Review of Glenn Ellmers’ book, The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America
I do not make many recommendations and I do not offer many endorsements, but I am going to make a strong recommendation and offer an endorsement now: Glenn Ellmers’ excellent new book, The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America.
This is a good and important book. It is a book about the extraordinary thought of Harry Jaffa by someone who took the time and put in the work to understand the extraordinary thought of Harry Jaffa, one of the most important thinkers of our time, perhaps of all time.
Anyone is free to disagree with Harry Jaffa, of course. I challenge anyone, however, to demonstrate that Glenn Ellmers has presented anything other than a well-researched, accurate summary and thoughtful discussion of the arguments and the actions of Harry Jaffa.
A good book about Jaffa cannot avoid pursuing truth about human things while offering a tutorial on the many great problems inseparable from the pursuit of truth about human things. This book does just that within the context of our divided American house and the new birth of freedom we so desperately need, and which is so fraught with danger.
Here, I must offer two disclaimers: I know the author and I knew the man whose thoughts out of season are the subjects of this remarkable book.
Harry Jaffa, who died in 2015, was my professor, mentor, and chairman of my Ph.D. dissertation committee (about which he used to joke that no one other than me was foolish enough to ask him to be chair of anything). It’s likely that I was the last graduate student in Claremont to have Professor Jaffa on his dissertation committee.
From 1995 to 2005, I spent many hours with Professor Jaffa, every week, either on the phone, meeting in his office or mine, going for lunches and dinners, or escorting him to his various speaking engagements around the country.
Probably unknown to the author of The Soul of Politics, Glenn Ellmers, I looked to him as something like a big brother during my time in Claremont. My journey to graduate school in California and then the world of intellectual think tanks took me far, far away — literally and figuratively — from my familiar stomping grounds in small-town Kansas.
Glenn was a few years ahead of me in the graduate program and he was working at the Claremont Institute when I started there as a part-time research assistant. He showed me the ropes, both in terms of working in a professional office setting (that was my first job that didn’t involve grease, gasoline, and wrenches) and navigating graduate school (I was the first within my extended family to reach for anything beyond a bachelor’s degree).
I quickly discovered that Glenn is an excellent writer and a thoughtful, patient editor. He helped me to improve my own writing and editing skills. His artful mastery of the English language shines throughout the pages of The Soul of Politics, turning heady subjects into a truly enjoyable page-turner.
There is no substitute for reading the books and essays of Harry Jaffa, and his teacher, Leo Strauss. I am confident Glenn agrees.
At the same time, there might be no single book that reveals the modern crises of philosophy and politics, thought and action, Western Civilization and America — while pointing to solutions and being forthright about how daunting they are — better than The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America.
Capturing the breadth and depth and sheer intellectual expanses of Harry Jaffa’s thought is no small task. Jaffa explored the highest human questions with what Abraham Lincoln once called “towering genius.” Jaffa’s was a lifetime effort trying to understand the whole of the universe, beginning with the whole of the human condition.
Through that exploration, Jaffa discovered and confronted the great divisions among the great possible answers — reason v. revelation, philosophy v. poetry, nature v. history, ancients v. moderns, the life of action v. the life of the mind — which he illuminated for others to see.
Ellmers does not shy away from any of it. Rather, he introduces and explains these subjects with the clarity that comes only after mastery, making the book useful for both experts and non-experts.
When Jaffa takes deep dives, Ellmers dons scuba gear, swims alongside, and shares with his readers what he observes; when Jaffa soars to intellectual heights, Ellmers is watching from the seat of an airplane — or rocket ship — while taking meticulous notes.
There is some academic and political inside-baseball within the book, readers should be warned. The various camps of “Straussians” (former students of Leo Strauss), for example, is a recurring subject. It’s also a necessary subject for understanding Jaffa and his resolution to continue Strauss’s grand philosophic project by saving constitutional self-government in America and the principles upon which that experiment rests.
Though the word “politics” appears in the title, The Soul of Politics is no ordinary book about ordinary politics. It’s a book about politics, political philosophy, and that which intrinsically connects the two and points to those high human questions to which Jaffa devoted his life.
The Soul of Politics is a true philosophic and moral awakening, for those paying attention and willing to think, and not in the puerile sense of the modern progressive “woke.” For some, this book will change their lives forever — it will set them on a new course to a better life of moral purpose, intellectual seriousness, and new fields of philosophic inquiry — should they join the journey of Harry Jaffa’s thought, a journey for which Ellmers proves to be an excellent guide.
VIRTUE, PHILOSOPHY, & POLITICS
The phenomenon of conversion is the paradigmatic framework for the story of Saul on the road to Damascus no less than the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. For those willing to question the idols of our modern cave — denials of the possibility of objective moral, political, and philosophic truth — The Soul of Politics offers the kind of ēdūcere that leads to conversion.*
An example is fitting: There is perhaps no greater moral confusion today, directly connected to the moral confusion contained within postmodern thought, than the unsupported and near-universal assumption that doing whatever one wants and living however one desires is the same as living well.
In our progressive, postmodern cave — in which the most influential voices are fixated on the sexual attractions, gender preferences, lack of wealth, and skin color of politically-preferred groups of people — many people have forgotten (or never learned) that virtue is not something with which one is born.
Many highly-trained, highly-schooled modern Americans don’t know that the virtues are activities and excellences of the soul, which is invisible. The soul has no color.
Many highly-trained, highly-schooled modern Americans don’t know that the virtues — such as courage, wisdom, justice, and moderation — require effort, practice, and self-government. They don’t know that there is an indissoluble union between moral and intellectual virtue.
Many highly-trained, highly-schooled modern Americans don’t know that the virtues are the opposites of vices, and human beings of all stripes instinctively tend toward some or all of the vices. That’s why virtue requires work.
In our progressive, postmodern cave, many ordinary citizens, who have been cheated by ordinary postmodern education, cling to the idol that those born into poverty or those born with a certain skin color or sexual preference or gender dysphoria are virtuous by birthright. They are mistaken. And their mistake causes great human damage because it teaches people, some of whom are fellow citizens, they don’t need to work to be virtuous and they don’t need to be virtuous to be free and happy.
For this great moral and intellectual error, which forms the core of our greatest political and philosophical problems today, Aristotle offers the solution. No one has been a more devoted student of Aristotle, in the modern era, than Harry Jaffa. And no one explains what that means and why it is relevant and important for us better than Glenn Ellmers.
GOOD, TRUE, & BEAUTIFUL
Ellmers showcases Jaffa, who showcased Aristotle and classical political philosophy, continuing the life project of Leo Strauss and, simultaneously, providing the only firm foundation upon which we can save the good and true principles of the American Founding, which are the principles of the best regime.
Jaffa, Strauss, and Aristotle are our guides out of the cave — or, as Strauss described it, out of the dark, unnatural pit beneath the cave in which we find ourselves today. Ellmers, as part-narrator, part-interpreter, and part-teacher, helps readers understand that the assumptions and conclusions of classical thought are the antidotes for the radical skepticism, philosophic nihilism, and moral relativism that have become the unsupported, unquestioned orthodoxies — the idols — in our modern pit.
The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America provides light for those who truly want to see. It is a beautiful book, in the classical Greek meaning of the word. It is a book I wish I had written. But I did not write it. Glenn Ellmers did. I highly encourage others to buy it, read it, discuss it, and recommend it to friends and fellow citizens.
Actions are unlikely to be right if they are informed by bad theory. This book helps us get both theory and action right. Why is this book important, you ask? What is a stake? Nothing less than the future and fate of liberty in America and the Western world; nothing less than the possibility of philosophy; nothing less than preserving and passing along the basic idea that the intrinsic dignity of individual human beings is rooted in the metaphysical freedom of the human mind.
* Ēdūcere, which means to lead or take out — as in being led out of the cave — is the Latin root for our modern word “education.”