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Feature 09.08.2021 4 minutes

The Philosopher-Poet

Candlelit Classics

Reflections on Harry V. Jaffa from a grateful student.

Editors’ Note

This feature marks the publication of Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Glenn Ellmers’s new book on Harry V. Jaffa’s life and thought, available for purchase here.

I first met Harry Jaffa when I was a freshman at Claremont Men’s College. He was my assigned freshman adviser. He had given a talk about why political science majors should learn Greek and study Shakespeare. Of course this sounded ridiculous to me, even though I enjoyed Shakespeare. So I approached him warily. My American Government professor, Martin Diamond, sounded so much more appealing.

Even before graduate school I took a different measure of Jaffa and Diamond. I was studying Greek and reading Plato and Jane Austen in addition to Shakespeare. Even then Jaffa, in turn, seemed to be giving more odd advice about engaging in local politics, advising the brilliant Tom Silver to write on Calvin Coolidge, and approving the egregious Peter Schramm’s work on the statesmanship of Frederick the Great. Why did I have to learn irregular verb forms in order to work on such subjects?

I rejected the impractical subject of a dissertation on Shakespeare in favor of one on Aristotle on friendship and politics. Who else had the advantage of having studied with two of Strauss’s most brilliant students, Jaffa and Seth Benardete? Even if, as I concluded years later, I had failed to benefit fully.

In returning to Claremont I was enchanted by Jaffa’s classes on Shakespeare. I found his exchanges with Harry Neumann impenetrable. But the Bible loomed larger in my field of vision. Working at the Claremont Institute sharpened my focus on political matters, as opposed to textual interpretation. Editing Claremont publications, some books and an early version of the Review, was another breakthrough.

Finally, in 1996, the combination of natural law and the mystery of revelation led to my conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. I had the prayers of devout friends to guide me. I don’t know that Jaffa was particularly pleased by that. But a side of him that I hadn’t appreciated before disclosed itself, and I began to see the theological-political question in its fundamentals.

My Washington years, guided by the indomitable Clarence Thomas, had refined my purposes. It also corrupted my judgment. Would I be a Washington hanger-on the rest of my days? Larry Arnn rescued me from Richmond. Bill Allen was elevating me in other ways, as had my experience at USAFA. I was building a life. I had my daughter Veronica to live for. And Jaffa had reason to be pleased with much of what I had done.

But in the final score of Jaffa’s life I sensed I was missing the target of his work. I had thought his Crisis of the House Divided to be a superior book to his philosophically deeper work, A New Birth of Freedom. But now I see the radical change. The philosopher in Jaffa had put aside the poet.

With Ed Erler and John Marini, and the encouragement of Tom Klingenstein, I was able to see more of the unity within the duality of political philosophy as I helped them with books about Jaffa and his legacy. And now I was ready to write my own book on equality, after fabricating about ten others. A few survivors from greater Claremont’s early years and my dear wife Althea now accompany me on my second sailing.

Glenn Ellmers’ amazing book on Harry Jaffa reintroduces me to the man I had first known almost three score years and all the extraordinary people he gathered about him. May I ask God for yet another score of years to walk with them and be their friends. Then I could repay them and this failing country.

Also in this feature
Ancient clock on a clear background disintegrates into small pieces.

Timeless Truth

Harry V. Jaffa's work and teaching was not enslaved to the fashions of his day.

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