Archive for November, 2009

Review of:

Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words

(Taught by David Zarefsky, The Teaching Company)

Professor Zarefsky’s course provides us with an incredible opportunity. He opens the doors to an in-depth encounter, not with what others thought about Lincoln, but rather a much more powerful and intimate encounter with what Lincoln himself actually said and, through his words, with what he did. He gives us the gold, not merely the bronze. Lincoln, “in his own words”; such is the adventure. And, if it is true that the greatest leaders in speechcraft are perhaps the greatest leaders in statecraft, then Professor Zarefsky provides an entrance into the nature of political greatness, of political insight and of political decision-making themselves. In this respect, to be able to follow the paths which bring forth the birth, development and death of a great leader, is precisely what is made available by the course to us. Professor Zarefsky’s detailed and erudite knowledge of Lincoln’s life and his famous speeches ——-as well as Zarefsky’s own personal rhetorical abilities (!)—— enhance the encounter in such a way that  the very silent words of the pages come into the proper realms of both dialogical argumentation and constrained action from whence they arose. We face the dilemmas Lincoln faced, we search for the possible solutions which Lincoln sought, we come to humbly appreciate his limitations, we can see much more clearly the decisions which Lincoln actually had to ponder and make in the solitude of the chambers of power. And to know that this unique experience is available to all of us via the internet is absolutely a welcome possibility.

More specifically; perhaps what is of the utmost value in the course is the very conscious recovery by Zarefsky  of the art of rhetoric which has come under very severe attack by “Modernity” (Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke) given its desire to contrast itself as far superior to the ideals of the classical Greek and Roman political philosophy and political practice in which the art of rhetoric itself was born, critically analyzed, and made an integral part of the political education of the best of citizens. Or to put it more fairly, by way of  this kind of course one could actually come to understand the very basis of what distinguishes modern from classical rhetoric in both its means and ends; for instance, the rise of a type of “revolutionary” rhetoric in modernity which knows of little-to-no moderation in its practice. In allowing us to better understand the value and political relevance of this art, Zarefsky allows us to gain a greater respect for the call of the statesmen and stateswomen of our time. To learn to develop the capacity to rightly persuade diverse audiences at diverse times and under varying circumstances, such an art has rarely been more developed by any leader than Lincoln. For surely the capacity to write transforms, clarifies and prepares the writer himself for the practical complexities of political life filled with a multiplicity of constraints which a potential, but careless leader, will instead eliminate as cumbersome and irrelevant. Such a path may lead not to greatness, but to the worst of tyrannies and their terrifying defense of silence. This difference between our modern relation to the art of rhetoric and that of previous times perhaps is nowhere better exemplified than in the recounting of the nature of the audience which heard the Lincoln-Douglas debates which lasted for hours on end. It seems nobody was bothered, but rather cheered along as if cognizant in some way of the very basis of our nature as political animals who seek to be actively involved in the discussion of those matters of great importance. Perhaps the debates in the presidential campaign Obama-McCain have brought back this desire in some citizens of the USA, but the return of the value of rhetoric in the political arena in modernity still has to be defended by courses such as this  which clearly show that the greatness of a leader is in part due to his love of argumentative language and style, in part due to the desire to be able to go into dialogical argumentation in defense of certain —in some cases—- flexible positions, and in part due to the nature of the type of self-understanding which the written words allows not only for the author himself but, even more importantly for us, centuries later. For the words left to us by Lincoln bespeak of the permanent transhistorical questions, not merely of this and that dilemma, in this or that epoch. Herein lies, as Zarefsky points out masterfully, the overwhelming permanence of Lincoln’s stunningly short “Gettysburg Address”: “it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us”.

And, moreover, if this rhetoric is connected directly to a supervaluation of the virtue of political moderation   —seen very early on in Lincoln’s “Temperance Speech”—- then truly in his work  and life  one finds perhaps the avenue for an understanding of the dangers of “rhetorical” radicalism in its diverse immoderate-ridden, demagogic and incendiary  versions. Perhaps allowing myself a personal remark, it is this immoderation that characterizes the president of the neighboring country to my troubled Colombia and his continuous calls for war. For surely listening to the monologue of a leader for  hours, cannot be seen as comparable fundamentally to listening to Lincoln for 2 minutes. And it is without a doubt such moderation ——and particular the  desire to be moderate particularly after Victory (as Churchill likewise said, “In Victory: Magnanimity”) —— that makes Lincoln stand so high above us and above so many leaders of our age. The praise and cultivation of such a virtue in the political sphere under specific circumstances, stands as a permanent contrast with the punitive approaches developed in recent history. A crucial example is that of the excessive retributory decisions made in Paris 1919 against Germany which, in part, further developed the seeds for an even more tragic World War years later. (more…)

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