Saturday, December 13, 2008

John Adams' Ultimate Statement of Rationalism

I tend to focus on John Adams so much to explicate the political-theology of the American Founding precisely because he is properly regarded as so "mainstream" a figure. There is a tendency to note (improperly) that Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were "Deists" (in the strict sense of the term, which they weren't) and cast them off as outliers. Well, whatever their political differences, John Adams believed virtually exactly as did Jefferson and Franklin on their personal religious creed. And this tells me just how mainstream this personal creed was among the notable Founding Fathers.

They were "rationalists" in the sense that they believed the Bible was partially inspired and reason was the ultimate determiner of truth, including what parts of the Bible were legitimately revealed. The natural law [or as they put it in the Declaration of Independence, "the laws of nature and nature's God"] was that substantive law -- both scientific and moral -- which man could "discover" thru the use of his unaided reason. Though they believed some connection between the natural and revealed law (the same God who wrote the natural law also PARTIALLY inspired the Bible) the key Founders elevated natural (what man discovered from reason) over revealed (what's written in the Bible).

At least that is what John Adams does in his letter to Jefferson Sept. 12, 1813. Adams elevates reason so far over revelation that he notes even if he were on Mt. Sinai with Moses and God told him of the Trinity he still couldn't believe it because reason proves 1+1+1=3, not 1. Even as a secular minded fellow, I can see this as an arrogant elevation of reason over all else. As Adams noted:

Dear Sir,

. . . the human Understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted. There can be no Scepticism, Phyrrhonism or Incredulity or Infidelity here. No Prophecies, no Miracles are necessary to prove this celestial communication. This revelation has made it certain that two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one. We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fulfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. natures God that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or Prophecies might frighten us out of our Witts [sic]; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But we should not believe it. We should know the contrary

Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai and admitted to behold, the divine Shekinah, and there told that one was three and three, one: We might not have had courage to deny it. But We could not have believed it.


The whole thing is worth reading. Adams also denies eternal damnation and notes the dynamic that still persists to this day of orthodox Trinitarians not considering his theology to be "real Christianity," to which Adams responds:

Howl, Snarl, bite, Ye Calvinistick! Ye Athanasian Divines, if you will. Ye will say, I am no Christian: I say Ye are no Christians: and there the Account is balanced [sic]. Yet I believe all the honest men among you, are Christians in my Sense of the Word . . . .

33 comments:

Our Founding Truth said...

the key Founders elevated natural (what man discovered from reason) over revealed (what's written in the Bible).>

Notice one guy's view speaks for ALL the Founding Fathers, and that one guy was NOT a rationalist:

"The great and almighty Author of nature, who at first established those rules which regulate the World, can as easily Suspend those Laws whenever his providence sees sufficient reason for such suspension. This can be no objection, then, to the miracles of J [Jesus] C [Christ]. Altho' some very thoughtfull, and contemplative men among the heathen, attained a strong persuasion of the great Principles of Religion, yet the far greater number having little time for speculation, gradually sunk in to the grossest Opinions and the grossest Practices."
John Adams diary March 2, 1756

What the one man believed after he retired, means nothing.

Jonathan Rowe said...

To the contrary, he was a rationalist. Dr. Frazer addresses the quotation in his thesis: The theistic rationalists differed on miracles. But one thing they agreed on was the test of reason. "Rational miracles" were those that met the test of reason.

The two quotations from 1756 and 1813 are thus consistent with one another.

Charles said...

Adams is making the common mistake of assuming that integer arithmetic is unequivocally "natural" in the sense that it would exist independent of human reason. This is debatable (and debated; eg, FWIW I don't believe it). The contrary position is called (not terribly descriptively, IMO) embodied mind theory. Hence, his argument against the trinity is not as convincing as he claims.

And I find it strange that he could believe that man's (corrupted, right?) reason comes from God, but nonetheless assert that were God's express statement and his reasoning to conflict he would go with the latter.

BTW, I am aware that my comments are often somewhat off topic, but despite total ignorance (except for what I learn here) of the topic, I am interested and read most posts fairly carefully. And I find it grating when the people who are supposed to be guides on certain current political issues appear to have made relevant statements that fail tests of basic logical coherence. So, comments like this one carry an implicit question: Should we really put so much emphasis on their statements about topics like theology if the statements often seem fundamentally flawed?

Jonathan Rowe said...

And I find it strange that he could believe that man's (corrupted, right?) reason comes from God, but nonetheless assert that were God's express statement and his reasoning to conflict he would go with the latter.

Adams' statement pretty clearly shows that he didn't believe the intellect was corrupted, that indeed God granted men reason to be penultimate.

Re whether what Adams or any of the FFs believed was good philosophy, I'll grant you that it might not have been. Rather, I'm simply trying to show what it is they believed and leave it at that.

Most professional philosophers, by the way, are atheists and think the notion of the objective natural law as discovered by reason to be amateurish, indefensible, and refuted by post-moderns Nietzsche and Heidegger.

Our Founding Truth said...

And I find it strange that he could believe that man's (corrupted, right?) reason comes from God, but nonetheless assert that were God's express statement and his reasoning to conflict he would go with the latter.>

Exactly Charles, the notion is completely illogical, it cannot make sense; only the arrogance of Jefferson could believe in such foolishness, but not John Adams.

Adams disbelieved in the Trinity, and Deity of Christ. He would never stoop to stupidity like Jefferson and believe something from the Divine in man's mind superior to something from the Divine on paper; absurdity! It's impossible for it to make sense, because once reason is put on paper, it isn't reason anymore, and not Divine. All the framers believed man's law inferior to God's Law (Bible).

Don't believe the lie that a violation of the law of nature is only a violation if I believe it to be so. A miracle is a miracle, regardless of what I think, period! Only Jefferson and Franklin believed that nonsense. Jefferson is a minor founding father compared to others who ratified more of our documents. Jefferson only ratified the DOI.

And I find it grating when the people who are supposed to be guides on certain current political issues appear to have made relevant statements that fail tests of basic logical coherence.>

As Elijah told the Israelites, "be not afraid of the prophets of Ba'al"

The same with Dr. North, Frazer, etc. be not afraid of them, they are clueless, and lack common sense.

Should we really put so much emphasis on their statements about topics like theology if the statements often seem fundamentally flawed?>

This heresy must be combated, because this is what they teach our children in the schools and in college. Speak out, don't give in, always speak out on what is truth, and common sense.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Heh. Am I the only one who is amused by letting OFT participate in these discussing threads and therefore giving him rope to hang himself with?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sorry, JR, I think he's doing pretty good lately, especially in challenging whether the letters from John Adams' dotage are of any relevance at all. However, I would support the idea that whatever it is the Founders believed, philosophically or theologically, it's our target: if there are flaws, we must work around them.

"Modern" philosophers like Heidegger, of course have proved nothing. To the moderns, the idea that man's unalienable rights come from God is "provably" nonsensical, but that is the most basic principle of the Founding, and here we are today.

The previous question was that if Adams' and Jefferson's more pronounced heterodoxies of their old age been known when they were running for president, would they still have been elected?

The answer at least carries strong doubt, and therefore we can't assert either as "mainstream." We should look elsewhere to gain some perspective, and there are another 50 or 100 Founders to account for. I'm waiting for a single one besides Thomas Paine who would explicitly claim that reason is superior to the Bible, and we all know what happened to Paine.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The previous question was that if Adams' and Jefferson's more pronounced heterodoxies of their old age been known when they were running for president, would they still have been elected?

Honestly, I don't think they would have been. However, the notion that "consent" by "the people" is what makes a democratic-republican government binding is itself a creation of "modern" politics. [Clarification on terminology: Nietzsche and Heidegger were "post-moderns"]. And among the "modern" political philosophers who delivered to America its ideas and ideals of "republicanism," Jefferson and J. Adams were both mainstream and "key."

Our Founding Truth said...

Heh. Am I the only one who is amused by letting OFT participate in these discussing threads and therefore giving him rope to hang himself with?>

With all due respect, you're using the best, and strongest rope for yourself. I can only imagine what the general public would think of this foolishness if we took a poll.

Hey Tom,

I've been compiling the list of Framers who denounced such foolishness, but then again, who am I to support them?

Jefferson's will is supreme, and the majority viewpoint out of touch. Imagine that, one man's will is superior to at least two-hundred, Unbelievable!

Jonathan Rowe said...

With all due respect, you're using the best, and strongest rope for yourself. I can only imagine what the general public would think of this foolishness if we took a poll.

The general public, lol. I bet you don't even know the name of the logical fallacy implicit in your response. I'll give you a hint: The "masses" supported all sorts of horrible things from slavery to Nazism.

That said, let's see who gets whose book published and in bookstores like Borders or Barnes and Nobles first. Re record of publication, I do believe, I am head and shoulders ahead of you.

By the way: I already have a title picked out for mine -- "Noble Pagans: America's Founding Heretics."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, your thesis seems to be Gary North's, that the clever Adams and Jefferson [with Madison dragged in with sketchy evidence] put one over on the American people. But I'd say it was the other way around.

I see no evidence that Jefferson and Adams' post-presidential scribblings had any palpable effect on the republic, and it would be your burden of proof to provide it. And if America mutated into Adams' and Jefferson's quasi-unitarian vision, it was not from poison pills they cleverly inserted into the Founding, but from the sleight-of-hand of 20th century judicial activism, which simply steamrolled over the common understanding of the constitution of the Framers and Ratifiers.

The nation was founded on the conviction that our rights come from God. It all starts there and works up, not down from doctrinal squabbles like Trinitarianism.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

Yes, it is Gary North's. But also Thomas Pangle's, Michael Zuckert's, Allan Bloom's, and probably Leo Strauss'.

As for the evidence...more to come.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And Randy Barnett in his book "Restoring the Lost Constitution" effectively deals with the problem of appealing to "the people's" consent [of the Founding era] as ultimate trumping authority. For one, it wasn't a majority of folks in the population. Arguably statistical majorities couldn't vote. This included many women, blacks, natives, non-Protestants and non-propertied folks. And two, they are all dead. How is it that a dead person can bind YOU in a contract?

Finally, the notion that appealing to a majority of folks at any given time "wins" an argument is a logical fallacy known as the Argumentum Ad Populum --

http://philosophy.lander.edu/logic/popular.html

-- which is exactly the logical fallacy OFT committed when he noted "I can only imagine what the general public would think of this foolishness if we took a poll" after he FALSELY asserted, with NO evidence, none whatsoever, that Jefferson's theological beliefs represented "one man's will...superior to at least two-hundred."

Dr. Frazer's meticulously researched and footnoted PhD thesis, on the other hand, demonstrates with far more evidence that Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Wilson, G. Morris, and Hamilton [before the VERY end of his life] were agreed on central tenets of their creed.

Our Founding Truth said...

Dr. Frazer's meticulously researched and footnoted PhD thesis, on the other hand, demonstrates with far more evidence that Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Wilson, G. Morris, and Hamilton [before the VERY end of his life] were agreed on central tenets of their creed.>

Tom: I know you don't buy any of this foolishness, because we read their OWN words, not the words of "so called" doctors.

We've already seen Madison rejected reason by affirming the supernatural, have you seen what Morris said about reason? He attacks reason more viciously than Webster, Jay, Witherspoon, Rush, or Adams ever did.

Charles said...

To repeat a comment on PL, in this paper Randy Barnett poses an interpretation of natural law that (FWIW) makes sense to me than the "man's reason" interpretation.

The paper also addresses the question of legitimation by consent of the governed. I'm not qualified to critique (or even describe) his position, but will simply note that it avoids the obvious problem - that the assumed "consent" is a fiction - by suggesting as an alternative a "justice-based" legitimation.

Charles said...

"I'm simply trying to show what it is they believed and leave it at that."

I would like to note that I understand and appreciate this, and when having occasion to refer to this blog - and your posts in particular - always emphasize that feature.

Jonathan Rowe said...

My pleasure Charles!

Jonathan Rowe said...

We've already seen Madison rejected reason by affirming the supernatural,...

Doesn't anyone else see that OFT's invariable MO involves making an error of logic in his factual assertions of the very first sentences of his comments?

How long will he keep embarrassing himself on these threads?

Dan Atkinson said...

Jon:

I honestly don's understand how you can be so far off on this argument. Reason and revelation have been synonymous for centuries. When Adams knocks the trinity he is showing how little he knows about revelation. The revealed truths surrounding the trinity are compatible with reason, not against it.

Our Founding Truth said...

How long will he keep embarrassing himself on these threads?>

How ever long it takes to show the people your lack of evidence for all your presumptuous, illogical claims, especially your claim President James Madison was a rationalist:


To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of MIRACULOUS AID, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence.
James Madison-Memorial and Remonstrance 1785

Brad Hart said...

This thread on Adams is a perfect illustration of his often contradictory nature. Adams was a passionatte man to say the least. As Abigail regularly noted, John could not mind his tongue. He was the type of person that shot off at the slightest insult.

In addition, Adams would routinely contradict himself, as is the case with any person that does not "mind their tongue." It is for this reason that I am not surprised that both Jon Rowe and OFT can find quotes to support their respective position. This is why we must look at the TOTALITY of the historical record, which, I believe, supports Jon's conclusions.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I disagree with Jon's conclusions, and your endorsement of them, but my opinion doesn't close the case either, Brad. But although I think Mr. Goswick [OFT] sometimes conflates religiously-themed arguments by some Founders as a reflection of their personal beliefs [I'm not convinced Madison actually believes in miracles although he cites them in his M&R], the fact that they're making religious-themed arguments certainly serves as evidence that they expected their audience to be convinced by them!

Therefore, since a "poll" of those who could not vote is not being suggested by anyone, saying "most everyone who could vote was religious" does not amount to the logical fallacy of ad populum, and that's a grossly unfair charge in my view. This was a representative democracy---what other measure could we use besides the pervasiveness of belief?

Mr. Goswick has been playing by the rules: he quotes the Founders directly from the primary sources, and whether or not I agree with his arguments or conclusions, I always learn something, as the quotes themselves are still relevant. It is useless to claim in this or any other "neutral" forum that the Bible is true, but it's essential to argue for or against [or in part] that the Founders believed it to be true.

What's missing in these meta-arguments is actual examples of how reason, natural law and/or the Bible were held by the Founders to be in conflict. I want to see the quotes, not the amateur theologian John Adams spouting unitarian generalities or Jefferson scribbling impieties to his friends.

Substance, please, gentlemen, substance.

Our Founding Truth said...

[I'm not convinced Madison actually believes in miracles although he cites them in his M&R],

Substance, please, gentlemen, substance.>

Absolutely, the framers' own words is what we should be looking at, and what I concentrate on.

Madison was raised a Calvinist, a seminary student from the most Orthodox Christian School in the World; Princeton, who, in the M&R affirms the Miraculous Aid by God. I think I should believe him at his word, or else what does that make him?

Does not the evidence point that he believed in miracles? Where is his quotes rejecting miracles like Jefferson did? At least if Mr. Rowe could provide those to us, it would help his position, but to no avail.

This violation of the law of nature not being a violation I brought up with my wife. She said "how could one violation be a violation, and another violation not be a violation?" You either break a physical law or you don't.
This is what I was thinking of when I mentioned "taking a poll." It sounds absurd, you get to pick and choose what is a violation and what isn't?

Franklin was so confused he rejected miracles but believed Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana. The guy just picked what he liked and didn't like! Jesus used no pills, or potions, or chants; He spoke, and the water changed its essence. That's a violation, period, end of story! Are there any chemists in the house?

What's missing in these meta-arguments is actual examples of how reason, natural law and/or the Bible were held by the Founders to be in conflict.>

Tom, the problem is, I can post one-hundred quotes by the framers attacking reason, but it won't matter, because they aren't Jefferson or Franklin. It's a no win situation, at least to Mr. Rowe.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And OFT---It's an invaluable and necessary scholarly custom that when you want to emphasize a phrase or sentence in a primary source, use italics or bold face and at the end acknowledge that YOU emphasized it, not the original author. [As in: Italics mine. Boldface mine.]

Especially when dealing with the Founding literature, because in that day, they themselves often italicized or used CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis and passion.

It was a very passionate time. When they themselves use italics or capital letters, we can gauge their level of passion on a particular point. We must preserve and faithfully transmit those passions with "italics his," "capital letters his."

We should insert ourownselves with CAUTION and with proper disclaimers.

Plus, when you do the "italics mine" thing, not only does it let everyone know you take it all seriously and sacred, it looks real scholarly and stuff, like you might actually know what you're talking about. In this age of epistemological nihilism, one needs all the help one can get.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Tom, the problem is, I can post one-hundred quotes by the framers attacking reason, but it won't matter, because they aren't Jefferson or Franklin. It's a no win situation, at least to Mr. Rowe.

Now, now. Let's take our time. "Reason" is only "attacked" as insufficient. Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason," James Wilson on the "moral sense." Still, "reason" remains invaluable and irreplacable. Surely we are "reasoning" here.

We're kicking over old ground that's startlingly new. The Founding is a jigsaw puzzle, and we'll always be missing a few pieces. I continue to hold that the book on the Founding remains open, and will always remain so, because none of us were there.

Keep in mind that your "audience" isn't Jonathan Rowe, nor is it me, really. As they say in chess, play the board, not your opponent. Make your best arguments and provide your best evidence. I like you both as correspondents, mostly because you both spout evidence and argument and we learn new things in the process. That's what inquiry and intellectual honesty are all about. I for one am not here to argue as much as to learn and try out new ideas.

I've built a long friendship and respect with Jon. In the end, I'll agree with neither of you nor you with me. So what?

There will be no "winning" here on this blog, or anywhere else in this world when it comes to philosophy or theology, and most nettlesome and annoying, not even when it comes to history. That does bug me. But even history and its hindsight is too ephemeral to claim truth as cause-and-effect. Hell, we can't even figure out our own times with all the evidence just a google click away. Life is complicated. Jeez, we can't even all agree why America fought that great civil war in the 1860s, or as our brothers from the southern states continue to call it, the War of Northern Aggression.

All we can do around here is present arguments and evidence. Hell, we can't even agree if there's a God or what she might be like. How could we possibly agree on lesser matters?

Hehe.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Hell, we can't even agree if there's a God or what she might be like.

Heh. Like Madison, I'd like to think She exists. See my next post where I appeal to one of the most outstanding right of center scholars of the Founding & religion on Madison's creed that deals with many of these issues. And no it's not Hutson.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And OFT is especially going to love the fact that he too categorizes Madison as a "rationalist."

Our Founding Truth said...

Now, now. Let's take our time. "Reason" is only "attacked" as insufficient. Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason," James Wilson on the "moral sense." Still, "reason" remains invaluable and irreplacable. Surely we are "reasoning" here.>

That reason is insufficient has been my point the entire time, with the framers quotes.

I saw another quote by Hobbes which is self-explanatory:

reason serves only to convince the truth, not of fact, but of consequence. The light therefore that must guide us in this question must be that which is held out unto us from the books themselves: and this light, though it show us not the writer of every book, yet it is not unuseful to give us knowledge of the time wherein they were written.
Hobbes, Leviathan, Part III, Chapter XXXIII

Reason isn't the fact, it's the consequence. The fact has to be the Word. Once this "Right" reason Hooker spoke about is useful to us (Law), it's not Divine, but is human, therefore inferior. That's why the Christian Philosophers could attack it.

Without being on paper, it's just in the mind, with no guideline, unless it's written down, which becomes human. I think I'm done talking about it, we need to get a logician to comment on this to see if I'm right.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Article posted. Meet Phillip Munoz's discussion of James Madison's personal religious beliefs.

Raven said...

Tom Van Dyke writes:

"Substance, please, gentlemen, substance.

Boy, if that isn't the biggest oxymoron of the century! Coming from Tom Van Dyke, who's only goal and purpose is to disagree with every single posting on here. It's like he couldn't agree if he wanted to. Give me a break, Tom. You are no expert so quit acting the part. This is a blog, not the American Historical Review, and you are NOT a historian or expert, no matter how much you may wet yourself over the idea.

Try being less "authoritative" and "scholarly." Maybe then you will actually make some friends here.

Raven said...

Oh, and as much as you like to portray yourself as "above" the simple-minded arguments of mere humans, you are Tom nothing more than a water carrier for the conservative right. Quit trying to act any different.

Our Founding Truth said...

Boy, if that isn't the biggest oxymoron of the century! Coming from Tom Van Dyke, who's only goal and purpose is to disagree with every single posting on here.>

That isn't true.

Try being less "authoritative" and "scholarly." Maybe then you will actually make some friends here.>

Since when was the goal of this blog to make friends?

Dave2 said...

Jon Rowe wrote:

"Most professional philosophers, by the way, are atheists and think the notion of the objective natural law as discovered by reason to be amateurish, indefensible, and refuted by post-moderns Nietzsche and Heidegger."

Sorry, but this is just false. It is probably true that most professional philosophers are nonbelievers of one stripe or another. But it is probably false to say that most reject the idea of moral objectivity, and bizarrely and outrageously false to say that most think it was refuted by Nietzsche and Heidegger.

I mean, for one thing, most professional philosophers are working within the analytic tradition, which spends very little time with Nietzsche and positively scorns Heidegger.

Honestly, what professional philosophers do you have in mind?