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Thomas Jefferson is a kind of incarnate compendium of the Enlightenment. His remarkable openness to its spirit is the philosophical counterpart to his political sensitivity in making himself “a passive auditor of the opinions of others,” so as to catch the “harmonizing sentiments of the day” and to incorporate them into a document that would be “an expression of the American mind,” the Declaration of Independence…

How the Question Arises

Was Thomas Jefferson a philosopher? If so, in what sense? I can imagine two opposing questions raised in rejoinder.

He was a statesman—why should we expect or require him to be a philosopher also?

He read and reasoned and wrote throughout his life—why should we hesitate to give him the title?

The first question presupposes that there are indeed two kinds of life, readily distinguishable and mutually exclusive: namely, Aristotle’s two lives of excellence—the one practical and political, and the other theoretical and philosophical (Politics 1324a, Nicomachean Ethics 1095b). The good pursued in the former, which is honor, depends on incurring the esteem of others; that of the latter, the pure and permanent pleasure of contemplation, is self-sufficient and leisurely.

There can be no doubt of Jefferson’s preference for the contemplative life. He was not so much indifferent as averse to honor. (If one wishes to see a true exemplar of the pursuit of distinction one must turn to Alexander Hamilton, E 548 [key provided in the notes].) Jefferson considered that “public service and private misery were inseparably linked together” (E 302). He gladly took second place as vice president under John Adams, for this “tranquil and unoffending station” was exactly “analogous to the disposition of his mind,” since it would give him “philosophical evenings in the winter and rural days in the summer” (N 133). He says of the Revolution: “Its necessities dragged me from a life of retirement and contemplation, to which my natural propensities strongly inclined, to one of action and contention” (P 292). And the epitaph he composed for himself most deliberately omitted any reference to his high public offices.

Furthermore, philosophy is a word of some frequency and weight in Jefferson’s writings. It is a term of broad, but not weak, application. It names a department in his university’s proposed General School curriculum and comprehends the study of mind, morals, and politics (K 58). It labels a subject division in his library, corresponding to the faculty of “reason” (K 105). Its study is a “luxury” of leisure (P 115, 134). He speaks of “sound philosophy equally indifferent to hope and fear” (E 366). How could so rich a use of the word not give Jefferson a claim to be considered a philosopher?

But what matters more is Jefferson’s concern with truth and knowledge, surely the mark of a philosopher. He regards truth as the achievable end of free inquiry and as the proper basis of political action: “Difference of opinion leads to inquiry and inquiry to truth” (B 126). “Truth is good and will prevail if left to herself…” (E 383). And what is the Declaration of Independence but a monument to the belief that revolutionary action must rest on truth?

Nor is his view of knowledge merely instrumental, for he considers “that knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, and that knowledge is happiness” (C 114).

So we are driven into the second question: Why, then, except under an extremely restricted understanding of the term philosopher, should we withhold that appellation from such a man?

The difficulty is that Jefferson is pointedly unsystematic and notoriously anti-metaphysical. When I say that he is unsystematic, I do not mean that he has no interest in systems. On the contrary, he refers to “a system of morality” (E 346), of government, of nature—to numerous rational organizations of specific subject matters. What I mean is that he never makes an effort to bring all his views under one plan. Jefferson states explicitly that there was among his papers no writing other than epistolary, that all his energy had gone into his correspondence (P 292). But this absence of any coherent theoretical work was not only the consequence of his energies being drawn off into public business. It was also part of a principled silence concerning his convictions, a silence that had two aspects.

One of these was a strong opinion that the first and last things are too private for public utterance and ought to remain unsaid, not only because of the reserve that was a strong part of his character, but also because such pronouncements are an invitation to interferences with liberty of conscience. He had “a duty not to make public confessions of faith” (E 344): “I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another” (K 37).

The second aspect of his silence was his conviction of the irreducible variety of appearances truth must necessarily have: “As the Creator had made no two faces alike, so no two minds and probably no two creeds” (B 120). Therefore no one’s system can be wholly in accord with another’s:

I never submitted the whole system of my opinion to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself [N 104].

As far as Jefferson’s opposition to metaphysics, to “spiritualism,” as he called it, is concerned, nothing is more positive in his developed opinions than their rejection.

All considerations concerning transcendent being seem to him not so much erroneous—that would be to admit their seriousness—as frivolous. For example, he rejects as “whimsical” and “fanciful” the doctrine, ultimately derived from Plato, that either “the true” or “the beautiful” might form the foundation of morality (B 141, E 358). Whimsy and fancy are indeed his standard terms for philosophical texts containing “hyperphysical” considerations, particularly for Platonic texts; one of several examples occurs when he writes to Adams of “the whimsies, the puerilities, the unintelligible jargon of the Republic,” which he has been studying (E 365, 345, C 110, A). The frivolity of such views lies for him precisely in their being public propagations of private fictions which do not have the solid character of general acceptability.

These are the pieces of evidence, taken very externally, that show that the formulation of the question Was Jefferson a philosopher? is not easily escapable. Now the whole complex of considerations can be put in a concise way: It is generally agreed that Jefferson’s modes and opinions are those of a philosophe. Can a philosophe be a philosopher as well? A philosophe is to be understood a participant in the Enlightenment, a person of fearless and inexhaustible worldly curiosity, engaged in scientific projects, devoted to an all-pervasive rationality, particularly in religious matters, and in everything a passionate critic of authority. A philosopher, on the other hand, stands in a tradition of inquiry concerning the world’s being and wholeness; discursive rationality as grounded on intellectual intuition are of interest to him; God and faith are among his deep concerns; authority is often but a beginning text for his inquiries. It is a universally interesting consideration how any enlightenment is related to philosophy, but even the particular question, whether and what relation the author of this country’s founding declaration had to inquiries into the being of the whole, needs no further justification.

Jefferson as a Representative of the Enlightenment

Jefferson, then, was the chief American representative of those modes and items of doctrine known as the Enlightenment. That is generally agreed. He first learned about the Scottish and English writers who prepared the world for those views from books in his youth at William and Mary College. He met some of its chief proponents as friends in Paris in his middle age. He studied the developed systems of its late proponents in his old age at Monticello. His writings abound with the terms and topics of the Enlightenment. These references are collected, organized, and traced to their sources, particularly in two books of which I have made much use: The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson by Adrienne Koch (1943) and The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson by Daniel Boorstin (1948).

The Enlightenment is represented by diverse and even opposing proponents. There are critical and positive philosophers. There are rationalists and sensationalists and empiricists. There are deists and materialists and atheists. There are believers in moral sense and altruists and utilitarians. There are relativists and universalists, reformers and revolutionists, searchers for natural laws and classifiers of specimens.

The object of giving this crude and partial list of facets of the Enlightenment is to bring out Jefferson’s impressively complete participation in it. He displays a remarkable openness to the whole of the phenomenon. Almost every strain in it is to be found in his writings. This curious comprehensiveness is the other side of his lack of systematization. As in his staunch anti-metaphysical bias he has caught its negative essence, so in the sometimes apparently self-contradictory variety of his positive opinions, he seems to reflect the Enlightenment in its wholeness.

What I want to show, then, is that Jefferson’s views are not thoughtless but sensitive to a complex whole of thought, a single movement to whose contrasting moments he was alive. I do not mean to claim that he had reflected on their dialectical connection, but rather that he had caught the whole spirit of the Enlightenment.

To make such a demonstration it is necessary to have an understanding of the Enlightenment as a movement of thought that has an inner unity beyond that arising from mere style or contemporaneousness. There is a memorable presentation of the Enlightenment which achieves just that. It occurs as a high point of Hegel writings, in the Phenomenology of the Spirit (Chap. 4), in the History of Philosophy (Pt. 3), and in the Philosophy of History (Pt. 4).

I shall, therefore, engage in the intellectual exercise of trying to lift out of these works, as cautiously and compendiously as possible, a characterization of the Enlightenment. What makes this exercise permissible is that the Enlightenment, by its very intellectual nature, proves to be not the deep-rooted thought of one intellect, but a true movement of the spirit, a diffusion of opinion capable of being absorbed and propagated like an atmosphere. Hence it is peculiarly adapted to depiction within the Hegelian system. What makes the exercise peculiarly interesting is Hegel’s understanding of the Enlightenment as the prelude to the Revolutionary Terror in France. The Hegelian interpretation may help to pinpoint what intellectual modifications kept the American Enlightenment from issuing in an American Terror.

I shall, then, set down a list of the main features of the Enlightenment abstracted from Hegel’s writings, completing each item with references to those of Jefferson’s opinions bearing on the Hegelian characterizations and connecting the complex with the dialectical transitions that Hegel supplies. The terms that render the Hegelian analysis of the Enlightenment are italicized to distinguish them from the Jeffersonian echoes. All quotations are from Jefferson’s writings unless marked otherwise.

The Modes of Thought of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is for Hegel first of all a lay revolt against political, religious, and philosophical authority. Only self-conviction is binding; authority is to be banished both from the form and the content of opinion.

Jefferson too, writes: “Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven” (E 321). Hence his university was to be “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind to explore and expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation” (N 193). Accordingly, he considers himself competent to edit the Gospels and to cull the “genuine” portions from the theological accretions that are “impious heresies,” so as to make them palatable to rational men. And just as he saves Jesus from the theologians, so he wrests Socrates from the grip of Plato.

The pathos peculiar to this layman’s mode is self-assertion, self-confidence in the face of all problems. Not only is there a natural aristocracy of virtue and talents capable enough “to manage the concerns of society” (E 356), but, in general, “it is a part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate, to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance” (E 317).

In this mode nothing is taken as immediately given or acceptable; everything must be filtered through and reformed in accordance with the self. Opinion, therefore, becomes personal; right intention rather than right result count: “Differences of opinion…like differences of face, are a law of our nature, and should be viewed with the same tolerance” (B 120). Moreover, “You are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision…” (E 321). Furthermore, these differences are to be cherished: “…no one has a right to obstruct another, exercising his faculties innocently for the relief of sensibilities made a part of his nature” (P 273).

In its self-assurance, this mode of thought expects and obtains an easy victory. The diffusion of its ways and objects is as irresistible as that of a scent or contagion on the air, so that presently even its enemies are infected. Jefferson writes:

That ideas should freely spread from one part to another of the globe…seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space [B 125].

The peculiar character of this layman’s mode is a spirited, all-penetrating rationality, a brightness that mercilessly abolishes obscurity, a keenness that penetrates all pretense—a sharp and ubiquitous mental instrument: the understanding. Jefferson speaks of the “unbounded exercise of reason” (E 372) and observes: “Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these free inquiry must be indulged” (K 94).

The form proper to the mode of rationality is the judgment, the posited proposition that affirms and denies according to rigorous and rigid rules of logic, according to the laws of contradiction and identity. So it is natural for Jefferson to argue that there are no duties to self, since “with ourselves we stand on the ground of identity” (P 232).

Moreover, he can say in general: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god” (E 320).

Consequently, no metaphysical speculation is to be indulged in, for speculation is a kind of contemplated self-development of the object of thought, its response, as it were, to the thinker’s inner dialectic, whose outward form is philosophical conversation. In the mode of rationality, on the other hand, thinking operates firmly and decisively on an inert object. Rational thought is characteristically judgmental rather than meditatively receptive.

Jefferson considers, first, that “understanding is revelation from God” (A 385); that is, we may infer that there is no intellectual capacity higher than judging reason.

Where the understanding is unsuccessful in mastering its object, Jefferson regularly retreats to repose on the “pillow of ignorance” (B 263, K 103). He eschews discussion, public dialectic:

In stating the prudential rules for our government in society, I must not omit the important one of never entering into dispute or argument with another. I never saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument [CR 192].

And metaphysicians, “by which I mean investigators of the thinking faculty of man” (K 49), will turn out to be classed as zoologists, for the science of thought is a branch of zoology (K 67).

The judgments of reason must proceed according to principles, but these must be such as yield objects that are fully and soundly present. In judging, rationality means to lay hold of thought and thing and to control it completely and at once. It demands generality and unity, but also concreteness and presence. Its principles are therefore principles of correctness. The objects they govern are abstract concretions like nature, matter, mechanism, sensation, feeling.

Nature, matter, abstraction, moral instinct, are indeed all terms with which Jefferson is at home.

The name given to the faculty corresponding to this mode of thought is reason. It is a familiar term to Jefferson who, for example, comfortably uses the Baconian division of faculties—memory, reason, imagination, corresponding to the subjects of history, philosophy, fine arts—as a principle of classification for his library (K 105).

The characteristic driving desire of reason is to operate on that principle which allows it the most far-reaching and yet concrete consequences. Hence reason employs a principle of knowledge that provides both real presence and universality: sense experience, whose object will have to be matter.

Jefferson agrees: “Rejecting all organs of information, therefore, but my senses,” he trusts in them alone for only they “evidence realities” (K 102).

Hence all that is, is only insofar as it offers a presence for sensation. Perception is the mode of apprehension of such presences. Yet this sense perception is not a naive and unreflective, but a self-conscious, reception of sensation; it is observation, experience, experiment: empiricism.

Jefferson continually refers to “experiments” even in government (P 98), and to “experience,” which is for him “our only appeal” in questions concerning, for instance, the influence of climate on growth. He says, typically, “A patient pursuit of facts, and cautious combinations and comparison of them, is the drudgery to which man is subjected by his Maker, if he wishes to attain sure knowledge” (B 100). The knowledge that issues from such procedures is in the form of laws of nature, unifying principles of present being, which are not further grounded. So Jefferson is much interested in the laws governing concourses of motions and chains of cause and effect. He even sees such laws in human matters: “All the great laws of society are laws of nature” (B 173).

The soul, the sensing and thinking organ, is a very peculiar reflective organ. It is self-aware—in Hegel’s terms, “being for self”—but it is the self-awareness of that which is only in order to receive an other, “being for other.” And so it is assimilated to that other; it itself is an object of sense. A corresponding opposition is made and maintained between feeling and thinking. In this opposition, feeling is primary and thinking only a modification of feeling; “abstract thinking” is the merest manipulation of sense perception.

This whole complex is faithfully reflected by Jefferson, who had early on read the materialist Helvetius on the soul (Comm. Book 356). He is delighted by researches that prove “by anatomical structures of certain portions of the human frame, that they were capable of receiving from the hand of the Creator the faculty of thinking,” and he is equally delighted by further researches showing “that they have received it” (A 606). Thus, the study of thinking does rightly become a part of “zoology.” Again, Jefferson says, “I should…prefer swallowing one incomprehensibility rather than two. It requires one effort only to admit the single incomprehensibility of matter endowed with thought…” (A 562), but two efforts to accept first that spirit exists independently and then that it can move matter. Hence, the operations of consciousness come out of what is unconscious.

Jefferson never ceases to make the distinction between feeling and thinking, between “head” and “heart” (P 335), with the heart being ultimately the more trustworthy authority; for instance, the laws of nature were found “engraved on our hearts,” and moral questions are to be referred there. Feeling is one indubitable beginning of any inquiry concerning matter, spirit, motion. Hence Jefferson amends Descartes: “I was obliged to recur ultimately to my habitual anodyne, ‘I feel, therefore I exist.’ I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existences then.” (A 567).

In moral matters, then, when actions are to be determined, appeal must be made to the responses of a (moral) sense or a (social) instinct present in almost all men, and in general, decisions are referred to a sound “common sense.” But the deliverances of such sense, moral or common, always have the character of being both immediate and without appeal; that is, they are necessary and self-evident. Self-evidence characterizes moral and political argument.

Jefferson, accordingly, considers that

The moral sense is as much part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, hearing: as a wise Creator must have seen to be necessary in an animal destined to live in society; that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another [K 20].

And he writes of God that he “would have been a pitiful bungler if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science” (E 320, 359). Rather, man is endowed with a moral sense that is submitted only in a small degree to the guidance of reason but that speaks clearly and universally. Accordingly, the Declaration of Independence is the political embodiment of the appeal to self-evidence.

If the positive determination of the modes of thought of the Enlightenment are somewhat sparse it is because it puts its full vigor into criticism, into negativity. Its most serious enthusiasm is reserved for the attack on its prime enemy, faith. For faith and rationality are obverses. They are the two sides of one coin: both are about the same thing and yet where one appears the other must go. Reason sees priests and despots as the corrupt agents of irrational authority, and it sees the people, naive but sound, as its own natural allies.

Jefferson participates in this attack with never-flagging enthusiasm. It is the one field in which he allows himself to express immoderate aversion: “The priest is always in alliance with the despot” ( K136), while he praises the “good sense” and “steady character” (B 283) of the common people: “Cherish, therefore, the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention” (B 177). He regards the original principles of Jesus—the simple, plain preaching of love and charity—as having been obscured by designing priests:

In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves [K 25].

Jefferson’s dislike of Plato really stems from what he regards as his availability for theological exploitation:

The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticism of Plato materials with which they might build up an artificial system, which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment to their order, and introduce it to profit, power and preeminence [B 161].

According to Hegel, enlightened thought always takes faith on its own rational terms and misses the very point of faith. It is unenlightened about its own limitations. For instance, where faith sees a mystery—bread and God at once—reason insists, obtusely, that there is matter—dough. Where faith demands ritual, reason contents itself with intentions. Reason’s attack on faith is always along two contradictory lines, and always lacks awareness: First, reason claims that faith invents its own object, God, not realizing that faith agrees to part of this proposition, namely, that its object is indeed its very own. Second, reason argues that faith receives its object on the authority of deceiving priests, forgetting that in so intimate a matter, deception ought, on reason’s own claim concerning the universality of good sense, to be impossible.

Jefferson’s attack on religion follows this Hegelian description. He denounces the “metaphysical heads, usurping the judgement seat of God,” who condemn those “who cannot perceive the geometrical logic of Euclid in the demonstrations of St. Athanasius; that three is one and one is three; and yet that the one is not the three nor the three one” (P 211). Jefferson considers that religion ought to be entirely a matter of motive and intention, that Jesus “pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man, erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters of the fountain of the head” (K 30). Jefferson ends by claiming that religious dogmas are “totally unconnected with morality.” He means that they do not guide it: Morality does not come under religion, though theology comes under ethics. Yet he does not reflect that his God, “the author of all the relations of morality” and the bearer of numerous functions, who is yet perfectly unknowable, might present as great a mystery to the reason as does the god of religion.

The Objects of Thought of the Enlightenment

Reason itself then, according to Hegel, posits two objects—and, significantly, they are the exact counterparts to those of faith: one that is alien to itself and one that is its own. To these two objects correspond “two enlightenments.”

The first is the deistic enlightenment. Reason posits an object whose character is that it is a mere beyond of reason, a pure negative of thought, and whose purpose is simply to give reason an other, to give the judging faculty some source or ground, some bound or limit. This predicateless absolute is really the God of faith stripped of his attributes, a transcendental vacuum.

Accordingly, Jefferson translates John so as to account for reason in the world: “In the beginning, God existed and reason (or mind) was with God, and that mind was God” (K 37). Conversely, the world shows “evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power, to maintain the universe in its course and order” (CR 194). But reason is related to God only through ignorance. Jesus, Jefferson says, has told us that God is good and perfect, “but has not defined him…. We have neither words nor ideas adequate to that definition” (K 38). So that “of the nature of this being we know nothing” (K 37). Whatever faith may charge, this enlightenment is really not atheistic since it insists on the term God and attaches morality to this “beyond,” though it is not unfriendly to atheism. As Jefferson says, “The practice of morality being necessary for the well-being of society, he [God] has taken care to impress its precepts indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain” (B 162). Yet this attachment is not so necessary as to prevent an atheist from being moral: “If we did a good act merely from love of God…whence arises the morality of the Atheist?” (K 28).

The second Hegelian enlightenment is materialistic. In this facet, reason posits a mere presence, again a pure object of thought, the negative of the self-consciousness that characterizes thought. This negative is pure, self-less matter. The relation of the reasoning self to it is that of certainty, which means a relation through the senses, through sense-certainty. The self is activated by matter and finds itself in matter as actual. Matter is being understood as perceived being. Perceived being is, in its very character, being as it is for another, “being-for-other.” But such a being is nothing in itself, a mere abstraction; in its own terms it is devoid of taste, sight, or touch.

Jefferson, who pronounces himself an Epicurean (E 365), is so not only in respect to morals but also in respect to Epicurean materialism as adopted by the Enlightenment:

I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existences then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space…. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all certainties we can have or need [A 567].

But besides these basic abstractions, there is also a full matter complementing and completing them, namely nature, taken both in all her irreducible variety and as organizable into systems and relations having all the determinations necessary to a concrete object.

Jefferson attends to both these sides of concrete nature. He considers “That we make classifications, because no two animals and plants and even particles of matter are alike” (K 111). But he is also an admirer of the Newtonian system of attraction.

Finally, however, Hegel claims that the two great objects of thought of the Enlightenment turn out, on comparison, to be identical. For, as God was really not matter only because he was not present but beyond, so matter is really mere abstract opposition, otherness. Accordingly, Jefferson claims that the “two beings,” God and the universe, are co-eternally related as cause and effect (P 284), once God has created the world in one act, perfectly, but that even the early Christian Fathers considered the creator as material (K 104). God must be matter, for “To say that human soul, angels, God, are immaterial is to say that they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise” (B 114).

The Utilitarian Mode of the Object

Matter, the sole surviving object, has the following oscillating dialectical character: It is, as has been stated, only for an other, only something insofar as it is capable of being perceived. On the other hand, it is posited precisely as having independent presence, in order to be there, to be something in itself. This double aspect accurately describes the mode of utility.

The Enlightenment sees everything in this double mode. Man goes about nature as in a garden in which, on the one hand, everything is made and cherished by God in its existence for its own sake, while on the other, it is a nothing that is merely a peg for appearance. Man, the thinking self, a being both “in and for itself,” sees the world under its two aspects: as interesting in itself and as made for and useful to another, to a self. Thus, the self finds nature a heaven transplanted to earth, where there is to be found both truth (for things have a learnable being) and certainty (for things have a concrete presence).

For Jefferson, the mode of utility has various appearances. He himself is “not fond of reading what is merely abstract and not applied” (A 497), for he regards utility as a measure of the validity of knowledge. He also regards the senses as being made for use. That “the eye was made to see, and the ear to hear…[was] an answer as obvious to the senses, as that of walking across the room, was to the philosopher demonstrating the non-existence of motion” (K 28). Man’s passions, too, participate in the scheme of utility. The sensations of grief itself are intended for some good end. “All our other passions, within proper bounds, have an useful object” (P 268). Men’s moral relations among each other are regulated by utility, by the double character of “for himself” and “for the other,” of using and being used. In Jefferson’s view, the test of utility leads to relativity:

Nature has constituted utility to man, the standard and test of virtues…. The same act, therefore, may be useful, and consequently virtuous in one country…which is injurious and vicious in another differently circumstanced [P 234].

These universal relations of usefulness must be for the sake of augmented pleasure, which is the only end of utility in view of the fact that the soul is a material organ of sense. And such pleasure must be self-regulating. The very infinity and excessiveness that, for all their natural goodness, characterize human beings in pursuit of pleasure must result in a maximizing calculus of pleasure. Accordingly, Jefferson holds that “life is for gratification” (E305) and that pleasure, virtuous, balanced pleasure, is its aim. He recommends “the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicures ensure” (P 308). But he adds that those who lack a social disposition must be subjected to “demonstrations by sound calculation that honesty promotes interest in the long run” (E 360).

The Revolutionary Terror as Consequence of the Enlightenment

In the world of utility as Hegel sees it, everything that is, is for man. Man uses the world as if he were its creating god. The world as a whole reflects man’s purposes as a whole; purposeful reason, that is, the will, is made free of the world. Here is freedom made concrete, realized freedom. Concrete freedom means that the world is an incarnation of man’s—that is, mankind’s—universal will. In light of such a will, the will of all, each private person becomes nothing but a citizen, a member of the republic. All concrete particularities must cease so that all goals may become universals, for willing reason is by its nature universal. Hence every action becomes abstract, purely negative resistance to special interest. The political expression of this negativity is the Terror, whose single undifferentiated work is death. Hegel accounts for the Terror as follows:

The concrete expression of the concretely free will is virtue. Hence virtue becomes the principle of revolutionary government. But it is a political necessity that such government, to express the unity of the popular will, should be centralized, and it is equally a necessity that a government expressing the general will should be a particular group of men, who, in the view of the demand for universality, immediately and necessarily appear as a faction. Hence, a government is always guilty, guilty of expressing the general will through a particular fortuitous clique. The citizen’s condition is the complement to this guilt. He has no power to express his particular will, for the general will prevents such particularity. Therefore, he can have only private intentions, and these incur the government’s suspicion: every citizen is suspect. Such fanaticism of thought is the result of the too immediate realization of reason on earth. As Hegel says, “Not since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around him had it been perceived that man’s existence centers in his head, that is, in thought” (Phil. of Hist.).

Up to this point, each moment of the Enlightenment that Hegel establishes has had an echo in Jefferson’s writings. But now this correspondence fails: that concluding movement by which the Enlightenment issues into the world as politics is not only missing, it is, one might almost say, repudiated by Jefferson.

First, he repudiates a view of himself “as a theorist, holding French principles of government, which would lead to licentiousness and anarchy” (P230). He has heard of the Confessions but shows no interest in Rousseau, the French Revolution’s own philosopher. He obliquely refers to Robespierre as undesirable (C 75). While Hegel calls Napoleon the heir of the Revolution, the “World Soul,” Jefferson regards him as the greatest destroyer of the human race. This staunchest of all American defenders of the French Revolution came to regard its immediate outcome as a catastrophe and an execration (E 357).

But what is more important, all Jefferson’s political opinions run counter to those of the terroristic Enlightenment described above. His ideal, realized in the adoption of the Constitution, is a change of government “under the authority of reason only, without bloodshed” (K 187). He views republican government not as a government embodying the general will, but as one in which individual wills are represented, one “wherein the will of everyone has a just influence” (E 314). He is forever considering ways to prevent centralization of government, to disperse it and its officials. He favors a system of representation for the higher levels, partly because it can avert demagoguery (K 152). He favors ward government locally because it will bring into being a number of very small, directly governed republics. He is a firm majoritarian but does not believe the minority should be left without recourse. But above all, he does not regard the individual as nothing but a citizen. On the contrary, nothing is more important to him than to prevent the government from encroaching on those rights reserved by natural law to the private person, and it is to prevent such encroachments that he defends such “fences” as freedom of religion, trial by jury, habeas corpus, and a free press: “The ordinary purposes of society do not require a surrender of all our rights” (K 141).

But most important of all is his utter lack of a wish to universalize concretely—for instance, to give truth the force of law. He states that “Christianity and Newtonianism” are “reason and verity itself” and are yet not to be given dominion over other sects by law (Comm. Book 356). Truth can never be helped by being forcibly realized by law: “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry…” (E 382). No more does he think that reason should universally prevail:

Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the uncertain combinations of the head…. If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the beyond, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts, where should we have been now? [Conway letter 450-51]

Jefferson, then, is recalcitrant to what Hegel posits as the ultimate development of the Enlightenment chiefly in that he refuses reason its full universality and dominance. He stubbornly preserves the distinction between the private and the civic realm. But he does it in what appears to me a peculiar and distinctive way. He assigns the private realm to the head, which is narrow in its purposes, impotent in its advice, and “whimsical” in its theories. He reserves to the generous heart the sphere of public-spirited action; it is the source of public excellence. But—and this is the crux—the heart itself speaks the language of reason. Jefferson remains within a mode Hegel himself delineates—the mode of felt reason, of reason as an efflorescence of feeling.

Jefferson as the Dilettante of the Enlightenment

I have wished to show that if we are guided by Hegel’s very deep and unifying presentation of the various facets of the Enlightenment, then we can find in Jefferson’s writings a recognition of almost all of them. The converse is not true, to be sure. Numerous Jeffersonian ramifications have been omitted from this survey, though I do not think they shatter the picture.

The use of this exercise is to show that Jefferson is a kind of incarnate compendium of the Enlightenment. His remarkable openness to its spirit is the philosophical counterpart to his political sensitivity in making himself “a passive auditor of the opinions of others,” so as to catch the “harmonizing sentiments of the day” and to incorporate them into a document that would be “an expression of the American mind,” the Declaration of Independence (Casebook, 31, 33).

Hegel regards the Enlightenment as the layman’s movement in philosophy. We may say that Jefferson was the layman of the layman’s movement, its deliberate dilettante. Much of what appears thoughtlessly shallow, obtusely idiosyncratic, willfully unreflective in his writings is directly attributable to his resistance to making professions, to being a professional philosopher. Hence the unity and wholeness of his views remains implicit, appearing only as reflected in the unmistakable stamp of his style. His thought is fragmented, incomplete, curtailed.

In part, this curtailment is the consequence of the often lamented lack of leisure resulting from public service. The Founding Fathers frequently express a Mosaic sense of preparing a world in which they cannot share. Thus Adams: “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy” (E 188). But, in part, at least in Jefferson’s case, this curtailment aided the success of his political work, for it guaranteed the absence of that intellectual fanaticism of a thoroughgoing, book-bred reason that marks the French Revolution. The answer, then, to the title question is, No, Jefferson is not a philosopher in the full sense. But in his wide delectation for inquiry he makes plain the way for philosophy. It seems to me unjust to blame on Jefferson any supposed prejudice against philosophical depth in American life. On the contrary, Madison’s appreciation of Jefferson is exact and just: “the Genius of Philosophy ever walked hand in hand with him” (E 477).

This essay was originally published in Law and Philosophy: The Practice of Theory: Essays in Honor of George Anastaplo, Vol. 2 (1992) and is republished with gracious permission from the author. 

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


A: The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester C. Cappon. Vol. 2, 1812- 1826 (1959).

B: Boorstin, Daniel. The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (1948).

C: Crusade Against Ignorance: Thomas Jefferson on Education, ed. Gordon C. Lee (1961).

Casebook: A Casebook on the Declaration of Independence, ed. Robert Ginsberg (1967).

Comm. Book: The Literary Bible of Thomas Jefferson: His Commonplace Book of Philosophers and Poets, ed. Gilbert Chinard (1928).

Conway Letter: 1786. In The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian Boyd. Vol. 10 1950-, pp. 443ff.

CR: American Civil Religion, ed. R. E. Richey and D. S. Jones (1974).

E: The American Enlightenment, ed. Adrienne Koch (1965).

K: Koch, Adrienne. The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (1943).

N: Nock, Albert J. Jefferson (1926).

P: A Jefferson Profile, ed. Saul K. Padover (1956).

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1 reply to this post
  1. It would be fair to say that Jefferson, while intellectually curious and open to the intellectual movements of his day, refused to confine himself to any rigid ideology, preferring to go where the facts led him. He could change his mind about the French Revolution once its true nature revealed itself during the Terror. Thomas Paine, on the other hand, refused to admit to the French Revolution’s excesses, and nearly lost his head as a result.

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