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Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason by David Hirsch and Dan Van Haften (review)
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The authors of this book are not bashful. Boldly they proclaim on the opening page, “Almost any literate person can become an Abraham Lincoln. We show how” (xvii). The publisher’s publicity release is even more grandiose, promising that Lincoln’s speech structure, revealed in this book, “emancipates speech from Aristotle and unleashes limitless possibilities.” What Hirsch and Van Haften purport to show is that Lincoln’s speeches and writings have a characteristic structure that anyone familiar with the pattern can emulate. Also, because they assert that “great speeches and great writings are less a function of words and phrases than of structure” (xviii), presumably anyone who models Lincoln’s structure can replicate his rhetorical achievements.

Leaving aside that the authors do not support their assertion that arrangement trumps style, what is the structure on which they bestow such agency? It is the six-step demonstration of a Euclidean proposition: enunciation, exposition, specification, construction, proof, and conclusion. These are thought to yield “ironclad demonstration” (78). Hirsch and Van Haften define each of these terms and illustrate them by reference to the Cooper Union speech. They then examine a large number of Lincoln texts, ranging from legal pleadings to famous orations, showing that they may be divided into these six parts.

The authors assert more than this, however. Like many writers, they observe that in the years following his congressional term, Lincoln devoted himself to the study of Euclid and that doing so improved his mind, but they also claim that Euclid’s categories influenced Lincoln’s own composition strategy. He “transformed geometry into speech,” using “the ancient Greek elements of a geometric proposition in an entirely new context: oratory” (xvii). He thereby “sought to maximize the effectiveness” of his oral advocacy (162) and “not only won cases for his clients but ultimately saved his country” (23). He did so by giving oratory the “ironclad demonstration” associated with formal systems, such as Euclidean geometry: “Truth, properly presented, becomes impartial. Impartiality conveys credibility. Credibility leads to persuasion” (78).

Despite the fact that Lincoln used Euclid as an algorithm for oratorical composition, though, he never acknowledged that he was doing so. Thus, Hirsch and Van Haften maintain, for more than 150 years his Euclidean system “remained an unopened gift” (xviii). Lincoln “did hide the profound and direct way he used what he learned. What Lincoln did by himself, it took two people to discover: a lawyer [Hirsch] and an engineer with a strong mathematical background [Van Haften]” (249). There is no shortage of self-esteem here.

These are preposterous claims: Lincoln had a secret code that he used to organize his great speeches and writings; it is this structure that gives these documents their power; the code has been cracked only now; and now almost anyone can apply the code just as Lincoln did, with similar results. The whole chain of reasoning depends on dubious assumptions: first, that oratory can possibly achieve the “ironclad demonstration” of formal geometry; second, that structure is the overriding determinant of rhetorical success; third, that there is some unique power in Euclid’s categories in particular; and fourth, that Lincoln’s compositional skills, however he came by them, are readily transferrable to others and to the present. None of these assumptions is supported in the book.

There is, in my judgment, a much more plausible alternate hypothesis. Since Euclid’s categories are highly general (much like Cicero’s parts of the speech, which also could be mapped onto the Lincoln corpus), they can be applied easily to texts by people who are sensitive to them. It is far more likely that Hirsch and Van Haften found in the texts what they were disposed to be looking for than that they broke the code that Lincoln had managed to keep secret for over 150 years.

From a perusal of the diagrams in the book, it often is not apparent why the authors have characterized a given section of a speech as they have, or why a different categorization is not equally viable. Not all of Lincoln’s works are shown to contain all the Euclidean elements—and the omissions are not claimed to be enthymematic; they are just not...

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