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The Development of Culture

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

John Adams (1735-1826)

It’s worth noting that one of the children of John Adams chose to throw his life away, becoming an alcoholic and prodigal, while the other went on to become President of the United States.

What we see in the life and words of John Adams is a lesson on the complexity of life and culture. There are short term challenges and long term challenges — “wheels within wheels” — all of which must be acknowledged and dealt with.

Many today, upon conversion, imagine that good culture is to simply be “installed” in their lives. They presume that they will enjoy the finest culture because they have become a Christian like those who enjoyed the finest culture in the past.

The reality, however, is that while Christianity may be embraced by any man, and instantly, culture is bound up with material things and is dependent on many factors. Culture has to do with habits, which develop slowly, with practice, over the course of many years. One is only able to accomplish so much with respect to such habits and culture and, while some may make extraordinary individual progress, the progress they do not make has the ability to limit the quality of the culture they enjoy.

John Adams knew that men must have a realistic appreciation for the value of good culture and know that, if they are handed the role of founders by Providence, they must fulfill their role and not expect the fruits prematurely.

This is taught beautifully in Cicero’s treatise “On Old Age”, where he speaks of elderly farmers, who “labour at things which they know will not profit them in the least, planting the trees to serve another age.”. Cicero explains that these old men understand their role, and can answer that they do what they do not for their own benefit, nor even for the necessary realization of their goals by their descendants, but, “for the immortal gods, who have willed not only that I should receive these blessings from my ancestors, but also that I should hand them on to posterity.”[efn_note]Cicero, “On Old Age”, translated by W.A. Falconer. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1923), 33. [/efn_note].

My wife and I are first generation Catholics. We are founders with respect to Catholic religion and culture (and much more) in our family. When we were young, we expected that, by means of a few decisions, we would enjoy the fullness of Catholic culture within our own lifetime. We expected that our children would simply stand on our shoulders and move upwards from where we had risen, but this was all naive and foolish.

The height to which we had risen, and continue to rise, was “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”[efn_note]John 1:13 (Douay Rheims Version)[/efn_note], Who has provided us with so many extraordinary gifts and is alone responsible (yes, alone responsible) for our achievements. To expect that this grace would simply be reproduced through our human activity was presumptuous. We’ve had to come to realize this the hard way. In doing so, we’ve learned how precious Catholic faith, morals, learning and culture are. We’ve learned that Catholic culture, if it develops, develops slowly and at great cost.

It is unwise to set our expectations on such things because they are not in our control. We must simply play our part and rest, knowing that we have done so.

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