Abraham Lincoln, genius and depression

Abraham Lincoln is one of the great politicians of all time. A man who confessed he was at sea in the chaos of politics and war, that events controlled him more than he events. And yet Lincoln did that thing that a great politician does like the alchemist. To fashion something good or even great from the chaos.

Out of the chaos of politics and war Abraham Lincoln fashioned a hymn to human dignity that we still sing and that is encapsulated in his great speeches which are still committed to memory by millions every year.

Last month’s Atlantic Monthly had an article about Abraham Lincoln and his depression something that interested me sufficiently to try to buy it on line. One can buy New York Review of Books reviews for US$3 on line, which is great.

But not so the Atlantic Monthly. So I trooped across town and bought a copy for something like AUD$14 (I doubt this represented US$3 profit for the publisher but never mind.) The author will be interviewed on Late Night Live tonight.

It’s an interesting article, though mainly because it’s an interesting subject. I’d be happy to lend anyone a copy of the article if they want to e-mail me at nicholas AT gruen DOT com DOT au.

I sent this to a friend who responded as follows.

Thanks for thinking to send me the Lincoln article.

I have just read it. Couldn’t help but think it greatly romanticised this kind of suffering. Its an attractive idea that great suffering, especially mental suffering, brings gifts – but I doubt it. The author never really grapples with the possibility that Lincoln’s genius could have been damaged by his illness, not magnified, as he seems to suggest. I find his division of his life/stages in his development as Fear, Engagement, Transcendence to be wishful thinking on his part, rather than categories supported by the evidence (that he presents, anyway). On the other hand he does do an interesting job of showing how conflicted by despair and hope Lincoln was at all stages of his life. Once again, though, I don’t see the connection with depression – Clarity, Creativity and Humility are general human qualities, and as praiseworthy as they are, I don’t think he makes the case they are connected casually (not merely circumstantially) to his ‘great depression’.

My hunch is that his suffering brought him and those close to him to grief. Like death itself – grief is all that grief is, nothing more and certainly nothing noble. This is not to say the circumstances in his life didn’t help him on his way – the very fact that he was so tall probably helped him as much.

Of course I admire Lincoln – especially the way he did not give in, and of course his convictions contra slavery are generally regarded as worthy of praise. . . .

I think it is a myth that artists are more productive and creative when depressed – the truth is far more prosaic I think. Artists, thinkings, statesmen just like everyone else are probably more productive and creatively active when being exactly like every other non-depressed person. My model for this is Bach. He created a cantata a week every week for years and years, fathered innumerable children, married several times, composed in addition innumerable works regarded as amongst the finest in the tradition and yet – no depression. Just an ordinary mental outlook – nothing unusual (!), nothing exceptional. Ditto Mozart. Ditto Kant – whose output in the twilight of his life is truly and absolutely staggering. As for writers, so little is known of Shakespeare, but how could his name not be mentioned? Of course there are artists who lead troubled lives, but that’s normal.

Underneath all that there is something I deeply reject. The implication is that great achievements are more likely against great suffering – this tends to put achievement in a special category. I would be happier with an argument which saw that achievement together with failure, the work of saints and the greatest sinners, are just the efforts of people like you and me. One and all. Ordinary. We have full responsibility for what is done – not some pathological condition or other special category (like ‘genius’).

I agree.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

I think it has more to do with an embelleshment of suffering, rather than of genius- the idea that great pain somehow brings us closer to greatness itself. Or, in the case of depression, perhaps that complete desolation is true realism, and to salvage purpose/meaning from it errects genius as a monument to human transendance. One truly understood by those who have shared a similar degree of suffering.

Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

think it has more to do with an embelleshment of suffering, rather than of genius- the idea that great pain somehow brings us closer to greatness itself. Or, in the case of depression, perhaps that complete desolation is true realism, and salvaging purpose/meaning from it errects the genius as a monument to human transendance. Truly understood only by those who have shared a similar degree of suffering.

Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

bah! sorry for the double post.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

There’s a fascinating hall of mirrors in here. Depression on a clinical level comes from a damaged brain. Nothing good comes of it.

The person who struggles against depression may hone some personal qualities, but they could be honed by any challenge.

Bipolarity seems to be different. Some people can make their brains work better when they are in an ecstatic state, though they may have to deal with the consequences of risk taking later, either in their lives or the material they create.

Neurotic despair is something else, in my view, which proceeds from the fact that we are imprinted strongly by early childhood experiences, and deeply traumatic moments later on. Once the shape is set up, the brain withdraws the ability to erase the shape, so a personality is set. Like a jelly, or learning a language.

That is a survival system, called “becoming someone”, who is unique but has a pattern of repeated behaviour. In that framework, some people are more or less effective than others, and the self is more or less contradictory. “Well adjusted” people are “more realistic” and generally happier, but there is no particular cutoff point between mad and sane in this framework.

Changing it is difficult; it is easier to manage the self than to change it, but managing it is a form of change..

Better stop. I am blundering into a century of very deep thought, armed with nothing more than a wry appreciation of my own strengths and weaknesses.

Marc Nelson
Marc Nelson
2022 years ago

The point, I think, is that he survived, was changed and found a way to continue through grappling with his demons intellectually and philisophically. Contrast the courage and empathetic Lincoln with the pharmacuetically buffered and self serving Bush (self-medicator) and his Father (Halcyon). No bumps in the road, no conscience. Correlation? Maybe. Is there anything in the human condition that does not serve evolution one way or another? We now know depression has a genetic element. Why would somethng so antithetical to the joy of existence become ingrained in a fraction of the population? Maybe it serves to forge the will to steel rather than self relativism.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Thanks for that.

What’s the story on the Bushes?

My understanding is that Halcyon is a sleeping tablet, not a mood enhancer. I wouldn’t begrudge GWI the odd sleeping tablet.