Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin: two great men, both born on February 12, 1809, are scrutinized in New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. In this year of their bicentennial birthdays, essayist Gopnik (Through the Children’s Gate) reveals a lifelong respect for these heroes and renders a finely considered, thought-provoking examination of their lives, their visions and the influence of their literary eloquence, borne of their public and private lives and “predicaments” of their times. Well-crafted essays form a double portrait, which avoids the shoehorn of mere comparison, illustrating that “it is not what they have in common with each other that matters; it is what they have in common with us,” namely, how Lincoln’s oral brilliance and exactitude and Darwin’s finely layered writings influence how we speak, think and live, publicly and privately, individually and collectively, and form our evolving democratic culture.

Gopnik perceives Lincoln and Darwin as symbols of the “twin pillars” upon which our modern-day society rests: democracy and science. Beyond his timely thesis that “literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization,” the author gives abbreviated biographies of the two eloquent men—an unsentimental analysis of politician Lincoln’s devotion to law, and a softer sketch of scientist Darwin as storyteller and student of deep time. He further refines the portrayal by showing both men at work and standing in the public eye, as well as sequestered in private life, contrasting how their work helped them gain “masterly knowledge of the common experience”—most notably, death—while this knowledge was of no use as consolation when tragic deaths touched the two men’s families.

This conundrum, which leads to the question of reconciliation, of where and in what space an authentic life is lived, is one that demands our individual and collective intelligence and eloquence. For that space, Gopnik says, is the ironic condition that bedeviled our two heroes. Its resolution calls for us (ape-like and angelic) humans to “be men and women possessed by the urgency of utterance, obsessed by the need to see for themselves and to speak for us all.”

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