Not speed, not breadth, but purpose – On the Purposive Intellect of Abraham Lincoln

Not speed, not breadth, but purpose – On the Purposive Intellect of Abraham Lincoln

“The prime quality of his mind was not speed—which in the different world a century and more later would be thought to be almost the defining feature of intelligence. It also was not breadth—the embrace of the best that has been thought and said in the world of learned persons, which Thomas Jefferson aspired to—or instant knowledge of the inner details of public affairs of the twentieth-century policy wonk. Lincoln’s mind instead cut deeply, perhaps slowly or at least with effort and concentrated attention, into a relatively few subjects. It was purposive—personally, politically, morally.” Walter Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography

Discussing the value of reading biographies, Cal Newport recently mentioned this biography of Lincoln on his podcast. I was instantly intrigued by the idea of an ethical biography. More than offering yet another sketch of Lincoln’s life, Miller seeks to account for Lincoln’s moral formation and to explore the reasons for and the consequences of his moral choices. In the podcast Newport drew a parallel between Lincoln’s purposive intellect and the three principles of his model for deep productivity—do fewer things; do this work at a slower pace; obsess over quality.

I’m struck by the idea of a purposive intellect, particularly as it stands in contrast to a quick intellect. Miller observes that different ages value different dimensions of the intellect, and he is certainly right to say that our age most praises speed. If you asked me outright to say which of these three I aspired to, I would probably say that I desired breadth. But if you probed that answer just a bit further, you would find that what I really want is breadth quickly, to master a lot of material, yes, but to master it quickly. What I really value then is speed. The ultimate version of this to my mind is the gnostic fantasy about learning in The Matrix. That one could learn kung fu, or anything for that matter with the speed and ease of a download is nothing but fantasy, but that fantasy grows out of the idolization of not just speed but of computers as ideal minds. We want to learn the way a computer “learns.” A computer may be fast, but it cannot be purposive the way described here, no matter what one thinks of AI.

One consequence of idolizing the speed of a mind? If speed is the primary attribute we praise, then to admit slowness or to intentionally attempt slowness, as if it were good to slow down, amounts to a confession—I am not smart (at least in the way the age currently defines or values it). If the videos YouTube suggests to me about reading more, more quickly are any indication, I must have more than a passing interest in speed and the attendant anxiety that I am not fast enough. But a purposive mind is slow by design, or if not slow at least deliberate. It distrusts quickness for the sake of quickness.

What are the qualities of a purposive intellect? The purposive mind works like a plow. As Miller says of Lincoln, “His was a mind inclined to plow down to first principles and to hold to them—not as a metaphysician does, abstracting from particulars and spinning great webs of speculation, linking abstraction to abstraction, but as a lawyer, a politician, a moralist does at his or her best: by tenaciously analyzing one’s way through the particulars, seeking the nub of the matter.” Though this is true as far as it goes, I would push the image further. One does not plow simply to turn over the ground. One plows the earth in order to prepare it to bring forth new life. The plowman follows slowly as the the long steady furrows cut into the earth. With each step the earth turns up rich soil that can cradle and give life to a seed. The purposive mind is therefore generative. The purposive is also tenacious. As Lincoln said of himself, “My mind is like a piece of steel—very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible thereafter to rub it out.”

Of course, these three qualities, speed, breadth, purpose, are not comprehensive, nor do they necessarily exclude each other. Think of a mind given to both speed and purpose. Mozart comes to mind as an example. He not only produced so much, so quickly but also so much of lasting value. Breadth and purpose readily also go together, while St. Thomas Aquinas seems to be a stunning example of someone who possessed all three. His was a mind that was quick and supple, a mind absolutely steeped in the breadth of the tradition, but also a mind that worked with great purpose.

(If you click the tag for intellectual life on this blog, you will find many posts dedicated to exploring various aspects of what the intellectual life is and what it entails, and more than a few posts sketching the main lines of The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges.)