Tuesday, June 22, 2010
The public debate about the true religious beliefs of anybody who is no longer around to explain themselves is necessarily messy. As we've learned with Washington et alii, what people have written about their personal beliefs and faith is not enough, nor is a study of life behavior. It's never a "slam dunk," in religion--just as any other thing, knowing what was actually going on in a person's head.
But that is, of course, the most fascinating aspect of a person, really: their inner lives. I cannot speak for anyone but myself, yet when I compare my sort of internal monologue (and the fruits thereof) to the way I present to the external world, I am surprised by the difference.
How thrilling, then, would it be if the historian could obtain a transcript of the inner monologue of his subject? We could know how the subject really felt about everything. Mysteries would dissolve before our eyes. And while a transcript of this sort is, alas, impossible, I would like to consider a closely similar "transcript" of a subject's inner life, viz. his or her reading and study habits. I have no direct evidence for it, but I have a (half-baked at best) hypothesis that the "founding generation" had a "spiritual imperative" to be studious, and that for many of our erudite founders and influential citizens, engaging in a life of study brought them closer to God, experientially, than, say, going to church.
In a very small nutshell, Aristotle's ethics espouse a complete life of activity in accord with virtue. In the closing chapters of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle puts forward his belief that a life of study is essential for a most complete happiness. Such a complete happiness makes a life
"superior to the human level. For someone will live it not insofar as he is a human being, but insofar as he has some divine element in him. And the activity of this divine element is as much superior to the activity in accord with the rest of the virtue as this element is to the compound. Hence, if understanding is something divine in comparison with a human being, so also will the life in accord with understanding be divine in comparison with human life. We ought not to follow the makers of proverbs and 'Think Human, since you are human', or 'Think Mortal, because you are mortal'. Rather, as far as we can, we ought to be pro-immortal and go to all lengths to live a life in accord with our supreme element." (Book X, Ch. VII)
Starting with the most obvious case, Jefferson, we know that he was well-versed in Aristotle's Ethics, and he took most of it to heart. And so I wonder, when Jefferson famously wrote that he "cannot live without books," was he saying it in the same sense that a teenager today might say "I cannot live without a cellphone"? Or, was he being almost more literal, saying that, deprived of books, he would not be able to live a virtuous life? I suspect that is closer to what he meant. I am, shamefully, unaware of how widely read Aristotle's Ethics were among the founders. While I'm sure many were familiar with the general idea, I don't know how many really engaged with the text. But even if they had not read that text, I believe that many had developed similar ideas about learning and study. The connection is obvious, I think. These great men and women grew up in a culture of learning, and discovered early that study made them happy. And my hypothesis is that, in study, some of them consequently felt closer to God. Jefferson does seem to be exhibit A, a man whose appetite for study is legendary. To stand among is books in the Library of Congress was a religious experience for me, as I suspect it was for him standing among them at Monticello. For him, reading was piety and contemplation was ever devout. He could not live without books.