The Magazine

Done Being Born

Israel after Sharon and his generation.

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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In that wise but still youthful reflection on the problem of how a nation might address its flaws by revering and building on its greatest strengths—the problem that would occupy him for the rest of his life—Lincoln laid an awful lot of weight on pure rational persuasion. “Passion has helped us; but can do so no more,” he told the students as he neared the close of his remarks. “It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.” 

Twenty-three years later, as Lincoln stood on the steps of the Capitol having just taken on the presidency in an hour of terrible crisis, he was still wary of pure passion in the life of a nation, but he was less certain that pure reason was enough. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection,” he said at the conclusion of his first Inaugural Address. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” 

He had discovered the secret link between the spirit of pride and reverence for an extraordinary founding and the spirit of preservation and improvement of a cherished inheritance. He had discovered memory. 

Israel’s strengths and weaknesses, its challenges and its problems, are very different from ours. But maybe what it needs, as it moves out of the shadow of its founding, is not so different from what America needed as the last of its founding generation passed away. It needs a way to revere those who brought it into being while still seeing clearly what they left unresolved at home and abroad. It needs to find the strength to deal with its problems in the very memory of its founding, and in the legacy built up since. It needs to see itself as the mature, impressive, complicated, full-blown nation that it is. 

And it could probably use a Lincoln, too—but who couldn’t? 

Yuval Levin, the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, the founding editor of National Affairs, and the author of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

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