Saturday, April 26, 2014

Wisdom Of The Week

In fact, the Gettysburg Address must rank high among the greatest speeches anywhere. It is right up there with the Apology of Socrates and the Funeral Oration of Pericles, with the added benefit that Lincoln's was actually written and delivered by him, whereas the speeches by Socrates and Pericles come to us secondhand, so to speak, from Plato and Thucydides. Those ancient Greek speeches may or (more likely) may not have actually been delivered in the literary form in which they have become immortal. By contrast, Lincoln's speech arrived at its fame without editorial assistance. 

Fascinating piece by Diana Schuab on Lincoln at Gettysburg (an excellent lesson on how to speak and write to move people and get things done):

The Gettysburg Address is emphatically a war speech — a speech designed to rally the North to stay the course. Many college students today do not pick up on this fact. Not knowing much history, but aware that Lincoln is beloved for his kindliness and his summons "to bind up the nation's wounds," they tend to read Lincoln's Second Inaugural back into the Gettysburg Address. They assume that he is commemorating all the fallen (and they like him for his supposed inclusiveness, especially in contrast to the bombast and arrogance of Pericles). Perhaps their misreading might be excused, since a most unusual war speech it is.

Lincoln never mentions the enemy, or rather he mentions them only by implication. When he speaks of "those who here gave their lives that that nation might live," his audience then would have been acutely aware that there were others who gave their lives that that nation might die, that it might no longer be the United States. The cemetery that was dedicated at Gettysburg was exclusively a Union cemetery. In fact, in the weeks before the dedication, the townspeople had witnessed the re-interment process, as thousands of the battle dead were exhumed from the shallow graves in which they had hastily been placed by those same local citizens back in the sweltering days of July. As they were uncovered, Union bodies were painstakingly identified and separated from Confederate bodies. While the rebels were simply reburied, coffinless, deeper in the ground where they were found (to be reclaimed later by their home states), the loyal dead were removed, further sorted into their military units, and placed in coffins and tidy lines, awaiting honorable burial in the new cemetery.

Lincoln's abstraction from the enemy highlights the very abstract character of the entire speech. No specifics are given. There isn't a proper noun to be found, with the single exception of God. Thus, there is no mention of Gettysburg, just "a great battle-field." There is no mention of America, just "this continent." There is no mention of the United States, just "a new nation" and "that nation" and "this nation." There is no mention of the parties to the conflict, no North or South, no Union or Confederacy, just "a great civil war." Lincoln speaks of "our fathers," but no names are given. And although the opening clause, "four score and seven years ago," does refer to a specific date, Lincoln has obscured it by giving the lapse of time in Biblical language and then by requiring the listener to subtract 87 from 1863 in order to arrive at the date of 1776.

The tremendous abstraction or generality of the speech is part of what explains its ability to speak to people in different eras and cultures who have no connection to the events at Gettysburg, and yet feel, as Lincoln might say, that they are "blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh" of those spoken of there, or more accurately of those spoken to there. The addressees of the speech are identified simply as "we," "the living." Refusing to dwell long among the dead, since words are inadequate to the act of consecration, Lincoln redeploys his words, turning them from mere saying into their own form of deed. He summons the living to "the unfinished work" and swears them to "the great task remaining." He turns an elegy into a call of duty.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln calls upon the living to resolve three things: one, "that these dead shall not have died in vain"; two, "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom"; and three, "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Although all three resolutions are, as they must be, in the future tense, the first and third are also formulated in the negative. We have two "shall nots" and a "shall" (again suggestive of a balance between the conserving and progressing tendencies).

The first "shall not" looks backward. We must push on to victory for the sake of the fallen. We do this in remembrance of them, so their sacrifice will not have been needless. Lincoln binds his listeners not just to the fathers in piety, but devotedly to one another: the brave men "here," the honored dead "here." F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded his short story "The Swimmers" by saying that America, "having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men....It was a willingness of the heart." Of course, there are times when more "patriot graves" are not the solution. The reason more of that "last full measure of devotion" is called for "here" (repeated eight times) is entwined with "that cause" for which "these honored dead" died.

Skipping for the moment over the second resolution, the final resolution explains "that cause" as the fate of self-government. We continue the fight so that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Although Lincoln uses the future tense, his words do not soar into the empyrean. Not perishing is the aim. Lincoln is concerned as much with the survival as the perfection of democracy. Yet, survival isn't a small aim; it might even be earth shaking, since the Union preserved will constitute the needed proof that a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition of equality can indeed endure. The Union has moral content and is worth saving.

What do Lincoln's weighty prepositions (government of, by, and for the people) tell us about that moral content? In Lockean terms, government of the people refers to the initial formation of the body politic — legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed; government by the people refers to the specific form that consent takes in a constitutional democracy, where there is ongoing consent through regular elections by the people; finally, government for the people means for their benefit — government must pursue the common good.

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