Spielberg’s Lincoln: Politics as Mathematics

Daniel Day-Lewis’ strong performance isn’t enough to save the philosophically deficient Lincoln.

The reason why Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is such a disappointment may perhaps be evident to those who have studied philosophy. For example, Trinity Western University professor Grant Havers, in his book Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love, offers a philosophical counterpoint to the vision of history found in Spielberg’s movie.

Havers argues against those who “contend that Christianity is too exclusivist to live up to the truly universal ideas of Lincoln.” Such people “portray Lincoln as the paragon defender of natural rights while downplaying the religious particularity of his own thought.” (1)

On the contrary, argues Havers, “Lincoln’s ideas are most comprehensible to a people already steeped in knowledge of the Bible. Lincoln honestly believed that the people of North and South were capable of understanding the injustice of slavery, although such an understanding rested on the Bible rather than mathematical reason. Even as the President of a divided nation, Lincoln assumed that the people of the South were good, and would eventually overthrow their usurping regime on their own; unfortunately, this did not happen,” and Christian statesmanship was required. (2)

The debate over Lincoln is important. On the one side, there are those who maintain “Christianity is far too restrictive to be the foundation of a true universal politics.” Because “self-evident truths cannot be exclusively Christian,” it would seem that only self-evident truths, not Christian charity, should be at the basis of a just society. (3)

On the other side, there is Havers’ insistent counterpoint. His key thesis is that Lincoln “called for a politics of charity.” He points out that although “the very language of ‘self-evident’ truths of liberty and equality in the Declaration [of Independence]” seems to “suggest that acceptance of this kind of truth should be immediately intelligible to all, Christian or non-Christian,” this was definitely not Lincoln’s view and cannot explain Lincoln’s actions. (4)

Havers argues that Lincoln instead “called for a politics of charity precisely because the truths of the Declaration were not self-evident to all.” Even if human reason is a universal fact rooted in human nature, “it would not be enough to encourage the practice of self-evident truths.” (5)

The Spielberg movie gets this philosophical point completely backwards. Instead, screenwriter Tony Kushner portrays Lincoln’s pursuit of the Thirteenth Amendment as flowing, not from Christian charity, but from mathematical reasoning analogous to the abstractions Lincoln read about in Euclid’s Elements.

“Euclid’s first common notion is this,” says Lincoln in the film, “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it works. Has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is ‘self-evident.’ You see, there it is, even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law. It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.”

The scene is a fiction. The truth is more interesting. Lincoln himself actually said this: “One would start with confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied, and evaded, with no small show of success. One dashingly calls them ‘glittering generalities’; another bluntly calls them ‘self-evident lies’; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only ‘to superior races.’” (6)

Difficult as it is to teach someone mathematics (and to apply its self-evident truths in a process of reasoning), it is even more difficult to teach and apply the truth of the Declaration of Independence about human equality (“that all men are created equal”).

Havers’ book thus highlights what Tony Kushner’s film script has deliberately omitted: “Lincoln’s explanation for the persistent denial of equality rests on the biblical concept of sin. Sin is the deliberate violation of the moral law of charity. It is deliberate because the agent of sin knows the good and yet still chooses evil. Indeed, he convinces himself that the good is the evil, while he knows that this act is still a willful denial of the good.” (7)

This is what the philosopher Kierkegaard meant, notes Havers, when he observed our elaborate psychology when sinning: we always still “will the good” in our own minds, even when mind-independently, in action, we will the bad. We know we will the bad, yet at the same time we reinterpret that action in our minds as good.

“The entire people of America—North and South—knew better than what they merely professed about the injustice of slavery. Because they were both Christian peoples—they worshiped and prayed to the same God—they differed over slavery only because one side denied the truth that it already knew,” writes Havers. (8)

The greatest failure of the movie is that its drama fails to adequately communicate this internal struggle of the sinning human person. Instead, it focuses on the externals. The passing of the Thirteenth Amendment is reduced to a spectacle of contesting wills and power politics. The film merely offers the spectator a chance to cheer for the winning side.

The greatest success of the movie lies in the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, who transcends the philosophically deficient script and gives viewers a real sense of what it must have been like to be in the presence of Lincoln. It is a truly astonishing dramatization of how a human being, by cultivating the virtues of prudence and charity, achieves human greatness. But as Aristotle teaches in the Nicomachean Ethics (in a famous disagreement with Plato), prudent action cannot flow from mathematical calculation—which is why the movie miscalculates Lincoln’s greatness so badly with its emblematic Euclid scene.

Other failings of the film include Janusz Kaminski’s dark and dingy cinematography, which apparently stems from a desire to avoid a literal hagiography of bright light. But that overly scrupulous miscalculation is not only at odds with the exceptional nature of the man, Lincoln; it is also an incongruous fit with all the self-consciously stylized “movie moments” sprinkled throughout the film.

Paradoxically, many corny scenes are further crippled by their overly strained efforts to avoid cliché; the film opens with a real stinker. Unexpectedly, these self-consciously “big” scenes, because of their heavy-handed restraint, become less interesting than the sausage-making depictions of political procedure (which themselves would be still more interesting if actively encountered in a book, rather than passively in on-screen enactments).

Then there is the hideous pairing of John Williams’ orchestral music with Lincoln’s speechmaking. Lincoln’s oratory should have been left to stand on its own, as evidence of what we have lost in our own age. Instead, the manipulative music insults our intelligence. It is thoroughly disproportionate to the reality of Lincoln’s oratorical genius, which stands in no need of the calculated contrivances of Hollywood sentimentality. Moviemaking, like politics, should not be mathematical.

English philosopher Roger Scruton explained in an essay (“Why I Became a Conservative”) what he learned from the great political philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke. He learned the truth that political action cannot be deduced from self-evident axioms and mathematical reasoning. Math is one thing, and grasping it with human reason is hard enough. But politics is even more difficult.

Yet many are captivated with abstract utopian schemes to make the world a “better” place. But, Scruton realized, all the “utopian promises of socialism go hand in hand with a wholly abstract vision of the human mind—a geometrical version of our mental processes which has only the vaguest relation to the thoughts and feelings by which real human beings live.” (9)

What we can learn from Burke, then, according to Scruton, is “that the new forms of politics, which hope to organize society around the rational pursuit of liberty, equality, fraternity, or their modernist equivalents, are actually forms of militant irrationality. There is no way in which people can collectively pursue liberty, equality, and fraternity, not only because those things are lamentably underdescribed and merely abstractly defined, but also because collective reason doesn’t work that way.” (10)

How then might political reasoning best work? I believe Scruton gives the true answer, and Lincoln a best example; namely, that there are no easy, self-evident answers:

“As to the task of transcribing, into the practice and process of modern politics, the philosophy that Burke made plain to the world,” writes Scruton, “this is perhaps the greatest task that we now confront. I do not despair of it; but the task cannot be described or embraced by a slogan. It requires not a collective change of mind but a collective change of heart.” (11)

Havers is therefore right to point to the dimension opened up by charity in history, because only with it is there hope for a collective change of heart.

The darkness in Spielberg’s film is thus not just a failure of cinematography. If history and politics is, in a failure of vision, merely conceived of abstractly, with the heroes and villains pre-decided along Euclidean lines, then our future will be similarly dark.

But a statesman like Lincoln will know well, and dedicate his every prudent act to, the truth of what Solzhenitsyn wrote: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Because it is only charity that can win that civil war.

(1) Grant Havers, Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2009), 71.

(2) Havers 2009: 74.

(3) Havers 2009: 72.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Lincoln, Collected Works, 3:375, quoted at Havers 2009: 72.

(7) Havers 2009: 73.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Roger Scruton, “Why I Became a Conservative”, The New Criterion (February 2003).

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ibid.

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About Christopher S. Morrissey 34 Articles
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. He is a managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics. His poetry book, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.