Monday, December 30, 2013

"In Winter in the Woods Alone"

In Winter in the Woods Alone


In winter in the woods alone
Against the trees I go.
I mark a maple for my own
And lay the maple low.

At four o'clock I shoulder axe
And in the afterglow
I link a line of shadowy tracks
Across the tinted snow.

I see for Nature no defeat
In one tree's overthrow
Or for myself in my retreat
For yet another blow.

Robert Frost, from In the Clearing


 I’ve never been hit by a tornado (the closest passed by a few miles away) or flood or forest fire or other natural disaster.  I’ve weathered a few hurricanes and blizzards in my time and I’ve suffered through heat and humidity.  But blind luck and modern conveniences have spared me any serious harm from nature’s worst. 

What has taught me the most about the dark side of nature is no dramatic event, but rather the long, cold, dark, unrelenting Minnesota winter.  I’m now experiencing my thirty-fourth, having lived in Minnesota since 1979.  Some have been milder or shorter than others.  The last one was extremely long, as a series of heavy snowfalls reached into April.  This one started early with a heavy snowfall in early December followed by bone-chilling temperatures below zero that we usually don’t experience until January. 

I’ve learned how to dress for the cold and have never had frostbite, though, frankly, I find a damp cold closer to 32 degrees F above worse than a dry cold below zero.  Nonetheless, day after day of frigid sub-zero temperatures is a stark reminder of nature’s silent, potentially deadly, power.  It only takes twenty minutes for exposed skin to get frostbitten in such temperatures.  If you somehow get stranded outside or if your furnace fails, you are in a no-nonsense, life-threatening situation.  You learn, not only how to dress for the cold, but how to keep an emergency kit in your car if driving any distance,  get your furnace checked on an annual basis, and keep a supply of wood handy for the fireplace just in case.

Robert Frost’s New England winter poems seem mild by comparison.  No one would be “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” when it’s ten below! (See post December, 2010)  But if Frost captures the meditative calm of winter in that poem, he captures some of the human struggle with nature in this one, published in 1962. It hardly gives us a dramatic image such as “nature red in tooth and claw,” or Thomas Hobbes’ image of the state of nature as “nasty, brutish, and short,” or Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.”  Instead the image of a man in conflict with nature is rendered in rather simple, muted terms of moving “against the trees” to chop down a maple, presumably for winter warmth.

In this “one tree’s overthrow” Nature suffers “no defeat,” and in one man’s “retreat” there is likewise no defeat for the human species.  This encounter of “man against nature” ends in a draw.  Though nature throws its worst at us, it also provides the means by which we survive.  In Frost’s world there is a balanced reciprocity in the human “battle” with nature.  The same could be said of our Minnesota winters, assuming we use our wits and our best resources to contend with them.  Nature tests us, teaches us, and disciplines us, and as we rise to meet the challenge we grow stronger and, perhaps, wiser.

That last line of Frost’s poem troubles me though.  The human axeman retreats “For yet another blow.”  If it’s another balanced blow in proportion to Nature’s power, then it continues the cycle of human survival (and perhaps advancement?).  But if it’s a blow that upsets the equilibrium of Nature, if it’s a blow such as the excessive exploitation and destruction of the natural environment in recent decades that has resulted in an accelerated rate of climate change that threatens our very survival, then it’s an ominous blow.

Did Frost foresee the possibility of human excess upsetting the balance of nature to the degree that we see today?  I don’t know.  It’s certainly not apparent from this poem.  Only in retrospect does the thought arise that the human “battle” with Nature may be out of control. 

Which will prevail, human power or human wisdom?  If it is human power that prevails, then it may well backfire and lead us backwards to a more brutish life, if not extinction.  If it is human wisdom, then it may not be too late to restore some semblance of balance.  Science tells us that time is running short.

One thing we can be sure of.  Nature will have the last word.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ethical Egoism

Is happiness the highest good? (See previous post.)  Aristotle says yes because it is the only good that is an end in itself.  Virtue, like other goods, is a means to the end of happiness.  But, is it possible to be virtuous and unhappy?  Further, have you ever heard someone praised for being happy?  We may be happy for them, but is happiness a praiseworthy achievement?  Happiness is a state of being, but virtue is a trait of character that we find praiseworthy regardless of whether the virtuous person is happy or not.  Which is the higher good, to be happy and dishonorable or to be virtuous and unhappy?

Virtue ethics focuses on character rather than rules or acts or consequences.  If one develops an honorable character, one will act ethically.  Motive is more important than consequences.  Character is a central element of fiction, and we have considered it in previous posts on literature and ethics.  Does the character of the lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener” (Sept. 2013) merit salvation? Is the character of the bishop in “The Bishop and the Candlesticks” (Oct. 2013) too good to be true?  Can the character of the soldier in “A Horseman in the Sky” (Nov. 2013) be separated from his actions? Is Stockmann’s character superior to the townspeople in “An Enemy of the People” (Nov. 2013)? What exactly is the character of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (Dec. 2013), or, for that matter, of those who don't?  

In those cases, we assume we know what constitutes good vs. bad or strong vs. weak character.  Ayn Rand is an author who puts our conventional views to the test.

In Part III, Chapter VII (“This is John Galt Speaking”) of her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, she presents a defense of Ethical Egoism, in which virtue is equated with the rational pursuit of individual happiness without regard for the welfare of others.  We are each responsible for our own happiness, not for others’, and selfishness is a virtue.  (See previous post, Sept. 2012.) 

As a secular materialist and atheist, Rand explicitly rejects the Christian ethics of humility, charity, and altruism.  Similarly, the notion of “duty” to be found in deontological ethics is anathema to her since it bases morality on obligatory principles rather than freely chosen means to one’s own happiness.  She likewise rejects the Utilitarian ethics of the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.”   It is individual happiness that is the greatest value.  She offers her own version of virtue ethics, replacing such commonly accepted virtues as love, compassion, humility, generosity, moderation, fairness, reciprocity, self-discipline, gratitude, etc., with such characteristics as self-love, radical individualism, and value production.  The praiseworthy individual is the “producer” of value who pursues his or her own happiness and resists the “parasites, looters, and moochers” who seek to live off the producers.  In Rand’s world, the “producers” equate with owners of property and capital. That these owners produce value off the labor of workers, who serve as means to the end of the producers’ happiness, utterly escapes Ayn Rand.

Such a philosophy assumes that we are all equal in our abilities and opportunities, that suffering is the result of our own failures, and that happiness is the reward for rational selfishness.  Random luck and systemic injustice have no place in this universe.  They are merely excuses used by the losers to rationalize their failure.

Ethical egoism can serve as a corrective to an ethic of extreme self-denial and self-sacrifice, but it goes to the opposite extreme of self-aggrandizement and self-exaltation.  It completely overlooks the interdependence of individuals, the value of social cohesion, and the role of reciprocity in healthy social relationships.

When Aristotle relegates virtue to a means to the end of happiness, he acknowledges that individual happiness is dependent, not only on the individual’s virtue, but on the virtue of others.  For Aristotle both virtue and happiness are socially shared goods.  Individual virtue contributes to the common good, and the common good contributes to individual happiness.  We praise a virtuous character because it benefits the whole.

So which is better?  To be happy and dishonorable or to be virtuous and unhappy?  Ayn Rand would probably choose the former; a strongly religious believer would likely choose the latter.  In Aristotle’s world, however, those without virtue will pay a social price that reduces any happiness and those who are virtuous will reap a social reward that mitigates any unhappiness.

This ends the series of blog posts since September on literature and ethics, covering five theories of ethics: authority based divine command, deontological ethics, relativism, Utilitarianism, and virtue ethics.  In practice we use all these theories to one degree or another.  Atheists would not appeal to the authority of divine command, of course, but they might arrive at similar values by an appeal to reason.  Likewise, religious adherents, upon finding themselves in an ethical bind when caught between conflicting divine commands, might have recourse to independent reason.  Different situations might call for the application of different ethical criteria.  This conclusion may sound like relativism, but reason tells us that relativism, by definition, cannot be absolute.  There may be few, if any, ethical absolutes (rules that apply without exception), but there are surely general ethical principles (guidelines with sensible exceptions) based on reason and shared human interests.

One value of literature is that it can dramatize the abstractions of ethical theory, enabling us to think about it in concrete terms, bringing to consciousness what we take for granted, raising our awareness of unanticipated complications, and enhancing our understanding of what it means to live an ethical life.

Friday, December 6, 2013

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

In this 1973 short story Ursula Le Guin dramatizes the Utilitarian idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number at the expense of a minority (see previous post).  Omelas is a town in which all but one are happy.  Their “utopia” is only made possible by the suffering of a child who is kept imprisoned in miserable conditions behind a locked door.

The residents of Omelas know the child is there:

 “…they all understand that  their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” 

The situation is explained to the children of Omelas between the ages of eight and twelve.  They are taken to see the suffering child and told that such is the price of everyone else’s happiness.  Though they are “always shocked and sickened by the sight,” though they “feel disgust…anger, outrage, impotence,” though they “may brood over it for weeks and years,” most of them eventually come to accept the terms which guarantee the happiness of the majority.

There are a few though, adolescents and adults, who decide to walk away from Omelas:

“They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.  The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the place of happiness.  I cannot describe it at all.  It is possible it does not exist.  But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

According to Wikipedia (, Omelas is “Salem O” backwards, that is Salem, Oregon, which Le Guin saw on a highway sign from her rearview mirror.  Salem, of course, reminds us of Salem, Massachusetts, famous for the witch hunt that resulted in nineteen townspeople being hung and one man, who refused to enter a plea, being pressed to death by heavy stones on his chest.  In this classic example of scapegoating, the upstanding citizens of Salem projected their own guilt onto a few and sought to purge themselves by victimizing those few.

Is it possible to walk away from Omelas?  Or is it an unavoidable reality that the happiness of the many depends on the “necessary evil” of suffering by a few? 

Is Omelas a utopia or is it an image of the real world in which prosperous countries exploit the resources and labor of poor countries, in which the wealthy hoard their riches at the expense of the needy, in which the security of the majority depends on those who put their lives at risk in the military, in which the privileged enjoy their status by looking down on those with less, in which the fortunate give themselves the credit and blame the unfortunate for their adversity?

Is the true utopia one in which suffering does not exist, or is at least always relieved, or is at least equally shared?

Are the ones who walk away from Omelas “into the darkness” the ones who are unable to come to terms with evil in the world and live out their lives in despair?

Are they the idealists who live in a dream world refusing to accept the reality that full equality is impossible and that one person’s gain is always someone else’s loss?

Or are they the ones who work for economic and social justice instead of accepting the world as it is, the ones who “seem to know where they are going” as they seek amelioration of suffering and injustice, if not its absolute erasure.

Is Utilitarianism based on the inevitable reality of necessary evils or does it simply rationalize unnecessary evils for the benefit of the majority?

For that matter, is happiness the greatest good, especially if it is contingent on another’s misery?  What about virtue?  Is it better to be happy and unethical or unhappy and virtuous? Are the ones that walk away from Omelas seeking a higher good than happiness? (see next post)

An Enemy of the People II

Another way of reading An Enemy of the People (see Nov. 12 post) is as a scapegoat story, in which the townspeople project their own guilt onto Dr. Stockmann and punish him in order to relieve their own psychic tension.

Kenneth Burke ( argues that all rhetoric, including literature, features some level or degree of victimage, either self-mortification or scapegoating an external enemy.  Burke makes it sound like this universal feature of rhetoric reflects or expresses a universal human nature.  As humans we always fall short of our ideals.  Thus we demand some kind of sacrifice in order to achieve “redemption” or “atonement” for our “sins,” even if the ones we sacrifice are innocent.

As readers or spectators of the play, we identify with Dr. Stockmann, a physician, a healer, and a man of principle.  As a scapegoat, his sacrifice becomes that of a heroic martyr. 

From another perspective, though, Ibsen “scapegoats” the townspeople.  Though they target Stockmann as an “enemy of the people,” we know that they are actually the enemy—of truth, “right,” and moral principle.  As humans, we often fall short of truthfulness, righteousness, and principled moral behavior.  We thus project our own failings onto the townspeople, identify with the sacrificial hero, scapegoat the townspeople, and thereby achieve redemption from our own guilt.  Just as the townspeople raise their status by targeting Stockmann, we raise our own status by lowering that of the townspeople.

Thinking back to “Bartleby the Scrivener” (see Sept. 28 post), we can see how Bartleby serves as a scapegoat for the guilt of a so-called “Christian” society which puts its capitalist pursuit of money and prosperity ahead of its professed religious values.

And in “A Horseman in the Sky” (see Nov. 1 post), Druse’s father serves as a scapegoat for the guilt of a nation that has turned against itself in a violent Civil War.

Regardless of the psychological implications, almost every ethical dilemma involves the “necessary evil” of sacrificing some “good” in order to achieve a perceived greater good.  It is necessary to incarcerate Bartleby in order to maintain the social order for everyone else.  It is necessary to sacrifice the horseman in order to protect the Union.  It is necessary to sacrifice Stockmann in order to protect the town as a whole.  In some cases we may agree that, indeed, the sacrifice is necessary, as in the case of Carter Druse.  In other cases, we may see the sacrifice as unjust, as in the case of Bartleby or Stockmann. 

There is one ethical theory that is based on the “necessary evil” of sacrificing some good.  Utilitarianism, the principle of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” assumes that the welfare of the majority depends upon the suffering of a few.  For the Utilitarian, such is the nature of reality; it cannot be escaped.  But not everyone is willing to accept such a state of affairs.  (See next post.)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Breaking the Spell III

In the fourth chapter of Breaking the Spell, “The Roots of Religion” (see previous posts, Sept. & Oct., 2013), Daniel Dennett claims that “at the root of human belief in gods lies an instinct…to attribute agency—beliefs and desires and other mental states—to anything complicated that moves.” 

He doesn’t really prove this claim or make a serious argument for it.  He certainly doesn’t consider counter-arguments.  His goal seems to be to speculate on possible natural evolutionary explanations for the origin of religion in order to show that we can explain religion without recourse to the supernatural.

His underlying naturalistic assumption is that every phenomenon has a material origin.  Again, he never really makes an argument for this assumption, nor does he consider counter-arguments.  I’m puzzled how he thinks he can persuade religious adherents who don’t share his assumption without addressing it directly.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to consider that humans developed this instinct or “intentional stance,” as he calls it, for purposes of survival and that this attribution of agency associated with movement becomes the basis of supernatural belief.  It might explain the rise of animism, totemism, and animal deities among early humans.  Dennett also uses this idea to explain the rise of burial and funeral ceremonies.  To the extent that early humans considered each other animistic agents, they would have been deeply conflicted by the association of a rotting corpse with such animism.  One way to resolve the conflict would be to bury the corpse with an accompanying ceremony to affirm the spiritual value of the dead.

If Dennett’s goal is to show that religion can be explained naturalistically, he is largely successful.  The problem is that he has no way to counter the claim of human ensoulment by supernatural means and therefore no way to convince those who start with a non-naturalistic assumption or those who find naturalistic explanations alone to be inadequate to account for the fullness and richness of human experience.

Denial of the supernatural based on the lack of empirical evidence is hardly an argument against it.  By definition, the supernatural would be non-material and non-observable.  All that is required for belief in the supernatural is a conviction that it is possible or a deeply felt experience that one interprets as spiritual or mystical or transcendent in some way.  If the supernatural is possible, then it is not unreasonable to believe in it.  And many believers can offer logically thought out reasons, as well as experiential claims to support their belief.  Of course, there are also many believers who simply accept uncritically what they have been taught or base their beliefs on little more than wishful thinking.

I personally find it difficult to invalidate anyone’s deeply held religious beliefs, especially when they are based on reason and/or experience.  Even if I don’t agree with them, they deserve my respect.

By the same token, I can respect the strongly held beliefs of a naturalist like Dennett.

Where I have a problem is with dogmatism, whether it be the dogmatism of a religious fundamentalist or of a scientific materialist.

Dennett is playful enough in his speculations to avoid a dogmatic tone.  Yet his uncritical assumption of naturalism and his barely concealed contempt for religious believers as inferior to himself is off-putting, to say the least, unless of course the reader shares his assumptions and his sense of superiority.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An Enemy of the People I

Upon reflecting on the ethical issues that arise in “A Horseman in the Sky” (see previous post) we might ask whether “duty” is a relative term.  If we sympathize with the Union cause in the Civil War, then Druse’s decision to join the Federal Army is morally right, but if one values loyalty to one’s “homeland” and family, then Druse’s decision is a form of betrayal, even more so because he abandons his mother on her deathbed.  Similarly, from a perspective of military duty, Druse is right to kill his father (or cause his father’s death by shooting his horse), whereas from the perspective of familial duty he should hold his fire, even if it means putting his comrades and the Union cause at risk.

Is morality always relative, depending on culture, upbringing, religion, circumstances, or even one’s own individual moral code, or are there certain general principles of moral behavior that transcend culture, social norms, religion, specific situations, or individual preference?  In Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People, one man defies the civic authorities and the majority opinion of his town in order to take a stand for what he believes is objectively true and morally right.

Dr. Stockmann had developed the plans for the healing baths that have made his town prosperous.  As the chief medical officer in charge of the baths, he notices that after using them some visitors had contracted typhus, so he sends some water samples to be tested at a university laboratory.  The results reveal that the baths have become polluted, and Dr. Stockmann immediately reports this information to the authorities, including his brother, the mayor.

When the mayor and other town leaders find out how much it would cost to repair the baths, how long it would take, and how much lost revenue the town would suffer, they suddenly become skeptical of the lab report and insist that Stockmann not make it public.  His brother threatens to fire him from his job if he spreads the word.  Even Stockmann’s wife, concerned for the well-being of their family, urges him to remain quiet.

In the end the whole town turns against him, and his wife’s fears are realized, as Stockmann is declared an enemy of the people.  He is fired, his patients are told to boycott him, his daughter loses her teaching position, and his sons are attacked in school.  In a public speech to the town Stockmann argues that “might” (in the form of majority opinion and civic authority) does not make “right.”  Truth and right are not relative to the prevailing winds, but have an objective standing, independent of the town culture and social norms.

In rereading this play I was reminded of our own contemporary deniers of evolution and climate change.  When the truth challenges traditional belief or threatens economic well-being, it may find itself dismissed as false, fraudulent, or even conspiratorial.  But, as has often been said, “facts are stubborn things,” and the failure to heed them may lead to disaster.  Some “truths” may indeed be contingent on time, place, and even individual preference, but some truths apply regardless of such circumstances. 

Of course there is a significant difference between a scientifically demonstrable fact and a moral principle, which is beyond the bounds of science.  But is morality outside the bounds of reason? 

When slavery was a socially acceptable practice, did that make it right?  Did it only become wrong when enough people decided it was wrong, or was it always wrong?  Do humans have universal rights?  Or are human rights relative to time and place?

Does Carter Druse have a duty to help abolish the evil of slavery in his country by supporting the Union cause, even if it means abandoning his mother and killing his father, or does he have a duty to protect the “way of life” of his region and family, not to mention a duty to honor his mother and protect his father’s life? 

Does Stockmann have a duty, not only to scientific truth, but also to the well-being of those who use the baths, or does he have a duty to protect the economic welfare of his town and his family, even if it means innocent people get sick and even die? 

Is it all relative or is one choice morally superior to the other?

Friday, November 1, 2013

"A Horseman in the Sky"

Christian ethics (see previous posts on “The Bishop and the Candlesticks” and “Bartleby the Scrivener”) is based on the “divine command” theory of ethics, which in turn is usually based on a sacred text, purporting to embody the word of a supreme deity.  Good and bad behavior is determined by an appeal to the authority of a higher power.  These commands, such as “Thou shalt not kill,” don’t usually include any exceptions, qualifiers or guidance on how to choose when one command comes in conflict with another or when special circumstances such as war or self-defense arise.   The appeal to authority removes the burden of having to think through and develop one’s own moral code, but the absence of exceptions often leaves the believer in a moral dilemma with no way out.  As shown in “Bartleby” and “The Bishop and the Candlesticks,” divine commands often set an impossibly high standard.  They might work in fiction, but not necessarily in reality.

There are those who believe that religion is necessary to morality, but the deontological theory of ethics is based on our human ability to think for ourselves.  We don’t need religion to tell us that killing and other harmful acts are wrong.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that such prohibitions are necessary to the viability of human society, not to mention our own self-interest.  In *The Lord of the Flies* by William Golding human nature is represented as selfish and cruel, once the thin layer of socialization has been stripped away; yet the novel appeals to our innate good sense about the need for a moral code.  When Piggy asks, “Which is better—to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?” there is little doubt about the right answer.   Certain behaviors are intrinsically wrong, and we have a practical and moral duty to refrain from them.  However, in certain situations it may be our duty to kill, as in war.  Under most wartime conditions, a soldier will kill the enemy without question.  Not only is it a matter of following legal military orders, but it is also a matter of kill or be killed.  But what if that duty conflicts with another one?  What if the “enemy” is a friend or family member, to whom we also have certain obligations of concern? 

Such is precisely the dilemma of Carter Druse in Ambrose Bierce’s 1889 Civil War story “A Horseman in the Sky.”  A native Virginian, Druse chooses to join the Union side.  When he tells his father of his decision, the elder Druse accepts his son’s choice, telling him “Well, go, sir, and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty.” 

Later, Druse is assigned to keep watch on a cliff overlooking his comrades in the valley below as they prepare for a sneak attack on a Confederate camp site.  Should they be detected by the enemy, not only would their plan fail but they would themselves be in a “perilous” position.  Druse falls asleep on his watch, but awakes in time to see a Confederate horseman on the cliff looking down on the five regiments of Federal infantry.  From his hidden location, Druse can easily kill the horseman and save his comrades from detection, but the horseman happens to be his father. 

After a struggle with his conscience, Druse shoots the horse, causing both horse and rider to plunge down the side of the cliff.  Presumably, Druse can satisfy his conscience that he has fulfilled his military duty (and saved his comrades) while also refraining from shooting his own father.  Clearly, though, by shooting the horse, Druse is responsible for his father’s death.  On the other hand, his father had told him to do his duty “whatever may occur.”  The question is, which duty is the higher one in this situation, his familial duty or his military duty?  Which is worse, patricide or treason?

A similar ethical dilemma arises in Susan Glaspell’s short story “Trifles” (see Jan. 19, 2011 post).  Two women struggle between their duty to reveal evidence of a crime and their duty to protect their friend, who has apparently murdered her husband.  Believing there were extenuating circumstances that may have justified the murder, the women end up concealing evidence.   

Whatever we may think of the actions taken by the characters in the two stories, the point is that deontological ethics, like divine command theory, may not help us when we are confronted with two bad choices.

But is the main function of either story to question the efficacy of deontological ethics?  Probably not.  As stated in my blog post on “Trifles,” the main point of the story had to do with the way the male characters dismiss and trivialize the women, thereby overlooking the evidence the women have found. It is not just that the women conceal the evidence, but that the men can’t conceive they might find something significant while sorting through the domestic “trifles” of the suspect.

So, what is the main point of “A Horseman in the Sky”?  Is it an anti-war story, suggesting that war itself is immoral, forcing soldiers to commit horrible acts that they would never commit in civilian life?  Is it about the twisted ironies of life, in which a father’s advice to his son is turned against him?  Or is it about Carter Druse’s character?  After all, he makes his decision to join the Federal Army while his mother lies on her deathbed.  What does that say about his devotion to familial duty? Couldn’t he have waited until after her impending death?  Why does he not struggle with his conscience over abandoning his dying mother?  And, what does it say about his devotion to military duty that he is asleep at his post and only by chance awakes in time to see the Confederate horseman?  Does his struggle with his conscience before shooting the horse suggest a moral advance over his failed duty to his mother?  Or, does his shooting of the horse represent yet another failure to take responsibility for his actions by allowing him to tell himself he didn’t kill his own father?

On a different level, does his decision to join the Federal Army represent an admirable loyalty to the Union (and perhaps an opposition to slavery) or does his disloyalty to his own state (and family)represent yet another failure of character?

Like all good literature, the story is rich with possible interpretations and with implications for our own human reflections on ethics, character, and the ironies of life.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Breaking the Spell II

Chapter 2 of Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett (see previous post, Sept. 2013), “Some Questions About Science,” basically continues the argument that science should study religion, something that most readers of the book probably don’t need to be persuaded of, including me.

I was struck, though, that, having defined the object of his study, religion, in chapter 1, Dennett never defines his methodology, science.  Considering that the act of definition necessarily restricts the meaning of a term and that Dennett’s definition of religion is so narrow (see Sept. 2013 post), his scientific methodology is given rather free range.  The underlying assumption is that, science is the only reliable means to truth and understanding.  It is not subjected to the critical questioning that Dennett applies to religion.

As stated in the previous post (Sept. 2013), I welcome a scientific study of religion as a natural phenomenon.  However, I would also welcome a critical study of science.  Does it have any limitations when it comes to the pursuit of truth?

Merriam-Webster defines “science” as “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through observation and experimentation (  In human history this method has, indeed, proved to be very reliable, enabling us to make predictions about the natural world, the truth of which can then be tested.  It’s a fascinating field of study with many areas of specialization, and I am personally grateful to be living in a world in which science enjoys such broad acceptance and support.  Not only has it made our world more comfortable and convenient, not to mention extending our life spans, it has opened our eyes to ever more wondrous aspects of the natural world. 

One could argue that science has also given us a lot of headaches in, for example, the proliferation of powerful weapons of mass destruction and ever more environmentally destructive machinery, technology, and chemicals.  However, it also offers the means by which we can understand, anticipate, and mitigate the destructive effects of its own application.

I deplore the ignorance of and rejection of science popular among Creationists, global warming deniers, and Bible thumpers.  I do question, however, whether science is the only reliable source of human knowledge.  Is there a distinction between the “natural world” and the human world, that is, between the natural sciences and the human sciences?  Is one more “exact” and reliable than the other?  Is it just “facts” that constitute knowledge or do facts require interpretation in order to be meaningful?  What are the rules of interpretation?  What interpretive methods are used to make sense of the facts, and how reliable are they?  Are all scientific hypotheses testable?  If, by definition, science restricts itself to observable phenomena in the natural, material world, how much can it tell us about non-material phenomena, for example, love, virtue, courage, or, let’s say, consciousness? 

When it comes to non-material phenomena, science can only theorize about it as an epiphenomenon having a material basis and cause.  The origin and function of consciousness in the human brain, for example, may well be true, but science has no way to investigate other non-scientific theories on their own terms.  In other words, science, by definition, rests on the assumption that ultimate reality is material and has no way to evaluate theories that assume a non-material reality is possible.  Though it can answer many practical questions and solve many practical problems, it cannot answer the “big” questions of purpose and meaning in human existence or, for that matter, in the universe.  All it can do in that realm is either deny the existence of meaning and purpose (without being able to prove such non-existence) or say “We don’t know.”  We don’t know because we cannot observe it, measure it, quantify, or test it.  If independently existing non-material reality exists, science can tell us nothing about it.

If the human sciences are less exact and reliable than the so-called “hard” natural sciences, it would seem there is a huge dimension of human experience that is well beyond the scientific method, for example, the mysteries of identity and consciousness, meaning, purpose, values, how we should live, morals and ethics.

In addition, science itself has undermines its own certainty.  Quantum physics has shown how the observer alters the reality being observed, raising the question if we can know reality as it exists independent of our own observation.    Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle suggests that what we observe is the result of the conditions of the experiment we set up, again raising the question of whether we can know reality as it exists independent of our own method of study. 

One would think these demonstrable limitations of science would instill some measure of humility in the scientifically minded when it comes to making claims about non-material reality, but they are often as dogmatic and self-righteous as religious fundamentalists when it comes to insisting on the ultimate truth of their own world view.

Chapter 3 of Breaking the Spell, "Why Good Things Happen," begins the study of religion as a natural phenomenon, as we might expect, by making the case that everything humans value can be explained by evolutionary theory and evidence.  Presumably our yearning for meaning, purpose, and validation as creatures of worth in ultimate terms is the result of our evolutionary history. 

Keep in mind that I believe in evolutionary theory.  It has a great deal more evidence to support it than does Creationism.  However, the step from biological evolution to cultural evolution is a step into greater uncertainty.  As Dennett goes on to “explain” religion in evolutionary terms, it remains to be seen whether he can do so without running up against the limits of his own methodology.  For example, even if he persuasively explains the evolutionary origins of our values, will he be able to explain how we determine the relative “worth” of those values?  Can science help us decide what we “ought” to do as well as help us understand “why” we act in certain ways.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"The Bishop and the Candlesticks" (and more on "Bartleby")

Whatever else it may be “Bartleby the Scrivener” (see previous post) raises the ethical question of our responsibility to our fellow human beings.  Are we our brother’s keeper?  And, if so, what does that mean? How far do we take it?

I suspect most contemporary readers would say that the lawyer goes way beyond the call of duty by allowing Bartleby to get away with refusing to work and taking up residence at his workplace.  At one point, the lawyer even offers to take him into his home, but Bartleby “prefers not to.”

Our culture puts a high value on self-reliance and individual responsibility.   If Bartleby refuses to work for a living and provide for himself, then he deserves the consequences.  Even a reader who believes in charity and humane treatment of the undeserving might lose all sympathy when Bartleby refuses the lawyer’s offer of taking him home.

At one point the lawyer recalls the scripture of John 13:34:  “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another.”  If the story constitutes a test of how well the lawyer treats the “least of these” as if they were Christ himself, does it also suggest that such a high standard of brotherly love is completely unrealistic?  Are Christian ethics, taken literally, completely unrealistic in the human realm?  Just how far are we expected to take them?  Does that make the story a critique of Christianity as an impossibly ideal code that is doomed to failure?  Or is it a critique of society and its failure to organize itself in a way that is compatible with and supportive of such a high standard of behavior?  Or both?

Another story that raises these questions is “The Bishop and the Candlesticks,” found at the beginning of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. 

Jean Valjean has been released from prison (actually as a rower, chained to his seat in a sailing ship).  He had initially been sentenced to five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, but his repeated attempts to escape had added 14 more years.  Imprisonment has hardened him, and, upon his release, he is treated cruelly by the local townspeople until one of them finally sends him to the door of the bishop.

Unlike Bartleby’s lawyer, the bishop immediately takes the homeless stranger into his home, gives him a hot meal, and prepares him a bed to sleep in.  In the middle of the night Jean Valjean awakes and, after some indecision, steals the bishop’s silver plates and disappears into the night.  The next day he is captured with the “goods” and brought to the bishop, who tells the gendarmes that he had freely given the man the silver.  When the gendarmes leave, the bishop gives Jean Valjean his two silver candlesticks stating, “It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition and give it to God.”  As we know (Les Miserables having entered into popular culture), Jean Valjean goes on to use this gift to make a new start, live an honest life, care for a dying prostitute, raise her orphaned child as his own, save his adopted daughter's lover from death, and, having been redeemed by the kindly bishop, die a man of goodness and faith.

Is the bishop a type of Christ who saves Jean Valjean?  Is he a saint?  Or is he a foolish idealist who is fortunate Jean Valjean did not murder him in his sleep before stealing the silver?  (All this rather overlooks the bishop’s lie to the gendarmes.)

Read realistically, the bishop is a less than credible character who is almost laughably virtuous.  Is that to say that his ethics are too good for this world?  That in real life he would have been quickly exploited by evildoers and sent to his death?  That such goodness could not realistically survive?

Similarly, how realistic is it that a convict mistreated as badly as Jean Valjean would truly reform as a result of the bishop’s one act of compassion and faith?

When we say the story is unrealistic, are we saying that the Christian ethic, when taken literally, is an impossible ideal?  Or are we saying that reality inevitably fails to live up to such a high standard of virtue?

But, of course, neither story is meant to be read realistically.  Both make more sense read as Christian allegory, challenging its (Christian) readers to a higher, more virtuous life, however far that may end up being from the ideal.

In the case of “Bartleby,” however, I do think a valid case could be made, based on other works by Melville (the novel Pierre for example) that the story critiques Christianity for its impractical, if not impossible, expectations for human virtue.  At the same time, its focus on Wall Street and American capitalism suggests that it may be the hypocrisy of a so-called Christian nation that is Melville’s other, equally important, target.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Bartleby the Scrivener"

Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) is one of those tantalizing stories that invite multiple fascinating interpretations:

Bartleby is an eccentric individualist who refuses to conform to social norms.  Society wins.

Bartleby is a mentally ill homeless man who becomes one of society’s disposables.

Bartleby is H D Thoreau, passively resisting authority and paying the price.

Bartleby represents all the victims of greedy capitalism.

Bartleby is a victim of the mindless, mechanical work of industrial society.

Bartleby represents natural human rights (to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?) in conflict with the property rights of capitalist, industrial society.

Bartleby is a Christ-figure or, at least, “one of the least of these” that Christians are commanded to treat as if they were Christ.  His fate illustrates the incompatibility of capitalist, industrial society and Christian values.

Bartleby is the trial sent by God to test the state of the lawyer’s soul as one of the Elect or one of the damned.

Bartleby represents the dehumanization of those caught in the capitalist machine.

Bartleby is a projection of the lawyer’s own dehumanization and his powerlessness to save himself.

Bartleby represents the extreme exercise of free will, allowing him complete freedom, though it leads to his death.

Bartleby represents the universal human condition of the individual in conflict with society.


Well, some are more fascinating than others.

 It’s important to note that the full title of the story is “Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street.”  It’s hard not to infer that Melville intends to comment on the financial center of capitalism.  Nor is it unreasonable to expect the reader to interpret it as such.  The first-person narrator, the lawyer, has found himself a safe, comfortable, and lucrative niche protecting the property rights of capitalists on Wall Street.  The lawyer’s office is tucked between two walls, one white, transparent and well lit and the other black, opaque, and dark.  Bartleby spends much of his time staring out the second blank wall.  Is Melville suggesting that the work of Wall Street walls us off from each other? That the capitalists enjoy the view of a bright wall while the workers’ outlook is dark? That the lawyer is comfortably located between the two, earning a good living in service of the capitalists supported by the labor of his office workers.  Do the walls represent the divisions between economic classes in a capitalist society? 

And what of the work that the office workers perform?  A scrivener is a human Xerox machine, literally copying documents by hand and then laboriously checking the copies for accuracy as the lawyer reads the original aloud.  This mechanical, mindless work is paralleled by the predictable behavior of the workers, who themselves seem somehow “programmed.”  The elderly Turkey is mild-mannered and productive in the morning but turns erratic, and error-prone in the afternoon.  The young Nippers, on the other hand, is restless and nervous in the morning but settles down in the afternoon.  Does their robotic behavior reflect the mind-numbing nature of industrial work under capitalism?

Into this Pavlovian world enters Bartleby, who starts out as a reliable copier but refuses to participate in the checking of the documents, simply replying “I prefer not to” when called to work by the lawyer.  He then begins to reply in the same manner when asked to run an errand.  Eventually, he refuses to work at all and simply stares at the window at the dark, blank wall.  Unlike the lawyer, who fits comfortably into the world of Wall Street, Bartleby asserts his free will in the extreme, using “passive resistance” to defy the lawyer and his world. 

The lawyer, to his credit, tries every means of persuasion to win Bartleby’s cooperation before finally firing him.  Bartleby, however, refuses to leave the premises.  It seems he has been living there all along.  Rather than resort to calling the police or forcibly removing Bartleby himself, the lawyer takes the extreme measure of moving his office to another site.  But, this action, similar perhaps to Pilate washing his hands of final judgment on Jesus Christ, merely enables the lawyer to avoid taking any responsibility for the man.  When the new occupant of the lawyer’s old office space shows up to insist “you are responsible for the man you left there,” the lawyer, like Peter denying Christ, responds, “the man you allude to is nothing to me…no relation or apprentice of mine that you should hold me responsible for him.”

If these comparisons to Christ seem to be a bit of a stretch, consider that, at one point when the lawyer is debating what to do about Bartleby, he overhears a conversation, which he believes at first is about his indecision but then realizes is actually about the mayoral election being held that day.  In Melville’s day, “election” would have a religious as well as a political meaning.  In the Calvinist theology in which Melville was steeped ( one was predestined to be one of Elect (preordained by God for salvation) or one of the damned.  Is Bartleby a test of the state of the lawyer’s soul?  Is the lawyer one of the Elect or is he damned?  According to Matthew 25: 31-42 Christ will return on Judgment Day and determine who goes to heaven and who to hell based on whether one has treated those in need as if they were Christ himself. 

In the end the lawyer visits Bartleby in prison, where he is found facing a “high wall” among “murderers and thieves.”  Is it significant that Christ was crucified between two thieves?  Is it significant that when the lawyer returns to find Bartleby dead he makes a reference to him being at rest “With kings and counselors” (Job 3:14)? 

For all the compassion that the lawyer feels toward Bartleby, in the end he does not take responsibility for this “least of these” (Matthew 25: 40).  From a realistic perspective, we might say that the lawyer went far beyond what was reasonable to expect by not calling the police on Bartleby or throwing him out forcibly.  Yet, from a Christian perspective, we might say the lawyer utterly failed to meet the test that Christ set for salvation.  Is Melville questioning whether a capitalist society can also be a Christian society?  Or is he questioning whether Christian ethics is realistic and reasonable in the human realm?

If the lawyer, who seems to allow circumstances to determine his actions,  represents the Calvinist belief in predestination (absence of free will), does Bartleby represent the Transcendentalist belief in free will and individual responsibility?  If so, do the two characters represent the extremes to which the two positions can be taken?  Is it fair to condemn the lawyer for failing to meet Christ’s high standard for salvation?  Is it fair to glorify Bartleby for his (selfish?) insistence on individual “preference”?  Is Melville, like Hawthorne (see previous posts Oct. 2012 & May 2013), using Puritan Calvinism to critique romantic Transcendentalism and vice versa? 

For that matter, is Bartleby truly a victim of capitalism or society in general?  Or is he a victim of his own willfulness? 

I find myself intrigued, though, by the idea of Bartleby as a projection of the narrator’s own psyche.  To what extent has the narrator been dehumanized by his acquiescence to his social and economic circumstances? To what extent is it dehumanizing to deny the power of free will to individuals?  Does Bartleby represent the lawyer’s own dehumanization on one hand and his repressed desire to rebel and assert himself on the other?  If Bartleby is a fantastic version of the lawyer’s own psyche, does he take such an extreme form because the lawyer himself is so extremely passive, non-confrontational, and powerless? 

In any case, the story raises profound questions regarding social organization, material vs. spiritual well-being, religion, individualism, ethics, and our responsibility to each other as fellow human beings.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Breaking the Spell I

My Unitarian Universalist Adult Religious Education group is reading Daniel Dennett’s 2006 study of religion *Breaking the Spell.*  The plan is to discuss small chunks every two weeks or so through next May.  Therefore my plan is to post a series of commentaries, one chunk at a time, allowing for much more depth than most of my blog posts.  This post covers chapter 1, “Breaking Which Spell?” 

Dennett proposes to break the taboo against studying religion scientifically “as a natural phenomenon” even at the risk of breaking the spell, the “enchantment,” of religion itself.   I found it puzzling that he would spend so much time defending this proposal since I was under the impression that historians, social scientists, psychologists, etc., had been studying religion and religious experience long before 2006.  As a student at a Disciples of Christ sponsored college in the late 1960s, I was required to take two semesters of religion.  Both courses were scholarly studies of the Bible based on historical, textual, and linguistic evidence.  Jerry Falwell studied under the same professor as I did, and, according to the professor, he objected strongly and vocally to this approach to Biblical study.  The taboo was apparently real for Falwell (no surprise there), but the professor defended his approach on academic grounds and no students, faculty, or administrators that I knew ever objected.

Having been raised as a Southern Baptist I will confess that my college religion classes did break what little was left of the “spell” that my religious upbringing had cast over me.  That spell, however, had already been put in question by high school biology (we studied evolution) and my own rational thinking.  Ironically, it was my formal and informal study of literature, poetry, metaphor, symbolism, mythology, world religion, philosophy, astronomy, and physics that recast the spell in much more sophisticated, figurative, abstract, and, yes, scientific terms. 

My reading of *The Housewife and the Professor* (see previous post) reminded me of my early fascination with Platonism, which I studied in college philosophy classes and which could be considered a religious world view.

And like many of my friends, who consider themselves “religious” or “spiritual,” I welcome the study of religion and the opportunity to expand my understanding of this aspect of my experience and understanding of the world.  I wonder why Dennett has not been exposed to more of us for whom religion, responsible scholarship, rational thinking, and scientific study are not necessarily at odds.

Related to this question is the second bone I have to pick with Dennett’s first chapter.  Why does he define religion so narrowly?  Here’s his “tentative” definition:  religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”  I understand the value of distinguishing between organized religion (“social systems”) and private religious or “spiritual” experience or belief.  But why must religion be limited to belief in a “supernatural agent  or agents whose approval is to be sought”?  Dennett seems to restrict religion to belief in an anthropomorphic “god” or “gods” with the power to pass judgment on us.  He seems to take the anthropomorphic language of traditional religion literally, without allowing for the capacity of believers to use the language metaphorically.

In other words, he seems to propose to subject fundamentalist, literalistic religious belief (such as that of Jerry Falwell) to an exhaustive scientific study but not the kind of religion that itself takes into account science and rationality or the kind that resists claims of certainty but simply maintains a mindset that is open to exploring the possibility of a supernatural reality (not necessarily a being or “agent”) or dimension in the universe. 

Finally, by Dennett’s definition, my own religious denomination of Unitarian Universalism, though it qualifies as a social system, would not meet his definition, and would therefore be considered a form of religious fraud, illegitimately taking advantage of the 501c3 tax exemption for religious organizations. 

I wonder if his “tentative” definition will undergo any loosening or broadening as his study continues to unfold.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Housekeeper and the Professor

I would love to see a mathematician find a complicated mathematical system in this 2003 novel by Japanese writer Yoko Agawa.  I am certain it must be there, but finding it is above my pay grade.

What I can attest to is how the novel demonstrates that, like mathematics, art can transcend the disorder of lived experience and bring order out of chaos.

The Housekeeper is the daughter of a single mother who was abandoned by the father, and the Housekeeper is in turn a single mother raising her son alone, having been abandoned by the father.  The Professor is suffering from memory loss since a traffic accident in 1975.  He can remember nothing after that date except in 80-minute segments.  The Professor’s sister-in-law, now widowed, allows him to live in a cottage near her house and hires the Housekeeper to make his meals and clean for him, but she seemingly wants to have nothing to do with either of them—no visits, no phone calls, no communication whatsoever.

The characters represent broken lives, broken relationships, and broken memories.  Of course their identities are affected and perhaps that is why we never learn their real names.  But mathematics, the Professor’s field of study, becomes the unlikely means by which memory loss is transcended, new bonds and new identities are formed, and a new family is made.

The Professor has not forgotten his numbers, his equations, or his mathematical theories.  He spends his days working on (and winning) mathematics contests, and he uses math to relate to every character.  Every day when the Housekeeper arrives, he greets her as if they have never met before and asks her birthdate, which he then uses to espouse the meaning of the numbers and how they fit into a mathematical system.

He delights in teaching the Housekeeper and later her son, challenging them with mathematical problems and puzzles.  Though the Professor does not remember the Housekeeper or her son more than 80 minutes at a time, he relates to them, not only at the level of math, but at a human level, discontinuous though it may be.

When he learns the Housekeeper has a son who must wait at home every day for his mother to return from work, the Professor insists she allow her son to come to his house after school.  When Root, as the Professor nicknames the son, accidentally cuts his hand with a knife the Professor is overwrought with worry and fear for the boy’s well-being.  The two bond over a love of baseball, although the Professor thinks the players and teams are pre-1975.  While Root carefully and cheerfully indulges the Professor in his pre-1975 memories, they are able to combine baseball and mathematics in their study of statistics.

Eventually the three characters begin to act like a family, the Professor becoming like the father that Root never had, the Housekeeper looking after him as she might care for her own aging and unknown father.

Mathematics is the means by which they transcend not only their own personal brokenness, but also the social disconnections of class, age, and gender.  The Professor is a highly educated man of professional class, while the Housekeeper works at a menial job as a domestic.  The older Professor could be her father and her son’s grandfather, but neither class nor age differences prevent them from forming a meaningful relationship.  The Professor’s love of mathematics transcends any bias against a working-class woman and her son being able to understand sophisticated mathematical theory. 

It might be possible to read some kind of erotic attraction into the relationship of the Professor and his Housekeeper.  A certain domestic intimacy develops and even a degree of personal intimacy as the Housekeeper cares for the professor’s physical needs when he develops a fever.  Certainly the sister-in-law becomes suspicious when the Housekeeper and her son spend the night at the Professor’s cottage during his illness and goes so far to have the Housekeeper fired.  Later we learn of a past romantic relationship between the sister-in-law and the Professor.  Could she have been jealous of the closeness between him and the Housekeeper?

In any case, once again it is mathematics that transcends the enmity between the sister-in-law and the Housekeeper, restores the domestic arrangement, and eventually leads to the formation of a larger circle of all four characters when the Professor is moved to a care facility and receives regular visits from his sister-in-law, the Housekeeper, and her son.  It is a mysterious mathematical equation, with special meaning between the Professor and his sister-in-law, that leads to the final resolution and the expanded circle of relationship.

The Professor believes that numbers existed before humans and that a mathematical order exists independently of the natural universe and the human realm.  His faith in an invisible order comes to sustain the Housekeeper as well as himself.  “Eternal truths are ultimately invisible,” he says, “and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions.  Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression—in fact nothing can prevent it from doing so.”

This Platonic conception of an abstract reality transcending that which we can know with our senses becomes a source of reassurance and peace to the Housekeeper as she contemplates the Professor’s explanation of a “true line” extending “infinitely in either direction”:


                …I realized how much I needed this eternal truth that the Professor had described. I needed the sense that this invisible world was somehow propping up the visible one, that this one, true line extended infinitely, without width or area, confidently piercing through the shadows.  Somehow this line would help me find peace.

Thus does this seemingly simple but remarkable story of a domestic arrangement that evolves into a family circle suggest a much larger significance, with philosophical, even theological, implications.

As for a mathematical order in the story, it is perhaps notable that there are 11 chapters in the novel and that the central chapter, number six, contains the crucial crisis point when the Professor develops a fever, when the Housekeeper with her son spends the night to watch over and care for him, and when the sister-in-law, having observed this breach of what she considers the Housekeeper’s appropriate role, has her fired.  The first five chapters lead up to this crisis, and the last five unravel the resulting tangle of confusion and disruption to arrive at a final resolution.  This kind of symmetry is commonly found in art, and, like the mathematical system it is based on, brings order out of the chaos of lived human experience.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"I Have a Dream" and the Gettysburg Address

The August 24 March on Washington this past weekend commemorated the 1963 March, which culminated in the first Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964, but the actual 50th anniversary is today, August 28, 2013.  Fifty years ago today Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech (, which, along with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (, is perhaps the best known piece of political oratory in American history.

King directly ties his speech to the American Dream and reminds us how that dream has been denied to most African Americans since they first set foot on American soil. 

When we think of the American Dream, most of us think first of economic prosperity, or, or at least the opportunity to achieve it.  We think of “the land of opportunity,” as countless immigrants have seen us, and the “rags to riches” myth of upward social mobility.  I say “myth” because, while it captures a universal aspiration and is a widespread belief, its reality has been denied to as many, probably more, than have achieved it, however hard-working and virtuous they may have been.

Yet the American Dream represents more than economic success; it also stands for political freedom, social equality, and personal fulfillment.  And King’s speech references those values as much, even more, than it does the dream of material prosperity.

If it is as famous as the Gettysburg Address, what characteristics does it share with Lincoln’s best known speech?  They both rest on what might be better called the American Promise than the American Dream.  They both expressly quote from the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and King cites the “unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

While Lincoln does not name the blight of slavery, he ties the principle of equality to “the unfinished work which those who fought here have so nobly advanced,” “the great task remaining before us,” and “our increased devotion to that great cause” for which so many have died.  Lincoln calls for “a new birth of freedom.”  Without saying so directly, he frames the Civil War as a struggle to fulfill that original promise of full political and social equality.

King, on the other hand, directly names the failures of that promise a century after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863—“segregation,” “discrimination,” “poverty,” and “police brutality.”  But, like Lincoln, he calls for a new resolve to fulfill the original promise of the American Dream—the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

Both speakers are addressing but half the nation, Lincoln, the Union, still in the midst of war with the Confederacy; and King, African Americans and their white allies in the grip of struggle with segregationists and white supremacists.

 Lincoln’s rhetorical task is somewhat easier.  As he dedicates a burial ground for the Union dead, he is able to freely use “our” and “we” without excluding any of his Union audience, establishing an unqualified identification with his listeners that serves to unify them in their shared experience, values, and grand national cause.

King’s audience consists of both African Americans and white supporters.  He can use “our” and “we” when referring to their shared values and civil rights struggle, but often refers to African Americans in third person when referring to their experiences of racial injustice.  He sets aside a part of his speech to acknowledge “our white brothers,” who have come to realize that “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”  And the dream is expressed in terms of full inclusion for all, not only in the segregationist South, but also in “our Northern cities,” “the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire,” “the mighty mountains of New York,” and “the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.” “Our” and “we” shift back and forth from civil rights supporters to African Americans to all Americans.

Lincoln makes no reference to the enemies of freedom and equality in the slave-holding South.  The lines of war are clearly drawn and well understood.  His focus throughout his speech is the noble ideal of the Union cause.  The ignoble cause of the Confederacy is merely implied by unspoken comparison.

King, on the other hand, is concerned, not only with the legal segregation of the South but with the “slums and ghettoes” of the North.  And while he invokes the history of slavery and the “vicious racists” in the South, his dream is large enough to include all Americans sitting together “at the table of brotherhood,” joining hands “as sisters and brothers.”  He includes segregationists and racists in his dream of “all God’s children,” including blacks and whites, “Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” singing together as equals “the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God Almighty, We are free at last.”

Thus as Lincoln transcends the divisions of the Civil War by focusing on the ideal of a nation united in freedom and equality, so King transcends the divisions of race by focusing on a dream that is all inclusive, even to the point of including white people in the words of a Negro spiritual.

The language of the two speeches is very different.  Lincoln’s is more solemn and stately, as befitting the dedication of a national cemetery, and more abstract, as befitting, perhaps, the more ceremonial occasion.  King’s language is more concrete, metaphorical, poetic, emotive, and rousing as he seeks to mobilize a movement in pursuit of legal redresses for a long history of suffering.  Lincoln is not making an abolitionist speech, but rather seeking to strengthen Union resolve to see the war through to its end.  King does not have the standing of national office from which to speak and must use his language to establish himself as a credible leader and to inspire his followers by putting memorable words to the dream in all their hearts.

Lincoln uses the language of a civic leader while King uses that of a preacher and an activist.  Yet their argument is the same:  the American Promise remains unfulfilled and its realization is worthy of sacrifice.  Our nation’s greatness, our nation’s future, and our nation’s endurance depend upon it.

Both also see themselves as renewing the original American Promise, both invoking the Declaration of Independence, King invoking the Emancipation Proclamation.  Taken together the two speeches mark historical milestones in the ongoing effort to realize the Dream.