Essays & Reviews

Harry V. Jaffa: Can There Be Another Winston Churchill?

Harry V. Jaffa, Professor Emeritus at Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate University, passed away recently at the age of 96. Jaffa was best known in the general scholarly community for his ground-breaking work on the political principles of Abraham Lincoln, which has influenced several generations of historians and political scientists He was also known for his pugnacious style and willingness, even eagerness, to attack friends who strayed from what he regarded as the correct, narrow path. One who became his friend, William F. Buckley, once wrote, “If you think it’s hard to disagree with Harry Jaffa, try agreeing with him.” Jaffa’s eagerness to attack friends never extended to those students who were merely struggling to grasp to the difficult matters at hand, and who were perhaps incapable of ever doing so. To them, nothing but good will, and an invitation to take a long bike ride together.

Jaffa was also a close student and admirer of Winston Churchill, not merely from the standpoint of Churchill’s successful political and strategic opposition to Hitler, but from a deeper appreciation of Churchill’s metaphysics, if you will. The common wisdom about Churchill’s career prior to 1940 is summarized by the subtitle of Robert Rhodes James’ book, A Study in Failure, 1900-1939. Jaffa argued otherwise, without denying that Churchill had been wrong about many things. In this paper, “Can There Be Another Winston Churchill?”, Jaffa explored the grounds on which Churchill’s entire life might properly be held to a higher standard than mere success, and judged favorably according to that standard.

In this paper, Jaffa references several of Churchill’s well-known major works on strategy and history (some of which were also autobiographical in nature): The Second World War, of course, as well as The World Crisis (covering World War I and its aftermath) and the biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough.  The latter two works are important not only for the topics at hand but because they were written between the two wars and reflect upon the great question, or theme, with which Churchill was then grappling, and which makes sense of his approach to politics and war as a whole. Is the scale of life in the modern world too large for human virtue to control? Jaffa elaborates:

“The great commanders, from Caesar to Cromwell to Marlborough to Napoleon, could comprehend the entire battlefield from a single point upon it, and by the penetration of their genius grasp upon the instant the totality of its changing relationships. The orders they issued dominated a reality whose own highest purpose was to be dominated by them. Two of Churchill’s multi-volumed masterpieces—The World Crisis and Marlborough: His Life and Times—are devoted to demonstrating the obverse and the reverse of this theme. Marlborough was representative of the great commanders of the past. The World Crisis narrates the failure of a world in which great commanders no longer command. It describes the unraveling of policy, so that war becomes blind slaughter, the vehicle of no great purpose, human or divine—such for example as Lincoln saw in the American Civil War. It is the crisis of a world in which the characters of men are no longer the dominant factors in determining the character of their lives.”

Jaffa continues: “Churchill remarks somewhere in The Second World War that in war it is impossible to guarantee success, that it is possible only to deserve it. War—and indeed all of human life—is subject to chance. Churchill recognizes the role of chance in the same sense as Aristotle. Human well-being requires virtue and good fortune. The world Churchill repudiates is one in which the coincidence even of virtue and good fortune does not produce well-being; or perhaps one should say that it is one in which fortune, instead of being fickle, is constant in its hostility to virtue. It is a world in which human agency is so swallowed up by ‘mass effects’ that courage and genius appear impotent and irrelevant. It is a world in which it seems senseless to do other than to march with the strongest legions, and in which vulgar success seems better than noble failure.”

For Churchill, Nazism and Communism were the extreme political incarnation of a world in which it was senseless to do anything other than to march with the strongest legions – justice being in the interest of the stronger, which meant the elimination of the weak altogether. But Nazism and Communism only represented a deeper current in human affairs, that of the modern scientific “progress,” which dealt only with the subhuman, and not at all with the distinctively human, or with that elevation and transcendence of the human that is divine. Churchill certainly did not complain about the advantages of technology, particularly in terms of ease and comfort it might provide for those who had heretofore lived lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. Yet these were instrumental goods, not final goods. Scientific “progress” meant, on the one hand, the creation of weapons of mass destruction so horrific as to threaten the extinction of the human race. On the other hand, it pointed toward the civilization of the “white ant,” in which individuality was extinguished, either by tyranny or by the pursuit of pleasure without serious purpose.

Jaffa placed great emphasis on Churchill’s essays that were written during the 1920s and early 1930s, which Jaffa felt in many ways were just as important and revealing as Churchill’s studies of political history and military strategy. Here, Churchill laid the theoretical framework for his more famous warnings of the late 1930s. These included “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” “A Second Chance,” and “Fifty Years Hence.” Jaffa’s arguments on this point are too complex and learned to condense here; we can however quote and paraphrase what Jaffa regarded to be as revealing a passage as Churchill ever composed. In “Fifty Years Hence,” Churchill observed that he had recently read a book in which he encountered a vision, neither of tyranny or war, but of the good life.

“In the end a race of beings was evolved which had mastered nature,” Churchill wrote. “A state was created whose citizens lived as long as they chose, enjoyed pleasures and sympathies incomparably wider than our own, navigated the interplanetary spaces, could recall the panorama of the past and foresee the future.” This is the utopia that seems to be promised to us by the perfection of the modern scientific understanding, the modern scientific understanding both of human and of subhuman nature. The citizens who “lived as long as they chose” might be the Struldbrugs of Gulliver’s Travels, with the difference that these “immortals” apparently retain the option of death. “But what was the good of all that to them? What did they know more than we know about the answers to the simple questions which man has asked since the earliest dawn of reason—’Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’ No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul. It is this fact, more wonderful than any that Science can reveal, which gives the best hope that all will be well.”