Machiavelli in Hell is the title of Sebastian De Grazia’s intellectual biography of the infamous Florentine philosopher that tends toward the current conventional view that Machiavelli was a misunderstood republican, which I think is not only mistaken but which drains much of the life and profundity out of Machiavelli’s complex and ambitious teaching. This was the subject of discussion in my graduate class at Pepperdine University on a recent Tuesday, which began with this pleasant sunrise from my faculty lodgings. (Yes, I have compared teaching at Pepperdine to teaching at Club Med. I was initially surprised when I was told there was no spring break. Quite obviously spring break is unnecessary when you’re already in Malibu.)
So why not Machiavelli in Malibu? Through the circuitous train of conversation that often occurs in long classroom discussions, attention ultimately turned to one overlooked aspect of Obama’s second inaugural address. But a preface is necessary: Harry Jaffa used to note that Lincoln was always careful and ambiguous about the question of social equality for blacks, as opposed to legal equality. I drew my class’s attention to Jaffa’s treatment of this question:
Throughout the slavery controversy, Lincoln is careful to avoid contesting the question of the equality or inequality of the races “in the gifts of nature.” Given the overwhelming prejudices of white America, North as well as South, it would have been senseless for him to do otherwise. He is at great pains, however, to argue that this question is irrelevant to the question of the justice or injustice of slavery. To have contended for anything more than freedom would only have endangered whatever prospects for freedom there might have been. Yet careful analysis of Lincoln’s many references to the intelligence or abilities of Negroes shows amazingly little actual concession to the prejudices of his contemporaries, even while seeming not to contradict them. . .
Lincoln’s characteristic expression was, “Certainly the negro is not our equal in color—perhaps not in many other respects.” The only inequality that was “certain,” according to Lincoln, was color. Only the prejudices of his audiences would find such a judgment of Negro inferiority in such an assertion. Yet Lincoln would continue, in a phrase that, with minor variations, he repeated endlessly: “still, in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man, white or black.” The contrast between the ambiguity of what Lincoln says about Negro inequality and the unambiguousness of what he says about Negro equality is striking.
The point is, the silences and equivocations of political leaders are often as important as what they say explicitly. Jaffa in particular notes Lincoln’s unfinished sequence of verb tenses in his statements about social equality for blacks (“I am not, not have ever been, in favor of . . .”); Lincoln did not say what he would be in the future.
Turning to Obama’s second inaugural, there is a single word that now stands out as a flare for the postmodern Left. Many have noted Obama’s fairly traditional beginning to his address:
What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
So far, so good, and, needless to say, an important departure from Woodrow Wilson’s explicit rejection of the Declaration of Independence. But note the key term in the next clause:
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing. . . (Emphasis added.)
Hold it right there: the Declaration’s truths—based on “the laws of nature and nature’s God”—may be self-evident? For Jefferson, as for Lincoln, the “self-evidence” of the truth of the propositions of the Declaration depended upon their internal logic, which Lincoln expressed in Euclidian terms. As Lincoln put it, the self-evident truths of the Declaration are “an abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times.” For Obama to say that the truths of the Declaration “may” be self-evident is to mark himself out with the main current of postmodern relativism, which depends upon a rejection of the ideas of the Declaration because they stand in the way of the Left’s will to power. If the Declaration “may” be true, but possibly not true as is implied here, then it isn’t applicable to all men at all times. In the end, Obama doesn’t really disagree with Woodrow Wilson at all in rejecting the Declaration of Independence. As with Obama’s position on gay marriage, his superficial rhetoric is merely conforming to popular opinion, while disguising a contrary intent.
Postscript: I reviewed this terrain once before here on Powerline, in contesting what I thought were the hasty and lazy clichés of Harold Holzer, a liberal admirer of Lincoln who nonetheless wholly concedes the contemporary Left’s view that Lincoln’s public statements on racial equality mark him out for contempt. Holzer wasn’t pleased, if you scroll down to the comment thread. I note with pleasure a fascinating new book from a liberal author, John Burt’s Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict, that takes Jaffa’s side against Holzer in concluding that Lincoln was in fact a racial liberal who sought to steer the nation in this direction through the most careful statecraft, which is what Holzer can’t see in his haste to play to today’s liberal peanut gallery. Here’s Burt:
Lincoln had chosen commitments whose entailments included racially equal citizenship years before he explicitly advocated such a thing, indeed while he actively denied having made such a commitment.