Lincoln’s life as example

Lincoln’s life as example

Thursday, February 6, 2020

5:55 a.m. Very well. Yesterday you indicated that we would spend some time using Lincoln as an example of human life’s significance “beyond the individual and beyond the 3D,” whatever that means in practice. It ought to be enjoyable to spend time in the presence of the idea of my favorite statesman.

That isn’t quite what you mean, but we understand your meaning, perhaps better than you do. And this is relevant, for we are not intending to look at the biography of a statesman, however great, however favorite. We wish to examine the human condition, and to do so it is convenient to use an example well known enough to require less exposition than explanation. Lincoln has the advantage of being

  • Relatively recent, historically, and therefore copiously documented;
  • Long enough ago for many aspects of his life to have come to light after all the players are gone;
  • Well studied in his public effects;
  • Equally well studied in his private life;
  • A strongly polarizing figure, not by his intent but by what he stood for, what he accomplished, and – not least – by the feelings he precipitated among people’s opposite numbers.

I take that to mean, the fact that someone’s enemies loved Lincoln made Lincoln all the more powerful as a focus of one’s hatred.

Yes, although we may need to spell this out. Additionally, advantages include

  • The working out, over 150 years, of the immediate consequences of his public life.
  • The maturing of a culture’s way of conceptualizing its existence.
  • This work we are engaged in, looking behind the scenes at human life.

That’s a tall order, and I had the very distinct sense that none of it was stated very clearly. Was that just us getting focused as we went, or wat it inherent in the difficulty of holding many things together while expressing them.

Closer to this: Holding many things in mind while consciously fishing for the rest of them. You were having to do the fishing, in a way, because of the structure of bullets you imposed.

I imposed?

We could say, “You intuited,” but that wouldn’t be quite right. You were intuiting the content and attempting to smooth out the structure. And by the way if you would establish a separate subdirectory for these kinds of asides on process, you would find that the notes you wish you had would accumulate naturally and easily.

I’ll make a note of it.

So, yes, it is a little vague. Let’s try again, supplementing the original glance at the agenda.

  • Lincoln’s life was long enough ago for a good perspective to be available. His public life, his private life, the consequences of his life as lived among his contemporaries, is all on the record.
  • He interests people still, as a person, as a representative of various ideals, and as a figure of great importance in world history.

Other historical examples could be used but would have so much less known externally about them as to blur the focus. Joan of Arc, say. But we won’t let your interest pull us into compiling a list of historical figures.

Now here’s the thing, and of course here is where the ice gets thin. It is a particular advantage that you, Frank, in acting for us and with us in this work, feel able to communicate directly with Lincoln as example. That is, his life and your idea of his life resonate deeply within you. Otherwise it is merely looking at a statue. The living element of contact would be missing.

Not that you’re setting a difficult task or anything.

If you can’t bring yourself to do it after 14 years of practice, when do you suppose you would be able to attempt it?

You know full well the difficulty here.

Of course we do, only it is not so much a difficulty as a continued decision. You know how to do it; the question is, do you dare do so in public.

Yes it is, and it is not a silly or a shallow reluctance.

Of course not, but it is your choice. And we can proceed without the necessity arising, perhaps for some while.

Let’s do that.

All right, so we propose to reexamine 3D lives from three perspectives, using Abraham Lincoln’s life as an example well enough known to provide points of reference. These perspectives are:

  • A life as seen by its effects on its contemporaries and successors – and predecessors.
  • That same life as experienced from within the 3D consciousness.
  • That life as seen from a very different context.

And we’ve fuzzed it again, haven’t we.

Yes. It is difficult in new territory to apply symmetrical constructions on the fly.

Go slower?

Yes, but it is our problem too. You go slower, not attempting to get more than can be gotten; we must go smaller (so to speak), also not attempting to get more in one bite.

To continue, then –

Let’s explore aspect by aspect, and link them together later, rather than prospectively. That’s all we can think of to do.

So let’s start with the most familiar and work our way in, and down, and through. The world knows Lincoln as an American backwoodsman who became a world figure forever associated with preserving the Union in the face of an attempt to destroy it, and, equally, with ending the legal existence of Negro slavery in America after 250 years. Which aspect of his life one focuses on illustrate different parts of the American self-image, so deeply has his personal story gotten entwined into the national story.

  • He is the archetypal self-made man, beginning his life without any advantages of family, wealth, education, or natural social graces. As such, his story became a parable of the promise of America, which was read as self-government, economic and social fluidity, and opportunity for natural superiority to rise to the top. You might even say that the less true these assumptions became, the more important the true story of his life became, as a sort of promise.

Yes, and politicians claiming to have been born in a log cabin attached themselves to the myth that developed around him.

His life made it possible to invert the social prejudices he himself had suffered from, you see. If Lincoln could rise from what they called “the mudsills” of society into a position of greatness, by implication others could, and so one should hesitate to say that people’s birth determined their limits.

Again, more in theory than in practice.

Well, not exactly. Let’s say, for a while, and in certain political and economic conditions, Lincoln’s life story undermined classism in the way George Washington Carver’s life, say, undermined the assumptions behind racism. You see? Even those who called them the exceptions that proved the rule had to admit that they were exceptions, and that therefore what was taken to be a rule might be less valid than supposed.

It may be that this examination is going to go even slower than we expected, for it if goes in a certain manner, it may allow us to connect very different things. So rather than continue as we intended, we will confine ourselves today to the impact of “self-made man.” The larger context is:

  • Lincoln as 3D life in the “external” world.
  • Lincoln as an expression and development of his larger being.
  • Lincoln as he experienced himself.

But we may be a while examining the aspects of Lincoln as a 3D life in the world (that is, as a biography to be examined). The self-made man archetype is only one of those attached to his life. There are others, equally worth examining.

To give a few more minutes to this one:

America in the early 1800s was mostly unformed. Lincoln was born literally in frontier conditions, far from cities. He was born, after all, before the War of 1812. Kentucky had been a state only 20 years in 1812, and he was already three years old. There were few roads and no railroads. [The railroad had not yet been invented, or course.] The steamships that would transform the Mississippi River watershed were not yet in use. There was, of course, no electric telegraph, no easy means of communication with the East across the mountains. There were no great cities and few small ones, hence no newspapers, let alone magazines. The conditions of isolation would be hard to overestimate.

But counterbalancing this was all that raw opportunity. There was no pre-existing society, no network of social institutions, few complications, little law, few constraints. It wasn’t quite a state of nature, but it was a land in which everything had to be created from nothing, and in such circumstances the opportunity for self-redefinition was there. Someone moving to the old Midwest [north of the Ohio, east of the Mississippi] from the backwoods of Kentucky could better his condition. Someone moving there from the East – someone like young New Englander Stephen Douglas – could better his condition from a long head start. Still, the opportunity was there, and Abraham Lincoln was only one of many who seized it.

I see your point. His example was real, but if you didn’t keep your eye on the special circumstances in which it was lived, the example could be used to “demonstrate” things that weren’t true, and perhaps never had been, but at any rate were not true any longer.

Yet, it still applied, yes. As we say, this is going to take a while. Next time we’ll glance at another of the myths that Lincoln’s life became associated with.

Okay. Thanks as always.


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