I greatly appreciated Donald Devine’s fascinating reflections on Harry Jaffa and Frank Meyer, occasioned by my book The Narrow Passage. I found his review-essay to be in equal parts charming, insightful, and provocative in the best sense.

It was especially gratifying to read Devine’s conclusion, in which he emphasizes the practical rapprochement that has been underway for some years now between Claremont conservatives and the Old Right: “It seems to this old fusionist that Ellmers, [Michael] Anton, and at least some West Coast Straussians are more a part of the solution than part of the problem.” Let me say on behalf of the West Coast Straussians, we feel the same way about you! 

Devine’s personal recollections are a helpful reminder that these debates are not mere abstractions, but can have profound and far-reaching consequences. Unlike the left, conservatives do not subordinate every human connection to political fanaticism. (How many Modern Age readers have, like me, lost former liberal friends because of our unacceptable opinions on COVID-19, Trump, Ukraine, etc.?) I think it is important for the right to recall and re-enforce this spirit of political comity, which once seemed more prevalent. Let me, therefore, fill out a bit more of the personal and historical record with a brief anecdote. 

As with Willmoore Kendall and Mel Bradford, spirited disagreement did not prevent Jaffa from maintaining a cordial friendship with Meyer. In fact, knowing of their relationship, William F. Buckley took the time to send Jaffa a telegram in 1972, informing him of Meyer’s death and inviting Jaffa to the funeral in upstate New York. (Jaffa was unable to attend.) I myself benefited from this friendship, because it was thanks to a certain “fusion” of efforts between Jaffa and Meyer that the great, and greatly missed, Michael Uhlmann came to the Claremont Graduate University to get his Ph.D. under Jaffa, and remained there to teach for many years. In 1966, Uhlmann, then a young lawyer, decided he wanted to study political philosophy and asked his personal acquaintance Meyer for some recommendations. Meyer called Jaffa on the telephone to make the introduction and vouch for his young friend. Jaffa encouraged Uhlmann to enroll in the graduate program, and even helped to secure him an Earhart fellowship, on the strength of Meyer’s recommendation. Generations of Claremont students who learned and laughed with Mike remain forever grateful for this collaboration. 

Devine argues that later in his career, Jaffa turned away from the argument made in Crisis of the House Divided, that Lincoln was America’s true founder, by bringing out the Founding’s latent but unfulfilled commitment to natural right. By the time of his second Lincoln book, Jaffa had decided that America’s republican principles were already fully developed in the statesmanship of Jefferson, Madison, et al.—who understood the Declaration’s self-evident truths to be entirely consistent with belief in divine Providence. But in making this turn, according to Devine, Jaffa distanced himself from Strauss, because the harmony between faith and reason “undermined the supposedly essential Straussian claim that one must choose either Athens’ philosophy or Jerusalem’s revelation.” Because this alleged turn away from Strauss was a turn toward Meyer’s solution, Devine argues, “Meyer’s fusionists could have cheered the move of Jaffa and the West Coast Straussians back to the Founding.”

Devine has certainly put his finger on the essential point, but his argument requires some clarification. Leo Strauss did consistently deny the possibility of any synthesis between reason and revelation. But he just as consistently explained that this incompatibility concerned the choice of philosophy or faith as a way of life. Emphasizing the tension between Athens and Jerusalem was Strauss’s way of revealing the intransigent demands both of faith and of reason at the highest level. Philosophy, in its unflinching pursuit of the demonstrable truth, must question even the most sacred traditions and texts. (Strauss added, by the way, that the genuine philosopher was an extremely rare figure: “It is a piece of good luck if there is a single one alive in one’s time.”) 

This intellectual dichotomy certainly never meant political life must choose between thinking and believing, as if it were even possible to separate them practically. Devine attributes to Jaffa the view that Athens and Jerusalem find common ground in the ethical demands of decent constitutionalism. Quite so. But Jaffa was merely repeating what he had learned from Strauss, who writes in “Progress or Return”:

One can say, and it is not misleading to say, that the Bible and Greek philosophy agree in regard to what we may call, and we do call in fact, morality. They agree, if I may say so, regarding the importance of morality, regarding the content of morality, and regarding its ultimate insufficiency. They differ as regards that x which supplements or completes morality.

Only in terms of this completion, which again concerns the choice regarding an individual way of life for the rarest of minds, does the tension between faith and philosophy come to light. And to clarify what may already be obvious, humans exercise their reason in innumerable ways that do not necessarily imply philosophy’s radical skepticism. Thus Aristotle explains that “law is reason free from passion.” Politics can be, and indeed ought to be, reasonable, which in no way precludes (the American Founders thought it required) a vital role for religion in strengthening public morality. If we set aside the interconnected questions of piety and pride (which obviously mean something very different under Greek paganism), it has been widely noted that Aristotle’s precepts in the Nicomachean Ethics are essentially the same as what the Bible teaches. This is hardly surprising given that both orient themselves by the objective reality of human nature (that is, we live in a moral universe independent of our will), and why both Athens and Jerusalem have contributed to what Strauss called the “dynamic vitality” of Western civilization. 

This moral overlap between classical philosophy and Christian piety is described by Devine as a “synthesis” in Jaffa’s interpretation of the Founding, and he seems to regard it as essentially consistent with Meyer’s fusion of freedom (conservatism’s libertarian strand) and virtue (the traditionalist wing). “Fusion,” of course, suggests the forceful melding of dissimilar elements into an artificial alloy. But, as Jaffa and his students have convincingly shown, the Founders’ republicanism presumed and depended upon both liberty and morality, which properly understood complement and reinforce each other. This was in fact Meyer’s own view, and on at least one occasion he objected to the term “fusion.” In a 1962 essay for National Review, responding to Brent Bozell’s article “Freedom or Virtue?,” Meyer denied “the friendly indictment” that he had “labored earnestly . . . to promote and justify modern American conservatism as a ‘fusion’ of the libertarian and traditionalist points of view.” Rather, as he explained, “the American republic” presumes “the existence of an objective moral and spiritual order, which places as man’s end the pursuit of virtue, and the freedom of the individual person as a decisive necessity for a good political order.” So far from attempting to force them together, Meyer understood these principles to have an “intrinsic interdependence.”

The vexing contradictions that are currently tearing our country apart are not found in the achievement of the American Founders—who, again, saw no inherent conflict between freedom and virtue—but in the bitter harvest of modern European philosophy. In the wake of thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, freedom was transformed into the sovereignty of the autonomous self, who is liberated from all constraints in the pursuit of subjective and idiosyncratic “values.” Religious and moral concerns about virtue (indeed the very existence of the soul) were, at the same time, derided by modern philosophers as antiquated superstitions. Politics, under this modern dispensation, aimed at implementing the scientifically rational state, guided by the unfolding of historical progress. It had become clear by the twentieth century, however, that this project for turning politics into a merely technical exercise under the control of experts had resulted in what Strauss called “the self-destruction of reason,” along with the subsequent proliferation of various ugly and absurd superstitions, which rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the expulsion of the Bible (and reason) from public life. Strauss, Meyer, and Jaffa were all vociferous critics of this project. 

In his book In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo (1962), Meyer echoes Strauss in criticizing the way Rousseau transformed the meaning of individualism. Rousseau “became the presiding genius of the two-hundred year crisis of the West,” in part because through Rousseau the individual finds his meaning in “free personal choice of good and evil, a choice dictated by no institution.”

This concept of free personal choice affects everyone in the West, even those who seem to have broken most sharply with the theological and philosophical sources from which it springs. Western man regards himself as the center of his own earthly existence.

The result has been that both sacred tradition and Socratic philosophy, liberty and morality, have been cast aside in the pursuit of the uninhibited self—a goal entirely consistent with a bureaucratic tyranny. Rousseau, let us not forget, readily acknowledged that his version of the social contract would “force men to be free.” This assault on both sources of the Western tradition, Athens and Jerusalem, continues apace, and seems to have brought the American republic to the brink of calamity. 

Let me close by noting that neither Jaffa nor Meyer (and certainly not Strauss) offered any simple solutions to this crisis. But the Straussians, with their intense scholarly interest in the history of political philosophy, may offer at least one essential teaching that (if I may be so bold) the fusionists should take to heart—especially because it doesn’t really receive adequate treatment in Meyer’s otherwise insightful writings. I refer to the principle of nature, specifically nature understood as standard and guide for thinking and acting politically. 

Strauss devotes his most famous book, Natural Right and History (1953), to exploring how nature as a moral, political, and philosophical principle was contested, transformed, and finally rejected in modern philosophy’s baleful descent into nihilism. At the level of philosophy, this is a complicated and challenging tale; and Strauss’s subtle investigations repay years of careful study. 

Yet he also frames the issue at the political and practical level in a way that is quite straightforward. Strauss opens the book by quoting the famous passage from the Declaration of Independence’s explication of the laws of nature and nature’s God: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” He then asks, “Does this nation in its maturity still cherish the faith in which it was conceived and raised?” More than a half century later, this is no longer even a question as regards America’s ruling class. And Strauss certainly seems vindicated in predicting that—however perplexing may be the problem of natural right and its relation to politics—“the rejection of natural right is bound to lead to disastrous consequences.” 

The brilliance and hope of that book, however, lies at least in part in Strauss’s convincing demonstration that nature, which “is older than any tradition,” is not so easily conquered or dismissed. It remains possible to think about and work toward both freedom and virtue as long as we can understand the possibility of natural right—and that in turn depends ultimately on one simple and breathtaking truth expressed by Thomas Jefferson: “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” 

Devine generously writes, “It really wasn’t until I read Ellmers’s fascinating account that everything became clearer to me.” This was exactly my experience when I learned what I have done my best to pass on from my several teachers. Devine’s experience, and my own, confirm Jefferson’s insight that—all the insane rantings of our ruling class to the contrary notwithstanding—Almighty God has indeed created the mind free.