In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln had the unenviable task of speaking to a country on the verge of civil war. In the speech he walked a fine line between the North and the South to try to hold the Union together. Perhaps he sensed that was impossible, that war was inevitable. Five weeks later the civil war began.
What, you may ask, does the U.S. civil war have to do with the wisdom tradition. Not much, I grant you. But many years ago when I was racking my brain to call up some apt metaphors for the wisdom-based approach to diversity that I write about, “the better angels of our nature” came to mind. It seemed promising, but I could not recall who said it or in what context. I found it at the very end of Lincoln’s first inaugural.
Having spoken about “so grave a matter as the destruction of our national fabric,” Lincoln said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” And then this, in which you can sense Lincoln’s gut telling him that the tipping point toward destruction had been reached:
“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature” (March 4, 1861).
After mulling that over, I saw what Lincoln was on about. His use of the metaphor, in context, shows us his deep understanding of human nature – its penchant to swing from listening to a devil at one ear and an angel at the other ear. But more than that, although he was realistic about human nature, Lincoln was not a cynic, a pessimist, or an anarchist. The last sentence of his speech reveals a president who preferred relying on angels better than war and who wished Americans would go and do likewise.
Being someone who likes to discover origins, I went searching, but concluded that the phrase “the better angels of our nature” originated with Lincoln. A shout-out to Gene Griessman, however, for pointing out Dickens. In Dicken’s novel Barnaby Rudge, the narrator muses: “the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.”
In an earlier post, I hinted that the sages were realistic about the human condition. I now want to a little more about that. The biblical wisdom literature is utterly realistic about human nature. No question. The literature repeatedly warns about folly, deceit, lying, laziness, cruelty, adultery, and many other all-too-human penchants. And often in stunning images. The point is to show why habitual acting on such impulses will devastate the life of an individual, a community, a nation.
Paradoxically, however, almost in defiance of that realistic picture, the sages seek to enable the kind of living that can seem a bit idealistic. They repeatedly call us to rely on the better angels of our nature. This comes into sharp relief in Proverbs, which stresses developing and cultivating attitudes, forms of communication, and ways of individual behavior and collective living that have as their goals the harmony and flourishing of our lives as communities and nations. And our political lives do not get to opt out of this.
In previous posts in this series on the wisdom tradition, I have stressed wisdom as a vital agency that advances shalom, healthy relationships, and mutual good amid human diversity. But there is with us everyday, day after day, that which seeks to run us into the ground, the shadows that seek to darken our paths.
So over the years, I have tried, and continue to try, to learn how to draw on the better angels of my nature when the devils are holding forth. I hope that you are too, and if you’re not, that you will begin to. Taking ongoing steps to learn wisdom and to make the wisdom way part of my DNA has been the best way I know to make the better angels more prominent. As a psychologist-friend once said to me, “Between stimulus and response is choice-point between being foolish or wise.” Choose wisdom, friends. Nothing that may be desired and sought is as precious as wisdom (Proverbs 8:11).
I think that the old-world sages of Scripture would have said a hearty “Amen!” to Lincoln’s image of the better angels, especially during that time when we were destructively divided, tearing our land apart, and killing one another. I also think the sages are turning over in the graves at how many devils are being listened to in our land today.
And I hope and pray for leaders with peaceable wisdom to arise and to be listened to, that perhaps by the mercy of the God we claim to believe in, our land may be spared a fate worse than that of a civil war.
©2017 by Charles Strohmer
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