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[Welcome Adam Gopnik, and Host Scott McLemee - bevw]

Whether by Providence or a random swerve of the atoms, it happened that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin both were born on February 12, 1809.  The bicentennial of this pregnant coincidence is the occasion for Adam Gopnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. The title alludes to a resonant ambiguity over just what  Edwin Stanton said at the president’s deathbed in 1865. Did his secretary of war commend Lincoln “to the angels” or “to the ages”? To whatever remained of the old hierarchical cosmos, or to the record of great but strictly human endeavor?

The New Yorker contributor draws parallels between the bearded eminences through a set of short essays that are part biographical sketches, part haute vulgarisation of cultural and scientific history. Lincoln and Darwin are, writes Gopnik, “symbols of the two pillars of the society we live in: one representing liberal democracy, the other the human sciences – one a faith in armed republicanism and government of the people, the other a belief that objective knowledge about human history and the human condition, who we are and how we got here, exists.” They are heroic figures in the creation of a liberal, modern, secular sensibility. (Which, let me add, may have something to do with why nobody really thinks of the Republicans as the “party of Lincoln” any more; and we know all too well what its base thinks of Darwin.)

The men also shared a certain plainspoken eloquence – the product of a hardscrabble lucidity that bears no resemblance to faux folksiness. They had the ability to marshal small facts and precise observations – whether about the breeding of pigeons or the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – into arguments with momentous implications. The common element of Darwin’s and Lincoln’s style was, as Gopnik characterizes it, “the writer’s faith in plain English, his hope that people’s minds and hearts can be altered by the slow crawl of fact as much as the long reach of revelation.” 

Darwin’s role in challenging “the long reach of revelation” is well known, and still widely resented. But the challenge his research posed to religious orthodoxy was a source of personal anxiety long before the public felt its impact: Darwin’s beloved wife was pious, and the dread of giving her pain meant that the ideas in “On the Origin of Species” spent an unusually long time simmering. (Unabashed laureate of bourgeois domesticity that he is, Gopnik seems in his element when evoking the happiness of the gentleman-scientist surrounded by his brood.) While his own faith dwindled down to a stoic agnosticism, Darwin left it to others to draw out the radical implications of his work.

Lincoln’s religious beliefs – or, possibly, his lack of them – is a far more vexed question. He seems to have started out with a tough-minded skepticism, rather like that of so many of the Founding Fathers, whose conspicuous failure to mention God in the Constitution did not go unnoticed by the Christian Right of their day. But by the second inaugural, we find a reference to the deity that seems, at first, too awe-inspiring and wrenching to be ambiguous: “if God will that… [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

There is, however, a tragic undercurrent to this invocation of the Almighty amidst the horrors of war that is well this side of the Biblical sweetening of a Rumsfeld memo. Lincoln “found no serenity in the idea that he was doing God’s work,” writes Gopnik. “His point in the second inaugural is not that he is doing God’s will but that God’s will is going to be done, no matter what Lincoln does…. He came increasingly to believe in Providence, but it was a Providence that acted mercilessly through history, not one that regularly interceded with compassion. That was left to men, and presidents.”

What Darwin and Lincoln finally share, then, by Gopnik’s account, is this challenging sense of life – one marked by a willingness to accept our place in a world that seems, at times, to be propelled by something we can call progress, while also hitting us over the head at regular intervals with proof that monstrosity remains very much in our nature, if not in the nature of things.

This is not a faith. It is, rather, a realization – and one that is not quite consoling, though Gopnik does try to extract from it a kind of liberal humanist spirituality. His final pages are more than slightly reminiscent of certain essays by E. B. White. “Intimations of the numinous may begin and end in us,” runs Gopnik’s closing dithyramb to modernity, “but they are as real as descriptions of the natural; Sunday feelings are as real as Monday facts. On this point, Darwin and Lincoln, along with all the other poets of modern life, would have agreed. There is more to man than the breath in his body, if only the hat on his head, and the hope in his heart.”

A sentiment for the age of Obama, to be sure, or at least for its Sunday moods. Politics tends to give less quarter to sentiment on Monday morning – though perhaps we can make an exception for a three-day weekend.