BY MATTHEW HERBERT
For Christmas, my mom got me the book I’d been waiting more than a year to buy, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, by David S. Reynolds. It came out in late 2020, but it’s a 1,000-page tome, and, like all of Reynolds’s books, I wanted to take time to absorb it. For most of 2020 and 2021 I was just coping with, you know, life, so I kept putting Abe off.
Reynolds writes long, detailed books about the cultural forces that shaped major developments in U.S. history, focusing on the 19th century. Even before our current struggles with the blight of nativist authoritarianism, I had long thought the 19th century was pivotal for understanding our country’s self-image and destiny. (How many articles have you read in the last five years that say we are re-living the 1850s? Yeah, me too. But they’re not wrong.) So, Reynolds, I have discovered, validates many of my assumptions about how to read U.S. history.
Anyway, the “fierce rush of life” (Wodehouse) still keeps me from writing much of anything serious here, which is probably just as well. One thing this blog has taught me is that I’m still in the process of purging all the tedious, precious, and otherwise horrible writing that is still inside me and which must be gotten rid of before I can do better. Onward ho.
But yesterday I had a bit of the old feeling again–where I read something trenchant and profound, go on a trail run, and discover a bunch of connections between what I just read and real life. So here it is.
We all love formulas. They simplify our problems. Or they clarify something annoyingly vague about reality. (A friend of mine wrote this wonderful post about trail running that opens with a discussion along these lines of the Hegelian dialectic. Sound intimidating? Well, check out my friend’s post and discover that you already know what the Hegelian dialectic is, and it’s everywhere. Then go show off to your friends.)
But I digress.
As Abraham Lincoln was trying to figure how to turn his opposition to slavery from a fuzzy moral intuition into an actionable political platform in the mid-1850s, he ultimately settled on the following formula. The challenge to America must be posed as (1) the “naked question” and (2) the “central idea.”
These were–and are–deceptively simple terms. For Lincoln, the naked question was, Can America remain true to its founding principle of human equality while extending slavery into its expanding territory? The central idea was equality. Lincoln did not just mean that the idea of equality was central to resolving America’s conflict. He meant that the idea of equality must be made to occupy the country’s political center, so that abolitionism could be a centripetal force rather than a centrifugal one.
I haven’t finished Abe yet, so I won’t dwell on all the ways Reynolds argues this was an ingenious formulation of America’s basic political identity crisis. Read the book, if you have time. It’s awesome.
What I wanted to say today is how well I think Abe’s formula applies to almost any challenge in everyday life. Not just a political genius, Abe is also a self-help guru, waiting to be discovered. As countless bumper stickers and inspirational posters tell us, almost everyone is struggling with a hard problem. On many days, the problem might seem irresolvable because it is intractable. We can’t get our hands around it because we can’t get our mind around it.
About two-thirds of the way through my trail run yesterday–where inspiration often hits me–it occurred to me that the things I struggle with the hardest in plain old life are susceptible to Abe’s political analysis.
Think about it: for anything big that is in the way of your happiness or well being, it can probably be put into Abe’s formula. What is the naked question? And what is the central idea? Not some zany, extreme idea, but something you can make sense of, something around which you can organize your life’s energy and priorities.
Like Hegel’s dialectic, once you grasp the naked question-central idea, you can apply it usefully almost anywhere. Last week, days before I read about Abe’s formula, I read this insightful analysis by The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson about what’s wrong with America. And when I thought about it yesterday out on the trail, Voila!–it hit me that Thompson was putting the problem precisely in Abe’s terms. The naked question: Why is America failing so clearly at the same core national priorities we used to be good at? The central idea: Abundance. Thompson argues that if we put abundance at the center of a new national agenda, we can rebuild our national greatness and decency.
Even though Lincoln felt an extreme moral repugnance about slavery, he calculated that making his outrage the centerpiece of his political agenda would fail. It would fail the whole nation. Abolition, the actual goal, could only be brought about by putting something politically viable at the center.
I won’t go into the depths of Lincoln’s genius, except to say, read Reynolds’s book. Again, it’s awesome. Today’s idea is how useful Lincoln’s political analysis can be to us ordinary folk. Try it: Think of a big, tangled problem that holds you back and see if you can break it down into a naked question and a central idea. It works.