Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Divine Experience

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.


Phil Johnson said...

An excellent meditation on putting the Founders in the context of their personal life experiences.
It's probably about as close as we'll ever get to know the truth about any of them.
Thanks for the posting.

arfi said...

nice post.
I think we can conclude that when the people learn the science harder and harder, they will be nearer with the god indirectly..

Mark D. said...

"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."

Sadly, even with Aristotle's help, Jefferson was unable to live a virtuous life.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hmmm, Mark. I was gonna write something else in support of the the original post, but you touched on something that's been heavily on my mind lately.

Martin Heidegger, perhaps the most brilliant philosophical mind of the 20th century, was not just a member of the Nazi Party, but a strong supporter in helping it carry out its agenda.

And Jefferson, so lost in his abstractions ["The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants"], supported and assisted the French Revolution even as wiser men like John Adams and Edmund Burke suspected that it would lead to horror and terror.

Jefferson is often put forth as the Founding's greatest philosopher and abstract thinker.

But Heidegger's a Nazi and Bob's your uncle. There's something defective about man's "reason" and Adams and Burke---and James Madison---knew it.

Unknown said...


I think Jefferson turned against it when he saw where it was going though. At least according to "The Age of Federalism" by Stanley Elkins.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jefferson apologized to Adams for supporting the French Revolution after they both retired. It was a you were right, I was wrong kinda thing. I've been meaning to look it up in their letters, but I care less and less about Jefferson the more I read his own bullshit in his own words.

He wrote the D of I, although Franklin and the Continental Congress had to straighten it out.

He had 2 goodly terms as president, but his presidency was more statesmanlike and competent than philosophical or ideological.

That's TJeff. Once he became president, he mostly parked his ideology at the door. I guess that's why he left it off his gravestone, but his 2 terms as president is why we have a Jefferson Memorial and not a John or Samuel Adams or James Wilson memorial.

Or even a James Madison Memorial. Think about that one...

eli said...

I have an acquaintance who once said to me "We are all more or less wrong about everything".

It's an obvious truth that we all forget when it's convenient. Usually it's more convenient when we're talking about other people.

Maybe it's fair to call Jefferson despicable for his hypocrisy - in fact I've only really thought about it because of what's said here. I vastly prefer his politics to Hamilton's. Jefferson may have been personally detestable. Hamilton brought a curse on us all. But it's hard to come out of the cave and see it.

Josh Hoisington said...

Well, see, I'm not really talking about politics here or, indeed, if Jefferson actually lived a virtuous life, few of us do. And I only called him out because of his famous affection for study and books. What I wanted to explore was not Jefferson's--or anyone's--actions, but what made them tick internally, or spiritually, if you will. And particularly, I'm interested in how and if the less-orthodox de- and theists experienced the divine, or what they thought of as the divine. Was it more than an intellectual exercise for them? Certain sects today seem to rely on fairly emotional worship to feel some sort of personal closeness to God. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison--none of these men strike me as the type that would attempt to experience divinity that way. So, the question is: how would they do it, if at all? And my tentative answer is, some of them studied, influenced by pagan, Aristotelian thought.

eli said...

I think everyone understood what you were going at - it's just more fun to get political and rant a bit.

Anyway. Your comment does call to mind the similiar difference between Jewish and Christian worship. This may be a bit broad, but: To the Jew, study is worship. To the Christian, worship is puff piece devotional books (emotional) and easy listening pop worship music (emotional). I live and work and go to church with the Christians, so it's no use telling me this isn't mostly true, at least among the evangelical types.

Tom Van Dyke said...

This was precisely the attitude of educated types who looked down their noses at the "enthusiasms" of the two Great Awakenings. They saw religion as more an intellectual exercise than anything.

The question arises if such an attitude sustains belief, or a church. It didn't work for the unitarians, for instance.

Is this an artificial dualism [between mind and body]?

After all, David of the Torah was the man most after G-d's own heart, yes? He sang, he danced.

Phil Johnson said...

For what it's worth: