Saturday, August 14, 2010

Plato's Noble Lie?

In accord with the discussion about Leo Strauss and Platos's Noble Lie in the comments section of my last post, I thought I would produce this quote by Thomas Jefferson:


"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?"


My question is did Jefferson really believe that rights came from God or was he only concerned that the people believed this "myth" to preserve an ordered society?

34 comments:

jimmiraybob said...

What's the context of the quote? Where's it come from? Who was he writing to? Was he using language to appeal to his intended audience or was he revealing something about himself?

King of Ireland said...

JRB,

I am not sure to all of the above other than it was a letter I think. Tom has used this quote a few times he might know. I do not want to get too deep into it I was just curious what others thought about his sincerity in light of the conversation in the other post.

Brian said...

I thought I'd be the one to dig a bit this time.

King's quote is from Jefferson's only full length book, "Notes on the State of Virginia", chapter 18, Manners.

Wikipedia says:

Notes on the State of Virginia was a book written by Thomas Jefferson. Originally written in 1781, it was subsequently updated and enlarged in 1782-83, and anonymously published in Paris in a limited, private edition of a few hundred copies in 1784... It was the only full-length book by Jefferson published during his lifetime... Notes on the State of Virginia collects the answers that Jefferson prepared for questions posed to Jefferson about Virginia by François Barbé-Marbois then Secretary of the French legation in Philadelphia.

And more:

two different chapters, called "Queries," present Jefferson's hostility to slavery (Query XVIII, "Manners") and his tortured attempts to explain and justify American chattel slavery, by reference to what he called "the real distinctions which nature has made" between people of Caucasian descent and people of African descent (Query XIV, "Laws").

There's the context. We did see Thomas Paine blatantly pander to his religious audience in Common Sense, and I wouldn't put it past any politician to talk the religious talk. But going back to TvD's question about Natural Law without God, is it possible that Jefferson simply equated "nature's God" with the unseen order we all are aware of?

King of Ireland said...

"is it possible that Jefferson simply equated "nature's God" with the unseen order we all are aware of?"

Good point about Paine. Tom did a post on it a while back. Jefferson most certainly could have been doing the same thing in regards to pandering. I do find it odd that he uses some of the more conservative arguments for regime change in the DOI, that seem to be Christian in origin, and later says things like a revolution should happen every 20 years?

With that said, in response to your question I quoted above, I will be doing a series of posts on Gary Amos and his arguments that the DOI is infused with Christian thought.

I think for our purposes the ideas of Jefferson articulated are more germane than his personal views. If he did pull a Paine then that give a lot of credence to the powerful Christian influence on what Jefferson called the "American Mind" at the time.

My gut is that in some ways he was pandering but in others he was sincere. He went to the trouble to write his own Bible. I think he seriously thought about a lot of the questions we ask talk about here. At least that is my take.

Thanks for looking all that up. I hope people have picked up on the fact that many of my posts are generated by what the interests of the commenters here seem to be. In other words, a lot of this stuff is written knowing you guys will fill in the blanks.

Brian said...

and I wouldn't put it past any politician to talk the religious talk

Well, that statement didn't add anything. Better to say that it doesn't feel like Jefferson was as cynical or opportunistic as Paine, while he still wasn't talking about exactly the same thing that people were hearing him say.

King of Ireland said...

Also in regards to the unseen order you bring up, I think it is important to note that there is a huge difference between the Greek idea of God being nature and the Judeo/Muslim/Christian idea of God being apart from nature.

It is the latter concept of God that seemed to be universal at the founding. I would say even with the Deists.


In other words, that unseen order was created by and subordinate to God. I would say it was Jehovah of the Bible as well.

King of Ireland said...

"Well, that statement didn't add anything. Better to say that it doesn't feel like Jefferson was as cynical or opportunistic as Paine, while he still wasn't talking about exactly the same thing that people were hearing him say."

I think it did add something and was a good point. I agree with your assessment in that I do not think he was as bad as Paine.

Brian said...

Also in regards to the unseen order you bring up, I think it is important to note that there is a huge difference between the Greek idea of God being nature and the Judeo/Muslim/Christian idea of God being apart from nature.

I was specifically thinking of our common innate sense of right and wrong. I obviously don't know what TJ was really thinking. What I do know is that you can appeal to the innate sense using God language even if you've fallen back to the Greek view.

Tom Van Dyke said...

For the record, as a "materialist," Jefferson wrote to his nephew Peter Carr that

Moral Philosophy. I think it lost time to attend lectures on this branch. He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, and not the to kalon [beautiful], truth, &c., as fanciful writers have imagined.


His anti-metaphysical "innate moral sense" extends only to what man needs to live with other men, one that today's modern science indicates, but requires no metaphysics.

His modern critics think he was just posturing with most of his God-talk [or anti-slavery talk!], as in this passage.

I don't find Jefferson particularly helpful in the larger context of the Founding, except when he "exoterically" agrees with prevailing sentiments. More on that below, since I already wrote and tagged it...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Locke, as an empiricist, and in accord with his "Essay on Human Understanding," can't embrace it either, since man is a "blank slate." In fact, he makes a rather elegant argument in "Reasonableness of Christianity" that there's no "law written on the human heart," so the Gospel is necessary.

Here's a scorecard on this stuff. It appears to me that the Scottish Common Sense Enlightenment's view is normative at the founding, perhaps Francis Hutcheson passed along through James Witherspoon, the teacher of Founders.

And of course the Christian natural law theory via Romans 2 is where the term a "law written on the human heart" comes from.

The scandalous resolution forwarded by David Hume (1739-40) was that moral values and judgments were social constructions anyway. Anything that is pleasurable, Hume argued, people will judge "virtuous" and anything that is painful, they will call "vice". Consequently, we need not worry about the corruption of morals by capitalism. Private moral judgments will evolve with it.

Hume's hedonistic solution was turned upside down by Francis Hutcheson (1725, 1755), who argued that virtue yields pleasure because it conforms to our natural and innate "moral sense", while vice yields pain because it is unnatural. As a result, Hutcheson came up with the utilitarian ethical precepts that the height of virtue was achieving the "greatest good for the greatest number". Adam Smith (1759) attempted to reconcile the Hume and Hutcheson positions via the artifice of "natural sympathy" and the "impartial spectator".


The amazing thing about the Founding era is that all the ideas we kick around today were in play, and usually with much more simplicity and clarity than the academic mumbo-jumbo we get today.

[It seems to me natural law can work even without an innate moral sense, as long as there is a desire in man to "do the right thing,"---a direction, a telos---and he uses his reason toward finding the right thing. In my view, this reconciles Locke's ambivalence and occasional incoherance about natural law, which sometimes he still is forced to lean on.]

Pinky said...

KOI asks if Jefferson really believed if "rights came from God".

The quotation you give, KOI, is pretty straight forward about what Jefferson believed. Here's the statement again, Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?.

Jefferson is very clear here about what he believes. It is that the "only firm basis" for the "liberties of a nation" to be "thought secure" is the "conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God" and that the security of those liberties is further buttressed by the people's belief that to violate them will bring about God's wrath


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So, basically, he is saying that what matters here is the convictions people hold in their minds--nothing else. It is that the redemption of society is other worldly as far as the "people" are concerned.
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It doesn't say much for you and me.
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King of Ireland said...

""So, basically, he is saying that what matters here is the convictions people hold in their minds--nothing else"


Maybe but there are numerous other quotes from him on God. Your interepretation is valid though and I was thinking of you when I posted this.

Tom Van Dyke said...

While it's true that a "conviction in the minds of the people"---a shared ethos---is necessary as a practical matter, the full quote shows Jefferson at his most religious---"supernatural interference!"

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. -- But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

King of Ireland said...

Tom,

I found my Amos book finally and was reading his chapter on Locke just last night. He says, and has quotes it seems to back up, that Locke did believe in an intuitive reason that was God given at Creation ala Romans 2. What he says about blank slate is discursive reason which is mans ability to create and solve problems.

He says that all the confusion is that Locke is not always clear which type of reason he is talking about.


With that said, if you could produce something where Locke denies Romans 2 and the law written on the heart then he would be wrong.

As for me, I am beginning to understand the arguments here enough from the philosophical point of view to apply the theological. Amos, at first glance seems correct and traces much of what Locke wrote to Hooker and other Christian influences.

He says, and I agree, that most people that write on this topic do not understand the theology enough to classify the ideas as Christian or not. We see that he was right about the use of "resistance theory" in the DOI and its long Christian tradition. We need to hash through many of his other points and see if the rest of what he says holds water.

I am writing a post as we speak about Amos and some of his more general arguments to lay the groundwork for discussions like the one you bring up.

In short, he was right on about the interposition thing so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on these others things.

The thing about him is that he read Locke for himself not what others said about him.

King of Ireland said...

Tom,

If Jefferson was pandering he did it convincingy. Thanks for the rest of the quote. Amos says that Locke used the term "Supreme Judge" in reference to the story in Judges 11. He maintains that Jefferson borrowed the term from him. Thus, Supreme Judge is actually referencing a story in the Bible where a man asks God to judge between him and his enemies that day.

Judging by Jefferson's quote, it would seem that he certainly believed in this concept and that God had the power to intervene. I think it is clear that this was the prevailing sense at the founding that they had lost their case with the King and were appealing to a higher court.

Pinky said...

.
'tis sweet to be remembered.
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jimmiraybob said...

I’ve considered this quote before – it is infamous and has not always been presented fully as it is here (often an ellipse replaces “, a conviction in the minds of the people”). I’ve looked at the “Manners” section before and find it difficult. However, here’s my stab.

Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia was written as a response to the secretary of the French legation to the United States in Philadelphia, François Barbé-Marbois. It might be supposed that two of the questions were, "What of the manners of the people of Virginia/America in light of the institution of slavery? What is the future of slavery in America?"

On the subject of the institution of slavery, Jefferson was somewhat scathing,

“It is difficult to determine on the standard by which the manners of a nation may be tried, whether catholic, or particular [Protestant sect?]. It is more difficult for a native to bring to that standard the manners of his own nation, familiarized to him by habit. There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.”

And what are the effects on the free citizens?

“The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae [love of one’s country] of the other.”


[cont below]

jimmiraybob said...

Jefferson is not boasting about slavery’s influence on the good society but railing against it – slavery tramples on the rights of those held in slavery, transforms half the citizenry to despots, breeds civil division and erodes the patriot cause. He had to assume, since his response was in book form, that not only the secretary, but the world AND the pro-slavery contingent in America, especially Virginians, would be reading the book. Since the anti-slavery and the pro-slavery contingents often used Biblical reference and appeal to the God of Abraham as the giver of laws and rights, it’s only natural to assume that any appeal against slavery would take on the hue of the general argument.

I think that the quote in question is a literary tactic. First Jefferson argues that the institution of slavery destroys not just the moral fabric of society but its industriousness and then he poses the question of God’s wrath.

“For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when [I] reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!”

But then he continues, “The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

Is Jefferson saying that The Almighty cannot decide the issue of slavery in America? After all, the Bible and appeals to God’s word/wrath were used to justify both slavery (probably correctly) and non-slavery with no civil resolution on the horizon.

But what of secular initiatives? Jefferson, “-- But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil.”

Is he also saying that the issue is un-resolvable period? I don’t think so. I think that he’s saying that deliberations were and would be intemperate. Jefferson laments, “We must be contented to hope they [considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil] will force their way into every one's mind.” [Against personal preferences and self interest?]

And then he states an empirical observation and an appeal, “I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.”

The bottom line appears to be that Jefferson believes that eventually, reason (considerations) in the areas of policy, morals, and natural and civil history (and in light of the principles of the revolution), rather than only appeals to or belief in God’s wrath, could set the new nation free of the devastating peculiar institution. Of course if that route didn’t work there was always extirpation of the masters. (Can you say, shot across the bow?)

Brian said...

Indeed I tremble for my country when [I] reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!”

Contra Tom, the more I read this, the more it sounds like cynical pandering!

But then he continues, “The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

Is Jefferson saying that The Almighty cannot decide the issue of slavery in America?


No - he says the Almighty could not take their side because they had slaves.

Brian said...

I hasten to add - it's quite easy to interpret the words of others in bad faith. I simply am aware of the possibility that TJ was pandering to religious sentiment.

King of Ireland said...

"Is Jefferson saying that The Almighty cannot decide the issue of slavery in America?

No - he says the Almighty could not take their side because they had slaves."


I agree with Brian. I think he clearly is saying that God condemns slavery. I also think he could be accused of pandering since he owned slaves.

I think Stauss is on to something here in how he reads history. But I agree with Tom that all that matters in the end is what they tell us about the American mind in the end.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jefferson's critics charge he was always pandering. I don't really trust him, and don't really care what he thought. When he got it right and the people agreed, that has historical importance. But I wouldn't give you two cents for TJ the man.

jimmiraybob said...

Brian - "No - he says the Almighty could not take their side because they had slaves.

But I get the sense that Jefferson's "us" refers to the nation as a whole and not just to one side or another (slave holder or not slave holder), since he makes explicit reference to "the nation" in the preceding sentence.

If he was refering to the slaveholder side of the contest only, then this would make some sense - telling the slaveholder that their appeals to Biblical authority were in vain since the Almighty had no attributes to support that side. But this seems to lead only to dualing appeals to authority which isn't very intellectually satisfying. Not very Jeffersonian in light of his constistant appeal to informed reason as a basis for decission making.

As to Jefferson's critics accussing him of always pandering, our current president's critics accuse him of being Hitler reincarnate and the Anti Christ as well as always pandering. That's what critics do. Not a very intellectualy satisfying case.

jimmiraybob said...

Hey, speaking of democracy and enfranchisement, here's a perspective.

Ironically enough, it comes from a diabolical papist speaking on behalf of the Anti Christ, Whore of Babylon*.

*not my thoughts but the prevailing majority ethos of the Revolution.

Did I mention irony? This is why an informed and reasonable discussion of the minutea of the Revolution is warranted, even in small enclaves, and why religion was more than a passing thought during the founding.

I'm thinking Barton and Driesbach would differ with this perspective. As well they should. And I could find myself in alliance with them until they got to the point that they start advocating that America should be a neo Hebrew Christian Republic instead of a benevolent Catholic dictatorship.

Can't we all just share the road?

Pinky said...

.
That is what happens when people come to the docket with their own special agenda.
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Rather than support a liberal education for everyone in a publicly funded educational system, they push for the appointment of a benevolent dictator to rule society--one that supports their agenda. They don't want a godless socialism in their society.
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Harumph!
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jimmiraybob said...

Pinky,

I'm not completely convinced that the video isn't an elaborate satire but the other posted videos seem to make a consistent case that is isn't.

Patrick Buchanan has made very similar statements and I'm not convinced he was kidding. I don't doubt that it's representative of at least a fringe thinking.

Pinky said...

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I've heard the same sentiment hundreds of times from persons quite close to me.
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King of Ireland said...

"And I could find myself in alliance with them until they got to the point that they start advocating that America should be a neo Hebrew Christian Republic instead of a benevolent Catholic dictatorship.

Can't we all just share the road?"


I think many misunderstand what they are saying and set up a straw man argument to defeat them. I am in the middle of a post on Gary Amos and what I feel is the general evangelical Christian America argument. I do not think that you and Amos will disagree much. Maybe we can share the road if both sides stop slinging mud and mislabeling the ideas of the other side.

I think there are some rabid atheist secularists that would seek to eradicate God from society and rabid dominionists that would seek to establish a nation on Hebrew law in its strict sense. The thing is that both a an extreme minority. The problem is that neither side believes that!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Of realcatholictv.com, the source of that YouTube video:

While thoroughly approving many of the fine videos made available through this site, CatholicCulture.org recommends caution for two reasons: An apparent animus against the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, contrary to the clear mind of the Church; and a tendency to over-simply complex cultural, ecclesiastical and theological problems, leading sometimes to the assertion of mere opinion as the "real Catholic" position.

Thus those who disagree find their Catholicism put in question.
---http://www.catholicculture.org


So let's try to stay out of the tall weeds, fringes, and fever swamps, pls folks.

And yes, of course America was founded as anti-Catholic, but really more anti-papist per Protestantism, the rejection of ecclesiastical authority. They felt almost the same way about the Church of England installing bishops in America.

As we know GWash helped chill the anti-Catholic talk, which is how we got France to win the damn war for us.

The nativist, anti-immigrant anti-Catholicism of the Know Nothings came much later, for its own reasons.

Pinky said...

;\

Sorry to barge in here.

Can anyone give me the link to the Michael Voris video in which he is claiming the need for a change in the way we elect our officials?

It was on Vortex and I have been trying to find it off and on all day.

You help would be appreciated. Believe you me.

bpabbott said...

Phi are you looking for the video "Why We Should Replace Democracy with Christian Dictator"?

No offense to anyone, but this guy is disturbed.

bpabbott said...

Oppps, "Phi" -> "Phil"

Pinky said...

.
Yes, that's it.

Thank you.
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King of Ireland said...

Ben,

If that is what he is advocating he surely is.