Book Review: Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik


Author: Adam Gopnik
Title: Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
Publication Info: Knopf (2009), Edition
ISBN: 0307270785

Summary/Review:

My annual Lincoln/Darwin Day reading is a short book published for the bicentennial of their birth. This book is an extended rumination on the lives of two men born on the same day who helped create the modern world.  Gopnik sees both Lincoln and Darwin as men of words, Lincoln with speech and rhetoric and Darwin with his novelistic prose.  The title and a major issue upon which Gopnik builds his narrative is the debate of Edward Stanton’s eulogy for Lincoln, whether he said “Now he belongs to the angels” or “Now he belongs to the ages.”  This book is an interesting but not essential addition to the literature about these two fascinating men.

Favorite Passages:

“The thesis is that literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization; our heroes should be men and women possessed by the urgency of utterance, obsessed by the need to see for themselves and to speak for us all.  Authoritarian societies can rely on an educated elite; mere mass society, on shared dumb show.  Liberal cities can’t.  A commitment to persuasion is in itself a central liberal principle.  New ways of thinking demand new kinds of eloquence.  Our world rests on science and democracy, on seeing and saying; it rests on thinking new thoughts and getting them heard by a lot of people.” p. 22

“The attempt to make Lincoln into just one more racist is part of the now common attempt to introduce a noxious equilibrium between  minds and parties: liberals who struggle with their own prejudices are somehow equal in prejudice to those who never took the trouble to make the struggle.  Imperfect effort at being just is no different from perfect indifference to it.” -p. 49

“… for the first time, and despite much conventional religious piety — there’s a nascent sence throughout the liberal world that the deaths of young men in war will never be justified in the eyes of a good God, and never compensated for by a meeting in another world.  Their deaths can be made meaningful only through a vague idea of Providence and through the persistence of a living ideal.” – p. 120

Recommended books: Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression by Jacques Derrida, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen, and Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills.
Rating: ***

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