Angels and Ages

Born on the same day, Lincoln and Darwin shared an eloquence that changed the world.

Angels and Ages By Adam Gopnik Knopf 211 pp., $24.95

Had they not shared the same birth date, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin would still merit comparative study as twin giants of modern thought. Both thrust upon mankind a new understanding of itself. That, at least, is the contention of Adam Gopnik in Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life.

Gopnik casts fresh and honest light on two figures distorted by years of excessive comment, quotation, and ideological appropriation. We miss the significance of their summits, Gopnik writes, if we focus on only emancipation and evolution. Each man’s larger legacy, in fact, is the distinctly modern means in which he delivered his argument.

Today, we tend to recall Lincoln’s poetic outbursts – “the mystic chords of memory” – but we forget the narrow legalism that marked much of his writing. Lincoln sought to substitute dispassionate reason and obedience to the law for the zeal and “culture of honor” violence that too often passed for politics in his day.

Lincoln, Gopnik writes, believed that right procedures yielded right results: “The law existed in order to remedy and cure old evils; the right way to cure this one of slavery, which was fixed in law, was by using the law to fix it. Seceding from the Union was seceding from the law – and law meant the possibility of change without violence.”

As the Emancipation Proclamation showed, the breathtaking end of Lincoln’s vision was reached by the unromantic road of legal argument.

Darwin understood this approach all too well. Put yourself in his shoes. You have a shocking theory, one that will upend core assumptions about God and man (and greatly upset your pious wife). What would you do? You’d wait two decades to refine your work. You’d anticipate objections. And as you wrote, you’d commit a cardinal sin of journalism by “burying the lede.”

You would, in other words, do as Darwin did, when he published “The Origin of Species” in 1859. It is Gopnik notes, not just a masterwork of science, but a masterpiece of rhetoric and human feeling.

Darwin disarms his readers with reams of fascinating observations. Point by painstaking point, page by page, he builds his case. Then – bam! – like Emeril with his garlic, Darwin knocks readers over with staggering conclusions.

A prime example appears in his later book, “The Descent of Man.” After devoting hundreds of pages to details about birds, he drops what Gopnik calls the most explosive sentence in the English language: “We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears....”

In the hands of a lesser writer, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the mutability of species might have been laughed to scorn. Pity the messenger who declares man to be, not the noblest work of God, but the chance product of eons of time, sex, and death. That this claim was absorbed as conventional science so quickly is a credit to his eloquence.

Lincoln and Darwin wrote well, Gopnik says, because they saw clearly. And their vision altered our understanding of history. Previously, we saw it vertically, from hell to heaven. Ever since, we see it horizontally, meaning “we are invested in our future as much as in our afterlife, and in our children more than in our ancestors.”

At bottom, Gopnik suggests, the careful logic of Lincoln and Darwin assured the survival of nothing less than scientific reasoning and democratic politics.

Gopnik’s thesis “is that literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization.” It’s an ambitious one, and he defends it well. But he falls into the postmodern trap of placing more emphasis on process and style than on the content of ideas. And his comparison lacks contrast.

As thinkers, were Lincoln and Darwin really so alike? Gopnik sees both men as practitioners of induction, which rejects reasoning from first principles for the truth-coaxing power of close scrutiny of things as they are.

Induction is a powerful method, but Gopnik offers no critique. Has not reasoning from effect to cause, as Darwin did, sometimes missed the mark? For instance, Confederate leaders claimed advanced science proved “the Negro” to be inferior. (Darwin vigorously disputed this.) As a deductive thinker, Lincoln’s rebuke – indeed, his politics – radiated from the central sun of a single proposition: All men are created equal.

Gopnik also wrongly conflates democratic process with moral purpose. For Lincoln, right procedures did not yield right results; righteousness did. Was that not a central theme of the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Lincoln’s fidelity was less to legal codes – he suspended habeas corpus – than to the Union itself, and to America’s founding ideals.

The apostle Paul says we see through a glass, darkly. By showing us the nature of law, Lincoln gave us a vision more spiritual. Darwin, instead, looked to the law of nature and offered a view more material. The flaw in Gopnik’s elegant book is that he doesn’t denote the difference.

Josh Burek is the Monitor’s Opinion editor.

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