What Lincoln and I have in common

(On the occassion of  The Word Warrior’s 999th post, Bento engages in the production of a self-indulgent mega-post of prodigeous word-count and no relevency to current events. Do not feel the need to humor him. In fact, he would probably be better of if you didn’t encourage him.)
Should the flashbulb used to produce this photograph been given the power of thought, it should surely assert that it flashed of its own free will, independent of the photographer's depression of the camera's button or ignition of the magnesium powder.

Should the flashbulb used to produce this photograph been given the power of thought, it should surely assert that it flashed of its own free will, independent of the depression of the camera's button or ignition of the magnesium powder.

Two Fridays ago, I arrived back in Milwaukee. As my parents turned bickeringly into the 16th street parking complex, I noticed a car with Illinois plates. Superimposed over the ghostly blue portrait of Lincoln was this vanity phrase:


Presumably, “free will.” Plastered were it was, across the face of our 16th president, it was an ironic, eerily apt insult to the memory and person of the man. For all his adult life, Abraham Lincoln was a strict determinist and denier of the will’s freedom.  

Allen C. Guelzo has written the seminal paper on this fact:

“I have all my life been a fatalist,” Lincoln informed his Illinois congressional ally, Isaac Arnold. “Mr. Lincoln was a fatalist,” remembered Henry Clay Whitney, one of his Springfield law clerks, “he believed … that the universe is governed by one uniform, unbroken, primordial law.” His Springfield law partner William Henry Herndon, likewise, affirmed that Lincoln “believed in predestination, foreordination, that all things were fixed, doomed one way or the other, from which there was no appeal.” Even Mary Todd Lincoln acknowledged that her husband had been guided by the conviction that “what is to be will be, and no cares of ours can arrest nor reverse the decree.” What this meant in practical terms, as Herndon discovered, was that Lincoln believed that “there was no freedom of the will,” that “men had no free choice.”

(Ed.’s Note: Guelzo text has hyperlinked footnotes, removed in block-quote for readability’s sake.)

I am probably more enthusiastic about this Lincolnian biographical fact than I should be. We place all emphis on any point of agreement with admired figures, even if the extent of agreement is imagined. (Especially when it is imagined.) There is still a certain thrill at the vague similarities in our opinions, even if our reasoning should vary greatly. Moreover, when Lincoln and I reach the point where we must say how gnosis of this fact ought to inform how humans think of ourselves, we soon depart. 

In the current terminology of the free will controversy, my position is that of narrow compatibilism, which denies volition can properly be called either “free” or effective, while maintaining moral responsibility. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence suggests Lincoln was a hard incompatibilist, that is, willing to forgive some otherwise reprehensible human actions on account of determinism. Guelzo again:

Lincoln seems to have been unconcerned that, in attributing all action to a comparatively impersonal cause or force rather than a supernatural and reasonable being, he was subverting a moral sense of right or wrong, or any possibility of attributing blame or praise for human actions. To the contrary, Lincoln, according to Herndon, was inclined by his fatalism to soften or excuse what appeared to be the most obvious examples of human guilt or responsibility. He “quoted the case of Brutus and Caesar, arguing that the former was forced by laws and conditions over which he had no control to kill the latter, and vice versa, that the latter was specially created to be disposed of by the former…” 

[Lincoln] had remarked that southern slaveholders “were neither better, nor worse than we of the North” because “if we were situated as they are, we should act and feel as they do; and if they were situated as we are, they should act and feel as we do; and we never ought to lose sight of this fact in discussing the subject.” Later, when reviewing the appeals of deserters, Lincoln liked to discover necessity in a case, rather than the sentimental application of pity, as the grounds for granting a pardon. “Well, after all, Judge, I think I must put this with my leg cases,” Lincoln remarked on one occasion to Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt: “They are the cases that you call by that long title, ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy,’ but I call them for short, my ‘leg cases.’ But I put it to you, and I leave it for you to decide for yourself: if Almighty God gives a man a cowardly pair of legs how can he help their running away with him?”

Of course, as a lawyer, Lincoln never played the determinism card in court like Clarence Darrow would. In Illinois v. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the monkey-lawyer would argue a criminal home environment and the corrupting influence of the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche exempted them from culpability in the murder of a 14-year old boy. (He won.)  But it’s still not clear Lincoln believed there was any way to salvage traditional understandings of culpability in light of necessitarianism.

I do. My own views on responsibility are more commonsensical. Surprisingly so. The body cannot be separated from its functions and powers; this is another way of saying the individual is one with their actions. By arrangement, predisposition, habit and conditioning, there exists within the body potentialities to produce certain behaviors in certain situations. This is to say, there are consistent and recognizable (re: predictable) traits to people’s personalities which inform (re: determine) the form their decisions take. If one of thievish thoughts finds herself in a situation conducive to the thieving she wants to do, nothing can stop her stealing—unless, of course, there is an even stronger disincentive not to steal, like a lengthy prison sentence.

But, the incompatibilist asks, How is it fair to lock up thieves in the first place? No thief ever had a choice in being born thievish.

I should reply, Should we care? If we ought, we don’t. Judgement is passed not on what one “might have done otherwise,” but what they actually do do, as an objective feature of reality. Few have qualms about locking up or putting down a dog that mauls a child, though no one would claim he has free will. Interest in our self-preservation and the integrity of our property was the first inspiration for punishment; justice was invented with the plow and aqueducts. 

(Which is not to say that it is not one of the highest things to aspire to in life. I merely mean that thick moral concepts like justice or universal applicability are usually not things societies seriously consider until they have been afforded those luxuries of surplus calories and comparative security the state provides. Babylon was six monarchs old when Hammurabi ceased categorically applying the death attempted to articulate proportionality of punishment to crimes. Granted, that usually meant literally taking an eye for an eye. But it was the first blind step in the right direction.)

Okay, so Lincoln and I disagree there. But if we were both pressed to give a “Yes” or “No” answer on the question of determination, our greatest president and I would have given the same answer—though when asked to show our work, we would find ourselves alienated again.

I won’t get into arguments as to why I find libertarianism suspect. Any arguement I presented would be so unlearned as to confuse and retard our understanding of the issues at hand. Let it suffice to say my reasons pertain to

a.) the problems of sustaining identity (to say nothing of responsibility) in overwhelmingly indeterministic schemes.

b.) the necessary inscrutability of the origins of the contents of choices, the fruits of creativity, of “what honestly occurs to us.” Spinoza said the erroneous idea of freedom arises from one’s consciousness of their actions, but ignorence of their causes (Ethic. II. XXXV, III.II). Nietzsche said “A thought comes when ‘it’ wishes, and not when ‘I’ wish” (BGE 17).

c.) the illusory nature of the unitary and self-sustained “self,” subject, or homonculus. Contemporary neurosciensts have several working theories as to how exactly to describe this phenomenon (and here is one of them), but surprising eloquence had given it literary treatment before the ascendency of cognitive science. I have in mind Hume’s Treatise (I.VI), Borges 1922 essay La nadería de la personalidad (or The Nothingness of Personality), and the section “Contemplative Essence of Action” in chap. IX of Santayana’s Reason in Common Sense.

As to my discontent with “broad” compatibilism: It is minor, and linguistic. In fact, it hinges entirely upon the insistence of the term “free will.” I am fully able to admit those rigorous  such as Hume or Dennett (especially Dennet). But these accounts entail notions of causation and the “self” far and away removed from the original description of “free will” by libertarians and other folk-psychological theorists. Any truer account is so far removed that continued use of the term “free will” is somewhat misleading. If meaning is use, few non-academics would apply the term to the action theory of a compatibilist should it be explained to them; all of its propositions are incredibly counterintuive to our innate but mistaken understanding of ourselves. Folk-psychological libertarian theories assume a unitary, indivisible self with an existence more-or-less autonomous from the physical world. This subject is either the cause of all its own behavior, or which somehow hosts uncaused decisions. Consciousness as described by favored compatibilists is an emergent system, by which mechanistic, unconscious forces compute self-representing data to achieve self-awareness. Information is put to use in numerous faculties, many compartmentalized, and sometimes able only to communicate one-way with each other. Though no one faculty has access to all the information in the system, the various components are able to organize coherently so as to produce action which propels it towards those objects conducive to its maintenance and wellbeing, or at least avoid that which harms it. The two understandings of the agent are irreconcilable; so no one term can accurately describe the activities of both. Since the libertarians coined de libero arbitrio, I would see them keep it.

Lincoln’s stated reasons for his own skepticism are less convoluted and more accessible, insofar as any argument which attempts to usurp the most clear intuitions of human life can possibly be. Moreover, the combinations of his thoughts was uncommon in its eclecticism, appealing to both secular conceptions of necessity in psychological motivation, and theological determinism.  

From his lawyerly years we have anecdotes which suggest a belief in psychological egoism analogous to that of Hobbes or Bentham. Lincoln’s law partner, William Henry Herndon wrote

“His idea was that all human actions were caused by motives, and at the bottom of these motives was self.”

Guelzo elaborates:

Lincoln evidently had little patience with the idea that human behavior could arise spontaneously from some inherent human goodness, or even that it could be educated to guide its choices by some rule of otherworldliness, impartiality, or…disinterested benevolence.

“At bottom,” Herndon told the audiences for his controversial Springfield lectures on Lincoln in 1866, Lincoln always expected that “the snaky tongue of human selfishness will wag out…

We often argued the question [Herndon remembered], I taking the opposite view…. I once contended that man was free and could act without a motive. He smiled at my philosophy, and answered that it was impossible, because the motive was born before the man…. He defied me to act without motive and unselfishly; and when I did the act and told him of it, he analyzed and sifted it to the last grain. After he had concluded, I could not avoid the admission that he had demonstrated the absolute selfishness of the entire act…”

Similarly, Lincoln found no evidence in human behavior that the process of choosing or willing could be broken down into stages that might soften or divert the attractive power of motives. He did not, for instance, believe that willing involved two separate stages, one of perception or attraction and then one of cool, quiet deliberation, in which we decide whether or not to yield to the motive that has attracted us. “He maintained that there was no conscious act of any man that was not moved by a motive, first, last, and always,” Herndon wrote. Thus, “there was no freedom of the will,” and “men are made by conditions that surround them, that have somewhat existed for a hundred thousand years or more.”

In fact, the self-interested response to motive was so regular and predictable that it mounted to the force of law, “continuous and unchangeable,” and it led Lincoln to reduce a good deal of the variety of human behavior to “a calculation of the law of forces and ultimate results.”

The adult Lincoln never joined a church, and most scholars agree his religious convictions were those of the last Deists. However, the strict Calvinism of his upbringing continued to inform his understanding that no autonomy might exist independently of an omnipotent, omniscient deity.

“Mr. Lincoln seldom said anything on the subject of religion,” recalled Joseph Gillespie in 1882, but the one theological opinion Gillespie remembered hearing from him was that he “could never reconcile the ‘prescience of Deity with the uncertainty of events.'”38 Separate Calvinism also stayed with Lincoln in the way that it allowed him, as the case required, to switch rhetorical gears between talking about a divinely ordered necessity and a cause-and-effect necessity…

The same Lincoln who in 1846 could write about the “Doctrine of Necessity” without any reference to supernatural causality could just as easily, less than five years later, compose a farewell letter to his stepbrother John D. Johnston for his dying father, assuring Thomas Lincoln in predestinarian terms Thomas would have been much more comfortable with, that “He who notes the fall of the sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads … will not forget the dying man, who puts his Trust in him.” A year later, Lincoln eulogized Henry Clay as “a man the times have demanded, and such, in the providence of God was given us.” And it is well known that during his embattled presidency, Lincoln’s allusions to “the Divine Being who determines the destinies of nations,” to “an all-wise Providence,” and to “Divine assistance” without which “all must fail” multiplied. He repeatedly described himself as nothing more than “a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty” and expanded that on at least one occasion to claim that “we are all agents and instruments of Divine Providence.”

 Though Lincoln saw himself as a “divine instrument,” he had no pretence to certainty in the ultimate success of his efforts.

After the president’s death, his cleaning staff discovered an undated note of Lincoln’s to himself. In it, the president expressed a merely probabilistic conviction that the War was waged by divine mandate; and an even more tentative belief that the Union was in the right and fated to succeed. It is heartbreaking to read:          

The will of God prevails—In great contests
each party claims to act in accordence with
the will of God. Both may be, and one
must be wrong. God can not be for, and
against the same thing at the same time.
In the present civil war it is quite possible
that God’s purpose is something different from
the purpose of either party—and yet the human
instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of
the best adaptation to effect this His purpose. I am
almost ready to say this is probably true—that
God wills this contest, and wills that it shall
not end yet—By his mere quiet power  on the minds
of the now contestants, He could have either saved
or destroyed the Union without a human contest—
Yet the contest began—And having begun
He could give the final victory to either side
any day—Yet the contest proceeds—

-and it cuts off.

Conviction in the Providential inevitability of the war’s course was to Lincoln in-of-itself no assurance that he was squarely in God’s favor. The deity’s design may quite possibly be “something different from the purpose of either party.”

We are brought to mind of the tradition of the Quakers’ public assemblies, in which they claim to turn to a divine “inner light” to guide their decisions. Despite their pretence to, at least in theory, communicate directly with the godhead, they realize their own fallibility, and qualify all affirmative statements with “I hope so.”

Though both Quakerism and Lincoln’s Job-like deism are unbelievable to me, I find both faiths’ epistemic humility to be laudable and uncommon amongst the orthodox and amongst skeptics. In any case it is infinitely more satisfying than the ubiquitous tendency for public religious expression to claim that they have seen the City on the Hill. Lincoln saw that the course of history was too contingent, too spastic in its progress to align with any one human narrative. He resists the duplicity of those who speak of the “mysterious ways” of the deity on one hand, yet invoke divine mandate along with all their moral pronouncements, as if they alone have been so privileged to see their way through the mystery. There is much in life that is beautiful, bits of it being achingly so. But the terror of uncertainty in what is to come, of where and when our powers should ultimately fail make up the better part of our lives. Religion, in satisfying an aesthetic appetite, gives us a poetic exposition of the nature of things. Therefore, we ought to expect the poetry to respect essential confoundedness and ambiguity. Or rather, we should expect it of the rarest, profoundest expressions. A few gems I know among the devout, the most thoughtful and honest in Christendom; their faith doles out in equal parts comfort and angst. So it should be, so there is thier wisdom.

So the admitted bleakness of Lincoln’s fatalism ought not be considered a paradox, something counting against his character; but true understanding sees how his benevolence was informed by it.


One Response

  1. They didn’t have flashbulbs back then. Natural light I would guess, or powder?

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