Sunday, August 3, 2008

Trapped In a Psych 101 Wormhole

In reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's focused political biography of Lincoln (review to follow), I find myself with a host of questions about human nature, and about ambition and genius and ego. I admit that many people may not be mystified by these issues, but I'm left with a sense of void by some of the people and actions which pass before me in the story, and I find I have many more questions than answers (a happy state of affairs, I think).

Probably the single biggest character trait I see in Lincoln is his absence of ego. It's not exactly that, I think, but he is marked by a seeming incapacity for vindictiveness or revenge, and there is a self-effacing quality to him that is so absolute and universal throughout his life as to make me believe him completely sincere in it. He has a fixed sense of goodness, a desire to see the best in people and to assume the best about them, and all these characteristics seem linked together in some way so that his personality is not a composite of these traits, but rather a singular thing which manifests itself in these and many other ways. (In this, I feel like I'm not identifying his personality very accurately, even if the sense of him is pretty strong.)

These characteristics would be striking in anyone, and especially so in a politician. But they seem positively alien traits in the context of the men by whom he was surrounded and with whom he worked during his presidency--men who, I can't help thinking, were much more representative of humanity than Lincoln.

If it's the absence of ego that chiefly characterizes Lincoln the man, his story is marked by the extreme contempt and ridicule to which he was almost universally subjected during the war. Virtually every member of his Cabinet felt certain of their superiority to Lincoln (and, I daresay, to each other), both in general terms and in the conviction of their greater suitability for the President's job. And that sense was shared by newspapers and military men and diplomats as well. The letters written at the time by these men, and the newspaper editorials, North and South, heaped ridicule and contempt and scorn on Lincoln in a manner as would be heartbreaking to anyone not able to put them entirely aside. It was the rare person, at least at first, who accurately took Lincoln's measure before passing judgment on him.

And it's part of what makes the story remarkable that few of them, maybe not even a single man, had the mettle--the intelligence or the temperament or the vision or the understanding of the circumstances--to pass a level judgment on him. He was reviled, publicly and privately, as an ape and an imbecile, as an illiterate and a man unequal to his office, and much was confidently written about him that was simply wrong, even setting aside the bile of the tone. It's not surprising to hear this kind of contumely from the seceded states (though even then they were willing to kill and to die rather than listen to what he actually said and take him at his word). But his scorn even from the members of his own party and the newspapers of the North was very nearly as bad, and it doubled the mountain he needed to climb.

This is all a bit mysterious to me. This kind of indignant, self-righteous anger is made noteworthy chiefly by its absence in Lincoln in any circumstance. Virtually everyone else--Chase and Seward and Bates and the infuriating George McClellan and Horace Greeley and so many others in high office--blithely breezed through life with a sense of their own superiority to the rest of humanity; with a sense of entitlement, even. Salmon Chase, whom Lincoln brought into his Cabinet as the Secretary of the Treasury, seemed never to tire of thinking of himself as the first among the first tier of men. And he stated this conviction on numerous occasions.

Well, nobody gets to the Presidency without thinking themselves up to the job, I suppose, but I wonder at this personality type and how it relates to things getting done in the world. Chase and Seward and Bates were all very well-to-do men, owning huge mansions and tracts of land. Indeed, Lincoln alone in this group was conspicuous for his humble origins and very modest living.

The most offensive ego of all was that of General George McClellan, at first the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and eventually the General in Chief of the Union Armies. In his numerous letters to his wife, he refers to himself as having been chosen by God to single-handedly save the union, and talks of the scores of letters he received "begging" him to seize the presidency or even to implement a dictatorship. His extreme arrogance and contempt for every other person of attainment around him are breathtaking (and, history tells us, quite badly-judged). He was incapable of accepting responsibility for any misfortune that befell the troops under his command, and he reflexively deflected onto others even the hint of criticism to himself. His behavior to Lincoln was insubordinate and excoriating in the extreme, privately at first and then openly.

All this, of course, is a stark contrast with Lincoln, who seemed not to mind McClellan's haughtiness and paid little attention to slights of decorum. Lincoln simply felt McClellan the person most likely to get a good result, and was willing "to hold his horse" if he brought victories in the field. Lincoln had eventually to remove the General from his post--twice--which must have been intolerable to the supremely self-assured McClellan. Surely the only thing worse than having to bow to a boss whom one felt to be an ignorant buffoon was to be sacked by that same buffoon.

But what interests me presently is not Lincoln's sufferance of these egomaniacs, but rather the sense that this egomania was (is?) considered an accepted and standard state of affairs for the ruling classes. Lincoln stands in such contrast because his supreme gifts--and, after all, his very high attainments--were accompanied by a nature completely at odds with those of his Cabinet and General Staff. His absence of ego did not imply an irresolute nature or a lack of ability--nor a tendency to be crippled by marginal confidence: many times he conferred with his group to get as much information as possible about a thorny situation, and then reached a decision--the prerogative for which he was careful to guard--always at odds with some, and not infrequently at odds with all his advisers. Yet he never took credit for what went well, and always took blame for what went badly, regardless of whose actions were actually at fault. This is the very opposite of the behavior of the rest of his high staff.

In my own life (not, I hasten to add, that I compare even the tiniest part of myself to Abraham Lincoln!) I have never felt the urge or desire to be in control of anyone. I have my areas of strength, and many areas of weakness, such that I can't honestly think myself the superior of any class of people. This is not to say that I have Lincoln's absence of ego: surely in my mind I'm following a path that I deem "better" than that pursued by others, but even in that I assume I've had a lucky break of circumstances that has led me to such a good place. Rather, I bring up myself only because we cannot know the hearts and motivations of any other nearly so well as we know ourselves; and by our own examples we attempt to judge the motives and capacities of others.

In this vein, I can't help looking at the overt self-confidence of the men surrounding Lincoln as a character flaw. I think the same thing when I meet the swaggering fighter-pilot types in my job, people with a kind of supreme, blind self-assurance. And yet, is this assertion of ego an essential part of achievement? Obviously not absolutely so, since here is Lincoln accomplishing a herculean task--a superhuman one, we might say--without this self-importance. But assuming he is much the exception, how much of human achievement--from writing to medicine to space travel--has come specifically from people with an infallible sense of self and an urge to assert themselves over others? Is it wrong of me to think of this kind of person as flawed?

Many of these men in Lincoln's story spend a great deal of time and effort chronicling the wrongs done to them, and expressing with anger and contempt the litany of reasons why they should have attained what they have not. These are accomplished lawyers and businessmen who are in the President's Cabinet in the world's most powerful country; and yet their lives are much consumed by all that has NOT gone their way. In this I am reminded of a number of the people with whom I work, people upon whom, I should think, life has smiled; we have a great job, where we perform interesting and gratifying tasks for good compensation, we have a great schedule, and we enjoy many benefits. And yet the chief characteristic of a fair number of my coworkers is their anger at all that is wrong in the world and especially at all the ways these wrongs have thwarted THEM (I think, as Exhibit A, of the scores and scores of white guys who are palpably livid at the small number of women in the cockpit, women who owe their jobs, the contention is made, to the unfair advantage of affirmative action. It's hard not to feel a contempt for someone who has become embittered by this short-sighted and ill-informed viewpoint). Reading of the angry men around Lincoln, I cannot help thinking of some of my coworkers.

Maybe I'm drawing the wrong parallel. Maybe these things have nothing in common. But it makes me wonder if some ultimate restlessness is a standard component of greatness? Must there be a wave of those trying to achieve--a throng of haughty and smug who have in fact achieved little--in order for the few to succeed? Is my bland contentment in life a barrier to achievement? Does ambition require a certain spark of indignation, a sense of what COULD be and a dissatisfaction at what IS?

The story of Lincoln is remarkable for a thousand reasons. But not the least of these is his combination of ambition without ego, his drive for the esteem of his fellow citizens which seemed not to be accompanied by any of the usual baggages. But he complicates my attempt to understand some part of human nature exactly because he so little represents its mean.


Foilwoman said...

Wow! I have to read that book. You talk about some white-male traits I saw a lot in the profession I have left (not to be identified, but heavily male) where men who earn a lot (way more than the local or national average) and have a lot of prestige feel very put upon. I have several coworkers now who have to explain in detail how much better they are than their supervisors, colleagues, and subordinates, and by doing so don't realize they are showing their true inferiority. The Lincoln you describe is someone I have to read more about. The book sounds fascinating, even though Doris Kearns Goodwin makes me a bit nervous (factually speaking).

wunelle said...

I've always known that I'm not really the right person for the job I hold--or at least not one with a typical constitution for the field. And if we inventory the opinions of pilots, they'll certainly find me the defective one. So I must be careful not to fall victim to absolutism.

But up is still up in my mind, no matter how many people tell me it's actually down. Ergo, I love my work, but I long ago ceased to need to feel connected with my coworkers in any way other than doing what we need to do to fly safely. My friends are most all from utterly unrelated backgrounds.

As for Doris Kearns Goodwin, I may write a line or two about her when I finish the book--though certainly not in any authoritative way. I know a bit of her past troubles, but in this case it is her subject matter and original source materials that capture my heart.

wunelle said...

Yeah, and the anger thing really mystifies me. Some of these guys are literally consumed by their anger--it's made them ruined men, I think. I've been telling my friends for years that one of my great fears is to get to be 60 and realize that I've turned into one of these guys, someone whose whole life is consumed with everything they don't have or that hasn't gone their way in life.

Far better to go back to bus driving and feel self-actualized.

Malaise Inc said...

"Team of Rivals" was an excellent book. I walked away with the conviction that Lincoln was probably our greatest President. And, living in the present, it underscored to me how the Party of Lincoln has devolved into an anti-intellectual force in our political life. Lincoln was no policy wonk. But,he did not revel in willful ignorance like our current crop of Republicans do.