November 13, 1815 – April 8, 1816
Jefferson to Adams: “You ask if I would agree to live my 70. or rather 73. years over again? To which I say Yea. I think with you that it is a good world on the whole, that it has been framed on a principle of benevolence, and more pleasure than pain dealt out to us. There are indeed (who might say Nay) gloomy and hypocondriac minds, inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, and despairing of the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may happen. To these I say How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened? My temperament is sanguine. I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern. My hopes indeed sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy. There are, I acknolege, even in the happiest life, some terrible convulsions, heavy set-offs against the opposite page of the account. I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of Grief could be intended. All our other passions, within proper bounds, have an useful object. And the perfection of the moral character is, not in a Stoical apathy, so hypocritically vaunted, and so untruly too, because impossible, but in a just equilibrium of all the passions. I wish the pathologists then would tell us what is the use of grief in the economy, and of what good it is the cause, proximate or remote.”
Many of these letters deal in trivialities, which shouldn’t be a surprise; you can’t expect a lifetime of correspondence between two friends to read like the Proverbs. JA’s earlier question to TJ is masked in silliness: “I cannot be serious! I am about to write You, the most frivolous letter, you ever read. Would you go back to your Cradle and live over again Your 70 Years? I believe You would return me a New England Answer, by asking me another question ‘Would you live your 80 Years over again?’”
It’s a habit for JA—as it may be for many of us—to cloak our big questions in sarcasm and wittiness. He goes on to discuss fate, theism, atheism, “Eternity and Infinity, the first Cause and last End of all Things,” but all in good fun, really. Sometimes that’s the only way to express our deepest fears and worries, and that’s not a bad thing, especially when the person on the other end of the banter “gets it” like only certain friends do.
But I like TJ’s response here, because when someone finally drops the facade and nails you with an answer, it can be a powerful experience. I’m likely reading too much into this, but it does remind me of those rare “deep” talks with a friend that help you grow and help strengthen a bond.
That’s just a meander around the actual Jefferson quote above, which deserves a solitary contemplation to which I have nothing to add except that if I made the above title my life motto, I’d be a better person. Maybe I will. Adams may be more open-hearted, expressive, and entertaining to read. But when it appears, the eloquence belongs to Jefferson.