Monday, December 22, 2008

Jefferson vs. Plato

If one is searching for the causes of today’s moral crisis, it is the premises of giants one should examine, not those of midgets. One should begin with Plato and graduate to his contemporary champions.

Thomas Jefferson the political philosopher is to be heeded more than is Jefferson the moral philosopher. The best thinkers of his time could not imagine a morality based on egoism and self-interest, except if it solely meant deriving personal pleasure or satisfaction from performing altruistic actions. Nor could he imagine it, even though he was intellectually acute enough to articulate the necessity of individual rights and of a government instituted to protect them.

Given the virtual monopoly that Christianity and altruism in his time exercised over the whole realm of morality, a morality of individualism could not be validated without discarding a millennium of mysticism, altruism and self-sacrifice. It was not just the doctrine and ubiquity of Christian morality that proved an insuperable barrier; I believe it was a psychological barrier, as well. Those barriers were non-existent to novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, who did perform the feat. In political philosophy, Jefferson was a radical; in moral philosophy, he was as confused as the best of his intellectual peers, resulting in his expressing not so much a conventional position on God, morality, and social relationships, as an eclectic one.

And, today, it is the moral philosophy of altruism, allied with its companion political philosophy of collectivism, that is responsible for erasing or nullifying the political philosophy of reason and capitalism bequeathed to us by giants such as Jefferson. We have also inherited their errors. This fact is no more evident than the recent presidential election. One candidate, John McCain, admired trust-busting, nature-worshipping Teddy Roosevelt and portrayed himself as his successor; Barack Obama admires Franklin D. Roosevelt, the consummate welfare-statist and hopes to emulate his policies on an even vaster scale. To the candidates, and to the news media, the Founders and their ideas were absolutely invisible.

On that note, I was startled to encounter a letter by Jefferson to John Adams (July 5, 1814) in which he criticized not only Plato but his advocates in and out of academe. Recounting his return from Poplar Forest, his other home in Virginia, he writes:

“Having more leisure there than here [Monticello] for reading, I amused myself with reading Plato’s republic. I am wrong however in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. While wading through the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? How the soi-disant Christian world indeed should have done it, is a piece of historical curiosity.”

Further on, Jefferson chides Plato‘s uncritical admirers:

“With the Moderns, I think, it is rather a matter of fashion and authority. Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and the dreams of Plato. They give the tone while at school, and few, in their after-years, have occasion to revise their college opinions. But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities, and incomprehensibilities, and what remains?”*

In this and in other letters, Jefferson is mercilessly censorious of Plato and especially of his defenders, those who in the 18th century and up to this day conferred upon the Greek the laurels of eternal wisdom and indeed the status of sainthood.

“In truth, he is one of the race of genuine Sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly by the adoption and incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen thro’ a mist, can be defined neither in form or dimension. Yet this which should have consigned him to early oblivion really procured him immortality of fame and reverence.”

Jefferson then makes a tentative connection between Plato’s doctrines and those of Christianity, but does not pursue it beyond some criticisms of the Church. He criticizes the established Church (and by implication, most organized churches) but does not delve very deeply into why theologians found Plato’s thoughts attractive and useful. He does not explore the possibility that perhaps it was Platonism that gave substance to Christian doctrine and made possible Christianity.

“The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ leveled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment to their order, and introduce it to profit, power and preeminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.”

That is a fair distillation and indictment of the history of the Catholic Church, and of all sects and denominations that followed its de-politicization in Europe and the various violent and pacific schisms before, during and after the Enlightenment. In contradistinction to Plato’s view of man, Jefferson concurred with Aristotle’s eudaimonia, or the rational pursuit of happiness by men, entailing integrity, courage, and honesty, and including non-sacrificial friendships.

I do not pretend to be a Biblical scholar, but my own readings on the history of Christianity (which only lately included Christopher Hitchens and his company of literary atheists) led me to conclude that the Bible was a work-in-progress for about one and a half millennia, with unknown, tongue-in-cheek theologians cadging elements from Judaism and Greek mythology, embellishing the life of Christ in The Gospels by adding the Virgin Birth, miracles, the Resurrection, and so on, episodes that defied epistemology and metaphysics. Jefferson was a man who credited the evidence of his senses to comprehend reality, and despised clerics who brow-beat their congregations into belief and obedience with hocus-pocus sermons on the unknowability of God and his purposes, except through unreasoning faith. Rationality has always been an unwelcome auditor of any established creed or religion.

The homilies of Jesus, he is saying, easily understood by the common mind -- and which one could accept or reject without much argument -- did not require a priesthood or an organization to propagate them. Professional mystics, being confidence men, could not profit by exploiting mere homilies. They had to fabricate an elaborate, reason-resistant system of mysticism, and of whose ‘secrets” and “mysteries” they were the Platonic “guardians,“ thus guaranteeing their constant employment by the unthinking, the credulous and the gullible. So they borrowed liberally from Plato and Judaism (and perhaps from a few other semi-rational Greek thinkers) to weave an impenetrable doctrine. They turned simple “faith” into a spiritual pyramid scheme -- into “nonsense that can never be explained.”

Jefferson might have added in his letter to Adams that Christian priests and theologians projected God, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, the Trinity, and angels, among other extrasensory manifestations, as “semblances of objects,” half-seen through the mists of doctrine, and were things that existed in another dimension as manifestations of Plato’s “Forms.”

It is interesting to note also that Islam, over a period of centuries, as it was congealing into a rigid, no-questions-permitted theology (and one far less “Sophisticated” than Christianity), borrowed liberally from Judaism, the Greeks, from Christian doctrines, and doubtless from whatever pagan creeds Mohammed’s warrior/missionaries wiped out in Arabia. From where I sit, Islam retained Jehovah or Yahweh, the unpredictable, psychopathic deity of the Hebrew and Christian Old Testament (at the time, very likely the only Testament), and redubbed him Allah. The Koran and other associated Islamic holy texts underwent much the same ad libitum evolution as the Bible, with Mohammed‘s life subjected to the same grandiose and incredible embellishment as Christ‘s. The historical Christ promulgated pacifism and universal “love” and “tolerance’: the historical Mohammed was a career butcher who demanded universal submission to Islam.

I mention Islam here only because it is as much a nemesis now as is Western-style statism or collectivism. But, I digress. What is the relationship between Platonism and modern politics, or more specifically, between Platonism and tyranny? Why didn’t Jefferson see that relationship? Because, when it came to that branch of inquiry, he was not radical. As he could not imagine a morality based on a non-altruistic, rational selfishness, he could not imagine one that did not include God. Here are some of his remarks on the “moral sense” in a letter to Thomas Law of June 1814:

“If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” **

What that foundation might have been tested Jefferson’s reasoning, and he failed. He resorted to citing what others equally wrong had said, such as French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius’s contention that a “moral sense” of the altruistic good could be inculcated in all men through education.

Interestingly, in that same letter, Jefferson dwells on egoism.

“Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, objection requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue, leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others…..” [Italics Jefferson’s]

Again, it required a mind, specifically, Ayn Rand’s, that was not shackled by altruism , nor a prisoner of intrinsicism, nor hobbled by logical fallacies to assert that selfishness indeed must be a virtue if men are to own their own lives and live free of duty to others. Jefferson never denied, and neither did his intellectual mentor, John Locke, that men owned their own lives, but, like Locke, he left unchallenged the implication that selflessness and self-sacrifice were the “natural,” intrinsic, or “instinctual” enemies of egoism, bestowed on men by God, and thus were ineffaceably “moral.”

Why could not Jefferson have detected his own errors? Because he was as much a victim of his unchecked premises as anyone else of his time. He was Aristotelian in his politics, but not in his morality. Leonard Peikoff, in The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (1982), gives the best explanation:

“The tragedy of the West…lies in the fact that the seeds of Platonism had been firmly embedded in philosophy almost from its beginning, and had been growing steadily through the post-Renaissance period. Thus, while the revolutionary achievements inspired by Aristotelianism were reshaping the life of the West, an intellectual counterrevolution was at work, gradually gaining momentum. A succession of thinkers was striving to reverse the Aristotelian trend and to resurrect the basic principles of Platonism.”***

Peikoff then explicates Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and moves on to Georg W.F. Hegel (1770-1830). As he demonstrates so clearly, Kant developed his philosophy in order to save religion from the Enlightenment; Hegel, his successor, developed his in order to advocate the State as God and save it from freedom. And whether one is discussing Plato, Kant or Hegel, the connection between the notion that the State is all, and the notion that individuals are interchangeable manqués and subsumed under the State who owe their existence and allegiance to it, is one which Jefferson and his peers could not make. Their altruistic premises, combined with their intrinsic ones, confounded their most earnest inquiries.

A search of Jefferson’s published papers does not indicate that he was even aware of Kant or Hegel. There are no references to either of them in the correspondence between him and John Adams, nor in that between Jefferson and any of his other correspondents. Doubtless Kant’s Critiques were discussed in the many French salons frequented by Jefferson and Adams in France during and after America’s fight for independence, but I have been unable to find even a passing reference to them. It took a generation or so for Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophies to infiltrate and ultimately corrupt Western philosophical inquiry and become so firmly embedded, so their ignorance of Kant and Hegel is understandable.

In conclusion, and without gainsaying Jefferson’s other achievements, the Aristotelian in him may have held contempt for Plato, but in the end he was unable to refute him.

*The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (1959), pp. 430-434. In his reply, Adams concurs with Jefferson’s estimate of Plato, and is even more voluble in his criticism, seeing Plato as an original and premier enemy of liberty and property.
**Jefferson: Writings, The Library of America, “The Moral Sense,“ p. 1335-1339.
***Chapter 2, “The Totalitarian Universe,“ p. 23.


Melinda G said...

Typo Alert:

"I believe it was a psychological barrier, was (s/b "as") well."

Anonymous said...

Will correct.

Ed the Proofreader needy.

Damien said...

Just to let you guys know, I commented on this same_article over at the Infidel Bloggers Alliance.

Anonymous said...


This was one of your best posts. The subject of the Founder's philosophical errors is a fascinating one. I hope more Objectivists turn their attention to it in the future.

But I would like to draw your attention to some works on the subject of the historicity of Jesus. This has been a subject I have always had an interest in. Whether or not Jesus was a real person is a highly debated point and, as you would guess, Christian apologists of every variety will fight to the end to say that he was a real man and a real God.

But there are a group of critical scholars that have, in my opinion, utterly destroyed the idea of a historical Jesus and made an extremely convincing argument that Jesus was originally a mythic tradition, one of many in the ancient world, revolving around a savior son who would redeem a sinful people and lead them to a perfect world at the end of days. These ideas were everywhere in the Greco-Roman-Near Eastern world. But the reality was Jesus was not a real man who was a preacher and had a ministry. He was a commonly held decentralized legend figure that eventually became controlled by the Catholic Church and its Platonistic philosophers.

There are great authors to read on this subject and they are not Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris who both concede the historicity of Christ. If you are interested, I will recommend three principal scholars whose works are both fascinating and revolutionary. They are Earl Doherty, Robert Price and G.A. Wells. They differ in some of the details but they all agree that there was not a historical Jesus and that Jesus and the rest of the New Testament was a work of literature created most likely by the Gospel author we know as Mark (as he was the first).

All of the books of these men are great reads but if I had to recommend just one then it would be Earl Doherty's 'The Jesus Puzzle'. You will never look at Jesus and Christianity the same way again after reading that book. If you read all the books by these men, then you will often feel a sense of pure shock and disgust that Christianity, which is nothing more than a storybook, came to dominate the West in the way it does as it was literally cobbled together from countless different traditions of the ancient world. Its nothing more than a composite of the worst elements of ancient thought.

Lastly, all these authors make interesting comments that mythic embellishment is a very common phenomenon. It seems that the same process of creating a founder tradition applied in the case of the Spartan Lycurgus, the Chinese Confucius, and possibly even Mohammed.

I can't recommend these sources enough for anyone interested in the beginnings of Christianity.


Doug said...

Fascinating post Ed!

Do you know if Jefferson ever wrote any explicit commentaries on the political works of Aristotle? If so, do you know what Jefferson had to say and where one can find his writings on this topic?

While we are recommending books on the history of Christianity, if you are interested, Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind is a fascinating intellectual history of early Christianity. Specifically, he goes into how St. Paul produced interpretations of various accounts of Jesus (e.g., Jesus was the son of God; Jesus died for our sins, etc.) as well as how Saint Augustine synthesized St. Paul's clutter of interpretations with Platonism to get Christianity, an early systemic religious philosophy. I highly recommend this book!

shahnawaz said...

one of your best articles ever.without presumptuousness, i would say i would have said the same things you said,only i wish i could write like you.
three cheers for great ed.thank you

Anonymous said...

Doug asked: "Do you know if Jefferson ever wrote any explicit commentaries on the political works of Aristotle? If so, do you know what Jefferson had to say and where one can find his writings on this topic?"

No, except for passing comments in reply to other correspondents' remarks, Jefferson never wrote a paper or letter devoted exclusively to Aristotle. I do however recommend the two Jefferson titles mentioned in the endnotes of the article. One thing I might have commented on was that if Jefferson found Plato's whimsies and puerialities taxing his reason, reading anything by Kant or Hegel would have had him tossing the book out the window.

Anonymous noted: "But I would like to draw your attention to some works on the subject of the historicity of Jesus. This has been a subject I have always had an interest in. Whether or not Jesus was a real person is a highly debated point and, as you would guess, Christian apologists of every variety will fight to the end to say that he was a real man and a real God."

I know there is a debate going on among believers and non-believers over whether or not Christ was an actual historical person. I tend to believe, with no hard evidence to back it up, that he was an actual person, and probably not the only "prophet" or "messiah" to have appeared in that period of Roman history, and that if he was actually crucified (and that practice of the Romans has been definitely confirmed), Christ was likely not the only one to suffer that fate for preaching resistence against Roman rule or blasphemy against Jewish customs and beliefs or whatever else the Roman government would have treated as treason or rebellion. If he was an actual person, then the Church "fathers" simply chose him from among a list of candidates on which to promulgate and agitate for the new religion and around whom to weave a myth. I'll try to find a copy of Doherty's "Jesus Puzzle" and read it on your recommendation.

Ed Cline

C. August said...

Jefferson's open contempt for the "sophisms, futilities, and incomprehensibilities" of Plato was quite interesting to read about. And it made me wonder...

Did Aristotle feel the same way about the "foggy mind" of his teacher?

Anonymous said...

"I tend to believe, with no hard evidence to back it up, that he was an actual person..."

I used to think that too until I read Doherty, Price and Wells. I can't really do justice to the overwhelming evidence to support the arguments that there was no historical Jesus. I feel that this has the potential to become mainstream thought if the culture should ever become more rational. I feel that the mythical Christ theory is entirely in line with Rand's epistemology. This really means that Christianity was created from whole cloth from the start. This makes Christianity the biggest con game ever played on the human race.

"I'll try to find a copy of Doherty's "Jesus Puzzle" and read it on your recommendation."

If this subject really interests you, I am very confident you won't be disappointed. Doherty has a web site loaded with material. Here is the link:



Anonymous said...


I commented on this post over at the page at this location.

I'd be very interested to hear your opinions on Epicurus.


Anonymous said...

Dear Epicurus Champion:

Have read your comments on the other blog site. I don't know that much about Epicurus, and perhaps what you say about him is true, but I'd need to read up more on his life and philosophy.


Anonymous said...

C. August asked: "Did Aristotle feel the same way about the "foggy mind" of his teacher?"

Perhaps Aristotle had some "negative" comments on his mentor, Plato. I regard his work, however, as his answer to Plato, and that was his way of contradicting Plato's "foggy mind" and seeing things through mists. Remember that much of Aristotle's work has been lost or destroyed. Perhaps there was a treatise he wrote that directly answered Plato.


Epicurus Champion said...

Ed -

I hope you will read up on Epicurus. And don't take my word for it -- take Thomas Jefferson's from his William Short letter:

"Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention."


Brian said...

I have not been a regular reader of this blog but now it's at the top of my list. Excellent work!

Bad Horse said...

Very interesting!

Re. "it required a mind... that was not shackled by altruism... to assert that selfishness indeed must be a virtue if men are to own their own lives and live free of duty to others."

It didn't require anything except a mind that could read Plato and Aristotle, since both of them argued that virtue was, in fact, selfish. Both insisted that "the good" was a single category, and that there could be no separate category of "good for the individual". This is collectivist, but it isn't altruistic. That which was good for the community, they argued, was always the same as that which was good for the individual.

(You can see echoes of this today in the frantic efforts of evolutionary biologists to deny the reality of group selection, and to insist instead that selection at a single level produces all morality.)

The founding myth of ancient Greek civilization was the Iliad, and the Iliad is about the question of altruism. In it, the Achaeans have the forces to overpower the Trojans, who stole Helen, but they can't do it because they keep fighting among themselves over the women they stole from the Trojans. The basic question of the Iliad is: How can we get enough men together to keep other men from stealing our women (and to steal their women), without fighting among ourselves over women?

The answer the Iliad gives is unique among ancient myths: It relies on selfishness. Achilles learns to sacrifice his own life, not out of altruism, but out of self-interest, because eternal glory is better than long life.

Greek civilization, according to this myth, is built on the belief that some things are eternal, because only by holding out an eternal reward could they convince selfish men to cooperate. This paved the way for Plato and Christianity.