According to Adam Gopnik, Lincoln and Darwin shared not only a birthday but also a linguistic gift central to their greatness. Are words really so powerful?by Gillian Beer / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life By Adam Gopnik (Quercus, £16.99)
Two men, born on the same day in different countries and circumstances: one a public figure and perforce a military leader, the other a natural historian brooding towards a theory that transformed thinking. Is there any significance to be found in their near-simultaneous births?
This present year, in which both Darwin and Lincoln are celebrated 200 years after 12th February 1809, has certainly tempted historians to seek out connections and counterfactuals. And it has also provoked Adam Gopnik to seek out their current significance. Do they each have purchase still? President Obama has claimed Lincoln as a model or forerunner in the search for a society in the US that will be equitable and open. Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been vindicated by the discovery of DNA and its consequences. But these affirmations do not register the extent of the meanings that each man has for his society and the world beyond.
Adam Gopnik finds the core of their powers in their eloquence—an eloquence that cannot be skimmed off from their ideas. The persuasive force of each man is at the heart of his achievement. And the key likeness between them, in Gopnik’s analysis, is their access to the resources of the English language and their powers of making fresh meaning: meaning that can even encompass contradictory outcomes. Each of them is, for instance, a liberal figure. But the burden of liberalism is its need to accept not only hope but catastrophe, and this bears heavily upon both men. Here, Gopnik defends the art of rhetoric—so often smeared as mere tricks—and places eloquence at the centre of liberal civilisation: “A commitment to persuasion is in itself a central liberal principle. New ways of thinking demand new kinds of eloquence. Our world rests on science and democracy, on seeing and saying; it rests on thinking new thoughts and getting them heard by a lot of people.”
Inevitably, other far less benign examples of the uses of persuasion will spring to mind. But Gopnik’s point—that telling and declaring must be a shared, responsive activity—is well made. It allows him to examine the language of The Origin of Species and of Lincoln’s speeches in often intricate detail, and to demonstrate how this language is profoundly implicated in the fabric of the lives the two…