Abraham Lincoln never said the following: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Robert G. Ingersoll, a forgotten thinker of the very highest order, never said them either, but he outlined a much similar notion in an 1884 essay on the subject of Abraham Lincoln:
Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power. This is the supreme test. It is the glory of Lincoln that, having almost absolute power, he never abused it, except upon the side of mercy.
Somebody paraphrased those words and attributed them to Lincoln. We can only speculate as to why the words have been changed and misattributed (perhaps because they gain significance when they are attached to a famous name). Even bright people, such as J.K. Rowling, have used the quote loosely because it serves an immediate, positive purpose. Greater sins have been exacted on humanity, it is true; however, perhaps our nature—to blindly accept powerful and seemingly credible things from powerful and seemingly credible people that confirm our underlying beliefs and biases—warrants some harsher examination than this hastily arranged, falsely attributed cluster of words. With this in mind, “Do you agree?” takes on a heavier weight and I will address accepting self-satisfying “truisms” before the comparatively weaker quote’s merit in and of itself.
The habit of embracing self-gratifying words and/or images as exciting, new lovers is a pathology, that has never died, and, like nicotine addiction, will never be cured. It is a necessary fuel for extremism. Consider the primal thought process that serves as a pillar of supernatural belief:
- A subject’s brain contemplates and begins to fear mortality
- A solution for eternal life is offered to the subject
- The subject experiences a positive endocrinal reaction which saturates and pollutes the otherwise perfect organ in our skull
- The brain recognizes this new, warm presence as a viable antidote to the original fear
- The cycle becomes self-perpetuating seeking out any nibble of verbiage that can feed the machine of belief while murdering friendly creatures who drink from the well of reality
The whole process is, of course, more nuanced and a discussion about a subject’s social circumstance is wanting. Yet, the religious cycle, fueled by an addictive drug the endocrine system supplies us, can easily be observed in our situation: accepting the beautiful portrait of Lincoln as a flawless, omniscient being; praising the Church of Humanity’s overstated claims about human strength in the face of challenge (thus, re-energizing belief in ourselves); and leveling ourselves with those who have authoritative power over us by ascending the murky steps of Judgment. Each of those things are band-aids for a more difficult reality: Lincoln was not a perfect person and, in fact, was prey to eugenic ideology of his time (like Jefferson before him and Teddy Roosevelt after him) that detailed superior and inferior races; human beings often prove themselves incapable of dealing with challenge and certain people will always hold authoritative power over us no matter how much we deceive ourselves into positions of judgment. To lose the image of Lincoln as a warrior of truth and justice, to look inwardly at ourselves and see our species as often incapable, to accept a role as a subject: these things are difficult, and we travel wayward paths to avoid them. The human process that led to the molding of this quote and the happy acceptance of its contents testifies to our thirst to, basically, feel good.
The impact of allowing the engine of our central nervous system to function on corrosive information needn’t be discussed here; however, it goes without saying that the effects are bad and we ought to question, examine, and reflect as much as necessary in an effort to prevent the consequences of such a practice. As for the words themselves…
Let us proceed with the assumption that the words “nearly all” indicate a significant percentage above the majority and hints at a presumed fundamental quality in the human spirit. It is also worth giving the concept of “standing adversity” some parameters: that the quote suggests adversity is a poor test of character because almost all of us can pass said test. Passing a character test can be described as the overwhelming presence of positive behavior and results over negative ones when confronted with difficult situations. So to paraphrase the words in question: the significant majority of people will handle life’s obstacles ethically (a Western ethic, we presume); therefore, evaluating character based on how one deals with adversity is a poor examination because nearly every case will reveal magnanimity. And, yet, this does not hold up against empirical evidence, which, in this case, I would call life on planet earth.
In a world where homicide, depression, substance abuse, obesity, infidelity, and other reactions to adversity thrive, one cannot wisely accept the idea of human beings overcoming obstacles as a bastion of certitude. One needs only to observe the prevalence of the aforementioned ills in adversity stricken communities to give sufficient evidence to rebut this claim. It is also worth observing that, like an Aristotelian virtue, the value of “not quitting” is taught with such vigor to young people so as to further suggest that withstanding adversity is not a quality innate in “nearly all men” but something that requires dedicated teaching and much practice. And even after years of lessons and practice it does not necessarily guarantee the ability. To give a well-publicized example, O.J. Simpson had, to say the least, difficulty enduring the struggles of an inharmonious, intimate relationship. The abhorrent result of his inability to deal with adversity came despite a lifetime of experience learning about and handling the challenges of being black in the United States, participating in professional sports, pursuing a career in the entertainment business, and engaging in other long-term relationships (romantic or otherwise).
One can even go so far as to evaluate collective bodies in the face of adversity. The German people faced adversity in the decades that followed World War I and dealt with it in a way that certainly would not pass a test in ethics and humanity. Gangs, if we are to believe they are most common in depleted socioeconomic circumstances, are not a positive response to adversity. Terrorists are ultimately organized groups responding to a series of unfortunate circumstances related to cultural clash, violent conflict, and environmental factors. Humans do not respond to adversity with the consistent moral success necessary to supplement the first premise.
We can discern from Ingersoll’s original quote that power should be understood as authoritative, and/or governing power. This part of the phrase is more truthful. Authoritative power reveals much about a subject: capacity for empathy, cognitive skill, instinct in the face of crises, self-awareness, and likely a host of other exposed traits. I would also extend this definition of power to that curious phenomenon of naturally inherited power: that which forms organically in a group—a locker room setting, for example—where a leader rises without some sort of formal election. These informal figures can exercise similar muscles of rulers and lawmakers particularly in effecting the condition of people around them. The generality of the sentence in discussion, however, misses the capacity for power (and circumstance) to influence the character of the one wielding it.
A study of European monarchs through the eyes of 21st century morality reveals an overwhelming majority of leaders who seem to be unscrupulous war criminals if not murderous tyrants: Philip II of Spain, Henry VIII of England, Richard I of England, to offer some quick examples. Yet, would we be any different if we were raised with the oppressive teachings and beliefs of their time period? To put it more succinctly, power is not a mere tool: it is a thickly layered, parasitic suit that shapes its host based on his or her existing strengths and weaknesses of character, fundamental ability, and unrelenting environment. In other words, the agents of power’s molding ability include the psychological effect it has on its holder, social treatment of those in power, the morality of power during the time it is held, and the circumstances surrounding the position of power (Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton arrived at the Presidency facing vastly different worlds, for example). Evaluating authority figures in this way requires unbiased nuance.
But who is a fan of nuance? I am. I do not like hastily arranged statements. I do not like plagiarism. I do not like toxic cycles of belief. I do not like logic-bereft statements. Do I agree? I do not.