To begin to convey a sense of what an extraordinary and compelling figure Harry V. Jaffa was, I offer a confession: The only class notes I have kept from college or graduate school are contained in the dog-eared, green notebook from my courses with Jaffa, and I keep it in my top desk drawer. In idle moments, I read over those notes, reminding myself of key points, puzzling over ideas and observations I still don’t fully understand, but above all marveling at the mind of one of the great teachers of our time.
Nothing could prepare a student for the shock of hearing Harry Jaffa in the classroom for the first time. From virtually his first word, you could tell that this was not going to be political science or political philosophy as usually taught. Above all, it was instantly clear that the course would involve engagement with the most serious political matters at the highest level—notably, “the crisis of the West.” There was no pawing at the ground with methodological preliminaries, no “on the one hand, on the other hand.” We plunged headlong into the assigned texts—Aristotle and Aquinas—whose themes and implications Jaffa illuminated with a peripatetic brilliance that ranged from Plato to Shakespeare to Thackeray; from architecture to drama, music, and poetry; modern culture and sports, all without a single note. And that was just the first 15 minutes.
It was a dazzling vindication of the ancient claim that political philosophy is the queen of the sciences, and that the arguments between the greatest minds were not a matter of antiquarian curiosity or the mere history of ideas, but a live argument relevant to the here and now. My very first three hours in class with Jaffa cleared away years of half-learning, confused ideas, and superficially grounded opinions with a force that others who shared the same experience have compared to a religious conversion—just as Jaffa described his own first encounter with his great teacher, Leo Strauss.
Not that any class ever got very far into the assigned texts. Almost every Jaffa student who took his course on the Nicomachean Ethics has the same story: By the end of the semester, Jaffa had failed to get us beyond Book I (though by some miracle, when I took the course, we actually got through several chapters of Aquinas as well as Book II of the Ethics). It didn’t matter: By the end of that semester, everyone could comprehend the rest of the Ethics on his own.
This lack of normal progress through the assigned texts wasn’t a result of excess focus on minutiae or, still less, pointless digressions. Indeed, Jaffa’s classes consisted half or more of digressions, always deeply interesting, after which he would say, “Where were we? Oh yes—,” and he would pick up the main thread of his thought on the text exactly where he had left off. His memory was phenomenal, best seen in his ability to recite verbatim long quotations from memory.
Jaffa’s effectiveness in the classroom, and in his writing, was due chiefly to his ability to spot the innermost essence of an idea or problem and render the right way of thinking about the problem in simple and accessible language. This is not to say that his teachings were simple; merely that they were direct and sure. This was not always true of Strauss and his other leading students, who could be obscure or indirect. While Jaffa’s teaching often involved difficult and profound subtleties, he was never turgid.
You could see this trait at the core of Jaffa’s most famous work about Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided, his detailed interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. At the time Jaffa took up this subject in the early 1950s, historians and political scientists largely ignored the debates; the conventional wisdom among historians was that the Civil War had been an “unnecessary war” and Lincoln’s position largely reducible to mere political ambition. Both were outgrowths of the historicism that dominates the modern mind. Jaffa noticed that “the issue between Lincoln and Douglas was in substance, and very nearly in form, identical with the issue between Socrates and Thrasymachus” in Book I of The Republic. Because the fundamental questions of the ground of justice transcend time, the wider lessons of the Lincoln-Douglas debates were directly relevant today.