Beware the Tyranny Trap

August 14, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: United States Tags: HistoryAbraham LincolnUS Politics

Beware the Tyranny Trap

Abraham Lincoln warned of the fine line between grand political ambition and tyranny.

The above passage could have come directly out of the romantic cult of the genius. This idea was given philosophical expression by Kant, for whom the idea of genius was irrevocably tied to the work of art. Kant helped to valorize the artist as the model of the creative life. The work of art was no longer regarded simply as an imitation of nature but as the expression of the creative individual who brings into being something that has never existed before.

The most obvious reading of the Lyceum Address is as a warning about the emergence of the romantic hero in politics. Lincoln’s reference to those who would achieve greatness through emancipating slaves is an unmistakable reference to the kind of radical conscience politics that was an offshoot of New England transcendentalism. In its secularized form, this carried over the older Puritan idea of seeing individuals as under the law of grace, emancipated from the lower-order obligations to law and society, combined with the romantic theme of the creative genius. Lincoln clearly regarded the abolitionist temperament as the most vivid expression of this kind of antinomianism—putting the individual above the law—whose goal was to purify the world from sin, by violence if necessary, and to create a new community of saints.

It was this “abolitionist imagination,” as Andrew Delbanco recently described it, and the fanaticism it implied, that is equally at home in the politics of John Brown as in the language of the holy war that has been appropriated by both contemporary jihadists and the religious right. In the debate—still ongoing—between an ethic of conviction and an ethic of responsibility, Lincoln seems to come out unequivocally on the side of the latter. Like Max Weber in the next century, Lincoln regarded political ideals born of passion and conviction as a threat to political institutions.

Yet a minority view has held that Lincoln carried more of this higher-law politics than he cared to admit, an attitude characteristic of the second generation seeking to free themselves from the grip of the “fathers.” The sentence about emancipating slaves caught the attention of Edmund Wilson, who argued that “Lincoln had projected himself into the role against which he is warning” his audience. His description of the person of towering genius just seems to cut a little too close to Lincoln’s own ambition for us not to think of it as a piece of self-analysis. On Wilson’s account, Lincoln eventually embraced this “heroic role” as wartime leader and as “the prophet of the cause of righteousness.” For Wilson and his protégés—consider Gore Vidal’s Lincoln—Lincoln was the creator of the American national state akin to Bismarck’s Germany and Lenin’s Russia.

Psychoanalytic readers have suggested that Lincoln was thinking of himself as precisely such a revolutionary usurper. According to this account, Lincoln was engaged in a complex Oedipal struggle with the founders and feared that their accomplishments would put all subsequent generations in the shade, a classic example in the political world of what the literary critic Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence.” Lincoln’s reference to emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen suggests the morally neutral form of this kind of great ambition. It can be used to achieve freedom as well as new forms of domination. The description is frighteningly prescient of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch.

These readers are right to focus on Lincoln’s analysis of tyrannical ambition, but they draw the wrong conclusion. Lincoln understood better than most that the great political founders were inspired not by wealth, comfort or pleasure—the goals of more prosaic leaders—but by honor, fame and recognition. It is these higher-order goals that testify to a certain breadth of soul and loftiness of outlook. Yet it was precisely because of his imaginative sympathy for this kind of grand ambition that made it possible for Lincoln to resist it. Like John Milton, who warned against a “fugitive and cloistered virtue” unwilling to engage its enemy, Lincoln believed that no one who had ever been tempted by grand ambition would have the capacity to resist it.

Lincoln’s person of towering genius is far from the prosaic usurper feared by the conventional politics of his day. To find a precedent for Lincoln’s thinking, it is necessary to draw upon another Miltonic image, namely the figure of Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Lucifer’s motto is Non Serviam—“I will not serve.” Such a person prefers to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. His is a revolt not against an unjust order but against any order of which he is not the author. What is Miltonic about Lincoln’s tyrant is his resentment of a world that does not owe its creation to him. Such a person cannot stand the idea of playing a small part in a large drama that is a tribute to another person’s greatness. In this respect he is the precursor not only of Kant and Nietzsche but of all those later antinomian figures who cannot accept authority except as an emanation of their own will.


LINCOLN’S REFLECTIONS on the fate of political ambition can be usefully compared with another. At virtually the same time that Lincoln was giving his Lyceum Address, some four thousand miles away Tocqueville was finishing the second volume of Democracy in America. In a chapter near the end of the book titled “Why One finds so Many Ambitious Men in the United States and so Few of Great Ambitions,” Tocqueville reflected on the fate of grand ambition in a democratic age:

“There are no Americans who do not show that they are devoured by the desire to rise, but one sees almost none of them who appear to nourish vast hopes or to aim very high. All want constantly to acquire goods, reputation, power; few envision all these things on a grand scale.”

Tocqueville attributed the decline of great ambition to the leveling down of the aristocratic families that once held great power and wealth and the rise of the bourgeois habits of work, thrift and industry, but also to the Christian virtue of humility that had made ambition appear morally disreputable. His work addresses the failings of the middle-class democracies with their constant restlessness, materialism and belief in progress. For Tocqueville, it was principally the equality of conditions brought about by modern democracy that has contributed to the erosion of large-scale ambition. The few individuals of great wealth are no exception to the general rule: “A man who raises himself by degrees to wealth and power contracts habits of prudence and restraint in this long work from which he cannot afterwards depart. One does not gradually enlarge one’s soul like one’s house.”

Tocqueville did not entirely rule out the possibility that such things as high ambition and honor would continue to live even in the new democratic regimes, but their objects would take different forms. Honor in what Tocqueville called the ancien régime—the old world of hierarchy and status—was attached mainly to activities like war and preserving one’s place in society. In modern democratic societies, honor is more spread out. It is ascribed largely to commercial practices. “All the peaceful virtues that tend to favor trade must be specially honored among this people,” he wrote, “and one cannot neglect them without falling into public contempt.” Honor is almost exclusively a matter of commercial enterprise. To engage in commerce, to risk loss, to weather competition, takes a special kind of courage. It is not the warrior but the entrepreneur who is prepared to risk all on new undertakings. Commerce may not be a risk to life and limb, it may not confer status and rank as in the old aristocracies, but it still requires a kind of boldness, daring and initiative that seems appropriate for democratic societies.

Lincoln and Tocqueville gave two quite different accounts of the problem of great ambition. For the Frenchman, the transition from the aristocratic to the democratic age represented a fundamental change in human nature. It is almost as if these represented “two distinct humanities.” Ambition would, of course, not entirely disappear, but it would become small. Tocqueville feared, perhaps unreasonably, that hatred of privilege would shrink the imagination leaving no room for the expression of individual greatness. For Tocqueville, what has changed is not so much the desire but the object of ambition. America’s ambitious men and women today seek to find their fame and fortune less in politics, the military or war than through business and entrepreneurship.

Tocqueville had something of the aristocrat’s disdain for trade. Although I am loath to criticize, he may have also underestimated the qualities of competition, risk and even the sheer desire for novelty that are involved in commercial enterprises. America’s ambitious men are still occasionally generals and statesmen, but are more likely to be entrepreneurs, the “job creators” much like the aptly named Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. No one would deny the enormous contributions these men have made to society in terms of ease, comfort and sociability—certainly not I—but are these activities that confer glory and immortal fame?