June 2, 2023


Lincoln and the Question of Self-Government (Allen C. Guelzo, 5/10/23, Public Discourse)

There are East-Coast Straussians and there are West-Coast Straussians. Reduced to a single mouthful, East-Coasters can be said to believe that liberal modernity is a bad thing for politics and ethics. Since the American political experiment was born out of the Enlightenment, it unavoidably shares in modernity's defects--among which are a dismissal of religious and ethical restraints and a depressing weakness for the tyranny of the majority. West-Coasters agree that liberal modernity, as so defined, has had some lamentable consequences; but they understand the American experiment as an effort to recur to the first principles of classical politics (and particularly to Aristotle), and that recurrence renders American political history as the tale of a struggle between a righteous classicism and a lethal relativism. (Of the two, we may take Allan Bloom as emblematic of the East-Coasters, and Harry Jaffa of the West-Coasters). Between these upper and nether millstones, there is also a Midwestern Straussianism, which agrees that modernity is toxic (in the worst Hobbesian or Nietzschean sense of the word) and that the American experiment is indeed a modern one, but an experiment whose instincts struggle to tame the worst features of political modernity. And Michael P. Zuckert, the author of A Nation So Conceived: Abraham Lincoln and the Paradox of Democratic Sovereignty, is one of its prophets.

It is worth noting at the outset that this is a book about Abraham Lincoln, and that it reflects a basic Straussian methodology in its exquisite and detailed attention to texts--in this case, the texts of Lincoln's most famous speeches. It's worth noting, too, that simply by fixing on Lincoln, Zuckert has made an important theoretical gesture. Lincoln has been a figure of reverence for West-Coasters ever since Harry Jaffa first encountered the Lincoln-Douglas debates and experienced a philosophical eureka, which convinced him that the contest of Long Abe and the Little Giant was really a reprise of Socrates and Thrasymachus. Even in his last great work on Lincoln, A New Birth of Freedom in 2000, Jaffa asked whether "Socratic rationalism ever appeared more powerfully in public utterance since the founder of political philosophy walked the streets of Athens." Contrast this with East-Coaster Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, where only the most casual references to Lincoln occur, and even then to decide that modernity's "gradual movement from rights to openness" renders him an artifact of the past.

This does not seem to leave much room between the two millstones except for grinding. But in the case of Michael Zuckert, whatever grinding occurs is tastefully fine. Zuckert never disputes the modernity of the American experiment in democratic republicanism. His interest in Lincoln is a nod toward Jaffa and the West-Coasters; but what he finds in Lincoln is an example of a political philosopher who has found a way to constrain raw majoritarianism, not by the use of classical politics (neither Aristotle nor Socrates makes a bow in A Nation So Conceived) but by showing what tragedies are likely to occur by yielding to the irrational impulses of popular sovereignty.

Lincoln is, for Zuckert, the prime example of an idealist whose "one abiding question" is, how to sustain the American experiment in the face of democracy's temptation to surrender everything to the Moloch of a Most-Votes Majority. Lincoln saw the fundamental problem in democracy as one single, monstrous question: "Can the principle that liberates all and produces self-government remain disciplined and restrained enough in practice to retain self-government?" Ironically, voices on both the political right and left loudly answer NO, the second adding and it's a good thing, because all restraint is oppression, and the first adding and that shows how liberal democracy makes for monsters. Lincoln never doubted that democracy was the best of all forms of government, but he was also aware that American slavery was a blatant contradiction of it, and that slavery's survival depended on demagogues like Douglas pandering to the basest popular instincts. "There is something tragic" in Lincoln, Zuckert argues, because "the very success of popular government contributes to the confidence of the people in their own sovereignty" and allows them unwittingly to don a reckless or selfish sheet of flame that will destroy them. Whether this is literally tragic or simply ironic is the struggle now being played out in our history wars.

The problems with the Left/Right are obvious enough from this.  In the first place, there is the mistaken belief that the Founding was Modern and a product of the Enlightenment.  This error is most often associated with the canard that John Locke was a major influence on the Founders, when the truth is not only that they were largely unfamiliar with his political theories but rejected them to the extent they were familiar because he was too Rationalist. The second is that the ancient Roman republican liberty that the Founders sought to vindicate contains its own control on popular sovereignty/majoritarianism by requiring that all laws apply to the majority as well as the minority.  The virtues of the Republic reside in its anti-Modernity.  That's why the threats to it are all Modern. 

Posted by at June 2, 2023 12:10 AM