Ethics Quote Of The Month: Prof. Michael Ignatieff

“Lincoln should be with us all these days especially since ‘malice toward none’ has been replaced by malice toward all, as if in our ideological arrogance we have forgotten that neither God nor justice is necessarily on our side.”

-Philosophy scholar Michael Ignatieff, Ph.D. professor at  Central European University in Vienna, Austria, in his recent book, “On Consolation,” his examination of how figures in history, literature, music, and art searched for solace while facing tragedies and crises.

In a chapter devoted to Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 4,1865, near the end of the Civil War and with his own assassination six weeks away, Ignatieff explains that Lincoln concluded that “neither side could ever know what God intended by the fiery trial,” so “the victor had no right to raise the sword of vengeance while the defeated had the right to claim the dignity of honorable defeat. Humility about the ultimate meaning of the war, in other words, created the space for mercy.”

The chapter concludes,

It is easier to remember Lincoln as a saint than to learn from him, but we cannot draw consolation from his words unless we commit to that learning. He struggled with exactly what we struggle with: the tidal force of political malice that recurrently rises and threatens the hard-won civility on which a democracy depends. What helped him…was the tenacity with which he forced the best traditions he had inherited—in this case the Gospels and the Psalms—to deliver insight and perspective. He did not have a secure footing in faith, but he understood that these biblical traditions called on him to forswear vengeance and judgment and to appeal for mercy and forgiveness. These traditions can speak through us too. What consolation can there be in this? That we are not condemned to lived imprisoned in the rhetoric, foolishness, and mendacity of the present. We can reach back to Lincoln, to Matthew, to the Psalms, to whatever wisdom we have ever been taught, and find out, once again, who we are, where we are, what we must accept, and what we must not. These traditions of ours risk becoming inconsequential and empty words…unless we use them, we force meaning from them, as Lincoln did, and unless we continue to live by them, as he tried to do.


Pointer: Harvard Magazine

2 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Month: Prof. Michael Ignatieff

  1. Unfortunately, at this point the political left is pushing the idea that the past, including Lincoln, Matthew, and the Psalms, have nothing to teach us. After all, Lincoln carried out the largest mass execution in American history (of indigenous people, no less), the New Testament is used to beat up on gay people, and the Old Testament got the most basic moral question, slavery, wrong.

  2. If you can believe it, Prof. Michael Ignatieff was a predecessor of Justin Trudeau as leader of the federal Liberal Party of Canada. A would-be Prime Minister if he and his party could win the election of 2011.

    Ignatieff the professor failed where Trudeau the former school teacher would later prevail. Ignatieff led the Liberals to the worst showing in party history, finishing a distant 3rd, behind the winning Conservatives and a surging left under the leadership of a very engaging Jack Layton.

    Some say timing is everything but Ignatieff was tarred as a returning elitist, a Harvard Professor out of touch with the day-to-day. The more populist and socially conservative Stephen Harper won the day, with the left leaning Liberals and NDP splitting the leftist vote, significantly in favour of the NDP but giving the Conservatives a majority over all the winning parties.

    Ignatieff lost his own seat and resigned as party leader immediately. He soon left to return to the ivory tower rather than build grass root support for his vision and style. Within less than 4 months, Layton would die in office as the Leader of the Opposition at the age of 61 and the NDP never recovered. Shortly along came Trudeau at the right time when the pendulum had swung away from the Conservatives. Despite being characterized as a lightweight, pretty boy, too young and inexperienced to lead a nation (c.f. “Justin Hairdo”, etc.), the young Trudeau capitalized on his family name and sunny ways, winning in 2015. And here we are. Plus ca change, as they say.

    Ignatieff could have been an enlightened, principled leader, living up to his promise, where Trudeau has talked big on principles but has breached everyone.

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