“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty 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.”
John Adams wrote that. It is the grandfather’s view of history. In many ways, you and I are the beneficiaries of the Founding Fathers, who studied war and politics. Our fathers were the second generation: builders, farmers and businessmen. We are the grandchildren, the poets, musicians, and artisans. We’ve inherited a world where law and order have already been established first by the warrior and then by the tycoon.
The late eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth were the generals, the revolutionaries, the pioneers. The twentieth century was the great era of designing, building, defending and consolidating. The twenty-first is a time for reflecting, refining and recreating.
That’s how history goes. Yet, it falls on that third generation to start the cycle over. The third phase of civilization is where decline and decadence set in. It is the generation of leisure that breeds, unless resisted, discontent, intellectual laziness and resentment. Progress is itself not inevitable, and many civilizations have carried in their DNA the genetics of their own destruction.
John Adams was himself the heir of an earlier civilization. He and his compatriots faced a decision: luxuriate in the enchanted fields of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, or become men of purposeful action. These were very bright men, the best educated of their time. They could meditate on Seneca or Cicero, but were also prone to the seductions of the French progressives of the day. Would they turn inward, spend their days in pubs and libraries (the internet cafes of the day), or perhaps become Jacobins and throw over all their Puritan forefathers had built?
Or would they heed the call of history, and start civilization all over again?
Of course that is the choice before us today. The entropy of civilization is all around us: the world-weariness of the gadget-crazed young, the manic pursuit of personal development among the middle-aged, the faux piety of the religious, the moral senescence of the old. We are becoming a trans-generational, self-titillated culture of lotus eaters. The West is becoming, in the words of Tennyson, “a land in which it seemed always afternoon, / Living and lying reclined / On the hills like Gods together / Careless of mankind.”
What is to be done? Any prescription will sound self-serving and provincial in so insouciant a world. Each must ask himself: Am I what God intends me to be? Or do I fight against that? Am I merely a product of my times? Or am I more than that? Have I pushed boundaries today, or only defended them? Do I owe any thanks to the past, or commitment to the future, or is it all just about Me, Here, Now?