Monday, February 18, 2013
A Lincoln for Our Time
There have been many ways to think about Abraham Lincoln, our most enigmatic president, but the image of him as a moral philosopher is not the most obvious. We have “Honest Abe,” the great rail-splitter of American legend, Lincoln the political operative and architect of the Republican Party, and Lincoln the savvy wielder of executive power as portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s recent film.
Yet several works have put the issue of Lincoln’s language, rhetoric and political thought front and center. Among them, Garry Wills’s “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Ronald C. White Jr.’s “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech” and Allen Guelzo’s “Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas”all deserve honorable mention. But the first and still best effort to advance a philosophical reading of Lincoln was Harry V. Jaffa’s “Crisis of the House Divided,” published in 1959.
A student of the philosopher Leo Strauss, Jaffa argued that the issue between Lincoln and Douglas during the 1850s was the clash between Lincoln’s doctrine of natural right and Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty. This was, as Jaffa declared, identical to the conflict between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Plato’s “Republic.” Douglas argued that whatever the people of a state or territory wanted made it right for them. For Lincoln, however, only a prior commitment to the moral law could make a free people.
The originality of Jaffa’s book was his ability to make what seemed a purely historical debate address the deepest themes of the Western philosophic tradition. At issue were two contending conceptions of justice. Lincoln’s appeal to the “self-evident truth” of equality in the Declaration of Independence provided the moral touchstone of the American republic. Douglas’s affirmation of popular sovereignty was a statement of sheer power politics in which questions of justice are ultimately decided by the will of the majority. For Jaffa, any falling away from the transcendent doctrine of pure natural law was tantamount to a slide into relativism, historicism and ultimately nihilism.
For the first time in over half a century, Jaffa’s book has a serious rival. John Burt, a professor of English at Brandeis University, has written a work that every serious student of Lincoln will have to read, although its sheer bulk alone — more than 800 pages — as well as the density of its prose may deter all but the most intrepid Lincolnophiles. It is a work of history presented as an argument about moral conflict, and a work of philosophy presented as a rhetorical analysis of Lincoln’s most famous speeches. Unlike Jaffa, who projected Lincoln through the long history of natural law from Plato and Cicero through Aquinas, Locke and the American framers, Burt refracts Lincoln through the philosophy of Kant, Rawls and contemporary liberal political theory. His is very much a Lincoln for our time.