I had the pleasure recently of reading Joseph Ellis’s biography of John Adams, Passionate Sage—The Character and Legacy of John Adams (W.W. Norton & Company, 1994). The book came to me via a colleague after I happened to share with him my interest in Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ friend and foe. The story—or at least the myth and legend—of Jefferson is well known; he has been elevated into that pantheon of American figures who cannot be dethroned even by DNA paternity. Yet Adams is another story, and one we need to rescue from the ruin of time if we are even to begin to attempt to understand the evolution of modern society from an Aurobindonian perspective.
As Ellis’s highly readable study so nicely shows, John Adams was not merely an appendage to the American Revolution, he was one of the masterminds behind the inauguration of modern democracy, and arguably the most penetrating political thinker of his time. Today Adams is remembered only in passing as the second President of the United States, and vaguely as having gotten in a long argument about something or other with Jefferson. The more sentimental of patriots will also recall that in the end he and Jefferson renewed their friendship and both died in ripe old age on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. They were the last of their generation to go, and even their contemporaries intuited a providential meaning to their simultaneous departure, a view with which an Aurobindonian historian would have to concur.
Adams was a fascinating man, and the portrait Ellis paints of him leaves one alternately laughing, sighing, perplexed, and at times incredulous. He was irascible, explosive, temperamental, antagonistic, obnoxious, provocative and on occasions vulgar; inelegant, pushy, argumentative, unsystematic in his thinking, easily given to rant in speech and on paper, at times paranoid and suspicious—in short, most undignified and unfit to be remembered to school children as a wise and noble Founding Father. That is why he was forgotten in his own time after leaving the Presidency, and subsequently sank into historical oblivion while Jefferson was immortalized.
However, Adams was in the end lovable and compassionate, for as much as he was galvanized to constant battle, he was passionately committed to friends and family, and he had a fundamental human warmth that allowed him to make amends with all but the most bitter of his enemies. He was so acutely aware of the foibles of his own nature that he could not help but forgive them in others. He also cultivated a deep and lifelong companionship with his wife, Abigail, and had an innate respect for intelligent women, both accomplishments that placed him a couple hundred years ahead of his fellow men on the path towards feminism.
That was Adams the man. Adams the thinker had a razor-sharp mind and a visceral grasp of the vital motives that impel individual and collective action. He was easily the best read American of his time when it came to political and social history, and in retrospect he had that rarest of virtues–complete absence of hypocrisy—that one hopes will begin to shine as Jefferson’s image tarnishes a bit. Adams was brutally frank and honest, with himself as with others, a quality that did not endear him to a young nation that was trying to build an optimistic and idealistic image of itself as an unspoiled utopia far removed from the corrupting influences of Europe.
So what then does Adams have to do with an Aurobindonian analysis of history? Although Adams never managed to write a clear essay on his political philosophy, Ellis has done a remarkable job of distilling the essential elements of his approach from letters, diatribes published in newspapers, and notes he jotted for himself in the margins of the countless books in his library. What emerges from this chaotic mass of data is a probing grasp of the problems of social life founded on a prescient insight: Adams believed that the fundamental problems of human life were a product of human nature, not of social construction. Although he was against monarchy, he repeatedly argued—much to the dislike of Jefferson and other American thinkers—that no social system, however democratic and endowed with liberty, would erase the ills of human life, because it is in human nature to foment inequality.
Adams saw social movements and processes as a playing out of individual psychology in a collective sphere, and when he looked into himself and others, what he saw in addition to the higher motives and impulses, was the irreducible push of what Sri Aurobindo would call the vital ego—ambition, competition, power, most of all the desire to be esteemed by others. It was because of this that Adams championed the notion of checks and balances in the construction of government, as a means of containing and mitigating the inevitable abuses of power toward which the human vital would strive. Indeed, Adams was the key thinker behind the system of checks and balances instituted in the U.S. Constitution. He also predicted, based on this understanding of human nature, that the French Revolution would end in a horrific blood bath, and that banning nobility and landed aristocracy in the United States would only lead to the rise of a new type of elite class based on the quest for wealth. His first prediction swiftly came true, and the latter one has been amply born out in the last century as we have witnessed the dramatic rise of the economic motive (capitalism and commercialism) as the driving force in American society.
There are evident and fascinating points of rapprochement between the socio-psychological thought of John Adams and that of Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo begins the Ideal of Human Unity essentially rephrasing Adams’s core insight in his own words, that is, that the only and final solution to the problems of collective existence is to change human nature. Sri Aurobindo then goes on to explain in detail how and why all of the ideologies – tribalism, monarchy, democracy, capitalism, communism, fascism, and all other isms — have and are bound to fail in the end because they are not founded on the soul and spirit as the motive powers of social evolution. (Incidentally, according to Ellis it was Adams who coined the term ideology and used it liberally when attacking the covert political agendas imbedded in philosophical belief systems). Along the way, Sri Aurobindo applies repeatedly a key topos of Adamsian thinking, namely, interpreting social processes as collective manifestations of the same forces seen in individual psychology. For instance, when Sri Aurobindo describes the vital power flowing through all the economic and political processes of various societies past and present, one realizes with a flash of insight that he is referring to the same vital power he has written so much about with respect to the problems of individual sadhana. It is this bridging of the internal and external, the psychological and the social, which makes Sri Aurobindo’s analysis of collective life so synthetic.
Of course where Sri Aurobindo differs from Adams is in his proposition that human nature can, in fact, be transformed into divine nature through individual and collective yoga. This is the radical solution that Sri Aurobindo proposes, and which he and the Mother began to work out in painstaking detail in the life of the Ashram and later Auroville. Indeed, it is intriguing to review the Adams-Jefferson dynamic in light of the current experiment in social evolution that is under way in Auroville. I have often had the impression that the formation of the United States was a prototype for the Auroville experiment, albeit initiated on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder and developed with a more diffuse aim. Still, there are some remarkable points of similarity: America began with a group of Europeans leaving behind the accumulated social weight of the past to seek religious and political freedom in a new land. Upon arrival they were confronted with the cultural challenge of coexisting with Native Americans—people whom they called “Indians,” because Columbus initially thought he had landed in India—and subsequently they established a new form of government aimed at maximizing the potential of the individual to grow in a social context.
In Auroville today we see the same threads of evolution taken up again, but guided of course by a much higher spiritual force than presided over the birth of the United States. Again a group of Westerners informed by a spiritual ideal have wound up cohabiting with an indigenous culture less technologically developed than their own. This time the locals are real Indians in India, and genocide and slavery have been avoided, though racial and cultural conflict have not. The Mother’s charter for Auroville is more explicit about the spiritual aim of humanity than the Declaration of Independence, and hardly concerned about the details of history, but She emphatically declares independence from the past. Also, instead of calling on the ideals of the higher mind to set a course for the future, she brings down the full supramental force and vision. Finally, although she did not write a formal Constitution to structure government, she did on several occasions enunciate some clear guidelines for containing the human vital and pursuing collective yoga. Thus, at the moment a very young multicultural, multiracial society is being born in Auroville, full of an even greater hope than that of realizing democracy—and equally full of all the problems of human nature calling out to be transformed.
It is in this light that the Adams-Jefferson debate is so interesting. Friends during the American Revolution, they went on to disagree profoundly during their political careers and eventually reached a fragile reconciliation in their later years. The essential substance of their split was over Jefferson’s push to view the democratic will of “the people” as an inherently benign and corrective force that would naturally evolve a perfect society once liberated from the shackles of monarchy. Jefferson basically subscribed to the notion of the French philosophes that human nature is inherently just and good until and unless corrupted by society. Adams, of course, thought this was naïve idealization at the best, and more likely a dangerous ideology that could be used as a lethal emollient to mask the most corrupting and abusive quests for power.
In Ellis’s book, Adams’ point of view is more persuasively presented, such that one comes away with a greater respect for Adams the cantankerous realist, than for Jefferson the naïve and hypocritical idealist. However, as Ellis hints at in the end—and this I think strikes closer to the yogic truth of the situation—Adams and Jefferson incarnated two opposing and yet complementary poles of knowledge, both of which were needed to work out the dynamic movements of shakti supporting the American experiment. For there is a truth both to the realism of the moment as there is to the idealism of the future. Adams was right about many practical matters and rightly warned of many dangers, yet had Jefferson not opened optimistically towards the promise of tomorrow, had he not responded to the descending spiritual inspiration when he penned those rhapsodic phrases about self-evident truths and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then the American spirit would not have been. While Adams focused on the muddy foundations and rickety skeleton of the American experiment, Jefferson distilled the poetry from the mess of history and gave a higher breath of life to this fragile new undertaking. Today we see this same dialectic, the creative tension between realism and idealism, re-enacted in dramatic ways in the hyper-real and spiritually charged atmosphere of Auroville.
Incidentally, I have visited both the Adams house in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Jefferson’s estate in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the contrast between the two is telling. Each abode aptly reflects the character of these two very different men. The Adams house, which Adams sardonically dubbed “Montezillo” to parody the aristocratic pomp of Jefferson’s Monticello (which means “little mountain” in Italian), is small, quaint, and earthy. It is a simple homestead, but one can feel that it housed an extraordinary family. Standing downstairs in the old parlor Adams senior frequented, I felt a formation of white light from the higher mind descending into me. One senses here not only the essential honesty and sincerity of Adams the man, and the principles he stood for, but also of the remarkable family he engendered. His wife, Abigail, argued for equal rights for women from the very start; his son John Quincy was as U.S. president committed to furthering the reach of democracy; and his grandson YY was a U.S. senator who fought for the abolition of slavery, and was involved in the Amistad incident about which a movie has been made. The family’s collective dedication to the ideals of equality and democracy are palpable everywhere in the atmosphere of this home.
Jefferson’s mansion, on the other hand, is a large and luxurious palace by comparison. Perched atop the very last foothill of the Shanandoahs, where the mountains meet the plains, everything about the place rings of refinement and elevation. The grounds are lush and rolling, dotted with graceful trees, and in back there is a beautiful flower garden surrounded by an oval-shaped promenade, where Jefferson collected plant specimens from around the world. Finally there is the house itself, a stately structure of red brick trimmed in white, winged with raised walkways, and capped with a dome, in Jefferson’s signature interpretation of the neo-classical Italianate style. Visitors are invariably mesmerized by Jefferson’s penchant for mechanical invention, including an underground passage beneath the house that allowed servants to move back and forth from the kitchen, to wine cellar, to the stables during the winter without going out into the cold, and which remained cool and ventilated during the hot summer; tall, glass French doors upstairs that open and close in unison due to a figure-eight chain beneath the floorboards; a dumbwaiter to carry wine up from the basement; skylights and ventilation shafts in his bedroom; his bed cleverly placed in the wall between his study and his dressing room; and of course his own invention of a writing machine to copy letters as he wrote them. And that is but a small sample of Jefferson’s ingenuity. There is so much to say and admire about the design of Monticello, and Jefferson’s vast scope of interests, that I shall stop here and refer readers to the many excellent books on Monticello—or better yet, suggest a visit.
From the spiritual perspective, Monticello is interesting because of the mix of lights and vibrations there, in keeping with the complexity of its author. A glow from some realm of the Ideal hovers over the entire mountaintop; in Jefferson’s library and study one can actually catch a little trickle of golden-orange light leaning down from the Supermind, quiet and mostly hidden by lower and more superficial vibrations, but nonetheless there in the background; and finally a dark and heavy vibration that cloaks the house at moments like a veil of blackness and breath of grief. To understand this mix of forces in the atmosphere, one must understand the process of Integral Yoga. There is no doubt that Jefferson, in his best moments, was open to the Future, which by definition is the path of the supramental manifestation. More than any of the founding fathers, he was a visionary touched by the promise of a New Creation. Abigail Adams once said that whenever she was in his presence, she felt an aura of wonder and enchantment around him. This was the good and high side of Jefferson’s character, and it is abundantly evident in his many remarkable accomplishments. The other side of course, the darker side, was the burden carried by any and every soul who descends into this world in order to labor for the evolution of consciousness. Jefferson had many faults and failings, as we shall enumerate below, among the largest his inability to articulate an equal-minded stance towards African Americans and to live by it—unlike Adams, who opposed slavery and never owned slaves. Of course Adams had the advantage of living off the New England economy, which relied more heavily on banking and industrial commerce than the southern plantation economy, but my own intuition is that by end of his life Jefferson was privately burdened by his failure on the slave issue, and died feeling imprisoned by it. Among the many losses he grieved in his life, the deepest may have been his own recognition of how he failed the ideal of freedom and equality.
Today Jefferson’s defects in this regard are much publicized, including the fact that he most likely fathered illegitimate children with a slave mistress, and that he was certainly tainted by racist ideas. Many are appalled that the author of the Declaration of Independence could have such flaws, and on this basis some go so far as to discount him as simply another white, male oppressor like all the rest. Yet such reactions are simplistic and insufficient, and completely misapprehend the complexity of the evolutionary process from a spiritual perspective. Intellectually, Jefferson was not blind to the contradiction of owning slaves. In his younger years he tried several times to advocate for abolition but eventually gave up, leaving that problem to another generation. And it is quite possible that he would have set his slaves free upon his death, as did George Washington, had he not been colossally in debt and worried about the survival of his two surviving daughters. And spiritually, to understand the paradox of Thomas Jefferson, one must grasp that inwardly he was not just an American, he was the spirit and riddle of America. He carried in his being all of the conflicting forces, tendencies, and possibilities that were abroad in early America, from the highest to the lowest, and his life was a struggle to transform this discord into harmony. Where he succeeded, America followed; and where he failed, she followed too.
The problem of slavery and racism, for example, was to be a major tension in American life for the next two centuries, and it is still not entirely resolved to this day. Nor was that the only dichotomy within Jefferson that is still being worked out. Jefferson did many things in his life that seem contradictory. For example, he reviled autocrats and advocated minimal executive power, yet made the Louisiana purchase from Napoleon without the approval of Congress because the price was right and he dreamed of an “empire of liberty” stretching from sea to shining sea. He championed democracy and the “common man,” yet took great pleasure in fine French wine and the social extravaganzas of Parisian aristocracy. He spoke of morals and the simple life, yet had his runs of license and luxury. He admired the music and classical arts of Europe, yet danced to an American fiddle and conducted his presidency in a pauper’s clothes and with a total absence of stately pomp (unlike Adams, who ironically was quite good at regal pomp). He was a public figure and brilliant socialite, yet at the same time intensely private and retiring. And finally he experimented with that most volatile contradiction of all, the problem of the interracial couple. While one may justly criticize the abuse of power in having an affair with a slave, at the same time we know little about the human affections involved. For all we know, Jefferson may have had feelings for Ms. Hemmings that, in another and freer world—for instance, in the modern world he helped to create–he might have handled quite differently. All of these opposing tendencies within Jefferson are still being played out in the varied political, social, and cultural life of the United States. He was not a simple man—and America is not a simple nation.
Well, that was all long ago. Time, the world, and God move on. Yet I suspect that were Adams and Jefferson to return today, they would be eager to review the fate of America, to read the vision set forth in Sri Aurobindo’s Ideal of Human Unity, and to grapple with the phenomenon of Auroville. Probably they would bicker amiably like old friends, Adams criticizing and Jefferson rhapsodizing about the notion of changing human nature through yoga, but they should find the issue worthy of their full attention. Indeed, they might even be back on earth right now, agreeing to disagree about the future of tomorrow, each serving the evolution of consciousness in his own way.