The androgyne of Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Republic is a deeply comic myth on the nature of eros, one that has been put to music in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (see below). I have long wondered whether the strange male birth imagery in the Gettysburg Address ought to be understood as a Platonic ideas about eros, and now am glad to see this idea in a scholarly book. (By the way, I have no opinion on suggestions about Lincoln’s own sexuality!)
Eros, the ancient Greek term that describes a form of love, is a symbol uniquely endowed to help us grasp the deeper layers of meaning of the Gettysburg Address. While popular conceptions typically reduce eros to the realm of sexuality, let us recall that Plato wrote the Symposium to articulate the powerful educational dimensions of the concept. In his classic treatment on love, Plato has Aristophanes define eros as “the desire for wholeness,” a theme in symmetry with Lincoln’s identification of the “unfinished work” facing the nation. The life-enhancing energies of eros have long been recognized as vital to the process of self-knowledge and to the development of community. Rollo May tells us that “eros is a state of being” an ardent desire which provides the condition of possibility for an individual to be “magnetized” toward the vision of an imagined good, for oneself or for one’s larger community. One of the defining strands of eros therefore consists of a passion for changing things for the better, individually and civically.
With this broad understanding of eros in mind, it is easier to recognize how Lincoln’s consistent use of birth imagery—“brought forth,” “conceived,” “created,” and “new birth of freedom” –affirms the erotic character underlying the Gettysburg Address. Not only are these erotic signifiers woven into the fabric of the speech but they also emerge from a background of contradiction and are presented as resolutions to that contradiction.
Indeed, it is precisely a heightened awareness of this contradiction that prompts Lincoln the teacher to ask Americans to reconnect to their democratic tradition as a way out of their collective predicament. The desire to move toward and connect to something better, whether to a person, to an object of knowledge, or to a sense of national wholeness, is not only an erotic energy but is also educable. Similarly, Lincoln wanted Americans to reinvent themselves in light of what was “truly good,” holding that such goodness would be impossible to bring forth without a prior grounding in the values and principles enshrined in the Declaration. That Lincoln’s civic pedagogy has an erotic character is also evidenced by his ability to fashion Gettysburg as an aesthetic event in which the teacher, representing beautiful ideas, succeeds in stimulating a desire among citizens to reinvent the nation on the basis of a common good of equality and opportunity, that is, on the basis of a philosophical idea.