Thou Shalt Not

Michael Metzger

With Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” expected to garner many Academy Awards, it’s worth remembering why the 16th President of the United States proved to be so persuasive. Lincoln’s appeal lies in his use of a rhetorical device – a pattern of speech that’s almost impossible to use anymore.

The 85th Academy Awards air this Sunday evening. “Lincoln” leads the way, topping all films with 12 nominations, including best picture, director, actor, and adapted screenplay. Outstanding casting and production work explain much of the film’s popularity. But there is an additional element. Douglas L. Wilson, author of “Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words,” observes it in Lincoln’s speeches.

Lincoln tapped into the power of negation in language. He wasn’t reticent to utter prohibitions such as Thou Shalt Not. Wilson writes that, “as with Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, both of whom had a comparable gift, this may be an aspect of Lincoln’s literary genius.”1 Almost all of Lincoln’s rhetorical efforts used negative constructions, or prohibitions, to give his ideas gravitas. One of his most ardent lines – “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history” – stuck a cultural nerve, as did his famous notation, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

American literary theorist Kenneth Burke argued that the negative is intimately connected to our sense of morality, if not actually responsible for it. He says part of moving people to moral action is invoking the “thou-shalt-nots.” Lincoln recognized this due to operating in what Philip Rieff called a “second world” culture.2 Rieff differentiated between three different kinds of cultures, each seeing the connection between the sacred canopy and the social order in different ways.

From the beginning of time, societies assumed a sacred canopy shaped the social order – the way people lived. In Rieff’s “first world” cultures, the canopy was fate. Though one may find the rare Socrates or Plato, the gods were mostly considered to be arbitrary and capricious. Zeus zapped your firstborn… but that’s just the way it was. Stuff happens. First world cultures have existed from the earliest pagan religions to ancient Athens and continue in the enchanted mysticisms of aboriginal Australia.

“Second world” cultures were formed by the great monotheisms such as Judaism and Christianity. Rieff called this canopy faith – an interactive relationship with God. God gives humans responsibilities and brackets their behavior with thou-shalt-nots. For example, in the Christian tradition, the marriage of Christ and his church forms the sacred canopy. Christ is God. He is holy, which carries the meaning of “Other.” Christ is “other than” the bride, the church. This shapes how marriage is viewed. Only a permanent, monogamous, “other” (the Greek hetero) sexual relationship fits under the canopy. Everything else is prohibited. This is how first and second world cultures understood the canopy forming healthy boundaries.

Rieff said second world cultures began to collapse in 1882 with the publication of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science,” where he announced the death of God. With no God, the sacred canopy collapsed. This gave rise to “third world” cultures. The canopy became a fiction. But Nietzsche said this collapse came with a cost.

If there is no God, life has no transcendent meaning. With no meaning there’s no morality. Transcendent virtues were replaced by personal “values.”3 This gave rise to a word coined by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler and popularized in the 1920s – “lifestyle.” Freedom became individuals making whatever “lifestyle choices” they wanted to. Denying anyone the right to make such choices was considered cruel and unloving.

Rieff called third world cultures “deathworks.” They still have a few prohibitions, such as paying taxes and obeying traffic signals. But the institutions essential for supporting the American experiment in self-government collapse because no one can utter Thou Shalt Not. The founders considered marriage to be one of those institutions vital for sustaining the experiment. There is no evidence that they considered marriage to be anything other than a permanent, monogamous, heterosexual relationship.

I’m fully aware that in making this judgment, some will say I sound judgmental of others’ values. But there’s a world of difference between judging and being judgmental. To be judgmental is to have an excessively critical point of view. Sound judgments are what football referees do. If a ref judges that a runner did not cross the goal line, he or she prohibits six points from being awarded to the offense. It’d be the death of the game if officials’ judgments were taken as personal values rather than binding prohibitions. The same goes for societies. Prohibitions promote virtues.

Rieff summed up today’s culture as “this idea that men need not submit to any power – higher or lower – other than their own.”4 It’s actually the death of a culture. Lincoln operated in a second, not third, world culture. That’s why his negations stand in stark contrast to what we so often hear today. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln cited several prohibitions, including, “but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” That phrase is an allusion to Matthew 7:1, where Jesus says, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Jesus wasn’t against sound judgments. He was opposed to being judgmental. So was Lincoln. This could be why “Lincoln” appeals to moviegoers on a visceral level. In watching the 16th President refer to the thou-shalt-nots, many viewers are listening to a language that unknowingly stirs longings for a world that’s largely disappeared.

1 Douglas L. Wilson, “The Power of the Negative,” The Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2013, p. D5.
1 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006).
1 Gertrude Himmelfarb, “From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values,” Law and Order, May/June 1995 Issue
1 Phillip Rieff, The Feeling Intellect (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991), p. 280.


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  1. Kenneth Burke’s articulation of negation as the rhetorical impetus for moral behavior is insightful.

    What is interesting to me is that those who espouse a “personal value system” that condemns the use of “thou shall nots” within public discourse are making the argument by way of using the same rhetorical device.

    The argument ends up being “you shall not say ‘you shall not’.” It is interesting that a rhetorical device that is employed to achieve behaviors based on moral boundaries is also used to break down those moral boundaries.

  2. Fascinating. I have not come across Rieff. I appreciate his thoughts and observations, though! Thank you for your thoughtful essay on this tetchy subject, Metz. It’s a very different – and illuminating – perspective.

    [silent thought ensuing] 🙂

  3. One additional note. I remember Winston Churchill’s wry observation: “Alexander the Great once remarked that the peoples of Asia were slaves because they had not learned to pronounce the word ‘No!’”

  4. If I understand correctly, although the first and second cultures are very different each had a collective sense of ought which esteemed, promoted, encourage, rewarded, and punished certain behaviors – which formed their distinct cultures.

    However, in the third culture there essentially is no ought because everyone does as they please. Since there are no consequences, then all behavior is treated equally as personal preference. In a sense, we become a people without culture because there is nothing distinct about our ought or our behavior?

    Much appreciate your influence.

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