Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Interpretation of The Gettysburg Address


.....In July 1863, at Gettysburg, Pa., about 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in a three-day battle. The memorial service held four months later featured a spellbinding speaker, Edward Everett, who started late and went on for two hours. Lincoln had been invited to make a few brief remarks after Everett wrapped up....

....Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth....

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The biblical resonances in "Four score and seven years ago" set the eighty seven years ago in a vast implicative context that fuses historical time and infinite time. The phrasing echoes the Psalms: "The deliberate days of our years are three score years and ten." Those resonances continue in the phrase "our fathers brought forth," which has echoes of God the Father and of creation itself: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." A new nation is "brought forth" and "conceived," with imagery of aborning creation, and with that language yoking together act and idea: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The intimation of divine creation gets even deeper by the language of all men being "created equal," equal since all men are God's children and so partake of the divine. All this anticipates the explicit recourse near the end of the Address to America as "this nation under God."

By the terms of the Address, however, for all that God watches, it is for men to do.

Act and idea are reinforced by what has been brought forth "on this continent," namely the idea, the "proposition," "that all men are created equal." This idea gives this physical place, "this continent," meaning as America. And America is wholly committed, "dedicated," to the political ideal of equal creation. That commitment is the justification and rationale for the terrible struggle and its wholesale costs that the Address memorializes.

Lincoln carries language of the first paragraph into the second to link the two. "Nation" is thrice repeated. "Conceived" and "dedicated" get repeated. Conception yields dedication to conception's child, the "proposition," and dedication, complete commitment, harbours the need to fight mightily and sacrificially for its validation as tested by the Confederacy: "a great civil war, testing whether." So nation, idea and act are indivisible even as rent in a great struggle in which the stakes are the equality of all men created by God.

The Address moves in historic time from the founding as articulated in the Declaration of Independence to the very moment of Lincoln's speech as there is a temporal coupling in each paragraph's opening words: "Four score and seven years ago;" and the compellingly immediate and direct "Now," which precisely focuses attention after the overarching framework set in the first paragraph. But "Now" expands outward from its own immediacy, contrasting vividly with historic time implicatively set in time everlasting in the first paragraph. "Now" expands to the ongoing great internecine battle that surrounds it and threatens to undo idea and nation: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation."

This language expands time by sweeping in eighty seven years of historic time implicit in the nation as "brought forth." The outward spiral of significance continues and moves to embraces the universality of the dedicated proposition of all men's equal creation: "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." "Long endure" takes the universal widening of "any nation" and projects it into the ongoing future of historic time. Whether any nation can long endure, that test, becomes the ultimate stakes in the great "civil war."

Then an odd but strikingly grand and formal archaism transports us subtly back to the moment of the Address: "We are met..." So Lincoln rhetorically gathers all who hear him and the wounded and dead they consecrate into a great meeting, all bound together in "We." But "are met," too, suggests being watchfully visited by, being watchfully attended on, by someone, something, beyond "We." There is some other intimated watchful presence at this great meeting, which looks ahead to "this nation, under God." But anchoring that intimation, anchoring all of the "We" who "are met" is an awesome and grounded reality. For "We are met on a great battlefield of that war." So much is implicit in these words as layers of meaning reverberate against each other: the different types of time, idea and act, a nation, all nations "so conceived and dedicated," immediacy and consequence ranging to the limits of historic time, the latter to be bound up in "shall not perish from the earth."

The present perfect "We are met"--that fuses the active in denoting the act of meeting and being attended upon with the passive denoting something that has happened even while it still happens: "We" have met and are meeting and are being met by--continues in "We have come." The reason for the great meeting is a dedication. And the act of dedication, an utter commitment, echoes, though faintly, the originating dedication of men on a place, "this continent," conceiving and bringing forth a nation wholly committed to an idea, "that all men are created equal." And that faint echo of original conception has a parallel in "a portion of that field," which itself is a small physical part of "this continent."

There is contraction in "this continent" down to "a great battlefield" down even more to "a portion of that field." We move in this contraction from idea to a great testing action to the relatively lesser significance of the dedication that the living "We" have come to do. And the language of the Address in the last two lines of the second paragraph becomes less grand, less formal, simpler and more direct, consisting entirely, except for "altogether," of one and two syllable words. The utter simplicity and directness of "for those who here gave their lives" that that nation might live" convey the fact of death in sacrifice for an idea. That idea, as contrasted with the sheer, brute fact of deaths, is captured in "nation," an idea in action as introduced in the first paragraph, and  is captured by the conditional "might live."

The movement from idea to action--being in the latter part of the second paragraph the consequence of death--and back to idea continues in that paragraph's final proclamation of complete decorum and appropriateness: "It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." In that proclamation resides, again, a lesser significance. For foremost in importance is the sacrifice of the dead for the sake of the nation's existence, which is also to say, for the sake of its animating idea. And, so, the living who memorialize and consecrate stand, in a sense, in the shadow of the sacrificed dead. They, the sacrificed dead, paradoxically in death will assume a greater significance than the living  "We," who can do no more, ostensibly, in relation to them than commemorate, which is to say,  register propriety, for as important that is: "it is altogether fitting and proper."

Propriety, as noted, is, in one sense a shadow, paling in significance compared to the transcendent subject of the commemoration. And so propriety and decorum, "fitting and proper," for all their importance, have their limit. That limit, and the sharp contrast between rite and subject of the rite find expression in the Address's  act of intellectual negation, heralded by a "But," as the prose of the third paragraph becomes less aphoristic and declarative and becomes more expository, the "But" as if to say, "Wait, stop. We must understand something":

"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground."

The "larger sense," overshadowing the "altogether fitting and proper," is the idea that the "We" the remaining living, have no power over the dead, have no power to limit them and where they lie by the very acts of dedication, consecration and hallowing. For consecration is dedication, singling out, for a sacred purpose; and to hallow, too, is to set apart as holy. So immense and profound are the power and significance of those who sacrificed that they, "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here," cannot be confined to, delimited by, memory and rite, however sacred.

No, continues the argument of the Address, in an act of intellectual inversion, turning rite and propriety upside down, "the brave men" by the immensity of their sacrifice for the nation as idea in action have done the dedicating, the consecrating and the hallowing. "We" the living can do only little, if even that, in relation to their consecration in our act of ritual commemoration: "far above our poor power to add or detract."

The argument continues: what and who the world will remember are the dead and their perdurable sacrifice. And in this reasoning lies the basis for what dedication ought to consist of and that surpasses "altogether fitting and proper." The sacrificed do not so much need rites accorded to them by the living "We." What they need, rather, is for their bravery and giving up of their lives to be continued in ongoing action, in dedication and re-dedication, in the ongoing singular commitment, of the living to the very idea the dead died for: "that all men are created equal," the very idea in action, "conceived in liberty," that binds a people together, and together to a place, which is to say, a nation.

"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."

As the argument of the third paragraph speaks its content, the prose moves in the paragraph's last few lines from the more expository back to the more formal and the more declarative in fulfillment of the Address's reaching out for capaciousness, its "larger sense."

Officialdom, an act of near to institutional will, is implicit in "we here highly resolve." And in that resolution lies a further paradox: for all the immense sanctifying and consecrating significance of the dead's sacrifice, that significance is, too, a dependent fragility. For without the dedication and re-dedication of "We" the living to the fulfilment of the idea for which they died, again, a nation-creating idea, the dead "will have died in vain." "We" the living thus become subject to a powerful obligation. Meeting that obligation, striving to fulfill America as an idea, the idea "that all men are created equal," is what will make the sacrifice of the dead have ongoing lived meaning and substance. And so if the world takes little note of the Address, it will remember the sacrifice of the dead by the ongoing acts of "We" the living.

The continuation of the nation as an idea, the officialdom and institutionality implicit in "we here highly resolve," "here" rooting us in these people, at this place, at this time, continues in the concluding, subsuming and synthesizing idea of "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Where, at its origins, the nation was "conceived in liberty" and dedicated to equality as a proposition, tested and fought and died for by too many, now equality and liberty both find re-creation in "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." And both find their place in the idea of a certain kind of government, of, by and for the people.

So what "We" the living highly resolve," "resolve" itself signifying national will and a near to an institutionally moved purpose, has three related and culminating constituents, each folding into the next: "that these dead shall not have died in vain;" "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom;" and "and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." That last looks and goes back and meets what has been said to have been tested, "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

The final vision of democratic government, as the Address has it, goes beyond America itself to sweep into its large embrace "any nation," all nations really, which dedicate themselves to this democratic idea, which houses liberty and equality, implicitly by the concluding words and thoughts of the Address inextricably linked.

As said, God watches, but He leaves it for men to do.

And so the Address moves from a founding idea anchoring the creation of a nation, to the testing of that nation as idea in an awesome and tragic war, to the appropriate rites and dedications to the dead by the living, to the inversion of that idea in the dead in effect consecrating the ground where they lie by their sacrifice so long as the living ongoingly fulfill the purpose for which they died, to the high resolve of dedication to that ongoing task, which then holds within itself an idea of democratic government and its promise of liberty and equality for any nation, all nations, dedicated to this idea for all historical time.

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