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Abraham Lincoln: Stoic Role Model?

By Paul Wilson

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character give him power.” That saying has long been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, though there is no written record of him having said it. Whether its attribution is correct or not, the statement provides a perfect measure with which to assess Lincoln’s own complex character. For four years he occupied an office that conferred great power upon him - President of the United Sates - and he did so during the most tumultuous period in America’s history: the Civil War.

Great statesmen and women never really die. They wait patiently, ready to serve again if the country they loved, or the cause they espoused, is threatened anew. So it is with Lincoln – in my view, the greatest statesman of all time. He was an exceptional, almost mystical being. He dealt with pressures that would have shattered the nerves of a thousand lesser men – and he did so with his humility and magnanimity intact. He had a Shakespearean turn of phrase, a forensic eye for the flaw in any legal or political argument, the sagacity of an eastern mystic, a ready if rather vulgar wit, and when faced with life’s most searing emotional experience – the loss of a child – he was heart-sick, but accepting. Though Lincoln was the archetypal ‘man of constant sorrow’, life, with its multitude of misfortunes, never entirely broke him. Instead, he rose to its challenges - again and again and again. 

That Lincoln achieved such timeless prominence is remarkable, given his unpromising beginnings. He was born into soul-sapping poverty on the American frontier. His father was a restless, semi-literate farmer who frowned upon his son’s love of learning and urged him to focus upon his physical labours instead. Consequently, Lincoln had only one year of formal education, which he later supplemented by reading Shakespeare, the Bible and Blackstone’s Legal Commentaries. A lack of education was not the only obstacle to Lincoln’s worldly success. Throughout his adult life, he was plagued by enervating mood swings and frequent suicidal thoughts (he once composed a poem entitled The Suicide’s Soliloquy). Lincoln even contemplated ending his life while he was in the White House – though I doubt he was the only president to have considered that!


Contrasting our current crop of political leaders to Lincoln is like comparing a flock of quarrelsome urban pigeons to a serene bird of paradise. Though we lack a leader of equivalent stature we can, in a way, ask Lincoln to serve again. We can take the hard-won lessons of his life – particularly those learned during his stewardship of the American Civil War – and apply them to our strife-stricken world. So, what wisdom does this extraordinary man have to impart? How might he provide us with insights and solace during the ‘fiery trials’ through which we are passing? If we look at Lincoln through the lens of the four Stoic virtues - wisdom, courage, temperance and justice - answers may emerge. How many of those vital qualities did Lincoln demonstrate? And which Stoic practices did he, knowingly or otherwise, exemplify?       


The Wisdom of Premeditatio Malorum

The premeditation of evils

People experiencing ‘depression’ – a multi-faceted phenomenon that is far too complex to be described as a mere illness – are sometimes accused of succumbing to faulty thinking. They are too highly attuned to negativity, it is said. They have lost their capacity to perceive positive stimuli. Their minds act like a gold prospector’s sieve, only rather than capturing any glimmering flakes and nuggets from the mental riverbed they release them, and retain instead the dank, malodourous sludge of the psyche. Therapeutic practices like CBT are intended to address this very issue – i.e. to restore balance between positive and negative thoughts in the troubled mind of the sufferer. There is a lot to be said for this approach. It can and does help people. However, there are other ways of perceiving depressive outlooks. Sometimes a tendency towards negativity can be useful. Sometimes ‘depressives’ perceive reality correctly and it is other people, the supposedly healthy of mind, who are in fact mistaken. This psychological phenomenon has been labelled the ‘Cassandra Complex’, though I prefer the term, ‘depressive realism’.


Lincoln’s capacity for depressive realism was pronounced. His mind was a purring production line of worst-case scenarios, each more alarming than the last. This habit of mind was inevitable in a man who had known so much trouble in his life and always expected more - but it was also sound philosophical practice, akin to the Stoic concept of premeditatio malorum. By imagining the worst thing that could happen in a given situation, Lincoln could better prepare himself and others for it. One of Lincoln’s finest biographers, Joshua Wolf Shenk – author of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged A President And Fuelled His Greatness – said of his subject, “He was always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt.” 


We could do with a little of Lincoln’s dour, unstinting pragmatism, as we contemplate burgeoning global crises - political, economic and environmental. Negative thoughts are natural now. They are not the result of faulty thinking, but are founded instead upon unavoidable facts of life… and death. When faced with such sobering responsibilities, the delusional pronouncements of a shameless political ideologue - the dominant leadership type of our age - are no match for the sober appraisal and Stoic endurance of a depressive realist.                



The Courage of Oikeiosis

A feeling of affinity with other living things

Lincoln was an exponent of radical empathy. He had a rare ability to think and feel his way into the suffering of other beings. Like many people who go on to develop what we describe as mental health problems, Lincoln was a sensitive child who endured many early adverse experiences, including the death of his mother. In the Darwinian battle for survival on the American frontier, Lincoln’s precocious size and brute physical strength served him well, though they belied his delicate nature. He was adept at farm work - though he hated it - but he abhorred cruelty to any living creature, however humble. According to legend, he was once traumatised by being forced to kill a wild turkey and swore never to do so again - even to obtain food.

Lincoln’s powerful empathic abilities eventually found a new focus: slavery. On a riverboat ride early in his life, he first encountered the vile institution upon which America was founded and through which it had become prosperous and powerful. The sight of a small group of slaves - pitiful, shackled, deprived of every liberty granted to even the poorest white man - left an indelible impression upon the sensitive farm boy. He would go on to say that, “If slavery isn’t wrong then nothing is wrong.”   

Lincoln had the courage to live in accordance with virtue (or ‘arete’), as a good Stoic should. He cared about people and causes when he did not have to, and continued to care about them when it was unpopular and even dangerous to do so. Indeed, this brave inclination eventually cost him his life, at the hands of a southern assassin.

Lincoln had an innate sense of oikeiosis and was able to extend this feeling of brotherhood far beyond the self. His ‘circles of concern’ rippled out into his family, friends, community, society and the wider world - eventually encompassing all life. Indeed, the radiant compassion, once centred in the curious personality of this poor Kentucky farmhand, reaches us still - like light from a long-dead star.  



Temperance and the Dichotomy of Control

Self-control in a chaotic world

Anger is a form of madness. When we give ourselves over to this dangerous emotion we are no longer in control of our actions. We become instead a danger to ourselves and to others. On regaining our senses we marvel at our former madness, as if observing the actions of a stranger. What is true of a single citizen is equally true of an entire nation. 


Antebellum America was a volcanic landscape - a seething mass of excitations, ready to erupt at any moment, releasing a pyroclastic cloud of violence. Lincoln’s ascension to the presidency was the catalyst for this eruption.


The irony is that Lincoln was both a pacifist and pragmatist. On assuming the presidency he had only two goals: to preserve the Union - ideally without war - and to contain the spread of slavery. He was content to leave its eradication to fate. He was convinced that, given enough time, slavery would slowly die out of its own accord. In the meantime, his role was to subject it to a kind of social quarantine. But angry southern leaders believed him to be an abolitionist and seceded from the Union - precipitating the “mighty scourge of war” and four years of fratricidal slaughter.


When the madness of war abated and Americans slowly started to regain their sanity Lincoln was waiting to greet them - for he was one of the few who had never lost control of either his emotions or his mind. He then set about the difficult business of helping America heal.


At his second inaugural speech, he shocked his triumphalist audience by refusing to punish the defeated south, as many in the north demanded, and he described instead his vision of a newly united society founded upon two simple principles: “Malice toward none and charity for all.” Lincoln was assassinated shortly after uttering those compassionate words and they went largely unheeded. History could have been very different had they not. 

Justice and Amor Fati

Loving our fate

As a former mental health professional, one of my steadfast beliefs is that crisis, however painful, can be an agent of growth. This is hardly a new concept. It runs through the spiritual teaching of the Buddha, the philosophical schools of the Greeks and Romans, all the way through to the work of psychiatrist RD Laing, who once observed that, “Madness is not all breakdown, sometimes it is breakthrough.” But growth is never without its discomforts. Do we imagine it is a painless process when a snake sheds its skin, or when a chick pecks its way out of its constricting shell? No, there is always stress, struggle and a period of vulnerability before and after any breakthrough. 


Lincoln was on first name terms with suffering, but he embraced whatever fate put in his path. As well as his depressive episodes, he experienced poverty, bereavement, debt, romantic rejection, business failure and bitter political disappointment (he was an inveterate but largely unsuccessful office seeker until the age of 51, when against all odds he secured the greatest office of all). He had experienced the salutary effect of psychological pain. He had been humbled many times. This helped him to grow from a sharp-tongued political opportunist into a magnanimous and majestic statesman. So when his moment of destiny finally came he was able to help his nation turn its convulsing pain into progress. He did so with words – timeless, soulful and profound words.          


Lincoln was a great storyteller – famed for his often ribald and pointed anecdotes.  They helped to offset his depressive moods and were part of what we would now refer to as his ‘coping strategy’. He once told an associate, who chided him for telling humorous tales at a time of national crisis: “If I could not tell my stories I would die.”


Lincoln’s greatest authorial feat was to make sense of the Civil War. He told his suffering citizens an inspiring and inclusive tale. He gave people’s pain a purpose and in so doing he made it easier for them to bear. As the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl once observed, “Suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds meaning.” Lincoln gave the Civil War a grand spiritual meaning: atonement, for the brutal exploitation of a stolen and subject race. An act of justice, that had been delayed for over two hundred years, was finally served.



Lincoln’s feet of clay?

Stoicism is a philosophy of improvement, not perfection. Stoics are encouraged to ‘sculpt their own statues’ - that, is, to spend their days working on their character and conduct. In that sense, Abraham Lincoln was extremely Stoic - though he was not without his flaws. For example, seen through the lens of the modern era, the ‘Great Emancipator’ would be considered a white supremacist. Though he abhorred slavery and yearned to see its demise he did not believe in full racial equality. Yet even in that respect he continued to improve. Shortly before his death he encountered Frederick Douglass - author, abolitionist and former slave. He asked “friend Douglass” his opinion of the second inaugural address, adding “Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?” Douglass replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” In that brief, memorable phrase, Douglass could have been describing Lincoln’s entire life.         

In The Republic, Plato prophesied that, “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have a rest from their evils.”


In Lincoln, Plato’s vision of a philosopher-king was fully realised. The spirit and power of philosophy met political greatness. And I believe the philosophy Lincoln most embodied… was Stoicism.

About the Author: Paul Wilson is former head of community mental health services and strategic lead for the prevention of mental health issues and the promotion of wellbeing in disadvantaged communities. One of his mental health services won a national award while others were recognised in the UK parliament. Paul now works as the head of staff wellbeing at a UK university, where he promotes preventative practice, psychological safety, self-care and a culture of wellbeing. Stoicism is his preferred form of self-care.  


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