Jefferson On Philosophy


This is, more properly, about my having finally finished my little collection of Thomas Jefferson’s writing (with a short, mostly hagiographic biography at the very beginning). I have, of course, been chronicling those things which struck me upon reading. I have also been putting this down for many other books, including many about Jefferson himself. Despite my wrestlings, he still occupies my mind, rent-free. Something he has really done since I was a young child and my mother took to Charlottesville, Virginia and up the mountain to see Monticello. She preferred the simpler beauty of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, but the erratic intellectual cacophony of Jefferson’s home stayed with me.

So what should I say about this book? I don’t know if the selected letters, which constitute the greatest part of the book, are the best selection possible, but I enjoyed them.

I can say that Jefferson is a fine writer. He has the belle-lettres excellence of the best eighteenth century scribblers and the clarity of the his English and Scottish Enlightenment influences (Locke, Hume).

I can say that he grew a bit resentful in his old age, with the late Alexander Hamilton still receiving approbation two decades after Burr’s ball felled him.

I suppose that I can say that I will continue to read his writings and writings about him.

And, that while not a philosopher, he might have made a fine one, except that his mind wandered towards too many other things. No matter. He has done enough to be remembered, loved, reviled, and revised without a philosophical magnum opus.

I do not think that it is a coincidence that the most obviously philosophical moments are from letters written later in life, when he stepped back from the business of being a revolutionary and a politician.

That said, in 1803, while president, he writes to Dr. Benjamin Rush about a conversation that they had in 1798-1799, before the contentious presidential election of 1800 about Jesus and moral philosophy. He begins to outline the ideas that would come to truest fruition in his ‘edited’ version of the Bible, but roams, comparing Jesus to figures of classical philosophy like Socrates, Epicurus (Jefferson, in other letters, suggests that he is an Epicurean), Epictetus, Cicero, etc, to the purpose of sketching out a moral philosophy (not theology) of Jesus.

He later writes explicitly about his sense of Epicurean philosophy.

Then, towards the end of his life, he wrote to John Adams and lays out an explicitly materialist epistemology (despite bad mouthing Hume and points, the Scotsman would have been proud, though its probably closer to Locke).

But even in the last case, the original topic or, at least, the topic which most directly led to his philosophical musings are religious ones. You cannot escape the conclusion that he is a Deist (in one letter, he praises the Unitarian Church for dispensing with the whole Trinity thing), but also that he ultimately considers religion to be a philosophical topic, rather than an issue of faith.

Jefferson On Epicureanism, In A Letter To William Short, October 31, 1819


In a letter to his friend, mentor, and former professor (from his days at William & Mary College), the Scotsman and an, by virtue of his teaching of Jefferson, important evangelist of the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment in American, William Short, Thomas Jefferson sums up his interpretation of the Epicurean philosophy:

Syllabus of the doctrines of Epicurus

Physical. – The Universe eternal.
It’s parts, great and small, interchangeable.
Matter and Void alone.
Motion inherent in matter which is weighty and declining.
Eternal circulation of the elements of bodies.
Gods, an order of being next superior to man, enjoying in their sphere, their own felicities; but not meddling with the concerns of the scale of being below them.
Moral. – Happiness the aim of life.
Virtue the foundation of happiness.
Utility the test of virtue.
Pleasure active and In-do-lent.
In-do-lence is the absence of the pain, the true felicity.
Activity, consists in agreeable motion; it is not happiness, but the means to produce it.
Thus the absence of hunger is an article of felicity; eating the means to obtain it.
The summer bonum is to be not pained in body, nor troubled in mind.
i.e. In-do-lence of body, tranquility of mind.
To procure tranquility of mind we must avoid desire and fear, the two principal diseases of the mind.
Man is a free agent.
Virtue consists in 1. Prudence. 2. Temperance. 3. Fortitude. 4. Justice.
To which are opposed, 1. Folly. 2. Desire. 3. Fear. 4. Deceit.

His description of how the gods interact with humanity does not just reflect the ideas of Epicurus, as we know them, but also deism (which, I would argue, reflects the beliefs of Jefferson and Washington, at least, among the Founders; though it is not typical of the mostly staunchly protestant thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, but rather of the French Enlightenment; of course, that greatest of all figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, was almost certainly atheist).

Cicero On How We Know The Gods Exist (And An Implied Epistemology)


For the belief in the gods has not been established by authority, custom or law, but rests on the unanimous and abiding consensus of mankind; their existence is therefore a necessary inference, since we possess an instinctive or rather an innate concept of them; but a belief which all men by nature share and must necessarily be true; therefore it must be admitted that the gods exist. And since this truth is almost universally accepted not only among philosophers but also among the unlearned, we must admit it also being an accepted truth that we posses a ‘preconception,’ as I called it above, or ‘prior notion,’ of the gods.

Cicero, De Natura Deorum

Time Of The Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger And The Decade That Reinvented Philosophy


Besides the fact they were all important philosophers, the magician connection is missing. I don’t mean that I wanted some sort of connection of party tricks, only that it’s a little disappointing that this title clearly seems picked just because it sounded cool, rather than because it relates to some extended metaphor or thread which snakes through the book.

But it’s a good book. Enjoyable for academic and for more dilettantish readers of philosophy.

While it made me want to dig up my copy of Being and Time (which I read in college, but almost certainly failed to understand), I wish that the other philosophers, particularly Cassirer, had had their philosophical positions explicated in as much detail as Heidegger’s. But then again, Heidegger continues to loom large, even now, so perhaps it’s only fair.

Especially knowing how the story ended, I found myself deeply wishing that poor Walter Benjamin had ever gotten an academic posting and what could have been if he had ever gotten some semblance of stability in his life. C’est la via.

Reading Some ‘Phaedo’ To My Child


Some, but not all.

I mean, I read it all, but my little one was not so enthralled by this one. But this one is more complex. Crito, which we read together, is shorter and really just has two characters (Socrates and Crito). Phaedo features an interesting conceit, but possibly a confusing one for young readers. Phaedo and Echecrates speak in traditional dialogue format, but most of the dialogue is Phaedo reciting what he heard on the day that Socrates died, which was mostly a dialogue within a dialogue between Socrates, Simmias, and Cebes (Crito was also there, but mostly just cried at the end)

A reminder that beyond his philosophical genius, Plato was no mean writer, it also has a surprisingly moving account of Socrates drinking the poison and dying.

The dialogue draws upon themes in other works, including his theory of knowledge as recollection (originally posited in Meno, I think, but I’m really not sure) and a light dusting of his theory of forms. But it’s all in service of Socrates explaining to his admirers, don’t cry for me, Athens. Because, the soul is immortal and the best part of him will be going to a much better place. Or maybe be reincarnated. That’s suggested early on, but the old man’s final moments imply that the soul goes to place of pure, happy contemplation.

‘From The Ruins Of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia’ By Pankaj Mishra


This book had been happily sitting in my ‘one day to acquire and read list’ with not much hope of moving on to a less passive state when The Washington Post took it upon themselves to review his follow up publication, which caused me to bestir myself and pester my local library to lend me a copy of the earlier book.

My father would greatly enjoy reading about the first figure Mishra biographs, Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, which is mostly fictious name (a Shi’a Muslim from Persia, he adopted ‘Al-Afghai’ to imply he was from mostly Sunni Afghanistan), classic sort of roving intellectual who traveled to many of the cultural capitals of the nineteenth century (Calcutta, Alexandria, London, Paris, Istanbul, and Moscow) as a sort professional public intellectual, sometimes making a living by giving informal lectures or classes to young, educated Muslims, sometimes as journalist, and always seeming to espouse a sort of pan-Islamic movement that was simultaneously slightly secular, while also being fundamentalist.

Liang Qichao was also new to me, though Mishra rather muddled him up with other figures, so that my sense of his importance was similarly muddled. Poor Tagore… the first non-white person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. If the author didn’t really know what to do with him, why include him? The point seems to be, he was important because he’s kind of famous, but maybe his ideas went nowhere (so how did he remake Asia, in that case?).

Japan is posited as a simply fascinating intellectual center in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and I finished the book wishing that Mishra would write that book for us.

A Short History Of Greek Philosophy


Heraclitus was called ‘the Obscure’ by contemporaries and taught specifically for elite thinkers, not the masses. Philosophy as a mystery cult?

I also found a reference that, led me back to the book about Aristotle as a Platonist…

…but in its main ideas Aristotle’s philosophy is Plato’s philosophy. The one clothed in poetry; the other in formulae; the one had the more entrancing vision, the other a clearer and more exact apprehension; but there is no essential divergence.

What else? It’s an excellent primer, but, to be frank, I’m not sure I needed one. He does a nice, short survey, starting with the Milesians and going through to Epicurians, Stoics, and Academics/Skeptics. Those last three are better known for their popularity in Latin philosophy and Marshall is oddly disdainful of them. It’ almost like he felt compelled to wrest them from the Romans, but still felt things should have ended with Aristotle.

Ornamentalism


‘Theory’ (in the context of the humanities) and ‘critical theory’ (and especially ‘critical race theory’) find themselves frequently despised. Well, Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism falls squarely into that camp.

Though short, if you do not like those categories, you won’t like, even if it won’t take you long to read.

I am always trying to be a ‘good’ white man and especially to be a good, white father to an non-white appearing daughter and I try to welcome challenges to my understandings (and, yes, prejudices).

The author struck me to the heart of the unseen biases within myself. I was most impacted by an off-handed line criticizing Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, a book that I adored, for failing to recognize how beauty can be terribly, damagingly racialized. It is so easy to see ‘my’ truth (a white, heterosexual, college-educated, middle class, man in America) as being everyone’s reality. Like Kant, I am constantly being awakened from my dogmatic slumber. It’s not always fun, but it is important.

Beyond that, it is about the Asian, female body. The body as clothed in exotic dresses, jewelry, headwear. The body stamped by prejudices (the assumption of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that unaccompanied Asian woman coming to America must be sex workers). The body as skin and flesh (naked, like sashimi; or, compared to porcelain). The body appropriated by white females.

Aristotle And Other Platonists


An interesting work, though perhaps not more interesting than just going back and pulling some Plato and Aristotle off the shelves. Despite the author’s explicit claim that this is not a book about Neoplatonism… it kinda feels like a book about Neoplatonism. At the very least, a key argument for why we should not view Aristotle as being so much in conflict with his erstwhile teacher, Plato, is that, well, a lot of ancient and late ancient philosopher who wrote after Aristotle, viewed Aristotle as being part of Platonism. Especially the Neoplatonists. And no, calling them ‘harmonists’ (those who believe that Aristotle is, in some ultimate sense, in harmony with Plato, as opposed to the antiharmonists [no hyphen]) does not help and, in fact, that term needs to not become a ‘thing’ and should not be used in that context ever again, because it’s cloying.

His best argument for this actually came very early in the book and was the bit that my mind kept coming back to: he referenced a philosopher named Pierre Hadot (who I had never heard of before) who (he says) proposed that the philosophers of the ancient world and their schools should be viewed primarily as positing a way of life and only secondarily as positing philosophical doctrine. Under this rubric, it does become easier (for me, at least), to see the author’s point.

But Gerson rarely seems to speak for himself. Every time I think that he is offering his own interpretation, I read that sentence more carefully and see that he’s actually paraphrasing what he believes Porphyry or Plotinus or Simplicius or Iamblichus has said. But basically, the thesis is that Aristotle’s ontologies (and epistemology, especially and his and Plato’s are deeply informed by their onologies) are not so different from Plato’s after all.

To briefly give one example, Gerson both recognizes (yet also avoids, in many ways) what is usually taught as the basic and most important distinction between the teacher and his student: Plato’s theory of forms. Plato believed in their reality and Aristotle did not (though yeoman’s work is done to suggest that Aristotle’s theory of the intellect (I am being vague here, because there are several kinds of intellect and much back and forth over what in the name of all that is holy it all means and if you’d like to learn more, I recommend learning Medieval Latin, because a lot mainly, but not exclusively British monks spent several centuries arguing about this and you’re welcome to read it all, I’m sure) could be considered as being compatible with the forms). Plato, through the mouthpiece of Socrates, argues for knowledge as recollection Aristotle makes statements that support that epistemology. Since Plato’s theory knowledge as recollection emerges from the forms and Aristotle can be seen to accept Plato’s theory of knowledge, therefore he implicitly accepts, at least in part, the forms, if not in a so explicitly realist fashion.

My first impression after reading this is that I should brush up on my Plato and Aristotle. More so, Aristotle. I’ve been reading a bit of Plato recently (though no amount of references to it by Neoplatonic philosophers will convince me to read the Timeaus again), but have a copy of Aristotle’s Categories that I started but never finished.

The Reactionary Mind


Early in the book, in the second chapter, he quotes from the slightly unorthodox conservative, Andrew Sulivan, from his book, The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom, and the Future of the Right:

All conservatism begins with loss.

(Of course, I tend to think of Sullivan as rather a wannabe Hitchens, but lacking that better writer’s adventurous spirit and mordant wit. Of course they both did quit national magazines on account of feelings of ostracization stemming from more liberal colleagues disapproval of some of their positions.)

As a rhetorical tool, Corey Robin’s best move is to quickly go after Edmund Burke and place him squarely in the lineage of modern conservatism. ‘The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power,’ he writes. Burke, by virtue of his commitment to keeping Westminster in narrow, elite hands, even as he believed in gifting a degree of economic security, falls under that rubric, the author argues. There is much more on Burke, early on, which makes me want to read more of Burke because I have an instinct to want to defend him (perhaps on account of my own elitism). But I cannot deny the efficiency of placing Burke in a lineage that leads directly to Trump, because otherwise, that esteemed eighteenth century thinker is the there to be pointed to, as an example of noble, intellectual conservative thought, implying that the current crudeness is an aberration. Robin seems to point at Burke’s thought and say, to quote Joseph Conrad, ‘And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth.’

But to go back to that idea of loss… Buckley stands athwart history and shouts stop because something is being taken away from him. Race certainly being part of it, as desegregation and civil rights took a certain dominion from white men. While not his purpose, he gives a beautifully succinct explanation for why the Civil War could be about slavery (it was) even though most white men in the South did not own slaves. Under slavery, every white man was an aristocrat. With emancipation, man white men became merely poor and wanted their aristocratic privilege back.

Always though, he rows ceaselessly back to Burke. He take a trip earlier to visit Hobbes (the conservative as counterrevolutionary), but Burke is always there. He is what Thomas Jefferson is to me, I think: an admired figure who he knows is also dangerous and deeply unadmirable. To paraphrase a movie, he just can’t quit him.

He enjoys long, discursive, excerpt heavy footnotes… especially about Burke. I think he understands that Burke is figure at the beginning who no one (including, arguably, me) can accept as truly being part of the lineage of Trump. And he can’t let that (or him) go. Burke, you might say, is living rent-free in his head.

He’s now living in mine, too. I’ll have to find my copy of his selected writings and revisit. Especially his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity which sounds like a fascinating (and, yes, deeply conservative) defense of the rich and their capital against the needs of working people, disguised as an economic treatise.

The takedown of Rand (intertwined, somewhat inexplicably, with Nietzsche) was delicious. The author was incredulous as to how a writer of such ridiculous prose and philosopher of such shallow depths (who seems not to have read much philosophy) could be have become so… influential. In the end, I don’t think we know. I blame Paul Ryan.

Similarly, his critique of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s frankly rank hypocrisy (hint: he only adopted his textual originalism when it was useful to buttressing his decision, rather than always letting his originalism lead him to the decision) was nice to hear, because paeans to his supposedly principled legal stance have always rankled. Like so many leading 20th century (and now, 21st century) conservatives, his politics and philosophy were rooted in a culture of victimhood.

So, did this book, as a blurb attests, predict Trump? There is a chapter on Trump, clearly written post-election. But it feels understandably tacked on. Yes, he appealed to the sense of aggrievement, of victimhood, that is chronicled throughout as a key factor in conservatism. But Trump himself is so vacuous (he makes Ayn Rand look like Hannah Arendt) that the chapter is jarring. He’s a cipher, but in no way a thinker who added anything to the conservative movement beyond, perhaps, a little daylight (which has not proved to be as a good disinfectant as one might like).