By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
The American Civil War was the greatest war in American history—in terms of its casualties, absolute and relative. And, as Abraham Lincoln recognized in his Gettysburg Address, it really constituted a kind of second American Revolution; a revolution of expectations and hopes and beliefs, and really argued for a revolution in the way people thought about the nation.
A Theological Crisis
The war was fought out of theological arguments about slavery and God’s purposes for humans, democracy, and even the meaning of liberty. Much of the best recent work on the Civil War, by historians such as Mark Noll, point to how it was, in Noll’s words, a ‘theological crisis’, a struggle between two utterly opposed understandings of Scripture and what God meant for the world.
The central problem was the presence of slavery in American life. Slavery was not an accidental reality to America, it was deeper than that; it was close to the paradoxical heart of how Americans conceived of their mission in the world; and perhaps the way Americans had been moralized into conceiving of this mission led to the Civil War in some important ways.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Did Twain and Lincoln Thought Alike?
Mark Twain offers a profound and searching diagnosis of this problem, though not much hope in the way of solving it. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln, who in a way that Twain and most of the rest of Lincoln’s contemporaries failed to understand, gestured at a way that the nation might move towards some kind of healing beyond the war, and in so doing identified a kind of resolution that may just have legs beyond the particular history of the United States.
Lincoln had it right when he said that both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”
They both believed that the other side was godless and would lead the nation to godlessness, either the godlessness of an industrial technocracy where honor and extra-monetary value has no place, or the godlessness of slave drivers driving the whole nation back to a heartless feudal barbarism.
They found no way to see the war as anything other than a holy war; a war of pure good against pure evil.
Lincoln saw the evil that lay at the core of the war itself: The vast and dehumanizing system of chattel slavery, which was possibly the most brutal system of human exploitation the world has known outside of intentional genocidal or mass-homicidal activities such as those performed by the Nazis, Stalinist Russia, or the Aztecs.
Chattel slavery in North America before the American Civil War was a really nasty, deadly thing; we shouldn’t let apologists fool us. But Lincoln also saw that this evil was one that both North and South had collaborated in producing, both North and South had profited from, and that both needed to confront their complicity in this evil.
Learn more about why Nietzsche urged a profound rethinking of morality.
Dualism and Evil
Lincoln offered a vision of how to think about evil and how to think about our own involvement in evil that might be of use, might be of power, beyond his own context.
He was able not just to see what the Bible said, but how to read the Bible and to read with the signs of the times; and one can only do the former, he seemed to imply, if one also does the latter.
In doing this, Lincoln suggested that there’s a way in which humans can come to defuse their tendencies toward dualism in vast moral conflicts and invite their enemies not simply to be their enemies, but also to be their fellow humans in a struggle far deeper than the war that they are maybe immediately involved in.
In offering that picture, Lincoln offered a solution that others would pick up after him, both in the United States and beyond: Instead of trying to polarize their enemies, they try to convince them of the rectitude of their own cause, or their understanding of a mutual project that they both can be involved in.
Twain on the other hand, seemed to predict the way that a society can misshape its adherence in ways that only scholars of the Holocaust in the next century would parallel at all.
Twain’s own appreciation of how morality could conspire to reinforce racism is at the heart of thinkers like Martin Luther King’s insistence that the Civil Rights struggle was a struggle as much for white people as for black people.
And Lincoln’s insistence that all would be complicit and should recognize their own complicity is always a salutary reminder that in an age such as ours of culture wars and rumors of culture wars, Americans are always one people, for good and ill, and that “we the people” are united both in our aspirations and in our crimes and must understand our common destiny, in blessing and in punishment.
Learn more about how the French Revolution and Kant inspired German idealists.
Accepting the Cost
People caught in interminable and moralistic wars can see a problem as one that many people have cooperated in producing, and thus they can come to see the solution they must deal with, they must reach, is one that all must have a hand in order to achieve it.
Again and again we come to the conclusion that, the mythology of dualism is powerful in ways that escape merely philosophical depictions of good and evil; and again and again we find that if there are ways of resolving and overcoming that dualism we may find ourselves better able to live into the future.
Common Questions about the American Civil War and the Mythology of Dualism
The American Civil War was fought out of theological arguments about slavery and God’s purposes for humans, democracy, and even the meaning of liberty.
The central problem was the presence of slavery in American life. Slavery was not an accidental reality to America, it was close to the heart of how Americans conceived of their mission in the world.
Mark Twain’s own appreciation of how morality can conspire to reinforce racism was at the heart of Martin Luther King’s insistence that the civil rights struggle was a struggle as much for white people as for black people.