Jefferson Reframed

Builders and Destroyers

The perception of the hero has changed in modern American culture. Today, we seem to want heroes we perceive to be acting radically from their own volition, free of tradition, rather than from anything like a traditional value, such as valor, morality, or patriotism. Talk about the heroic first responders of 9/11 today tends to focus on the “choice” they made to go up the stairs while everyone else was frantically scurrying down. United Blood Services exclaims, “Find the hero in you!” Donating blood is a very worthy choice, but is it heroic? Those who clamored for so-called “marriage equality” are now hailed as heroes, further emptying another important word in the English lexicon of anything like meaning. Modern American heroes do not act within a tradition, they do not seek to build civilization. Heroes today seem to be those who serve as harbingers of civilization’s demise.

How did heroes go from being symbolic representatives of culture to being its destroyers? One reason is the institutionalization of Enlightenment ideals in the 19th century. Man’s concern shifted from formal moral enquiry within a tradition, techne as MacIntyre has called it, to technological progress. It is no wonder, then, that Thomas Jefferson is now one of the most frequently evoked names in modern America. Should Thomas Jefferson shine so brightly amidst the constellation of American heroes? This question could be considered in light of another: What constitutes an American hero, excellence or success? In consideration of these questions, I offer two approaches to Jefferson.

Jefferson and Tradition

Classicists are wont to invoke Thomas Jefferson when making their case for keeping the classics in the curriculum. In principle, they are right about America’s need for the classical tradition. But, they are wrong to think of Jefferson either as a classicist, or a proponent of tradition. He was far more interested in natural science than the classics and his call for teaching Greek and Latin to children was rooted deeply in a utilitarian view of education initiated by Bacon and institutionalized in the 19th century research institutions of Germany.

E. Christian Kopff, in his book The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition, enlists Jefferson’s help in a chapter called “The Classics, the Founding, and American Creativity.” Kopff’s central thesis that authentic creativity and innovation can only happen within a tradition, and knowledge of that tradition, is persuasive. But, a more probing examination of Jefferson’s thought reveals that, far from strengthening the case for tradition, he actually weakens it.

The text most mined for evidence proving Jefferson’s fealty to the classical tradition is his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which Jefferson outlines his schema for public education. Along with traditionalists, egalitarians also view Jefferson as a quasi-saint of their cause, yet it’s hard to find a more anti-tradition, elitist project than that set forth in Query XIV of Notes. On the surface, it appears Jefferson is upholding both the classical tradition and egalitarianism. A favorite Jeffersonian maxim frequently repeated is, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Kopff rightly criticizes egalitarians who often use this quote to coax more money out of the Federal Government for public education. But, he, too, misinterprets Jefferson. The remark comes from a letter Jefferson wrote in 1816, to Virginia state legislator Colonel Charles Yancey. Kopff also seizes upon another idea articulated by Jefferson in this letter, where he asserts “there is no safe deposit” for liberty and property “but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information.” The italics are Kopff’s. He believes this point is crucial to proving America’s roots in the classical tradition. Kopff interprets Jefferson to mean “liberty requires knowledge.” Yet, Jefferson used the word “information,” not “knowledge.” A classicist should certainly know that, by knowledge, the ancients meant knowledge gained through many years of philosophical reflection. Financial reports provide information. Knowledge, in the classical sense, issues in wisdom. Jefferson does not mean what Kopff wants him to mean. By “information,” Jefferson meant scientific and technological information needed for man to apply himself to his divinely appointed task of mastering and exploiting nature, thus contributing to the progress of his fellow men. Classical knowledge is for the good of the soul. Jeffersonian information is for the progress of the republic.

Kopff also notes Jefferson’s substitution of the Bible with Greek and Latin in the early years of childhood, explaining this departure from the medieval classical tradition by claiming Jefferson believed children were too young to understand Scripture. If this were true, why doesn’t Scripture appear later in Jefferson’s schema along with Herodotus and Thucydides? The fact is Jefferson quite intentionally expunged theology and metaphysics from his plan for the University of Virginia because neither mode of enquiry provided useful information helpful to technological progress. Cardinal Newman would try to replant what Jefferson had pulled up by the roots in his Idea of a University, a text which could be read as a rebuttal of Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia.

Another weakness in Kopff’s treatment of Jefferson is his dreadfully sparse consideration of Bacon, Locke and Newton, which to describe as brief would be a gross overstatement. Each gets a passing mention on one page within one sentence, with no reference to their ideas or their influence on Jefferson. For Jefferson, Bacon, Locke and Newton are “the three greatest men the world had ever produced without any exception.” Jefferson wrote these words in a 1789 letter to American painter John Trumbull ordering portraits of these icons of the Enlightenment. Kopff takes up an illogical position on this point. While lamenting the damage done to the tradition by Enlightenment ideals, he simultaneously lauds Thomas Jefferson, the most active and vocal proponent of those ideals in early America.

Kopff notes that Jefferson and his heroes were classically educated as though, ipso facto, this renders them indubitable advocates for the tradition. He either does not know or ignores the fact that all of these men repudiated the principles of their liberal education in favor of ideals anathema to the classical tradition. The reiteration of these ideals by Jefferson and the other Founders set American culture on the track of what David L. Schindler has called “America’s technological ontology.” That Jefferson called for the teaching of Greek and Latin to children, which fact forms a cornerstone in Kopff’s argument, is relevant only insofar as one understands how thorough Jefferson’s faith was in the utilitarian principles of the Enlightenment. Following Milton, Jefferson viewed even language from a utilitarian perspective as a means of acquiring useful knowledge. This brings me to a second interpretation of Jefferson.

Jefferson the Utilitarian

In her book Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, Eva Brann targets Jefferson as a homegrown version of the utilitarian view of education that swept through Germany in the 19th century.

This period, which Brann calls “Repudiation,” begins with Francis Bacon. It was a period in which “the transmission or tradition of knowledge was discredited in favor of the advancement and diffusion of knowledge…Communities of learning yielded to agencies of research.” Where Kopff equates knowledge and information, Brann notes a clear distinction. Brann goes on to describe this transformation. First, a kind of temporal provincialism predominated which favored the present over the past. “Just-nowness, contemporaneity, that is, a productive complex of secularism and science, of care for and competence in the present world – ‘present’ in every way – won the day.” Secondly came the “pervasive triumph of the old cry: res non verba, things not words.” Book learning was rejected in favor of experimentation, instruments began replacing texts. The door was closed on metaphysics because its claims could not be empirically tested. Third, authority was supplanted by evidence. By authority, Brann means “a habit of respect for tried texts.” Yet, “in the mode of evidence…the expectation is that things may prove words wrong.” Brann observes that all three features of the period of repudiation can be found in Bacon, Locke and Newton, Jefferson’s guiding stars.

Where Kopff sees a defense of the classical tradition in Jefferson’s schema, where Greek and Latin are taught to children between the ages of about 8 to 15, Brann insists “the true object of the concentration on antique history [in Jefferson’s curriculum] was to prevent early Bible study.” Both Kopff and Brann are drawing from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Qu. XIV. I find nothing here that clearly affirms either interpretation. In my view, it is the reason Jefferson gives for removing the Bible from the curriculum that renders Brann’s argument more persuasive. Jefferson says children between these ages are weak in judgement, but have very impressionable memories. This suggests a capacity for judgement will come at a later stage of a young person’s development, at which time the Bible could be introduced. Yet, Jefferson does not simply postpone theology to a more appropriate age, he uproots it altogether from the curriculum. For Jefferson, this was a first principle not only of education but of the republic as a whole. Brann notes that in Jefferson’s last public communication delivered in Washington on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, Jefferson, after expressing his sorrow that he could not be present, offers a representation of the Revolutionaries as breaking free of “the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves.” Theology had no place in the great conversation for Jefferson.

Jefferson employs the word “useful” a great deal in Query XIV of his Notes. Greek and Latin are to be taught in the first stage of education because these languages are “tools” for transmitting useful facts into a child’s impressionable memory (Kopff, strangely, acknowledges the fact with complete equanimity). While Jefferson makes no explicit claim here that unequivocally supports Brann’s assertion about his motives regarding Bible study, there is an unmistakable undercurrent of Enlightenment utilitarianism that most certainly informs Jefferson’s schema. Thus, Brann’s claim is credible when she writes that “access to history’s higher reaches is thought to be through the ancient languages, which are consequently tools of republican learning.” Jefferson promotes Greek and Latin only to the degree the ancient languages are useful to the progress of the republic. If these languages are no longer useful, they are no longer needed. Thus, in Jefferson, Kopff’s heroic figure of tradition, we find the seeds of the institutional dismantling of the tradition in America..

For Kopff, simply requiring Greek and Latin in the curriculum is enough to demonstrate fidelity to the classical tradition. This is why he views Jefferson as a useful example to support his argument. However, Brann correctly observes that such a utilitarian approach to the classics particularly and education generally is a departure from the ethos of the tradition, especially after that tradition had been subsumed into Christianity.

Perhaps the most devastating argument against Jefferson as a hero of the classical tradition is his plan for the University of Virginia. Here we see, as Brann states it, just how completely Jefferson “belonged to that Baconian school which thought less of metaphysics than of political philosophy, less of politics than of science, and less of mathematical science than of natural history, less of classifications than of practical applications.” Jefferson’s intellect had precious little in common with the Hellenic intellect. Brann goes on to say the “deeply radical general character of this plan was that it was no unitary ratio studiorum but a completely eclectic composition of various materials,” which Jefferson claimed “are good for us” (again, we see Jefferson’s utilitarianism). Philosophy, once the stabilizing, integrating principle of the classical tradition is jettisoned in Jefferson’s plan. The integrated curriculum was replaced by what Jefferson called “schools” or “departments.” Just as the industrial revolution gave man the idea of division of labor, so Jefferson’s plan for his university ushered in a division of thought. The shared grammar of Western culture would now be fragmented, each man pursuing his own inclination, what we today call “specialisms.” Jefferson’s plan offers us the first glimpse of a university that is truly modern.

Jefferson’s ideas were not implemented until after the Civil War, when the mania for research and new knowledge decimated the classical tradition in Germany. It is here we see the rise of the research institution with its proliferation of majors, or specialisms. Also at this time, Charles Eliot, cousin of T. S., instituted the elective system at Harvard in his inaugural address of 1869, Jefferson had proposed something similar nearly a century earlier.

Jefferson’s Legacy

Does Jefferson deserve a place among the hallowed heroes of American culture? I think the two criteria mentioned above, excellence and success, are the best means of considering the question. Jefferson was not successful in instituting his ideas during his lifetime. While his ideas have seen success in the modern era, we can only speculate whether that success is due to the strength of Jefferson’s ideas or the influence of cultural movements in Europe.

Did Jefferson display excellence? I take excellence here to mean virtue of thought and action. Jefferson was undoubtedly a man of great intelligence and action. But, isn’t excellence of thought characterized by a virtuous habit of mind, not merely flashes of intelligence, mastery of facts, or electrifying rhetoric? In other words, was Jefferson wise? Jefferson fully supported not only the nominal principles of the French Revolution, but the means of instituting those principles, including the Reign of Terror. In language Washington and Adams found distressing, Jefferson openly lauded Denis Diderot as a virtuous man. Diderot was a leading force in the Reign of Terror who exhorted his fellow rebels to strangle kings with the entrails of priests.

Eva Brann’s argument should make every classicist think twice before invoking the name of Thomas Jefferson to rally support for their laudable cause. Though classically trained, he, like his heroes Bacon, Locke and Newton, repudiated the tradition and laid the groundwork in America for its near total destruction. We are only now beginning to reckon the damage done by Enlightenment ideals fully embraced and forcefully urged by Jefferson and his fellow Founders. Jefferson substituted the classical tradition, once the integrating principle of Western culture, with utilitarianism, an idea that posits progress as man’s calling. In supplanting tradition with science, Jefferson displaced not only theology and metaphysics, but man himself, who is now merely a part of nature that must also be exploited and mastered. Utility and progress have become the basis of education. Innovation and technology are the two pistons driving man’s advancement in this program of progress, forging recklessly ahead with ever more dangerous technology. Jefferson was no friend to the classical tradition. He was one of its most active opponents in the early republic. Kopff is right. America does need the classical tradition, if only to rescue future generations from the effects of the ideals of men like Thomas Jefferson.

Tom Jay