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Presented February 15, 2009, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
Listen to a recording of "Refusing Hegel:"
30:20 minutes - 12.1 MB - Refusing Hegel.mp3 file.
"All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish it." De Tocqueville
It is not very often during all these years that I fear a talk may anger or offend some of you in our congregation. I could take refuge in the ancient philosopher Diogenes, who is reputed to have said: "What would you expect of a philosopher but to be angered by him? but I won't because it is certainly not the office of the minister to anger or offend the members of the congregation. Nevertheless, these troubling thoughts relating both to the philosopher Hegel and these days and this entire year of Lincoln celebration may anger and offend some of us, and especially those of us who hail from and have loyalty to southern states.
So, let me begin both with an apology for that and with a frank statement that everything I am going to say probably has everything to do with who I am, my own history, my own background and perspective. I should put my cards on the table and say from the beginning that I myself am from the North, from Pennsylvania. The most recent newcomers to PA of the various branches of my family was the German side in the 1820s. All the various sides of my family fought with Pennsylvania regiments during the Civil War and we are all from the North, and that fact has no doubt shaped my perspective in everything I will say in this talk.
A few days ago, of course, was Abraham Lincoln's 200 birthday, and this entire year of 2009 is a long celebration of that great statesmen from Illinois. Over and over again throughout this year Lincoln will be described as the greatest American, as the second father of the country, as our country's savior, as the one who saved the Union, saved the country. The inscription at the Lincoln Memorial sums up pretty well how Lincoln has gone from being a man to a monumental figure for our country: "In this Temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."
Lincoln as the great man who saved the union, saved our country as the United States of America, this is what we say over and over again, the version of history we wrap ourselves in. Contemporary philosophers might refer to this as a grand narrative. That Abraham Lincoln is the greatest American, the savior of the country, and that he saved the union, this is the grand narrative we tell ourselves about Lincoln, about the Civil War, and about ourselves as a country.
Let's take this grand narrative and not just repeat it but think about it and analyze it. Let's do the work of what philosophers today, inspired of course by Jacques Derrida, would call deconstruction, and analyze and dismantle this grand narrative by asking what we get out of it and how it works. What happens, what do we do when we give ourselves this grand narrative and make Lincoln into a larger than life monument who saved the country?
One thing that surely happens when we give ourselves this grand narrative that the great figure Lincoln saved the Union is we hide or cover over or repress the real history of the Civil War, which is of course a history filled with incredible and hideous violence and the deaths of 620,000 people and the serious wounds of more than a million more people. If Lincoln saved the Union in any way, what this really means is that Lincoln as president and commander in chief absolutely refused to let the South go out of the union no matter how much violence, sacrifice, and death it required. But the incredible goriness of the reality gets covered over by the glorious narrative of how Lincoln saved the Union. Another thing we obviously get from this grand narrative of Lincoln saving the union is the ingrained perspective that saving the Union is a great thing, probably the greatest thing any American has ever done, and that whatever blood was spilled in the process was more than worth it. This grand narrative both shields us from the bloody reality of the Civil War and reassures us when we do recognize the bloody reality that it was more than worth it because it saved our country and made us united and whole.
We as a country couldn't have a more Hegelian grand narrative. G.W.F. Hegel was of course the great German philosopher at least of the first half of the 19th century. He was a philosopher of history and a great believer in the unifying power of the nation/state. Human history, according to Hegel, includes a great deal of violence. History, says Hegel, is a slaughterhouse. But for Hegel violence can be productive and positive, especially when it leads to what is for Hegel the supreme product of human history, the unified nation/state. The state, wrote Hegel, is "the march of God on the earth," meaning that the unified nation state is the highest expression of human progress on the earth. According to Hegel, there is a lot of violence on the way to the nation/state; it involves a lot of sacrifice from a lot of little people fighting and sacrificing their own individual little lives, but if all that sacrifice and all that violence leads to the unified Nation/State, then that is real progress and all the violence and all the sacrifice is nothing compared to that great accomplishment.
You can understand what I mean when I say that our grand narrative about how Lincoln saved the Union is thoroughly Hegelian. It has within it these supremely Hegelian notions that the unified Nation State is the greatest thing since bread and that any sacrifice and violence to accomplish it is more than worth it. But even as we celebrate Lincoln's 200th birthday and give ourselves again and again this grand narrative about how Lincoln saved the union, we should also say something like: Come on, it's 2009. Are we really still Hegelians? Are we really such great fans of the supreme, unified Nation/State? And do we really want to be about the business of justifying violence and saying that the deaths and the suffering of millions of people was really worth it in the end? Don't we stand at a different point in 2009 than where Hegel stood in the 1820's, after all the incredible violence and destruction unleashed by the powers of nation states throughout the 20th century? Isn't it time we have had enough of violence and its various justifications? I don't know about you, but I am ready to say that I am a disciple of Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolence and not of Hegel, and I really don't think you can be both seriously committed to a Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence and a Hegelian philosophy of the constructive results of violence at the same time.
So let's really question ourselves and our grand narrative of how the great savior of our country saved the union. Let's not hide ourselves from the violence, the death, and the destruction. The Civil War cost 620,000 mostly very young people their lives, more than all the wars America has fought if you add them all up together, and it brought incredible suffering and misery to millions more. Do we really want to say that all these deaths, all this violence and misery was worth it? What makes it worth it? Lincoln said at Gettysburg that what was at stake was democracy itself, that government of the people, for the people, by the people should not perish from the earth. But isn't this largely rhetorical? Was the Confederacy out to destroy democracy? Didn't the southern states have Constitutions and legislatures? Didn't the southern states' succession from the country reflect rightly the desires of the majority of the people of the southern states at the time? Lincoln often makes it seem as if the Confederacy wanted to destroy democracy and representative government itself, but this is certainly not true.
In 2009, we should not justify violence but should question it. The democratically elected representatives in the southern legislatures voted to secede from the Union. Upon what basis did Lincoln believe he could wage war upon southern states to keep them in the Union? Where in the Constitution does it say that states that once vote to join the Union must stay in the Union even if the majority of the people in a state want out? Where did he find in the Constitution his own power as chief executive to wage war against majority populations in states that wanted out? Lincoln clearly believed that our country was the greatest experiment in republican, representative government then attempted in history, and that if our great experiment were allowed to splinter apart and fail that it would be a great tragedy for the whole world. But he could have read our great political experiment in an entirely different way. He could just have rightly believed that what made our country unique in history was that our government was formed on the consent of the governed and that at the foundation of our state was that free and willing consent and not power and violence. It is entirely possible to believe that when our 13 colonies came together to form the country that they wanted to put as the very foundation of the state a democratic ideal of self government and not the power and violence of the state itself. That would have been truly revolutionary. That would have been truly new.
And it would be just as feasible for Lincoln or anyone else to read the Constitution that way. And if Lincoln did, if he eschewed the notion that the foundation of our own state like any other state is power and violence, then perhaps he would have felt himself obligated by the Constitution to find some other way, any other way to respond to the secession of southern states than force and violence and war, even if it meant letting them go.
And what if Lincoln had done just that, let the southern states go and let them be their own republican country? Would that have been so terrible? Democracy and representative government would not have died. If the citizens of Pennsylvania and the citizens of Georgia, for example, had never had to go to war and try to kill each other, would they actually have more in common and have better relations now even if they were still citizens of 2 different countries? What's wrong with the southern states as a different country? After all, we aren't Hegelians anymore. We don't worship at the altar of the unified nation state, like Hegel did, or at least we shouldn't. I don't see what is so great about our country as one united whole. If the southern states want Reagan, George Bushes, and John McCain as their president -- and they clearly do -- let them have them. Let the southern states be that country that would be happy to be led by people. Let them have prayer in schools, declare themselves a Christian country, ban gay marriage, ban abortion, and have no gun laws. I just want to live in a progressive country. I am now 47 years old, and thus far my adult life has been dominated by 2 conservative presidencies, 8 years of Reagan and 8 years of George W. Bush. 16 years brought to all of us largely because both Reagan and Bush carried all the electoral votes of all the southern states. To live my life without this Reagan-Bush nightmare, to live my life instead with President Carter and with President Gore, that would be worth having to get a passport to visit Georgia or Florida.
Lincoln, of course, took the idea of our country as one unified nation state much more seriously that I do. He clearly believed that America had to survive that horrible war united and whole not only for Hegelian reasons but mostly because he believed this was the only way America in the future would be the great symbol of freedom and of democracy for the future of the entire world. Because of his noble and idealistic dream of our American future, he was able somehow to live through all the horrible violence of that horrible war. Somehow all the violence would lead in our own country to a "new birth of freedom" that would embolden the hopes of humanity throughout the world, and our united and whole country would forever stand as the symbol of hope and freedom for the world. This is the dream and the hope of Lincoln, the way he saw that all the violence may yet still lead to redemption.
Lincoln's dream is a noble dream of our American future. Still, any apostle of Gandhi arrives on the scene with a deep suspicion of Lincoln's hope. Gandhi would probably say that what emerges from violence is not freedom, not a new birth of freedom, but more violence. Freedom, Gandhi would say, only emerges from non-violence; freedom only comes when out of your own strength and determination you find someway to resist without any violence.
Every time I go to D.C. I go visit Abe's monument. I read his words inscribed there, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, and Abe and I always have a conversation together. I'd love to tell him that the history of America in the 20th century has proven him right, that we have redeemed all the bloodshed of that horrible civil war by being the righteous beacon of freedom for the world. Abe and I understand each other. I know he's no Hegelian. He suffered it all, all the horrible violence, not simply so we could be a great Hegelian powerful nation state and be the supreme power on the earth. His dream was about a lot more than our country just being united and powerful. His dream was about our united country as the great friend and ally of all the freedom seeking peoples of the world. This was the only way all that horrible violence he knew so well from those awful years could be redeemed.
Few could deny that since the end of World War II our country has been the great Hegelian powerful nation/state on earth. But have we also been the constant ally and friend of all the freedom seeking peoples of the world? How many freedom hating, violent dictators have we supported because it advanced our own interests rather than the cause of human freedom in the world? Is Lincoln's dream really the way the rest of the world sees us? Do the citizens of Viet Nam, or Iran, or Chile, or Argentina, or El Salvador or Honduras or Guatemala or Iraq see us as the great hope and inspiration for all people everywhere who desire to be free? Or is Lincoln's dream even possible? Is it ever really possible for violence to be redeemed? These are troubling questions we may find ourselves asking on this 200the year anniversary of Lincoln's birth if we can deconstruct our own grand narrative of Lincoln as the great monumental figure who saved our great Union.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.