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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Thomas Jefferson's Personal "Pursuit of Happiness" (Part Two)


(Note: This is the second segment in a two part series.

The first segment set forth Jefferson's desire to create the fertile conditions necessary to attain full, unencumbered intellectual and religious freedom of the mind, unconstrained by previous efforts to set authoritative delineation.  Absent these external influences and thus empowered, the mind would exist in a completely and intellectually free state: to master its environment and attain its natural potentialities.  Central was the belief in the improvability of the human mind and the limitless progress of human knowledge...)


What was the primary road block in Jefferson's view to attain full, unencumbered intellectual and religious freedom of the mind?  Did he attack religion, as many have concluded?  Or were his objections confined to religion's propensity to interpose limitations or assume a political character?  Once rid of these issues, could moral sanction be found elsewhere?  Was expert guidance needed?  Did one timeless example stand out?  And what was its foundation?

It can be fairy assumed that the first major obstacle to the freedom of the mind which he perceived was primarily in the sphere of religion and morality and, specifically, the doctrine of supernatural revelation.  Consequently, events which could not be scientifically proven were to be rejected, Jefferson believing that “No hypothesis ought to be maintained if a single phenomenon stands in direct opposition to it.”  Jefferson learned to apply to the Bible and theology the same tests as to secular history and scientific hypotheses, reasoning as follows:
When I was young I was fond of the speculations which seemed to promise some insight into that hidden country, but observing at length that they left me in the same ignorance in which they had found me, I have for very many years ceased to read or think concerning them, and have reposed my head on that pillow of ignorance which a benevolent Creator has made so soft for us, knowing how much we should be forced to use it.

Thus, Jefferson’s only attack on religion was if it assumed a political character, or because it limited the freedom of the mind, upon which the progress of the human species toward happiness depended.  This helped to explain his well known authorship of the Virginia statute for religious freedom.  This statute served as the basis of the right to free religious expression and the separation of religion (church) from government (state) as embodied subsequently by the 1st amendment to the federal US constitution.

Jefferson even went so far as to complete a favorite pet project, highly controversial today as it was then.  He cut out from the Holy Bible’s New Testament all references to miracles, revelation and the slanted opinions of men, which were written later, and in some case much later.  Left were only the words and teachings of Jesus Christ, Jefferson finding them to be “the purest system of morals ever before preached to man.”  He was fully convinced that the “priests” (Protestant as well as Catholic) had “adulterated and sophisticated” the teachings of Jesus for their own selfish purposes.

After he was able to rid himself of these confounding issues, the next main problem was finding adequate moral sanction elsewhere, subjecting his pursuit of happiness only to two significant exceptions.  First, he found “moral sanction in the monitor within every human breast,” and second, he found them “in the laws of nature.”

He looked first to the writings of classic antiquity, mainly the Greek classics, for a body of ethics.  But, he settled on the basic idea that a special moral sense was to be found within an individual’s own breast in the conscience, as truly a part of man’s nature as his sense of sight or hearing, his arm or his leg.  Jefferson thus concluded that “The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader; to pursue them requires not the aid of many counselors.”

But “for ideals of human relationships and universal benevolence, Jefferson looked higher than” both the Greek and Roman classicists.  He perceived in the ethics of Jesus Christ fullness and sublimity on a plane never attained by a classic moralist.  In sum, to one of the most notable champions of freedom and enlightenment in recorded history, happiness was the aim of life, and virtue was its foundation.


-Michael D’Angelo

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