……………………..Limits are for governments.

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams: On Wading Through the Whimsies, Sophisms & Futilities of Plato


jefferson-via-tbnI am just returned from one of my long absences, having been at my other home for five weeks past. Having more leisure there than here for reading, I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s republic. I am wrong however in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. While wading thro’ the whimsies, the puerilities, & unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? How the soi-disant Christian world indeed should have done it, is a piece of historical curiosity. But how could the Roman good sense do it? and particularly how could Cicero bestow such eulogies on Plato? Altho’ Cicero did not wield the dense logic of Demosthenes, yet he was able, learned, laborious, practised in the business of the world, & honest. He could not be the dupe of mere style, of which he was himself the first master in the world.

With the moderns, I think, it is rather a matter of fashion and authority. Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and the dreams of Plato. They give the tone while at school, and few, in their after-years, have occasion to revise their college opinions. But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities, & incomprehensibilities, and what remains? In truth he is one of the race of genuine Sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly by the adoption & incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity.

His foggy mind, is for ever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen thro’ a mist, can be defined neither in form or dimension. Yet this which should have consigned him to early oblivion really procured him immortality of fame & reverence. The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from it’s indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power & pre-eminence.

The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained. Their purposes however are answered. Plato is canonised: and it is now deemed as impious to question his merits as those of an Apostle of Jesus. He is peculiarly appealed to as an advocate of the immortality of the soul; and yet I will venture to say that were there no better arguments than his in proof of it, not a man in the world would believe it.

It is fortunate for us that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like the beasts of the field or forest. Yet ‘Plato is a great Philosopher,’ said La Fontaine. But says Fontenelle ‘do you find his ideas very clear’?—‘oh no! he is of an obscurity impenetrable.’—‘do you not find him full of contradictions?’—‘certainly, replied La Fontaine, he is but a Sophist.’ Yet immediately after, he exclaims again, ‘oh Plato was a great philosopher.’—Socrates had reason indeed to complain of the misrepresentations of Plato; for in truth his dialogues are libels on Socrates.—but why am I dosing you with these Ante-diluvian topics? Because I am glad to have some one to whom they are familiar, and who will not recieve them as if dropped from the moon…

~Thos. Jefferson July 5, 1814





7 responses

  1. Hi Zeke,

    Recently bought ‘The Adams-Jefferson Letters,’ no wonder Thomas Jefferson fascinates,
    and John Adams too.

    Plato, model for philosopher kings down the ages. Thank goodness for Karl Popper and
    The Open Society and its Enemies. Socrates as Plato’s sock puppet.

    …Say, a bit spooky, your themes and my blog posts, tho’ I am but a serf, ) … Jefferson,
    Plato, even mentioning Norman Borlaug.

    Another book I read and reread, Arthur Herman’s ‘The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scot’s
    Invention of the Modern World.’ And while I’m here, Patrick O’ Brian’s ‘Master and Commander’
    Series. (Lots of British Admiralty Archives research and fascinating characters, someone said
    Jane Austin at Sea . Yes, but more robust.


    May 12, 2017 at 3:39 am

  2. Hi Beththeserf,

    Glad to see you dropped by. Whenever you need to comment, it should go straight through without moderation.

    Aren’t some books put into your path for you to find?

    The Open Society and It’s Enemies and The Myth of the Framework are books which I found by browsing in just exactly the right place at just exactly the right moments. And then the same “spooky action at a distance” (as the physicists call it) seems to work with people also. I have learned to just enjoy and not try to explain the synchronicity of these things, but the internet does make it more visible or perceivable. So I am guessing people who spontaneously discuss certain subjects on the internet have something spiritually in common. But I do see synchronicity as going on all around us, and never under conscious control. And of course, the real word for it is Providence! Other than that it is almost impossible to find another Open Society/Karl Popper reader, cheers to that — however it works (:

    I probably need to look at the Scot’s Invention of the Modern World. Although, I am not a Darwinist so it might not be such a compliment to the Scots to have invented that. The Encyclopedia Britannica is good though!

    Scottish Thistle

    Where you and I diverge is over Classical Civilisation. Like Plato, the bad ideas that held Europe in thrall trace back to Greco-Roman headwaters. It was in abandoning the errors of Classical writers that life could begin. It was a very difficult and costly task that took place only a few centuries ago. My views on the Greeks and Romans are informed by the Book of Daniel, which is familiar to some because of the succession of beasts in the middle of the Book (Ch 7, etc.). Those beasts are world empires, and include the Greeks and Romans. And today there is another beast modeled on the previous world empires, but it will be worse than all of them. So we have this difference. And by the way, Karl Popper saw the Classical writers as the original fonts of man’s first philosophy and science, and he is dismissive of the Industrial Revolution as not really science, just technology. But in that I disagree with him and most people. I commend your carefully researched work and deeply thought out blog and in general don’t hold the Romans against you. (:

    What is this Jane Austin at sea? After two worthy recommends, I might be tempted by a set. Master and Commander is one of my favorite movies. Incredible score.


    May 12, 2017 at 10:08 am

    • I love yer thoughtful words. This comment touches me. Re ‘Master and Commander, ‘Re the the Jane Austin
      at sea, it concerns the M/C delineation of character, the friendship between two very different men connected
      by a senseof duty (in a non-petty sense.) But M/C takes place on a more robust stage than ‘Pride and Prejudice’
      or ‘Persuasion’.

      I shall come back and reread yr comment. Serfs do that.

      PS I am writing a short story about a hidden valley. )

      May 14, 2017 at 2:26 am

  3. Well, you know, you mentioned how we have blogged about similar subjects and said spooky — so of course I sit up here in the rain and think about those sorts of coincidences. I often wonder about how a little blog like WUWT and tallbloke’s and a few others caused such a disruption to the multi-billion dollar AGW industry. And they don’t even have any money! However that happened, thank heavens they did.

    Look forward to your forays into fiction.

    The Jefferson-Adams Letters have a nice index, so you can jump into the middle of their conversations that way. I like the letters they wrote after they retired, and their jokes about getting old and slowing down. But their wits are sharper then ever, and you can see the respect they have for each other, despite their differences. Adams always can be counted on to tell Jefferson the truth when he gets off base. Jefferson wants to start a state University.
    They have their dyanamics, a little like the doctor and the Captain in Master & Commander. It’s good fun.

    Funny how we all get involved in each other’s politics now in Oz, the US and the UK. Canada is too hopeless to mention so I won’t. (:

    May 14, 2017 at 9:50 pm

  4. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our commun6ity and I enjoyed reading your work. If “OK” please let me know via email.


    July 7, 2017 at 10:46 am

    • Hello Autumn,

      The quote is from an online version of the Adams-Jefferson letters, and the photo of the new Jefferson sculpture is in common use on the web. You are welcome to cross post the title, which is the only part I wrote. I will drop by to see what you have going at WriterBeat com. Thanks very much dropping by.

      July 13, 2017 at 5:43 pm

  5. Don’t know why I’m sending this, the mysterious is
    lovely to us, it seems… Robert Frost.

    One Step Backward Taken

    Not only sands and gravels
    Were once more on their travels,
    But gulping muddy gallons
    Great boulders off their balance
    Bumped heads together dully
    And started down the gully.
    Whole capes caked off in slices.
    I felt my standpoint shaken
    In the universal crisis.
    But with one step backward taken
    I saved myself from going.
    A world torn loose went by me.
    Then the rain stopped and the blowing,
    And the sun came out to dry me.

    August 6, 2017 at 3:02 am

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