People forget that it is the eye which makes the horizon, and the rounding mind’s eye which makes this or that man a type or representative of humanity with the name of hero or saint.... By love on one part, and by forbearance to press objection on the other part, it is for a time settled, that we will look at him in the center of the horizon, and ascribe to him the properties that will attach to any man so seen. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
In 1850, when Emerson published Representative Men, his book of essays on great men from Plato to Goethe, Abraham Lincoln was not a candidate for inclusion. He was alive, of course, but he was not yet our Lincoln—not yet the representative figure exalted by our political tradition as a symbol of freedom, equality, and eloquence. And, to be sure, this iconic image we have fashioned over the course of a century and a half omits any number of inconvenient facts and paradoxes. Lincoln both defended the rule of law and suspended habeas corpus. He freed the slaves and yet thought them inferior. He had higher ideals on his lips—and more blood on his hands than any president before him.
George Kateb, an eloquent interpreter of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—and also Nietzsche and Arendt—has written a wonderful book about Lincoln’s political ideas. Lincoln’s Political Thought (Harvard University Press, $24.95, 236 pp.) explores what the man stood for in the struggle against slavery and what he stands for in our collective consciousness. In the process it addresses the way Lincoln’s actions complicate the relation between his life and what we want it to exemplify.
The story is a study in compromises no less difficult for their being thought necessary, an intricate weighing of ends and means. To stand for equality politically, Lincoln needed to acquire enough power to actualize the ideal. But how could he do that and be morally consistent? He could not become president without first promising to refrain from curtailing slavery where it already existed, and then taking a solemn oath to uphold a compromised Constitution. In trying to meet this challenge, Lincoln seems to have turned himself into a riddle. Can such a man end up standing for freedom and equality in our moral imagination if we acknowledge everything he actually did? Kateb’s answer is yes and no. Lincoln was both a sincere advocate of his ideals and a cunning compromiser of them. We should not expect otherwise. The process of transforming ideals into practical power inevitably compromises them.
Admitting this need not entail flattening out the moral landscape. Compromise and betrayal are not the same thing; some marriages of ideals and powers, Kateb insists, are better than others. Lincoln altered the institutional terrain we occupy in respects that we cannot help regarding as progressive. This is what it means to call someone great. We cannot account for where we ourselves now stand without referring to certain predecessors who have changed our idea of what arrangements and commitments count as justified. We are who we are, ethically as well as politically, because the slaves were actually freed.
In Lincoln’s case, the same life that helps explain a great transformation also includes deeply unsettling complications, costs, and strangeness. Kateb steadfastly resists making too much sense of all this; his essayistic style aims to get it all on one canvas while keeping any set of details from defining the whole. The writer remains unsettled, and works hard to keep us unsettled, because that is what thoroughgoing honesty about political life requires. The contradictions are not to be resolved, the horrors not excused. But Lincoln’s greatness should not be explained away, either. The goods and evils he set in motion remain intertwined. Neither should be permitted to subsume the other.
What, in fact, were Lincoln’s guiding political ideas? Kateb’s account makes much of the phrase “political religion,” which appears in the Lyceum Address Lincoln gave in Springfield, Illinois, at age twenty-eight. One of his earliest published speeches, the address expresses what Kateb calls a “quasi-religious” devotion to the law, encouraging citizens to regard the law as an entity that “genuinely religious people would call an idol, an object equated to divinity in fundamental importance.” For reasons I shall explain in a moment, I doubt that Lincoln himself used the concept of political religion to refer to a sort of faith. But it is clear that the Constitution, despite its crucial flaw, was sacred to him, even as a young man. Lincoln’s political religion, however, also includes a “quasi-religious” devotion to something else—namely, human equality. How to honor both of these fundamental tenets? When push comes to shove, Kateb thinks, one of these apparently inviolable tenets must prove primary—and the other must yield—because the Constitution’s permissive stance on the issue of slavery is a violation of human equality.
TO SEE WHAT THE term religion meant to Lincoln, and what ideals informed his use of power, I think we first need to understand why he called himself a republican—a question Kateb leaves unanswered. Lincoln could have chosen some other name for the party he founded. Why did he choose this one, and what did it mean to him? A central purpose of government, for classical and early modern republicans, such as Cicero and Milton, is to protect citizens from arbitrary power. You are at the mercy of such power if someone else—a monarch, an oligarchy, an invading army, a dominant religious group, or a master—is in a position to treat you as he or she or it wishes, without being required to take your interests into account or give you due opportunity to influence decisions that bear on your life and concerns. Lincoln named his party republican in order to align himself with Cicero, Milton, and others who affirmed security against arbitrary power as a central purpose of government. The traditional republican names for such security are liberty and freedom.
Contemporary American politicians like Senator Ted Cruz and House Speaker Paul Ryan have a different notion of liberty. What these latter-day Republicans mean by it is not freedom from domination or tyranny, but from foreign and governmental interference. In this conception of liberty, which republicans long dismissed as mere license to do as you please, a free society is one with an army strong enough to protect its borders, a police force strong enough to protect the lives and property of its citizens—and a government small enough to drown in a bathtub. It holds that the fewer the constraints placed on citizens, the freer those citizens will be. And who counts as a citizen? Today’s Republican candidates routinely warn that the rights of citizenship are not worth having if extended to the entire adult population actually residing in the country.
This is roughly the same notion of liberty that slaveholders deployed against Lincoln. Today it is being used to persuade us that members of the economic elite are not oligarchs using their power to abscond with the fruit of our labor and to defeat all political attempts to constrain them, but rather are overtaxed, excessively regulated individuals whose heroic creation of wealth funds the lives the rest of us lead, and to whom we should therefore bow in pious gratitude.
The conception of liberty Lincoln invokes goes back to the philosophers of the Roman Republic, including Cicero, and to the historians, such as Livy and Sallust, who lamented Caesar’s dictatorial usurpation of republican rule. These and other classical republicans contrasted citizens with slaves, and charged that the unconstrained powers claimed by monarchs, emperors, and oligarchs reduced citizens to a lamentable condition of servitude. For citizens to possess liberty, in Lincoln’s view, they have to create a legal structure that secures them against anyone’s exercise of arbitrary power. And structural injustice is present not only when a powerful person or group actually interferes with others, but also whenever such a person or group is in a position to treat others at whim. A slave with a benevolent master is still a slave, because of what the master is able to do. This is a matter of unchecked power. I am not free in the republican sense unless I belong to a society constrained by laws that I myself have a role in shaping.
Such is the thinking behind the traditional republican distinction between a society of laws and a society of men. Any form of government, of course, gives powers to officials. But in a republic of free citizens, the laws constrain what everyone may do; officeholders are made answerable to citizens, and citizens to one another. To possess republican freedom is not to be able to do whatever one wants, but rather to be part of a society all members of which are constrained by wisely chosen and justly enforced norms. Leaders and citizens alike are free because laws of the right kind bind them.
In the Lyceum Address, Lincoln warned his fellow citizens to be on guard against the emergence of a new Caesar. Opportunistic men of talent and ambition are apt to take advantage of social unrest, and there is plenty of that in evidence. No state in the Union is free of it, according to Lincoln, but his examples are a wave of lynching in Mississippi that has left corpses “literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side” like “Spanish moss” and a recent series of events that are all the more disturbing for having happened much closer to Springfield. The site of the latter example is St. Louis, where a mob had kidnapped a mixed-race man from the police, chained him to a tree, and burned him to death. Lincoln is concerned about vigilante violence, but also about the failure of local authorities to hold the mob accountable. The “lawless in spirit” are thus “encouraged to become lawless in practice.” The judge who had presided over the grand jury in the St. Louis case was, believe it or not, named Luke E. Lawless, as Lincoln’s audience would have known.
But there is more. When making public the grand jury’s decision not to indict anyone, Lawless accused the mob’s victim, Francis McIntosh, of associating with abolitionists, as proven by “his peculiar language and demeanor.” Lawless then read aloud from a local anti-slavery newspaper, and incited his audience to ransack the paper’s offices. When Lincoln referred to a printing press being destroyed and thrown into a river, he was describing the result. The paper’s editor, Elijah Lovejoy, had taken flight across the river to Illinois, where he and his brother organized a statewide anti-slavery society and ordered a new printing press. Three months before Lincoln addressed the Lyceum in Springfield, another mob killed Lovejoy while he and his friends defended the warehouse in Alton to which the new press had been shipped. These are the signs of “mobocracy” that Lincoln feared would prepare the American people to accept a new Caesar.
“Having ever regarded government as their deadliest bane,” Lincoln argued, the lawless in spirit “make a jubilee of the suspension of [law’s] operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.” By such means, the “bulwark” of liberty is torn down. He continued in words that permit us to glimpse the prescience and rhetorical power of the future president:
Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of the population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hand and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this government cannot last. By such things, the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it; and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak, to make their friendship effectual. At such a time and under such circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the world.
The twin dangers of mob violence and would-be strongmen led Lincoln to propose an absolute obligation to obey the law. Thoreau will soon refuse to pay taxes on the ground that the money would be used in part for immoral purposes. Lincoln’s proposal, in contrast, admits of no exceptions for unjust laws, such as the Constitution’s compromise position on slavery. Lincoln agrees with Thoreau on the immorality of slavery, but not on the justifiability of civil disobedience. In Lincoln’s view, the fabric of society was too weak to survive widespread disobedience on the matter of slavery. The Constitution would eventually need to be amended, but the means to this end themselves had to be legal.
BECAUSE CLASSICAL REPUBLICANS considered being enslaved a horrible fate, yet did not oppose slavery as such, Lincoln regarded them as shamefully inconsistent. He took the American Founders to be guilty of the same inconsistency. His way of resolving this contradiction was to become a democratic republican. In a notebook entry of 1858, he summed up this modification of his republicanism in three crisp sentences: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” By democracy, Lincoln did not mean unmediated rule by the commons. He meant a legally regulated system of security—for everyone—against subjection to arbitrary power.
To qualify as just, in other words, a republic would have to discard the Ciceronian and Jeffersonian willingness to accept a social structure divided between citizens, who have the right to hold others accountable, and slaves, who lack that right. The liberty befitting a citizen could not be defended consistently, Lincoln held, if the scope of citizenship remained arbitrarily narrow. Social roles that have domination built into them need to be outlawed; the very roles of master and slave would eventually have to be ruled out as a matter of law, just as the Founders had formerly jettisoned the roles of kings, queens, nobles, and mere subjects. A society of laws must therefore be modified democratically, by the people and for the people. Liberty and justice must ultimately be granted to all.
This vision could be achieved in Lincoln’s own day, as he himself grasped, only if two conditions were met. First, the flawed legal-constitutional framework then in place would itself have to provide the means for its own reformation. Second, the citizens carrying out the change would need to acquire and express the virtues of democratic citizenship.
In a republic, a just legal order and a virtuous citizenry are interdependent. The laws neither make nor enforce themselves, but need help from citizens. As Montesquieu pointed out, the tasks of ethical formation become all the more pressing in a democracy, which extends the status of a citizen to a large, potentially volatile group not typically possessed of learning, prior political experience, or the time needed to reflect. The constraints on arbitrary power achieved through the rule of law will have the desired effects only if ordinary citizens become sufficiently vigilant, courageous, just, prudent, and well-organized users of power to promote the common good. A democratic republic can become and remain a society of laws, in the full sense, then, only if it is also a society of relatively virtuous citizens. Among the virtues to be cultivated are a fitting respect for law and a disposition to change whatever laws are at odds with liberty.
How might such cultivation of political virtues be achieved? The political religion Lincoln called for in his Lyceum Address is a deliberately cultivated piety for the laws on which an inclusive republic of free and equal citizens depends. He thought of religion roughly as Cicero and Milton did. Religio, in classical Latin, has two main meanings. It designates the practice of honoring the gods, expressing gratitude to them, discerning their will, and seeking their favor. And it designates the virtue—a type of piety—ideally cultivated and expressed in that practice. In republican discourse, religion functions primarily as a political concept.
Religion was of interest to republican political theorists both as a public practice and as a virtue with political implications. True religion, for Cicero, Livy, and other classical republicans, cultivated a virtue essential to a civic life oriented toward liberty and the common good alike. From a republican point of view, a habitual disposition qualifies as an authentic virtue only if compatible with the full range of virtues required of free and equal citizens who wish to remain free and equal. Gerrard Winstanley, Milton, Wollstonecraft, and Emerson all insisted that true religion is compatible with republican self-reliance. Defenders of imperial dictatorship or monarchy, on the other hand, such as Dante, were also interested in the formative function and political consequences of public ritual, but not in promoting republican liberty or the rule of law. They favored using public rituals primarily to cultivate a habitual disposition of obedience to the divine and to divinely authorized authority.
Understood as a virtue, whether from a republican or an imperial perspective, religion is not defined in classical thought as a set of faith commitments, but as one kind of piety. St. Thomas Aquinas, aiming to clarify the concept of religion that the church fathers had taken over from Roman sources, listed filial, patriotic, and religious piety as the three main species of piety. Each of these is a virtue of justly acknowledged dependence on the sources of one’s existence and progress through life. Defined as a species of piety, religion is a subspecies of justice, the virtue according to which each receives his or her due, and as such is a political virtue, distinguished from the theological virtue of faith. Thomas treats religion and faith in different portions of the Summa Theologiae. When addressing the topic of religion, he takes as his authority the pagan philosopher Cicero. When addressing the topic of faith, he relies on Holy Scripture and the fathers of the church.
Lincoln’s Lyceum Address makes sense once we see the religion he is recommending as a species of piety, a virtue and practice of acknowledged dependence, integrated with republican political ends and self-reliance. He was not proposing state allegiance to a divinity, since doing so would have violated the First Amendment, a constitutional provision itself required in order to secure republican liberty. But he did consider an informal political religion essential to the health of the republic. The address asks what forms of piety are requisite for sustaining and perfecting a free society. Six decades after the American Revolution, Lincoln worried that his contemporaries were no longer moved by the anger against tyranny and love of the common good that had united the revolutionary generation. Those noble and rational passions had subsided. Meanwhile, despicable passions were rising to dominance. Many citizens were inflamed with hatred, nativist fear, and greed. Lynch mobs were leaving victims swinging from trees. Vigilante passions, inimical to the rule of law, were winning the day.
Lincoln’s main concern in the Lyceum Address reflects a commonplace republican worry: the corrupting effects of vice on the people. In voicing this concern, he deploys the term example six times in the speech. Like other nineteenth-century American republicans, Lincoln was interested in the politics, ethics, and rhetoric of examples, a tradition of rhetorical analysis tracing back through Erasmus, Las Casas, and Machiavelli all the way to Cicero. Lincoln’s use of examples expressed his republican commitment to freedom as security from domination. Such security can be achieved only in a society of laws, he insists. And without the widespread piety for the laws on which our freedom depends, there can be no bulwark of freedom for us to modify democratically, so as to constrain arbitrary power.
THE TROUBLE WITH SUCH piety for the laws, of course, was that the Constitution permitted slavery. So Lincoln adds emphatically: “let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws.... But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.” He later mentions abolition of slavery as one such change, to be effected without violating existing law.
In proposing the law as a suitable object of piety—as something on which we depend for our political existence and progress through history—Lincoln is not, pace Kateb, presenting it as divine. Much as you can acknowledge your dependence on your parents without thinking them perfect, so too can we depend on laws that are often, in fact, alarmingly imperfect. The Constitution’s preamble acknowledges such imperfections by expressing the perpetual need to make the political union “more perfect,” subject to our wise, just, and vigilant help. It is in part because the Constitution provides means for its own amendment that citizens can depend on it even as they undertake to improve it. Milton had referred to public reason as a process of covenantal reformation. Viewing the social covenant as something forever fixed, as if changing it would necessarily violate it, would be idolatrous.
And so—along these lines—the thoughts that permitted Lincoln to make his campaign promise and take his presidential oath were republican, even if not entirely virtuous or transparent. A kind of racism had been baked into his bones, and because he never entirely overcame it, he is hardly a perfect personal exemplar of commitment to human equality. Kateb stops short of this conclusion. It is true, as Kateb says, that Lincoln could not imagine his countrymen soon freeing themselves from race prejudice, and this fact does go a long way toward explaining Lincoln’s reluctance to abolish slavery immediately and his interest in setting up a colony in Africa for emancipated slaves. Yet on republican grounds he held that slaveholding, like monarchy and other forms of arbitrary power, wronged the slaves while corrupting the people who benefited from it. That corruption made the institution unsustainable over the long haul. Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery did not depend, in my view, on taking blacks to be his equals in intelligence, but simply on the claim that they had a right to the fruit of their labor.
A civic nation divided against itself on a matter so grave cannot stand, Lincoln had told an Illinois audience in 1858. Slavery was ultimately doomed, bound to collapse under the weight of its own vice. But when? Lincoln was uncertain whether his nation would survive long enough to see this happen. This uncertainty worried and vexed him. The nation’s historical vocation, he held, was to stand for freedom in the eyes of the world. The importance of such a vocation, for a republican conscious of examples, reflected a belief in the contagious nature of virtue and vice. Such qualities spread infectiously when individuals and societies stand for something, either good or bad.
What the nation exemplified, to a world witnessing the American experiment, was crucial for Lincoln. To stand for freedom in the eyes of the world, the United States would need to avoid dismemberment even as it struggled to outlaw a form of domination that violated its ideals. There was a risk that democratic republican ideals would perish from the face of the earth if this experiment failed: this was Lincoln’s Gettysburg nightmare. His address at Gettysburg piously acknowledges indebtedness to “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled” there. The only fitting way to honor those men, who had sacrificed so much to the “unfinished work” of achieving a country officially and truly dedicated to liberty and equality, was to see the task through.
Kateb eloquently depicts the Civil War as a nightmare, both in the unprecedented, awful, massive sacrifice of human lives it exacted—which only intensified as General Sherman took license, with Lincoln’s permission, to vanquish the plantation economy that was the basis of Southern slaveholding—and also in the ominous manner in which it set aside legal constraints on the arbitrary use of presidential and military power. Looking back, we can see that in suspending such constitutional provisions as habeas corpus, Lincoln’s government took a giant step toward the modern, bureaucratic, militarized nation-state.
Kateb wants these facts to register fully in our consciousness, without mitigation or minimization. It is clear that in his view, the positive legacy of the war is more limited, the picture more mixed, than Americans have traditionally been taught in school. Yes, freeing the slaves brought a particular form of domination to an end in a particular time and place. It did not however free those persons or their descendants from the lasting effects of slavery or from the lingering vices of race prejudice and hatred. The reckoning was complex, and remains so. Both the human beings who would have been slaves if Lincoln had not acted, and the human beings who have been or will be crushed by the forces Lincoln unleashed, ought to count for something. Kateb will not let us forget that each and every one of those lives matters.
LINCOLN'S POLITICAL THOUGHT ENDS with a disturbing reading of the Second Inaugural, in which Kateb shifts our attention from Lincoln’s moving and celebrated plea for “malice toward none” and “charity for all” to the less famous paragraph that precedes it. There, noting that North and South “read the same Bible” and asserting that neither side’s prayers have been answered in full, because neither side’s purposes coincide wholly with God’s, Lincoln quotes a fiery passage from Matthew 18: “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” In Kateb’s reading, Lincoln here is “blaming providence or God for ordaining moral evil in the form of slavery and bringing about moral evil in the form of [an] atrocious war to end slavery.” “Charity for all,” Kateb sums up, “is hatred of God or his providence.” After first appealing too easily to necessity as commander in chief, the president has projected his responsibility for carnage onto a divinity too perverse to be loved.
Is that really what Lincoln implies? I do not see it. The verse quoted from Matthew is followed, in Lincoln’s address, by two conditionals. The first is a rhetorical question: If American slavery is an offence which God “now wishes to remove,” and if the war is “the woe due to those by whom the offense came,” would God then be shown unjust? The implied answer is no. The second conditional asserts that if God wills that the war continue until all the wealth gained from slavery “shall be sunk,” and until “every drop of blood drawn by the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword,” then the righteousness of God could not be questioned. That doesn’t sound like blaming God to me. Indeed, it sounds like the opposite.
What then was Lincoln’s point? In a line Kateb doesn’t mention, Lincoln advises fellow citizens to “let us judge not, that we be not judged.” At war’s end, neither party is entitled to avenge the injustices of the other, because both have contributed to the evil that caused the war. The implication can be restated in explicitly republican terms: Southern vice and Northern vice jointly brought the woe of civil war on the nation. Slavery harms the innocent slave directly, but also—morally and otherwise—harms the slave trader, the slaveholder, the complicit consumer of cotton and sugar, the idealist who is too pure to take effective action against slavery, and the soldier or commander who does what he thinks he must. Vice begets vice, and a plague of vice begets woe. That is how the world works.
The natural tendency of grave injustice is to rend the common good, thereby making the entire society suffer. In slavery’s case, Lincoln insists, the responsibility for the rending is too widely shared to justify finger-pointing, let alone vengeance, once peace finally comes. The rending is its own retribution; a just God has no need to pile on. If our happiness in this world consists in virtuous, free, and equal union with our fellows, and we act against that good, thus destroying it, why wouldn’t woe be our lot? Lincoln has led his fellow citizens into a purgatory of ethical self-recognition, and he leads them out again by pleading for mutual charity. Mercy is the path from purgatory to reconciliation. The Second Inaugural uses immanent criticism in the conditional mode to focus attention on the need for reconciliation. If Lincoln wished to stand for republican virtue rather than theological skepticism, that is how the speech must go.
And that is how it does go, as far as I can see. Lincoln’s political religion is republican from first to last. It is concerned with marrying ideals to powers and with who exemplifies what and how. It expresses and cultivates piety for the admittedly imperfect constitutional framework, the public virtues, and the sacrifices on which a society of free and equal citizens depends. One of those sacrifices turns out to be the abandonment of any theology that inhibits the work of reconciliation after a terrible civil war. In the end the horrors of that war cannot be fully explained. Lincoln neither claims knowledge of a providential plan, nor exempts himself from responsibility for the suffering. But the war had lasted too long and cost both sides too dearly for a one-sidedly chauvinistic theodicy to be true. That much is certain. What Kateb really wants to know is why offenses need come in the first place. But that is Kateb’s question for God, not Lincoln’s for his fellow citizens.
MORE IMPORTANT THAN my quibbles with Kateb over the interpretation of Lincoln’s political thought is the need to confront the ambiguity of Lincoln’s legacy that Kateb’s analysis exposes. Lincoln is a riddle because, in our politics, we are a riddle to ourselves. We are his heirs, for good and for ill. We cannot escape his legacy, and we don’t know what to make of it.
On the one hand, if slavery is the paradigm of domination, and we are committed to overcoming domination in all its forms, we have strong reason to institute and maintain what the Lyceum Address calls a “political edifice of liberty and equal rights.” To be free in the relevant sense is to be secure against domination in a way that only a society of laws (of the right kind) could guarantee. All legal protections are, by definition, enforced coercively. No coercion, no law. No law, no security against domination. The sort of freedom worth having is to live in a society of justly and wisely chosen, justly enforced laws. That is why most of us continue to take politics seriously, why we cling to the hope for emancipation from arbitrary power.
On the other hand, the very political edifice we invented to provide security against domination evidently tends to produce a massive apparatus of coercion, surveillance, and violence that no one any longer knows how to control. Our laws are enforced in a spirit of lawlessness. Some of our politicians pander to billionaires, while another seems to be a Caesar exploiting popular anger in an attempt to seize power. Militarized oligarchy appears to be what Lincoln’s ideal of a society of laws comes to when actualized. The legal mechanisms we have devised as means of protection from domination were from the beginning the spoiled fruit of a wicked compromise with slavery. They have repeatedly failed to constrain capital’s tendency to concentrate power in the hands of a few. And they have unleashed bureaucracies, markets, and empires that have thus far defeated all attempts to tame them.
Lincoln commands our attention because our politics exhibits these two prongs of his legacy. It is a delicate moral exercise, Kateb’s attempt to affirm Lincoln’s greatness while nonetheless chastening our idolatry and leaving us with a troubling image of ourselves. There are few writers since Emerson who have even attempted this sort of thing, let alone succeeded at it. Many readers of Lincoln’s Political Thought will resent the chastening, while others will prefer a harsher unmasking. But Kateb refuses to simplify. The words in his book both bleed and provoke; his double-edged honesty cuts repeatedly against his own druthers, as he says what idolaters and debunkers alike wish not to hear. A reader need not agree with the book’s ambivalent conclusions to be challenged and changed by it. George Kateb has added a splendid and bracing chapter to Representative Men.