Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Political Philosophy

Jaffa and the central idea

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the Old Man is going to be 93 on October 7th and that a good way to celebrate his birthday would be to bring to our attention something interesting by him or about him.  So I note this Master's Thesis, Increased Devotion: Equality, the American Founding, and Abraham Lincoln, by Sara Whitis.  It is on how to understand equality, the thing that both defines us, and about which we have disagreed--arguably--from the beginning.  She asserts that no scholar of the 20th or 21st century "has more thoroughly and thoughtfully" explored the subject of equality and its implications for our political life than Jaffa.  She then explores his writings, emphasizing Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom, and says this: "These books themselves add to the legacy of Americans' disagreements over their central idea, because between Crisis and New Birth, a profound shift takes place in Jaffa's understanding of the meaning of equality in the Founding."  She explores the journey of his thinking and with graceful intellect interprets his work.  This may be the best thing ever written on the subject.  You should read it.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Not bad but the essay isn't about equality, and the shift in Jaffa's view of the founding isn't about equality either. Neither Aristotle nor Locke are political theorists of equality, nor is Strauss. Hobbes believed that equality existed in some respects in the state of nature, because all men had to go to sleep at some point, but just as there may not be a valid reason to reduce the founding to John Locke, there certainly isn't a reason to reduce Locke to Hobbes, or to even distinguish the ancients from the moderns in the first place. Hobbes himself translated thucydides so there isn't any real grounding for the idea that Hobbes was not concerned with the ancients.

I mean in the way you set up Locke (i.e. Hobbes) you basically are going back to the melian dialogues. The strong do as they please, the weak suffer what they must...and the political debate of the ancients in this case Athens vs. Melos. But it was Athens making the prudential and utilitarian arguments, while Melos was wishfully suggesting what you ascribe to Jaffa and then Aristotle as "kind of Aristotelian likemindedness or unanimity and friendship." Why not a kind of melian likemindedness or unanimity and friendship?

That is the Revolutionaries invoked the idea of equality to justify overthrowing an oppressive
government, even if they were Lockeian, which seems good to me. (if you are doing this kind of intellectual history) You certainly can't link up Locke and Hobbes and argue that they did so not to further the persuit of happiness (quite Lockeian) but rather out of fear of violent death (a charitable reading of Hobbes and Canadians would call this prudence).

That is Jefferson took the initiative to enter into a Melian dialogue with the english... we said our ancestors (the french/spartans) will come and save us... England/Athens said this was unlikely (if we didn't say this certainly strategic considerations played a part). Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln really entered into an unwinable war for honor or out of a belief that right should prevail over might in some sort of Kantian formulation.

This is completely wrong/puffery: "The very idea of human freedom, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, requires that we act according to the right, without being able to know that the right will triumph. The same idea requires that we act on the conviction that noble failure is better than base success, so that, win or lose, we shall have taken the better part (Jaffa, 2000, p. 100).

Jaffa is selling a pro-Melian book...Actually, that might actually be embodied in the Declaration of Independence...but here I might suggest that Jefferson was much more Hobbesian/prudent/calculating, while also being Hobbesian via the moral resonnance of the melian dialogues.

What Jefferson captured in the DI was the modern revulsion towards the Athenians(British) and the natural sympathy towards the Melians, along with some thucydides/melian inspired moral fiction/bravado. A similar theme with great anti-british empire hegemony/resonance is found in Braveheart. So it is certainly the type of thing that has resonance and spirit!

If Thucydides only came to the attention of Jefferson via Hobbes, one might say that the moralistic (non Lockeian) elements of the founding came from Hobbes.

Jefferson wasn't a simple Lockeian, he was indeed a huge plagerist of all sorts of european ideas and inventions, and the formulator of our early copyright and patent law...

- Because Hobbes was concerned with the ancients it does not therefore follow that he was not distinguishable from them. If you hadn't noticed, the Leviathan contains within it a huge slam on Aristotelian teleology and an argument against any natural system of justice.

- I would suggest a re-read of the Melian Dialogue on your part. First, I would reconsider the argument put forth by the Melians: does not self-interest and advantage enter into their calculus? Second, the Athenians begin with the startling statement about the strong doing as they please, but end by accusing Sparta of identifying expediency with justice. Sparta never sticks its neck out for anyone. The Athenians take risks -- nobility and justice require risk-taking.

Plato and Aristotle (and Thucydides while we are at it) are conservative in the sense that the political order isn't really worth changing. These guys are not advocates of revolution. They'd rather let sleeping dogs lie because of a whole host of issues. For one thing, Plato and Aristotle both hold that the law's sole source of authority is age. The constant tinkering of the law entailed in revolutionary activity means that political stability is lost since there is little else to hold things together. Divine law is necessary because people don't submit to law just because it is rational.

In contrast, both Hobbes and Locke are looking for a law which should be submitted to solely because rational. They also think that a reluctance to change the moral order invites mischief from certain types who take advantage of flat-footedness on the part of the citizenry that the ancients tend to lend themselves to. Aristotle says the best democracy would be made of farmers who don't have time to worry about politics. For the moderns vigilance is a high virtue, so long as it doesn't lead to vain-glory.

Locke and Hobbes might be iffy on the question of equality in terms of having a ready proof for it, but it is clear that they are committed to the idea because their whole project rests on it. It is admitted that a certain kind of education is necessary for the dangerous types (the Alcibiades, if you like) to be 'duped' into equality. But this doesn't mean there is no moral basis for it. That's silly.

As for Lincoln's belief in entering a war that could not be won for the sake of right, I can only point to this:

"But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle – I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it."

A worthwhile read, certainly.

What I would like to find of Jaffa's is some footage from his appearance on The 700 Club with Pat Robertson. July 1 to July 4, 1986.

That should be fascinating.

Maybe, but certainly the 700 Club was at some point in time a pretty huge venue. In the days before the internet, even popular consumption academics languished in obscurity. Even today you certainly don't have to endorse Oprah, Jon Stewart or Colbert as being unqualifiably good for the culture in order to jump at the chance to be a guest.

I replied to Craig first, because I don't know how to answer your comments.

1) Hobbes is distinguishable from "the ancients" (a packaging of Aristotle, Thucydides, Plato, Anaxagoras, et al.) BUT.... all of the elements of the bundle are distinguishable from each other.

2) More generally I think Hobbes, Aristotle and Plato are in agreement that people submit to the law because it is rational, because it is familiar or habitual, and because it has regularly enforced penalties.

i.e. I have made a habit of wearing a seat belt, it is arguably rational to do so, and there is a potential fine if I do not do so. (Hobbes, Aristotle and Plato died long before seat belt laws)

3) "In contrast, both Hobbes and Locke are looking for a law which should be submitted to solely because rational."

I dispute this.

Arguably only Kant is looking for a law which should be submitted to solely because rational. Arguably also only Plato is looking for a law which should be submitted to solely because rational (albeit with Socrates there is some parody here.)

Kant says: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."

Neither Locke nor Hobbes nor Aristotle, but maybe Plato are deontological.

Both Hobbes and Locke seek to clear up the deontologizing of Aristotle that has resulted in a dark ages teleology. (Free the way for Newton), see preface to Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke.

Both Locke and Bacon are less concerned with history, the ancients and the past than Hobbes.

In the history of philosophy no thinker has priveledged Reason as a basis for law as much as Kant.

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