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.