Transpersonal Psychology and the Interpretation of History: A Reading of the Gettysburg Address

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Transpersonal psychology continues to have impact far beyond the discipline of psychology alone. Providing a broader context for studying key historical figures, events, and movements is one example. The transpersonal perspective is particularly relevant in psychohistorical study, especially in the interpretation of political rhetoric. In certain instances, it can help explain the formal structure and broad appeal of memorable political orations. As an illustration, the author applies Stanislav Grof's notion of basic perinatal matrices in a close reading of one of the most significant speeches in American political history: Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Transpersonal psychology and the discipline of history have much to offer each other. An array of key historical figures, events, and movements awaits exploration by psychohistorians who are knowledgeable about and equipped with a transpersonal orientation. A transpersonal perspective is not often seen even among the copious analyses surrounding memorable addresses by national leaders. One example warranting further attention is Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address.

If ever there were an American president who. by bent and temperament, was in touch with the transpersonal dimension, it is Abraham Lincoln. His famous "melancholy," remarked on by contemporaries and biographers, was seen in his own Romantic era as liminal-evidence of contact with the numinous dimensions in his own personality and the cosmos (Wills, 1992, pp. 72-75). Lincoln was attentive to his own dreams, to the point of sometimes letting them guide his practical actions in family affairs, ' and his law partner and contemporary biographer described him as alert to portents and omens (Herndon & Weik, 1942/1889, p. 352; Wills, 1992, p. 76). Only two weeks before his own assassination, he had a vivid dream, which he recounted in detail to his assistant Ward Lamon, foreboding the event (Stern, 1940, p. 185). As the catastrophic Civil War whirled around him, Lincoln, who always remained skeptical of the nostrums of organized religion, nevertheless increasingly saw the War as divinely ordained; while laboring daily to affect its outcome, he mulled continually over its ultimate governance by divine will." The War's appalling death toll, and tragedy within his own family, inexorably intensified his lifelong preoccupation with death, focusing his mind on its meaning and possible aftermath.3 His beloved and favorite son Willie, then eleven years old, died after a feverish illness on the night of February 20, 1862. As his thoughts on the War matured into the foundation of his immortal funeral oration at Gettysburg, Lincoln remained in deep mourning, twice having his son's body exhumed in order to contemplate the remains (Stern, 1940, p. 137). In those same months, Mary Todd Lincoln, desperately hoping to contact her dead son, was conducting séances in the White House (Wills, 1992, p. 76). Clearly, transpersonal psychology-in partnership with psychohistory-offers a meaningful framework to study both Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address.


Sigmund Freud originally applied his notions to historical and political figures,4 and psychoanalysis and its progeny have influenced biography, including political and historical biography, ever since. While loose efforts at explaining historical behavior with psychoanalytic theory have often seemed fatuous, a more disciplined effort to apply concepts derived from modern psychology to the study of history emerged in the later 1950s. In 1957, William Langer gave a landmark address before the American Historical Association, subsequently published in the American Historical Review, in which he called for just such an effort, labeling it the "next assignment" (Langer, 1958). The following year saw the publication of Erik Erikson's psychoanalytic account of Martin Luther, which convincingly demonstrated the potential value of the genre and still is regarded as a major classic in the field (1958). …