Published May 19, 2022
Abraham Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural Address at a time of unprecedented division and strife in our nation. Open hostilities had not yet broken out between the states, but by March 4, 1861, Inauguration Day, seven states had already voted to secede from the Union. It would be less than six weeks before Confederate guns opened fire on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. War was coming.
It was under the looming specter of war that President Lincoln addressed the nation. He concluded his speech with what would become its most famous and enduring lines:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. 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.
The line about the “better angels of our nature” remains a standard in the repertoire of political speechwriters and journalists today. The Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal employed the phrase just this week in an editorial about the massacre in Buffalo.
And it’s a phrase that has been on my mind lately. I suppose this is because our nation is so deeply divided. That our divisions include, in a particular way, the question of whether or not certain members of the human family can be justly excluded from basic protection under the law, only draws the mind more readily to Lincoln.
Lincoln’s phrase contains a note of optimism, or at least hope. And that note of hope rings true, even though we know its utterance was followed almost immediately by four years of Civil War, the most horrible carnage this nation has ever seen. It’s a hope built on the belief that if we allow ourselves to be led by what is good in our nature, if we allow ourselves to be led by a desire for friendship rather than enmity, the cause of justice will triumph through even the darkest days.
Perhaps one reason Lincoln’s words have been on my mind is that, though I’m loath to admit it, I find that hopeful note rings less true today than it once did. Maybe I’ve grown cynical. Maybe I’ve heard it once too often. True hope comes through grace, of course, but grace builds on nature.
And if Abraham Lincoln could appeal to our nature as a plausible, if imperfect, path toward justice; I’m not sure we can do the same today. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s hard for a people to answer the better angels of our nature when we reject, in practice and in principle, the very existence of our shared human nature.
And we do. We see this, of course, in the widespread refusal to acknowledge the humanity of the unborn. We see it acutely in the spasms of racially motivated violence, as in Buffalo, that wrack our nation with disturbing frequency. We see it in the increasingly aggressive and bizarre transgender movement, which begins with the real difficulty of gender dysphoria and proceeds to insist that men can menstruate and get pregnant and breastfeed.
One activist group tweeted recently: “Seeing too many tweets and headlines that ignore trans folks. MEN HAVE ABORTIONS. FULL STOP.” This is madness – unless, of course, one rejects human nature. In which case, we just are what we want to be.
Losing a sense of our shared human nature makes it very hard to believe, in any meaningful way, in a common good around which, and towards which, our political life is directed. Losing a sense of our shared human nature means being left with “your truth” and “my truth” but no shared Truth upon which we might find common ground or reconciliation.
Losing a grip on our shared human nature leaves us exposed and alone in a world of competing wills and interests where the most anyone can hope for is a sort of uneasy truce maintained through coercion. We seem to be rapidly heading towards a society where each individual has his own nature – each of us the lone member in a species of one.
And that brings us from our nature back to angels and to St. Thomas Aquinas, who argued that individual angels differ in species. For most of the creatures you and I are familiar with, each individual member of a species is differentiated and distinguished by its material body. You and I share a human nature, are members of the same species, but the thing which distinguished you from me is our material bodies.
We’re one species, distinguished materially. Angels, of course, don’t have bodies. Which means there are no material bodies to distinguish individual members of the species. Therefore, each species of angel comprises only one individual. Each angel is its own species.
I’ve always found this fascinating. The question of whether individual angels differ in species may seem about as relevant as the question of how many angels fit on the head of a pin. What does this have to do with anything?
Our country, our culture, and increasingly members of our own Church have become deeply confused about what it means to be human. We have forgotten the meaning of our bodies. We live as though our minds have meaning, but our bodies do not – except, perhaps, insofar as we give them meaning. And in all this gnostic confusion, we are not simply adrift, increasingly we are separated from our true nature and purpose and one another.
And that leads to an unpleasant, if sobering, thought about our gnostic age. Rather than the “better angels of our nature,” we seem to be mimicking a very different sort of creature: each individual the solitary member of its own species of one. Fallen. Forever.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Photo: Don Sniegowski/Flickr