Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 3 December 1813

From John Adams

Quincy Decr 3. 13

Dear Sir

The Proverbs of the old greek Poets, are as Short and pithy as any of Solomon or Franklin. Hesiod has Several. His

Αθανατους μεν πρωτα θεους νομω, ως δiακeitai

Τiμα. Honour the Gods established by Law. I know not how We can escape Martyrdom, without a discreet Attention to this præcept. you have Suffered, and I have Suffered more than you,1 for want of a Strict if not a due observance of this Rule.

There is another Oracle of this Hesiod, which requires a kind of dance upon a tight rope, and a Slack rope too, in Philosophy and Theology

ΠίϜiς δ’ ἄρα ὁμῶς καὶ ἀπίϜιας ὤλεσαν ἀνδρας.

If believing too little or too much, is So fatal to Mankind what will become of Us all?

In Studying the Perfectability of human Nature and its progress towards perfection, in this World, on this Earth, (remember that) I have met many curious things, and interesting Characters.

About three hundred years ago, There appeared a number of Men of Letters, who appeared to endeavour to believe neither too little, nor too much. They laboured to imitate the Hebrew Archers who could Shoot to an hairs breadth. The Pope and his Church believed too much: Luther and his Church believed too little. This little band was headed by three great Scholars, Erasmus, Vives, and Budeus. This Triumvirate is Said to have been at the head of the Republick of Letters, in that Age. Had Condorcet been Master of his Subject, I fancy he would have taken more Notice in his History of the progress of Mind, of these Characters. Have you their Writings? I wish I had. I Shall confine myself at present to Vives. He wrote Commentaries on the City of God of St. Augustine, Some parts of which were censured by the Doctors of the Louvain as too bold and too free. I know not, whether the following passage of the learned Spaniard was among the Sentiments condemned, or not.

“I have been much afflicted,” Says Vives, “when I have Seriously considered, how diligently, and with what exact care, the Actions of Alexander, Hannibal, Scipio Pompey, Cæsar and other Commanders: and the Lives of Socrates Plato Aristotle, and other Phylosophers, have been written and fixed in an everlasting Remembrance, So that there is not the least danger they can ever be lost: but then the Acts of the Apostles and Martyrs and Saints of our religion and of the Affairs of the rising and established Church, being involved in much darkness, are almost totally unknown, though they are of so much greater Advantage, than the Lives of the Phylosophers, or great Generals, both as to the improvement of our knowledge and Practice. For, what is written of these holy men, except a very few things is very much corrupted and defaced, with the mixture of many fables; while the Writer, indulging his own humour, doth not tell Us what the Saint did, but what the Historian would have had him done: and the fancy of the Writer dictates the Life and not the truth of things.” And again, Vives Says

“There have been men, who have thought it a great piece of Piety, to invent Lies for the sake of religion.”

The great Cardinal Barronius too, confesses “There is nothing, which Seems So much neglected to this day, as a true and certain Account of the Affairs of the Church, collected with an exact diligence. And that I may Speak of the more Ancient, it is very difficult to find any of them, who have published Commentaries on this Subject which have hit the truth in all points.”

Canus, too another Spanish Prelate of great name Says “I Speak it with grief, and not by way of reproach, Laertius has written the lives of the Philosophers, with more care and industry, than the Christians have those of the Saints; Suetonius has represented the Lives of the Cæsars with much more truth and Sincerity, than the Catholicks have the Affairs, I will not Say of the Emperors, but even those of the Martyrs, holy Virgins and Confessors. For they have not concealed the Vices nor the very Suspicions of Vice, in good and commendable Philosophers or Princes, and in the worst of them, they discover the very colours or Appearances of Virtue. But the greatest part of our Writers, either follow the Conduct of their Affections, or industriously fain many things; So that I, for my part am very often both weary and ashamed of them; because I know they have thereby brought nothing of Advantage to the Church of Christ, but very much inconvenience.”

Vives and Canus are Moderns, but Arnobius the Converter of Lactantius was ancient. He Says “But neither could all that was done be written or arrive at the knowledge of all men. Many of our great Actions being done by obscure Men, and those who had no knowledge of Letters: and if Some of them are committed to Letters and Writings; yet even here, by the malice of the Devils, and of men like them, whose great design and Study it is to intercept and ruin this truth, by interpolating, or adding Some things to them, or by changing or taking out Words, Syllables, or Letters, they have put a Stop to the Faith of wise Men, and corrupted the truth of things.”

Indeed, Mr Jefferson, what could be invented to debase the ancient Christianism, which Greeks Romans, Hebrews, and Christian Factions, above all the Catholicks, have not fraudulently imposed upon the Publick? Miracles after Miracles have rolled down in Torrents, Wave Succeeding Wave, in the Catholic Church from the Council of Nice, and long before, to this day.

Aristotle, no doubt, thought his “Οὔτε πᾶσα πιϜέυοντες, Οὔτε πᾶσιν ἀπιϜοῦντες,” very wise and very profound: but what is its Worth? What Man, Woman or Child, ever believed, every Thing, or nothing?

Oh! that Priestley could live again! and have leisure and means. An Enquirer after Truth, who had neither time nor means might request him to search and research for answers to a few Questions.

1. Have We more than two Witnesses of the Life of Jesus? Mathew and John?

2. Have We one Witness to the Existence of Mathews Gospel in the first Century?

3. Have We one Witness of the Existence of John’s Gospell in the first Century?

4. Have We one Witness of the Existence of Marks Gospell in the first Century?

5 Have We one Witness of the Existence of Lukes Gospell in the first Century?

6. Have We any Witness of the existence of St. Thomas’s Gospell, that is the Gospell of the Infancy in the first Century?

7. Have We any Evidence of the Existence of the Acts of the Apostles in the first Century?

8. Have We any Evidence of the Existence of the Supplement to the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, or Paul and Tecle, in the first Century?

Here I was interrupted, by a new book, Chataubriands Travels in Greece Palestine and Egypt2 and by a Lung Fever, with which the amiable Companion [of]3 my Life has been violently And dangerously attacked.

December 13. I have fifty more questions to put to Priestley: but must adjourn them to a future opportunity.

I have read Chateaubriand, with as much delight, as I ever read Bunyan Pilgrims Progress, Robinson Crusoes Travels or Gullivers; or Whitefields; or Wesleys4 Life; or the Life of St. Francis, St Anthony or St Ignatius Loyaula. A Work of infinite Learning, perfectly well written, a Magazine of Information: but an enthusiastic, biggotted, Superstitious Roman Catholic throughout. If I were to indulge in jealous criticism and Conjecture, I Should Suspect, that there had been an Œccumenical Counsel of Pope Cardinals and Bishops, and that this Traveller has been employed at their expence, to make this tour, to lay a foundation for the resurrection of the Catholic Hierarchy in Europe.

Have you read La Harpes Course de Litterature, in 15. Volumes? have you read St. Pierres Studies of Nature?

I am now reading the Controversy between Voltaire and Nonotte.

Our Friend Rush has given Us for his last Legacy, an Analysis of Some of the diseases of the Mind. Johnson Said We are all more or less mad; and who is or has been more mad than Johnson?

I know of no Philosopher, or Theologian, or Moralist ancient or modern more profound; more infallible than Whitefield, if the Anecdote that I have heard be true.

He began; “Father Abraham”! with his hands and Eyes gracefully directed to the Heavens as I have more than once Seen him; “Father Abraham,” “who have you there with you”? have you Catholicks?”5 No. “Have you Protestants.” No. “Have you Churchmen.” No. Have you Dissenters.”6 No. “Have you Presbyterians”? No. “Quakers”? No. Anabaptists”?7 No. “Who have you then? Are8 you alone”? No.

“My Brethren,! you have the Answer to all these questions in the Words of my Text, He9 who feareth God and worketh Righteousness, Shall be accepted of him.”

Allegiance to the Creator and Governor of the Milky Way and the Nebulæ, and Benevolence to all his Creatures, is my Religion. Si quid novisti rectius istis, Candidus imperti.—

I am as ever

John Adams

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “President Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 24 Dec. 1813 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers).

Αθανατους μεν πρωτα θεους νομω, ως δiακeitai Τiμα (“Honor the immortal gods first, in the order appointed by custom”) is from the first line of the Carmen aureum, which was not composed by Hesiod (Johan C. Thom, ed., The Pythagorean Golden Verses: With Introduction and Commentary [1995], ix, 15, 31–3, 57–8, 94–5). ΠίϚiς δ’ ἄρα ὁμῶς καὶ ἀπίϚιας ὤλεσαν ἀνδρας: “for both trust and distrust have destroyed men” (Hesiod, Works and Days, 372, in Hesiod, trans. Glenn W. Most, Loeb Classical Library [2006], 1:116–7). Hebrew stone-throwers, not archers, were said to be able to hit an hairs breadth in the Bible, Judges 20.16.

The two quotations by Juan Luis vives are from De Tradendis Disciplinis, book 5, chap. 2 (Foster Watson, ed., Vives: On Education [1913], 248–9). That ostensibly from Cesare Baronio (barronius) is in a preface added to a posthumous edition of his Annales Ecclesiastici (Antwerp, 1670–77), vol. 1. That by Melchor (Melchior) Cano (canus) is from De Locis Theologicis, book 11, chap. 6 (Salamanca, 1563). arnobius’s quotation is from The Seven Books of Arnobius Adversus Gentes, book 1, chap. 56 (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Christian Library [1871], 19:46–7). In 325 A.D. the ecumenical council of nice (Nicaea; present-day Iznik, Turkey) condemned Arianism and established the Nicene Creed.

Οὔτε πᾶσα πιϚέυοντες, Οὔτε πᾶσιν ἀπιϚοῦντες: “neither trusting nor distrusting all” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, 2.14, in Aristotle with an English translation: The “Art” of Rhetoric, trans. John Henry Freese, Loeb Classical Library [1926], 254–5). The Acts of peter and paul and of paul and tecle (Thecla) are apocryphal works of the New Testament (James K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation [1993], 364–74, 428–9). The new book was François René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt, and Barbary, during the years 1806 and 1807, trans. Frederic Shoberl (Philadelphia, 1813). lung fever: “pneumonia” (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ). studies of nature: Jacques Bernardin Henri de Saint-Pierre, Études de la Nature, new ed., 5 vols. (Paris, 1804). The French Jesuit Claude Adrien Nonnotte (nonotte) engaged in an extended polemical debate with Voltaire over the latter’s writings against religion.

we are all more or less mad: Samuel Johnson wrote that “Disorders of intellect … happen much more often than superficial observers will easily believe. Perhaps, if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state” (The Prince of Abissinia. A Tale [London, 1759], 2:116). The anecdote about George Whitefield is substantially confirmed in Joseph B. Wakeley, Anecdotes of the Rev. George Whitefield (1872), 134–5. he who feareth god and worketh righteousness, shall be accepted of him is from the Bible, Acts 10.35. si quid novisti rectius istis, candidus imperti: “If you know something better than these precepts, pass it on, my good fellow,” from Horace, Epistles, 1.6.67 (Fairclough, Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica description begins H. Rushton Fairclough, trans., Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, Loeb Classical Library, 1926, repr. 2005 description ends , 290–1).

1Remainder of sentence interlined.

2Preceding three words interlined.

3Omitted word editorially supplied. FC: “partner of.”

4Manuscript: “Westleys.”

5Omitted opening quotation mark editorially supplied.

6Omitted opening quotation mark editorially supplied.

7Omitted opening quotation mark editorially supplied.

8Superfluous opening quotation mark in front of this word editorially omitted.

9Superfluous opening quotation mark in front of this word editorially omitted.

Index Entries

  • Adams, Abigail Smith (John Adams’s wife); health of search
  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on human progress search
  • Adams, John; on J. Priestley search
  • Adams, John; on M. Condorcet search
  • Adams, John; on religion search
  • Alexander (“the Great”), king of Macedon search
  • Anthony of Egypt, Saint search
  • Aristotle; quoted search
  • Aristotle; study of search
  • Arnobius; quoted search
  • Augustine, Saint search
  • Baronio (Baronius), Cesare; quoted search
  • Bible; Acts referenced search
  • Bible; apocrypha search
  • Bible; authenticity of search
  • Bible; J. Adams on search
  • Bible; John referenced search
  • Bible; Judges referenced search
  • Bible; Luke referenced search
  • Bible; Mark referenced search
  • Bible; Matthew referenced search
  • Budé, Guillaume search
  • Bunyan, John; The Pilgrim’s Progress search
  • Caesar, Julius; mentioned search
  • Cano (Canus), Melchor (Melchior); De Locis Theologicis search
  • Carmen aureum; quoted search
  • Catholicism; criticized search
  • Chateaubriand, François Auguste René, vicomte de; Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt, and Barbary, during the years 1806 and 1807 search
  • Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de; J. Adams on search
  • Defoe, Daniel; Robinson Crusoe search
  • De Locis Theologicis (M. Cano) search
  • Diogenes Laertius; Lives of Eminent Philosophers (trans. R. D. Hicks) search
  • Erasmus, Desiderius; and Renaissance search
  • Études de la Nature (Saint-Pierre) search
  • Francis of Assisi, Saint search
  • Franklin, Benjamin; J. Adams on search
  • Hannibal search
  • health; pneumonia search
  • Hesiod (Greek poet); quoted search
  • Hesiod (Greek poet); quote misattributed to search
  • Hicks, Robert D., trans.; Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Diogenes Laertius) search
  • Horace; quoted by J. Adams search
  • Ignatius of Loyola, Saint search
  • Jesus; J. Adams on search
  • Johnson, Samuel; quoted by J. Adams search
  • Lactantius, Lucius Caecilius Firmianus (early Christian author) search
  • La Harpe, Jean François de; Lycée ou Cours De Littérature Ancienne Et Moderne search
  • Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Diogenes Laertius; trans. R. D. Hicks) search
  • Luther, Martin; J. Adams on search
  • Lycée ou Cours De Littérature Ancienne Et Moderne (J. F. La Harpe) search
  • Medical Inquiries and Observations, upon the Diseases of the Mind (B. Rush) search
  • Nicaea; ecumenical council at search
  • Nonnotte, Claude Adrien; and attacks on Voltaire search
  • Plato; mentioned search
  • Pompeius Magnus, Gnaeus (Pompey the Great) search
  • Priestley, Joseph; J. Adams on search
  • religion; J. Adams on search
  • Robinson Crusoe (D. Defoe); J. Adams mentions search
  • Rush, Benjamin; Medical Inquiries and Observations, upon the Diseases of the Mind search
  • Saint-Pierre, Jacques Bernardin Henri de; Études de la Nature search
  • Scipio Africanus, Publius Cornelius search
  • Socrates (Athenian philosopher); mentioned search
  • Solomon (king of Israel) search
  • Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus); reliability of search
  • Swift, Jonathan; Travels into several Remote Nations of the World … by Lemuel Gulliver search
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress (J. Bunyan) search
  • Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt, and Barbary, during the years 1806 and 1807 (Chateaubriand) search
  • Travels into several Remote Nations of the World … by Lemuel Gulliver (J. Swift) search
  • Vives, Juan Luis; quoted search
  • Voltaire (François Marie Arouet); criticized search
  • Wesley, John; biographies of search
  • Whitefield, George; religious beliefs of search