Category: Biographies

Abraham Lincoln: Telling Jokes, Collapsing in Laughter

lincoln.jpgDon’t take yourself, or others, so seriously that you cannot abandon yourself laughter or keep in high esteem those who do. Take Lincoln, for example:

“…not only throughout his life but on out into his posthumous fame and glory his penetrating mental activity would be obscured by his reputation as a teller of jokes, by the greater thread of humor that ran through his life and being. One can’t tell jokes and stories like those, and collapse in convulsions of laughter, and have humor as an essential constant part of one’s being, if one is an intellectually serious person” (5).

– William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 5.

The (Moral) Education of John Quincy Adams

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Young John Quincy

What’s more important: intelligence and knowledge, or wisdom and goodness of heart?

I think most of us would say wisdom and goodness, but that’s not always how we approach education, is it? We worry about our tots getting into the right preschool because this could determine the rate of their early cognitive development, which could mean the difference between a public school and a magnet school, which could mean the difference between a great and just an average college, which could make or ruin their lives! We put time and effort seeking ways to make our little ones smart, whether through having them listen to Bach from the womb, to buying everything Dora the Explorer so that they can learn Spanish (this is in fact a great idea if your child lives in the United States), to putting them in Chinese immersion schools or classes so that they can compete in the global economy.

Of course, none of these things is bad in itself. But it’s worth asking if we’re neglecting our children’s moral formation at the expense of their intellectual development. Here we can learn from our nation’s second president, John Adams. As we learn in Harlow Giles Unger’s excellent biography John Quincy Adams, though Adams was deeply concerned about and demanding when it came to his son John Quincy’s education, he recognized that character trumped intellect, that the “sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head,” as he wonderfully put it. Listen to Adams, abroad serving as an ambassador, instructing his wife Abigail on their son’s education:

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“I am under no apprehension about his proficiency in learning. With his capacities and and opportunities he can not fail to acquire knowledge. But let him know that the sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head. Let him be sure that he possesses the great virtue of temperance, justice, magnanimity, honor, and generosity, and with these added to his parts, he cannot fail to become a wise and great man.

“… Treachery, perfidy, cruelty, hypocrisy, avarice, &c & should be pointed out to him for his contempt as well as detestation” (18).

Martin and Katie Luther: A Good Marriage

 

In Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015), theologian and church history professor Carl Trueman (who is Presbyterian, not Lutheran) provides an excellent treatment of the great 16th-century Reforming Augustinian monk – more than biography, it’s a careful and critical consideration of Luther’s teachings on the Christian life, from salvation by childlike faith to obedience to civil government to doing marriage and parenthood.

Trueman on Luther is excellent all around; he’s devoted decades of study to the man who launched the Reformation. But my favorite part of the book was the few pages on Luther’s marriage and on Luther and Katie (Katharina von Bora) as dedicated parents (he would read his catechism with his children every day, saying that he, though he was a brilliant Reformer and minister of the gospel, was as much a learner of doctrine as they were). The bit below is a delightful and exemplary snapshot not just of the marriage of Martin and Katie Luther, but of the blessing that she was to him. You have to admire the practicality and thoughtfulness she brought to their marriage! (Indeed, much like that brought by my own wonderfully practical wife, Laura.)

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“His unexpected [because he was a monk] marriage to his Katie proved to be delightful, loving, and fruitful. Today, visitors to the Augustinian cloister in Wittenberg…will see that the door frame has a little stool built into it on each side. The door frame was a present from Katie to her husband, made at a time when she felt they were not spending enough time talking to each other. Thus, at the end of a busy day, Martin and Katie could sit on either side of the door and talk to each other. Inside and upstairs, there is a similar arrangement, presumably for when the Saxon weather made an outdoor tryst somewhat wet and cold. This in itself speaks eloquently of the love and the happiness that marriage brought to the life of the Reformer” (Kindle, chapter 8).

Thomas Jefferson and His Books

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“I cannot live without books.”

This Independence Day weekend I went to Monticello, and there I bought Douglas Wilson’s Jefferson’s Books, a delightful monograph that shows us Jefferson as the remarkable book collector and reader that he was. Much of it deals with his decades-long, setback-ridden (fires! thieves!) building of his library, whose 6,700 volumes became the founding contribution to the Library of Congress upon his retirement.

I have more, much more, to learn about Jefferson, but at least in the matter of books and reading, he may be my ultimate role model. Not that I want to build extensive, world-renowned libraries, but I want to dedicate myself to the systematic study of books to improve my knowledge and to share it with others and encourage them to read more – all things at which Jefferson excelled.

Below are some choice quotes from the book, a recommended reading schedule he gave to a friend, and a picture of his revolving bookstand, one of the coolest (okay, maybe cool isn’t the right word here) items in his Monticello house.

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“As Jefferson’s library revealed, books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (8)

“…the book-hunting chores he tirelessly performed for his friends back home far outnumbered his own requests for help.” (25)

“The amount of money [he] spent for books while he was in Paris and throughout his life was prodigious…He was aware that his indulgence in books amounted to extravagance and sought to moderate it by buying cheaper and smaller format editions wherever possible, and driving a hard bargain when offered an expensive book.” (25)

“His library, from an early period, formed an essential part of his vision of the good life.” (26)

“Jefferson was dependent on books, tended to take his knowledge from them rather than from direct experience, and approached the world with studied eyes.” (29)

“The need to know seemed to to come as naturally to him as the need to breathe. He spoke often of his belief that nature had formed him for study, and he exercised his remarkable powers of discipline to find time for reading even in the busies and most hectic times of his life.” (29)

“I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” (46)

His favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, said of him: “Of history he was very fond, and this he studied in all languages [he knew seven], though always, I think, preferring the ancients. In fact, he derived more pleasure from his acquaintance with Greek and Latin than from any other resource of literature…I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than with any other book.” (48-49)

“Jefferson was constantly being consulted on matters relating to books and education and conscientiously made out dozens of reading lists at the requests of his friends.” (50)

To a friend he recommended this reading schedule:

– Before 8 am: Physical Studies, Ethics, Religion, Natural Law

– Eight to 12 pm: Law

– 12-1 pm: Politics

– Afternoon: History

– From dark to bedtime: Belles-lettres [literary works admired for their style], Criticism, Rhetoric, Oratory

And finally, his revolving bookstand, on which he liked to have five reference books while he wrote letters to friends:

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Lincoln’s Humility

LincolnUnlike so many history buffs, I’ve always found the Civil War one of the more uninteresting periods of American history. After finishing Thomas Keneally’s Abraham Lincoln (Penguin, 2008), this was no longer the case. I’ve enjoyed this short introduction to our 16th and greatest president both for its insights into the extraordinary character of Lincoln and for its treatment of other topics – such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the feats and failures of Civil War generals, and the colorful members of Lincoln’s cabinet – that I’m less familiar with and want to learn more of. As an example of the former – insights into Lincoln’s character – is the below excerpt, which reminds me of the biblical truth that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.

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Years before he became president, while Lincoln was working on a patent case,

“…a new lawyer, the stocky, pugnacious Edwin M. Stanton, joined the team. Stanton was already such a legal star that he wondered why they had bothered to bring in a ‘long-armed Ape’ from Illinois. (He had, of course, no idea that he would one day serve very happily in the supposed simian’s cabinet.) Lincoln had the gift of humility – it was one of the reasons he was beloved – and as best he could he sat and learned from Stanton, but was hurt by his daily contempt and hubris” (59).

The Conversion of St. Augustine

confessionThe hour Augustine became a Christian is a watershed moment in Christian history, for this young man  would go on to become not only a beloved bishop in a small town in north Africa but arguably the tallest intellectual mountain in the history of the church. Before his conversion, Augustine was engrossed in one of the heresies of his day, something that caused much grief to his pious mother, Monica. Following his assent of the Christian faith, however, he devoted his vast intellectual energies to exploring and expounding upon the Christian doctrines, producing a great number of works, including the Confessions and the City of God, which would have a lasting influence in such fields as psychology, philosophy, history, politics, and even war (e.g. Just War theory is often traced to Augustine). His famous conversion story is a powerful example of the power of Scripture – God’s revealed thoughts and will – to pierce the heart and spark new life. If you never read the Confessions (though I hope you don’t deprive yourself of such a treat!), at least read of the conversion of this mountain of the church, a great moment in history.

(The passage begins when Augustine, with his equally philosophically-oriented but heretical friend Alypius, are sitting at a friend’s house listening to a man tell the story of St. Antony, one of the first monks who retreated to the desert and whose monastic life of deep sacrifice and devotion inspired many to follow in his steps. This provokes Augustine to reflect seriously upon his own spiritual condition, causing him to leave the house in anguish.)

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“I probed the hidden depths of my soul and wrung its pitiful secrets from it, and when I mustered them all before the eyes of my heart, a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears. I stood up and left Alypius so that I might weep and cry to my heart’s content, for it occurred to me that tears are best shed in solitude… Somehow I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes, the sacrifice that is acceptable to you. I had much to say to you, my God, not in these very words but in this strain: Lord, will you never be content? Must we always taste your vengeance? Forget the long record of our sins. For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins, and in my misery I kept crying, ‘How long shall I go on saying, “tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?

“I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all of a sudden I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. For I had heard the story of Antony, and I remembered how he had happened to go into a church while the Gospel was being read and had taken it as a counsel addressed to himself when he heard the words Go home and sell all that belongs to you. Give it to the poor, and so the treasure you have shall be in heaven; then come back and follow me. By this divine pronouncement he had at once been converted to you.

“So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for when I stood up to move away I had put down the book containing Paul’s Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, confidence flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (177-178)

Augustine’s Confessions: An Effusion of Praise

confessionsI just started my second reading of Augustine’s Confessions (I first read it in the spring of 2012), a work that merits multiple readings both for its importance in the canon of Christian literature and as a richly edifying meditation on the self in relation to God. There are many translations of this classic work, and a couple of years ago I came across the one I’m now finally reading at the Barnes & Noble on M Street, which, sadly, has been replaced by a Nike store (You take back those Air Jordans and give us back our books!). This version, translated by Maria Boulding, a Benedictine nun, is incredibly readable and accessible to a modern audience. In other words, It’s not stuffy, making it easy to get swept away in Augustine’s deeply personal, earnest, and brilliant self-examination before the God he loves and longs to know more deeply. You can expect more posts with excerpts from this book, but for now, I’m happy to share this doozy of a passage – an expression of praise to God worthy of the theological mountain that was the Bishop of Hippo (the town of his bishopric in North Africa):

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“What are you, then, my God? What are you, I ask, but the Lord God? For who else is lord except the Lord, or who is god if not our God? You are most high, excellent, most powerful, omnipotent, supremely merciful and supremely just, most hidden yet intimately present, infinitely, beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change in all things, never new, never old, renewing all things yet wearing down the proud though they know it not; ever active, ever at rest, gathering while knowing no need, supporting and filling and guarding, creating and nurturing and perfecting, seeking although you lack nothing. You love without frenzy, you are jealous yet secure, you regret without sadness, you grow angry yet remain tranquil, you alter your works but never your plan; you take back what you find although you never lost it; you are never in need yet you rejoice in your gains, never avaricious yet you demand profits. You allow us to pay you more than you demand, and so you become our debtor, yet which of us possesses anything that does not already belong to you? You owe us nothing; yet you pay your debts; you write off our debts to you, yet you lose nothing thereby” (5).