Our better angels?
I have heard this phrase before and wonder about its origins.
I had an idea that it was first used by Abraham Lincoln in an important address. I did some research (now called ‘Googling’!) and discovered that it was indeed in Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, delivered on Monday, March 4, 1861, as part of his taking of the oath of office for his first term.
In his address he made an impassioned plea about ‘We must not be enemies’..
And went on ‘…The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
But, it seems that Lincoln was not the first to use the phrase and further Googling reveals that “my better angel” has been in use since the very late sixteenth century
What’s more, in 1841, Charles Dickens had used “our better angels” in his novel “Barnaby Rudge….’the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.’
So, twenty years before Lincoln’s address, Charles Dickens used the phrase. Was Abraham Lincoln a reader of Dickens?
And yet, what does it mean?
There is a 2011 book by Steven Pinker, entitled ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’, where he talks about how the ways of the present world are far better than the world of the past. Which is very encouraging and perhaps indicates how our ‘better angels’ are working.
I was going to write that I’m not sure what or who my better angels are, before I realised that I’m more than ‘not sure’; I simply don’t know what my better angels are…or who is my better angel – or even know what the words mean.
I assume it is a feeling, or a knowledge or an emotion more than an actual being.
How are we to operate and behave using our better angels as (perhaps) against our bad angels or our worse – or worst – angels?
Does this idea lead us back to the eternal questions about empathy and compassion towards others? Or does it not have anything to do with others, but is more of a connection between us and simple decency? Perhaps that’s it.
And, what about our good angels, or our best angels? Is there a reason that we talk about our better angels, apart from the simple fact that it possibly sounds better (better!) than our ‘good’ or ‘best’ angels?
What are they better than?
When Steven Pinker writes on the subject, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he seems to be suggesting that we, as humans, are behaving better now than in the past.
I have to admit I have not read his entire book, but that’s the impression I have gained. I quote (again, from my research agent, Google): ‘….he argues that violence in the world has declined both in the long run and in the short run and suggests explanations as to why this has occurred..’
One review states that Pinker’s book talks of human nature, and ‘.provides a remarkable picture of an increasingly enlightened world.’
Well, that’s positive news.
And is it all related to ‘our better angels’?
Is the ‘better angel’ idea really just about morality?
(Morality, definition = ‘principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour’)
That would seem to be a sensible interpretation.
Are our better angels just our reminders of decency?
Ending on a lighter note on the origin & meaning – and how we access our better angels – or who, or what they are…writing all this angel stuff has made my brain start singing an old song from way back in 1963, about ‘My Special Angel’ (Bobby Vinton)
Here’s the last verse:
‘You are my special angel
I'll have my special angel
Here to watch over me.’
Oh, wouldn’t that be nice? To have our own ‘special angel?
Then we wouldn’t have to worry about doing the right thing as we would have our own special (or better) angel permanently watching over us…and hopefully guiding us through the minefield of EMPATHY, COMPASSION and MORALITY.
How handy that would be!