My task today is to comment on Mr. Anastaplo's new book on Abraham Lincoln. Before I turn to that work, however, I believe a few preliminary remarks about why we are here might prove helpful in our approach to this material.
The title of this panel is "Abraham Lincoln: Poet, Prophet, or Philosopher?" This question assumes some agreement, or some common understanding, of what is meant by poetry, prophesy, and philosophy. We cannot have a fruitful discussion of whether Lincoln was one or all of these things, unless we first agree what these things mean. While many important questions—perhaps the most important questions?—can certainly be raised about poetry and prophesy, I wish here to focus on the last—what is philosophy? I believe that only by understanding the true nature of philosophy can we ultimately distinguish the true poet from the sophist, as well as the true prophet from the demagogue.
Today there is a fundamental division of opinion on the meaning of philosophy. A recently published review of a new book on Leo Strauss provides a clear example of this division. The author of the review, Mr. Steve Lenzner, uses the opportunity of his review to launch an attack on the writings of Harry Jaffa. "The essential purpose of Leo Strauss's life and work" Jaffa has written, was to "secure recognition…of the moral authority based upon the dignity of man, supported both by reason and revelation." This is wrong, according to Lenzner. It could not have been Strauss's intention to establish any sort of authority, moral or otherwise, because the philosopher sees any and all "authority" as an obstacle to understanding the truth, and discovering the true nature of things. As evidence of Strauss's view, Lenzner quotes Strauss on the goal of philosophy: "By uprooting authority, philosophy recognizes nature as the standard."
According to this view, Abraham Lincoln, then, is disqualified from philosophy, because the life and work of Lincoln was "animated in a fundamental sense" by a concern for moral virtue, working tirelessly throughout his adult life to preserve what he understood to be the "father of all moral principles in us." I note here also the implicit criticism, whether witting or unwitting, of the Claremont Institute, which is sponsoring this and many other panels at the APSA. The Claremont Institute is concerned with the study of statesmanship and political philosophy. We think the two are intrinsically related to one another. According to Lenzner, however, (and I suspect his opinion is shared by others), the mission of the Claremont Institute—to restore the principles of the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life—disqualifies us from the realm of philosophy as well. For if the philosopher seeks to uproot all authority, then he must seek to uproot or disqualify the authority of the principles of the American Founding. Those principles, and our work to teach them, are fundamentally anti-philosophic, according to the position held by Steve Lenzner.
Thus it would appear that those of us at the Claremont Institute are precluded from discussing the philosophic aspects of Lincoln, or any other thinker, because we are not philosophic. We are, rather, partisans. And as Plato makes clear in his Republic and elsewhere, it is very difficult if not impossible for un-wise and un-philosophic partisans to judge properly the claims of wisdom and philosophy. As partisans, we cannot leave the cave, and therefore we cannot see things as they truly are, illuminated by the light of philosophy and right reason.
But this I believe is a misguided understanding of things. In what follows I hope to demonstrate why this is so. Like Mr. Lenzner's review of the Strauss book, Mr. Anastaplo's Lincoln book is in a significant way a response to and criticism of many of the things Harry Jaffa has written. By way of analyzing the work of Mr. Anastaplo I hope to shed some light on what I believe is central to understanding and thinking about things political and things philosophical today.
As many of you probably know, Mr. Anastaplo is a prolific writer on a wide range of things. On subjects as diverse as classical philosophy, ancient poetry, the Bible, Shakespeare, and America, not to mention the abolishment of television, Mr. Anastaplo has provided us with thoughtful and insightful essays and books that demonstrate not only his own deep understanding of these things, but perhaps above all his genuine love of learning and teaching others to learn. Most recently Mr. Anastaplo has brought this wealth of learning to bear on the subject of Abraham Lincoln, in his new book, Abraham Lincoln: A Constitutional Biography. We see immediately from the title that this is not simply a biography of our greatest president; or, rather, it is not a biography in the common sense of such a thing. It is a constitutional biography. This is to be the story of Lincoln told in light of, and in relation to, the constitution or regime for which he gave the ultimate sacrifice. Such a title, however, might also lead one to believe that this might be a book that attempts to understand the American regime in light of the life of Abraham Lincoln. This it is not. And as we shall soon see, such an understanding is one of the problems Mr. Anastaplo has with Harry Jaffa.
The book comprises seventeen chapters, preceded by a prologue and concluding with an epilogue. (For any of you worried about a lack of notes, I assure you this latest book is consistent with Anastaplo's earlier ones: appended to the 262 pages of text are nearly one hundred pages of endnotes.) The seventeen chapters can be divided into two main sections: The first section, chapters 1 through 7, describe the constitutional, moral, and social development of the United States up to the time of Lincoln. The second part, chapters 8 through 17, examines the words and actions of Lincoln by way of careful analyses of Lincoln's most famous and important speeches. This second part can itself be divided in two, with chapters 8 through 11 devoted to Lincoln's political career leading up to the Presidency, and chapters 12 through 17 describing Lincoln as President. The House Divided speech, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the First Inaugural Address, the 4th of July message to Congress, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural Address are each discussed in their own respective chapters.
The most careful analysis in the book, in my opinion, is Mr. Anastaplo's treatment of the one Lincoln piece included in the book that was not intended as a speech, the Emancipation Proclamation. Commenting line by line, Mr. Anastaplo does a remarkable job of demonstrating, to a degree beyond reasonable expectation, the true depths of Lincoln's political genius, as well as his unerring judgment regarding the weightiest political matters. As Anastaplo writes: "Throughout the war, [Lincoln] was remarkably adept, knowing both what he should want and what he was doing." "He seems most impressive," writes Anastaplo, "in his surefootedness: he never seemed to err in the principles brought to bear upon the major moves he made in response to the South once he assumed the Presidency."
Against the charge that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was mere rhetoric, that it provided for the freedom of slaves only in those areas where the national government was unable to reach them, Anastaplo shows that all of Lincoln's political thought was guided by his profound understanding of, and appreciation of, constitutionalism. Throughout his life Lincoln held that slavery was morally wrong. As he once wrote, "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." Yet, as wrong as slavery is, Lincoln thought lawlessness a twin evil. He understood that the security and happiness of all men of all colors depends, in the end, on the rule of law and constitutional government. Thus he sought a way to combat the cancer of slavery—foremost in his policy of preventing the spread of slavery to the territories—while never violating the rule of law, or depreciating the supreme importance of the Constitution.
Anastaplo provides a wonderful example of this in a correspondence between Lincoln and his Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase. In the preliminary proclamation of September 22, 1862, Lincoln stated one of the central purposes of the Proclamation to be issued 100 days later, on January 1st of the following year, would be to identify the states, or parts thereof, held to be in rebellion against the United States, thus giving said states over three months to resume their constitutional duties. When the final Proclamation was ordered, Lincoln identified ten states then in rebellion. But of those ten, certain counties and parishes of two, Virginia and Louisiana, were exempted. Secretary Chase argued against these exemptions, and urged Lincoln to extend the Proclamation to all of Virginia and Louisiana. Lincoln replied to Chase in these terms:
The original Proclamation has no constitutional or legal justification except as a military measure. The exemptions were made because the military necessity did not apply to the exempted localities…If I take the step [you suggest] must I not do so, without the argument of military necessity, and so, with out any argument, except the one that I think the measure politically expedient and morally right? Would I thus not give up all footing upon constitution or law? Would I not thus be in the boundless field of absolutism? Could this pass unnoticed or unresisted? Could it fail to be perceived that without any further stretch, I might do the same in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri; and even change any law in any state?
Here Anastaplo points our attention to Lincoln's acute understanding of the importance of opinion in a constitutional regime. Lincoln sought to win the war, but not at the expense of losing the union, and destroying the Law. Thus Lincoln ensured the loyal "middle states" that the war was not being waged by Lincoln, personally, against the sin of slavery, but, rather, that the war was being waged by America in defense of constitutional government and freedom. As Anastaplo helps us see, prudence and principle, calculation and moral understanding, come together in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
For those of us who are students of ordinary abilities, the best we can hope for, if we struggle hard to learn and think and understand, is to catch a glimpse of such human heights. In his book on Lincoln, and in the chapter on the Emancipation Proclamation in particular, Mr. Anastaplo has performed a generous service by shining a gentle light on this great man in such a way that helps illuminate some of the higher things in him, without blinding us. And for that we thank him.
But this is not to say the book is without its faults. Nor is it to say that Anastaplo simply defends or praises Lincoln, or America for that matter. I believe it is the case that, in the final analysis, Mr. Anastaplo disagrees with Lincoln in a fundamental way.
Mr Anastaplo seems to share Mr. Jaffa's opinion that slavery was the greatest political evil, and perhaps the greatest moral evil, with which America had to contend. In a peculiar passage early in the book, however, after commenting at some length about the English Somerset case of 1772—which prepared the way for the 1833 act of Parliament that abolished slavery throughout the British Empire—Mr. Anastaplo remarks that "had separation from Great Britain not happened…the American Civil War might have been avoided, assuming that Great Britain could have enforced its 1833 abolition statute in all of its American colonies." Surely Mr. Anastaplo does not mean to suggest that the American Patriots of '76 could have foreseen such a thing? Moreover, Anastaplo seems to think that slavery was destined to end, whatever the immediate cause may have been. He qualifies his position by stating that he does not mean to suggest that "the march to freedom has been inevitable for the human race." Yet in other places he seems to suggest that very thing. He hypothesizes, for example, about what would have happened had the South been allowed to secede: "[an] independent South, dedicated to slavery and able to expand southward, would eventually have had to come to terms with an aroused world opinion that had long condemned chattel slavery as barbaric." Later he writes that "American constitutionalism…had permitted and encouraged the development of the resources both spiritual and material, with which the country could (with or without Lincoln) conduct and endure a great civil war." Similar remarks are made elsewhere in the book. It is in the idea that slavery was bound for the ash heap of history that we confront Mr. Anastaplo's disagreement with Mr. Jaffa, and ultimately, I believe, with his disagreement with Lincoln himself, albeit a criticism presented in a very subtle manner.
If slavery was destined to be abandoned by it practitioners, then Lincoln seems not so important from the point of view of constitutional government—in fact, he may in the end represent the antithesis of constitutionalism. The status of Lincoln is precisely the point of disagreement between Mr. Anastaplo and Mr. Jaffa, according to Mr. Anastaplo's account. As he writes, "I would prefer to see more made of the American regime, and less of Abraham Lincoln, than [Jaffa] does." This is because, in Anastaplo's opinion, "an undue emphasis upon particular personages, as distinguished from the principles of the regime, may make the American Republic precarious in the way that republican Rome was when it depended as much as it did on someone such as Marcus Brutus to reverse the decline into Caesarism." But America is not Rome. Rome did not find its justification in self evident truths rooted in human nature. Further, no one was more conscious of the dangers of modern Caesarism than Lincoln, as is evidenced in his Lyceum speech of 1838. And Mr. Anastaplo himself demonstrates Lincoln's consciousness of this problem in the passages from the Emancipation Proclamation chapter cited above. Anastaplo himself shows that Lincoln's tremendous political and poetic skills were exercised, at the most critical times, in the service of constitutionalism, and in defense of natural right. So what is the real reason for the disagreement Anastaplo has with Jaffa? Why, ultimately, does Anastaplo seek to lower the status of Lincoln in the American mind?
Here I believe Anastaplo's chapter on the Gettysburg Address is telling (which, by the way, is also the subject of Harry Jaffa's long awaited sequel to his Crisis of the House Divided). The movement of that chapter goes from the Lyceum speech to the Gettysburg address. In the earlier Lyceum speech, Anastopla directs our attention to the emphasis Lincoln placed on reason as providing the "critical support for the regime." In that speech, Lincoln, argued against the dangers of the "mobocratic spirit" that was growing in certain parts of America, and explained that "Passion has helped us, but can do so no more. It will in the future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the Constitution and laws." Indeed, this reverence for the laws, Lincoln urged, should become the "political religion" of the nation.
When Anastaplo turns to the Gettysburg Address, however, he finds something very different. Instead of an appeal to "cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason," he finds a speech dripping with religiosity and religious sentiments. Of the two last major speeches given by Lincoln—the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural—which also provide the subject matter of the last two text-based chapters in the book—Anastaplo emphasizes their religious connotations and orientation. These utterances by Lincoln, writes Anastaplo, are "Biblical," "prophetic," and "messianic." As Anastaplo notes, the Gettsyburg Address is like a prayer, opening with an invocation of the paternal, and concluding with a vision of the ever after. The Second Inaugural, as we all know, interprets the suffering of war as a divine punishment for the sin of slavery.
The problem with this, as Anastaplo sees it, is that religion is related to, if not identical with, passion, and un-reason. Religion is "mystical." In his Crisis of the House Divided, published some forty years ago, Harry Jaffa argued that Lincoln was a re-founder of America, that Lincoln re-founded America on higher, more noble ground, than had the Founders of 1776. Anastaplo agrees that Lincoln is a re-founder—he calls him precisely that in his book. But Anastaplo thinks the new ground of the regime is less solid than the original founding. According to Anastaplo, the Founders had "presented divinity in the image of the political," the divine was subordinate to, or understood in light of, the rational principles of the regime. But Lincoln reversed this, and presented the "political in the image of divinity." According to Anastaplo, the politics presented by Lincoln, far from being rooted in nature, are given the appearance of the supernatural.
Toward the end of the Gettysburg Address chapter, Anastaplo writes: "In any event, the passions aroused by the terrible fratricidal struggle proved to be such as to permit, perhaps even to compel, the public identification of the entire experience with the Passion." Attached to that sentence is an endnote, which is, I believe, the longest of the notes, and in which Anastaplo lays out most clearly his opposition to Jaffa, and, ultimately to Lincoln.
In this long note Anastaplo argues that Lincoln "helped turn serious American thought away from the classical political philosophy recommended by Mr. Jaffa (and we presume, the classical political thought recommended by Leo Strauss as well?)." The "divine," according to Anastaplo, "takes the place in Lincoln's thought of nature." This is a problem, because it is nature "upon which classical political thought rests." He goes on to write that "whatever the political usefulness or the ultimate sincerity of such sentiments, they do seem somehow more impassioned, somewhat less urbane, than those which one associates with classical political philosophy or for that matter the Declaration of Independence…Thus philosophy—the essentially Socratic understanding—seems, by the end of Lincoln's life, not to have the status one finds assigned to it in classical political thought." Anastaplo seems to believe that the rational principles of the Declaration are the ground of rational constitutionalism. But as the American poet, Lincoln precludes rational constitutionalism, as well as Socratic rationalism, by elevating the divine in his poetry. Because of the damage Lincoln caused to the status of reason and nature, Anastaplo suggests that America was probably more open to classical political philosophy before 1800 than after 1860. He even suggests, in a most vague and cautious way, that the rise of pragmatism and behavioralism in the U.S. was caused somehow by the religious and irrational emphasis of Lincoln. This, I believe, is why Anastaplo wants to demote Lincoln, and this is also why he argues against Harry Jaffa, who elevates Lincoln to the highest position in the pantheon of American constitutionalists. This is also why, when Anastaplo sets out to write a book on Lincoln, he writes not merely a biography, by a "constitutional biography," so as to emphasize that Lincoln was a product of the American constitutional regime, and not vice versa.
Perhaps I am overstating things somewhat, but then, Mr. Anastaplo has a tendency of understating things, or stating them in such a qualified way that it is nearly impossible to decipher what his opinion is, but I believe it is clear that Anastaplo thinks philosophy and constitutional government are in danger in America, and he thinks so because we are alienated from the rational, natural principles of the Founding, cause in large part by the words of Abraham Lincoln. Much can be said here about the relationship between the principles of the American Founding in the service of which Lincoln's statesmanship and poetry were dedicated, as well as the teaching of the Federalist that passion is not to be—nay, cannot be—eliminated from the people, nor are the passions to be used only in the service of pitting various interests and factions against one another, but, ultimately, that the passions of the people should be shaped by the Constitution, that a passionate attachment to the Constitution is a necessary condition to the success of the Constitution—that to hope for a nation of people who venerate the law simply because of its appeal to their cold, calculated reason, is to hope for something as impossible as a nation of philosophers.
But here I would remind Mr. Anastaplo that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is not wholly or simply irrational. This is certainly true in the case of the Founders' understanding. Whether one reads the likes of Madison, Jefferson, or Washington, or the corpus of sermons from the Revolutionary era that have come down to us, what one finds is an understanding that at the core of Christianity is a moral teaching supported no less by reason than by revelation. As the Rev. Samuel Cooper stated in a 1780 sermon:
We want not, indeed, a special revelation from heaven to teach us that men are born equal and free; that no man has a natural claim of dominion over his neighbours, nor one nation any such claim upon another; and that as government is only the administration of the affairs of a number of men combined for their own security and happiness, such a society have a right freely to determine by whom and in what manner their own affairs shall be administered. These are the plain dictates of that reason and common sense with which the common parent of men has informed the human bosom.
Or, as the Founders would have put it, reason is no less the voice of God than sacred scripture. This opinion was shared no less by Lincoln than by the American Founders. I believe it is also the case that the appeal to the divine by Lincoln was no less than the appeals made by the Founders. One need only think of Washington's First Inaugural, or Jefferson "trembling for his country" when reflecting on the problem of slavery.
But in addition I believe it to be the case that not only are the principles of Lincoln, which were the principles of Jefferson, compatible with Christianity, but actually required by it. That Mr. Anastaplo fails to sufficiently appreciate the political problem created by Christianity, and the American answer to that problem, is at the heart of what I believe to be his misunderstanding of Abraham Lincoln. I believe it also at the heart of the misunderstanding of philosophy today, and so by addressing this question, we are led back to the book review with which I began, and with which I will conclude.
In that review of the Strauss book, Jaffa's scholarship is criticized as not being faithful to the lessons of his teacher, Leo Strauss. This is especially the case regarding Jaffa's work on Lincoln. In particular, Lenzner states that Lincoln's "attempt to synthesize liberal democracy and Christianity" is "distant" from Strauss's work, and that Strauss would have been "doubtful" about any such synthesis. This seems to be somewhat akin to the arguments Anastaplo makes against Lincoln.
But the "synthesis" of liberal democracy, or, more accurately, constitutional republicanism, with Christianity attempted by Lincoln was no less the synthesis accomplished by the Founders. The cause for suspicion, if not rejection, of Lincoln evidenced by both Mr. Lenzner and Mr. Anastaplo is, I believe, the same: a failure to grasp fully the teaching of Strauss.
Leo Strauss was one of the few men in the modern world to understand and state clearly the problem of political obligation caused by monotheistic religion, or what Strauss referred to as the "theological-political" problem. Strauss understood that Christianity severed the connection between law and God, and that modern philosophy's most important challenge was to find some ground of obligation upon which the law could stand, and which at the same time would not offend the piety of those who lived under the law. We see evidence of this in the second to the last line of Natural Right and History, where Strauss writes, "The quarrel between the ancients and moderns concerns eventually, and perhaps even from the beginning, the status of 'individuality'" If piety in the modern world concerns only the relationship of the individual to his God, what moral claims of obligation can positive law have on the citizen?
Unfortunately, Strauss never solved this problem. At least, not fully, or not explicitly. That problem was not solved in the books of philosophers, though many of those books were instrumental, but was discovered by political men: the men who we know as the American Founding Fathers. It was the principles of the American Founding, articulated most succinctly in the Declaration of Independence—principles built upon the ideas of individual natural rights and government by compact, but understood in light of the morally obligatory "laws of nature and of nature's God,"—that provided for a regime in which one can be a good citizen, a good man, and a good Christian or Jew, simultaneously. Strauss, I believe, caught a glimpse of the genius of the American Founding when, in the middle of his essay "On Classical Political Philosophy," he cites the republicanism of Thomas Jefferson as an example of what the ancients meant by the "best regime." But it was Strauss's student Harry Jaffa who first and most fully understood and articulated the supreme importance of the principles of the American Founding, within the much larger context of the political crisis ushered in by monotheistic Christianity. This also explains the importance Jaffa places on the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln: For it was Lincoln above all others who saved the only possible grounds of free government, at a critical moment when those principles were attacked and rejected wholesale. (In the wholesale rejection of the principles of the American Founding, our situation today appears not much different than in Lincoln's day) In his work on both the Founders and Lincoln, Jaffa was not deviating from the lessons of Strauss. Rather it was the case, I believe, of a student discovering a solution to a problem articulated by his teacher.
As I mentioned earlier, Lenzner argues against Jaffa's notion that Strauss sought to establish the moral authority of human nature. Lenzner writes that it could not have been Strauss's intention to establish any sort of authority, moral or otherwise, because the philosopher sees any "authority" as an obstacle to understanding the truth and discovering the true nature of things. What Lenzner seems unable to comprehend, however, is the role of a philosopher in a regime that finds its ultimate source of goodness and truth in nature itself. Lenzner quotes Strauss on the goal of philosophy: "By uprooting authority, philosophy recognizes nature as the standard." This is silliness, or sloppiness at best, dishonesty at worst: The quotation is yanked out of context from a passage in which Strauss was describing philosophy in the ancient city. All ancient cities were founded on some notion of the divine, usually accompanied by stories of ancient lawgivers that were either gods, or sons of gods. The philosophic problem comes to light when one begins to see that many of those stories contradicted one another, and so the philosophic quest is to find whether there exists some non-arbitrary ground by which the human mind can understand and judge these stories, and the principles of justice they teach. The ancient philosophers found such a standard in nature.
In a modern regime grounded in the "laws of nature and nature's God," however, philosophy, far from uprooting the authority of the natural law, would confirm it. The philosopher in such a regime would look very much like a partisan defender of the regime, from a certain point of view, in a way that would have been impossible in the ancient world, where the philosopher was seen as gadfly-ish and annoying at best, impious or atheistic at worst.
Leo Strauss took his bearings from what he called the "crisis of the West," which he summarized as the West becoming uncertain of its purpose. This forgetfulness, or confusion, stems from the influence of modern doctrines that understand human life as ultimately purposeless. The proponents of these doctrines have convinced themselves that meaning or truth cannot be discerned by human reason or divine revelation. In response to this crisis, Strauss wrote and spoke on many occasions of the need to return to the orientation of classical political philosophy (something also sought by Mr. Anastaplo). As Strauss writes in the introduction to The City and Man, "We cannot reasonably expect that a fresh understanding of classical political philosophy will supply us with recipes for today's use." This is so because monotheistic Christianity and modern philosophy have ushered into the world a kind of politics utterly unknown to the ancients. Nevertheless, "an adequate understanding of the principles as elaborated by the classics may be the indispensable starting point for an adequate analysis" of present-day society by "us."
But what is it about the principles of classical political philosophy that Strauss thought so indispensable for our understanding of things today, especially in light of the fact that Strauss himself said the precepts of classical thought cannot be applied today? In arguing for the return to the classical way, Strauss distinguished classical from modern political philosophy by "its direct relation to political life." Classical philosophy begins from the perspective of the citizen, which is a perspective guided by the distinctions of right and wrong, justice and injustice. In short, the things that are paramount for the citizen, and the things by which classical philosophy takes its bearings, are the claims of moral virtue. Thus, insofar as Strauss worked to rediscover the older understanding of things, the claims of moral virtue did indeed "fundamentally animate and inform his writing," Mr. Lenzner to the contrary notwithstanding.
The distinction between morality and immorality are presented to us in the clearest way by the life and words of the greatest statesman. One might argue that no one has better understood, or articulated more clearly, the intrinsic relationship between morality and freedom, than Abraham Lincoln. One might argue that today, in a world that is dominated by the modern doctrines of historicism, relativism, nihilism, and positivism, Abraham Lincoln may be our best guide to restoring an authentic understanding of moral reality and returning us to the true perspective of the citizen, thus better enabling us to fulfill the Socratic dictum to know thyself, by being able to know what it means to be a human being. The study of the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln and the study of political philosophy are not only compatible, but one could argue that the former is a necessary condition of the latter. As Mr. Anastaplo writes, perhaps exoterically, but, I believe, truly, "an attempt at the most noble imitation [of Lincoln] is worthy of our greatest efforts if we are to understand who we are, what we aspire to, and why."