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Here is a short excerpt of an address I’ll be delivering at Geneseo College devoted to Lincoln’s Bicentennial:

Of course, the occasion for my lecture today is the Bicentennial celebration of Abraham’s Lincoln’s birth. It’s worth noting that today is also the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth especially since the two have enjoyed, or suffered, very different fates at the hands of modern historical scholarship and the popular consciousness it helps fashion. While Lincoln’s reputation has recently been rehabilitated by our new President’s admiration of him, however sincere or comprehending, he has more often been the victim of the demythification and deconstruction that so often visits our traditional heroes. While Lincoln, like Madison, understand the political significance of reverence for our founders he also understood the hostility to tradition inherent in modernity’s iconoclastic premises, not to mention the ambiguous status of tradition in a nation forged from revolution and an extraordinary measure of political philosophy. Our magnanimous men, as Aristotle called them, can inspire us to envy just as easily to emulation—as Nietzsche once wrote: “If there were Gods how I could not bear to number myself among them. Therefore, there are no Gods!”

While Darwin certainly has his contemporary detractors—anthropologists prefer cultural to biological determinism and libertarians and existentialists reject natural limitations on individual choice—his reputation has generally shared the successful trajectory of science as a whole. Today, many understand Darwinism to provide a comprehensive account of human life and therefore, it represents the pinnacle of reason. From the perspective of Darwinism, Lincoln’s unflinching Christian faith is the benighted detritus of an ancient and obsolete worldview—modernity has embraced the reason and science of Darwin over the faith and revelation of Lincoln.

We can praise Lincoln but typically this is done with some element of irony or condescension since we all know he was really a racist, a homosexual, an oligarch, or a tyrant. It’s not so much that we detest greatness itself, as is often surmised, because it offends our egalitarian sensibilities, but we struggle with political greatness more particularly. Lincoln was a political man but Darwin was a man of science—Lincoln’s greatness is tarnished by the seedy interests and craven negotiations of political life but Darwin was devoted to the truth, which brooks no compromise. Lincoln’s greatness will always be controversial because it championed one set of interests over another, but much more deeply, gave honor to some and shame to others. Darwin’s greatness can be shared by all of us who are rational beings. One might say that the modern discipline of political science is meant to overcome this bifurcation—it is meant to make our political-moral lives, and the satisfaction of interests, a purely and irreducibly rational affair. As I’ll discuss at the end of my presentation, political science only does this by dint of a systematic abstraction of our lived political experience, that is, by singularly emphasizing politics as the management of a conflict of interests rather than the prudential navigation of conflicts between competing claims to honor, or of competing claims to the good.

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