the imaginative conservative logo


Within his general view of man as naturally social, John Adams explored the nature of the passion for distinction. To speak of man as gregarious is merely to identify a human inclination to “go in flocks or herds, like sheep or partridges.”[46] But Adams went beyond that mere assertion and identified the nature of the inclination which takes men into relationships with one another, and which largely determines the character of those relationships. The core of the passion for distinction is suggested in the literal meaning of the Latin, spectemur agendo: “we are watched” or “we are seen acting.” This human concern with the mere fact of others’ seeing us becomes clear in Adams’ characterization of the plight of the poor man. Relying on a passage in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments,[47] he suggested that at bottom the poor man’s response to his actual poverty, like the rich man’s response to the prospect of poverty, is not simply an abhorrence of physical want, or a fear that he will not be able to preserve himself; it is a sense of shame. Adams then asked the question, “Why… should any man be ashamed to make known his poverty?” The answer of “nature, experience, and mankind” is that he feels shame because men “take no notice of him.”

He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation, he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen. This total inattention is to him mortifying, painful and cruel….To be wholly overlooked and  to know it, are intolerable.

At a minimum, then, man desires to be seen by his kind, and abhors neglect or obscurity.[48]

Yet mere concern for notice, while at the root of the passion for distinction, seldom constitutes the whole desire. The ordinary usage of spectemur agendo suggests the more common nature of the desire: We are not simply “watched” or “seen acting,” but are “looked at for the purpose of testing” or “considered critically.” Thus, when one follows even the poor “into their scenes of life,” there is “a kind of figure which the meanest of them all attempts to make; a kind of little grandeur and respect, which the most insignificant study and labour to procure in the small circle of their acquaintances.” Mere attention from others is seldom adequate for most men. Humans seek not simply attention and consideration, but “congratulation,” which involves a positive conclusion to the act of others when they critically judge or test us. We want to be approved, and it is this desire which is the “key to the human heart; to the history of human life and manners; and to the rise and fall of empires.” Specifically, men desire that kind of approval which is an acknowledgment of the “superiority which [men] have or fancy they have over some others.”[49] The approval which is akin to congratulation or admiration singles a man out and sets him apart from others.

For a science of politics, of course, it is crucial to know not only that men desire to be approved as superior but by what means they attempt to satisfy the desire. Adams’ treatment of that question began by expressing a moral perplexity. He distinguished three qualities of excelling: blessings of fortune (“birth, riches, and honors”), qualities of the body (“beauty in the face, elegance of figure, grace of attitude”), and qualities of the mind (“discretion, wit, sense, and many virtues”).[50] These qualities, according to Adams, are not equally effective as resources for gaining the attention of others. The blessings of fortune have the greatest power to “surprise” and “astonish” others. Qualities of body are less effective than are wealth, nobility, or honors but nevertheless outrank intellectual and, moral excellence in the power to excite admiration in others.[51]

Having described these qualities as efficient causes, Adams then noted that the same qualities rank differently when considered as “final causes” or in terms of their capacity to contribute to genuine human happiness. Indeed, experience reveals that the hierarchy of qualities viewed as true excellences is exactly the reverse of their ranking as means of excelling. Viewed as final causes, the “intellectual and moral qualities” rank the highest, for they are “most within our power, and undoubtedly the most essential to our happiness.” Next in importance come “the personal qualities of health, strength, and agility,” while lowest in their contribution to genuine happiness are the qualities of fortune. A man “has less reason to esteem himself for these than for those of his mind or body.” But reason is lost upon mankind. “There is less disposition to congratulation with genius, talents, or virtue, than there is with beauty, strength, and elegance of person; and less with these than with the gifts of fortune and birth, wealth and fame.” To these last qualities “the homage of the world is devoted…in a remarkable manner.” They are “everywhere acknowledged to glitter with the brightest luster in the eyes of the world.”[52]

This primacy of the qualities of fortune over those of the mind and body is directly related to the character of the passion for distinction as spectemur agendo. The passion has as its elemental object being seen, and makes of man what Adams was later to call a “stareing [sic] animal.”[53] Those things will elicit attention which are “more level to the capacities, and more obvious to the notice of mankind in general.” The more apparent or visible a good, the more readily men are able to respond to it, and the goods which are most apparent are those which are external to a man, those things that are “without him, as place, riches, favor, Prizes of accident.” In contrast, the qualities of mind and body, and especially the former, are hidden. At best, a man’s intellectual and moral excellence would have to be judged from his deeds rather than from his “condition” or “situation,” and even his deeds would be an uncertain guide to his inner qualities.[54] In the actual process of judging by most men, the inner qualities are almost always eclipsed by the glitter of external things. Consequently, the disproportionate possession of the blessings of fortune will give some men in every society “a natural and inevitable influence” over others. Since this disproportionate possession is in part ordained by nature and can never be obliterated, an order of the few will naturally arise in every society and will almost invariably be characterized by those qualities that rank lowest as final causes.[55] Adams’ inquiry into human gregariousness as a possible support for our unselfish obligations thus seems to have reached an impasse: The core of gregariousness seems to attach us to those very things that are the antithesis of genuine excellence.

Adams dealt with this apparent impasse by making a series of judgments about the likelihood that merit, either of character or act, would be connected with the various “influential” qualities of fortune. Taken together, the key passages on this subject in the Defence of American Constitutions and Discourses on Davila [56] indicate Adams’ view that the several blessings of fortune are not equally disjunctive with merit. Of the three natural sources of influence, two have no necessary connection even with “talents,” let alone with “virtue.” Men may acquire wealth “by descent from their ancestors” rather than “from greater skill, industry, and success in business.” Illustrious birth may indicate nothing whatsoever about the capacities of descendants, for “we cannot presume that a man is good or bad, merely because his father was one or the other.” But reputation or fame, considered apart from birth or wealth, can only be based on deeds and therefore must be connected with talent.

Some, in a long course of service in an army, have devoted their time, health, and fortunes, signalized their courage and address, exposed themselves to hardships and dangers, lost their limbs, and shed their blood, for the people. Others have displayed their wisdom, learning, and eloquence in council, and in various other ways acquired the confidence and affection of their fellow-citizens to such a degree, that the public have settled into a kind of habit of following their example and taking their advice [57]

As Adams explained in Davila, relying again on Adam Smith, such services are essential for the man of inferior rank “if he hopes to distinguish himself.”

He must acquire superior knowledge in his profession, and superior industry in the exercise of it; he must be patient in labor, resolute in danger, and firm in distress. These talents he must bring into public view, by the difficulty, importance, and at the same time, good judgment, of his undertakings, and by the severe and unrelenting application with which he pursues them. Probity and prudence, generosity and frankness, must characterize his behavior upon all ordinary occasions; and he must at the same time, be forward to engage in all those situations, in which it requires the greatest talents and virtues to act with propriety; but in which the greatest applause is to be acquired by those who can acquit themselves with honor.[58]

Not surprisingly, the quality of fortune which is most likely to be akin to the qualities of mind is also generally the least efficacious in attracting the attention of mankind. Reputation, which a man earns solely by “the labor of his body, and the activity of his mind,” usually comes only with “long service” or “continual and long exertion.”[59] As a consequence, such reputation is acquired slowly and is often no match for the “glitter” of birth and wealth as sources of attention.” As Adams later commented to Jefferson, “What chance have Talents and Virtues in competition with Wealth and Birth? and Beauty?” His answer reflects the difficulty which he had identified in Davila: “Birth and Wealth have prevailed over Virtue and Talents in all ages. The Many will acknowledge no other aristoi.'” Thus to Jefferson’s question, “who are the aristoi?,” Adams responded:

Philosophy may Answer ‘The Wise and Good.’ But the World, Mankind, have by their practice always answered, ‘the rich, the beautiful and well-born.'[61]

The difficulty which deeds encounter when pitted against wealth and birth as sources of attention can actually transform reputation from the quality of fortune most akin to merit into the quality of fortune which is politically the most dangerous. Ambition may support and encourage the cultivation of the most important virtues in the first stages of a man’s rise to fame. But he constantly faces the possibility that a mere “severe and unrelenting application” of such virtues may not be sufficient to bring him into “public view.” Adams quoted Adam Smith’s astute observations on the “man of spirit and ambition, who is depressed by his situation”:

With what impatience does [he]…look around for some great opportunity to distinguish himself? No circumstances which can afford this appear to him undesirable; he even looks forward with satisfaction to the prospect of foreign war, or civil dissension; and with secret transport and delight, sees through all the confusion and bloodshed which attend them, the probability of those wished–for occasions presenting themselves, in which he may draw upon himself the attention and admiration of mankind.[62]

The uncommon weight of birth and wealth as objects of attention thus may lead the ambitious man who can rely on neither of these sources of influence to escalate the deeds by which he seeks the admiration of mankind. It is such escalation that creates the “tribe out of which proceed your patriots and heroes, and most of the great benefactors to mankind.” But it is also that escalation which led Adams to add the warning that “for our humiliation, we must still remember, that even in these esteemed, beloved, and adored characters, the passion of ambition although refined by the purest moral sentiments, and intended to be governed by the best principles, is a passion still; and, therefore, like all other human desires, unlimited and insatiable. No man was ever contented with any given share of…human adoration.”[63] In short, the more competitive reputation is with birth and wealth as an effective status resource, the greater are the deeds required to support it, but the more likely are those deeds to turn against the public welfare.

The crucial passages in the Defence and Davila on aristocracy and the standards of excelling also indicate that, in Adams’ understanding, illustrious descent is more likely to be in harmony with genuine merit than is wealth. As indicated earlier, neither wealth nor birth, in contrast to reputation, is necessarily connected with the talents of a man; yet both of the former qualities of fortune may reflect superior capacities in an individual. Wealth may be gained “from greater skill, industry, and success in business.” Illustrious descent may carry with it the talents which characterized the ancestors.[64] In Adams’ judgment, however, even when wealth and noble birth are connected with talents, the two sets of talents differ, and those possessed by the nobleman are likely to be of greater worth than are those possessed by the man of wealth. The skills of the latter are invariably tied to “business,” and men who cultivate business skills are generally moved by avarice, which spawns “treachery, cowardice, and a selfish, unsocial meanness.” Pride in mere wealth does not incline men to rise above this level. In contrast, the pride of noble descent at its best looks back to the “talents and virtues, which first produced illustration to ancestors.”[65] Those original talents are close to the “more important virtues” which are cultivated by the man who seeks attention solely by the route of reputation: i.e., the family has at its beginning a “wise and virtuous father” or is initially characterized by men of “virtue and honor” who have earned the gratitude and esteem of the many because they have been “benefactors to the country.” Pride of birth can thus incline descendants to “support the reputation of the [family] name” by replicating one or more of the talents and virtues which “first produced illustration to ancestors.”[66]

A critical practical question, of course, is whether the possible superior merit of illustrious descent is likely to be actualized in those of noble birth. Adams’ answer was affirmative, but included a distinction between two kinds of merit which may attach to illustrious descent. The highest merit occurs when the original virtues and talents of ancestors are inherited by their descendants because of “birth, nurture, and education.”[67] This excellence, however, is displaced in many noblemen by a second and lesser merit. Most young noblemen learn to support the dignity of their rank, not by cultivating the original excellence of their ancestors, but by developing certain arts of appearance.

As all his works, as all his motions are attended to, he learns a habitual regard to every circumstance of ordinary behavior, and studies to perform all those small duties, with the most exact propriety. As he is conscious how much he is observed, and how much mankind are disposed to favor all his inclinations, he acts, upon the most indifferent occasions, with that freedom and  elegance which the thought of this naturally inspires. His air, his manner, his deportment, all mark that elegant and graceful sense of his own superiority, which those who are born to inferior station can hardly ever arrive at. These are the arts, by which he proposes to make mankind more easily submit to his authority, and to govern their inclinations according to his own pleasure; and in this he is seldom disappointed. These arts, supported by rank and pre-eminence, are, upon ordinary occasions, sufficient to govern the world.[68]

While there is no denying that Adams despised these arts, he did not wholly condemn them, for they are superior to the characteristics which typify the man of wealth. The critical point is that the young nobleman is instructed “to support the dignity of his rank.” Even when his whole glory as a nobleman consists in the “propriety of his ordinary behavior,” his merit still surpasses the “meanness of sentiment and…sordid scramble for money” which characterize the man of wealth. Furthermore, the avarice of the merely wealthy is likely to be accompanied by treachery and cowardice, while the nobleman is “seldom defective” in courage, for he must “be willing to expose himself to some little danger, and to make a campaign, when it happens to be the fashion.”[69] In Adams’ analysis, the defects of merit in the nobleman appear, not when he is compared to the man of business, but when he is measured against the man who must rely solely on the “more important virtues” in order to gain a reputation.

These reflections on the natural basis of distinction had two political implications for Adams. First, since the rise of an influential few in any society is inevitable, a policy aimed against all distinctions of rank is foolish. Adams understood the French National Assembly to be attempting just such a policy, and in the Davila he cautioned Frenchmen that if they continued to be at variance with nature, “the world would soon see which is the most powerful.”[70] But Adams went further: While the rise of an influential few is inevitable, the particular human qualities which are most influential among the few can be affected by politics. Public office is attended by a “complacency and admiration” which is “so sweet and delightful to the human heart” that few can resist its lure. The distribution of offices can therefore be used to increase the influence of some social groups and diminish the weight of others. Specifically, the “wisdom of nations” has noted the relative merit of wealth, noble birth, and reputation and has attempted to distribute political honors to men of talents and noble birth in order to offset the influence of the “selfish, unsocial” men of wealth. This, in fact, was the policy of all Europe prior to the French Revolution, a policy which Adams applauded, though he insisted that it could be improved as an instrument in the defense of liberty.[71]

This is the third essay in a series of four essays. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Political Science Reviewer (Fall 1976).


[46] Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language in which the words are deduced from their Originals, Illustrated in their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, 2 vols. (London: W. Straham for J. and P. Knapton, 1755). The quote is from volume I; neither of the volumes of the folio first edition is paged.

[47] In his Davila essays, Adams relied heavily on Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments. To my knowledge, Adams nowhere discussed his indebtedness to Smith, but his practice in the Davila indicates that for him Smith stood as the single great exception to Adams’ indictment of his predecessors concerning their knowledge of the springs of human action. Others had seen the importance of the passions (see Adams, Works, IV, 408-09), but only Smith had correctly identified and dissected the leading passion of the soul. For Adams’ reliance on Smith, compare Davila discourses VI, VII and especially VIII with Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part I and especially the third section, second chapter of that Part.

Adams’ use of Smith presupposed that “great writer’s” understanding of sympathy as a crucial mechanism in man’s gregariousness. But Adams continued to view moral judgments themselves as made by reason, conscience, or the moral sense, and did not take up Smith’s discussion of sympathy as a way of accounting for moral approbation and disapprobation without positing any separate faculty of moral judgment.

[48] Adams, Works; VI, 239.

[49] Ibid., VI, 239 and 248.

[50] Ibid., VI, 234-35. Compare IV, 392-397. The immediate source of Adams’ distinction was almost certainly James Harrington’s “Oceana.” See The Political Writings of James Harrington, ed. Charles Blitzer (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill Co., 1955), 43-44.

[51] Ibid., VI, 235-40.

[52] Ibid., VI, 241-42 and 253.

[53] Adams-Jefferson Letters, II, 438.

[54] Adams, Works, VI, 253 and 265.

[55] Ibid., IV, 392 and VI, 285-86 and 271-72.

[56] For Adams’ major discussions of the natural aristoi in the Defence and Davila, see Works, IV, 391-97; VI, 239-40, 259-62, and 270-71.

[57] Ibid., IV, 392, 396, and 397.

[58] Ibid. VI, 260. It is presumably this link between reputation and deeds based on the “more important virtues” that occasionally led Adams to equate reputation and merit in his enumeration of the qualities of fortune. See, for instance, ibid., 397.

[59] Ibid., VI, 240; IV, 397; and VI, 261.

[60] Ibid., VI, 237, 248 and 260.

[61] Adams–Jefferson Letters, II, 371 and 352, Adams attempted to correct the false optimism of Jefferson by showing how the various qualities of fortune must be used to induce a semblance of genuine merit. Jefferson hoped that in a republic a natural aristoi of virtue and talents would find its merit spontaneously acknowledged by the many and would therefore be able to exercise leadership without the trappings of the qualities of fortune. Adams saw that, even in the best republic, the most powerful sources of influence are not identical with merit; he therefore pursued the question of which sources of influence are most likely to be connected with merit or to embody a semblance of merit.

[62] Adams, Works, VI, 260, quoting from Adam Smith, Theory, Part I, Section I, Chapter II.

[63] Adams, Works, VI, 248-49.

[64] Ibid., IV, 392 and 396.

[65] Ibid., VI, 271.

[66] Ibid., IV, 394 and 393; VI, 505 and 271.

[67] Ibid., IV, 394.

[68] Ibid., VI, 259.

[69] Ibid., VI, 271 and 260-61.

[70] Ibid., VI, 272.

[71] Ibid., VI, 247,249-51 and 275.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Leave a Reply