Thursday, April 2, 2015


Values Held by John Adams
What does the following quotation suggest to you about 
what Adams's position might be on education, thrift, economy, the accumulation of personal wealth, and the enjoyment of private property if he were alive today?

John Adams, 1788 by Mather Brown

"I must study politics and war 
that my sons may have liberty to study 
mathematics and philosophy. 

"My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

~ John Adams (1735-1826)

John Adams in old age


36 comments:

  1. My two cents this morning before I've had enough coffee to wake up my brain...

    The creative arts and certain cerebral pursuits cannot develop and thrive if the political climate won't allow for such developments.

    Physical survival is always the most important element of existence. Once the needs of physical survival are met -- and once drudgery is ameliorated -- the human spirit soars.

    Can the human spirit soar even under dire circumstances? Yes. Cases in point: musicians in the Nazi concentration camps and musicians in the oppressive USSR. Indeed, such circumstances can lead to especially poignant expression in the creative arts.

    But the great body of creative-arts material we have has sprung up in more stable circumstances -- Haydn's compositions, for example.

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    1. A tempting theory, AOW, but I'm not sure it's altogether true. After all we have the Cave Paintings to prove that "Man does not live by bread alone." Surely those were produced during a time of great physical challenges and a threatening daily struggle for mere survival, weren't they?

      In fact I doubt there was ever a time when threats, strife, turmoil of one kind or another were not a present factor in any given society. I know for a fact for instance that the famous mosaics featuring the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora in Ravenna (Italy) –– a mammoth, labor-intensive undertaking –– were produced in a time of great political upheaval.

      I'm not well versed enough in history to cite many specific examples, but I'm sure they're out there.

      After all how many times in our own brief history have we not been engaged in a titanic struggle of one kind or another, and still our artists, artisans, and craftsmen produced works of great beauty, superlative quality, especially in architecture, painting, cabinetry, furniture, literature and horticulture.

      David McCullough through his television presentations and in his book on John and Abigail Adams was the first to make me aware that "ordinary people" –– farmers, tradesmen, soldiers, diarists, et al. –– from earlier times wrote the most beautiful letters often under difficult conditions.

      So, I believe that John Adams may have believed what I,myself, came to believe many years ago that the human spirit at its best craves something higher than the daily satisfaction of fleshly appetites. We have an innate drive to surround ourselves with as much Beauty, Order, Refinement as we can in a quest for Spiritual Perfection and ultimate Union with Almighty God.

      Most of us don't think that way consciously, of course, and would likely scoff at the very idea, but the drive is there, nevertheless. If it were not, we'd have remained feral creatures living a purely animal, "dog-eat-dog" existence in a state of nature where life, as Hobbes observed, would be "nasty, brutish and short."

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    2. FT,
      John Adams wrote (emphasis mine): I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.

      He also wrote (again, my emphasis): in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain

      Therefore, I believe that the statement which John Adams made had political significance. Get the politics settled so that Beauty, Order, Refinement, etc., can be pursued.

      In a comment below, Thersites provides some important context for Adams's words cited in the body of the blog post. It seems that he would rather have been partaking of other and higher pursuits, but had duty to fulfill so that his children could be free in other respects (emphases mine):

      I could fill volumes with descriptions of temples and palaces, paintings, sculptures, tapestry, porcelain, &c., &c., &c., if I could have time ; but I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The science of government, it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences ; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation, ought to take place of, indeed to exclude, in a manner, all other arts.

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  2. What AOW said. Rough men and women must grunt it out at the base of Mazlowe's pyramid in order to move society towards the pinnacle. A society should strive for higher ideals.

    Rodo' expressed this in his seminal essay, broadly interpreted as the artistic idealist Ariel (South America) reclining in sylvan tranquility, pitted against the coldly-logical, warlike Caliban of North America.

    What we all forget though (and America will inevitably wake up and realize when it is too late), that if everyone is busy painting, playing lutes and reading poetry, the Mongol hordes swoop in and put an end to your cultured society.

    That most elemental level of blood and steel will never disappear.

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    1. I have never heard of Rodo' (sic). I find the image of always strife-torn South America reclining in Sylvan Tranquility faintly amusing, especially when contrasted with a vision of North America as merely cold, calculating and perennially bellicose.

      I, Alas! have not traveled extensively, as you have, SilverFiddle, so I am not familiar with the realities of life in many foreign lands, but I have been favorably impressed by the high degree of tangible evidence of advanced Civilization found in such places as Rio Di Janeiro and Buenos Aires -- but I have only seen these place through the eyes of the makers of travelogues, and PBS cultural documentaries, which always seek to give the most favorable impression possible of places they want to encourage people to empathize with and to visit, also occasional scenes from movies, where certain places are used to provide "background," and "color" to a relatively trivial drama, etc.

      That aside, I don't disagree with your assertion that we always have and always will need "rough men" to guard and defend us against barbarian aggression, and I doubt if John Adams would disagree with you either.

      What everyone seems to have missed so far –– and this I admit is a pet them of mine –– that ADAMS is NOT expanding in some UNIVERSAL UTOPIAN VISION of an ULTIMATELY PERFECT SOCIETY –– he is only talking about HIMSELF and his PROGENY.

      And therein, I think, lies the primary clue as to what made The Enlightenment and our historically unique Revolution of 1776 so hugely successful –– it was, and remains, the concept of INDIVIDUALISM –– a lifelong devotion to the development of our Character, Intellect, Talents, Tastes, Quality of Vision and Levels of Aspiration as the best thing we could hope to do with our lives as INDIVIDUALS.

      That, I believe has been the Key to our once-vaunted "Exceptionalism" against which the forces of Envy, Spite, Malice and Stupidity have pitted themselves in a maniacal determination to bring us down.

      The LEFT will not EMULATE and strive toward the IDEALS by which we have tried to live in the past, it will work only to DESECRATE and DISCREDIT them.

      Though a good argument could be made that John Adams was, indeed, a "radical" in his day, he and our other Founding Fathers were not DESTROYERS, they were BUILDERS, and therein lies the difference THER brand of radicalism and the perverse, degenerate envy inspired hatred that plagues us today.

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    2. I fully support and agree with Adams' words you posted.

      My comment goes to the old "Sheep. Wolves, and Sheepdogs" story.

      Maybe we all start at wolves, but society evolves and in this context becoming a sheep is a good thing: You produce wool, and ultimately, mutton and lamb chops.

      But a society of nothing but sheep will end up eaten by wolves, if not literally, then metaphorically as they become economically unviable.

      Expand it out and sheepdogs include cops, but also sanitation workers, farmers and people who convert raw materials into infrastructure, electricity, natural gas, gasoline, etc.

      We will always need sheepdogs, and God bless them, because they allow the rest of us to lounge and dream and chase our pursuits free from safety, security and survival worries.

      I see two things going wrong here in the US viz this allegory:

      1. Government has us all on constant alarm now, everyone mounting the parapets of the fortress and scanning the horizon, and indeed constantly looking around because we have let in thousands of Trojan Horses. Everyone is on alert all the time, and that is horribly unhealthy for individual mental states and for society as a whole.

      2. A lack of sheepdogs, and the castration of sheepdogs. We haven't won a war since 1945, thanks to pusillanimous politicians, and we are slowly but surely deballing the police over the actions of a few criminals in their ranks.

      2 continued. We discourage manual labor and the skilled trades that produce and maintain the infrastructure that undergirds our society. Too many people pursue useless degrees, not enough engineers and hard science grads.

      These factors will conspire to kill this great experiment.

      I'm not lecturing anyone; I know that you all know this all too well. I'm just explaining where I am coming from.

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    3. SHUCKS! Just lost a lengthy comment.

      1. All dogs are descended from the wolf

      2. Human beings are descended from a common ancestor as well.

      3. Alexander Tyler charted the cyclical course of every Civilization known to history thus far. Eventually ALL fall prey to the same pattern and repeat the mistakes that destroyed the others. (OZYMANDIAS describes it with chilling eloquence in poetic language.)

      4. We appear to be in a state of decline. Too bad it happened on our watch, but there appears to be little we could do to halt what seems fore-ordained.

      5. I STILL say, however, that Adams's words may be interpreted to have a UNIVERSAL APPLICATION to all INDIVIDUALS in ALL circumstances in any and all periods of history.

      It's an INNER thing -- the way CHOOSE to LOOK AT whatever it is life hands out. This is where the power of PRAYER and SUPPLICATION transcends the physical limitations hat appear to bind us.

      SOME men are capable of being freer in a dungeon than many a rich and famous man living in a palace or a penthouse.

      In the end SPIRIT is All-in-All.

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    4. SF,
      if everyone is busy painting, playing lutes and reading poetry, the Mongol hordes swoop in and put an end to your cultured society

      That is the reality.



      People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. -- George Orwell

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    5. If I can stop one heart from breaking,
      I shall not live in vain;
      If I can ease one life the aching,
      Or cool one pain,
      Or help one fainting robin
      Unto his nest again,
      I shall not live in vain.


      ~ Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

      That puts i very neatly in a nutshell for me.

      It isn't what HAPPENS to us that matters, it's we CHOOSE to DO about it that counts. The more we think of others and the less we think of Self, the happier and more fulfilled we are apt to be.

      It took me more than sixty years of fretting and fuming to learn that, and STILL I get irked to the point of madness by the opacity displayed by others who seem utterly perverse, inane and self-defeating. But I am WRONG to give way to feelings of that sort.



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    6. FT,
      It's an INNER thing -- the way CHOOSE to LOOK AT whatever it is life hands out. This is where the power of PRAYER and SUPPLICATION transcends the physical limitations hat appear to bind us.

      I do not disagree with you, and John Adams may well have agreed with you, too. But I don't see that such was Adams's meaning in that particular letter to Abigail.

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    7. Charleston BlackbottomApril 3, 2015 at 11:24 PM

      A truly altruistic thread. Well done.

      Delete
  3. ...and so it goes, the evolution of the useful into the useless... of the necessary into "luxuries/ the superfluous". He should have learned that all so-called "progress" is but an illusion. In life, there is only kintsugi! And it makes us stronger. ;)

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    1. So, am I correct in assuming that essence you subscribe to a (to me) dismal Utilitarian Theory of Existence, and regard refined cultural development as a sign of weakness and degenercy?

      In other words you appear to believe that "Might makes Right," and there isn't a whole let more to it. Could that possibly be your worldview?

      If so, why then have you bothered to devote yourself to the study of philosophy ancient and modern?

      I hope have either misunderstood, or greatly oversimplified your views, sir.

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    2. I think that even you would agree, America is in "decline".

      Nietzsche, "Twilight of the Idols"

      2. This irreverent thought that the great sages are types of decline first occurred to me precisely in a case where it is most strongly opposed by both scholarly and unscholarly prejudice: I recognized Socrates and Plato to be symptoms of degeneration, tools of the Greek dissolution, pseudo-Greek, anti-Greek (Birth of Tragedy, 1872). The consensus of the sages -- I comprehended this ever more clearly -- proves least of all that they were right in what they agreed on: it shows rather that they themselves, these wisest men, agreed in some physiological respect, and hence adopted the same negative attitude to life -- had to adopt it. Judgments, judgments of value, concerning life, for it or against it, can, in the end, never be true: they have value only as symptoms, they are worthy of consideration only as symptoms; in themselves such judgments are stupidities. One must by all means stretch out one's fingers and make the attempt to grasp this amazing finesse, that the value of life cannot be estimated. Not by the living, for they are an interested party, even a bone of contention, and not judges; not by the dead, for a different reason. For a philosopher to see a problem in the value of life is thus an objection to him, a question mark concerning his wisdom, an un-wisdom. Indeed? All these great wise men -- they were not only decadents but not wise at all? But I return to the problem of Socrates.

      11. I have given to understand how it was that Socrates fascinated: he seemed to be a physician, a savior. Is it necessary to go on to demonstrate the error in his faith in "rationality at any price"? It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence when they merely wage war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change its expression, but they do not get rid of decadence itself. Socrates was a misunderstanding; the whole improvement-morality, including the Christian, was a misunderstanding. The most blinding daylight; rationality at any price; life, bright, cold, cautious, conscious, without instinct, in opposition to the instincts -- all this too was a mere disease, another disease, and by no means a return to "virtue," to "health," to happiness. To have to fight the instincts -- that is the formula of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct.

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    3. The distinction between civilization and culture is analogous to the difference between the Greek soul and the Roman intellect (25). Civilization represents “petrified” or reified culture, divorced from the “soul” and process of becoming, and ultimately signifying the swansong rather than the apex of a culture’s development.

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    4. So, no, you have not "misunderstood" me.

      And no, I don't believe that "might makes right". I believe in my college motto. Acta non Verba. In "drives" not "desires". In freeing "drives" from "desires".

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    5. ...and that behind every great a passionate law, lies a smirking ape attempting to conceal the violence from whence the law originated.

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    6. In still other words, I believe in the belief in law, originating from violence, but which sustains the law. ;)

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    7. why then have you bothered to devote yourself to the study of philosophy ancient and modern?

      Why does the alchemist seek to transmute stones into gold?

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    8. Like Adams, I study politics and war. For the time for prose and poetry is rapidly drawing to a close.

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    9. Adams was in Paris (1780) when he wrote thos words to Abigale. And surely the poets he was referring to, were the French?

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    10. Context is everything...

      It is not indeed the fine arts which our country requires ; the useful, the mechanic arts, are those which we have occasion for in a young country , as yet simple and not far advanced in luxury, although perhaps much too far for her age and character. I could fill volumes with descriptions of temples and palaces, paintings, sculptures, tapestry, porcelain, &c., &c., &c., if I could have time ; but I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The science of government, it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences ; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation, ought to take place of, indeed to exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

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    11. In 1789, Louis XVI would no longer be thinking of poetry and/or porcelain.

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    12. Thersites, what I wrote to Ducky at 2:04 AM, might interest you since it serves pretty well as a response to what you have written above.

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  4. Sounds like he was a pansy to me.

    - Billy Wormfeeder

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    1. Lavinia Perkins said

      Stop it, please. You make me feel embarrassed for you. Find a better use for your time.

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  5. Why don't you ever quote T. S. Eliot, especially Notes Toward the Definition of Culture? I'm really surprised he's not your go to guy.

    "I do not approve of the extermination of the enemy: the policy of exterminating or, as is barborously said, liquidating enemies, is one of the most alarming developments of modern war and peace, from the point of view of those who desire the survival of culture. One needs the enemy."
    --T. S. Eliot

    Perpetual war. I don't think Adams was ready to understand the military industrial complex.

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    1. Ducky,

      You are so full of erudition and vigorous opinion I think it might enrich the blogosphere considerably if you established a blog of your own. I'm sure it would interest me and other thoughtful types greatly.

      If you'd like to write a Guest Post and have me publish it here, why not submit it to our mutual friend AOW, who could then submit it to me. I know she'd be delighted to act as a go-between, since she respects both of us.

      I never edit anyone else's text for any reason other than to correct possible typos, spelling errors, and omitted punctuation –– i.e. I'll insert a question mark or a period if either is clearly indicated but was somehow left out.

      You have a good mind, are well informed on the arts, and I truly would welcome input from you of an educational nature.

      Why not try it? I detest the endless exchange of mutual insults and snide innuendo. How about it?

      Today is Good Friday. T.S.Eliot made a powerful statement about that. I nearly published it for this occasion, but decided to use something of my own instead. An odd coincidence that you should suggest Eliot to me just as i was contemplating him, myself, which is not something I do often, since I often find him lugubrious to the point of morbidity! Nevertheless, he was an important master of the language, and I certainly respect him for that.

      As for John Adams's statement, I seek always to lift such things above and beyond the mundane context in which they were written and interpret them as spiritual revelations of what we could –– and should –– be our highest aims.

      I believe we are essentially spiritual, but too easily get mired in material considerations which keep us from realizing our potential.

      It's roughly like learning and performing a piano sonata. What Beethoven ate for breakfast on the day he completed the manuscript, or the status of his love life, or the weather, the state of his health, or his quarrels with friends, etc. interest me only mildly. The ESSENCE of any of his works has little-or-nothing to do with quotidian considerations. The thing we revere about Beethoven was his unique perception of the world that lies Above and Beyond the ability of the five physical senses to comprehend.

      That's why expert performer who play all the notes often bore us to tears. They miss the POINT of Beethoven's efforts.

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    2. Since you were speaking of ts eliot... this seems apropos.

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  6. Surprise! Little miss sour pants flies in here and dishes up his old standby, crab chowdah.

    I bet you're a real blast at parties, Ducky, like a turd in the punch bowl.

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    1. That may be true SOME of the time Fannie, old girl, but not ALL the time. Ducky has a good side and many worthwhile bits of information to share.

      I rather enjoy his company on the rare occasions when he's not merely trying to fulfill his long term ambition to "cheese off' the right wing.

      When he acts like a prick, I respond accordingly, but you mustn't make the mistake of thinking he's all bad, or that we hate each other.

      So, cool your jets, dear, and try never to assume anything, and remember always to look before you leap.

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    2. The duck has been my education in the blogosphere. He often buries nuggets of sources and methods in his retorts that are extremely useful and educational. I personally would love to follow a "Ducky's Here" blog.

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    3. FJ,
      I personally would love to follow a "Ducky's Here" blog.

      Ditto.

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    4. I draw conclusions based upon what I observe, and I have observed that Ducky is a serial snarling, sneering snipe who beclouds whatever forum he enters with his foul (or should I say fowl) flatulence and bitter, biting attacks.

      If that disgusting, curdled creature has any redeeming qualities, he should put them on display every once in awhile.

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    5. Would you scatter your seeds in the wind, Fanny? Or look for "fertile" soil?

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