Tom Merrill, who is an associate professor at American University and a Hume scholar, has written an excellent, super-sober review of Glenn Ellmers’ new book, The Soul of Politics (which is a book about Harry Jaffa).
Merrill doesn’t ignore the fact that Ellmers has recently indulged in some truly ugly polemics, but he takes the book on its own terms, and elevates the tenor of the “What the Hell Happened to Claremont” debate a couple notches. He renders all the questions that inform this discussion about as interesting and subtle as you could hope for. Which to say that Merrill may give too much credit to Ellmers (and to Claremont), but it makes for a fantastic read, and has some real pedagogical power.
Here’s a sample:
The brilliance of Jaffa’s best book, Crisis of the House Divided, lay in its marvelous political sense—Jaffa’s ability to understand and articulate Stephen Douglas’s point of view and Abraham Lincoln’s prudential moderation. There are other parts of Jaffa’s legacy that could be useful to us today as well: his resolute anti-racism; his understanding that alongside the doctrine of human equality in the Declaration of Independence, the United States has persistent traditions of racial subordination, traditions that by no means died in 1865; and his recognition of the continuing need for political agency and choice on the part of statesmen and citizens. The current leading lights of the Claremont school offer one reading of the meaning of Jaffa’s legacy. But it would not be hard to imagine a different reading of that legacy, one that would focus not so much on “socialism” and immigration, but on our need to face up to the legacy of slavery and racism as persistent features of the American experience.
And here’s another bit, from the conclusion:
… asking what Jaffa would have thought about our political dilemmas is the wrong question. It is a form of self-absorption, a product of the belief that everything in the world has to be measured by our collective conversation today. It is presentism, the inability to have any distance from the current moment. Ellmers is guilty of this. But so are many of the rest of us. To think that our opinions about figures in the history of political thought must be determined by our opinions about the partisan disputes of today is a form of insanity. It is to guarantee that we will not have the psychic distance to judge impartially either the historical figures or the present moment. It means that we can only ever have one conversation, the conversation about who is up and who is down today. Not only is this wrong, it makes the world a less interesting place.