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Is Fiction Useful? Note on Jefferson’s Letter to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3rd 1771

Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3rd 1771

Jefferson honors a request to create a catalog of books for Skipwith’s library. We find him, strangely enough, defending the value of fiction:

A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?

Fiction is “useful” and “pleasant,” apparently, but why exactly is such a defense necessary? Jefferson imagines a “reverend sage” who has a head full of “Greek and Roman reading” objecting to fiction’s utility.

I can imagine a more scholastic mindset dismissing any need for stories. If there is a natural law, look to nature, not what we make up. That mindset does not conflict with a certain Biblical literalism. The Bible is the truth; who cares if someone wrote something about a princess living in the woods? Still, it is difficult to understand what exactly Jefferson sees as his chief objection from the classics themselves. Perhaps he means the classics as giving us histories and treatises.

If he is talking about tragedies, dialogues, epics, of course, all that stuff is made up. The Republic, which on the surface advances a severe critique of poetry and imitation, is itself a philosophical drama (cf. Book X). For my part, I can imagine Plato and Xenophon saying fiction is useless for the same reasons we would (I am not saying this would be their last word on the subject. Far from it). It isn’t clear what such entertainment produces; the things a body politic needs to survive are material or involve power and order. Jefferson goes on to say fiction aids virtue:

I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with it’s deformity, and conceive an abhorence [sic] of vice.

Um, no. We see and read acts of charity and gratitude, and therefore feel moved to do such things? If this was true, no preacher would have a job. Most of the time we feel better simply because we read or saw something that looked good; we get our moral “high” for the least reason. And when people read of atrocious deeds, no matter how much sarcasm, irony and tragedy might be involved, there’s always some idiot who wants to be a copycat.

I don’t think Jefferson’s reasoning is faulty. I think he’s up to something. The argument that virtue seen or imagined yields more virtue fails. This is not necessarily an indictment of fiction. This is an indictment of anyone who thinks leading by example alone will fix everything. Jefferson follows his comment that fiction helps “fix the principles and practices of virtue” with a causal relation between emotion, habit and action:

Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously.

Jefferson knows Xenophon; he knows better than to argue emotions yield dispositions which yield habits and finally “thinking and acting virtuously.” Xenophon is blunt in the opening of the Memorabilia: one has to actually practice virtue, it’s that simple. One has to remember speeches concerning virtue and act on them and then do this over and over (Memorabilia I.2.23).

Again, though, it isn’t fiction which claims the right emotions create the right mindset which produces right action. That’s actually a claim about culture generally. For example, there are lots of people around me who’ve sworn off cursing and will not hang out with people who curse. One of these days I’ll list all the petty grievances, hatred, and drama these people have fostered. It’s beyond insane how much stupidity and cruelty accompanies illusions of moral purity.

Jefferson does insist on the writer being good at what he does, but I don’t think that’s a key consideration. After all, if he’s defending fiction as useful and pleasant, he has to defend the not-as-useful and not-as-pleasant works. Otherwise, his defense of fiction is only a defense of greatness. He can’t defend greatness, though. The most solid argument in his letter, the one I think he was building up to, is an implicit rejection of greatness:

Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. [my emphasis]

If we work from history alone, we don’t get much to work with. For a man who would eventually build a republic, examples like Caesar aren’t particularly helpful. But he’s one of the biggest names in history. The issue isn’t so much that fiction is useful: it’s more that the alternatives are inadequate.

Jefferson in his letter shares examples of political and personal drama. What stands out is his mention of King Lear and the filial duty he feels it inspires. To be the person you want to be even in the minutest, most everyday sense, you may need to bear witness to someone like you. I think there’s not just an emphasis on the personal here, but on diversity. Not that fiction would call you to something higher, but that it would simply call to you.

Jefferson’s Epitaph, Education and the Enlightenment Republic

Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone | Jefferson’s epitaph and tombstone design – original

A friend asked about the linkage between American government and education: the United States is an Enlightenment country certainly, and we definitely make claims to be a meritocracy. But as any reader of this blog knows, Enlightenment came at the expense of ancient and medieval thought, and the sciences in an almost wholly practical sense can be advanced by commercialism. It isn’t clear that we should have schools, and in fact, education in the law itself – knowledge of how republicanism itself is supposed to work – is left an almost private matter. The structure of our government and the political science it rests on are products of Enlightenment; but what of actually trying to make an enlightened people?

Jefferson’s thought depends on an implicit linkage between freedom and knowledge, with a sentiment not unlike that we get from some more obnoxious atheists today (Jefferson’s phrase: “monkish ignorance”). His epitaph, in its simplicity, accentuates the positive part of this linkage:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia

Right away, you can see that “Author” and “Father” are different roles, two different types of creation. An author looks to be a creator whose work is fixed and final; America declared independence, Virginia established religious freedom. A Father creates also, but there is nothing fixed or final about that enterprise. There’s a progression in the list – we move from declaring independence, to establishing our own law for freedom’s sake, to exploring and perhaps knowledge itself: the New World is perpetually new. Both freedom and knowledge are universal in that they benefit all men, and that is maybe how “Author” and “Father” complement each other: nowadays, we only think of right negatively, what government doesn’t restrict. A “right” for us involves the right to become an alcoholic or curse loudly at public officials. But the truth is that one is only free inasmuch as one can act with knowledge: if you act without knowledge, you usually find some way of hurting yourself only, and it isn’t clear that you have exercised freedom as much as found restraint. “American Independence” and “religious freedom” in Virginia are by themselves pointing to universality, but it looks like “university” is most emphatic on that matter.

Thomas Jefferson to William Ludlow: Monticello, Sept. 6, 1824

I googled Mr. Ludlow several times, but didn’t find anything particularly relevant. If anyone has any information pertinent to these reflections, paste links or references in the comments. The letter below is from here:

Sir –

The idea which you present in your letter of July 30th, of the progress of society from its rudest state to that it has now attained, seems conformable to what may be probably conjectured. Indeed, we have under our eyes tolerable proofs of it. Let a philosophic observer commence a journey from the savages of the Rocky Mountains, eastwardly towards our sea-coast. These he would observe in the earliest stage of association living under no law but that of nature, subscribing and covering themselves with the flesh and skins of wild beasts. He would next find those on our frontiers in the pastoral state, raising domestic animals to supply the defects of hunting. Then succeed our own semi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization, and so in his progress he would meet the gradual shades of improving man until he would reach his, as yet, most improved state in our seaport towns. This, in fact, is equivalent to a survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day. I am eighty-one years of age, born where I now live, in the first range of mountains in the interior of our country. And I have observed this march of civilization advancing from the sea coast, passing over us like a cloud of light, increasing our knowledge and improving our condition, insomuch as that we are at this time more advanced in civilization here than the seaports were when I was a boy. And where this progress will stop no one can say. Barbarism has, in the meantime, been receding before the steady step of amelioration; and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth. You seem to think that this advance has brought on too complicated a state of society, and that we should gain in happiness by treading back our steps a little way. I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. I believe it might be much simplified to the relief of those who maintain it. Your experiment seems to have this in view. A society of seventy families, the number you name, may very possibly be governed as a single family, subsisting on their common industry, and holding all things in common. Some regulators of the family you still must have, and it remains to be seen at what period of your increasing population your simple regulations will cease to be sufficient to preserve order, peace, and justice. The experiment is interesting; I shall not live to see its issue, but I wish it success equal to your hopes, and to yourself and society prosperity and happiness.

My guess – and it is only a guess – is that Jefferson’s later letters have to be read with an eye to their immediate audience. I want to use the above to argue that Jefferson is providing the rudiments of a gentlemanly response to what would be some sort of extremist nowadays, either right-wing (certain homeschoolers) or left-wing (unschoolers, as they like to call themselves). I am going to have to read too much into this letter to make that case, but hey, I’ve got time. Take a look at the end of the first sentence:

…the progress of society from its rudest state to that it has now attained, seems conformable to what may be probably conjectured.

I’ve italicized “may,” “probably” and “conjectured” for an obvious reason: does Jefferson actually believe man progresses in the stages he sets forth? “Tolerable” isn’t a vote of confidence in a “proof,” I don’t think [Jefferson would know a lot about more about the vocabulary of proof than I do, I concede this isn’t the greatest argument of mine]. Still, Jefferson doesn’t say what he puts forth about savages, the pastoral, “our semi-barbarous citizens” and “the most improved state” of man is “self-evident,” not at all. We note that the “most improved state” is closest to Europe! See Jefferson’s Travel Notes for Messrs. Rutledge and Shippen to see why I’m very skeptical about Jefferson’s invocation of an “improved state,” and if you don’t want to look that far, keep looking in the letter. Jefferson places himself in the “interior” of the country, in mountainous terrain; one wonders where the animals that were killed and tamed have disappeared: are they now more prominent within man himself?

Somewhat of the same tension that is in Rousseau’s First Discourse is at work here; man’s more savage self under the law of nature, as bold and admirable as it is, cannot be divorced from “civilization.” Things are a bit ambiguous here too – “cloud of light?” Not light parting clouds? The “cloud” is responsible for “increasing our knowledge and improving our condition,” and it has improved everything, including the mountainous terrain Jefferson says he was born upon. I think the key to this part of the letter is that early Rousseau – and an earlier Jefferson – cite individuals they admire, Francis Bacon and Issac Newton for example, as advancing knowledge. Here, Jefferson has kept the individuals from being named, and given what Ludlow wants to do – start his own tribe [perhaps with its own compound at Waco and a radio show and a heck of a lot of guns] – I think we can understand why Jefferson is giving agency to the “cloud” as opposed to any particular person or group.

Jefferson is truly a gentleman in this letter:

Barbarism has, in the meantime, been receding before the steady step of amelioration; and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth. You seem to think that this advance has brought on too complicated a state of society, and that we should gain in happiness by treading back our steps a little way. I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. I believe it might be much simplified to the relief of those who maintain it. Your experiment seems to have this in view.

Jefferson cites gentleness – “the steady step of amelioration” – as the reason why barbarism has declined. He then cites common ground with Ludlow: people should work and not leech off of others, government should be a bit simpler. But that common ground is a bit misleading; Ludlow’s experiment is conceived entirely in terms of “family,” or “tribe” – I’m sure Jefferson knew Aristotle’s Politics, Book 1, when writing –

…it remains to be seen at what period of your increasing population your simple regulations will cease to be sufficient to preserve order, peace, and justice.

Leo Paul de Alvarez has argued that in Aristotle, the family is necessary for political society (polis), but the polis is in a sense prior to nearly everything: it is the association that aims at the fundamental human good, happiness. In other words: if you try to cut government out of the equation when conceiving of the family, you end up with a family that is nothing but a straight-up tyranny. Don’t ask how many times I’ve seen this personally in my own life: try dating girls that have those sorts of parents.

Anyway, I don’t think I need to express my cynicism about “success equal to your hopes:” it’s a way of saying “you deserve whatever you get,” but I don’t think Jefferson means badly in saying this – you can wish someone “prosperity and happiness” even while being a bit miffed at what they are ultimately aiming for. One thing Jefferson, as a child of the Enlightenment, is pretty sure about is that people need to explicitly accept Enlightenment and progress, otherwise they could be aiming for “monkish ignorance” (his phrase, not mine). And if I were Jefferson, and I was hearing about this retreat from civic affairs when the country is so young, I probably would have thrown fire-irons at a servant or something. What exactly did we go through a war for, and sign that Declaration thingy? So that way everyone could go “government sucks” at any old time and live out in the middle of nowhere?

Again, if I’m right, Jefferson’s being a gentleman. Early on when I was blogging, someone who was pretty knowledgeable and very kind called me a philosopher. If I want to take that compliment seriously – it was meant as high praise – I have to say this: I’m no gentleman; I don’t have to be anywhere as nice to the radicals I’m dealing with now. It’s their job to show all of us they appreciate what we’ve got, and aren’t just a bunch of ungrateful, whiny babies.

Does the Earth belong to the Living? On Jefferson’s Letter to Madison, Sept. 6, 1789

Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Paris September 6, 1789

I think we can see a more radical Jefferson in this letter, one who may have changed in some ways after holding the Presidency, but I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that this letter has a few strange elements I can’t quite put together, and there are many teachers of mine and teachers of my teachers who know how to navigate this far better. Leo Paul de Alvarez used to cite this letter frequently for the sake of contrast with classical thought.

Outline of the letter:

Paragraph 1. Jefferson doesn’t know “by what occasion” this letter came about, although he spends significant portions of it speaking of France, what changes he might like to see there, and matters of property. What is curious about this letter is that it sounds like political theory, but the word “practical” occurs everywhere. “Practicable” is a word which occurs in this paragraph, and seems to have set a standard which brought this letter forth.

Paragraph 2. Jefferson proclaims “Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another” is a question that has “never…been started either on this or our side of the water.” He does not dwell on why this might be the case, i.e. that using language means using an inheritance from the past that binds us in critical ways (cf. Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking”), or that laws must be thought greater than us to be obeyed. He rather claims he can prove “no such obligation can be so transmitted.” His “self-evident” ground is “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” and he begins making this evident by literally talking about the earth, or more precisely, the distribution of land after an individual has passed away:

“…The child, the legatee, or creditor takes it, not by any natural right, but by a law of the society of which they are members, and to which they are subject. Then no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the paiment of debts contracted by him.  For if he could, he might, during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, which would be the reverse of our principle.”

Paragraph 3. Jefferson declares “What is true of every member of the society individually, is true of them all collectively, since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals.” He then starts talking about an ideal generation, one that is born on the same day and dies on the same day, and asserts that when a whole generation dies, a whole society dies.

Paragraph 4.  There is no substantial difference between this “ideal generation” and generations as they occur now. We can use empirical data to track roughly when one generation was born and died, and we arrive at 19 yrs. as the “term beyond which neither the representatives of a nation, nor even the whole nation itself assembled, can validly extend a debt.”

Paragraph 5. It would have been possible for Louis XIV to go into debt so much that the whole of France could have been ceded to creditors in Genoa. Our “self-evident” principle about the earth belonging to the living, along with the expiration of debts every 19 years, allows us to say the French should not be kicked off their land, even with that amount of debt.

Paragraph 6. Our 19 year term makes it clear what one generation is doing to another when they rack up debt – they’re making the future literally pay.

Paragraph 7. “The law of nature” means “one generation is to another as one independent nation to another.” There is no moral obligation to take on the debts of one’s ancestry.

Paragraph 8. France’s national debt has an interest small enough that the payment of the debt is “practicable enough.” But since we’re talking about debts – contracts – wouldn’t the 19 yr. term, if applied, force people to be more rational? Borrowing would be kept within its “natural limits,” and the “spirit of war,” exacerbated by lenders’ inattention “to this law of nature,” would be “bridle[d].”

Paragraph 9. “No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.” The earth, which belongs to the living generation, is managed and goods from it are taken “during their usufruct.” The living are “masters… of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government.” “Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

Paragraph 10. France, at the time of this writing, “most especially” applies the “principle that the earth belongs to the living.” Land is affected, and that in turn affects the holders of the land, and that in turn affects the efficacy of the values those who hold the land have as well as property claims in the future.

Paragraph 11. Jefferson exhorts Madison to talk about this subject as regards “contracting debts.” It would be assailed by some as “theoretical speculation” [yes, that is redundant. The theoretical is speculative by definition in this blog], but if it accompanies the first law on “appropriating the public revenue,” it could prevent European excess and keep despots away. After all, according to Jefferson, giving the power to declare war to the Legislature keeps the Executive in line, unlike so many other countries.  The 19 year term keeps debt and reasoning that would indebt us indefinitely in line, and is more in accordance with reason, as opposed to relying on “English precedent” [which, of course, is where Montesquieu – not exactly an English name – principally argued from].

Paragraph 12. There is no news in this letter, for there has been no occasion.


When I was at Rutgers, what bothered me most was the criminality hiding underneath “we’re all cool, right?” I remember seeing groups of people who had no business being in school pick on others in any way they could: one of the worst examples in my mind was a group of potheads, all failing out of their classes, who were housemates with a friend and got him, through very serious-sounding house meetings with all sorts of thinly veiled threats, to put bills they racked up in his name. They weren’t above stealing anything they wanted, and the only thing differentiating them from people you’ll meet at bars who’d be happy to stab you for five bucks was that they were stoned or playing video games most of the time to get to the bar. I’ve run into the latter sort of “outright criminal” before [boyfriends of exes find newer depths continually], and I always knock on wood before I travel, because I like to explore, and am very susceptible to running into those sorts and being taken in just long enough.

Libertarians and anarchists always irritate me because they don’t take this sort of awfulness seriously. The former would probably go so far as to argue that what I’m calling criminality is some kind of survival trait, and they’re more fit to reproduce. Karl Maurer used to say this wonderful thing in class about how there were people in life that were like “bubbles in the champagne:” without them, it isn’t clear life means a heck of a lot. Somehow I suspect those “bubbles” would find themselves “popped” if anarchism were taken more seriously.

Right now – even though I haven’t worked through the stranger parts of this letter, and I could be very wrong – no less than Thomas Jefferson is irritating me. He employs the difference between “natural right” and the “law of nature:” the failure of “natural right” to “oblige” means that whatever it has to say about justice is useless. The “law of nature” is all that reigns, and the term “natural right” drops out of the letter entirely in favor of “right” simply, as the “law of nature” drops out for the sake of “force.” He understands enough to reduce the political problem to a merely practical one. We recall, of course, that “natural right” properly speaking is the question of whether anything is just independent of our saying so.

He understands, and he reduces, which leads me to think the man who was implicitly carrying out “give me liberty or give me death” in authoring the Declaration may not entirely understand. He may just know the terms for the test, given by his teachers Bacon, Newton, Locke.  Excellent teachers, to be sure.

And yet he assumes he has a oneness of mind with Madison. This I find most strange: if I were Madison, I would have thrown this letter in the trash. Does Jefferson understand at all that property protections are about letting people keep their heritage, be the caretakers of it? The problem with Bourbon France was that it alienated the people from the things dearest to them: the glitz of nobles and clergy took away from genuine pride in the nation, and worse, genuine piety. The reason why religious freedom matters is so that disgraces like St. Bartholomew’s Day cannot happen here: that was not faith, that was savagery.

But this letter may be far more nuanced than I’m letting on. Take note of Jefferson’s use of the term “usufruct” in paragraph 2 [quoted above] . Usufruct means you can do what you like with the goods produced by a property as long as you don’t damage the property. “Natural right” may oblige in less effective but more important ways. In paragraph 9, “they [the living] may manage it [the earth] then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct.” We could be uncharitable and tie Jefferson’s reduction of thematic numerology into empirical science in previous paragraphs to this; we could say that usufruct has been reduced to the power people actually wield – if the property is damaged, after all, they can’t get what they want. But again, the term could have dropped out altogether.

Still, it remains to track the term “justice” in this letter. There’s only “just,” and it occurs in paragraph 8: a “wise and just” nation declares that they cannot contract more debt than they themselves, within their own lifetime, can pay. Nevermind that some nations have had to save the world, and incur enormous burdens doing so: Jefferson’s notion of justice here seems to be the joking one in the Republic, where, when Glaucon gets his city in Book 4, Socrates identifies the guardians with the courageous and the wise, and everyone else with temperance perhaps, and then goes and looks for a class that is just. Since they can’t find a just class, Socrates declares that justice is “minding your own business.”

It is because of men like Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton I can do philosophy, and will continue to do so. The truth is not simple – it is difficult even to accept when found, and pursuit of it creates enormous debts, ones that make our current national debt and economic crisis look very small.

Beyond the 2008 Election: How Do We Create a Better, More Educative Politics?

If you read this blog regularly, you can skip this. It’s a right-wing rant that does cite some interesting passages of Jefferson’s, but the link to the letter is directly below and more worthy of your time. I just feel that some things really need repeating, especially when my political views are in one key way very different from that of any major or minor candidate.

1. Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Banister, Jr: Paris Oct. 15. 1785:

What are the objects of an useful American education? Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish and Italian; Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, Civil history, and Ethics. In Natural philosophy, I mean to include Chemistry and Agriculture, and in Natural history, to include Botany, as well as the other branches of those departments. It is true that the habit of speaking the modern languages, cannot be so well acquired in America; but every other article can be as well acquired at William and Mary college, as at any place in Europe. When college education is done with, and a young man is to prepare himself for public life, he must cast his eyes (for America) either on Law or Physic.

Jefferson writes in 1789 to John Trumbull that he considers “Bacon, Locke and Newton… the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception… having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences.” Jefferson’s emphasis is on thinkers who are solely post-Machiavelli, who in deep ways reject classical/medieval understanding and insight. As we have discussed previously, the Federalist provides no exhortation to being more educated and in fact says that if every one at a meeting were Socrates, they would still bicker like everyone else does and get nothing done unless the meeting had a particular organization and there were incentives to act “better.” Ambition must be made to counter ambition, after all, and it isn’t clear learning changes anything in people.

In sum: I don’t think the American enterprise is terribly serious about education for the sake of getting people ready for public life or engaging deeper questions. Bacon, Newton and Locke had a very specific agenda for democracy, science and commerce. Notice that “public life” in the quote above by Jefferson is being a lawyer or a doctor, i.e. professional schooling that is geared toward private life in actuality. “Classical knowledge” is sufficiently vague as to mean “yeah, here’s some stuff Cicero said once about why politicians should be good people,” nothing about “being” vs. “becoming” and the foundations of religion and whether or not anyone has a natural title to rule.

On a practical level: the problem we have nowadays, where everything thinks they’re patriotic merely by declaring their self-interest loudly and selfishly, stems from an inability to engage deeper human concerns as well as the materialistic basis (nb: “useful”) of the curriculum above described. Notice how far “Ethics” is even from a survey of other religions, let alone a grounding in one religion.

2. One way around the problem of an education not creating an attachment to one’s own country, let alone serving it, is suggested by Jefferson in the letter above. You can just put every other country down:

If he goes to England, he learns drinking, horse racing and boxing. These are the peculiarities of English education. The following circumstances are common to education in that, and the other countries of Europe. He acquires a fondness for European luxury and dissipation, and a contempt for the simplicity of his own country; he is fascinated with the privileges of the European aristocrats, and sees, with abhorrence, the lovely equality which the poor enjoy with the rich, in his own country; he contracts a partiality for aristocracy or monarchy; he forms foreign friendships which will never be useful to him, and loses the season of life for forming in his own country, those friendships, which, of all others, are the most faithful and permanent; he is led by the strongest of all the human passions, into a spirit for female intrigue, destructive of his own and others’ happiness, or a passion for whores, destructive of his health, and, in both cases, learns to consider fidelity to the marriage bed as an ungentlemanly practice, and inconsistent with happiness; he recollects the voluptuary dress and arts of the European women, and pities and despises the chaste affections and simplicity of those of his own country; he retains, through life, a fond recollection, and a hankering after those places, which were the scenes of his first pleasures and of his first connections; he returns to his own country, a foreigner, unacquainted with the practices of domestic economy, necessary to preserve him from ruin, speaking and writing his native tongue as a foreigner, and therefore unqualified to obtain those distinctions, which eloquence of the pen and tongue ensures in a free country…

There you go – if you go to Europe and try to learn there, you come back a traitor, you see poverty where you should see the frugality and virtue necessary for equality.

Of course, one little problem with “attack everyone else and the US will look great” is the US’ flirtation with moral libertarianism of the sort described above. Our moral libertarianism stems from our belief in technological progress and property rights creating a stable capitalist order: these twin beliefs, quite obviously, have not-so-subtle conflicts with a more religious or non-materialist sense of value. No eloquence can command distinction when everyone knows everything already. “Ethics,” “Civil history” and “Classical knowledge” can be twisted any way one likes. Right now, in accordance with popular opinion, “ethics” in medicine doesn’t really bother with how many babies one needs to kill in order to maybe get a cure for a disease. The disease must be cured, all hail our faith in technology. “Civil history” and “classical knowledge” emphasize multicultural themes, a product of our diversity, our extending property rights universally, consistently – not exceptionally – at the expense of the truth. Now there are legitimate reasons for wanting technological progress at nearly any cost, as well as embracing multiculturalism, don’t get me wrong.

But I’d be lying to you if I told you that the academy in the US wasn’t rabidly Leftist; I wish I could be more balanced about this, but I’ve been through it, and I’ve said before the only way we’re going to get a balanced education is to make the various parties in this country educate truly regarding their own ideologies. Yes, that means the Democratic party will have to teach Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Dewey, Rawls explicitly, and I’m all for that. Let the Left see that their thought isn’t Gospel, and certainly not “obvious,” but is nuanced, worthy of contemplation and responds to thoughtful and serious objections on the Right. As it stands now, the academy doesn’t even pretend like the sources of Progressive thought matter, because there is no debate; the emphasis is on media and activism.

3. I think you can see how modern conservatism implicitly accepts and encourages the modern Left: unlike most conservatives, I don’t hold some conspiracy theory that a few Leftist elites changed this country. At every step of the way, conservatives could have stood up for what they believed, but rarely did.

There seems to be a hole in the reasoning among the Founders – they either think the mechanism of the Constitution will keep factions minimized, or that we’ll somehow stay homogeneous enough we won’t hate our country openly (there are plenty on the Left and Right who have serious attachments to other nations, to the point of funding the IRA or Serbian nationalists or Hamas) – and the Right just doesn’t acknowledge this is a problem. In fact, the funny thing about the Right is how it already considers itself educated before it even goes to argue anything. So I hold the only way that this can be fixed is if the Republican party educates, meaning that Jefferson, the Federalist, Lincoln, Churchill, Milton Friedman, etc. need to be studied and critiqued through partisan gatherings. In other words: politics is a 24/7 endeavor that requires some degree of expertise and grounding, not just something junkies do via C-Span and sites like freerepublic.

But even with what I’m proposing, notice: none of the poetry and philosophy covered in this blog have any explicit relevance to the task ahead. All I’m doing with recommending that the parties educate is that those who are political recognize that in some way, they are subordinate to knowledge, that just because they’re part of a winning party declaring something to be right doesn’t mean they’re actually correct about anything. What I hope is that both parties become less fanatical and more deliberative, certainly able to make each other party’s best argument.

The poetry and philosophy still stand above. The trouble with modern politics is that obsessing about mores and rule neglects both what is natural and what is divine. In one way, this is good for politics – it means the limits of politics should be clear. In another way, a politics so fundamentally divorced from higher sorts of knowledge means that the best people never really will rule until it is too late, and that does have tragic consequences.

Thomas Jefferson On the Nature of News

Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, Letter of June 14, 1807

I thought the above letter had some sections worth sharing, so here goes (words in italics are Jefferson’s):

1. I think there does not exist a good elementary work on the organization of society into civil government: I mean a work which presents in one full & comprehensive view the system of principles on which such an organization should be founded, according to the rights of nature. For want of a single work of that character, I should recommend Locke on Government, Sidney, Priestley’s Essay on the first Principles of Government, Chipman’s Principles of Government, & the Federalist. Adding, perhaps, Beccaria on crimes & punishments, because of the demonstrative manner in which he has treated that branch of the subject. If your views of political inquiry go further, to the subjects of money & commerce, Smith’s Wealth of Nations is the best book to be read…

Nature gives rights, and those rights dictate the principles of a proper government. Fine.

So why is there no comprehensive elementary work on the subject? Is it because the “organization of society into civil government” is a bloody, messy, awful affair where anarchism and despotism threaten the existence of society itself at times (think Cromwell’s England, or France during the Reign of Terror. There is a society, but there isn’t much of a government)?

If the “rights of nature,” of course, were so visible, one wonders why one needs to read 5 or more rather large, complicated books to understand them. Jefferson is fully aware of this irony. His advancing of liberalism through the rhetoric of “Natural Rights” is a response to the attempt to find meaning and justification in History. “History,” Jefferson tells us, “in general, only informs us what bad government is.” He goes on to say implicitly*, in this letter, that Hume (who wrote a history of Britain) falls prey to this pessimism, missing the good principles of British gov’t. The “free principles of the English constitution” are what one wants out of studying history, and therefore one wonders whether it is necessary to study any history at all to apprehend those principles.

2. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly [sic] deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle…. Defamation is becoming a necessary of life; insomuch, that a dish of tea in the morning or evening cannot be digested without this stimulant. Even those who do not believe these abominations, still read them with complaisance to their auditors, and instead of the abhorrence & indignation which should fill a virtuous mind, betray a secret pleasure in the possibility that some may believe them, tho they do not themselves.

News and History, of course, are very closely linked. Through “news” myths are made which define history. Although news, because it is concerned with the present, as opposed to history, which is tied to the past, has an added problem. It cannot even reflect specifically on what is bad; all it can do is create and magnify badness. Good news doesn’t sell. Lies and slander do.

Jefferson seems to be saying, on the whole, that some sort of philosophical reflection, a searching for principles and Truth, makes one wise and happy, but an emphasis on man in the past or man’s vileness in the present makes one jaundiced and cruel. The big question is why the mere reporting of events creates such a problem. Why does the want of knowledge of what people have done or what people are doing create wretchedness? Why does the search for a first principle, on the other hand, enlighten and empower?

*One could challenge this reading of the letter by saying that Jefferson appeals to Hume’s twisting of ‘facts’ to make his case against Hume. I have chosen to emphasize Jefferson’s castigating Hume for not respecting the “good principles” of the British gov’t, obviously.

Between Religion and Reason: Equality In Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address

A copy of Jefferson’s First Inaugural is available here. The text is about 1700 words long.


Jefferson introduces a problem and seemingly solves it in the opening. He first says he is afflicted by “anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of [his] powers so justly inspire.” Then he says:

Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties.

We must wonder why, if the first paragraph introduces a problem so easily solved, it is there in this speech at all.

My own suspicion is that the problem the first paragraph introduces is not merely a personal problem. Jefferson claims he is there to “express” thanks and “declare” his consciousness that the task is above him right before he “approaches” that task. He moves from expression of a sentiment to a declaration of knowledge and then to action, except that his action – the approach – is incomplete.

That movement parallels the description of the United States in the same paragraph. The “rising nation” is passive in its richness, more active in the seas it crosses and trade it engages in, but its action is ultimately incomplete too. “Advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye” has an ambiguous antecedent – either Jefferson means that the United States is advancing, or the other nations that “forget right” in their lust for power, or both.

The deeper problem of the First Inaugural is how the United States of America will remain true to itself even as it gets prosperous. Will it descend into despotic empire even as it thinks itself ascending? Will republican rhetoric merely be what it was in Florence prior to Machiavelli, a way for a few thugs to do as they pleased?

The parallel between the man about to become President and the nation itself is reinforced by what he sees. Jefferson sees this nation bound to today – from the present arise its sense of honor, happiness and hopes. “Honor” might be considered that which drives nations to advance “to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye,” but it is Jefferson as speaker who sees America’s honor squarely before him. To that end, the resources that may check any irresponsible imperial ambition the US might feel exist in “wisdom, virtue and zeal” – wisdom supersedes honor, virtue informs happiness, and zeal is what is required to make hopes actual.

But those are only the “resources.” Something has to give those resources form to make them effective.

The Second Paragraph

The deliberation antecedent to the election parallels the problem of the President in his fear before the office, and therefore the problem of the nation’s success. The only difference is that speaking and writing thoughtfully has been resolved into a voice (note “called” in the 1st paragraph), a voice that can be oppressive but was made legitimate and can stay legitimate as long as it respects “equal rights.”

The difference, then, is that there is no “approach.” The popular will has spoken and is legitimate. There is a chance for a just unity now that has not been seen before.

Before, religion attempted to unify people, but it was intolerant. It did not recognize that people wanted “liberty,” and so the countries still tied to this model of unity do indeed export something back to the United States – an “agitation of the billows” that can threaten our peace.

People differ on how we can be safe from this in the United States. Should we emphasize our own liberty (“republicans”), or should we place emphasis on unity (“federalists”)? “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle” – the end is the same, and even the means have something in common: they are being expressed reasonably, and it is clear that unity and liberty are essential to the preservation of the other via reason.

The second paragraph then moves from religion (and the problem of intolerance) to liberty (defined as a debate over security) to reason (fostered by the law). The law encourages people to think and make decisions for themselves – in giving us this private good, it thus encourages us to “fly” to its “standard.” It might be possible to have someone wholly reasonable rule and dictate perfect laws, but that would be the rule of angels who were kings, and the disunity of what is divine and human is Jefferson’s point.

In the third paragraph, a list of nine items is presented to us. The US is “separated by nature and a wide ocean” from one warring part of the earth, its citizens are “too high-minded” to worry about others’ insults, and it is a country with ample room, a “chosen” country. These first three items describe opportunity, and what it takes to realize one has an opportunity.

“A due sense of equal right to the use of… faculties, to the acquisitions of… industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow citizens:” these next three items describe making use of opportunity. One uses the same discipline in keeping presence of mind for the sake acquiring to make sure one does not lose reputation in the sight of others. The virtues that drive acquisition ultimately make man social in a good way: merit is a more expansive concept than birth, as it asks man to act, not merely be.

What ties opportunity and action together at the moral level is religion. Religion moves man from “honesty” to the “love of man” through “temperance.” Moderation involves self-knowledge, and when one knows and is happy with oneself, one is grateful. A trust in Providence means that one need not be fearful of the future, and that there are actual benefits in this life is a sign that there is a world to come where things can be truly better.

All government does, for Jefferson, is stay “wise and frugal.” It prevents people from exercising the opportunity to injure another, it allows for acquisition of all sorts, and it protects what people earn so that they may be confident in the future. Government therefore mirrors weakly the list of nine – the public is a shadow of the private.

The Fourth Paragraph and Conclusion

Jefferson gives a list of sixteen items this time, which illustrate a “general principle” that is “essential” to the government. We find that every fourth item unifies each group of four in the list: “the preservation of the general government in its whole constitutional vigor” means “equal and exact justice to all men,” and that all nations are treated equally, and all states. “Supremacy of the civil over the military authority” means that in a country where the citizens “fly to the standard of the law” that the majority through rightful election is itself defending the country by governing it. “The diffusion of information” means that all matters of management and policy can be trusted to be brought before the people – commerce and spending and debt require secrets and result in complications, though. Agriculture reaps benefits of virtue and obvious goods (and obvious costs) that make deliberation far easier. Finally, jury trials mean that the judgment of any group of us, we being sufficiently informed and humane, is a manifestation of the justice of God.

The speech winds down with Jefferson pleading forgiveness for his own proneness to error and his full confidence that the job of President alone with precedent already established will “be instrumental to the happiness and freedom of all.” He seems to see in Constitutional form alone equality. There is no pretension, as he is already ready to resign the office if he does not retain the “good opinion of those who have bestowed it in advance.”

It concludes with a movement from “obedience to… work [given],” to sensibility, and then to counsel led to by the Infinite Power. This movement is more explicitly from the religious instinct (humility and fear) to the rational. The “sensibility” is that there may be something better at a given moment. It is a passion that is affirming, uniting of the self, and not dismissing one side of man for the other without cause. The question of equality has always been the question of justice, and to speak of one is to invoke the other as sacred.

Dreaming in America

Note: What follows is from a while ago. I will be posting older stuff here more often, as I want to transfer all my writings to one place, and have backup copies. This trip actually happened; it was the second trip I took that summer, and it was a learning experience, as you can see below.

Dreaming in America (1st draft)
Ashok Karra

For Joshua Rocks, without whom this would not be possible.

At Gettysburg the sun shone through the treetops and formed what seemed to be a mist of light hanging in the air between earth and sky. I walked on what must have been blood-soaked earth once, before the blood was turned into mere matter and became earth itself. At “The Angle,” for example, Pickett’s Charge broke through the Union lines despite being battered by artillery. One knows that hundreds of people were shooting and knifing each other and trying to blow each other away with cannon all in the space of a few feet, atop some grass and dirt that people were now talking and smiling and wondering on.

There was another space of a few feet at Gettysburg, where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. And I wonder if the soldiers there could ever understand what a “new birth of freedom” was, and whether their lack of understanding makes their sacrifice worthless. Does anyone understand Lincoln’s thought on freedom? That the rhetoric of the Declaration[1] cannot be assumed to be true or even reasoned to be true? That it must be believed true, believed with all the fervor of the most religious?

The light still hung in the air when I left Gettysburg in the summer heat and took the car into Virginia, driving until night came. There a slender waitress with dark hair and delicate features thought I was gay. There a cheap hotel put its filthiness on display.

Monticello stood on a hill hidden by trees and yet had some of the best views of the Shenandoah. Jefferson’s design had to be gotten to by a path similar to the winding road I had taken up Little Round Top,[2] where trees cascaded down the slope like a waterfall and surrounded my little car, filtering out sunlight as they wanted. Inside there were books and inventions and skylights, and one didn’t pay attention to the light falling from above really, because there were gorgeous gardens and open spaces that made one wonder if this was the home of an American or some European gentleman.

Jefferson’s tombstone declares that he is the writer of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Statute of Religious Freedom for the State of Virginia, and the founder of the University of Virginia. Would European gentlemen be so committed to Enlightenment at the expense of religion? Would they really think all men can be free, that all men can educate themselves?

Later I arrived at Memphis, where the blues I heard at night were subpar, but the girls were cute. Alas, they were too drunk and boring to even hold a slight conversation with. The city was filled with panhandlers and drunks.

Graceland’s power came in spite of the fact that it had a color scheme not unlike a lava lamp. The tackiness of the 60’s and 70’s was on display everywhere – there was a carpet on the ceiling, a waterfall in room, a room with 3 TV sets and yellow and blue cushions – but it wasn’t that tacky, not as tacky as it could have been.

They give you an audio tour of Elvis’ mansion, and you hear clips of the The King speaking and singing. He sounds like a grown man even at 18. For all his gaudiness, whatever he wants to do he does well. He reads – yes, they’re cultish New Age books mixing Biblical fundamentalism with sci fi – but he takes notes on what he reads, and doesn’t seem to keep more books than he can handle. He has 2 8th-degree blackbelts in 2 separate forms of martial arts. On display is his Army uniform, and an award he received from the city of Memphis for philanthropic giving. The checks are for massive amounts of money.

I wonder if Elvis’ decline stems from the same thing that made him rise. So much of Graceland is clearly meant for his parents. He had money and fame and lived the American dream – that thing which results from the freedom Lincoln and Jefferson talk so eloquently about. But is freedom and some spirituality enough to be able to take on the pressures of celebrity and wealth? Is it enough to even be able to confront life generally?

Nowadays I think a lot about those soldiers at Gettysburg, the ones that didn’t know why they were out there, the ones that lost limbs and lives and friends and saw and made Hell on Earth, all because of freedom. The ones that stood together and died but did not achieve any sort of immortality like individuals such as Lincoln, Jefferson or even Elvis. This earth is ours now, ours to try and tend to, ours to misunderstand and fail in too. Light and water fall from the sky or hang in the air or even come from the ground, and I never would have paid attention to any of those elements surrounding me if it weren’t for the fact a friend accompanied and aided me this whole trip, doing so merely because I asked, a friend who took on an obligation – a restriction of his freedom, technically – just because he could.

[1] “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

[2] At Gettysburg, the North repulsed assaults by the South here that would have probably resulted in a Southern rout of the North.

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Is Politics Reducible to Rhetoric?

The following is only a summary (with some purposely loaded comments) of an aspect of Leo Strauss’ essay “On Aristotle’s Politics,” found in The City and Man, pg. 17-24

Machiavelli held that it was possible for tyrannical power to come about from a “deep knowledge of political things.” The conclusion of the essay on Macbeth shows that perhaps one reason we have an awful politics is that we may have traded our capacity to love in order to become experts in politics, each and every one of us. Too many cooks spoil the brew, as they say. The sophists Aristotle engages disagree mightily with this, for what government does day-to-day anyway is actually done and the knowledge is available handily. What is more difficult is to get power or persuade others to do your bidding. Thus rhetoric becomes, for them, the supreme political art.

I hold that Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, in thinking Washington is a spin machine that is able to dictate how we conceive issues through a passive media, think the sophistic conclusion, but not for the reasons the Sophists held exactly. They seem to think that in a democracy, the tasks with which government is charged can be fulfilled efficiently as long as people participate and are looking for the best solution. In other words, while the sophists dismiss the most practical workings in order to romanticize speech’s power, Colbert and Stewart see the improper use of speech as an impediment to progress, and probably see the properly functioning day-to-day operations as characteristic of progress.

To be even more blunt: the Sophists are shrewder than Colbert and Stewart. The Sophists know as long as there are people, “truth” alone will not be enough, that the political is far more than trains running on time. To use speech well unlocks the imagination: if politics is reducible to rhetoric, then politics could be the sphere where the highest uses of reason are present. The classical understanding, where the city tells us which gods are authoritative, minces no words about this. Our understanding, where we really believe we have separation of church and state (does the decline in religious belief have anything to do with the power of the state, even, or especially when, the state declares itself the advocate of freedom), well.

Against the Sophists, Aristotle argues that while a type of reason, tied to progress, is certainly characteristic of the highest functionings of any given art, it cannot be characteristic of law, for law’s “efficacy” comes from the fact that it is defended by a passion stemming from the ancestral. Old laws are obeyed, not new ones. Jefferson’s proposal to have a revolution every 19 years makes sense given that every generation will feel itself a founding generation: it does not make sense, though, in that it is an attempt of the new to mimic the old, and such an attempt has failure written into it – an actual revolution, every generation? That defeats the point of making laws. What if one generation got the laws right? Politics doesn’t change unless we change completely.

So once we see that “law” could be reasonable, but is really tied to passion in its being and consisting (a law is effective inasmuch as it keeps fiercer passions at bay), we can see one problem with politics being reducible to rhetoric: the assumption, in rhetoric, is that everyone can be persuaded. But everyone cannot be persuaded: that’s why laws exist in the first place (again, the political innocence of Stewart and Colbert should be noted here. Note the difference between “policy” and “law,” and what the word “policy” covers up).

The deliberative function of government isn’t a cute irony when contrasted with the nature of law, for such considerations run deeper. It is brute strength which allows us to survive to some extent. People had to fight and plow fields in order for the city to exist. Aristotle, in speaking of the best polity, allows for the possibility of intelligent men to be slaves to mere brutes, as if intelligence were only an aid to increasing strength which already exists. Plato seems to consider strength a “natural title to rule” (if you’re a feminist, note that to say classical thought is gender discrimination is a narrowing of the problem. The problem is whether any one should be intelligent, whether all intelligence could be is the pain that one is unfree). It should be noted – again, see the essay on Macbeth, linked above – that all of modern science (which allows, at its height, for predictive claims), esp. in this democratic age, is an increasing of power, the use of intelligence for the sake of strength only.

Against the fact of survival, reason needs to be reconceived as more than intelligence, if there is to be anything higher for man. But such considerations, of course, will pull us farther away from the political and law. So again, rhetoric does involve a supreme power, as the Sophists noted. In fact, it is so supreme that it is beyond this world and cannot be used to control others simply. For one needs to actually understand something in order to be controlled, and political considerations, even in this Enlightened age, always start from the fewest assumptions possible.

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