held in 1858 as they contended for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. ....

Ten years later Jaffa published Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. It was not only his best book (he wrote several very, very good books, on Aquinas and Shakespeare as well as Lincoln), it was also, in the words of the Civil War historian Allen Guelzo, “incontestably the greatest Lincoln book of the century.” ....

Jaffa....approached Lincoln’s debates with Douglas as a classical scholar and a political philosopher. He did the two debaters the great tribute of taking them seriously and assuming that they were honorable and intelligent men whose words meant what they said. Against the wised-up historians of his day, Jaffa’s method looks almost innocent. And in a way it is—it has the innocence of intellectual generosity, guided by extreme sophistication and subtlety.

.... On the cusp of the Civil War Douglas asserted that slavery would be legitimate in any territory where a majority had declared it so. No, said Jaffa’s Lincoln: Either some things were just in themselves, or justice had no meaning. Slavery violated the self-evident truth on which the country was founded, that all men were created equal. This was a truth for all men in all places at all times; it varied only in how clearly it was acknowledged and acted upon. No majority vote could alter it. It was a truth that was true without regard to the say-so of passing arrangements of power or fashion.

Jaffa put it like this, in a paragraph that distills Lincoln’s mind better than any words not written by Lincoln himself.
If self-government was a right, and not a mere fact characterizing the American scene (more or less), then it must be derived from some primary source of obligation. There must be something, Lincoln insisted, inhering in each man, as a man, which created an obligation in every other man. And if any majority anywhere, however constituted, might rightfully enslave any man or men, it could only be because there was nothing in any man which, simply because he was a man, other men were bound to respect.
“That is the issue,” Lincoln said in one of the debates. “It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.” .... Jaffa rescued Lincoln from the petty disputes of the academic historians and the other scholar squirrels and placed him in the company he deserved. The greatest American was returned to his exalted position in the American experiment, and the American experiment to its exalted place in human history. .... [more]