Month: July 2014

John Adams And The Freedom To Cultivate


“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, 2nd President of The United States Of America, from a letter to his wife, Abigail.

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I had heard and read this quote multiple times in the past few months, and I must admit that it is a simple yet inspiring concept to consider. I find it immensely potent but I am also immediately caught by how overly simplistic it is without any qualifications. It’s a beautiful thing to see a culture mature in standard to the point of producing great symphonies, great artistic centers, great movements of creative revolution. But can a generation stand on these works alone?

No. Every generation needs to maintain students of politics, war, economics, philosophy, mathematics, etc. While greater levels of cultural stability do bring a wider spectrum of what pursuits are available, leaving political and philosophical thought to our elders makes for bad art and, eventually, a crumbling nation.

A people who cannot be bothered to cultivate anything beyond their individual pursuits is a people who won’t notice when everything is falling apart. A people who consume through networking when they should be pouring into small communities is a people that won’t notice or take action when the wheels come off. We need proactive and continued connectedness throughout generations.

That’s why I use the phrase “Freedom To Cultivate.” While we often think of freedom to pursue happiness or freedom of speech as opportunities to get ahead as individuals, what a community, a culture, and a country really need is people who pursue cultivation. We have the freedom to build into local communities. To educate one another. To pour ourselves into making changes in the live of neighbors, families, and entire communities. Our freedom is, in reality, always going to require as much concerted effort as John Adams considered his own responsibility to carry. We have an ever growing freedom that automatically requires more willingness to serve, or it will crumble.

John Adams seemed to realize this. Check out the quote from the same man below.

“Democracy… while it lasts is more bloody than either [aristocracy or monarchy]. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit
suicide.”

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Further Reading

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!

War Makes Good Art

Wendell Berry On The Cold War And His Children

C.S. Lewis And Lilith: What Does Blending Myths Do For You?


Last fall, I was reading The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe aloud to my wife. We reached the passage in chapter 8 when the beavers are explaining the nature of things in Narnia, when we hit a snag. I read this.

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“That’s what I don’t understand, Mr. Beaver,” said Peter. “I mean isn’t the Witch human?”

“She’d like us to believe it,” said Mr. Beaver, “and that’s how she is trying to call herself Queen. But she’s no Daughter of Eve. She comes from your father Adam’s first wife, Lilith. She was one of the Jinn. On the other side she comes from the giants. No, there isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch.”
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My wife stopped me. She was frustrated. She was confused. She couldn’t understand where this Lilith reference came from, and it annoyed her immensely.

Curious for details myself, I looked it up and found that Lilith was a type of female demon in Hebrew literature. “Lilit” was originally used to mean “night monster” or “screech owl.” In Isaiah the term is used in a listing of animals. Medieval Jewish mysticism popularized the idea that Adam had had a wife before Eve, who was created out of dust at the same time he was. She wouldn’t submit to Adam, left the Garden Of Eden, and started dating angels and what not. Lewis has her mating with a Jinn or genie.

Personally, I like these sorts of things. I love mythology mash-ups that create entirely new fantasy realms. My wife, on the other hand, was not satisfied by this information. She was more annoyed to hear this alternative version of the popular Biblical account. The idea of changing the foundation story and even adding new cast members was disruptive rather than inventive.

By all accounts, Tolkien felt the same way about his friend’s books. While they agreed more than most on many things, the flavors of the two men’s writings show clear distinctions in their personal tastes in how myths and fairie should be approached. Lewis was constantly getting creative energy from smashing together ideas from various sources for new sensations. The man was an omnivorous reader and you can see shadows of thousands of older ideas in his fiction works.

Tolkien also finds much inspiration for his work in the great pieces he cherishes. Gandalf is occasionally a mirror of the older, more obscure mythical creations Tolkien loved. The big difference is really the level of perceived coherency and the depth of pursuit. Tolkien, like many others, seems to find the willful suspension of disbelief in Lewis too great. He is equally enamored by magic and dragons and even silly children’s stories, but mixing characters from preexisting universes seems too much to be enjoyable for him. What is Father Christmas doing in Narnia? How did the descendant of Lilith, the original mother of our world, end up as the Queen of Charn?

I can understand these frustrations well. I find The Magician’s Nephew to be the most satisfying of the Narnian books in large part because it ties so many origin stories and loose ends together in such a neat fashion. Lewis writes like many authors, so that the stories can feel almost stunted at times in their openings and closes. Everyone is suddenly rushed into alternate realities at break neck speeds.

On the other hand, a large part of what makes Tolkien’s legendarium so fulfilling and believable is the expansive way in which so much untold backstory is expanding in every direction. Tolkien himself was constantly fleshing out his worlds throughout his lifetime. Perhaps he thought pulling so directly from previous material was too quick and cheap, unsatisfying to him as a creator and suspicious in others.

There is something enjoyable in both the whimsical adventure of being swept away by foreign magic and in the adventure of fulfilling a long forgotten destiny in a mythical world of unspeakable beauty and impending evils.

Which one thrills you more?

 

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Further Reading

 

C.S. Lewis’ Literary Essays

Dave Eggers On The Fear Of Publishing

Jules Feiffer Encouraged Us To Fail