Political scholar Jaffa defends moral foundation of government
The American republic must be understood as an attempt to promote moral ends, political scholar Harry Jaffa said yesterday.
"The principles of the social contract are a means by which not only the authority of the people, but the authority of God becomes the authority of the law," said Jaffa, professor emeritus of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
The comments came in the inaugural lecture of this year's America's Founding and Future series, which is sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Jaffa, who is also a senior fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute, spoke to a capacity crowd in the auditorium of the Computer Science Building.
In a 20-minute lecture titled "Natural Law and American Political Thought," Jaffa leveled a harsh attack on what he called "the obscurantism of relativism and postmodernism and nihilism."
He contrasted George Washington's statement that "there is an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness" with "the idea that the pursuit of happiness is doing your own thing, whatever that thing is."
"It was understood that the exercise of rights was confined to the purposes for which [the people] were endowed by their creator," Jaffa said.
Jaffa defined natural law as an "understanding of what is important to all human beings as human beings, which is in principle accessible to all." He said cultural relativism and postmodernism were wrong "to deny the possibility of intelligent exchange between times and places."
Jaffa is the latest in a line of prominent conservative speakers sponsored by the America's Founding and Future lecture series. Last year, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, White House director of faith-based initiatives Jim Towey, and American Enterprise Institute president Chris DeMuth delivered lectures at Princeton.
Politics professor Robert George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, praised Jaffa for his unique perspective. He said Jaffa's criticisms of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia and former federal judge Robert Bork contrasted with typical liberal critiques.
"He attacks Rehnquist and Scalia and Bork for an embrace of legal positivism that is inconsistent with the doctrine of natural rights that is embedded in the Constitution they are supposed to be interpreting," George said.
Indeed, Jaffa at one point addressed the Rehnquist-Scalia belief that civil liberties have no "intrinsic moral good." The two right-of-center justices have written that civil liberties are legitimated only if they express the will of the majority.
Jaffa disagrees. "The ends served by majority rule are not themselves decided by majority rule," but by the inalienable rights God has granted to humanity, he said.
George said that Jaffa is "interesting because he is one of the premier students of Leo Strauss," the late political philosopher. "Some people trace a direct line from Strauss to the Defense Department," George added.
Strauss is thought to have influenced the neoconservatism of some officials in the Bush administration, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
Jaffa received his B.A. from Yale in 1939 and his Ph.D. from the New School.
His 1959 book, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, is one of the most acclaimed works ever written about the intellectual background of the Civil War.
Throughout the lecture, Jaffa's disdain for contemporary liberalism was apparent. At one point, he cited Ken Burns' 1990 documentary, "The Civil War," as an example of how relativism has distorted republican principles.
Jaffa referred to commentary in that film about continuing movements for equality, including the gay rights movement.
He said Abraham Lincoln could never have imagined that his descendants would be "associating the cause of freedom with that of sodomy." To laughter, Jaffa added, "Only [Burns] didn't say 'sodomy.' "
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