Jefferson, an Epicurean? (Presidents’ Day Special, Part 1)

Readers outside the United States are likely not aware that, while tomorrow is officially “Washington’s Birthday” (a national holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February, a day on which George Washington’s actual birthday — February 22 (new style) — cannot ever fall), it now tends to be known as “Presidents’ Day.” Those puzzled by the ambiguity of what Americans are supposed to be celebrating this Monday (a group that likely includes a large number of Americans) can learn more than anyone needs to know from the article on the topic available in Prologue, the journal of the National Archives.

Had I attempted my own explanation, it would likely have veered off into a discussion of the continuing resistance in the legislatures of certain states — which once voted reliably Democratic, but now vote reliably Republican — to celebrating the birthday of the savior of the Union and first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln (whose birthday falls on February 12; another date which will occur on the third Monday in February). At first glance, the bargain that seems to have been struck is that we get to honor Lincoln with a national holiday only as part of a package deal that includes such decidedly lesser lights as Warren G. Harding, Millard Filmore, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, etc. (the list stretches onward and onward, reminding us that the principi who have guided this republic include a staggering number of mediocrities). C&C But, of course, whatever bargains there are to be found on Presidents’ Day lie in the sphere of commerce, rather than civic life, confirming once again the explanatory power of the graffiti at the right, from the 2007 Venice Biennalle. Suffice it to say that the true meaning of Presidents’ Birthday lies in its seeming to be the day when advertisers are convinced that Americans are eager to buy automobiles.

But I can still pretend that Presidents’ Day has something to do with Presidents and mark the occasion with two separate posts: this one is devoted to the aspiring philosophe Thomas Jefferson. The next one will honor the only American President to struggle with the task of rendering German texts into English: John Quincy Adams.

Jefferson Among the Antients

A recent episode of the BBC podcast In Our Time opened with Melvyn Bragg quoting Jefferson’s characterization of “the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus” as having contained “every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece & Rome have left us.” These lines appear in Jefferson’s letter to William Short of October 31, 1819, a text that reminds us, once again, of the gulf between Jefferson’s understanding of “antient” philosophy and the way we now teach the canon (why is it that, whenever I hear the word “canon,” I think about buying a revolver?).

Jefferson’s praise of Epicurean doctrines move on to a defense of Epicurus against those who maligned him before indulging in a bit of Plato bashing, reminding us that despite Jefferson’s many failings as man and thinker, he had good taste in philosophy.

Epictetus indeed has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of their doctrines dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. 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. The merit of his philosophy is in the beauties of his style. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms, uncomprehensible 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. These they furthered blasphemously on him whom they claimed as their founder, but who would disarm them, with the indignation which their caricatures of his religion so justly excite. Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but on the Memorabilia of Xenophon. For Plato makes him one of his Collocurtors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name; a liberty of which we are told Socrates honestly complained.

He grants that Seneca “is indeed a fine moralist,” but notes that though Seneca offers “on the whole a great deal of sound and practical morality,” even he winds up “disfiguring his work at times with some Stoicisms and affecting too much of antithesis and point.”

Jefferson’s affection for Epicurus was long-standing. The letter to Short includes a “syllabus” of Epicurus’ principal doctrines that Jefferson had written some two decades earlier. If the Google’s Ngram can be trusted (and, when we’re dealing with texts from this period, there is every reason not to trust it), Jefferson drew up the syllabus in the wake of a sudden Epicurean sell-off:Epicurus
But latter-day friends of Epicurus are used to sailing into the wind: attacks of the sort that Jefferson mounted against Epicurus’ calumniators are a standard trope in the literature. For one example, see Tobias Smollet’s comments in a review of Enfield’s History of Philosophy in the Critical Review for 1792 (pp. 146-150).

It is, as always, worth remembering that, since the nGram presents with a very small number of cases, the massive drop in references to Epicurus likely amount to little more than a minor swerve. That Epicurus has long played a secondary role in what would become “the tradition” becomes obvious once we expand the company of ancients to include the two big boys.


But why stop with Plato and Aristotle? There is one other name that looms large in Jefferson’s letter to Short, a figure who, some may recall, was also cited by the nation’s 43rd President (and third “George”) as his “favorite philosopher”:

Jesus added

While Jefferson found it necessary to defend Epicurus from his enemies, he was convinced that Jesus required rescue from his false friends.

But the greatest of all the Reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by it’s [sic] lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dung hill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man’s [sic] outlines which it is lamentable he had not live to fill up. Epictetus & Epricurus give us laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties & charities we owe to others. The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this good benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from misconstructions of his words by his pretended votaries artificial systems*, invented by Ultra-Christian sects, unauthorised by a single word ever uttered by him is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestly has successfully devoted his labors and learning, it would in times it is to be hoped effect a quiet euthanasia of the heretics of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason and so generally & deeply afflicted mankind. But this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.


*e.g. the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection & visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election orders of Hierarchy etc.

Jefferson, a Christian?

However unlikely it might seem, the coupling of Epicurus and Jesus was also a long-standing feature of Jefferson’s moral philosophy. It turns up in his letter to Benjamin Rush of April 21, 1803, a letter which was accompanied by yet another “syllabus,” this one summarizing the views of ancient philosophers, Jewish moral teachings, and Jesus. The syllabus’s discussion of Jesus laments the fact that, unlike Socrates and Epictetus, he lacked “a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him” and proceeds to explain that this fact, when coupled with Jesus’s early death, meant that the “doctrines which he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, & often unintelligible” (not the least of Jefferson’s quirks as a Christologist is his view of the crucifixion as an unfortunate interruption of Jesus’ promising early work in the area of moral philosophy).

None of this, of course, has prevented the pious and careless from attempting to claim Jefferson as one of their own. A case in point is the evangelical minister David Barton, whose book on Jefferson was withdrawn by its publisher last year after it was determined that it took liberties with facts that, even in these factually-challenged times, went too far. In any case, ventures like Barton’s face a tough climb: the quotations that are most useful for the cause of the faithful typically lie in the middle of mine fields. Consider this passage from Jefferson’s letter to Rush:

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.

As the footnote in the letter to Short suggests, what Jefferson understood as the “genuine precepts of Jesus” diverged as markedly from what most Christians would understand as Christianity as what Gotthold Ephraim Lessing characterized as the “religion of Christ” different from what he called the “Christian religion.”

But Jefferson’s dogged persistence in constructing these peculiar syllabi in which Jesus fills out the lacunae in Epicurus’s system also presents a few stumbling blocks for those who are inclined to see the sage of Monticello as a card-carrying member of the Party of Humanity (though, granted, his ownership of enslaved Africans ought to have caused even greater problems). It is as if his career was an attempt to confirm Louis de Bonald’s definition of a deist as “a man who has not had time to become an atheist.” If only Jefferson had stopped with those syllabi — perhaps then he’d have had the time?

What makes Jefferson’s scribblings on moral philosophy valuable for students of the Enlightenment is that they remind us how various “enlightenment” was in the decades on either side of 1800. As I’ve suggested in earlier posts, because the concept remained in play it was still possible to find thinkers who some might be inclined to see as members of the “counter-Enlightenment” who continue to see themselves as defenders of “true enlightenment.” Jefferson reminds us that this works the other way as well: a fair number of the thinkers who we are inclined to recruit into the ranks of “the Enlightenment” remained wedded to launching excursions into territory that we now see as irredeemably “religious.” After a certain point, the lines would harden and the positions became more clearly defined: the enlightened would beat a retreat from religion (but got to keep Epicurus); in return, the religious stopped talking about “true enlightenment” (and took exclusive possession of Jesus).

An imperfect, but suggestive, indicator of what was happening can be seen by tracing the fate of the phrase “wahre Aufklärung [true Enlightenment]”:

Wahre Aufklärung

I’m skeptical as to what precisely the Ngram is picking up (though a sampling of the texts from around 1790 suggests that it may be grabbing precisely what I’m expecting it to) and I would feel a lot more comfortable if I could replicate these results with “true Enlightenment” (or, for that matter, “true enlightenment?) — as we will see in the case of John Quincy Adams, the terminology tends to differ in English. But, if nothing else, possible explanations for what would seem to be the long decline of wahre Aufklärung might be worth pondering — if only as a diversion while shopping for a new car. As for me, I plan to spend the day thinking about that strange and wonderful man John Quincy Adams.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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1 Response to Jefferson, an Epicurean? (Presidents’ Day Special, Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Liberty, Freedom, and nGrams! (A Patriots’ Day Special) | Persistent Enlightenment

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