Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

This is an odd, rambling, not-altogether-coherent essay-review by Charles Fried on “Torture, America, and the Laws of War.” Fried is reviewing John Fabian Witt’s book Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History, which describes and analyzes the “code” for military behavior that President Lincoln authorized in 1863. Fried looks at this code in relation to the full history of American attitudes towards “chivalry” in war — or its absence.

It’s an interesting topic, no doubt, and one worth exploring. But I’m not going to explore it today. I’ve found myself thinking primarily about something Fried says near the beginning of his essay:

When I first read this enthralling and important book, I took it as an extended tribute to Lincoln’s moral genius. There is genius in many fields and on many dimensions. Moral genius, like political genius, is far closer to artistic genius than it is to genius in science or mathematics. It has to do with putting together familiar elements in unexpected ways, combining and recombining the materials to take account of and overcome the constraints of those materials, and finally coming up with a whole that surprises by its power, its aptness, and its sense that we are experiencing something fundamentally new. Relating moral genius to the genius of Keats or Raphael or Bach may seem to diminish the ultimate seriousness, the urgency of morality — or at least to make a category mistake that slights the special quality of each. But they do have things in common. In each case we cannot look at the world again in the same way after we have taken them in. Everything that has gone before and comes after takes on a different valence and hue. They change our world, they change our lives.

The concept of “moral genius” is to me a fascinating one. I think Fried is right in saying that the moral genius is not simply an innovator, but rather someone who can put “together familiar elements in unexpected ways, combining and recombining the materials to take account of and overcome the constraints of those materials.” That is, the moral genius works within a tradition of moral thought, but manifests brilliance by taking that tradition in new directions, in such a way that we can see that the tradition is not being rejected but fulfilled.

For a Christian such as myself, Jesus is the obviously ideal exemplar of moral genius, but the category would obviously apply to other founders of religious traditions: the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, etc. Below this obvious highest level, I wonder whom else we might identify as moral geniuses? The prophet Isaiah, certainly; St. Francis of Assisi; Maimonides; in a peculiar but important sense Montaigne.

Anyone care to nominate others? Remember, these need to be people who effect a major transformation in moral understanding and action — I’m not sure I agree with Fried that Lincoln qualifies, since it’s not clear to me that he had unique insights, a distinctive moral understanding lacking in other people of his time. In fact, I wonder whether a moral genius in the political sphere is even possible. Thoughts?