How the bestselling book given to the class of 2013 turns on its head everything the Great Emancipator stood for
By: Charles Johnson
Posted: 11/30/09Breaking with tradition, this year's freshmen class Athenaeum speaker was not a member of the faculty, but Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker. On September 10th, Gopnik spoke to the Class of 2013 about his new book, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (2009). President Gann and Dean of Students, Jeff Huang, presented each member of the Class of 2013 with Mr. Gopnik's book. Although the book was sold at a discount of 40 percent, at a cover price of $24.95, 224 pages, such a collective experience for all 282 freshmen certainly didn't come cheap - and that isn't including the honorarium, lodging, or travel that Mr. Gopnik received as part of the deal. I wonder at the expense at a time when the college is purporting to cut costs, when it seems, from conversations with at least twenty freshmen, that few have gotten beyond the first chapter. Indeed it is from such conversations that I resolved to read it and see what ideas there are to be seriously considered.
Perhaps we should be grateful that Dean Huang decided to bring someone more serious to the Athenaeum. In 2007, there were no fewer than three speakers that dealt with the question of "burying the N-word." Apparently, my freshman mind thought, such a word was casually thrown around campus and needed an intervention of sorts. And efforts to create a common experience for the freshman class are to be commended, but one wonders why they can't take place in the curriculum. Isn't that, after all, one of the points of a liberal arts education? To create a shared basis of knowledge?
When asked why he invited Mr. Gopnik, Dean Huang wrote in an email that the college was looking for a book that was "interesting, recent, and relevant to new students." In a letter to the freshmen class, however, Dean Huang recommended that the students go to YouTube and watch a short video in which Gopnik discusses his book's theme: how Lincoln and Darwin, born on the same day in 1809, are emissaries of modern times.
The timeliness of the book's subject matter notwithstanding, its presentation by the Dean of Students endorses, at least, in some sense, the ideas presented. Here a few more questions present themselves. If, as Dean Huang attests in his letter to the class of 2013, the purpose of Mr. Gopnik's visit and the dissemination of his book is to create "an intellectual community," why not invite Claremont's own professor emeritus, Harry V. Jaffa, who has spent the past half century wrestling with the ideas of Abraham Lincoln, and is indeed regarded as arguably the world's greatest living scholar of our 16th President? Yes, Professor Jaffa has aged, but as this author and the Claremont Independent's Editor -in-Chief can attest from a shared independent study with him this semester, Jaffa's mind - and his pen - are as sharp as ever. Chapman University brought him for the anniversary of Lincoln's birth where he, now into his nineties, is a visiting lecturer.
Gopnik, neither a Lincoln, nor a Darwin scholar, is a controversial and wide-ranging writer: In the wake of Virginia Tech, for instance, he wrote in The New Yorker that "there is no reason that any private citizen in a democracy should own a handgun. At some point, that simple truth will register." Apparently Mr. Gopnik has forgotten that old self-evident truth that man has the right to life and liberty, the defense of which is "a right which the founders established in the Second Amendment" and which the Supreme Court recently recognized as such in D.C. v. Heller. Yet this is not just liberal high-mindedness on Gopnik's part. It betrays his belief in a utopia where crime is waning and where neither the outlaws, nor the law-abiding have the means of forcing violence upon one another. Such a world is unimaginable, even on its own terms, and certainly in the worlds of Darwin and Lincoln, who both saw cruelty inflicted upon their fellow men by the institution of slavery.
It is in addressing this evil that Gopnik's book falls flat. On the final page, Gopnik argues that both Darwin and Lincoln gave us the idea of "reason." He sloppily quotes Lincoln's Lyceum speech of 1838, "Reason . . . must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense," as some kind of post-modern argument for arguing for its own sake, unmoored from the speech, Lincoln's defense of law, natural law, and the Constitution, and the formulation of them into what he called a "political religion."
Perhaps this inability to grasp what reason is and how it should be used is the biggest error with the book. Reason, for Lincoln, was applying the old, timeless truths of past to the real political problems of the present. Such a reason was limited by the extent to which man could ever really know natural law. But for Darwin, there was a kind of arrogance: Man just by observing nature, could, through the use of reason and science, discern his place and purpose in the world.
Unsurprisingly then, both men reached profoundly different conclusions and represent differing poles of political thought. Lincoln believed in the natural human equality of man, an equality he saw as emanating from the country's foundational document the Declaration of Independence and its reference to a God of Nature. Lincoln believed, as he made clear in a speech at Independence Hall in 1861, that he never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the Declaration of Independence" and that it gave "liberty, not alone to this country, but hope to the world." In so arguing, Lincoln hoped that we might be, in Franklin's, parlance, an "empire of liberty," and hoped in the opening of the civil war, that we "have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
Gopnik however, ignores the importance of the Declaration's self evident truths entirely. He writes that "Lincoln chose [civil war]," and that we "see the choice as both morally right and historically successful, but we see it as morally right in part because it was historically successful." He questions whether "American rise to global dominance" resulting from the preservation of the Union, "has necessarily been a good thing." But what a good thing it has been, as the millions of people liberated throughout the world can attest. Had the Union not been preserved, it is plausible that slavery would never have been outlawed. Notwithstanding the current administration, a strong America has always been a powerful advocate for such "modern" ideals as peace and human rights. Not for nothing do Iranian protestors write their signs for news crews in English.
This rhetorical sleight of hand exposes the weakness of Gopnik's thinking: according to his interpretation of history, he can't say slavery is bad; he can only say that history has moved on. But the reality is that slavery or despotism could very easily triumph in any time or age - and there unless you can judge things according to Lincoln's brand of reason you cannot really say that is bad. In this view, might really does make right. Gopnik's Progressivist reading of Lincoln actually, in a perverse way, excuses all of the evils of the past.
Lincoln himself understood just the opposite. In his Cooper Union address, Lincoln encourages us to have "faith" that right makes might. This coincidence of what is "right" and what is powerful is based partially on chance. It is not historically guaranteed - only a god could make this so. So Lincoln does not say what is right will be what is mighty. The view that right and might harmonize is a historicist view. Lincoln, however, rejects this fundamental idea of historical development. Right and might will never be one and the same - the best is that we can work to make it so and that luck ("faith") is on our side. In this view, tyranny is a constant threat as are the depravities that could befall us were all mankind to rebuke the "better angels of our nature" in favor of mob rule.
Darwin, by contrast, saw man as nothing more than an animal - an animal endowed with certain virtues, no doubt, but an animal all the same. Although flashes of his thinking can be seen in On the Origins of Species, Darwin made his case more seriously in his book, The Descent of Man, in which he argued that morality - and some twenty or so virtues associated with it - is a byproduct of natural selection. These bourgeois virtues - courage, honor, thrift, charity, compassion, among them - that we prize, aren't the product of human reason moving toward the good, but are simply vestiges of a never ending process at work. Marriage is preferable to polygamy; thrift to theft; courage to cowardice, only because of the selection pressure at work, not for any intrinsic worth in and of themselves. In so arguing, Darwin points to Hobbes as the originator of modernity as the only thing worthy of the base animalistic notion is self-preservation. Nature makes might right, not as Lincoln would have it - that right makes might.
So, in reality, the two men couldn't be further apart. Lincoln represents the idea that nature is eternal, and that we can judge between right and wrong; Darwin represents the view that there really is a "modern times" fundamentally different from all other ages because history is always changing. Darwin's view ultimately rejects Lincoln's rationality and the ability to distinguish between right or wrong. For Lincoln, human beings can have an end we can aim toward - virtue. For Darwin, we just aim for preservation, in Gopnik's world of individual insignificance. The modern liberal equivalent of this goal is comfortable self-perseveration - though we aim for it for all peoples because compassion, which the ancients rightfully understood as a passion, has now been elevated to the status of virtue.
What does this tell us? The College's administration fails to see the difference in thinking between Darwin and Lincoln. Indeed if we teach our students to understand Lincoln in light of the Darwinian ideal, we will fail to see nature as Lincoln did, and in so doing we will have forgotten the man who breathed a "new birth of freedom" into the bedrock principle of our society - that all men are created equal.
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