February 05, 2005

Straussian puzzles: Shadia Drury

I'm puzzled by a remark that Shadia Drury makes in this chapter of her book, Leo Strauss and the American Right. Drury says that the first reaction to Strauss:

"... is a denial that America is modern; a denial that is predicated on a reinterpretation of the American founding as an ancient polity rooted in the great tradition in general, and the classical ideas of the Greeks and the Romans in particular. Harry V. Jaffa is the leading representative of this view."

This view, that Jaffa says that America is founded as an ancient polity rooted in the classical ideas of the Greeks and the Romans, does not square with what Drury says when she briefly outlines Jaffa's views. She says:

"For all his talk about the classics, Jaffa is first and foremost a Lockean. Like Locke, he believes that consent is the foundation of government; but like Locke, he insists on a natural law and a natural right that antedate all government, including government by consent. In other words, Jaffa follows Locke in championing limited constitutional government."

Is not Locke modern? Is he not a liberal?

My understanding is that Locke works off Hobbes and that Hobbes represents a fundamental rupture with the classical political tradition. Locke is, in fundamental way, a Hobbesian, though Locke did Locke assimilate, reject, and move beyond the Hobbesian political philosophy to launch liberalism. For Jaffa the principles of the Constitution are the principles of the Declaration of Independence. For Jaffa it is the Declaration alone that embodies moral realism and moral rationalism

Drury goes on to say that:

"Jaffa castigates his fellow conservatives for being historicists and relativists without principles. He denounces their unprincipled attachment to the past....He criticizes conservatives such as Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Martin Diamond, Walter Berns, and Willmoore Kendall for rejecting natural right in favor of rights rooted in history and tradition."

I understood that Locke held that political right derived from the equal natural rights of individual human beings, under the laws of nature and of nature's God.

So what makes Jaffa deny that America is modern?

It cannot be his distinctively Straussian approach to political philosophy that quite taks premodern philosophers seriously, and tries to understand them as they understood themselves. This is, by itself, only a challenge to modern historicism (i.e. historical relativism), which holds that the thoughts of premodern philosophers are outmoded, irrelevant and were mental prisoners of their epoch.

Nor can it be the Straussian claim that premodern philosophy is better than modern philosophy. This does turn the whole "progressive" view of history topsy-turvy, and provide a very distinctive point of view, and line of criticism, about modernity. However, the Straussians are pre-modern and anti-modern, in the name of reason, of philosophy, since there understanding of reason and philosophy different from the Enlightenment's.

But this has nothing to do with America being modern. So what makes Jaffa deny that America is modern?

Is it the turn to natural right in response to world dominated by the modern doctrines of historicism, relativism, nihilism, and positivism that constitute the the crisis of the West?

Or is it because Jaffa says that the proper response to these doctrines must come from the renewal and reaffirmation of the principles of the American Founding, embodied above all in the Declaration of Independence? For it is there that the United States asserted its claim to the individual rights of freedom and independence on the basis of certain "self-evident" truths about the human person and that "all men are created equal". Hence Jaffa makes a distinction between the principles of the Constitution from the compromises of that Constitution.

This is a fundemantal difference between the US and Australian consttutions There is no statement of principles upon which the Australian constitution is based. The political philosophy underpinning the Australian consitution have to be dug out by the High Court through a process of interpretation. It is this way of reading the Constitution that the legal postivists oppose.

This is my puzzle with Drury. Why does Jaffa's affirmation of the constitutional standing of the doctrine of natural rights,as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, and expounded by Lincoln, constitute a denial that the US is modern?

The puzzle deepens because Drury's criticism of Jaffa's insistence that America is heir to classical ideals is that:

"It seems to me that there is a profound and fundamental difference between the American and classical traditions that Jaffa overlooks, largely because of his Straussian education...Another reason that the American Founders are not heirs to the classics has to do with the question of equality. The classical thinkers were not egalitarians. They did not believe that human beings were born equal.They thought that people had radically different potentialities and this meant that they were not entitled to the same privileges and the same consideration, or even formal equality before the law. Jaffa is quite mistaken in thinking that there is a line that extends directly from Aristotle to Locke."

But Jaffa, whatever his political philosophy, states that the proper understanding of America comes from the Declaration of Independence. He affirms the principles of natural right of all men being created equal and defends this against those conservatives who start from the constitution as a written text.

I reckon Drury is misreading Jaffa. The issue seems to be the emphasize Jaffa places on America's continuity with the classical and Christian sources of Western civilization. What this puts on the table is the questions of Strauss's reading of Locke, how do we assess modernity; and do we to interpret the American regime. With respect to the latter we would ask: 'how Lockean is the US:? Is this a cause for celebration or concern?

There is a post over at John Rowe's blog on Harry V.Jaffa, which argues thatAmerica is founded on its ideal of natural (organic) law, that "all men are created equal". John highlights the conflict between these ideals and compromises of the Constitution.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 5, 2005 10:56 PM | TrackBack


And thanks for the permalink!

Posted by: John Rowe on March 19, 2005 09:55 AM
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