Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Reading John Adams

Portrait of John Adams,
painted by Asher Durand
In my grad school years I made it quite a sport to criticize American politics, particularly foreign policy. I also became convinced that the Enlightenment was a boogeyman (and the logical next step of the Reformation). Being trained in an Anabaptist-Mennonite seminary with a heavy dose of Stanley Hauerwas in the water no doubt was the primary motivator for this.

So it's with some surprise that in the past two weeks I've found considerable pleasure reading two works of Revolutionary American history and biography, both by David McCullough. First I read 1776, which focuses primarily on George Washington and the military battles of that year, and I'm now mid-way through his biography of John Adams.

Inspired by a few of Adams' philosophical thoughts quoted by McCullough, I made my way into reading Adams' brief letter/essay, "Thoughts on Government," written in April 1776. It would later serve as a reference point for his writing of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (still active), itself a model for the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America. So this is quite an important little document in American political thought and practice.

Having read a bit of moral and political philosophy over the past few years, this kind of essay is juicy sweet brain food for me. A few thoughts as I read through it...

Start with the End/Goal

He says near the start: "We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man."

"Happiness," is the key term here. Notice how he starts out with collective/"we" happiness (the society) as the end of government, and then works down to individual happiness. So it's not "my" happiness that the government should primarily be working toward, but "our" happiness.

"Happiness" as the only good end/goal of government. That end is derived from the only good end of the human person, from whom government is derived (see his preamble for the Mass. Constitution). Happiness as the end of the human person is the fundamental tenet of the philosophical school of utilitarianism, which was/is one among many schools of moral & ethical thought. So his statement that " all divines and moral philosophers will agree..." is demonstrably false. It's a sturdy rhetorical device, though.

His use of Virtue language

No one talks like this anymore, but Adams never has the word "virtue" (or "vice") far from his lips or pen, it seems. One of the most formative moral philosophical books for me in recent years was After Virtue by Alisdair MacIntyre. He argues that after the Enlightenment (which was just winding down in the late 18th century when Adams was active), virtue thinking as a common moral language & framework for whole Western societies began to fray, and it is now completely gone from our (all Western societies) moral and political workings.

His argument is that "substantive accounts of the world and how it worked" (primarily the classical Christian account) began being subjected to skepticism, and particular bits of the substantive account (such as Jesus being God's son, part of the Trinity, present with the Father and Spirit at the creation of the world, etc.) began getting chipped away at. He says that once these substantive bits were jettisoned, moral reasoning took on a "30,000 ft. view from anywhere."

You almost never see the American Founding Fathers (and Mothers, such as Abigail Adams) reference "God" in general, and definitely not Jesus Christ in particular (since particularities are the enemy of Enlightenment thinking; universals rule). Hence, it's all "Providence" this and "the Creator" that. Nevermind what Jesus might have to say about all this revolutionary activity and war-making. "God"/"Providence" were unquestionably on the side of the revolutionaries. (Isn't this always the case?) MacIntyre's point is that this was the beginning of the end for virtue.

I happen to think classical virtue thinking for domestic and civic life is a deep well from which to draw, but I also think MacIntyre is right, that we are living "after virtue" and it's somewhat irretrievable. So while I delight in Adams love of virtue language, I can spot the warning signs in his speech. Within a few generations, his moral language would no longer be something that political and civic leaders would use anymore, much less understand. Today, it's almost gibberish to the common American reader, like reading the King James Version of the Bible in 17th century "High" English.


Adams: "Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant." Adams took from his Puritan upbringing and Massachusetts culture a strong belief in the value of liberal education ("liberal," as in the liberal arts, Harvard then being "the college" for the colony).

These days, public education has fallen prey to the cold calculating logic of business (founded upon a narrow view of economics). Education is now thought of primarily in terms of "job training" or "career preparation," and our delivery and assessment models reflect that belief.

But education in this business+technology view is a far cry from how classical & Enlightenment thinkers such as Adams understood education as being primarily about the character formation of a good citizen. Moral and civic virtues. Adams again, from a diary entry: "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."

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