Sunday, March 23, 2008

John Adams and the Future of Civilizations


I've been reading David McCullough's biography John Adams, and I'm enjoying it very much.  Biographies are probably my favorite way to explore history.  I'm especially partial to biographies of musicians, but every once in a while I take the time to explore some of the larger trends and happenings that occur away from the piano.  And well-written biographies that put the person in context within their culture and the place that they lived give such a personal, visceral flavor to the historical or private events depicted.  Every person's life is a story, of course, with its own dramatic arc, of temptations and failures and success and change, and often much more exciting to me than more general or scholarly compendiums of events and issues.

Anyway, yesterday I was particularly struck by something that was going on in Adam's head during the 1776 meetings of the Continental Congress, when they were debating whether to declare independence or not and planning the flegdling war in New England and New York.  Adams was clearly a man inclined and capable of seeing the big picture, and he was very aware of the uniqueness of his and his fellow patriots' position, not so much as being swept up in the midst of war and revolution, but in being in the very rare circumstance of being given a chance to build their government from scratch.    McCullough quotes Adams as pointing out how many great thinkers of the past would have wished to live in "a period when a coincidence of circumstances without example has afforded to thirteen colonies at once an opportunity of beginning government anew from the foundation and building as they choose.  How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children?  How few have ever had anything more of choice in government than in climate?"

And how few, even amongst thoughtful, intelligent people, would truly recognize the uncommon situation they were in?  It is clear, from McCullough's view at least, that very few really saw the longer view apart from their desire to break from tyranny and get on with their lives, but Adams was very aware of the potential, and the danger, that would be ushered in even with resounding victory.  All cynical views aside, I am finding myself grateful that our founding fathers had the foresight to think about these issues, deeply and convincingly, and to set up structures that protect me even to this day in a far from perfect world and government.  

Our last century has had its share of trials and times when it seemed the trajectory of civilization rested delicately on a wobbling fulcrum, mostly stemming from the synergistic combination of advancing technology and social philosophy.  It seemed that every generation had its own world-shaking battles.  It is frightening to realize that they are not over and that technology has not slowed down, and that our lives, our governments and our planet are at considerable risk.  We are again living, I think, in a crucial time, but it is also a much bigger world.  How many of us can truly say we are there at the balance point, like John Adams was, recognize it and have the vision to act accordingly and honorably?  Or maybe that's not the point at all; certainly even in the much smaller world of the thirteen colonies there would have been no revolution were it not for the anger and vocal support of a large portion of the population.  Or maybe the biggest battles will not be on the political front, but in the millions of little decisions we all make trying to make the world a better place.  Maybe that was always the driving force behind political will, anyway, the little things that made Adams into the person of strength, honesty and foresight that he seemed to be.  The non-political grassroots of education, family and compassion.  

Or maybe I'm just trying to find a place for myself, feeling somewhat powerless within the machinations of world politics and giant elections.  When threatened with global climate change, loss of natural resources (including what I think is our biggest long-term challenge, looming shortages of oil), international war, terrorism, over-population, loss of traditional skills and knowledge, expanding class tensions, concentration of power and resources in a few corporations and powerful people...

Now I'm ranting.  And sometimes frightened!  But not hopelessly discouraged, while there's still a place for us to drag a guitar over to a friend's house to share music and a meal together and to think about others compassionately and thoughtfully.  And then to go on and do our part, whatever that may be.

3 comments:

Fenrisar said...

See please here

Brad Kenney said...

Hey Bri, a couple excellent posts in a row...
Just caught up with Meg last night via Google Chat and was checking out her new blog platform -- very cool.
FYI watch out for comments like this -- don't know who "fenrisar" is, but there's a lot of malicious comment malware behavior I've been reading about...!

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