Thursday, March 5, 2009

Angels and Ages

Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
Adam Gopnik (2009, Alfred A. Knopf)

Starting from the coincidence of their birth on the same day, two hundred years ago last month, Angels and Ages illuminates the lives and continuing influence of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. The existing bodies of work on each man are dauntingly voluminous, and Adam Gopnik thoughtfully points out some of the treasures of the literature, but this ‘short book’ is a gem in its own right.
Their shared birthday aside, there are pl enty of contrasts to point out--Darwin, the Englishman, was a comfortable country gentleman and scholar; Lincoln, the American, a hardscrabble backwoods boy who aspired to live in a nice house in town. Their fields of endeavor might seem worlds apart as well, but Gopnik says that they made contributions of the same kind: “Each, using a form of technical language--the fine, detailed language of natural science for Darwin, the tedious language of legal reasoning for Lincoln--arrived at a new ideal of liberal eloquence. This was a revolution in rhetoric that we still live with, and within, rhetoric remade by a suspicion of rhetoric.”
Gopnik goes on to show us the particular evidence for that contention, and why it matters. He loves the mountains of facts about earthworms and pigeons that Darwin built, which made his conclusions so indisputable. He admires Darwin’s temperament, and his integrity in scientific argument. “Darwin invented, cannily, a special, pleading, plaintive tone--believe me, I know that the counterview not only is strong but sounds a lot saner, to you and me both. And yet...” The counterviews Darwin invented and overcame were as thorough as they were honest, and therein lies the continuing interest and power of The Origin of Species.
Gopnik likewise appreciates Lincoln’s peculiar rhetorical gift, of spelling out a lot of legal detail, and then summarizing it in memorable monosyllables, “the urge, natural to a lawyer, to say something hard one last time in short, flat words.” He also shows how Lincoln labored through his whole career to make reason and the rule of law sovereign, as against the romantic and violent code of honor that prevailed in the southern states. “When Lincoln proposed a cult of the law, he meant it, and we miss the thread of continuity in his life if we miss the passion of his belief in dispassion. 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.”
For both Lincoln and Darwin, the commitment to reason and argument tended to drive out religion, in its then-traditional form. “Lincoln and Darwin take opposing trajectories toward two very near places, and rare is the modern person who hasn’t, at some time or other, visited both: private mysticism touched by public secularism, shining inward faith in tension with scientific skepticism.”
In their day, and partly through their doing, the world was being changed, undergoing “the slow emergence from a culture of faith and fear to one of observation and argument, and from a belief in the judgment of divinity to a belief in the verdicts of history and time.” Gopnik’s final essay, about what that change means, is extraordinarily humane and beautiful; his conclusions, like those of his subjects, are honestly come by and passionately felt.
I often read books so that you won’t have to, but this is one you won’t want to miss.

Any Good Books email,
March 2009

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