Harry Jaffa and Allan Bloom represent two ways of understanding the political philosophy of Leo Strauss, particularly in relation to the concept of classical natural right. The creative tension between Jaffa and Bloom, as well as their respective students, has produced some of the finest scholarship of the last half century or more.
On the surface of things, there might be little to connect Harry V. Jaffa (1918–2015) and Allan Bloom (1930–1992). Bloom was a cosmopolitan sophisticate, having lived and taught in Europe for many years, and his passion was for philosophy at the highest level. He was not open about his sexual orientation, his political interventions were vigorous rebuttals of feminism, and he mounted a spirited defense of both the differences and the complementarity of men and women. We might say he was more interested in the philosophic life than political contests.
Jaffa, on the other hand, was briefly a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater, for whom he wrote that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” He was an American patriot whose overwhelming interest was the American regime, in both its original founding and its rebirth under Abraham Lincoln. Unlike the seemingly apolitical Bloom, Jaffa courted controversy, for instance, in his very public opposition to gay marriage in California. Yet the problem on the surface of things does get to the heart of things.
The connection—and the conflict—between Bloom and Jaffa is based on different interpretations of the work of Leo Strauss, the twentieth-century political philosopher who taught them both. In essence, Strauss can be said to have promoted two significant ideas. First, the idea that there is a fundamental break between ancient and medieval philosophy, on the one hand, and modern philosophy, on the other. Second, the idea that philosophers throughout history, perhaps less so as modernity progressed, wrote in an “esoteric” manner. Esoteric writing is the practice of speaking to two different audiences at the same time and saying different things with the same words. Arthur Melzer has written an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but parents of small children will also be familiar with the practice.
Jaffa described Strauss as “the Socrates of our millennium,” a characterization Bloom never had an opportunity to affirm or deny. Yet in his obituary of his teacher, Bloom wrote, “those of us who knew him saw in him such a power of mind, such a unity and purpose of life, such a rare mixture of the human elements resulting in a harmonious expression of the virtues, moral and intellectual, that our account of him is likely to evoke disbelief or ridicule from those who have never experienced a man of this quality.” For both Jaffa and Bloom, their encounter with Strauss was the turning point in their lives, akin to the escape of the prisoners from Plato’s cave.