Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms & Pythagoras

Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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18 Responses

  1. CJColucci says:

    When I was a believer, the main thing I had a problem with was original sin. Now that I am a heathen, original sin is the only part I don’t have a problem with.Report

  2. The context of this letter was John Adams criticizing Joseph Priestley, a man for whom Adams had great respect in a love/hate sort of way

    Priestly did tend to suck all the oxygen out of a room.Report

    • Jon Rowe in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Haha. Good pun Mike. On a more serious note, I’m fascinating how the enlightenment zeitgeist of that age had men like Priestley and Ben Franklin wearing hats of scientists, theologians, and political thinkers all at once. Totally interdisciplinary.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Jon Rowe says:

        In those days it was possible to be current in all of cutting-edge science, and still have time for other things. Nowadays? Pick one thing, like high energy physics, and it’s already a full time job.Report

        • Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          Still possible, you just need to be very, very good.
          (Also, it kinda helps to understand that “computer modeling” is applicable to many scientific disciplines).Report

        • That’s part of it. But it’s also because the culture of the intelligentsia in that time put a high value on being well-rounded. It wasn’t enough to be good at commerce, for instance: demonstrating excellence involved not only the demonstration of successful financial ability, but also knowledge of the classics, personally experimenting in technology, drafting poetry, possessing martial ability, and holding one’s own in a discussion of theological matters. These were all different facets of the same gem. Compare the contemporary reputations of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with those of greater individual focus like John Adams (a gifted lawyer but no soldier) or Benedict Arnold (a solider driven to treason by his own financial ineptitude).

          We don’t put nearly as much of a premium on being mentally well-rounded in our contemporary culture. I think that instead, we quantify a person’s value and esteem using dollars: a good lawyer is worth X dollars and X is nothing to sneeze at and the lawyer doesn’t have to be anything but a lawyer to get it. But an attractive woman who can cry on demand for a camera is worth 500x dollars, and someone who creates a useful tech product everyone uses is worth 10,000x dollars.

          Today, a polymath is as like to be condemned for not having decided what she wants to do when she grows up as she is to be celebrated for her breadth of knowledge — or worse, she’ll be sneered at for majoring in a liberal art and failing to land herself a job that commands a high salary, even if she possesses sufficient knowledge and experience to hold her own in a conversation about one of those high-earning subjects.

          Which isn’t to say @mike-schilling ‘s point is wrong: a more complex economy and a greater accumulation of knowledge forces specialization in a way that was neither necessary nor possible in the Federal Era. But I think it’s incomplete: it’s a different culture now than it was then. We’re not only blessed with more knowledge driving us to specialize, we’re also more mercenary, which also drives us to not only specialize but also exploit.Report

          • El Muneco in reply to Burt Likko says:

            See also Newton (and IIRC Bacon as well) who were utterly batty when it came to theology, but spent years crapping out reams of ridiculousness because it was expected of someone in his position (and to be fair, he had a serious interest if not vocation).Report

          • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

            Polymaths tend to scare the shit out of people who want everyone to have credentials and act like a royal asshole in order to demand respect.

            I know a historian who’s also a talented writer and a standup comedian. I can say that with a straight face and expect you to believe me. He’s also an economist, a world-renowned expert in a few select bits of math, a master logistician, and a hell of a visual analyst (works with NASA on some of their data). He also writes weather models, and designs video games.

            If you just read the third sentence of that graph, it’s barely plausible as well.

            It’s putting all of it together that makes people think that I’ve got to be lyin’.Report

          • All good points. But even if today’s CEO class gave a crap about scientific literacy (or anything but money), they’d be unlikely to make any contributions to science, much less major ones.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Jon Rowe says:

        Priestley also wrote an English grammar that stands out as an early (perhaps first?: I’m not sure) descriptive grammar. This stands out in an era when other grammarians were busily pounding the square peg of the English language into the round hole of Latin grammar.Report

  3. Burt Likko says:

    @jon-rowe , two questions for you.

    First, did Founding-era thinkers look at non-Christian ancients from places like India and Persia with the same sort of reverence that they did the Classical writers? Adams demonstrates references for Pythagoras, but it’s not clear to me in the quoted passage whether his reference to the Hindu or Persian religions expresses admiration or whether he simply finds Eastern notions of supernatural trinities to be quaint.

    Second, to the extent that this sort of study of non-Western trinitarian notions did inform the moral and philosophical mindset of the Founding era, in what ways do we see those notions manifest? We already see Jefferson and Madison espouse very broad rights of conscience and worship, but that can be based in no small part to the debate between Trinitarians and Unitarians and Deists, and the many vacillations that so many of the Founders had over the course of their own individual lives between these theological views. So what does learning of the Founders’ study of non-Christian theology add to an intellectual environment already rich in theologic debate?Report

  4. Jon Rowe says:

    To answer the first question: Thinkers like Adams had more of a superficial understanding of non-Western thinkers, though they were quite interested in gaining a holistic view of things. I think he was on the right path in determining the genealogy of the Trinity (which keep in mind, he viewed as false).

    So to transition to the second question, key Founders like Adams and Jefferson thought their enlightenment unitarian notions superior to all other theological notions. They relegated Trinitarianism to the same or a similar place as Hinduism or Islam. Something that contained Truth insofar as it taught the existence of an overruling Providence and future state of rewards and punishment, but also irrationality. The notion of the Trinity was irrational and hence false like transubstantiation or the clearly “mythological” elements of the non-Western religions.Report

    • They relegated Trinitarianism to the same or a similar place as Hinduism or Islam.

      Interesting comparison, since Islam is monotheistic, much more so than Christianity is.Report

      • Jon Rowe in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Yes, Mike, in a sense both Judaism and Islam were more rational than Trinitarianism because Judaism and Islam believe in a unitary God. On the other hand, Jefferson and J. Adams saw irrational superstitions in THOSE creeds as well.

        Christianity including “irrational” Trinitarianism was also in a sense superior because it had Jesus, who they believed the world’s greatest moral teacher. This is important because morality was, to them “the” central function of religion.Report

        • Burt Likko in reply to Jon Rowe says:

          And it is this last point that really sticks out for me: to the Founders, morality was the whole point of religion. This is an era when the atheist was thought by many to be necessarily an immoral person, by definition an immoral person.

          That people of good faith could disagree on matters of morality would of course have been obvious to the Framers. But thinking about the “marketplace of ideas” justification advanced for enshrining religious tolerance into law does put something of a less liberal gloss on things like the First Amendment and the Virginia Statute: perhaps the Framers wanted unitarian Christianity to win and were sure that if the playing field were level, it would do so.

          This is an uncomfortable thought for me on multiple levels. Fortunately, we can interpret notions of governmental non-involvement in religion and the place of atheism in our culture as we collectively choose, and are not bound by the dead hand of the Founders’ or the Framers’ theological sensibilities.Report

  5. Jon Rowe says:

    “[P]erhaps the Framers wanted unitarian Christianity to win and were sure that if the playing field were level, it would do so.”

    Yup. I think this might be true.

    I found the President more free and open than I expected, starting subjects of conversation and making remarks that sometimes savored of humor and levity. He sometimes laughed, and I was glad to hear it ; but his face was always grave. He talked of religious sects and parties, and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines.— TICKNOR, GEORGE, 1815, Letter to his Father, Jan. 21 ; Life, Letters and Journals, vol. I, p. 30.