From Adam’s Pen: The Greatest Philosopher

In his majestic biography of John Adams, David McCullough records the following antidote.

Feelings of dejection and bitterness would come and go for a long time. Nearly six months after the return to Quincy, in a letter to Billy Shaw, Adams would allow that if he had it to do over again he would have been a shoemaker. His own father, the man he admired above all, had been a shoemaker. Joseph Bass,the young neighbor who had ridden with Adams to Philadelphia the winter of 1776, was a shoemaker and a familiar figure still in Quincy, as well liked and respected as ever.

Long before, on his rounds of Boston as a young lawyer, Adams had often heard a man with a fine voice singing behind the door of an obscure house. One day, curious to now who “this cheerful mortal” might be, he had knocked at the door, to find a poor shoemaker with a large family living in a single room. Did he find it hard getting by, Adams had asked. “Sometimes,” the man said. Adams ordered a pair of shoes. “I had scarcely got out the door before he began to sing again like a nightingale,” Adams remembered. “Which was the greater philosopher? Epictetus or this shoemaker?” he would ask when telling the story.

Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, had said, among other things, “it is difficulties that show what men are.” (570-571)

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