Leo Strauss
Natural Right and History (1953)

Hadley Arkes

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 39-40.

Harry Jaffa has remarked about his late teacher Leo Strauss that he had made it his vocation to stand against the tendency of modernity to reject both reason and revelation. Modern social science and philosophy would insist that we can have no ground of reason to speak of the truth or falsity of moral judgments. And a materialistic science would rule out the claims of a Creator as unknowable by empirical methods, and therefore beyond the domain of things that can be known. Against these tendencies in modernity, Strauss would seek to restore the tradition of classic philosophy running back to Plato and Aristotle; and at the same time he would take seriously again the tradition of understanding running back to the Hebrew Bible. He would stand, then, for the restoration of Jerusalem and Athens.

In Strauss’ reading, Socrates had brought forth political philosophy when he brought philosophy down from the clouds and brought it to bear on the questions of justice that arise in the city. For me, Jaffa finally brought Strauss down from the clouds when he composed his poetic, magisterial book on Abraham Lincoln, which brought the whole tradition of political philosophy to bear on the gravest crisis of the American regime, the Crisis of the House Divided. Between a master and his most devoted student a wondrous alchemy may come into play; in this case the student came to shape the work of his professor. Strauss’ Natural Right and History shows Jaffa’s influence when it begins by invoking the Declaration of Independence, in its willingness to speak at once of certain moral truths, grounded in nature, and the Author of that nature, the Creator of a moral law universal in its reach. That move by Strauss reflected Jaffa’s deep persuasiveness on the significance of Lincoln and the central issue that marked his mission in our politics. As Lincoln argued, the American republic did not begin with the Constitution; it began with that "proposition," as he called it, the first principle that "all men are created equal."

Lincoln recognized that anyone who would try to alter the regime, or the work of the Founders, would have to strike at that central truth, expressed in the Declaration of Independence. In order to justify the enslavement of black people, a large portion of the political class was willing to talk itself out of the proposition that established, for whites as well as blacks, the right to be ruled only with their consent. A nation that talked itself into the rightness of ruling black people without their consent would make itself suggestible to the notion of withdrawing the franchise from certain poor whites as well, until the regime itself was converted into something else. The forms of a republic might remain, while the inner substance would be evacuated.

Just a few years ago, the contributors to that controversial symposium in First Things ("The End of Democracy?", November 1996) were branded as incendiaries for making that point. But they could not be dismissed as implausible unless Lincoln could be dismissed for making precisely the same point. It was Lincoln’s genius to recognize the centrality of that principle articulated in the Declaration. His adversary, Stephen Douglas, might have provided a pragmatic way of barring the extension of slavery by keeping black people out of the western territories. And yet, the critical point for Lincoln was whether the souls of the American people would still be formed around the understanding of slavery as a wrong in principle, a wrong that could not be absorbed without imperiling, at the root, the right of people to be ruled with their own consent.

The genius of Harry Jaffa was to bring out this substance of Lincoln’s thought, precisely at the time when historians no longer considered Lincoln’s understanding of the Declaration and natural rights to be central, or even relevant, to any account of his life and work. Modern historians are more likely to say with the late Carl Becker that "to ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question."

Jaffa’s work also makes clear that an adequate account of Lincoln could be given only by one accomplished in the study of political philosophy. Only someone versed in the texts would recognize that Lincoln, quite on his own, made his way back along the paths of reflection that Aristotle and Aquinas had marked off before him. At the same time, only one attentive to the claims of Jerusalem as well as Athens would notice Lincoln’s deepening of the teaching of the Declaration: the language of self–evident truths, accessible to our reason, reflected the confidence of the Enlightenment in the power of that reason. But as Jaffa pointed out, Lincoln annexed to those claims of reason the piety of the biblical tradition. At Gettysburg, he would speak of the Union as the patrimony given to us by "our fathers." The principles of the Declaration would become, for Lincoln, our "ancestral faith," and in his remarkable Second Inaugural Address he would suggest that the Civil War was the blood price being exacted from the country for the sin of slavery, the sin of falling away from that ancestral faith.

Lincoln claimed that Stephen Douglas was doing nothing less than "debauching" the public mind, that his policy reduced to this: "That if any one man choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object." And now, as Russell Hittinger has pointed out, our current laws on abortion, fashioned by the Supreme Court, can be condensed in this way: that one person may choose to kill a second, for reasons wholly of self–interest, and a third person may not object. For that killing is now a matter of "privacy." Once again, a group of human beings may be removed from the class of "rights–bearing beings," outside the protections of the law.

Some of us, tutored by Jaffa, have been persuaded that the issue of abortion retains its centrality, or its architectonic quality, in our politics precisely because it runs to the same root as the issue that formed the crisis for Lincoln. That is not a question that has engaged the passion of Professor Jaffa, but I take it as a telling sign that one of his most devoted students, Michael Uhlmann—whose commentary appears in these pages—has been one of the most gifted writers on the pro–life side, even before Roe v. Wade made of abortion a putative constitutional right.

Since the time that Leo Strauss posted his warnings, the hold of "relativism" in all its forms has only deepened in the universities and the culture. Jaffa had the wit to recognize that the best path of political resistance was to rally the public once again to the principles of the Declaration, and that the most compelling exposition of those principles would be found in Lincoln. There is fresh evidence every day that students are still stunned, astonished—and then summoned—by the poetic force of Lincoln, and by his burning moral clarity. Jaffa has rescued Lincoln from the moral witlessness of the historians, and in that work of high art he has prepared the ground for rescuing us all.

Hadley Arkes is the Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College.