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The Greatest Perspective Ever
Paul Staley marks the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address to ponder the power of language.
By Paul Staley
I was a bit of a nerd as a kid. It wasn't until the second grade that I realized that just because my shirts had a top button, it didn't mean I had to use them. Among my dorkier pursuits was a fascination with the Civil War.
But one interest of mine that you will not hear me ridicule was an admiration for Abraham Lincoln. And today, the 19th of November, is a big day for Lincoln fans because on this date in 1863, he delivered the greatest Perspective ever, the speech otherwise known as the Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln's remarks, in which he defined our national purpose, were a mere 282 words, about 80 words less than what I am reading right now. This was not just writing that said what needed to be said, but writing as sculpture, chiseling away the unnecessary and polishing the final result.
Yet at the same time Lincoln's address also illustrates the limits of language, something that the speech itself acknowledges. When Lincoln said, "the world will little note nor long remember what we say here" he was not engaging in false modesty but emphasizing the importance of what we do as compared to what we say. And indeed it would take another year and a half of bloody combat to achieve the objective he outlined.
In addition, the muted reaction to the speech the day it was delivered as compared to the reverence it enjoys today shows the difference between the spoken and the written word, the ephemeral and the permanent. Say something and once you're done talking your words no longer exist. They become instead what people think they heard. Write something and the words are fixed in place forever.
And yet setting words down hardly stops and actually only prolongs the process that transforms what a person says into what an audience understands. This is the true import of saying that words live forever. We cannot revise but we can revisit. And thus the speech that Lincoln felt was a "flat failure" right after he gave it enjoyed a revival decades later as the country looked for a way to express what had truly become a "United" States of America.
With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.
The Gettysburg Address:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.