(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.
And truly there is so little to find at fault in this course. But maybe one could say the following:
1. It would be of great interest to incorporate into the course the great many letters Lincoln wrote at diverse times in his life in order to better understand not only how a great leader must use rhetoric in terms of the public sphere, but also —–and perhaps even more importantly—— how the art of rhetoric may have another kind of use at the private level. And the fact that the letters are now known to us ALL, may allow for the course to incorporate some of them in terms of our learning to have a better and more complete understanding of what Lincoln defended, how he changed his views, and how in general he felt as a human being with regards to the dilemmas he faced courageously in his life. Surely at the very least such analysis might reveal the tensions inherent in the difficult interactions between the private (e.g., the life of the family) and the public spheres themselves. In this respect, his views on religion might also be taken up in much greater depth.
2. It would be of great interest to focus much more on later writings as the course takes most of its time in terms of the discourses prior to the election of Lincoln as President. And though we are to be grateful to Zarefsky for allowing us to better comprehend the complex and rich dynamic of the Lincon-Douglas debates, some of us would actually sacrifice some of these for a chance to better comprehend those public and private writings which actually had to deal directly with the greatest challenge Lincoln lived, namely, the Civil War itself. For surely the USA has no internal war at present, but many other countries do have some kind of internal struggle, and much is to be learned from Lincoln in this respect beyond the boundaries of his native land.
3. It would be of great interest to some of us to be provided with a brief map of what are the current interpretations of Lincoln, and perhaps to even come to understand the root of such varying positions which at times seem much less moderate than what Lincoln actually stood for. Recently a journalist in my home country dubbed Lincoln disapprovingly as “a racist filled with honor” basing himself in the work of some radical historians. In this respect, and as a contrasting force, of great importance to some of us is to take up the challenge of the Straussian interpretation of Lincoln —school to which we owe a great debt in the recovery of the art of rhetoric itself—— as found, for example, in the work of Jaffa.
4. It would also be of great interest to some of us —and in close connection to the second point above—- to have a much clearer understanding of the relation between Lincoln as masterful speechcraft and the Generals upon which he had to depend for the very success in the military campaigns which naively had been thought at first would be short-lived. In this respect, and in trying to capture together the previous elements I have mentioned above, one could look at the letter directed to General Hooker on January 26, 1863. This letter might allow leaders to better understand the rhetorical abilities required in times of war in relation to those who lead the cause of the war, but may be tempted themselves to seek to overthrow the political institutions which precisely in times of war appear seriously destabilized and because of this in the greatest need of defense from the dictatorship of arms over the prudence of words. Honduras is only the latest example. Precisely such is the task Lincoln allows us to see in his own words in this letter. It is a letter filled with the magnanimity required of a president, with the irony and wit characteristic of a man with profound practical wisdom, and with the humility required of a man who knows he requires of those whose lives have been dedicated to the physical defense of the political union itself. The letter reads as follows:
“.. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier ….. (but) …. I have heard , in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government need a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticizing their Commander ……will now turn upon you. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it. And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.”
(“Letter to General Joseph Hooker”, January 26, 1863, pp. 433-4, Lincoln “Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, ed. Library of America)
5. Finally, it would be of the greatest of interest to some of us to try to surmise what Lincoln would make of Aristotle’s words at the end of the Politics — work which defends the very nature of the prudent statesmen in a light similar to that of Zarefsky— in which there arises a debate as to whether the best and happiest life is that of the life of political action or that of philosophical reflection. (Politics, 7, 1323a15-1324a45)
But leaving aside these minor points, surely we must be grateful to Professor Zarefsky and to The Teaching Company for providing us with such an adventure.
(NOTE: For another text on Lincoln written in Spanish entitled “Abraham Lincoln y la esclavitud” please see here )