Thursday, July 24, 2008

Krannawitter on Lincoln, Darwin, & Biblical Historicism

This is the fourth part of my comments on Thomas Krannawitter's Vindicating Lincoln.

In the first paragraph of his book, Krannawitter refers to Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species as influencing P. T. Barnum's exhibit at his American Museum on "Connecting Link between Human and Brute Creation." Krannawitter suggests that the evolutionary theories of Chambers and Darwin denied the equal moral dignity of human beings in a way that supported racist arguments for slavery. This is the first of many references in Krannawitter's book to Darwin, with the suggestion that Lincoln's defense of natural right as based on human equality and opposition to slavery was subverted by Darwinian evolution, which supported the historicism that led to the progressivist attack on natural right and limited government.

Krannawitter's writing on this point is strange. First of all, he says nothing about William Herndon's report that Lincoln read Chambers' book and was persuaded by it. Herndon wrote: "The volume was published in Edinburgh, and undertook to demonstrate the doctrine of development or evolution. The treatise interested him greatly, and he was deeply impressed with the notion of the so-called 'universal law'--evolution; he did not extend greatly his researches, but by continued thinking in a single channel seemed to grow into a warm advocate of the new doctrine." Later, Darwin acknowledged that Chambers' book anticipated many of the main elements of Darwin's own account of evolution. So here, as I have indicated in many previous posts, we see one of the many points of agreement between Lincoln and Darwin.

It is also strange that with all of Krannawitter's references to Darwin, he never cites any specific passage of any writing by Darwin. This reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with Harry Jaffa. He criticized Darwin. I responded by quoting some passages from Darwin's Descent of Man. Jaffa then confessed that he had never read Darwin. Similarly, I see no evidence that Krannawitter has read Darwin.

Jason Jividen is a professor at the University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, Indiana), who wrote a dissertation under me on the use and abuse of Lincoln in American political rhetoric, which I expect will soon be published as a book. Recently, he sent me an email message about Krannawitter's book, which included this comment:

"Despite the fact that they paint Darwin and Hegel as the twin evils for natural right, the Claremont/Jaffa types almost always delve much more deeply into historicism (Hegel, Wilson, FDR, etc.) than Darwin. . . . What is often lacking in the Claremont stuff here is an actual demonstration, even in brief, of Darwin's thought, using Darwin's own words, i.e. the method they claim most historians, politicians, and political scientists refuse to do when looking at Lincoln. Rather, there is always something linking Darwin to progressivism and the like using Wilson's words, or Dewey's words or something like that. But if that is all it takes to link Darwin to progressivism/modern liberalism, then we could just as easily link Lincoln with the left simply because they so frequently cite him. Even if they are right about Darwin, one would think that they would need to treat Darwin in the same manner they insist great thinkers should be treated."

I agree. If Krannawitter and the Jaffa followers were to read Darwin, the first thing they might notice is that he was a life-long opponent of slavery. Moreover, much of The Descent of Man is an attack on the theory of scientific racism that the human races are actually separate species. Against this, Darwin argued that all human beings were equal as members of the same species and thus endowed with the uniquely human capacities for language and the moral sense. Here then is the ground for Darwinian natural right as based in a universal human nature. I have elaborated these points on this blog and in various publications, especially the chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right.

Krannawitter might respond to this idea of Darwinian natural right by saying that there is no need for a scientific ground for natural right. He says that "human knowledge of human nature is prescientific and prephilosophic," because "our commonsense knowledge of human nature precedes all philosophic or scientific inquiry" (139). This might be so. But isn't it helpful to have modern science supporting our commonsense grasp of human equality? After all, Krannawitter says that "throughout history, few people have found it obvious that all human beings are equally human," which suggests that "common sense" is not enough.

Although Krannawitter refers often to Aristotle, he never mentions Aristotle's account of the natural slave. If he did, he would have to confront the fundamental issue in the whole debate over slavery: Are some human beings by nature adapted for slavery? Darwinian science supports the conclusion that despite the differences between individuals and races, all normal human beings have those minimal capacities for reason and speech that constitute the universal nature of the human species. The proslavery racists had to argue for a racial science that would deny this. Krannawitter never takes up this debate.

If Darwinian science is not the source of the historicism that subverted the idea of natural right, then where do we find the source? Krannawitter points to Hegel. But doesn't Hegel's philosophy of history ultimately derive from the biblical idea of history? In fact, Hegel acknowledged this when he wrote: "We transform the language of religion into that of philosophy."

This is pertinent to Lincoln and the slavery debate. As I have often noted on this blog, the Bible supports slavery, and so the debate over slavery in America created a theological crisis. Krannawitter recognizes this in his writing about pro-slavery Christian theology. He notes James Henley Thornwell's biblical historicism: "God is in history" (238). And he also comments on Fred Ross's biblical defense of slavery based on the claim that right and wrong are based completely on the will of God, and therefore any affirmation that right and wrong can be known naturally by human reason is atheism. Since the Bible clearly sanctions slavery and never condemns it as wrong, we know that slavery is morally right because God commands it (238-41).

Krannawitter says that "Lincoln proceeded to dismantle the pro-slavery theological arguments presented by Ross" (243). But when we look at Lincoln's remarks as quoted by Krannawitter, we see that Lincoln is actually evasive about the Bible on slavery: "The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation--the Bible--gives none--or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning." He then goes on to suggest that "Dr. Ross" is probably moved by selfish motives that detract from "perfect impartiality." Lincoln thus appeals to our knowledge of human nature as a ground for moral discussion rather than the Bible.

Don't biblical religion and the idea that right and wrong depend ultimately on the will of God expressed over history through revelation provide the basis for historicist relativism? Doesn't a scientific grasp of the human nature of morality provide an alternative to biblical historicism?

For a few samples of my blog posts on Lincoln, Darwin, and Jaffa, you can go here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

I was looking up your review of Jason's book, which linked to this post. My full response would not fit in this box, so I set up my own blog to post it. It is here:
Prof. Forrest Nabors

Larry Arnhart said...

Your post does not respond to all of the biblical passages supporting slavery, and thus it does not respond to Fred Ross's careful biblical exegesis. I have written some posts on Ross's book.

Lincoln recognized this problem: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

Larry Arnhart said...

My post on Ross can be found here