Showing posts with label John Adams. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Adams. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Common Knowledge

The Young Cicero Reading. Vincenzo Foppa. Fresco, 1464.

 A selection from David McCullough's John Adams:
"You are now at a university where many of the greatest men have received their education," Adams reminded him. He must attend all the lectures possible, in law, medicine, chemistry, and philosophy. . . [Adams] sent a gift of several volumes of Pope, and a fine edition of a favorite Roman author, Terence, in both Latin and French. "Terence is remarkable, for good morals, good taste, and good Latin," Adams advised. "His language has simplicity and an elegance that make him proper to be accurately studied as a model." On hearing that John Quincy's course studies did not include Cicero and Demosthenes, Adams could hardly contain his indignation. John Quincy must begin upon them at once, he declared, "I absolutely insist upon it."

Latin and Greek were not all that mattered. John Quincy must neither forget nor fail to enjoy the great works of his own "mother tongue," and especially those of the poets. It was his happiness, too, that mattered.
"Read somewhat in the English poets every day. You will find them elegant, entertaining, and constructive companions through your whole life. In all the disquisitions you have heard concerning the happiness of life, has it ever been recommended to you to read poetry?"

". . .You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket. You will never have an idle hour."

"You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen." [1]

What might Mr. Adams make then of the college student today, not only unable to quote Shakespeare, but unable to recognize him? Of one who reads neither the Greek nor Roman languages and cannot recall the histories of either? What of a woman, B.A. in hand, who would not know what to make of being called a Porphyria, a Portia, or a Penelope? What should we make of a graduate who knows not a whit of Keats or a phrase of Mozart?

We might say that when such a person reads, he has nothing to compare it to. When he writes, he has no model for elegance. When he hears music, he cannot say whether it is more harmonious or rhythmic than anything else. When he sees an item in the newspaper, he cannot say whether, one time ago, a similar event happened with a similar cause. What one might most generally say is that this individual lacks the ability to make an analogy, perhaps by lack of intellect but at least by lack of information. We might say that lacking any knowledge of what has happened, exists, or is possible, this individual cannot assess the significance of what he perceives. Is is rare, commonplace, ugly, beautiful, dangerous?

One of Adams' points developed above is the need for a model against which to compare both one's work and the work of others. Usually works thought to exemplify a particular idea or ideal are held up as models, ones studied, imitated, and perhaps surpassed after one's education. There exist models of every archetype, the hero, villain, genius, fool, gentleman, rake, statesman, tyrant, et cetera. What of these, though, constitutes an education? As often is the case we come now to a definitional issue: what is an education? Let us take a simple definition and see what it suggests:
  1. the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.
  2. the act or process of imparting or acquiring particular knowledge or skills, as for a profession. [2]
We immediately see a bifurcation between general knowledge (1) and specialized, vocational knowledge (2). The former is what presently concerns us, though I would preface by noting vocational education should succeed that which is defined in part one, i.e. reason and judgment should precede all other study, be it of the law, medicine, farming, et cetera.

For part one (1) of our definition I first draw your attention to the concept of "developing the powers of reasoning and judgment." One recalls the tired teachers' platitude that they, "do not teach you x, y, or z, but rather teach you to think." Do they, in fact? Are students taught principles of "thinking," about concepts, precepts, first principles, causality, epistemology, dialectic, or logic? Even in philosophy courses these issues take a back seat to the more appealing ones. Who wants to grind through formal logic and Aristotle's Physics when you can read Socrates being clever in The Republic. And when one reads The Republic, what is easier to focus on: whether the state should ban bad books, or whether dialectic is itself a valuable epistemological tool?  Issues of morality and ethics are more fun to debate because everyone has an opinion of them, though to be taken seriously they must stand on epistemological and metaphysical foundations. Understanding of such principles requires time and patience. The worksis inglorious, and the rewards may seem always far off, though "it is wonderful how might may be done if we are always doing." [2] How many people can claim to have been taught these principles?

The are usually only two systematized approaches to thinking offered students, broadly referred to as "the scientific method" and the "geometric proof." Sadly, both are explained without a philosophical context and only applied within their respective realms. It is as if to say to the student, "in these two fields, (or even more specifically, "in these two classes") we have strict methodologies about making, testing and substantiating claims about the world. Outside of these fields, good luck!"

Of course the positive significance of teaching these two rational methods must not be overlooked. Consider the great technological achievements achieved in spite of a lack of overt training in "thinking". Yet one need only listen to a scientist, even a fine and successful one, even perhaps the greatest of his era, express his views on something outside his field to learn that philosophical poverty (and its dangers) may be the concomitants of this selectively-applied, strictly "scientific" reason.

To quote economist Thomas Sowell, "The problem isn't that Johnny can't think, it's that Johnny doesn't know what thinking is." Indeed. Students are not taught any systematized way of making sense of the world thus they do not in fact know what it means to "think" about something.

Before continuing we must make a few concessions regarding our statements and their implications:
  1. We must be wary in judging a culture by its art. True, art can be considered a barometer for values, yet we must consider whether art that is famous or, even art that is excellent, whether or not it necessarily reflects the values of the people of the society that produced it.
  2. We must consider a culture's best and brightest independently from the hoi polloi, not necessarily because their values differ but because the latter group lacks the resources (leisure or intellect) to appreciate some art.
Such is why I have confined this discussion to college-educated people and thus is why when we speak of "a society" we are in fact only speaking of a certain group within that society. Yet those we speak of we expect to be the best and brightest, those most capable of receiving and carrying on the best of the culture into which they were born. I also consider that which is passed on to be significant:
A liberal humanist education is underpinned by the assumption that children are rightful heirs to the legacy of the past. It takes responsibility for ensuring this inheritance is handed over to the young. It is because education gives meaning to human experience that it needs to be valued in its own right. One of the key characteristics of education is its lack of interest in an ulterior purpose. That does not mean it is uninterested in developments affecting children and society; it means that it regards the transmission of cultural and intellectual achievements of humanity to children as its defining mission. [5]

Continuing, part two (2) of our definition concerns "general knowledge." What a society considers "general knowledge" defines its ethos and character, i.e. its heroes, villains, its stories, music, literature; even sayings, euphemisms, superstitions, myths, et cetera. With our earlier observations in mind, what can we say is "common knowledge" for "educated," i.e. college-educated, people? One might say, that which is taught to everyone in college, i.e. the baseline college education; in other words, that which today constitutes a Bachelor of Arts degree or a liberal education. As far as I can tell, the meaning of the BA is indiscernible, suggesting neither a particular body nor degree of knowledge.

Charles Murray describes the ridiculousness of the current "BA System":
Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:
First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA."
You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place. [4]
We have a curriculum watered down in the hopes of making it within reach of people who cannot otherwise understand it. First, this curriculum naturally hurts those capable or seeking a full liberal arts education and second, when those the curriculum was watered down for fail, it benefits no one. (No one, except perhaps high schools who get to boast that their students went on to college, testing services, and the colleges' coffers.)

Culturally, though, what is the impact? A culture where you cannot discuss Shakespeare or Mozart with a college graduate. One where a single chord that should wring the heart and would have set a scholar from generations ago to exclaim, "Beethoven!" goes unrecognized. Perhaps most conspicuously absent, so conspicuously on account of its long history and esteem, is Classical knowledge. Stories, myths to some cultures and simply examples to others, that have bound and permeated Western Civilization for the last 2,500 years and more are now not part of the common cultural ethos. Who would be touched to be called a Pylades or a Hypermnestra? Does invoking the name "Hecate" conjure up the thoughts for people today as it did for past readers? Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, amidst the burgeoning of science and the enlightenment, Greek and Roman stories flourished in art. One could fill pages listing merely the operas based on Classical themes and characters. The people of those eras had no pretense such stories told happened, i.e. the stories were not myths to these people, but they retold them because those stories said something important, about the world, about man, his nature, strengths, weaknesses and so on. I would theorize also because these stories were theirs as Westerners. It was their inherited tradition, the Western way of understanding the world and how they thought man should live in it, and it was their gift to enjoy, their challenge to increase, and their duty to pass on. 

Without the same body of stories, historical or mythical, how to understand Mozart recalling Shakespeare, Shakespeare evoking the name of a Roman king, or Gluck quoting Tasso quoting Homer? More practically, who would know the difference if you called the president a Honorius or a Cincinnatus, called a battle a Cannae or a Zama?

I am reminded of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Captain Picard has to communicate with an alien who communicates strictly by metaphor, for example instead of saying "he is alone" he would say he is "on the ocean" and to express a great struggle, he would mention the names of two famous people who struggled. The alien, dying, asks Picard to tell him one of his Earth stories and Picard tells him the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu:

The difficulty of course was that the characters had different stories and different traditions, but what if Picard had none? The episode concludes with Picard reading the Homeric hymns and familiarizing himself with "our stories." What story would you, could you, tell? Of Ceyx and Alcymone, Achilles versus Hector, of the labors of Hercules or the crimes of Heliogabulus?

What is the alternative to investing some portion of society with its historic culture? For the West, perhaps it is a hopelessly literal society that forgoes artistic, metaphorical expression and chooses to express an emotion clinically or with vulgarity instead of with beauty. Perhaps it is an arrogant one writing heedless of Cicero or Demosthenes, or a cowardly one that prefers to medicalize parts the human condition instead of embracing or at least pondering them. (On that note, consider Adams' suggesting to his son that a poet be a companion and poetry a source of happiness.) It is generally, though, an ungrateful one that treats tradition as a burden instead of as an inheritance.

In his essay The New Learning That Failed Victor Davis Hanson accurately describes the decline of the Classical core of liberal education. I have been concerned more with the effect, which I see most of all to be a decline of communication, a decline: of capacity to  communicate at all (lack of intellect and reason), of desire to communicate with grace, sophistication, and depth (lack of models), and ability to draw on universal, significant, elements (lack of stories); all components of a Classical education. Yet Hanson points out what is perhaps modernity's worst crime against its Western heritage:
The West, alone of world cultures, was self-critical and introspective, curious about other civilizations, ready to turn its own empirical standards on itself, always attempting to match its idealism with actual fact—Socrates teaching about the vanities of the wealthy, Antigone the bias of the male chauvinist, Aristophanes the contradiction of democratic egalitarianism, or Tacitus and Sallust the use of Western military power for nefarious purposes. Indeed, professors and students are now denouncing perceived Western pathologies only through a tradition of Western empiricism and free expression of thought, unavailable elsewhere. [6]
The turning of Western tradition's virtue of self-criticism into self-immolation and self-repudiation is the heart of the loss of our stories. I believe Dr. Hanson has answered the why of it in his essay, so now we may ask: what have we in their stead?

[1] McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. New York. 2001. (pp. 259-260)
[2] Education.
[3] Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the Virginian. Little, Brown and Company. Boston. 1948. (pp. 57)
[4] Murray, Charles. For Most People, College is a Waste of Time.WSJ.August 13, 2008.
[5] Furedi, Frank. Let's give children the 'store of human knowledge.' Spiked Online. November 18, 2009.
[6] Hanson, Victor Davis. The New Learning That Failed. The New Criterion. May 2008.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Revolutionary Education

I love books and I even enjoy studying, but I hated school. I had been trying to get out of the sordid ordeal since I was three and was wholly unsuccessful. My eighteen-year-long education was a good one by any current standard and I came out of it quite alright, but my own experiences and observations have led me to the conclusion that our educational system is quite broken. This is an observation even the politicians and talking heads on the television share and as another president has come to office more educational "reform" is upon us. Unfortunately this plan is the same as the last: throwing money at the problem. This may be a satisfactory solution for someone who measures his success with opinion polls and newspaper column inches, but anyone concerned with the financial, economic, intellectual, and cultural well-being of the nation is bound to be disappointed.

Yet President Obama’s educational reforms share another trait with those of his predecessor, and this one is a philosophical trait: egalitarianism.  President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” told us that if we just test our children over and over again. . . well actually I cannot make any more sense of the law than that. President Obama’s program would make sure everyone could go to college and that. . . again, I am at a bit of a loss. Clearly, simply having standards and spending money cannot help a child learn, and simply paying for kids to go to college will not get them through. Yet we are told every child can, and must.

Let us tackle that first notion: that everyone can learn a given piece of knowledge. The theory that every child has some ability, some intelligence which can be tapped is the notion of Harvard Professor Howard Gardiner and which is known in academia as “The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” This is, as you may guess, in contrast to the notion of a single intelligence element, often referred to as “g” (little “g.”) In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Christopher Ferguson cuts to the point: there is little evidence to support “multiple intelligences” and much to support a unified one. The theory persists, though, because it is politically correct. Every parent likes to think that his or her child can succeed and the multiple intelligences theory, essentially an egalitarian philosophy and not an empirically proven observation, allows them to indulge that pleasant potential. When the student does poorly, it is not the child’s fault for being dim, it the system’s fault for failing him or the teacher’s fault for being unable to tap into his hidden genius. Often also off the table are external factors like the environment of the home and the priorities of the family.  The child is to be dropped off at school and picked up smarter, sort of an educational Martinizing.

I do not know from whence it came or when this notion took root in our educational system but its effects are apparent.  I can say, though, that two of our most educated and illustrious Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, opposed the notion while still being passionate advocates for education. Indeed both men saw it as a bulwark of democratic society and culture. Adams summed its necessity best, writing in his diary at age 25, “I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading?” (McCullough, 223)  This belief ran so deep that both men saw education as an institution that must be coded into the law. Author of the Massachusetts Constitution, Adams wrote the following into Section II of Chapter 6 of the document:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary or the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people. . . (McCullough, 222)
It is also important to recognize that in the draft of the Massachusetts Constitution he penned, he described men as, “born equally free and independent” and it was the state legislature that changed it to “born free and equal.” (McCullough, 224) Men were equal under the law and equal in God’s eyes, but not equal in ability. Whatever the legislature the thought, they preferred Jefferson’s turn of phrase. But what did Jefferson mean?  I concur with Malone, that “The natural equality he talked about was not that of intellectual endowment, but as Lincoln so clearly perceived, he proclaimed for all time the dignity of human nature.” (Malone, 228)

Jefferson still of course believed in the value and necessity of an educated public, so much that he made proposals for a system for his own state of Virgina. It was to consist of a low-level education provided free for all [white] children, to which parents could continue to send their children beyond the norm, but for a fee, and a higher-level school funded mostly by the parents. “Only the youths of great native ability raked from the rubbish annually," and subjected thereafter to a specified process of elimination, were to be supported by the State. A final survivor of the competition was to be sent annually to the College of William and Mary, at the charge of the Commonwealth.” (Malone, 282) In “Notes on Virginia” Jefferson summarized his ideas:
. . . The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the State reading, writing, and common arithmetic; turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic; turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to; the furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools at which their children may be educated at their own expense. (Malone, 283)
Jefferson believed, as did Adams, that ability to some extent varies.  It is not absent from or endemic to any particular economic or social group, it simply varies from individual to individual. Those individuals with intelligence, the intellectual aristocracy, had to be charged with the tasks of society only they could fill. So great was Jefferson’s belief that some men be found who were able to guard “the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens” that he sought to “make higher schooling available without charge to selected youths of marked native ability who would emerge from the unprivileged groups,” that society may not “leave the public welfare dependent on the accidental circumstances of wealth or birth.” (Malone, 282) Today, Jefferson would be skewered by every progressive activist and special interest group for using the word “rubbish” and suggesting there exists some innate aristocracy. Yet Jefferson has not a cold heart toward the intellectually unsophisticated, they are to be educated in the rudiments.

The simplicity of the Jeffersonian model hides its author's perceptiveness. To the chagrin and consternation of small-government advocates and laissez-fair capitalists (myself included), he does advocate publicly-funded education. Yet it is not because it is a natural right, but because an educated people is a prerequisite for any democracy (direct or indirect.) “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” he wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be.” Perhaps most importantly these ideas on education do not extend government beyond its intended role: securing individual rights. We cannot expect a people ignorant of their own history and system of government, and of its virtues and requirements, long to remain free. For example, it is important for people to understand the concepts of natural rights and republicanism, that they not themselves attempt, or be mislead by others, to increase or misuse government power. An uneducated individual is a threat to everyone's rights. However opponents of public education might disagree, Adams Jefferson’s thoughts offer instructive advice about any educational program and from their words I quote or infer several guidelines:
  1. If possible, parents must pay for their children’s education. 
  2. Some material is appropriate for curricula, others not.  
  3. The most resources should be devoted to the best students.
  4. Education is not a right: thus it can be denied if your child is disruptive, et cetera.
  5. We must acknowledge that some children will be below others in competence.
Jefferson sought both to broaden the general knowledge of the people and to raise up the gifted that they may do the most good. Today, these simple rules would sink the career of any political candidate who dared voice them.  Today, I see none of these principles in practice, rather I see their opposites.
  1. Some parents do not pay directly for the public schools they send their children to while parents who scrimp and save to send their children to private or parochial schools pay taxes toward a public educational system they do not use.
  2. Federal funds are doled out indiscriminately to universities, either completely blindly or by the pressures of special interest groups, funding who-knows-what programs.
  3. Teachers spend their time trying to find something low students can do while the more capable students languish, and millions of dollars are spent on personal aids for the still-lower students.
  4. Education is frequently identified as a right, effectively destroying classroom order since students cannot be reprimanded or expelled for behavior or rejected for advancement due to inability to advanced beyond a particular level, since they are “entitled” to the education.
  5. We expect the same results for all students, mistaking equal opportunity for equal outcome.
These ideas from Adams and Jefferson are practical steps toward stabilizing an educational system that is spiraling out of control in every way. These ideas are compatible with our system of government and the precepts of our society. They know no prejudice or discrimination. They give every child the most education he is receptive to. The security of our liberties and the vibrancy of our culture are at stake and we need a change in a rational direction. Perhaps the biggest step forward would be achieved by first glancing backward.

[1] Ferguson, Christopher J. Not Every Child Is Secretly a Genius. Article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. accessed 06/14/2009 (subscription required)
[2] Jefferson, Thomas. Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, The. Accessed 8/29/09
[3] Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the Virginian. Little, Brown and Company. Boston. 1948.
[4] McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. New York. 2001.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Four Summers - Lessons From Thucydides & The Founding Fathers

Today is the anniversary of the publication of George Washington’s Farewell Address to the American people before he left office. I was planning on making the address my first post on APLV. As it happens, though, another man recently has been the subject of some attention, the historian Thucydides. He was discussed both in Donald Kagan’s article [1] in this month’s edition of The New Criterion and by Victor Davis Hanson in a column on his website. [2] With those articles in mind I revisited selections of The Peloponnesian War and too saw the timeliness of Thucydides observations and his role as a "student of human behavior." (Kagan's phrase.) I also observed some noteworthy similarities among the thinking of its author and those of our Founding Fathers.

As such, I thought I would share some selections with you so the similarities of both the events described and the authors’ observations might be more discernible and useful. Amongst other qualities, these men shared an uncommon perceptiveness.


Summer, 427 B.C. - Thucydides describes the Revolution at Corcyra.

From Book III of The Peloponnesian War [3]

For not long afterwards nearly the whole Hellenic world was in commotion; in every city the chiefs of the democracy and of the oligarchy were struggling, the one to bring in the Athenians, the other the Lacedaemonians. Now in time of peace, men would have had no excuse for introducing either, and no desire to do so; but, when they were at war, the introduction of a foreign alliance on one side or the other to the hurt of their enemies and the advantage of themselves was easily effected by the dissatisfied party. And revolution brought upon the cities of Hellas many terrible calamities, such as have been and always will be while human nature remains the same, but which are more or less aggravated and differ in character with every new combination of circumstances. In peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master and tends to assimilate men's characters to their conditions.

When troubles had once begun in the cities, those who followed carried the revolutionary spirit further and further, and determined to outdo the report of all who had preceded them by the ingenuity of their enterprises and the atrocity of their revenges. The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. A conspirator who wanted to be safe was a recreant in disguise. The lover of violence was always trusted, and his opponent suspected. He who succeeded in a plot was deemed knowing, but a still greater master in craft was he who detected one. On the other hand, he who plotted from the first to have nothing to do with plots was a breaker up of parties and a poltroon who was afraid of the enemy. In a word, he who could outstrip another in a bad action was applauded, and so was he who encouraged to evil one who had no idea of it. The tie of party was stronger than the tie of blood, because a partisan was more ready to dare without asking why. (For party associations are not based upon any established law, nor do they seek the public good; they are formed in defiance of the laws and from self-interest.) The seal of good faith was not divine law, but fellowship in crime. If an enemy when he was in the ascendant offered fair words, the opposite party received them not in a generous spirit, but by a jealous watchfulness of his actions. Revenge was dearer than self-preservation. Any agreements sworn to by either party, when they could do nothing else, were binding as long as both were powerless. But he who on a favourable opportunity first took courage, and struck at his enemy when he saw him off his guard, had greater pleasure in a perfidious than he would have had in an open act of revenge; he congratulated himself that he had taken the safer course, and also that he had overreached his enemy and gained the prize of superior ability. In general the dishonest more easily gain credit for cleverness than the simple for goodness; men take a pride in the one, but are ashamed of the other.

The cause of all these evils was the love of power, originating in avarice and ambition, and the party-spirit which is engendered by them when men are fairly embarked in a contest. For the leaders on either side used specious names, the one party professing to uphold the constitutional equality of the many, the other the wisdom of an aristocracy, while they made the public interests, to which in name they were devoted, in reality their prize. Striving in every way to overcome each other, they committed the most monstrous crimes; yet even these were surpassed by the magnitude of their revenges which they pursued to the very utmost, neither party observing any definite limits either of justice or public expediency, but both alike making the caprice of the moment their law. Either by the help of an unrighteous sentence, or grasping power with the strong hand, they were eager to satiate the impatience of party-spirit. Neither faction cared for religion; but any fair pretence which succeeded in effecting some odious purpose was greatly lauded. And the citizens who were of neither party fell a prey to both; either they were disliked because they held aloof, or men were jealous of their surviving.

Thus revolution gave birth to every form of wickedness in Hellas. The simplicity which is so large an element in a noble nature was laughed to scorn and disappeared. An attitude of perfidious antagonism everywhere prevailed; for there was no word binding enough, nor oath terrible enough to reconcile enemies. Each man was strong only in the conviction that nothing was secure; he must look to his own safety, and could not afford to trust others. Inferior intellects generally succeeded best. For, aware of their own deficiencies, and fearing the capacity of their opponents, for whom they were no match in powers of speech, and whose subtle wits were likely to anticipate them in contriving evil, they struck boldly and at once. But the cleverer sort, presuming in their arrogance that they would be aware in time, and disdaining to act when they could think, were taken off their guard and easily destroyed.

Now in Corcyra most of these deeds were perpetrated, and for the first time. There was every crime which men could commit in revenge who had been governed not wisely, but tyrannically, and now had the oppressor at their mercy. There were the dishonest designs of others who were longing to be relieved from their habitual poverty, and were naturally animated by a passionate desire for their neighbour's goods; and there were crimes of another class which men commit, not from covetousness, but from the enmity which equals foster towards one another until they are carried away by their blind rage into the extremes of pitiless cruelty. At such a time the life of the city was all in disorder, and human nature, which is always ready to transgress the laws, having now trampled them underfoot, delighted to show that her passions were ungovernable, that she was stronger than justice, and the enemy of everything above her. If malignity had not exercised a fatal power, how could any one have preferred revenge to piety, and gain to innocence? But, when men are retaliating upon others, they are reckless of the future, and do not hesitate to annul those common laws of humanity to which every individual trusts for his own hope of deliverance should he ever be overtaken by calamity; they forget that in their own hour of need they will look for them in vain.


September, 1789 - From the Correspondences of John Adams, on the French Revolution of the Summer of 1789.

To his Dutch friend, Francis van der Kemp: [4]

“The French Revolution will, I hope, produce effects in favor of liberty, equity, and humanity as extensive as this whole globe and as lasting as all time.”

To another correspondent: [4]

In revolutions, “. . . the most fiery spirits and flighty geniuses frequently obtained more influence than men of sense and judgment; and the weakest man may carry foolish measures in opposition to wise ones proposed by the ablest.”


September 19, 1796 - George Washington’s Farewell Address, [5]

. . . Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown. In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. It is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.


September, 2009 - Conclusion.

I can add little to those comments without resorting to summarizing. I hasten to add, though, I am not advocating silence or complaisance by citizens. Sometimes, rather often, it is indeed necessary to speak up on behalf of one’s ideas, either to define and argue them or simply to disagree. As Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Branch Giles, a member of The House of Representatives in 1795: [6]

Where the principle of difference [between political parties] is as substantial and as strongly pronounced as between the republicans and the monocrats of our country, I hold it as honorable to take a firm and decided part and as immoral to pursue a middle line, as between the parties of honest men and rogues, into which every country is divided.

Yet Jefferson was also attuned to the nuances of government and society, and years later in his own First Inaugural Address said: [7]

Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.

We must aspire to such finespun thinking, as rare amidst today’s political hullabaloo as it is necessary for all hoping to preserve their own rights and also a civil, functioning national dialogue. After the crazy Summer of 2009, historian and author Victor Davis Hanson reflects on the social and political frenzy, offering some advice: [8]

The solution, of course, is for the majority to simply say enough is enough, and declare a personal code of decency: “I will not stoop to smear and slur, won’t interrupt a speaker, won’t call anyone a Nazi, won’t do to others what they’ve done to me.” Only that sort of code will end the craziness. . .

The point is not to ostracize or point fingers at others in moralistic fashion, but just simply say, “That’s not my way.”

Otherwise, we won’t have a tennis match, an awards ceremony, a Presidential speech, a congressional debate — much of anything without some hysterical rant from the unhinged.


[2, 8]


[4] McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon & Schuster. NY, NY. 10020 (p. 417-418)