October 5, 2007

Total Self-Determinism

Posted in Philosophy at 9:16 am by Caleb Winn


Human choices are pre-determined. By this, I mean that they are functionally constrained, but not that they are externally imposed. We are never zombies whose bodies are compelled to action by a force external to ourselves. We make free moral choices, and are responsible for them. These choices are determined by our own Will, but that Will is shaped by our created Nature and our environmental Nurture.

The Self-Determinination Of Choice

These free moral choices are pre-determined, but they are determined by who we are. I will make the choices that I will make, based on an infinitely complex combination of internal and external factors.

Imagine that I freeze a single moment in time and replicate an infinite number of copies of the universe. In each of them, absolutely nothing has changed. I am confronted with exactly the same scenario, at exactly the same time. My body and soul are the same in each universe. Nothing is different.

In such a situation, with an infinite set of identical universes, I would make the same choice in each.  

Keep in mind that I am the same. If I do not change, but my choice does, then my choices are independent of my self, and are not contingent on who I am. This hardly seems like a “Free Will” position to me. If choice is not determined by the self, that seems more Random than Free. If anything, self-determinism is the only position that provides a robust sense of Will that is not externally imposed either by mechanistic forces or by inexplicable random chance.

Though I could choose otherwise, I would never do so. Choices are thus pre-determined, but are not externally imposed. Choices are totally self-determined by my Will.

The Origin of the Will

So we have “Free Will” in the sense that our Will is free to choose whatever it wants. These choices are only constrained by ourselves. However, it is important to note that the “self” that does the choosing is shaped and formed by external forces.

The Will — the mechanism by which we choose — is not autonomous. It is not self-originating. It is created by God, and shaped by His Spirit and His world. We are inescabably contingent beings. We do not — cannot — create ourselves ex nihilo.

This is not to say that we are a product of our environment. It is absolutely true that there each individual has an innate, immaterial soul that precedes external developmental stimuli. Indeed, Nature probably plays a larger role than Nurture in the development of the Will.

But the Nature itself is not self-originated. As created, contingent beings, our souls, our wills, those faculties which desire and choose, are set in motion by an infinitely powerful and infinitely personal God. We do not self-originate. We do not choose who we are, as our identity precedes our choosing. At the most basic level, “Who I Am” is a function of who I was created to be.

Physical Freedom as an Analogy for Moral Freedom

To draw an analogy, man is physically free when he is free from external physical restraints. If I am handcuffed, shackled, or blindfolded, I am not “free.” In these situations, there is an external force which limits my natural capabilities.

However, even free from external limitations there are limits to my physical power. I cannot bench press 500 pounds. I cannot leap tall buildings with a single bound. I am not, sadly, faster than a speeding bullet. Some are stronger than others. Some are athletes, while others are crippled. But all people have physical limitations which are not externally imposed.

These limitations are not restrictions on man’s physical freedom. They do not (as in the case of handcuffs) externally impose artificial limitations on his physical capabilities. Being unable to move and object due to external restraint is a restriction of physical freedom; being unable to move the same object because I am too weak is not.

Similarly, being unable to choose an object due to external restraint is a restriction of moral freedom; being unable to choose the same object because it is not in my nature to do so is not.

Human Will and the Divine

The Wills of God and Man are Free, in that they are constrained only by the self. The key distinction between the Will of God and the Will of Man is that God’s self is self-originated, while ours is contingent.

God’s will is constrained by His character. He could do anything, but He would never contradict His own nature. God would never act unjustly, for example. This does not mean that His will is somehow not free, for the only constraint on His Will is Himself. God is free to do whatever He wants, but what He wants is limited by who He is.

Similarly, man’s will is constrained by his character. We could choose anything within our physical power, but we would only choose those things which are consistent our nature at that particular moment in time. (Unlike God, man has a changing, dynamic character, which makes our choices more unpredictable, but no less self-limited.) Again, this does not mean that our choices are not free, for the only constraint on our choice is internal. We are free to do anything that we want (within our physical power), but what we want is determined by who we are.

The difference lies not in the nature of choice, but in those factors that shape the Will.

Because God is wholly self-originating, His Will is entirely self-determined. God is completely autonomous, and His will precedes any external factors.

In contrast, man is not self-originating. Though (like God) our choices are determined by our Will, our will is not ultimately self-determined. Man is contingent, and our Will is a product of external factors, including our own Nature (created by God, and not by ourselves), and through our interaction with external stimuli.

The Problem of “Free Will”

The biggest problem that I have with so-called “free will” is that it seems logically incoherent to me.

I cannot comprehend any freedom other than self-determination, which is a concept that I affirm whole-heartedly. I literally do not know what “free will” means if not, “I am free from external constraint, and will make choices in accordance with my created nature as shaped through my interaction with my environment.”

What is free will, if not the freedom to make choices in accordance with who I am? And if my choices are not determined by my self, what has the doctrine of Free Will become, but random chance? How can the Will of man be more free than the Will of God?

But the contingency of the “self” is, I think, inescapable. Man is not God. We do not self-originate. And we do not create ourselves ex nihilo.

That’s already been done.


September 6, 2007

Redemption: Erotic Guilt As The Motivation To Make Amends (4/4)

Posted in Personal, Philosophy, The Church at 11:12 pm by Caleb Winn

As I have thought further on the subject of erotic guilt vs. thanatotic self-punishment, I’ve realized that there may be no clearer image of this dynamic in action than in the character of Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, specifically in the episode Amends.

To recap: Angel the vampire (with a soul!) is plagued with images of those whom he has wronged. Unable to bear his guilt, he instead concludes that he is unworthy to live, that he is in fact wholly worthless and evil, and attempts to take his own life. Through seemingly divine intervention, Angel’s life is spared, and he rededicates himself to a life of service in order to make amends for what he has done.

I have already blogged about this here, and Rebecca Card provides further exposition and analysis here. In light of my recent reflections on the nature of repentance, however, the redemption of Angel takes on new light for me. Here are my reflections on the nature of redemption in light of Amends.

Human Love Cannot Bring Redemption.

Buffy’s love cannot save Angel, nor can the forgiveness of everybody whom he has ever wronged. In the face of self-punishment, the soul simply cannot accept the idea of human forgiveness, and cannot recognize any self-worth.

This makes perfect sense if self-punishment is a means of evading real, love-based guilt. Because the torment is not motivated by love for the offended, the love of the offended cannot alleviate the pain. The aggression and hatred cannot be dissolved by the tearful kisses of another, nor by their angry pleas. If Buffy cries I love you! it falls on deaf ears, and if she calls him a coward it only adds fuel to the fire of his self-loathing.

The cause of Angel’s torment is internal, and so the cure is also internal. He must learn to forgive and love himself. And, in his case at least, this process requires divine intervention.

Grace Is A Divine Concept

It takes an act of the divine to break through the cognitive and emotional barriers that keep Angel mired in self-pity and self-directed aggression. Though Angel sought death, the “Powers-That-Be” had other plans for him, and they spared his life. This action allows Angel to confront his guilt, to work through his guilt, and to no longer hide behind the lie that he is irredeemable. Redemption falls all around him, in the form of the blessed snow, and he is freed from his self-destructive despair. He finds purpose and hope in this redemptive act, and through it he understands that he has a higher calling.

The redemption offered by Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and the effective communion extended through the agency of the Holy Spirit, are far more powerful and meaningful. Though our sins are greater than we can imagine, God’s grace is even greater still! The knowledge that the Son of God became man, and that the blessed Godman took the penalty of my sin upon Himself, allows me to come to terms with my feelings of guilt and shame.

Repentance Seeks Restitution And Regeneration

Angel’s redemption is directly linked to his calling to “help the helpless,” as a means of making amends for his years of wrongdoing. He is called to bring protection and peace where he had brought aggression and destruction. This is appropriate and good, and is surely an example to be followed. True guilt is based in love for the object of our offense, and should compel us to change our actions and seek to repair any damage done. Therefore, wherever possible, we should respond to conviction by seeking to be reconciled with those whom we have offended. However, we must also be willing to accept grace if this is not possible.

The difficulty here is that those he killed were beyond the reach of his redemptive efforts. Try as he might, Angel cannot do anything to undo his misdeeds. The understanding that one’s wrong actions have caused irrevocable damage is damning, and allows for no possibility of earned redemption in the specific sense. Once he has killed a man, Angel can never restore that which he had taken.

This does not mean that Angel cannot seek personal restoration through performing good deeds. Through doing this, he can repair the damage done to himself, even if he can never undo the damage done to Ms. Calendar. His goal, then, is not to undo what had been done, for that is impossible, and attempting to do so will only lead to more despair, and in turn self-destructive penitence. Dwelling on specific past sins is neither healthy, nor productive. Instead, Angel seeks to become a good man. Even where restitution is not possible, Angel seeks internal regeneration, and a life of virtue.

I suspect that this depends on the idea that our sin is ultimately against God, and not our fellow men. (See Psalm 51, “Against you, you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight!”) If our sin is against God, and we feel an appropriate (love-based) guilt over our misdeeds, then we will be motivated to be reconciled to God through sanctification. Even if the particular expressions of our sin have persistent long-term impacts, we may still now the peace of redemption by grace, through faith, in the finished work of Christ.

In Time, Virtue Moves Beyond Catharsis

In a way, Angel’s actions are still motivated by narcissism. Though he makes personal sacrifices to serve others, he does so for the sake of achieving redemption. This is especially apparent in light of the prophecy that comes to light in the spin-off seriesAngel, in which Angel is promised restoration to a human state. This desire for personal satisfaction and the alleviation of guilt motivates much of Angel’s “virtue” throughout the series.

But this is not his entire motivation. Over the course of several seasons, Angel grows to fight more for Good than for personal happiness. By the end of Angel, he is even willing to give up the promise of humanity in order to fight against evil more effectively. He is content to go down fighting for what is right, sacrificing his life in the service of a worthy cause, and not because he felt himself unworthy to live.

Redemption In The “Real” World

Though Angel is a fictional character, his story contains lessons for anybody who, like me, struggles with the thanatotic impulse to self-punishment. When confronted with the realization of horrendous wrongs committed, it is easy to evade true guilt and wallow in self-torment. This is the path that Angel sought to take when he tried to end his life. But there is a far greater path, and Angel shows the way.

(1) Seek the grace of God, and not the approval of man. Even if everybody in the world loved me, that could never alleviate the self-destructive, thanatotic need for punishment. Only the redemptive love of a supernal God can break through and challenge an infernal hate!

(2) Seek restitution where possible, but ultimately move past the place of sin, pressing towards righteousness for its own sake, and not for the sake of easing one’s troubled conscience. A man’s life need not be defined by his greatest failures. Rather, he should seek to transcend those failures and pursue the good life, neither wallowing in past sins, nor being complacent to remain in them.

Through a committed reliance on God, and through practical efforts at sanctification through His strength, man is made whole, and freed from the self-punishment that accompanies the Law of Sin and Death. There is no more condemnation!

September 4, 2007

Repentence: Guilt vs. Self-Destruction (3/4)

Posted in Philosophy at 11:08 pm by Caleb Winn


Having established the dangers of idolatry, and recognizing that most idolatry is ultimately rooted in narcissism, I’d like to turn my attention now to the question of how one should respond to this information. Recognition of wrongdoing should always elicit a response, for the question of idolatry is not merely an academic question. But this response may take many forms, which are well worth exploring.

In this effort, I’ve found Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents valuable for its observations about the nature of desire and the narcissistic nature of the human libido, and been especially blessed to read this academic paper by Dr. Donald L. Carveth about the strengths and weaknesses in the Freudian view of guilt.

What will follow is a sort of “baptized” view of Freudian psychology, as understood and expressed by a complete layman. I don’t have any real expertise in the area of psychology, except insofar as I have a psyche. My views are not essentially Freudian, but I think that a few of the arguments of Freud and his followers are very instructive when we consider the role of narcissism in the experience and expression of guilt.

Eros and Thanatos in the Heart of Man.

As Pascal noted in his Pensees, man is created to be Great, but has become wretched. As a result of our nature – created in the image of God, yet fractured by sin – man is pulled in two separate directions. Freud places these base impulses in the “Id” or subconscious, meaning that they are basic and instinctual, rather than being produced or shaped or even experienced rationally. He labels these basic, dueling impulses: erosand thanatos.

Erotic impulses are those rooted in love. Though there may be an element of narcissism here, the erotic desire is directed toward the good of the object. Whether or not the object is valued for its own sake or for the sake of one’s own gratification is not really, in this context, particularly relevant. What is important is to recognize that the erotic impulse leads to creation and preservation.

Thanatotic impulses, on the other hand, are rooted in hatred. The Thanatos does not seek to create, nor to protect, but only to destroy. One need not look far to recognize that there is an aggressive, violent tendency to human nature, and that the desire to gain domination or wreak destruction is not a social construction. There is a gladiatorial bent in the heart of man, which Nietzsche identified as well. Man seeks to destroy.

These two impulses duel with one another in the human psyche, pulling man in opposing directions. What we think of as “guilt” is actually a single label that we apply to two distinct psychological experiences, one rooted in Eros, the other in Thanatos.

Erotic Guilt.

The idea of Eros is that it is an expression of object-love. An experience of guilt that is founded in our erotic impulses, then, will be born out of love for the object that we have wronged. When a man who loves his wife dearly realizes that he has hurt her feelings, he will experience this sort of guilt. There are two defining factors of this sort of guilt:

First, it is externally focused. That isn’t to say that the guilty party seeks to blame others for his misdeeds. Rather, the focus is not on how awful he is, but rather on the object.

Second, it leads to efforts at reparation. Because this type of guilt (concern) is rooted in love for the other, the guilty party wants to do whatever is possible to undo the damage that he has done, and to restore the object to happiness and well-being. This type of guilt (concern) sees a wrong, and seeks to take practical steps to make it right. It is a productive and healthy psychological experience that brings about positive results.

The Unconscious Need For Punishment.

By contrast, the recognition of wrongdoing may also be rooted in the thanatotic impulse to destruction. The experience of guilt, rather than being rooted in love for the object, may actually be an action of thanatos in which the aggressive death-instinct is turned inward against the self. If man is intrinsically aggressive and destructive, the moral awakening that limits our actions does not also remove the subconscious impulses behind those actions. Instead of making man truly docile and peaceful, then, such action merely represses the ferocity of the thanatotic Id, and directs our aggressiveness inward against ourselves. As the thanatotic impulse is denied external outlet, its repression can lead to expressions of self-loathing, self-punishment, and self-destruction. It creates an “unconscious need for punishment”.

There are a few things to note about the “unconscious need for punishment” in contract to the experience of true “guilt (concern)”.

First, this “unconscious need for punishment” is essentially narcissistic, in that it is motivated by thanatos, rather than eros. The experience of feeling bad is brought about repressed aggressiveness, and not any real concern for the object. The person who responds to a transgression by crying out “I hate myself!” is not speaking out of love for the other. Any damage done to the object is unimportant, except insofar as it is ammunition for self-abuse.

Second, this “unconscious need for punishment” lacks any ending point. There will not come a time when atonement has been made for wrong, and the self-punishment can cease.

Third, this “unconscious need for punishment” does not seek restoration, restitution, or redemption. There isn’t a point to the self-abuse beyond the abuse itself. Because it is not motivated by love for the object, it will not lead to positive steps to restore the object to its former state, or undo the practical effects brought about by whatever wrong action caused the self-destructive feelings.

Self-Punishment As Guilt-Evasion 

Based on the above observations, it should be clear that the “unconscious need for punishment” is not an expression of remorse that is rooted in love for the offended, but rather an expression of narcissism that is rooted in hatred that seeks an outlet for its aggression. In a very real sense, self-destructiveness is a means of evading real guilt in order to avoid having to come to grips with the wrongdoing, and of avoiding having to make restitution.

Dr. Carveth cites a Dr. Safa-Gerard as outlining several potential causes for guilt evasion, all rooted in the idea that the guilt is too “unbearable” for the person to handle:

First, the individual may be unable to hold positive and negative self-assessment in their head concurrently. In this case, the recognition of wrongs committed (love-based guilt) drives out any possible recognition of positive attributes, and causes one to fall into hopelessness, despair, and self-punishment. The difficulty, then, is in expanding one’s cognitive horizons, probably through an external agent engaging rationally and reminding one of positive attributes that he or she possesses concurrently with the negative ones, thereby undermining the “all-bad” self-perception.

Second, the individual may link the specific “guilty” action to other guilty actions, unconscious or unspoken. There may even be a perception that one has wronged God. Because this is not brought rationally to light, and is kept unexpressed, it is thought too damning to be redeemable, and the individual remains unable to process the guilt and take practical steps to change, instead wallowing in self-pitying, self-punishing despair.

Third, the recognition of guilt (concern) is an admission of love for an external object, which forces the individual to recognize his or her lack of autonomy, and constructs a sense of vulnerability, which some are simply unable to psychologically accept, preferring to shut out all love-based thinking even if it means resorting to self-punishment as a means of evasion.

 For each of these problems, it seems as if the answer is a healthy view of self, which is willing to recognize good as well as bad, is willing to honestly assess the real conscious and unconscious causes of guilt, and is not afraid of the erotic, but rather is willing to admit concern for others.


In summation, then, true “guilt” is rooted in love for the offended object, and motivates practical change and efforts at restitution. Real guilt is a healthy and emotionally mature response to wrongs committed, real or imagined. The “unconscious need for punishment,” on the other hand, is intrinsically narcissistic, and functions as a means of guilt-evasion rather than as an expression of love-based sorrow. A psychologically healthy, emotionally mature person will have a well-developed view of self that allows him or her to express eros-driven productive guilt, rather than engaging in the unconscious need for punishment as a means of evasion.

September 1, 2007

Sin: Idolatry As Narcissistic Self-Love (2/4)

Posted in Personal, Philosophy at 10:00 pm by Caleb Winn

As I reflect further on the subject of idolatry, I realize that idolatry is not vested in the object, but rather in the self. If I make an idol of another person, or of any object or ideal, I am not truly loving the object for its own sake; rather, I am loving the object as an expression of narcissistic self-love.

Freud’s Two Loves

This occurred to me as I thought about Freud’s description of the “narcissistic libido” in Civilization and its Discontents. Freud argues that we may love an object for our own sake, or for the sake of the object itself. The former type of narcissistic love is immature and self-centered, while the latter is more mature and developed. But the two seem to be separated more by chronology and emotional development than by some sort of categorical distinction.

I’m primarily interested in the narcissistic libido. If I am hungry, I desire bread, not for the sake of the bread, but for the sake of my own hunger. I “love” the bread, but only because it fulfills my own needs. The love that we hold for the beloved (whatever or whomever that may be) is merely a projection of self-love, so that our narcissism is fulfilled through the possession of a gratifying external good.

This narcissistic love is not limited to inanimate objects. Interpersonal relationships can also be subject to this sort of dynamic. We can turn to others for intellectual, physical, and emotional gratification, without truly caring for the person for his or her own sake.

This is the most basic, immature, natural form of human love. As infants and as toddlers, we love our parents because they provide us with food and protection. We do not truly care for their happiness, and have little concern for how our cries disturb their sleep. We are focused on our own wants and needs, and value our mothers for their ability to meet those wants and needs, and for nothing else.

However, though it may begin in a place of immaturity, human love may mature and develop beyond this. Although we begin selfishly, desiring objects for our gratification, we need not remain in a state of emotional infancy. The baby may grow to love the mother, not because she provides for his needs, but for her own sake. There can come a point where love for the object transcends our own narcissism, and the well-being of the beloved becomes more highly valued that the well-being of the self. This occurs at the point of self-sacrifice, where the beloved is practically valued above the self. For, “greater love hath no man than that he would lay down his life for a friend.”

False Love As Idolatry of Self

With this in mind, it becomes clear to me that intensity of emotion does not True Love make. No matter how desperately one may desire fame, fortune, or the love of another person, the desire may remain essentially narcissistic. The experience of intense desire is not evidence of noble intention or a mature love, though it may also not be evidence that such a noble love does not exist.

The test, then, becomes what happens when the good of self conflicts with the good of the beloved? For if the love is essentially rooted in narcissism then it may transform into bitterness and hatred when the object of our love is not readily attained. If, instead of valuing the object for its own sake, we only value our attainment of it, an inability to attain our object may cause anger, and even motivate us to strike out at that which we claim to love. If, on the other hand, we possess a mature love that values the beloved for its own sake, then we ought to be ready and willing to make sacrifices for the sake of that which we love, putting its well-being above our own.

In light of this, then, I need to refine my views on idolatry. Idolatry is not excessive love (as in, selflessness), as I previously claimed. For idolatry does not ultimately rest in the love of the object, but rather in the love of the self. We worship the golden calf, not for its sake, but for our own! When we chase excessively after wealth, fame, or human love, we do not seek to orient our lives around a false God in worship; rather, we demand that wealth, fame, and human love serve us, and meet our needs. There is false worship, to be sure, but the God that we worship is within, and not without. Wealth, fame, and human love are not false gods whom we serve; they are the sacrifices that we seek to offer up on the altar of the ego. We ultimately seek to serve only ourselves.

This strips away any sense of nobility, and exposes the root narcissism of idolatry. When I chase after money, success, respect, or affection, I do not do so out of genuine, selfless love. When I pursue objects for the sake of my own personal gratification, there is no nobility to be found. There is no room to play the martyr, or to be filled with self-pity, simply because the objects of my desire remain beyond reach. One might as well be an young child, throwing a temper tantrum and a pity party because he cannot get his way.Instead, the answer is to turn to God with a broken and contrite heart, seeking earnestly to lay aside my own desires and to find His will for my life. The answer is to acknowledge the narcissism of idolatry, to admit that it is I, and I alone, who receives my worship, and to turn away from selfish, desire-based “love” and try to learn true Love from the One whose love truly is greater than that of any man.

August 17, 2007

Honest Abe vs. Tricky Dick: Ambition and the American Presidency

Posted in Philosophy, Politics at 12:40 am by Caleb Winn

As alike as they are different

Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon had a lot in common. Both were Commanders-In-Chief during bitter and divisive wars, and both left an indelible mark on the nature of American government. Both Presidents dramatically increased the power of the Executive Branch during their tenure in office. And yet these two men represent the best and the worst of the American Presidency. Abraham Lincoln is as revered as Richard Nixon is reviled. The former fought for lasting justice, freedom, and equality for America, while the latter resigned his office in disgrace.

This is most perplexing in light of the overwhelming personal similarities between the two characters. They possessed many very similar personality traits, and were driven by many of the same motivations. Most relevantly, both men were motivated by deep struggles with depression to pursue a life of ambition.

Bound together by the common thread of melancholy

As Joshua William Shenk argues in his book: Lincoln’s Melancholy, Lincoln was a well-known depressive during his life. He suffered at least two major depressive episodes. Especially as a young man, these bouts of depression were very acute, causing him to say things like, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.” He also wrote melodramatic poetry about suicide, and his friends took his discussion of suicide seriously enough that for a time they kept him on “suicide watch” and refused to let him be alone.

But even after his two chronicled Major Depressive Episodes, Lincoln continued to struggle with feelings of chronic depression. (Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, argues that Lincoln was simply “melancholy,” rather than clinically depressed, but for our purposes, the distinction is relatively unimportant.) Throughout Presidency, Lincoln would often seem to buckle under the stress and strain of life. As he faced dwindling support for the War from Congress, even among his own party, Lincoln remarked darkly, “They wish to get rid of me, and I am sometimes half-disposed to gratify them.”

This sort of statement might have been transcribed straight from the White House tapes of President Nixon, if only it had included a few choice expletives. In fact, it sounds a great deal like Nixon’s proclamation after his failed 1962 gubernatorial bid, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Like Lincoln, Nixon was a deeply unhappy, insecure man. Even his most loyal staff members, such as Chief of Staff Haldeman, and senior advisor man Henry Kissinger, often referred to him as child-like, and described nights in which the President would call numerous times to seek reassurance that a speech had gone well, and that he had support of the American people. In at least one point during his Presidency, Nixon grew depressed and physically exhausted to the point that senior staff members considered it an issue of grave concern. Robert Dallek’s biography Nixon and Kissinger describes Nixon as “an introspective man whose inner demons both lifted him up and brought him down.”

One particular story illustrates this idea very well, and is worth developing at length, because it really highlights the deep insecurities that drove Nixon to pursue political power. On May 9th, 1970 — a mere 4 days after the Kent State University incident in which four student protesters were killed by National Guard troops– Nixon spontaneously visited the Lincoln Memorial at 4:30 in the morning. There, he met with a group of college students and tried to engage them in conversation about foreign policy. When they would not come around to his viewpoint, he instead began to talk with them about sports. One of the students described the President’s speech and conduct as “absurd.” And, according to Nixon and Kissinger, “as he [Nixon] left, he implored the students not to hate him.” There has, perhaps, never been a greater example of the pathetic hunger for approval that sometimes drives the ambitions of men.

A shared response: ambition as an anti-depressant

It is important to understand this hunger for approval and meaning if we are to truly understand the nature of political ambition. For both Nixon and Lincoln, the melancholy temperament that depressed their spirits also drove them to pursue their political ambitions. As is so often the case, it was their dissatisfaction that drove them to pursue greatness. Becoming President of the United States was their way of giving direction, purpose, and meaning to their lives. In many ways, personal, political ambition was their cure for depression.

Nixon sought to compensate for his insecurity through attaining personal power and prestige, in order to appear tough and in control. He personalized major policy issues, making important decisions based on whether or not his actions would show that “the man in the White House is tough.” He spent his first four years preoccupied with securing his own re-election. He was hungry for a reputation as a foreign policy expert, often using less qualified subordinates so that they would not out-stage him or steal any of his limelight. And years after he left office, Nixon continued to crave the respect and approval of his successors. For Nixon, ambition was a way of earning the happiness and love that he could not find for himself.

Lincoln similarly responded to his depression by pursuing greatness. During a particularly intense period of depression, a close friend named Joshua Speed told Lincoln that he must either improve, or die. Lincoln responded by saying that he could kill himself, but he wanted to leave a mark on his generation, and “so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow men,” and that this was that he “desired to live for.” His thirst for power was a direct answer to his deep melancholy.

A dangerous path to walk

How could two men so similarly ambitious pursue that ambition in two deeply divergent ways? And what is it about the nature of human ambition that causes some men to be destroyed by it while enabling others to transform the world for generations? At first glance, ambition seems like an intrinsically dangerous character quality. While it may not always be dangerous to the self, it poses great threat to social stability and political order. Lincoln himself argued in 1838 that the greatest threat to the American experiment was surely the ambition of great men, for they will place personal gain over political principle, and do anything necessary to achieve notoriety. He writes:

 Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.   

 Why Lincoln succeeds where Nixon fails

This last sentence highlights the difference between the destructive ambition of “Tricky Dick” Nixon and the noble ambition of “Honest Abe.” Ambition is dangerous when it exists for its own sake only, and is not restrained by principle or nobility of character. But while personal ambition can be a seductive foe, Lincoln escaped its clutches. I believe that he did this in three ways: 

1) Lincoln transformed personal ambition into transcendent purpose.

There was a reason for his Presidency beyond his own re-election. Lincoln writes, “Slavery is founded on the selfishness of man’s nature – opposition to it is his love of Justice.” Shenk concludes, “He looked at imperfection, and sought redemption.” 

This was not always the case. When he first began to pursue political ambition as a young man, he did so for his own sake. When he expressed his desire for greatness to his friend Joshua Speed, he said that he wanted to “link his name with something.” This is a personal, non-specific ambition. Lincoln’s initial motivation, at least, was not to “preserve the union” or “free the slaves.” He wanted to do “something.” great. These important cause were the means of fulfilling his ambition, but he was not ambitious because of them. 

But although he was initially motivated by a desire for personal greatness, Lincoln found that the magnitutde of the cause in which he was engaged eclipsed his own personal ego. He began selfishly – perhaps all great men do – but he ended nobly. Through depersonalizing him ambition, Lincoln was able to hold power with humility, and accomplish far more than Nixon ever could. By maintaining an external focus, by pursuing a goal higher than himself, Lincoln largely escaped the seductions of ambition.

2) Lincoln was willing to sacrifice personal success for the success of his transcendent purpose.

In many ways the controversial and unpopular policies that he pursued were detrimental to his own ambition. But he did them anyway, because his personal popularity was less important than the preservation of the Union, and eventually the abolition of slavery.

Having studied the abolitionist movement in England, Lincoln realized that he may well have undertaken a task which would be impossible to complete in a single lifetime. Upon this realization, Lincoln remarked, “I can not but regard it as possible that the higher object of this  contest may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life.” This did not discourage him, however, nor did it cause him to give up the fight. Since  his purpose was external to himself, because he gave himself to the service of a cause, instead of selecting and discarding causes to serve himself, he was content to see failure in his lifetime in the hope that Justice would be done in the end. 

3) He did this by understanding his calling in the context of divine sovereignty.

Many historians, Joshua William Shenk included believe that Lincoln was a fatalist, who expressed belief in the “Doctrine of Necessity” – all things which will happen, will happen, and must happen. This was a view that he developed in his youth, and appears to have never abandoned.

But as he progressed in years, and especially into his Presidency, this “Doctrine of Necessity” took on new meaning for Lincoln in light of his growing belief in a personal God. Lincoln’s friends and visitors during his last few years reported that they often found him in prayer, or studying scriptures. He seemed to be especially fond of the book of Job, which shows that temporal hardship and suffering can have a deeper, spiritual significance that we cannot understand. His 2nd Inaugural Address really highlights this point – for Lincoln, human life could only be understood in the context of a transcendent divine will, though that will is often difficult for men to understand.

His own words and writings really attest to his belief that his life and work were a part of God’s sovereign plan. He was known to say that he was merely an “instrument” playing a part in “so vast, and so sacred a trust” that “he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.” He really did seem to disregard his life for the sake of his life’s work. When his friends expressed fear that he might be assassinated, he responded, “God’s will be done. I am in His hands.”

This resignation and self-sacrifice would not have been possible if he did not believe that he was in God’s hands, working His will. It was this belief in the transcendent will of God that enabled Lincoln to de-personalize his ambitions and give himself to a cause that transcends personal success. His increasingly firm belief in the providence of a benevolent God enabled him to combine his fatalism with a sense of hopefulness, and gave him the strength to press on. Within this context, his personal responsibility was understood as part of a whole that was greater than his own successes and failures. Instead of hungering for personal glory, Lincoln now said, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty. . .” 

As different as they are alike

Both Lincoln and Nixon sought to leave a mark on the world, but Nixon did so for his own sake, and Lincoln did so for the sake of the world. Nixon’s ambition was conceived in his own ego, while Lincoln’s was conceived in liberty. Nixon was dedicated to his own success; Lincoln was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And long after Nixon’s greatest achievements have been forgotten, people around the world will continue to celebrate the legacy of Lincoln: a nation by the people, of the people, and for the people, that shall not perish from the earth.

That is what separates great Presidents from terrible ones, and turns ambition from a fatal flaw to a noble blessing.