Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
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On a memorable day in human history, February 12, 1809, two babies were born an ocean apart: Abraham Lincoln in a one-room Kentucky log cabin; Charles Darwin on an English country estate. It was a time of backward-seeming notions, when almost everyone still accepted the biblical account of creation as the literal truth and authoritarianism as the most natural and viable social order. But by the time both men died, the world had changed: ordinary people understood that life on earth was a story of continuous evolution, and the Civil War had proved that a democracy could fight for principles and endure. And with these signal insights much else had changed besides. Together, Darwin and Lincoln had become midwives to the spirit of a new world, a new kind of hope and faith.
Searching for the men behind the icons of emancipation and evolution, Adam Gopnik shows us, in this captivating double life, Lincoln and Darwin as they really were: family men and social climbers; ambitious manipulators and courageous adventurers; the living husband, father, son, and student behind each myth. How do we reconcile Lincoln, the supremely good man we know, with the hardened commander who wittingly sent tens of thousands of young soldiers to certain death? Why did the relentlessly rational Darwin delay publishing his “Great Idea” for almost twenty years? How did inconsolable grief at the loss of a beloved child change each man? And what comfort could either find—for himself or for a society now possessed of a sadder, if wiser, understanding of our existence? Such human questions and their answers are the stuff of this book.
Above all, we see Lincoln and Darwin as thinkers and writers—as makers and witnesses of the great change in thought that marks truly modern times: a hundred years after the Enlightenment, the old rule of faith and fear finally yielding to one of reason, argument, and observation not merely as intellectual ideals but as a way of life; the judgment of divinity at last submitting to the verdicts of history and time. Lincoln considering human history, Darwin reflecting on deep time—both reshaped our understanding of what life is and how it attains meaning. And they invented a new language to express that understanding. Angels and Ages is an original and personal account of the creation of the liberal voice—of the way we live now and the way we talk at home and in public. Showing that literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization, Adam Gopnik reveals why our heroes should be possessed by the urgency of utterance, obsessed by the need to see for themselves, and endowed with the gift to speak for us all.
him; that he ranks with the crocodile and the reptile; that man, with body and soul, is a matter of dollars and cents.” Once again the higher argument—about popular sovereignty and its meaning—is treated at length and then condensed into monosyllables that would still be startling today: the real proposition at stake is that man, with body and soul, is a matter of dollars and cents. Some of his revisionist critics have tried to make Lincoln seem indifferent to slavery, or even a racist. The
wings, so different from those in the gallinaceous order, the irregular manner of flight, and plaintive cry uttered at the moment of the rising, recall the idea of a snipe.” Looking at the amateur Ruskin's sketches of Venetian architecture, we are similarly wowed by the filigree and surface rendering, the love for ornament and chase work. It is certainly true that he did not have yet a fully developed theory until years later—Frank J. Sulloway has brilliantly disproved the idea that Darwin had
but the dinner provokes a concept larger than just their enumeration. Sensation becomes conceptual thought. The mind turns good dinners into happy days. It was in 1838, amid this quiet riot of thought, that Darwin had the two experiences that locked him in place for the next two decades. On the one hand, he read Thomas Malthus on population, and “got a theory,” or a guide to it; on the other, he decided to get married, to his cousin Emma, which would lead, for a time, away from theory
the best, writing to Darwin, after they were engaged, “You will be [after our marriage] forming theories about me & if I am cross or out of temper you will only consider ‘What does that prove’. Which will be a very grand & philosophical way of considering it.” But that she was passionately religious, a woman of faith, there's no doubt. They exchanged letters on the great questions. It seems clear that Charles confided in her his hopes: his belief that he had stumbled on a fundamental discovery
are not just what professors would call rhetorical strategies, things that work. They are a circuit of feelings and implicit themes, of voice, that makes The Origin not just a monument in science but a monument in human thought and feeling. One senses the originality of mind, how the stormy, sarcastic, quickwitted Darwin we know from his notebooks and letters, who worked in “mental rioting,” becomes the narrator we know from his book. Behind a strong style there is always a human pressure. As