Sunday, May 23, 2010

Harry V. Jaffa on Bloom's "Closing":

I've always wanted to read this. But the journal didn't offer online access to it. That is, until now. See pages 111-138.

A few things, in the review Jaffa rants about homosexuality and Bloom's general ignoring of it in "Closing." I won't reproduce what Jaffa writes. It is, in my opinion, in very bad taste. Jaffa knew that Bloom was a homosexual and probably hated him for it. Jaffa's anti-homosexual argument is a variant of the Aristotelian-Thomistic argument, but not as intellectually cogent.

I don't agree with the biblical or natural law arguments against homosexuality; but I do know some folks who articulate these positions who seem to be genuinely good folks who can respectfully and civilly argue their case. Jaffa is not one of them. A good analogy here is to the Jews. For orthodox Christians, Jews have done something tremendously wrong. No I'm not talking about "crucifying Jesus" -- that event is quite complicated and the claim that the Jews were chiefly responsible for the event is rightly disputed. Rather, the Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah, Savior, 2nd Person in the Trinity, what have you. There is a way to respectfully disagree on such fundamental matters and I think most traditional Christians, presently at least, do so in their dealings with Jews.

On the other hand, fundamental disagreements sometimes give rise to gross bigotry. For instance, Martin Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies, 1543, which, without question was used to foment the holocaust.

Harry Jaffa talks of homosexuals as Luther talked of Jews (yes he is that bad) and shame on him for it. But just as I wouldn't write off the tremendous works of Luther for his transgressions I also won't write off Jaffa's.

I focus on Jaffa's criticisms of Bloom's understanding of the American Founding. Many of the points Jaffa makes are quite apt:

....Elsewhere Bloom asserts that

What was acted out in the American and French Revolutions had been thought out beforehand in the writings of Locke and Rousseau, the scenarists for the drama of modern politics (p. 162).

He adds that Hobbes had "led the way" and, as he proceeds, it becomes clear that he regards Locke as essentially Hobbes with a fig leaf covering the hedonism, atheism, and materialism that is so prominent in the former, but no less essential although concealed in the latter. We will return to this point presently. But think of it, the American and French Revolutions "scenarios" written by Locke and Rousseau! The embattled farmers who "fired the shot heard round the world" and the great protagonists in the world historical events that followed Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, are mere actors, following a script. Do we not have here an historical determinism equal to Hegel's? Only the "cunning of history" is replaced by the cunning of the modem philosophers. But this is the purest nonsense.

Leaving the French Revolution to others, I comment only on the American Revolution and the American Founding....Bloom purports to write about "the American mind." But he is perfectly oblivious of the presence of this expression in one of the most famous documents of American history. In a letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, Thomas Jefferson explained the sources, the purpose, and the manner of the writing of what Lincoln would call that "immortal emblem of humanity," and Calvin Coolidge (observing in 1926 the sesquicentennial of the event) called "the most important civil document in the world."

But with respect to our rights and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects. When forced therefore to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject; in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent . neither aiming at originality of principle nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversations, in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero. Locke. Sidney, etc.

We must...emphasi[ze]...Jefferson's emphasis upon the "one opinion" on this side of the water. There really was a "public philosophy" at the time of the Revolution and the Founding. The party conflict of the 1790s exceeded in intensity anything that has come after even that of the decade before the Civil War. Yet Jefferson, in his inaugural address in 1801, could say "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans." To speak as Jefferson did, in the letter to Lee, of the "harmonizing sentiments of the day," is to imply a consensus transcending the normal differences of opinion among a free people. Of "the elementary books of public right" mentioned by Jefferson, two are ancient, two are modern. I think it safe to assume that according to Jefferson's understanding of the American mind, that mind found harmonizing sentiments among the books of public right no less than among the conversations, letters, and printed essays. Certainly that would suggest that Americans then read John Locke's Second Treatise in its "harmonizing" sense, in which Locke quotes Hooker for authority for his doctrine, and through Hooker reaches back to Christian scholasticism, and through it to Aristotle.

Bloom not only believes that the English and American Revolutions were scenarios by Locke he says that "the new English and American regimes founded themselves according to his [Locke's] instructions" (p. 162). According to Bloom one can save oneself all the trouble of reading political and constitutional history like Bloom and just read Locke. But how does Bloom read Locke?

"Perhaps the most important discovery" upon which Locke's teaching was based, according to Bloom, was that "there was no Garden of Eden . . . Man was not provided for at the beginning God neither looks after him nor punishes him. Nature's indifference to justice is a terrible bereavement for man. He must [therefore] care for himself." (p. 163). The complete break with Biblical religion, as well as with classical philosophy, as represented by Aristotle and Cicero, is the necessary presupposition of Bloom's Locke.

Once the world has been purged of ghosts or spirits, [meaning of any belief in God or immortality] it reveals to us that the critical problem is scarcity[.] What is required is not brotherly love or faith, hope, and charity, but self-interested rational labor (p. 165).

"Americans" says Bloom,

are Lockeans: recognizing that work is necessary (no longing for a nonexistent Eden), and will produce well-being; following their natural inclinations moderately, not because they possess the virtue of moderation but because their passions are balanced and they recognize the reasonableness of that; respecting the rights of others so that theirs will be respected . From the point of view of God or heroes, all this is not very inspiring. But for the poor, the weak, the oppressed the overwhelming majority of mankind it is the promise of salvation. As Leo Strauss put it, the moderns "built on low but solid ground" (p. 167).

We need not dispute Bloom's interpretation of Locke to deny that the American mind has ever been the mind represented by that interpretation....[T]he words attributed to Strauss are not Strauss's but Churchill's albeit words Strauss himself frequently quoted. But can a regime to which a Churchill could give such unstinting devotion a regime in whose finest hour so many would come to owe so much to so few; a regime whose glory would not be of a day, but of a thousand years be a regime despised by God and heroes?

....Bloom's own account of the success of American Lockeanism is testimony to the proposition that this is precisely the kind of regime that the God of the Bible, who cares for the poor, the weak, and the oppressed would favor. Bloom to the contrary notwithstanding this is the kind of God most Americans have always believed in. This is what they believe when they sing "God bless America."

Let us again consult Jefferson, at his inaugural, declaring of the American mind that it is one

enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter (p. 333).

As far as I can see, everything Bloom says on subject of the American Founding is derived from his readings of Hobbes, Locke, or Tocqueville. I have found not a word of serious interpretation apart from his birdseed scatterings coming from an American source: not Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, or Lincoln. No one has maintained more persistently than I have, during the past thirty-five years, the importance in the American Founding of Locke's teachings as they were understood and incorporated into their handiwork by the Founding Fathers. But to say that a radical atheism discovered in Locke's esoteric teaching was part of what they understood, believed, and incorporated into their regime when every single document bearing on the question contradicts it, and there is not a shred of evidence to support it is just plain crazy.

A qualified defense of Bloom: He understood much of what Jaffa argues when he wrote the book. Of course he was aware of the "God talk" of the American Founding. He wasn't stupid and he read the documents. His, after Strauss' idea is that Hobbes' and Locke's state of nature/contract and rights ideas are at their heart atheistic and materialistic. And ideas have consequences. Therefore, dressing these ideas up in God talk doesn't negate their inherently atheistic, materialistic nature. As Bloom wrote in "Closing":

When Bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. (pp. 141-2).

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