A Farewell to All My Greatness!
The Scottish philosopher and writer, Thomas Carlyle, was once scolded at a dinner party for incessantly chattering about books. A fellow diner exclaimed, “Ideas, Mr. Carlyle, ideas, nothing but ideas!”
To which Carlyle replied, ‘There once was a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas! The second edition was bound in the skins of those who laughed at the first.”
To say it plainly, ideas have consequences! Indubitably, our nation’s founders knew this.
In particular, and perhaps surprisingly, one idea they shared with Nietzsche was an “ordered society puts the passions to sleep.” Contrary to Nietzsche’s feelings about the matter, however, they believed that was mostly a good thing.
That the passions and liberties of mankind are to be held in tension for a society to prosper is a perennial idea.
In an essay to the citizens of New York, later titled “Federalist Paper 2,” John Jay asserted “it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it [a national government] is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.”
Clearly Lockean in language, he was synthesizing and mediating social contract theory with Plato’s doctrine of the healthy soul, that it is “brought to its best nature,” when it acquires “moderation and justice accompanied by prudence.”
The philosophers and the founders understood that too far in one direction or the other—unbridled liberty allows the passions to rule; too much government and true liberty is jeopardized—and the Union would fragment in revolution, giving place to anarchy, and finally to tyranny.
In the minds of the Federalists, a national government would serve the states the way the moral law and convention (the mores) serve the souls of men. Laws should do equal justice in protecting the freedoms of a country’s citizens, while simultaneously cultivating an ethos that curb the unbridled appetites of the demos.
Thus, the founders believed as it was true of the Greek poleis, so it was true of the States: regimes are merely the soul of its citizens writ large! And the then-soon-to-be-formed American Republic would be the soul of the sovereign States writ larger.
Nearly 100 years later, in his “Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield,” Lincoln expressed his grave concern over the soul of the Nation. He lamented its “disregard for the law which prevades (sic) the country.” He spoke of “the wild and furious passions [of the people],” who “in lieu of the sober judgement of Courts (sic) …” took it upon themselves to determine what justice looked like.
He saw the unbridled passions of the people in conflict with the noetic wisdom the country’s laws. Further, he knew that if it were allowed to continue, “this Government [the United States] cannot last.”
In the concluding remarks of John Jay’s previously-mentioned essay, he seems to anticipate Lincoln’s fears by writing, “…I sincerely wish that it may be clearly foreseen by every good Citizen, that whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives, America will have reason to exclaim in the words of the Poet, ‘A farewell, a long farewell, to all my greatness.’”
It wasn’t if the dissolution of the Union arrives, but whenever it arrives.
With his own pen, Jay echoed the tragic words of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey from Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” who at the pinnacle of his own political demise, a demise caused by the unbridled and flamboyant passions of his own soul, no less, cried out
So farewell—to the little good you bear me.
Farewell? a long farewell to all my greatness!
This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes, to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honors thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls as I do.
 Wiker, Benjamin. 10 Books That Screwed Up the World and 5 Others that Didn’t Help, (2008), Regnery Publishing, p. 1-2
 Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Walter Kaufmann. The Portable Nietzsche With New Bibliographies. Harmondsworth, Middlesex [u.a.: Penguin Books, 1976, p. 93
 Hamilton, Alexander. The Federalist Papers. New York: Bantam, 1982, p. 9
 Bloom, Allan David. The Republic of Plato. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books, 1991, 591b
 Lincoln, Abraham, and Andrew Delbanco. The Portable Abraham Lincoln. Bicentennial ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2009, p. 18
 ibid, p. 21
 Shakespeare, William. “King Henry VIII.” Act 3, Scene 2. In The Complete Works. New York: Gramercy Books, 1975, p. 693
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He shares valuable tips on writing and teaching, rich insights into theology and literature, and meaningful perspective on living a life of significance. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.
Subscribe for free, and get Write Like A Human, a resource that will teach you C.S. Lewis’s “secret sauce” for excellent writing. Plus, I’ll send you updates directly to your inbox every time I post.
Comments Policy: Comments that are relevant and add value to the conversation are encouraged, even if they express disagreement with the topic or the writer. All comments must be free from gross profanity, or otherwise distasteful language (at moderator’s discretion), and accompanied by a valid first name and email address (all anonymous comments are blocked).