Thursday, July 26, 2007

A small taste

of the book manuscript. Which is going to be finished (I hereby declare) by Tuesday, September 4, the first day of classes and the day I plan to submit my tenure materials...

In a series of letters exchanged during the summer and fall of 1813, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fell to debating the relative merits of aristocracy and democracy. Adams maintained that a genuinely republican government “over five and twenty millions people, when four and twenty millions and five hundred thousands of them could neither write nor read” should be considered “as unnatural irrational and impracticable; as it would be over the Elephants Lions Tigers Panthers Wolves and Bears in the Royal Menagerie, at Versailles”:

Inequalities of Mind and Body are so established by God Almighty in his constitution of Human Nature that no Art or policy can ever plain them down to a Level. I have never read Reasoning more absurd, Sophistry more gross, in proof of the Athanasian Creed, or Transubstantiation, than the subtle labours of Helvetius and Rousseau to demonstrate the natural Equality of Mankind.

The rest of the letter conveys Adams’ powerfully elegiac sense of opportunities lost. Having seen the European nations from 1778 to 1785 “to be advancing by slow but sure Steps towards an Amelioration of the condition of Man,” Adams claims to have “dreaded” the French Revolution because it would “not only arrest the progress of Improvement, but give it a retrograde course, for at least a Century, if not many Centuries”: “Let me now ask you, very seriously my Friend,” he entreats Jefferson, “Where are now in 1813, the Perfection and perfectability of human Nature? Where is now, the progress of the human Mind? Where is the Amelioration of Society?”

In subsequent letters, Adams frames human inequality in terms of breeding, offering his own translation of a maxim attributed to the poet Theognis (writing in Greek during the sixth century BCE)—“‘When We want to purchace, Horses, Asses or Rams, We inquire for the Wellborn. And every one wishes to procure, from the good Breeds. A good Man, does not care to marry a Shrew, the Daughter of a Shrew; unless They give him, a great deal of Money with her’”—and asking “how far advanced We were in the Science of Aristocracy, since Theognis’s Stallions Jacks and Rams?” In response, Jefferson suggests that the passage from Theognis “has an Ethical, rather than a political object,” serving as “a reproof to man, who, while with his domestic animals he is curious to improve the race by employing always the finest male, pays no attention to the improvement of his own race.” Such improvements might be highly desirable, Jefferson continues, and yet precluded by the circumstances of democratic government:

The selecting the best male for a Haram of well chosen females also, which Theognis seems to recommend from the example of our sheep and asses, would doubtless improve the human, as it does the brute animal, and produce a race of veritable [aristocrats]. For experience proves that the moral and physical qualities of man, whether good or evil, are transmissible in a certain degree from father to son. But I suspect that the equal rights of men will rise up against this privileged Solomon, and oblige us to continue acquiescence under the [degeneration of the race of men] which Theognis complains of, and to content ourselves with the accidental aristoi produced by the fortuitous concourse of breeders.

By lingering on the idea of a natural aristocracy among men, both men express a shared sense that the century of perfectibility has come to an end, the French Revolution having spelled the death or at least the general discrediting of a notion of human malleability that had flourished in the conditions created by Locke’s writings on education and the human mind.


  1. All the best for getting it (all) done - sleep late on September 8th!

  2. Thank you - actually I think I am planning on running in a race on the morning of the 8th, but since it's only 4 miles (and since the women's start time seems to be 9:30 rather than 8:30) it will feel like a day off!

    This is almost the last short one that counts as a qualifier for a 2007 marathon spot--I am afraid I am going to be running rather a lot of half-marathons in the fall!