I have had occasion, from time to time, to say something about the significance of the Civil War for the development of the American soul. Indeed, I can even speak of that collective soul as “deepened” because of this war. Such a suggestion may be found in the concluding paragraph of the Preface to my volume, Reflections on Slavery and the Constitution (Lexington Books, forthcoming in 2012):
“The tension perhaps intrinsic to the American regime founded in 1776 may be seen at its most intense in the Civil War of 1861-1865. That desperate conflict may also be seen even to have deepened the American Soul, perhaps making it more interesting as well as more vulnerable. Indeed, the juxtaposition in this Country between the Founding Era and the Civil War may be usefully linked to the juxtaposition, among the Ancient Greeks (so critical to the Western Heritage), between the cosmology-providing Hesoid and the crises-minded Homer (with Abraham Lincoln somehow serving as our Odysseus [about which I hope to say much more later]). It should also be remembered here what Socrates does with Odysseus in the closing pages of Plato’s Republic.”
I now venture to elaborate upon this suggestion, even though it can be argued (in response to my Greek Civil War suggestion) that the Trojans should be regarded as of the Eastern world. But the gods the Trojans recognize and depend upon seem to be divinities that the Greeks look to as well. Far more non-Greek are, say, the Persians and the Egyptians.
I have linked Abraham Lincoln to Homer’s Odysseus. Who, it might well be wondered (in an attempt to test this comparison), is the equivalent among Homer’s Achaeans of Americans such as Ralph Waldo Emerson? Perhaps, it can be ventured, Emerson would have been anticipated by some combination of Nestor and Epicurus.
An authoritative account of the beginnings of things, or a constitution of the world, is provided by Hesoid. How, if not also why, the gods came to be is reported by him. This is the way the Greeks could understand “the universe.”
This account is not that of any particular polis. Hesoid’s family had settled in Boetia (on the Greek mainland) after leaving Asia Minor. Comparable efforts to account for Beginnings would have been much different at that time in, say, China, Egypt, India, Palestine or Persia.
Of course, all of these accounts of Beginnings would eventually be challenged by philosophical and scientific developments, especially in the West. Such developments (with worldwide ramifications) depended significantly on the emergence in Greece of the idea of nature. This was well after the one, rather curious, use of that term (if not of the concept) in Homer’s Odyssey.
Of course, Hesiod’s account of Beginnings and of the overall ordering of things has long been superseded by the Bible among the Greek-speaking peoples and their heirs. But Homer’s account of the Trojan War and its aftermath remains vital. We repeatedly confront recapitulations of what Homer did in works as diverse as Dante’s Inferno (by way of Virgil’s Aeneid) and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
We have in Homer accounts of a great war and its aftermath. We learn not only of Odysseus’ homecoming but also of Agamemnon’s, among others. That war itself, I have suggested, was in effect a civil war among the Greek-speaking peoples, East and West.
Thus, both sides (the Achaeans and the Trojans) do recognize the same gods, gods who can even take sides in the decade-long struggle at Troy. Both sides, it can seem, consider Helen woth fighting for, even worth dying for, an opinion that might not be endorsed by all peoples elsewhere (just as it seems to be questioned, at times, by Greek poets such as Euripides). And Helen, it can also seem, feels quite at home both at Troy and at, say, Sparta.
The principal follow-up to the war at Troy is, we have recalled, the decade-long home-going of Odysseus. The importance of Odysseus is anticipated by the centrality assigned to him in the Catalogue of Ships in Book Two of the Iliad. This seems to be reinforced by the special concern about him expressed by the goddess, Athena.
Does Odysseus somehow stand for all home-seeking human beings, at least in the Greek world? Virgil, almost a millennium after Homer, draws upon the Iliad and the Odyssey (as well as perhaps upon some of the Greek tragedies) in accounting for the founding of Rome. His hero, Aeneas, combines key elements of the Achilles of the Iliad and of the Odysseus of the Odyssey.
There were, of course, critical divergences among the Romans from their supposed Greek models. Similarly, two millennia later, there were critical divergences among the North Americans who undertook to establish republican institutions drawing upon a supposed Roman model. A recognition of such an influence may be seen in the use among us of terms such as Capitol, senator and, of course, republican itself.
It can be wondered whether too much may be made of parallels across millennia. How far is it instructive to go in likening “our” Abraham Lincoln to “their” Odysseus? Lincoln, like Odysseus, was ambitious and self-serving.
It helped Lincoln, as it did Odysseus, to be as physically strong as he was. And there was something Odyssean, as well, in Lincoln’s cunning, something very much in evidence in how he managed (against great odds) to secure for himself in 1860 the nomination of the Republican Party for the Presidency. Critical to Lincoln’s accomplishments, just as for Odysseus’, was a remarkable talent as a story teller.
Also critical to Lincoln’s career, as to Odysseus’, was a toughness that could sometimes border on ruthlessness. Just as we should not, in recalling Odysseus, forget what he did to the helpless Suitors and their women in Ithaca, so we should not, in recalling Lincoln, forget his endorsement of the ruthlessness of generals such as Grant and Sherman in Georgia and elsewhere. Thus, also, Lincoln, unlike, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson (the leading American “intellectual” of the day), recognized John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid as a criminal act that would have to be punished.
I have suggested that the Civil War may be seen to have deepened the American Soul. The Trojan War can be looked to as having done the same for the Greek Soul. But it was not that War simply, which might not on its own (so to speak) have been long remembered by the Greeks, but rather what Homer said about it (including about its extended Aftermath [a kind of Reconstruction])?
Thus, it was Homer (not Hesiod) who could long be recognized as the Educator of Greece (however much Homer and his audience took for granted much of the cosmology evident in Hesiod). It became a deeply-divided soul for the Greeks, with one mode developed politically by the Athenians, the other by the Spartans. The eventual triumph of Sparta over Athens, in the Civil War described by Thucydides (long after the Civil War described by Homer), proved to be the “victors’” eventual undoing as well.
That is, it can be suspected that the Spartan character was seriously compromised by the material and other “benefits” the victorious Spartans acquired, as may be seen as well in the Roman Republic whose founding was celebrated by Virgil. A similar development may be seen perhaps in the career of Alexander the Great, who was perhaps limited from the outset in his remarkable ambition by his identification of himself with Achilles, not with Odysseus. Did the Civil War, which deepened the American Soul, also release passions which permitted some citizens of talent to make much more of Personal Acquisitiveness than it had once been fashionable to recognize in the United States?
Was whatever deepening of the American Soul that was contributed to by the Civil War somehow further spiritualized by the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln? Was the Homeric equivalent to this trauma the decade that Odysseus had to endure before he could return home as Victor? The Assassination was a significant development, testified to by the Temple dedicated to Lincoln in the Nation’s capital, even if it depended to a significant degree on chance factors.
That the Assassination should have been carried out by an Actor, and in a Theater, somehow confirmed that Lincoln had finished the significant Part he had played in the Grand American Drama. Some may even be tempted to believe that Lincoln (like Socrates, they would also say) courted assassination in order to dramatize and thereby to reinforce his legacy. Still others may find comfort of sorts in the conjecture that Lincoln, well before April 1865, was already beginning to suffer from a fatal debilitating disease, something that he himself may even have come to sense.
A perhaps instinctive (and hence flawed?) move toward the virtual deification of Lincoln may be seen in how Emerson can speak of him the day of his funeral in April 1865, observing on that occasion,
“His brief speech at Gettysburg will not easily be surpassed by words on any recorded occasion. This, and one other American speech, that of John Brown to the court that tried him, and a part of [the Hungarian] Kossuth’s speech at Birmingham [England], can only be compared with each other, and with no fourth.”
Such an assessment can properly be questioned by anyone who has reservations about both the fanatical John Brown and the curiously self-centered Hungarian patriot elevated here and who remembers as well Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and such other memorable American exercises as Patrick Henry’s Liberty or Death speech. However all this may be, it does seem that Emerson eventually recognized that John Brown’s career depended too much on chance, including with respect to the form his sometimes violent insanity took, to be truly praiseworthy.
However all this may have been, the American Unionists were substantially liberated by their victory in a dreadful civil war. They become secure enough to be able to experiment more and more with the development of technology in the service of an exuberant acquisitiveness. It was perhaps inevitable in these circumstances that the newly-emancipated freedmen could be neglected for generations.
Similar developments can be seen, in the United States, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union a generation ago. An unsettling apprehensiveness could thereupon be replaced by a determined globalization. This, it turned out, was poor preparation for the kind of dramatic challenge posed by the September Eleventh assaults in New York City and Washington, D.C. in 2001.
The determined insecurity associated with our current so-called War on Terror can remind us of the apprehensiveness promoted among Southerners by 1850 with respect to the long-term viability of slavery. Symbolic of what has happened is the severely-compromised status among us of the venerable writ of habeas corpus. Even when a deeply-divided United States Supreme Court can seem to recognize it (in the 2008 Boumediene Case) with respect to someone mistakenly held for almost a decade in Guantanamo, it can do so only in an opinion five dozen pages long, in marked contrast to what Lord Mansfield was able to do in a couple of pages in the 1771-1772 Somerset-slavery case in England (also a habeas corpus exercise).
The Slavery and the Constitution preface drawn on at the beginning of this Essay includes the suggestion that Abraham Lincoln somehow serves as our Odysseus, a suggestion that I have begun to develop on this occasion. It is further suggested in that preface that it should be remembered (in this context) “what Socrates does with Odysseus in the closing pages of Plato’s Republic.” It is there conjectured (as part of the Myth of Er account) that the soul of Odysseus, upon selecting (after a thousand years of instructive bliss?) its next life on earth, chooses the career of a private man, leaving Plato’s reader to suspect that it is indicated thereby that the life of the philosopher is thereby open to him (a “calling” that had not become available among the Greeks until long after the time of Homer).
We have noticed that Abraham Lincoln, like Odysseus, had been quite ambitious. But his intellectual interests should also be recalled, such as his investigations into discoveries and inventions that were influencing the development of societies worldwide. Even earlier, it seems, was his openness to the challenges of geometry.
Indeed, one of Lincoln’s remarkable accomplishments during his one term in the House of Representatives (where, as an inconsequential “freshman,” he had considerable leisure) was the development of proficiency in geometry (which was hardly the diversion common to fledgling Members of Congress). Another accomplishment at that time was his recognition of the remarkable talents of a Representative from the State of Georgia, Alexander H. Stephens, who was eventually to become the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America (after having failed to persuade his fellow Georgians to remain in the Union even after it was evident that a Free Soil [not an Abolitionist] Republican would be the next President of the United States). It must have been evident to Abraham Lincoln, upon studying the desperate rationalizations that Alexander Stephens was eventually compelled to develop, how much the inherited system of chattel slavery of his day enslaved masters along with their slaves, just as that slavery made it difficult for its understandably-distressed critics (including, of course, John Brown) to respect those dictates of prudence that philosophy tends to promote.
[This talk was given January 15, 2012, in the University of Chicago Works of the Mind Lecture Series. It should eventually be included in George Anastaplo, Reflections on War, Peace, and the Constitution. In March 2012 the speaker happened, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s English Traits, Chapter I, upon an observation by William Wordsworth (in 1833), that “they needed a civil war in America, to teach the necessity of knitting the social ties stronger.”]