Thomas Jefferson’s Argument For Atheist Morality


Thomas Jefferson was frequently accused of being an atheist (I tend towards those who suppose him to be a particularly secular Deist), but usually avoided commitment and included references to God (or someone similar) in his writings, particular the more or less public (I have been reading so much 18th century English writing that I almost spelled that ‘publick’) ones. An obvious example is the capital C Creator referenced in The Declaration of Independence.

But in a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, regarding a proper course of study, he encourages a critical examination of Scripture and acknowledges that such an examination could lead him to atheism (though he doesn’t use that word). Then he lays out as well as any(and succinctly than most) contemporary atheist thinkers why atheism (at least, educated atheism) will naturally lead to moral behavior.

Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love.

Thomas Jefferson’s Education


Gentle reader, you have no doubt noticed that I am a fool for a new take on Thomas Jefferson, one that dodges standard biography. This one dodges so far as not to be sure what to make of itself.

It is sort of a history of the founding University of Virginia; sort of history of education in Virginia during Jefferson’s lifetime; and sort of a collection of anecdotes of Jeffersonianisms, towards the end of compiling an unsystematic intellectual biography of the planter philosopher. And a surprising quantity of text devoted to Jefferson’s extended family, hangers on, and the financial ruin of his family.

Notes On Virginia


You can see Jefferson’s regular topics and conceits clearly here. A chapter on religion is mainly about the religious freedom he so assiduously (and successfully; he wrote the statute) championed in Virginia. On education, it reflect the inadequacy of both the physical and curricular structure of William & Mary, then the state’s only college; arguments no doubt in support of his quest to establish the University of Virginia at the base of his mountain. You see Jefferson the amateur scientist (and a fascinating digression into some amateur archaeology that he undertook on a Native American burial mound.

On manufacturing, his disdain for large scale production is clear (despite the fact that very nearly his only profitable venture was a nail factory he built on his lands). It feels a little naive, to disdain creating finished goods here, beyond basic items, but it fits with his pastoral/agricultural republicanism. Like Socrates, he seems to think smaller polities are better.

On race… the less said the better. He was at a point where his views were evolving and not for the better. He is open to the idea that the native peoples could achieve a cultural status close to whites, but that “generosity” only reminds the modern reader of the anti-black racism running through his brain.

Takeaway quote (from the religion section):

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

And you know what? In this day, his vigorous, anthropological critique of religious oppression may seem commonsensical today, in the eighteenth century it was far more daring and outre.

Doesn’t make up for the racism, though.

Anglo-Saxon


I suppose my eyes passed too quickly over the extended title because when I came to the end, I was surprised to see this was intended for part of instruction at the Jefferson founded University of Virginia, which he intended to include instruction in Anglo-Saxon as part of its curriculum.

I have not Jefferson’s apparent talent for picking up languages, but I remember reading about him harassing the supposed translator of Ossian for the original Gaelic texts (who always put him off because, of course, they didn’t exist).

I almost purchased a recent book about the University and its Jeffersonian founding, but better, I thought, to keep reading what the man himself wrote than what others have written about him, having read enough of the latter in recent years.

The Grand Re-Opening Of The Freer/Sackler Galleries; Or ‘Illuminasia’


The Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art, also know as the Freer/Sackler, is one of my favorite museums. Not only is it directly by the Smithsonian metro station, but it is less crowded than many other museums on the National Mall and has some of the best spots for quiet contemplation you are likely to find.

After almost two years closed for renovations, the galleries are finally open. The grand celebration was called Illuminasia. Lots of cool stuff for the kids and some lovely music and some frustratingly long lines for food (the bao was excellent, but not worth the thirty minute wait).

There’s a nice exhibit on cats in ancient Egypt and a genuinely inspiring exhibit called ‘Encountering the Buddha’ that I can’t wait to see again.

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On A Recent Sunday

The Holocaust, as a historical event, is sui generis. It is not there to be our metaphor. It is too singular. But good God, it is simply impossible to visit that museum and see the history and artifacts leading up to the Holocaust being possible and not think about the terrible act, the bigoted act, the ignorant act, the base act, the racist act undertaken by our president.


On a recent Sunday, I visited the Holocaust Museum with some friends. It was only my second visit and just as sad and moving as the first time; it’s hard not to feel tears welling up at various junctures.

The Holocaust, as a historical event, is sui generis. It is not there to be our metaphor. It is too singular.

But good God, it is simply impossible to visit that museum and see the history and artifacts leading up to the Holocaust being possible and not think about the terrible act, the bigoted act, the ignorant act, the base act, the racist act undertaken by our president.

And he is our president. He is my president. Whatever good I may do in my life, I will also always be, in some part, complicit in whatever evil my country does, especially when it takes place during my lifetime.

In another tragedy, an acquaintance of my mine is a student, studying here on a student visa. The terms of her visa require her to leave the United States every so often (every six months is a common condition of many visas), but she is from one of Trump’s designated countries. She doesn’t know whether to hurry away now and return by judicial stays can be overturned or to wait and hope that things get better. I don’t know either and all my advice to her tastes likes ashes because I am complicit.

 

‘They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist’


The Michael Derrick Hudson debacle has been embarrassing. I love poetry and advocate for it to my friends and co-workers, but when this sort of garbage is what gets it into the news… well, it ain’t good.

I’ve been reading Jenny Zhang’s poetry collection, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, so I perked up when I saw she’d responded to the poetry s–tstorm on BuzzFeed in an essay entitled, They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist.

Nicely puts to bed the lie of some kind of supposed advantage that poets of color have in getting published and respected. Shouldn’t need to be said, because it doesn’t take much looking to figure out that published poets in America are largely white and male.

At Stanford, a white girl (well-meaning, of course) wrote a story about a Chinese American woman living in modern-day San Francisco (this was the early 2000s) who wanted to marry a white guy but was forced into an arranged marriage with a Chinese man and it was called The Dim Sum of All Things. (Laugh now, cry later!) I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say the reality of that story was fucked and so was the fantasy. She got into a highly coveted advanced fiction writing class taught by a famous writer and I didn’t. The story I submitted was also about Chinese Americans living in modern-day America, but it didn’t involve arranged marriage or dim sum or sensuous descriptions of chopsticks. This didn’t mean the teacher made a wrong choice. He made a subjective choice.