23 June 2008

John Adams on Celebrity

Reading a review in The Nation of books on the rise of conservatism in the 20th century, I found an intriguing quotation from one of the Founders. The reviewer thinks that conservatism remains popular in America because conservatives are good at "making privilege democratic and democracy aristocratic." Americans of all classes, he argues, seek distinction; they want to be better, or at least recognized as better, than those around them. Equality doesn't thrill them as much as achieving superiority. This is where John Adams, the crankiest Founder and thus the most popular with some people, comes in. The reviewer quotes him with an ellipsis, so I sought out a fuller version of the quotation. It comes from one of Adams' Discourses of Davila, written in the 1790s. Read it yourself and see if he doesn't have us nailed. I've broken the excerpt into paragraphs for your reading comfort:

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed. His character is irreproachable; yet he is neglected and despised. He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation, he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is
only not seen. This total inattention is to him mortifying, painful, and cruel. He suffers a misery from this consideration, which is sharpened by the consciousness that others have no fellow-feeling with him in this distress.

If you follow these persons, however, into their scenes of life, you will find that there is a kind of figure which the meanest of them all endeavors to make; a kind of little grandeur and respect, which the most insignificant study and labor to procure in the small circle of their acquaintances. Not only the poorest mechanic, but the man who lives upon common charity, nay, the common beggars in the streets; and not only those who may be all innocent, but even those who have abandoned themselves to common infamy, as pirates, highwaymen, and common thieves, court a set of admirers, and plume themselves upon that superiority which they have, or fancy they have, over some others. There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species. But there is no risk in asserting, that there is no one who believes and will acknowledge himself to be the man.

To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. Instances of this are not uncommon. When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman, or child, he must be respectable in the eyes of his dog. “Who will love me then?” was the pathetic reply of one, who starved himself to feed his mastiff, to a charitable passenger, who advised him to kill or sell the animal. In this “who will love me then?” there is a key to the human heart; to
the history of human life and manners; and to the rise and fall of empires. To feel ourselves unheeded, chills the most pleasing hope, damps the most fond desire, checks the most agreeable wish, disappoints the most ardent expectations of human nature.


crhymethinc said...

The difference between then and now, I think, is that back then, if a man wished to be thought of a little better in his coterie, he would do so by bettering himself...attending a lecture or a critically acclaimed play or reading literature, taking up a subject of study, etc. Now, we seek to make ourselves better by making others seem humbler or somehow otherwise less than ourselves.

I think the old way was much better.

poopdiddler said...

That guy must be ok if they named that desert after him. I would of voted for him.