Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

A Strauss Divided Against Itself…

Two celebrated Straussian philosophers of the American political tradition, Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa, passed away yesterday. The two were notably students of the same philosophical strain, though also mutual interlocutors within that tradition who at times became irascible in their own exchanges.  Owing to a common Lincoln interest, my own work engaged Jaffa more directly than Berns. It should come as no surprise that I diverge very deeply in my interpretation of this subject matter, and I always found Jaffa to be a far better commentator on philosophical derivations from a conceptualized Lincoln than a historian of the Abraham Lincoln who was. Jaffa nonetheless offered thought provoking and introspective observations about Lincoln – usually far more so than the many who have followed in his footsteps with a similar methodology. And, at times, mythology. If one wishes to understand the distinctive and peculiar Straussian approach to Lincoln, Jaffa was the original and probably best exponent of this highly interesting if historically flawed line of scholarship. His Crisis of the House Divided – by far the better of the two books he wrote on Lincolnian philosophical interpretation – remains a classic in the genre more than half a century later, having spawned multiple subsequent exercises in the same, both within the Straussian realm and beyond.

Which leads me to a brief hypothesized** account of their final moments:

At about 4 am the great Jaffa did awaken, querying with a strong and clear voice to his doctor. ‘Is it the eleventh? Has the sun yet risen on this great feast day of Hamilton?’ Then came the response, ‘It soon will be,’ at which moment Jaffa smiled and answered, ‘then I resign my spirit to Lincoln, to the Union, and to the eternal prudential statesmanship that saved it!’ before drifting contently into his slumber.

Meanwhile on the other coast, a friend asked a weary Berns if he knew what day it was. ‘Oh yes! It is the glorious Eleventh of January, the jubilee of Hamilton! It is a good day. Strauss bless it, and Strauss bless you all!’ he answered before lapsing into unconsciousness, only to be roused a little later to mumble his last: ‘Harry Jaffa still survives.’

**Note: Not to be taken literally, though certain numerologically-inclined devotees from the less intellectually rigorous end of the Straussosphere seemingly have.


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