I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and 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
There’s an idea in every generation that it can be the last that will have to fight a great evil. This John Adams quote captures it perfectly: we will fight so that our children and grandchildren won’t have to.
John Adams’ generation probably thought that in fighting the American Revolution it could grant peace and prosperity to its children and grandchildren. Likewise, our own grandparents’ “Greatest Generation” thought that it could ensure a future of peace and prosperity through the struggle of the Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War.
What both generations experienced was certainly formative for them, and their victories were net positives for the world. As the saying goes, “hard times make hard men, and hard men make good times.” It’s less clear that the good times they created were inheritable: “good times make soft men, and soft men make hard times.”
The American Revolution didn’t stop the Civil War, and World War II couldn’t stop the rise of all kinds of evil in our modern world. There are still monsters to slay, and the experience of fighting evil, overcoming challenge, and restoring order is one of the most important human tasks. Every generation must experience this. Whether the fight is military, intellectual, technological, or philanthropic, it has to come for every generation. A generation deprived of a clear struggle is a generation that never really grows up and never really reaches it potential.
As hard as a fight can be, it’s not the kind of thing we should deny that our kids and grandkids.The idea that we can do the fighting and then have the generations to follow “call it a day” is wrong. If anything, we should hope that they will be able to fight bigger and more important battles than those we fight now.
This may be depressing. It is nice to think that after a great struggle that some peace and ease could be had for a while. And it can be. But the peace we give to the generations that follow isn’t meant to excuse them from their fight. All we can give them is time to be ready to be the kind of people who can fight well.