Contra Jaffa and Strauss

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Reading the exchange between Harry Jaffa and Joe Sobran and the incisive commentary by David Gordon brought home the specifically Straussian silliness of Jaffa’s portrait of Lincoln. Aside from the constitutional questions raised in this debate, there is a persistent methodological problem with Jaffa’s argument, which should raise the hackles of a serious historian.

Why, pray tell, are we not to believe that Lincoln shared the racial assumptions of his age, e.g., that blacks were inherently less intelligent than whites and were therefore unfit to become responsible citizens in a constitutional republic? These were the convictions of an earlier age, and not only of Southern slave owners but also of abolitionists, as amply demonstrated by the letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

There was no necessary connection in the mid-nineteenth century between opposing slavery and holding the egalitarian views now being represented by Harry Jaffa and Jack Kemp. Jaffa’s attribution of his own views on race to Lincoln is an intellectually unjustified act, particularly in view of the paucity of supporting evidence.

Unlike the relatively prudent Marxists, who do not stray into Trotskyist fantasy, Jaffa and his school cannot praise the primitive forerunner of their doctrines, as those who glimpsed a truth that would only become fully manifest to a later age. Thus the East German Communists could celebrate Luther, with some validity, as a late medieval forerunner of bourgeois consciousness in religion.

Without ascribing to the German reformer a socialist consciousness that would take centuries longer to develop, these thoughtful Marxists extolled Luther as a “progressive” figure in his time. Out of bourgeois institutions, to which Luther contributed by encouraging, in spite of himself, religious individualism, would eventually come a proletariat revolution. Thus it was possible to celebrate the beginnings of the present in a reluctant revolutionary.

But Jaffa and other Straussians cannot present their crudely presentist opinions in anything as reasonable as a Marxist hermeneutic. The reason is they reject historically grounded explanations as “relativistic” and Teutonic, and therefore feel free to attribute anything they believe or think others should believe to the long-dead subjects of their ponderous and utterly tendentious “readings.” Equally important, they insist upon the nonverifiable premise that political philosophers and statesmen (people they like) often disguised their real thoughts.

It is therefore necessary to have Straussians decipher these hidden truths, as by showing that Dante was a religious skeptic or that Lincoln was an early proponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Such interpretive gibberish can work because there is no way to refute it and because Straussians have political and academic power, usually conceded by their friends on the Left.

Besides, Straussians are bringing the past into line with the present. They are achieving this “moderate conservative” end by ignoring such allegedly German inventions as focusing on historical differences and by creating usable cardboard heroes.

August 4, 2001

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author, most recently, of the highly recommended After Liberalism.

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