Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On Lincoln and Depression

Over the weekend, Stanton Peele, whose blog is hosted on the Psychology Today website, posted an interesting essay on Abraham Lincoln and depression. In this, he considered the evidence of Lincoln's well-known bouts with melancholy/depression, coupled with the tragedies and stresses of his life. Given this, and Lincoln's supposed fatalistic religious outlook on life -- and his life in particular -- Peele is amazed at the strength Lincoln displayed in his life.

While I would quibble with a few details in the essay (I'm not entirely sure that Peele represents Lincoln's fatalism accurately, which went beyond simple issues of mortality), I think that Peele hits on a topic that accounts for part of the Lincoln mystique. It is difficult to imagine how Lincoln could endure all of the hard times in his life (his dissatisfied childhood, numerous career frustrations, difficulties with women, stresses of a wartime presidency) and keep going, making strong decisions (often with inspired words).

On the other hand, I wish Peele had gone further, particularly when he admits, "It is hard for modern psychology to fathom how a depressed person was confident and energized enough to guide the most powerful country in the world through the chasm of its self-destruction, while never losing his humanity." Personally, I have a long-held suspicion about modern psychology's understanding of depression, overstating the debilitating effects in many people. Lincoln's biography might be a good case study to push the understanding of depression.

One recent well-publicized book took on this topic: Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. As the subtitle suggests, Shenk tends toward the opposite pole from Peele. It is an interesting book, and one hesitates to challenge Shenk's slightly unusual approach given that he draws on his personal experiences with depression, but it is not a completely realized -- or completely balanced -- argument. But there is room for a more extensive study.

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