The ineffectual truth of philosophy won’t save America.
The True Birth of Freedom
On C. Bradley Thompson and Harry V. Jaffa.
“Careful readers of America’s Revolutionary Mind will no doubt see its kinship with Harry V. Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom,” writes C. Bradley Thompson about his recent book. I make no claim to being capable of reading Thompson’s book carefully enough to understand it as he thinks it should be understood, but I think I can see some of the kinship he wants to claim with Jaffa’s work.
Thompson seems right that “both volumes explicate and defend the founders’ (and Lincoln’s) moral and political philosophy as true, which means that both books go beyond a mere description of past individuals, ideas, actions and events,” making them “more than just studies in the history of political philosophy.” But I am not so sure about his claim that
while Professor Jaffa and I might have a few minor disagreements about some tertiary issues, we agree, broadly speaking, on the causes, nature, and meaning of the American revolution and the American Founding. Whereas A New Birth of Freedom tends to emphasize the theological-political problem and the legacy of Aristotle’s thought in the revolutionary-founding era more than does America’s Revolutionary Mind; and whereas I interpret the relationship between the moral laws and rights of nature in the founders’ thought somewhat differently than does Mr. Jaffa, our overall interpretations are largely in sympathy with one another.
Thompson writes in his book that the “American revolutionaries were unadulterated Lockeans.”
Their position can be summed up with the following syllogism:
Major premise: The Declaration of Independence is an expression of the American mind.
Minor premise: America’s revolutionary mind was an expression of Locke’s political philosophy.
Conclusion: The Declaration of Independence was an expression of Locke’s mind.
Locke’s reasoning and intellectual hegemony over the American revolutionary mind was as thoroughgoing as Karl Marx’s was over the minds of the Russian revolutionaries—indeed, possibly even more so. By 1776, the American revolutionaries might very well have said, “We are all Lockeans now.”
According to Thompson, Locke teaches that “the laws of nature are deduced” from “the rights of individuals.” Locke’s teaching “completely upended and demolished” a “near two-thousand-year-old, classical-Christian philosophical synthesis.” “Locke substituted the ancients’ and the Christians’ transcendent and intrinsic ethic of duty and self-sacrifice for a new ethic that emancipated men…to pursue their individual self-interest.” (Here I think he means to say Locke substituted the new for the old and not the other way around.)
In support of these claims, Thompson cites Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History in its entirety.
A New and Surer Founding
Strauss did argue in Natural Right and History (pp. 166-9) that Locke’s thought should be understood in light of Thomas Hobbes’s “political atheism” and “political hedonism.” Despite surface appearances to the contrary, Locke joined Hobbes in “a break in the natural right tradition” that “revolutionized human life everywhere on a scale never yet approached by any other teaching.” Hobbes was “the founder of liberalism,” understood as “that political doctrine which regards as the fundamental political fact the rights, as distinguished from the duties, of man” (ibid. pp. 181-182).
Following Hobbes, Locke taught that “through the shift of emphasis from natural duties to natural rights, the individual, the ego, had become the center and origin of the moral world, since man—as distinguished from man’s end—had become that center or origin” (ibid. p. 248). Locke would build civil society on “‘the low but solid ground’ of selfishness” (ibid. pp. 247-8).
In his great book Crisis of the House Divided, first published in 1959, Harry Jaffa adopted Strauss’s understanding of Locke and, like Thompson now, Jaffa identified “the Lockean root” as the “deepest root for Jefferson’s generation” in the founding of America. This meant that in the founders’ understanding, rights were prior to duties, and all moral obligation was derived from selfish calculation. As Jaffa explained, men abstained from injuring others not because “it is objectively wrong, but because it is foolish” (pp. 323-324).
Unlike Thompson, Jaffa in Crisis considered this Lockean character of the founding to be a profound defect. The great achievement of Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship—the “new birth of freedom”—was radically to “transform” this modern, Hobbesian-Lockean America, an America wholly the product of the Enlightenment, to make America worthy of the last full measure of devotion.
To achieve this, Lincoln had to give America’s central idea of “equality” a new meaning, treating it “as a transcendental goal and not as the immanent and effective basis of actual political right” (ibid. p. 318). Lincoln “superimposed” upon the founders’ Lockean doctrine of right “a very different conception of right.” In fact, he “confounds the meaning of a right, meaning an indefeasible desire or passion, with what is right, meaning an objective state or condition in which justice is done” (ibid. p. 328). Jaffa’s Lincoln transformed the founders’ “contractual union of individuals” into a partnership “in every virtue and in all perfection” (ibid. pp. 228, 327).
In Jaffa’s words (p. 321):
Lincoln’s interpretation of “all men are created equal” transforms that proposition from a pre-political, negative, minimal, and merely revolutionary norm, a norm which prescribes what civil society ought not to be, into a transcendental affirmation of what it ought to be.
The Lincoln of Crisis was saving the founding from its Lockean self. He did this by replacing the shallow, modern, Lockean natural law doctrine of the founders with classical natural right. “Classical natural right undertook to guide political men, who need to know what is right here and now, but to guide them in the light of what is just everywhere and always” (ibid. p. iii). Modern Lockean natural right, in contrast, merely reflects the calculations of self-interest.
Jaffa had learned from Strauss to try to understand the American founders as they understood themselves; he also learned from Strauss to regard Locke as Hobbesian. So when Jaffa came to view the founders as Lockean, he concluded that they must be essentially Hobbesian as well and that the American founding suffered radically from the limitations of Hobbes-Locke’s modern natural rights doctrines.
As Jaffa later explained in “Aristotle and Locke in the American Founding”:
I took for granted that the account of the Hobbesian Locke in Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History represented the Locke that informed the American Founding. That rights were prior to duties, that duties were derived from rights, that civil society arose from a contract solely for mutual self-preservation, and that the goods of the soul were subordinated in all decisive respects to the goods of the body, were conclusions of Strauss’s interpretation. Strauss himself never said Locke was the founder’s Locke, but the spell cast by his book led many of us to apply it to the Founders.
Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom departs from Crisis in its understanding of the Lockean character of the founding. The founding no longer suffers from the radical defects of modern (Lockean) political thought. It no longer needs a Lincoln to come to its rescue. Rather it supplies the wholly adequate foundation for Lincoln’s classical American statesmanship.
Locke’s Aristotle; Jefferson’s Locke
In New Birth, egotistical individual interests are no longer the core of Jefferson’s Lockean thought. “There is in Jefferson none of that radical individualism that sees the rights of the individual transcending and opposing the moral demands of a good society,” writes Jaffa. “Individual rights become valuable only insofar as they result in a good society.” No longer is natural law derivative from and subordinate to natural rights: “Jefferson’s doctrine, which is the American doctrine in its purest form, is a doctrine of natural rights under natural law.” In Jefferson’s and the founders’ understanding, “rights are derived from the laws of nature” (pp. 25-7). Moreover, “unalienable rights” were to be “exercised in accordance with the laws of nature and of nature’s God, which were moral laws. Rights and duties were in a reciprocal relationship” (Ibid, p. 95).
The founders’ understanding of the social compact, as Jaffa presents that understanding in New Birth, is no longer a mere compact among selfish individuals each governed by the irresistible fear of violent death. It is a community of “good” people concerned with the goodness of the people as a whole.
A people consists of human persons who have been formed by their own voluntary agreement into a civil society…. But a people is not any chance assemblage. Their fidelity to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” in 1776 made the American people, according to the Declaration, “the good people of these colonies.” A good people may change a bad government. But what of a bad people? Does sovereignty, in the sense of legitimate political power, belong to a bad people as well as a good people? As we shall see, to Madison or Jefferson, this would be absurd. The compact theory presupposes a people that is good in the sense that it is united by the morality inherent in “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” (p. 42).
[L]ife, liberty, and property together are not ends in themselves…. [S]afety is the first of the ends or purposes of political life, but happiness is the end for which life, liberty, and property are wanted. Liberty and property come to sight as means to the preservation of life, but their enduring worth is in the service, not of mere life, but of the good or happy life. The natural wants or rights of man from which society springs are not random but ordered. And it is the natural order of these wants, directed toward their corresponding natural ends, that constitutes the architectonic principles of a society arising out of compact, properly understood (p. 50).
By preventing us from injuring others, the law makes it possible for us to have others as friends. In acting consistently with the rights of others and in not injuring others, we are habituated to virtue. By becoming good, we are enabled to be friends of the good, and having good friends is the most indispensable of the means to happiness (p. 82).
Jaffa now views the founders not as Lockeans (In Thompson’s and Strauss’s sense) but as Aristotelians:
Happiness is the objective good, and therefore the rational good, at which all laws and institutions aim. This is assumed by Jefferson…no less than by Aristotle, as it was by American public opinion of the Revolutionary generation (p. 9).
For Jefferson, no less than for Aristotle, what men seek by nature is . . . the good (p. 12).
Success is everything to the Lockean/Hobbesian founders of Crisis; their interests define their justice. Not so in New Birth:
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 (p. 100).
One of the conspicuous features of the Declaration of Independence is the appeal of its Signers “to the supreme judge of the world for the rectitude of their intentions”…. The rectitude of that cause was in its conformity with the self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration, truths emanating from the laws of nature and in accordance with what they believed to be the divine government of the universe. Their confidence in their rectitude was their “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” Justice defined their interest, armed them in the struggle, and was the ground of their faith in victory (p. 108; see also n. 55, p. 507).
The doctrine of natural law and natural rights enshrined in the Declaration is a doctrine of natural and divine right…. The American people, in declaring themselves independent of Great Britain and of any mortal power, did so in accordance with the laws of nature that were God’s laws, to which they declared themselves subject in the very act of independence…. It cannot be emphasized too often that the doctrine of the Declaration requires a people who can appeal truthfully and sincerely to the supreme judge of the world for the rectitude of their intentions. According to Jefferson and Lincoln, failure to respect the rights of others may disqualify one for the protection of one’s own rights and expose one to the wrath of the God who is their source (pp. 122-23).
By the time of New Birth, Jaffa had concluded that the founders’ understanding of Locke was Aristotelian and that maybe Locke himself can best be understood as more Aristotelian than Hobbesian.
What They Left Behind
In his 2008 introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa proudly recollects a story he heard from “one of our elite graduate students.” The story was about Leo Strauss riding in a car with the student in Claremont, after Strauss’s retirement from Chicago. “The subject of Crisis of the House Divided arose. ‘That,’ said Strauss [to the student], ‘is a book.’ Anyone who knew Strauss (or Shakespeare) knew that the unadorned noun can be more emphatic than all the adjectives in the world can make it. To emphasize this, Strauss added, ‘and Professor Jaffa and I are the only ones who understand it.’”
Jaffa had already explained in that introduction how the genesis of Crisis was connected with the development of Strauss’s Natural Right and History, which “possesses within itself a Socratic refutation of historicism that is…definitive.” He then refers to A New Birth of Freedom as “a far more intricate and complicated work” than Crisis of the House Divided, to which it was the long-awaited sequel. He further reflects that everyone who sat in Strauss’s classes knew that, to hold himself to the highest possible standard, Strauss always addressed himself to that silent student “who was his superior in mind and heart.”
As far as I can tell, Strauss and Jaffa were two of the greatest minds of the last 100 years. The world lost Strauss in 1973; it lost Jaffa in 2015. Only last year we lost that elite graduate student, who studied with them both, maybe sometimes in a silence that could have betokened superiority of mind or heart. So it is possible that there is no one living who understands either Crisis of the House Divided or New Birth of Freedom or Natural Right and History as their authors understood themselves. Yet Jaffa seems to suggest that these three books offer a definitive response to the “crisis of the West,” which “appears most clearly, most concisely, and most politically as the crisis of the fate of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.”
Were he here to reflect on the nihilism reigning in our time—authoritatively represented by the 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter, and practically every university president, foundation president, and corporate CEO in the land—I think Jaffa would tell us that we have to think it through for ourselves, but that these three books contain a definitive response to it. Maybe a student superior in mind and heart has read and understood them as their authors understood them. Maybe Brad Thompson is such a student, but it seems to me that the Jaffa of New Birth has more than merely “a few minor disagreements about some tertiary issues” with the Thompson of America’s Revolutionary Mind.