Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day: February 12, 1809. As historical coincidences go, this isn’t quite as stunning as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson departing this world within a few hours of each other in 1826. Not only were Adams and Jefferson architects of the American Revolution, but they died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Darwin and Lincoln never met or corresponded, and they distinguished themselves in very different endeavors. But Adam Gopnik uses the coincidence of their birth to make the case, in Angels and Ages, for their shared significance as “prophets of liberal civilization.” Lincoln and Darwin have incontestable claims to posterity: one saved the Union from collapse and altered the course of history; the other developed the single most important scientific idea about life on our planet. Both retain a power to fascinate: for Gopnik, Lincoln and Darwin have “never been more present.”
Gopnik depicts the two men as “snails with sublime purposes” who inched toward mighty conclusions. You know the obvious ones: the need for liberty and union to triumph over slavery and secession, the power of natural selection to explain the development of every living organism. Gopnik argues that these men shared an even deeper insight. They came to believe in “a world without a present God but with providential purposes.” Both rejected orthodox religious doctrines and embraced rationalism and science, yet they imagined a higher purpose for humanity. Gopnik has a variety of names for their vision: “enchanted secularism,” “natural universalism,” “mystical materialism.” By the end of his book, he’s become a passionate advocate for the same outlook.
What Gopnik offers in the preceding pages is accessible and nicely turned hagiography, which detaches Darwin and Lincoln from their times and draws attention away from their quirks and limitations. There’s a dash of mystery–did Lincoln’s first eulogizer, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, declare on the president’s deathbed that he belonged to the angels, or to the ages? Mostly, though, the book treads familiar ground. The best parts are about writing; from On the Origin of Species to the Gettysburg Address, Gopnik says that both men were committed to a plain-spoken style that allowed for moments of transcendence. They were proponents of a “literary eloquence” shaped by the existence and intelligence of a mass audience; both men searched for the truth–about the natural world or politics–and both recognized the need to convey their convictions to the public.
By turning Lincoln and Darwin into champions of modern liberal persuasion, Gopnik is fashioning a usable past for our troubled times. One can hear echoes of Paul Berman or Christopher Hitchens as Gopnik describes what’s at stake in venerating his heroes and why we shouldn’t take their achievements for granted. (“There is a constant struggle between the spirit of free inquiry and the spirit of fundamentalist dogma,” Gopnik observes.) The cost of this approach, in which Lincoln and Darwin are retrofitted to withstand the shocks of contemporary debates, is fidelity to detail and the bigger picture of the nineteenth century. Gopnik’s occasional prickliness toward scholarly historians–at one point he complains about the “quavers and qualifications of professional history” that would marginalize the role of Lincoln’s election in hastening Southern secession–only serves to draw attention to his overreaching.