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
Published in September 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 men lived and the prophetic power of their ideas. Both Lincoln and Darwin themselves, however, and the societies in which they lived remain curiously remote from each other. Here the nationality of the reader becomes important. For an American reader, the deathbed saying of Lincoln’s friend Stanton may be already familiar—and contested—territory. Did he say “Now he belongs with the ages” or “Now he belongs with the angels”? One can perhaps glimpse, as Gopnik puts it with his usual mix of velleity and straightforwardness, “just visible beneath the diaphanous middle of the references, the tracings of an ideological difference.” But this diaphanous quibble on angels and ages seems a slight structure on which to raise a pin, let alone a book. Lincoln was a politician, and more than that an executive: a president who made things happen through his actions. His language is part of his actions (he was by training a lawyer) but his powers exceeded his rhetoric. Darwin, on the other hand, was a private man of science: an observer, a traveller, a writer whose intensely close scrutiny of the living world and the vanished world of the extinct found issue in his writing, and in that alone. Darwin’s writing is the ground of his achievement. Lincoln’s achievement was reached through more public means: through warfare and legislation. Gopnik writes with charm and empathy. His summary sentences persuade and surprise: “If one word could sum up Lincoln’s character, it would be shrewd; if one word, Darwin’s, it would be sensitive.” His limber asides draw on our present day and he can call in Shakespeare or Galileo to make a point without change of register. This equable tone is very much part of the book’s own persuasion. We know this man. He speaks like a friend. He is the liberal voice—and it is a voice that recognises its own uncertainties. Perhaps it was because of this civilised self-awareness that I found the chapters on Darwin immensely sympathetic, in key with the man described. But I also know far more about Darwin than I do about Lincoln—and I still found Lincoln a remote and puzzling figure when I had finished reading the work. Again, this may be a matter not only of personal ignorance but of history and nationality. Other people’s icons remain mysteries. But it may also have to do with the thorough presence of Darwin’s achievement in his words, whereas Lincoln’s achievement found other forms: “a faith in armed republicanism and government of the people.” Adam Gopnik is intensely responsive to language that makes ideas live. As he writes of the Origin of Species, “it’s a book that makes the whole world vibrate.” At its best, his writing does that too. He is thoughtful, even dutiful, in recognising the contradictions and anxieties bequeathed to us by his two chosen heroes. He is unabashed in the face of those who scorn “great man” history, since what he seeks to show is the intimacy between the personal and the whole of a society. The happy chance that Darwin and Lincoln share a birth date may not bind them or their societies close. But it does here yield a number of striking insights into what we still demand of our forerunners. We want them to be like us, as well as to exceed us. Adam Gopnik well grasps the resentment as well as the acclaim that Darwin, and even Lincoln, still provoke.