This essay is part of Public Discourse’s Who’s Who series, which introduces and critically engages with important thinkers who are often referenced in political and cultural debates, but whose ideas might not be widely known or understood. The series previously considered the life and work of Antonio Gramsci, Jacques Maritain, and Michael Oakeshott.
On the surface of things, there might be little to connect Harry V. Jaffa (1918–2015) and Allan Bloom (1930–1992). Bloom was a cosmopolitan sophisticate, having lived and taught in Europe for many years, and his passion was for philosophy at the highest level. He was not open about his sexual orientation, his political interventions were vigorous rebuttals of feminism, and he mounted a spirited defense of both the differences and the complementarity of men and women. We might say he was more interested in the philosophic life than political contests.
Jaffa, on the other hand, was briefly a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater, for whom he wrote that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” He was an American patriot whose overwhelming interest was the American regime, in both its original founding and its rebirth under Abraham Lincoln. Unlike the seemingly apolitical Bloom, Jaffa courted controversy, for instance, in his very public opposition to gay marriage in California. Yet the problem on the surface of things does get to the heart of things.
The connection—and the conflict—between Bloom and Jaffa is based on different interpretations of the work of Leo Strauss, the twentieth-century political philosopher who taught them both. In essence, Strauss can be said to have promoted two significant ideas. First, the idea that there is a fundamental break between ancient and medieval philosophy, on the one hand, and modern philosophy, on the other. Second, the idea that philosophers throughout history, perhaps less so as modernity progressed, wrote in an “esoteric” manner. Esoteric writing is the practice of speaking to two different audiences at the same time and saying different things with the same words. Arthur Melzer has written an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but parents of small children will also be familiar with the practice.
Jaffa described Strauss as “the Socrates of our millennium,” a characterization Bloom never had an opportunity to affirm or deny. Yet in his obituary of his teacher, Bloom wrote, “those of us who knew him saw in him such a power of mind, such a unity and purpose of life, such a rare mixture of the human elements resulting in a harmonious expression of the virtues, moral and intellectual, that our account of him is likely to evoke disbelief or ridicule from those who have never experienced a man of this quality.” For both Jaffa and Bloom, their encounter with Strauss was the turning point in their lives, akin to the escape of the prisoners from Plato’s cave.
Two Approaches to Strauss
The clever if somewhat unfortunate title of his last book, The Crisis of the Strauss Divided, plays upon Jaffa’s second and most famous work, a study of the Lincoln–Douglas debates entitled The Crisis of the House Divided, and gets to the heart of the difference between these two figures. With Jaffa at Claremont in California and Bloom at Cornell, Toronto, and Chicago, the consequences of that division turned into East Coast and West Coast Straussianism. Jaffa and Bloom represent the two ways of understanding Strauss’s devotion to political philosophy, specifically with respect to esotericism and natural right, as I will discuss below. In other words, ought one to accentuate the philosophical or the political in that term?
Jaffa, the former boxer, was by far the more political of the two men, Bloom the more philosophical. Jaffa’s work on Lincoln, the Constitution, and his very public debates with other scholars and even Supreme Court nominees were legendary for their acrimony. William F. Buckley, Jr. famously said, “If you think Harry Jaffa is hard to argue with, try agreeing with him. It is nearly impossible.” Jaffa was a political animal through and through. Bloom, by contrast, fled Cornell for the University of Toronto as an escape from the political radicalization of American campuses, returning to his beloved University of Chicago only much later.
Bloom’s scholarly work consisted mostly of translations and close commentaries on the same. He cultivated an urbane and detached style, seemingly uninterested in day-to-day politics. But this was not entirely true. He had a steady stream of phone conversations with well-placed graduates in Washington, D.C., keeping himself up-to-date on even the most intricate details. Saul Bellow, the American novelist, detailed these conversations in his fictionalized biography of his friend, Ravelstein. While some of the accounts are exaggerated for dramatic effect, it is clear that Bloom delighted in politics, or at least in the great issues of war and peace, though one could never imagine him campaigning.
If we consider their first works of scholarship—Jaffa’s on Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, Bloom’s on the ancient rhetorician Isocrates—the picture becomes more blurred. What’s more, Bloom did write on the American Constitution, and Jaffa’s pugnacity was born of a devotion to the truth at least as strong as that of any philosopher. The one did not simply take up the political side of Strauss and the other the philosophical, so much as develop his legacy and establish each his own by means of emphasis. And regarding that legacy, all hinged on the idea of classical natural right.
“Classical natural right” was Strauss’s attempt at capturing the difference between premodern political philosophy and the modern emphasis on individual rights. Modern rights (always in the plural) attach to an individual from the state of nature or, in the rarefied version of John Rawls, the “original position.” These rights are not even political insofar as they are not up for debate or negotiation. Classical natural right, by contrast, looks to the organizational principles of the society or the “regime,” as Strauss preferred. As Aristotle put it in the Politics: “Justice is a political matter; for justice is the organization of a political community, and justice decides what is just.” Classical natural right did not rely on pre-political fictions to understand politics, but looked to the best of human nature to orient the political order. As we will see, Bloom’s reading of Strauss emphasized the need to decipher the esoteric meaning of texts, which might not entail any consideration of natural right, while Jaffa believed that following Strauss back to premodern philosophy required an intense focus on natural right.
For Allan Bloom, the role of the teacher is to free a young mind from the reigning orthodoxies of the day, the stories told by the city. In his phenomenally successful Closing of the American Mind, he decried the influence of German philosophy on the students he was encountering in the classroom. These young men and women had absorbed a soft nihilism or relativism through the general culture and were, as a result, unteachable. Since they believed nothing, there was nothing from which the teacher could turn their eyes. According to Bloom, “relativism has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life.” What good is it to turn someone’s eyes from shadows if they won’t open them?
Bloom pursued zetetic philosophy, in which the search is more important than the discovery because philosophy is less a doctrine than a way of life. Socratic skepticism is not nihilism, however. The philosophic life is an adventurous struggle out of Plato’s cave. To join Bloom on this adventure meant he was going to offer signposts, not conclusions. And so we find his scholarship consisting mainly of commentaries on works he translated, most notably on Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Émile. What he sought in these works and offered to careful readers and students was adamantly not to reduce philosophy to a set of definitions and easy-to-remember formulae.
Given that Bloom thought philosophy must question all considered judgments, it is no surprise that his criticism of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was so spirited. Bloom asks, “Is he a seeker after truth, or only the spokesman for a certain historical consciousness?” Rawls, as he notes, ignored the history of political philosophy, as if the nihilism of Nietzsche, the historicism of Hegel and Marx, or the penetrating examination of the soul in Plato’s dialogues never happened. For Rawls, life is easy to understand and its fulfillment an easygoing eudaimonianism—a life of simple pleasure. A thoroughgoing student of Rawls could never produce great literature. There would be no dilemma for Hamlet, no dagger floating before Macbeth.
In a section of the review entitled “The Misuse of Aristotle,” Bloom pointed out that Rawls used Aristotle’s authority to claim something the philosopher never stipulated. According to what Rawls called the “Aristotle principle,” humans want to develop their capacities, and societies that allow and encourage them to do so are, on balance, better—that is to say, they would be chosen from the original position. But Aristotle never said any such thing, and the passage Rawls cited to suggest that he did points in another direction. According to Bloom, the argument from the Nicomachean Ethics “teaches that philosophy is the only way of life that can properly be called happy.” Indeed, Bloom goes on to say much more: “The philosopher is not as such a social man; Aristotle never even says that the moral virtues, including justice, are necessary to the philosopher in order to philosophize.” This open questioning of the utility of the moral virtues to the philosopher was the source of contention between Bloom and Jaffa.
The Examined and Examining Life
One of Jaffa’s most direct responses to his younger contemporary was in a review of Bloom’s bestseller. According to Jaffa, Bloom was unable to understand the American mind because he was too preoccupied with philosophy and too uninterested in politics. As Jaffa put it, “no one can comment instructively on the relationship between political life and the philosophic life who does not know what political life is.” It is a fair comment, but was it fair to Bloom? Consider Bloom’s thoughtful appreciation of Raymond Aron, one of the greatest political minds of the twentieth century, or his own book Confronting the Constitution. Jaffa goes on, several pages later: “For Bloom the question is not, What is Justice? It is, Which book about justice do you like best?” Jaffa’s complaint was that Bloom was more concerned with philosophical texts than philosophical truth or, more to the point, natural right.
Indeed, the charge of nihilism underlies the whole review. For instance, Jaffa suggests Bloom was more concerned that his students’ relativism was déclassé than that it was wrong: “One might say that American relativism is comic in its blandness and indifference to the genuine significance of human choice, whereas in its German version fundamental human choices take on the agonized dignity of high tragedy.” Yet elsewhere in the same review Jaffa writes what could have come from the pen of the man he was criticizing. According to Jaffa, “The life lived in accordance with the knowledge of ignorance—the truly skeptical life, the examined and examining life—is, by the light of unassisted human reason, the best life.” The next sentence, though, gets to the heart of their disagreement: “The regime that is best adapted to the living of this life is the best regime.” Again, Bloom would probably agree, but might argue that it is a non sequitur. Once one has discovered the best life, pursue it, and don’t engage in politics.
What would Strauss say? The question arises because both laid claim to his legacy. In his review of Closing, Jaffa writes, “One can only conclude that if Bloom says that the one thing needful is the study of the problem of Socrates, and yet makes no mention of Strauss’s study of the problem of Socrates (or of Greek philosophy), then he cannot think that Strauss’s study is the needful one.” For Jaffa, following Strauss back to premodern philosophy meant devoting oneself to classical natural right. For Bloom, it meant uncovering the esoteric meaning of texts, which might be indifferent to natural right altogether. Although he never says it, there is a strong suggestion throughout this review and other pieces that Jaffa considered Bloom to be Strauss’s Alcibiades.
The contest between Harry Jaffa and Allan Bloom over the legacy of Leo Strauss has passed to their students with generally much less acrimony. But that tension, like the one between Athens and Jerusalem that Strauss so often returned to, has produced some of the finest scholarship of the last half century or more. From the students of Bloom, translations and commentaries have added to the treasury of works we have to study. From the students of Jaffa have come some of the most penetrating studies of American politics. When the streams cross and the West Coast turns to philosophical texts or the East to American politics, especially to the work of Tocqueville that Jaffa never fully appreciated, the divisions are blurred and the results are invigorating.
It would not be too much to say that the students of Bloom and Jaffa are producing the most interesting work in political philosophy, broadly understood. Bloom’s students include Thomas Pangle, Catherine and Michael Zuckert, and Francis Fukuyama. Jaffa taught Thomas G. West, John Marini, and Hillsdale College’s president, Larry P. Arnn. Indirectly, Jaffa and Bloom influenced Harvey C. Mansfield, Pierre Manent, Daniel J. Mahoney, and Charles Kesler. While only a partial list, their scholarship would be the foundation for a far better education in political wisdom and statesmanship, as well as literature, than any reading list produced by the American Political Science Association.
Understanding political philosophy far more broadly than it usually is may be the most important legacy of Bloom and Jaffa. The only project they worked on together, a study of Shakespeare’s political thought, opened for their students and others the body of great literature as a source of political wisdom. Freed from the reigning orthodoxies of our day, theirs are often alone among students of literature who can see that the tedious categories of race, class, and gender are mere shadows dancing on the wall.
Whatever might have divided them, Harry Jaffa and Allan Bloom both found in Leo Strauss’s classroom an approach to philosophy that changed their lives. Their own students found the same in their classrooms, and so unto the third and fourth generations. There are real and important differences in what they experienced and, more importantly, in how they understood it, just as with Socrates’ students. If Strauss really was the Socrates of our millennium, Bloom and Jaffa are the best evidence for this claim.
Source for Allan Bloom photo: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf7-00081, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.