Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Why I love my job

Today was a good day. In my morning class on "Moral and Political Leadership," we were discussing Abraham Lincoln, relying on William Lee Miller’s very fine Lincoln’s Virtues. Taking as our point of departure Miller’s treatments of Lincoln’s stance on the Mexican-American War (ch. 7) and his role in the 1848 election (ch. 8), we worked toward a distinction between two different moral roles in political life--prophetic witness and statesmanship. Since both episodes in Lincoln’s life have close contemporary parallels, making a case for their relevance wasn’t too terribly difficult. Since there is an awful lot of talk in contemporary religious circles about the role of the church in offering prophetic witness--speaking truth to power and letting the chips fall where they may (relying, in other words, on Providence)--I left my students with the following questions. Statesmen, who are responsible for the ongoing welfare, security, and prosperity of their communities, have to care about the consequences of their actions. They have to make decisions based upon moral principle, the best information they have available, and their best estimates of how others will respond to their actions. And as new situations emerge, they have to re-evaluate. A prophet called by God has a responsibility only to utter the word of the Lord. But how does the prophet know that he or she is called? How do we know that the prophet is called? How frequently is prophetic witness an explicitly and self-consciously political stance, in which case the same strictures regarding information, reactions, and consequences would seem to apply? In other words, is there really a sustainable distinction between prophetic witness and statesmanship, assuming that those who inhabit both roles are moral actors?

And then there was my afternoon class on "Liberal Education and Political Philosophy," in which we were supposed to get to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, but continued a discussion (begun last week) of Leo Strauss’s "Liberal Education and Responsibility" (from Liberalism Ancient and Modern). The issue I pressed my students on is the very "political" nature of Strauss’s presentation of the role of liberal education, as he addresses himself to people living in democratic times and treats specifically of the role of liberally educated people in a democracy. Why can’t we have an "aristocracy of everyone"? Why can’t we realize Marx’s vision in The German Ideology, where everyone is a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a critical critic after dinner, i.e., where everyone acts in effect like a liberally educated person with leisure? And if we can’t realize these goals, then why shouldn’t we do the just thing and offer everyone the same "mediocre" education? How can we "justify" offering some an excellent (liberal) education that isn’t available to everyone? How can people so educated profit those who don’t share in their education?

Fun stuff that makes students’ heads hurt.

Discussions - 4 Comments

This term my Introduction to Political Philosophy students and I have also been forging our way through Strauss’s Liberalism Ancient and Modern book. If you are not familiar with Jeffrey Wallin’s "Is Civic Education Compatible with Liberal Education?", I recommend it to you and your students as a fitting adjunct to Strauss’s discussion of education and propaganda.

"A prophet called by God has a responsibility only to utter the word of the Lord. But how does the prophet know that he or she is called? How do we know that the prophet is called?"

There were false prophets in the Bible. The Old Testament defines a false prophet simply as one who was wrong; one who was wrong, was not called. The truth was the test, and in the Old Testament the penalty for being a false prophet was death. A prophet often lived dangerously by opposing kings, and some were unwilling, like Jonah. Politics was not the motivation, truth was. Humanity cannot make sound decisions based on wrong informaition. Politicians (kings) had the power to humbly accept the truth (like King David) or kill the prophet (John the Baptist was beheaded by a king). Prophets are voices of truth. Many are prophets that have no voice.

If one is looking for a good model of prophet for our day, one could hardly improve upon Nathan, who loved King David enough not only to tell him the truth but also to do so in a way that facilitated its acceptance and the king’s consequent reform. Instead of just telling King David what David already knew--namely, he had sinned against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, and ultimately against God (2 Samuel 11-12)--, Nathan told the king a story that helped him acknowledge the error of his ways and repent. The New Testament calls this "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). Americans have seen testimonies of this in the public lives of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name just two great figures who loved their country enough to speak the truth to her in terms both principled and sympathetic.

We do well to consider also Lincoln’s "Reply to Emancipation Memorial Presented by Chicago Christians of All Denominations," which came just over a week before he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Here’s an excerpt:


"The subject presented in the memorial is one upon which I have thought much for weeks past, and I may even say for months. I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right. The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree."

While I for one believe we still live in "the days of miracles," Lincoln’s point about diversity of opinion among the clergy and the abiding need to "study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right" strikes me as pretty good advice.

Thanks, Lucas, I’ll wave that in front of my class tomorrow.

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