Sunday, July 3, 2011

Jaffa's homophobic "Aristotle" in today's Sunday New York Times Book Review

Brian Leiter put up a brief but apt comment on Harry Jaffa's review of a new translation of the Nicomachean Ethics this morning. See Jaffa's review here and Brian's comment here. Jaffa accuses all modern philosophy of contributing to the "crisis of the West," to be morally relativist, and other reactionary cliches. But it is not just philosophical competence which is at issue. Much of Jaffa's handwaving is to oppose gay marriage in New York. Pace the review and the editor who solicited it, it is not that Jaffa is moral and the modern world is supposedly tolerant of anything. Beating back bigotry against gays and lesbians is a great moral victory (that each of us has basic individual rights that no state can sacrifice, that any reasonable democratic system must honor).

A strategic sentence in Jaffa’s review, attributed by him, to Leo Strauss, is 'It is part of the order of nature (and of nature’s God) that pre-­philosophic speech supply the matter, and philosophic speech the form, of perfected political speech, much as the chisel of the sculptor uncovers the form of the statue within the block of marble.' The reason a book review editor published Jaffa just now is that he is a Catholic homophobe, joining Robert George, in the crusade against gay marriage. That is the quasi-hidden point of the article (Jaffa could not have said that explicitly without the broader editorship taking note of or removing it).

Jaffa’s customary vehemence* is, amusingly, in inverse proportion to his understanding of Strauss, who was blown away by Heidegger – on Strauss’s own posthumous account in an “Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism”, the great philosopher of our time (hence, contra Jaffa, Leo cannot have been). Strauss admired Heidegger’s National Socialism, and was reactionary in ways that Jaffa cannot imagine. See here and here.

Jaffa’s is an Aristotle who could not have learned that slavery even for “barbarians” is bad (actually, Aristotle already seems to have thought this about Carthage, an African city and one of the three best cities, in the Politics, book 2) and that women and gays and lesbians are, justly, full participants in political and social life (see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1**). It is moral progress that, against Jaffa, New York just celebrated, and that the New York Times Book Review today turns, ignorantly and nauseatingly, against.

*Jaffa has long been a reactionary, the author of Barry Goldwater's speech at the Republican Convention in 1964 that "extremism in response to evil is no vice; moderation in defense of liberty is no virtue."

Strauss concealed from Jaffa, as he did from many of his students, the roots of what he thought in Heidegger and Carl Schmitt...

**The book defends a limited moral objectivity and is linked, among many others, to arguments by Hilary Putnam, Richard Boyd, Nicholas Sturgeon and David Brink.


Ben Alpers said...

Alan, your link to the Leiter post is broken.

Alan Gilbert said...


Thanks. It is best to google Leiter Reports and Brian's post will come up (currently the third brief item). I tried to cut and paste the exact address in my post, and, uniquely, it failed.

Ben Alpers said...

Thanks, Alan. I found it by doing just that.

Also, the Goldwater acceptance speech quotation should read: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" No mention of evil there, for whatever that's worth.

More importantly, I'm glad I wasn't the only one who saw the deeply homophobic subtext in this review.

(FWIW, I'm working on a blog post exploring a quite different topic that uses Jaffa's review as a starting point. It should be up over on the US Intellectual History Blog in an hour or two.)

Alan Gilbert said...

Thanks on the Goldwater quote which of course in itself, is not reactionary (The American Revolution or John Brown or the French Resistance or Arab Spring might be examples I will look for the post.

Straussian reaction, including Jaffa's, focses on the creation of tyrannical executive power at the expense of the rule of law and checks and balances (the Constitution).

Alan Gilbert said...

Ben's post is very well worth reading - see the link above in his comment - and I posted a comment on it.

Durendal said...

Alan, could you post a citation to the text where Aristotle suggests that gays and lesbians are justly full participants in political life? Thanks.

Bixus Noodius said...

A. Gilbert, I'm wondering why you refer to Carthage as "an African city." No doubt it was located in Africa, but what do you mean to say when you make it so specific.

Alan Gilbert said...

Dear Durendal,

Aristotle does not say that. But his discovery of the polis - that in the ancient times, there was just despotism - but now there is a regime in which some are free is a moral discovery (see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1). To see that possibility based on emergent facts of political life is to defend an intelligent and decent Aristotelianism. Jaffa does not.

With regard to Jaffa, at the US intellectual history cite, Ben Alpers has now posted on his remarkably vicious attack on Bloom in 1988. He is a homophobe's homophobe.

The discussion there is worth checking out.

To Bixus, Aristotle's account of natural slavery rests on there being a difference between bodies, roughly barbarians, and minds such that a common good will be involved in the slave-holding. He spends a long time in book 1 fretting about how often nature fails to make the appropriate distinction. The argument about Carthage shows that his skepticism about his own argument runs still deeper. Socrates was right (see the discussion of a geometric theorem with a slave); there is no philosophical or moral justification for slavery.

Bixus Noodius said...

Hello Alan and thank you for the answer. My question, however, is not about slavery but about why you would refer to Carthage as "an African city." What did you mean by this? Surely you could have just said it was non-Greek, but you chose to call it "African." Calling it "non-Greek" might have been more precise. This confuses me...are you referring to its location? Surely you know there were several large Greek colonies in Africa as well. I'm not sure what you meant by calling it "African," so I was wondering if you would clarify.

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