Friday, August 7, 2020

Wisdom in judging what is possible

This is very good. Guelzo is good on anything Civil War but particularly on Lincoln. It's his review of Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy. The review is brief.
...[W]hat leveraged Lincoln’s politics to the level of statesmanship? Schaff uses Harry Jaffa’s four criteria of statesmanship—the pursuit of worthy goals, wisdom in judging what is possible (rather than simply desirable), the use of “apt” means, and actions that do not hinder others from going beyond his accomplishments “and achieving greater justice.”

It is especially on the question of means that Schaff dwells, since what he finds most remarkable in Lincoln is his prudence and moderation. Prudence is meant here not in the cheap sense of prissiness, since Lincoln was willing to pay high prices for his politics and absorb staggering amounts of punishment on their behalf. And certainly Schaff does not mean moderation in the beastly sense of constantly calculating the mid-point of a loaf others are always cutting in size. Moderation is about recognizing the legitimacy of competing claims, refusing to dismiss as unquestionably immoral that with which we simply disagree. Prudence is about reverence for law, about healing the wounds of the body politic. This prudence and this moderation are always aimed toward justice, but they do not regard justice as the sole question.

For Schaff, one of the central aspects of Lincoln’s statesmanship is his attachment to natural rights. In this, Lincoln stands apart from both Burkean conservatives of the past and modern traditionalists of the order of Alasdair Macintyre (who prefers the inculcation of a “virtue ethics” in politics rather than talk about natural rights). ....

...Schaff, in the second half of his book, to take up the issue of Lincoln’s distaste for power. He is categorical in his denial that Lincoln presided over a “second American Revolution,” finding in Lincoln a president scrupulously deferential to Congress in developing economic legislation, and resistant to the manufacture of incessant “crisis” and the creation of utopian mandates. In this, Schaff is unquestionably correct. “Lincoln attempted to reinvigorate a tired democracy by inciting a love for natural rights and a respect for the dignity of free labor,” he concludes, but Lincoln did so by keeping “the attention of the people on what was practically and legally possible.” In that respect, Lincoln was not the model of the modern elective messiah. ....

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