Thursday, August 04, 2005

Lincoln the fatalist

While I'm continuing to read Carl Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln, I came across this interesting statement, published by Lincoln in response to attacks on him by Christian critics:

"A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or any denomination of Christians in particular. It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the "Doctrine of Necessity" -- that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years. And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations. The foregoing, is the whole truth, briefly stated, in relation to myself, upon this subject.
"I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, or the community in which he may live. If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me." -- Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity, 31 July 1846 (copied from here)
So it would seem that Lincoln while not being particularly religious was something of a determinist. Of course determinism in the guise of predestination was always a feature within Christianity, which continues to struggle with the implications this poses to the existence of free will. One wonders if Lincoln got his determinism directly out of Christianity or out of reading some secular philosophers. It seems to be the former.

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