As a member of the United States Senate, John Quincy Adams, son of the second president and founder John Adams and himself a future president, received a letter from his mother Abigail Adams saying:
“Seriously, I think a man’s usefulness in society depends much upon his personal appearance. I do not wish a senator to dress like a beau, but I want him to conform so far to the fashion as not to incur the character of singularity nor give the occasion to the world to ask what kind of mother he had.”
– Harlow Giles Unger, John Quincy Adams (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2012), 135.
Don’t take yourself, or others, so seriously that you cannot abandon yourself laughter or keep in high esteem those who do. Take Lincoln, for example:
“…not only throughout his life but on out into his posthumous fame and glory his penetrating mental activity would be obscured by his reputation as a teller of jokes, by the greater thread of humor that ran through his life and being. One can’t tell jokes and stories like those, and collapse in convulsions of laughter, and have humor as an essential constant part of one’s being, if one is an intellectually serious person” (5).
– William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 5.
What’s more important: intelligence and knowledge, or wisdom and goodness of heart?
I think most of us would say wisdom and goodness, but that’s not always how we approach education, is it? We worry about our tots getting into the right preschool because this could determine the rate of their early cognitive development, which could mean the difference between a public school and a magnet school, which could mean the difference between a great and just an average college, which could make or ruin their lives! We put time and effort seeking ways to make our little ones smart, whether through having them listen to Bach from the womb, to buying everything Dora the Explorer so that they can learn Spanish (this is in fact a great idea if your child lives in the United States), to putting them in Chinese immersion schools or classes so that they can compete in the global economy.
Of course, none of these things is bad in itself. But it’s worth asking if we’re neglecting our children’s moral formation at the expense of their intellectual development. Here we can learn from our nation’s second president, John Adams. As we learn in Harlow Giles Unger’s excellent biography John Quincy Adams, though Adams was deeply concerned about and demanding when it came to his son John Quincy’s education, he recognized that character trumped intellect, that the “sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head,” as he wonderfully put it. Listen to Adams, abroad serving as an ambassador, instructing his wife Abigail on their son’s education:
“I am under no apprehension about his proficiency in learning. With his capacities and and opportunities he can not fail to acquire knowledge. But let him know that the sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head. Let him be sure that he possesses the great virtue of temperance, justice, magnanimity, honor, and generosity, and with these added to his parts, he cannot fail to become a wise and great man.
“… Treachery, perfidy, cruelty, hypocrisy, avarice, &c & should be pointed out to him for his contempt as well as detestation” (18).
Unlike so many history buffs, I’ve always found the Civil War one of the more uninteresting periods of American history. After finishing Thomas Keneally’s Abraham Lincoln (Penguin, 2008), this was no longer the case. I’ve enjoyed this short introduction to our 16th and greatest president both for its insights into the extraordinary character of Lincoln and for its treatment of other topics – such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the feats and failures of Civil War generals, and the colorful members of Lincoln’s cabinet – that I’m less familiar with and want to learn more of. As an example of the former – insights into Lincoln’s character – is the below excerpt, which reminds me of the biblical truth that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Years before he became president, while Lincoln was working on a patent case,
“…a new lawyer, the stocky, pugnacious Edwin M. Stanton, joined the team. Stanton was already such a legal star that he wondered why they had bothered to bring in a ‘long-armed Ape’ from Illinois. (He had, of course, no idea that he would one day serve very happily in the supposed simian’s cabinet.) Lincoln had the gift of humility – it was one of the reasons he was beloved – and as best he could he sat and learned from Stanton, but was hurt by his daily contempt and hubris” (59).
Cicero’s On Old Age is ancient wisdom at its best. In it he answers the charges of younger men against old age, such as lack of physical activity and the loss of mental acuity and bodily pleasures, such as taste and sex. To each of these charges Cicero responds by arguing that much of the discomfort and failings of old age are due more to the bad habits of earlier years and personal character faults than to old age itself. Old age, he says, has much to offer to those seeking the improvement of their mind and the refining of their spirit. As the French essayist Montaigne said of the work, Cicero makes you look forward to old age.
Written about 40 years before the birth of Christ, this work also shows human wisdom’s limits as well as its glimmers of eternal wisdom. For example, Cicero’s affirms the immortality of the soul but is unable to imagine much else beyond death. As the last quote below shows, however, he seems to have understood that this life is a temporary stay on the way to our true home, much like the Christian concept of pilgrims on the way to our true and final home.
I encourage everyone, young and old, to treat themselves to this classic work. It’s only about 30 pages. But if you won’t get to it for a while because you have so much to read as it is, here’s a (completely free!) sampling:
“A person who lacks the means, within himself, to live a good and happy life will find any period of his existence wearisome.”
“[In old age] there is great satisfaction in the knowledge of a life well spent and the memory of many things well done.”
“The evils for which ignorant people blame old age are really their own faults and deficiencies.”
“Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique: they are the products of thought, and character, and judgement. And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age.”
“At the very least we must concede age the capacity to teach and train young men and fit them for jobs of every kind; and no function could possibly be more honorable than that.”
“When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarreling, and all the other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself – and is well off. There is supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon.”
“Old age must have its foundations well laid in early life.”
“Old people are also complained about as morose, and petulant, and ill-tempered, and hard to please…but these are faults of character, not of age…For the fact is that not every personality, any more than every wine, grows sour with age.”
“The particular harvest of old age, I repeat, is its abundant recollection of blessings acquired in earlier years.”
“Since death is an imminent possibility from hour to hour, you must not let the prospect frighten you, or you will be in a state of perpetual anxiety.”
“What nature gives us is a place to dwell in temporarily, not one to make our own. When I leave life, therefore, I shall feel as if I am leaving a hostel rather than a home.”
My last post on Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006), offered a brief preview of how Lincoln embodied mental illness and mental wellness (and even greatness) at the same time.
To best appreciate Lincoln’s greatness – his strength of character and mental fortitude – it helps to see him at his darkest, most desperate moments – in the valley of depression. This is the picture I want to offer here.
Lincoln once confided about his depression to a colleague, a fellow politician, who didn’t suspect that he suffered from depression. This man recalled, “He told me that he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket” (23).
His second episode of major depression was triggered by a “long period of intense work,” “profound personal stress,” and “a stretch of bleak weather.” He “spoke openly about his misery, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide. He was unable to work. His friends feared that he might kill himself, and that if he lived, he might go insane” (23).
“By the time he was in his early thirties, he faced a lifetime of depression…The acute fits of his young manhood gave way to less histrionic, but more pervasive, spells of deep gloom. Dramatic public avowals of his misery gave way to a private but persistent effort to endure and transcend his suffering. Yet the suffering did not go away…And even when he began to do the work for which he is remembered…he continued to suffer” (23).
These passages describe a turbulent, and pitiable, emotional and mental state. Because of these episodes and his behaviors, some even thought Lincoln was crazy. Yet at this very point, it is worth remembering that this man, who couldn’t carry a knife from fear of hurting himself and at times believed that he would go insane, went on to become president of the United States and steer this nation through the Civil War and take the first major step toward freeing the nation’s slaves.