Happy birthday to one of my favorite writers, Thomas Jefferson! He had an incredible political career, but was much more than a politician – he was a political philosopher. And that’s one of the reasons I love him.
Philosophy is the love and pursuit of wisdom. The purpose of philosophy is to get at the true causes of things, the highest principles, and to apply that knowledge to life.
Politics is the science (yes, it’s supposed to be a science) of ethics and government.
When you put politics and philosophy together to make political philosophy, you get something fascinating. It’s way, way more embracive than “politics” or being “a politician”.
Jefferson at heart was a philosopher. He explored questions like:
- Is it truly justifiable for anyone to govern other people? Or should they govern themselves?
- What gives someone the right to govern? What makes them qualified?
- What should the purpose of government be? What is “good” government?
- How much government is too much and when does it turn into government interference?
- Does government ever have the right to govern religious beliefs?
I started reading Jefferson many years ago when I was interested in the roots of religious freedom in this country. I knew that many who came to this country arrived to escape religious intolerance, yet when they arrived here, they weren’t tolerant of each other. For example, the Puritans did not like the Catholics, and vice versa. Many examples of religious intolerance at that time.
I was interested in how our laws on religious freedom got started and, specifically, who initiated them. This led me to the writings of Thomas Jefferson.
He wrote the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom in 1777 and it became the inspiration for our First Amendment. Jefferson explored the philosophy and principles underlying religious freedom and wrote beautifully about it. Like all of his works, the writing itself is a work of art.
“The rights to religious freedom are of the natural rights of mankind, and if any act shall be passed to repeal an act granting those rights or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”
His philosophy about “natural rights” was woven through much of his work, including the Declaration of Independence which stated “natural law” (not man-made law) was the philosophical basis for our declaration of freedom. Because our freedoms are rooted in natural law (or as he put it “the Laws of Nature”), no man-made law could ever legislate them out of existence.
This philosophic view of the natural rights of mankind was the foundation of his political philosophy and contributed greatly to the democracy and freedoms we have today.
He was a passionate and fierce philosopher, especially when it came to freedoms and rights. You can see it in his eyes in this actual life mask of his face, made 1 year before his death. The intensity of his being clearly emanates. He is penetrating. You can imagine him looking straight into your eyes and talking to you with intensity and conviction about freedoms … and why you should be free … free to pursue your life, liberty and happiness. And government’s true role creating a physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual environment where you can flourish and prosper.
It is from this philosophy that politics can create executable strategy and tactics. Without philosophy, we have meaningless politics and meaningless politicians.
To my mind, if more people understood political philosophy, our politics would be more to our liking. That includes studying the political philosophers who came before (another one of my favorites is Pericles of Athens who ingeniously created a marvelous Golden Age with a revolutionary democracy), as well as becoming philosophers ourselves … this is different than just being a moralist who asserts what’s right and what’s wrong … this is the pursuit of higher truths, the philosophical truths, of nature and humanity.
One of my great pleasures is reading Thomas Jefferson. The estimate is that, in addition to his numerous published political documents, he wrote 18,624 letters, which keep me satisfyingly supplied.
Unfortunately I know hardly anyone else who reads him (haven’t found the book club). His writing requires high literacy to grasp its beauty and power. I grew up reading the dictionary and passionately love words. For me, his writing deeply nourishes my soul, intellect and emotions. His philosophy truly reaches for the essence, for the highest principles, of humanity and all politics … and leaves me feeling refreshed and optimistic.
He believed in people. He believed in the common man. He believed in your intelligence and ability to do the right thing. He believed in our ability to govern ourselves. To find truth and act on it.
“It is error alone which needs the support of government,” he wrote. “Truth can stand by itself.”
Happy Birthday, Tom!