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. Read more
Not because he doesn’t make good points, but they are too strident and not new and I wasn’t feeling patient. But I persevered.
I know that George Washington was famously present in church, but would neither stand nor kneel nor take communion.
I know that Franklin tended to think that religion was a useful opium for the masses.
And that Jefferson was not a Christian in any useful sense of the word.
I also know that right wing people are using Christianity as an excuse to peddle corporate tax cuts and their own neuroses.
So if I’m going to read about this, I expect to learn something in the first fifty odd pages, but somehow failed to. And I don’t think it’s my fault.
The Bible has many issues. Or rather, I have many issues with much of the Bible. Seidel lays them all out, but I didn’t pick up a book on why the Bible is contradictory or even hypocritical, but rather (I thought) on constitutional issues. And you lose a certain status which contributes to credibility when you are so gleeful about it.
At some point, I finally realized my objection. Seidel quotes and references Christopher Hitchens several times and it was after reading one, particularly Hitchensesque Hitchens quote that it finally became clear.
I wanted to read a book about constitutional history, theory, and practice.
If I had wanted to read a screed against Christianity, I would have picked up a copy of one of Hitchens many books with such things. While I might not have agreed with his ultimate conclusions, I would have been greatly amused by the last, great eighteenth century political wit of the twenty-first century.
It is not nearly so lurid nor horrific as the title might lead one to believe. It’s really just an Edwardian ghost story.
The comparison I kept coming to is a wholesome, English take on J K Huysmans Le-Bas, which I now want to read again. A young man who is vulnerable to the deductions of occultism, but ultimately rejects it after going nearly as far as one can, and returns to his faith in the end. Benson was an Anglican minister who converted and became a Catholic priest and Huysmans a writer within the French Decadent movement who had a Pauline moment and became a devout churchgoer and eventually an oblate.
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.
From Thomas Jefferson’s Autobiography:
Famous for this bamboo shaded path, it was very peaceful. The more so for being well outside of Bangkok.
And while I didn’t take a picture because it seemed disrespectful, I saw my first monk smoking a cigarette.
No, not the classic wuxia movie, but this recreation of a Tibetan Buddhist shrine. I spoke to one of the security guard’s who said that she transferred to the Asian Art Museum just because she wanted the tranquility that rooms like this offered.
Of course, this article from LRB drew me because of Gore Vidal’s novel, Julian. And this review, while never mentioning the novel (an odd oversight, I thought, even if you are not a Gore fan), suggests that the novel’s history is t bad.
This is a somewhat half hearted effort to convince the reader that Barfield and Williams are at least half as important as Lewis and Tolkien, undermined by the authors’ own apparent lack of belief in that aspect of the project and by a consensus of opinion which they seem disinclined to challenge.
Towards the end, they set up poor Barfield, by describing his intent to meet the challenge laid down by his peers’ successes and to write his magnum opus. It’s a big set up, narratively, but ends with the admission that few liked it and barely more than that even noticed it was written.
Structurally, they probably could have just focused on Lewis and Tolkien and then included a wider variety of other Inklings.
But, I learned a lot about them and it was interesting, because I like Tolkien and Lewis. I like ’em a lot.
The Zaleskis, without becoming prurient or even mentioning it again, makes a good argument that Lewis and Mrs. Moore were having a sexual affair, which convinced me. It doesn’t change my opinion of him, it’s merely nice to have some resolution, in my mind, on the matter.
Likewise, I had not realized just how devoutly Catholic Tolkien was nor how important it was to his Middle Earth novels (he went to mass daily for most of his life).
But… I can’t help but be a little disappointed. I had been hoping to learn about another Bloomsbury group or another Transcendentalist circle or another Paris in the twenties, instead, learned about a group of intelligent and interesting academics, two of whom happened to become very, very famous and were very important writers. And I put the book feeling that the authors didn’t really like the works of Lewis and Tolkien all that much, which feels almost like a personal insult to one such as I, raised on Narnia and Middle Earth (though they seemed to like two lesser read Tolkienalia, Farmer Giles of Ham and The Smith of Wooton Major, both of which I loved and read over and over again as a child).