What Thomas Aquinas via Harry Jaffa Can Say to the New Right

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Many leading voices in American conservatism are correct to emphasize anew the particular and concrete grounds of our moral-political life—the “matter,” so to speak, of the community. But this emphasis risks forgetting what Aristotle and Aquinas taught about the indispensability of political “form”—a transcendent or theoretical account of justice that elevates and gives moral direction to the regime. Standing in the way of reconnecting matter and form is a deeper problem. As the late Harry V. Jaffa explained, various post-modern ideologies have obscured our ability to think clearly about what the classical and medieval thinkers took for granted as the “natural” arrangement of politics.

Professor Jaffa, an American Jew who devoted much of his career to extolling the central importance of the—mostly—modern principles of the Declaration of Independence might seem an unlikely conduit for transmitting the lessons of a thirteenth century Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, to the concerns of today’s New Right. Yet Jaffa, a noted Lincoln scholar and intellectual godfather of the Claremont Institute, was a close student of “the mighty monk,” as he called him. In fact, Jaffa’s first book, adapted from his doctoral dissertation under Leo Strauss, was titled Thomism and Aristotelianism: A Study of the Commentary by Thomas Aquinas on the Nicomachean Ethics (1952). 

What makes Jaffa’s insights particularly relevant today is the way he appreciated and explicated St. Thomas’s teaching as deeply philosophic and political, as well as theological. Perhaps the greatest doctor of the church, Aquinas arguably did more than any other individual to preserve the pre-Christian wisdom of antiquity, especially the writings of Aristotle, and to recover the moral and political insights of the Greeks as relevant and true for the Christian world. Jaffa combined this appreciation for Thomas’s classicism and political prudence with what he learned from Leo Strauss about the unique challenge of “the crisis of the west.”

Much of the New Right is rediscovering or reviving one of the great insights of both the traditionalists and the so-called paleoconservatives: the importance of the particular and concrete in our moral-political life—an element long derided by homogenizing liberalism. There is a danger, however, in over-emphasizing the concrete. For example, Adrian Vermeule’s erudite articulation of “common good constitutionalism” seems to derive from a subjective or even historicist understanding of law and politics. Yoram Hazony’s highly particularist nationalism comes close to rejecting altogether the natural rights theory of the Founding. Finally, some younger dissident Right activists aggressively reject the establishment’s racial orthodoxy and appear to embrace some variation of white nationalism. This can range from a defensive reaction to the demonization of “whiteness,” to a more ambiguous attitude of ethnonationalism, to flat-out welcoming of a race war.

In general, the New Right’s emphasis on grounding political life in the particular “matter” of custom and culture risks neglecting what Aristotle and Aquinas regarded as the indispensable need for “form”—a theoretical or transcendent source of authority, a ruling principle (arche) that justifies and legitimizes the regime.

If traditional Americans and old-fashioned patriots are to have any chance of defeating the woke oligarchy and culture —not just politically, but also morally and intellectually— we must be able to meet the Left on the high ground, by offering arguments about human nature, virtue, and the pursuit of happiness that are defensible not merely because they are “ours” but because they are good. We need a non-conventional account of justice.

As Jaffa shows, however, this task is unusually challenging in our time, and helps explain why many on the New Right simply reject theory and “abstractions.” Post-modernism envelops us in various dogmatisms and sophistries that have radically distorted our understanding of the world, and cut us off from nature or “natural” political life. Leo Strauss—alluding to the famous myth of the cave in Plato’s Republic—referred to this as the pit beneath the cave. Our simple, common-sense understanding of moral reality is obscured by radical atheism, relativism, and historicism. We cannot simply ignore this problem. The need for sound theory—and an account of justice grounded in nature—is, in fact, even more urgent in today’s often-oppressive secular culture.

This imposes a special duty on students of political philosophy, whose deranged colleagues concocted many of these doctrines and ideologies in the first place. Yet the rhetoric appropriate to this task—refuting many popular misconceptions and errors—is challenging to say the least. Claims to rule or to instruct in the name of superior wisdom are suspect at any time, but all the more so now, as our ruling class of experts confronts a long overdue crisis of legitimacy. We need a wise, theoretical defense of common sense. Happily, Jaffa shows us that this may not be as hard, or strange, as it sounds.

As Jaffa learned from Strauss, the metaphysical freedom of the human mind transcends time and space. In that sense, the principles of classical philosophy can provide a ground of political judgement not bound by culture. In an essay titled “Thomas Aquinas Meets Thomas Jefferson,” Jaffa argued:

[The Declaration of Independence] embodied an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” The idea of such a truth, trans-historical and trans-cultural, would have been as familiar to Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, as it would have been strange…to most present-day academic historians.

According to this abstract truth, there is, Jaffa explains, “no natural difference between one human being and another, such as there is between the queen bee and the workers or drones. Nor is there any such difference between one human being and another, as there is between any man, and any dog or horse or chimpanzee, by reason of which the one is the ruler and the other is the ruled.” This does not mean “that human beings are equal, among themselves, with respect to intelligence, strength, size, beauty, or virtue. Nor are they thought to be equal in any of those qualities which are generally regarded as desirable in those who fill the offices of government.”

It is on the ground of this political equality that the social compact is formed and the principles of constitutional government are established. It is important to note that this compact invokes a universal truth, yet it applies only to those forming a particular political community. Thus, while the Declaration might inspire the whole human race, it makes claims only on behalf of “the good people of these colonies.” Nor are the rights claimed by the Founders reducible to material self-interest. Because those rights are found in the laws of nature and nature’s God, Jaffa explains that consent “is an act of will informed by understanding of the moral law, which is also God’s will. We see here how closely Jefferson is attuned to the natural law doctrine of Thomas Aquinas.”

Jaffa concludes his essay by finding the transcendent teaching of Aristotle in George Washington’s first Inaugural address:

What Washington says about the “indissoluble union between virtue and happiness” is as succinct a précis of the Nicomachean Ethics as can be imagined. Clearly, the “pursuit of happiness” and the pursuit of virtue—“the pure and immutable principles of private morality”—are one and the same. There is no patronage here of the notion, popular today, that the pursuit of happiness means “doing your own thing,” no matter what that “thing” is. Finally, we see Washington asserting that the boundaries of national policy, the actions of citizens and statesmen, whether private or public, must conform to “the eternal rules of order and right.”

Wherein does this differ from Thomas Aquinas’s concept of the natural law, as the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law? This, freed from the obscurantism of historicism, relativism, and nihilism, is our true inheritance.

Glenn Ellmers is the author of "The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America." He is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute and a visiting research scholar at Hillsdale College.
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The James Wilson Institute’s Mission is to restore to a new generation of lawyers, judges, and citizens the understanding of the American Founders about the first principles of our law and the moral grounds of their own rights.
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