Saturday, November 24, 2012

Spielberg's "Lincoln": The Nobility of Politics and the "Appeal to Heaven"

"The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way."  "The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning."

That's the message that David Brooks--writing in The New York Times--sees in Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln."  The power of that message depends largely on the extraordinary acting of Daniel Day-Lewis, who may well have given us the best film portrayal of Lincoln that we will ever see.  (It also helps to have an Aaron-Copland-style musical score composed by John Williams and played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.) 

This movie reminds me of why I regard my course on Abraham Lincoln as one of the best courses I teach--because it helps students to understand the nobility of politics in combining "high vision" and "low cunning."

It is hard for students to understand the nobility of this combination, because many of them want to see one without the other, and thus they are caught between idealism and cynicism.  The idealists assume that nobility is found only in a pure moral vision uncontaminated by practical cunning.  The cynics assume that there is no nobility in politics because it's all a matter of Machiavellian cunning with no moral purpose.  Lincoln's moral realism shows that both the idealists and the cynics are wrong.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is the basis for Spielberg's movie, and it's one of the best books for showing Lincoln's combination of moral purpose and prudential realism.  It's one of the books that I have used in my course.  Apparently, this book is now a bestseller because of the movie.  This is a tribute to American popular culture, in showing how a popular but serious movie can direct many people to an even more serious treatment of a topic in a good book.

Some of the best parts of this movie come from the thoughtful material in the book.  One example is Lincoln's explanation of his reasoning for his issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation as a constitutional exercise of his powers as a Commander in Chief in time of war, and why the constitutional limits of that power made it necessary to have a constitutional amendment to achieve a complete abolition of slavery, which could not be done by presidential decree.

Another thoughtful scene in the movie presented Lincoln explaining his fascination with Euclid's geometry.  One of Euclid's self-evident postulates--that two things equal to a third are equal to each other--captured the self-evident truth that slavery is wrong:  if two human beings are equally human, then they are equal to each other as members of the human species.

Appealing to such reasoning shows how persuasion can be used to resolve moral disagreements in politics like the debate over the justice of slavery.  But persuasion is not enough, because human beings are too imperfect in both their knowledge and their virtue to finally settle their disagreements by persuasion alone.  And when persuasion fails, and the urgency of the issue requires some final resolution of the debate, then often the debate must be settled by violence, as was the case in the American Civil War.

Modifying Brooks' conclusion, I would say that Spielberg's movie portrays Lincoln in a way that shows the nobility of politics in the marriage of high vision, low cunning, and brute violence.  Showing Lincoln riding his horse to Richmond with piles of bodies all around him reminds us of the brutality of the war.

The importance of war in settling moral debates in politics is also conveyed in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.  The movie gives us the last few lines of this speech.  But it does not convey what Brooks rightly identifies as the acknowledgement in the speech of the "moral ambiguity on both sides."  "Both sides," Lincoln observed, "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.  And each invokes his aid against the other."  But God cannot answer the prayers of both sides.  And ultimately God speaks his will here through war.

Lincoln is implicitly, I think, pointing to the Biblical story of Jephtha asking God to judge between the people of Israel and the Ammonites.  He makes an appeal to Heaven for judgment, and he leads his army out to battle (Judges 11:27).  This appeal to Heaven is always risky, however.  Even the leader of the winning side in a war is exposed to vengeful retaliation, as in Lincoln's assasination. 

As Mark Noll has argued, the American Civil War was a theological crisis, because in a country where the Bible was the ultimate moral authority, the Bible was open to conflicting interpretations on the issue of slavery:  the explicit teaching of the Bible was to support slavery, but some of the Bible's general teachings--such as the Golden Rule--could be interpreted by abolitionists as condemning slavery.  This dispute over the interpretation of the Bible was finally settled, Noll observed, by Generals Grant and Sherman.

This "appeal to Heaven" principle is fundamental to John Locke's teaching in the Second Treatise of Civil Government (secs. 19-21, 155, 168, 175-96, 232, 240-43).  In a constitutional crisis, where there is a dispute over whether the government is exercising force without authority, the ultimate judge is the contest of battle.  Consequently, the moral history of politics--as in the debate over slavery--is military history.  This shows the ultimate ground for Locke's law of nature and his political liberalism in the natural inclination of human beings to violence in resisting exploitation.  "In all States and Conditions," Locke writes, "the true remedy of Force without Authority, is to oppose Force to it.  The use of force without Authority, always puts him that uses it into a state of War, as the Aggressor, and renders him liable to be treated accordingly" (sec. 155).

We should remember that Locke was suspected by Charles II of conspiring with other Whigs for insurrection and assassination.  We should also remember that Locke denied his authorship of the Two Treatises, for fear of facing execution for treason, as happened when Algernon Sidney published his attack on monarchy and defense of republicanism in his Discourses Concerning Government.

Charles Darwin saw the importance of political violence, because he saw that moral progress in evolutionary history often turned on group selection through warfare.  He was a fervent opponent of slavery, and he used his Descent of Man to support the Euclidean logic of the argument against slavery, because he showed that the human races were not separate species but merely varieties of the same species, and thus endowed with the same moral and intellectual faculties, including the natural propensity to violence in resisting exploitation.   (As I have indicated in a recent post, there is now some evidence that even ant slaves rebel against their enslavement.)  Darwin cheered when he read the news reports of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the passage of the 13th Amendment, and the military victory of the North over the South.

I have elaborated some of these points in a previous post.  I have also written some posts on the evolutionary decline in violence as part of Darwinian liberalism and on whether the idea of human rights requires Biblical religious beliefs.

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