Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson!

Well, it’s almost here! And no doubt Tom deserves all that honor that Lincoln accorded him, because the Declaration of Independence belongs to him more than anyone else. But I have to add that I’ve always thought that letter about the light of science defeating monkish ignorance and superstition was over-the-top. And then there’s that Christian Epicurean stuff in some other letters.... If God had a chosen people, are they really the farmers? Jefferson was a most erudite and thoughtful man, and he certainly loved liberty, especially the liberty of the mind. The American mind in all its complexity and its ambivalence owes more to him than anyone else.

Discussions - 17 Comments

The American mind in all its complexity and its ambivalence owes more to him than anyone else.

I'm don't know how to measure such things, but if I had to, my candidate would be Benjamin Franklin. (No, not L*****n.)

Well, Steve, it's our job as political scientists to figure out how to measure such things. I've never warmed up to Franklin, and the book by Jerry Weinberger explained to me why.

I seem to have had the opposite reaction to Weinberger's book: it made me see Franklin more deeply.

Until Library of America, there was, as far as I know, no collection that did justice to the range of Franklin's concerns and activity.

And what's not to like about the Autobiography? It is one of the funniest books ever written.

Well, Franklin is very funny, and JW brought dimensions of his humor that hadn't occured to me. I don't like that much ironic, practical nihilism. Although Franklin is one of the smartest and most accomplished Americans ever, I might actually prefer the lonely leftover-ness of the inconsistently moralistic irony of Vonnegut. Politically, though--as you all have said, Vonnegut was a ranter and Franklin very, very sensible. On the level of "political science" or prudence, I even prefer Franklin to Jefferson. Jefferson was too indiscriminately pro-revolution, Franklin shows that the American revolution could have been avoided if only the British hadn't been so darn stupid.

"The American mind in all its complexity and its ambivalence owes more to him than anyone else." What is an American mind?

Well I suppose Peter meant something like mentality, as the French say, or a way of thinking characteristic of (many) Americans; basic shared concepts and habits of mind, like an emphasis on rights. People used to write books with that word in the title. It signals comparative distance - the distance, say, of a Tocqueville. Anyway, I had something like that in mind in suggesting Franklin as an alternative to Jefferson.

Peter - "Practical nihilism"? Certainly we know Franklin was a skeptic, and that he liked disguises, but we know he was no scoffer and that he had real regard for Whitefield. I thought Weinberger makes him out to be essentially a philosopher, therefore acquainted with nihilism but resistant to it.

None of this motivates my support for Franklin's candidacy. Rather: his 13-step, altogether democratic program for self-improvement (together with his jokes about perfectibility); his practical how-to-win-friends attitude; his attitude toward wealth (success is no reason to feel bad, though it requires skill to be both successful and influential); his lessons about how to exercise one's unusual gifts in face of democratic resentment (above all, the remarks about the library company). The Autobiography points back to the Adams-TJ correspondence, and forward to Tocqueville.

Last sentence of #7 sounds goofy, since the Adams-TJ correspondence comes after Franklin wrote. Which only calls attention to the remarkably broad "mentalities" that Franklin's thinking spanned.

Without descending into practical details, Franklin had a merely instrumental and playful view of women and politics and thought that anger and love were simply based on illusions.

Peter - Well, OK. But I thought we were discussing your proposition: The American mind in all its complexity and its ambivalence owes more to him than anyone else. Franklin's sometimes over-the-top instrumentalism fits that bill at least as well as Jefferson's "light of science defeating monkish ignorance and superstition."

Steve, Well, I agree...That means that we're dangerously close to Heidegger's view on Americanism as practical nihilism, although we Americans would have to add that Franklin is not all or most of America.

Peter - Help me out here. I know nothing worth saying about Heidegger, or his probably dismissive view of America.

Roughly speaking. Heidegger--Americanism equals the technological view that all distinctions but those having to do with rational conquest and control are nothing equals nihilism. You might want to say, as a West Coast Straussian or James Ceaser, what about natural rights? But Franklin thought the idea of natural rights is baloney, Jerry Weinberger correctly tells us. Natural rights don't touch the depths of the modern project of mastery to eradicate mystery. (See Tocqueville on what we did to the Indians.) Now Franklin went even deeper (with the Epicurean Jefferson): He thought the modern project of mastery, although enjoyable and beneficial for men like him, was also deep-down fundamentally deluded Franklin lacked Heidegger's indignation, and he knew he was lucky to an American, just as he knew the Americans were lucky to win their imprudent revolution. And so he transcended the distinction between foundationism and anti-foundationalism so fashionable today. So we can conclude, as you said before, Franklin's practical nihilism can be distinguished from nihilism simply, because deep-down he didn't have a technological view of the world.

I'll have to think about this a bit. (I also dug out your Paradise Drive piece.) This German stuff makes me feel like a poor boy from Upstate New York, and it makes me want to check to be sure the door's locked.

Thanks, and thanks for writing the Heidegger-Chesterton piece.

We seem to agree that the difference between TJ and Franklin can be overstated - as perhaps Lincoln overstated it; and that the Chesterton-like supplement must come from elsewhere. So we can ask, what held both Jefferson and Franklin back? Your answer seems to be: something that neither one articulated fully, but that L*****n came closer to in the Second Inaugural Address.

I agree on Lincoln's Second Inaugural--which means that his thought ascends until it reaches that point. Guezlo explains, by the way, that the relatively young Lincoln didn't REALLY think that highly of Jefferson. Notice, if you want, that Chesterton's analysis of 19th c. America as falling away from the dogma about egalitarian personal significance etc. of the fuonding is very close to Lincoln and even closer to Jaffa. Jaffa approaches Thomism in his latest book, in my view.

A the very least, Jaffa has come a long way from the position he put forth in Thomism and Aristotelianism.

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