Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Humility, Not Destiny

Professor of Organizational Behavior
Abraham Lincoln's humility comes from a lot of places, but it probably starts with his sense of empathy.
  • Transcript


Gautam Mukunda: Abraham Lincoln's humility comes from a lot of places, but it probably starts with his sense of empathy. We know a remarkable amount about him for someone who was born in the early 19th century. Even when he was a child he demonstrated extraordinary empathy and willingness to reach out to the people around him. Even to animals. And it's hard to imagine what sort of the Old West was like, but this is when everyone sort of… torturing animals for fun and for sports was a casual – everybody did that. And we have many sort of quite reliable stories that he not only absolutely refused to participate in that but would stop other people from doing it when he saw it – something that was sort of remarked upon as a strange characteristic from this young boy. 

So I think it started with empathy and another element would probably be – that he clearly suffered from chronic clinical depression. At least twice his friends put him on suicide watch. And when you think about what it took to be put on suicide watch in the 19th century, this will give you a sense of just how severe the depression probably was…. He once said, “I am the most miserable man living.”

So I think these two things were part of it. And there was this sense in him that he was – Lincoln was not grandiose but he did not lack for a sense of destiny. He thought that he had… In his first sort of really long speech – it's called the Lyceum Address, it's sort of florid and overstated and completely uncharacteristic of Lincoln's style, and he's very young and he's probably trying to impress the people in his community when he gives this talk so he sort of overstates everything, but it's still Lincolnian; it still has an extraordinary psychological insight. And what he says is – it's very conventional. It starts out, he says, you know, "What are the great threats to American democracy and institutions?"

This is sort of a hackneyed speaking topic in those days, and it starts out very conventional. He says, "Look, the United States is now so strong that every European Army combined could not possibly challenge us. So the threats are all internal." Nothing surprising about that. But here's where we get the Lincoln insight: He says that the problem here is that every nation brings up people of “towering ambition” – that's his word – “with a thirst and a hunger for renown.” And this is – this, again, is an idea – and Alexander Hamilton once said that “the hunger for renown is the enduring hallmark of the noblest minds for fame.” Not celebrities we think of now but fame in the sense that historians will write about you and what you did.

And Lincoln says that when the United States was founded you could secure this eternal fame by strengthening its institutions, by making it a success. He says, "But now, success is assured. We are a success. And you don't get eternal fame by assuring the success of something that's already successful." He says, "You get it by changing the world."

He said that every nation produces Napoleons, people of this kind of ambition. And they're not going to want to do this anymore. They’re going to want to overturn the old institutions, to change the world. And he says, "These people will have this drive, this unstoppable drive,” and this is the moment when it gets particularly – from Lincoln's mouth particularly haunting. He says, "And they will do it. They will get this renown whether it be by freeing slaves or enslaving freemen."

So when you hear a very, very young, you know, mid-20s Abraham Lincoln talking about freeing slaves, this is a pretty remarkable thing to hear. And so I think Lincoln had this sense that he was, you know – that he was in part an agent of a larger destiny and that it was this drive for renown that made him, that suited him for this capacity of being this agent.

But in doing so he also understood that he was an avatar. He was part of the cause but the cause was not him. And in that sort of deeper ability – willingness to acknowledge that there was much more going on than just the story of Abraham Lincoln, I think he became humble in a way that almost transcends our normal vision of humility, right. We think of someone as humble that they deferential or willing to defer to other people. That's not it. It's humble in the sense of a person who is doing something noble and worthwhile but it is the noble quest is far more important than they are.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd