Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 12 October 1813

To John Adams

Monticello Oct. 12. 13.

Dear Sir

Since mine of Aug. 22. I have recieved your favors of Aug. 16. Sep. 2. 14. 15. and ___ and mrs Adams’s of Sep. 20. I now send you, according to your request a copy of the Syllabus. to fill up this skeleton with arteries, with veins, with nerves, muscles and flesh, is really beyond my time and information. whoever could undertake it would find great aid in Enfield’s judicious abridgment of Brucker’s history of Philosophy, in which he has reduced 5. or1 6. quarto vols of 1000. pages each of Latin closely printed, to two moderate 8vos of English, open, type.

To compare the morals of the old, with those of the new testament, would require an attentive study of the former, a search thro’ all it’s books for it’s precepts, and through all it’s history for it’s practices, and the principles they prove. as commentaries too on these, the philosophy of the Hebrews must be enquired into, their Mishna, their Gemara, Cabbala, Jezirah, Sohar, Cosri and their Talmud must be examined and understood, in order to do them full justice. Brucker, it should seem, has gone deeply into these Repositories of their ethics, and Enfield, his epitomiser, concludes in these words. “‘Ethics were so little studied among the Jews, that, in their whole compilation called the Talmud, there is only one treatise on moral subjects.—2their books of Morals chiefly consisted in a minute enumeration of duties. from the law of Moses were deduced 613. precepts, which were divided into two classes, affirmative and negative, 248 in the former, and 365 in the latter.—it may serve to give the reader some idea of the low state of moral philosophy among the Jews in the Middle age, to add, that of the 248. affirmative precepts, only 3. were considered as obligatory upon women; and that, in order to obtain salvation, it was judged sufficient to fulfill any one single law in the hour of death; the observance of the rest being deemed necessary, only to increase the felicity of the future life. what a wretched depravity of sentiment & manners must have prevailed before such corrupt maxims could have obtained credit! it is impossible to collect from these writings3 a consistent series of moral Doctrine.’” Enfield B. 4. chap. 3. it was the reformation of this ‘wretched depravity’ of morals which Jesus undertook. in extracting the pure principles which he 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 them. we must dismiss the Platonists & Plotinists, the Stagyrites & Gamalielites, the Eclectics the Gnostics & Scholastics4 their essences & emanations, their Logos & Demi-urgos, Aeons & Daemons male & female, with a long train of Etc. Etc. Etc. or, shall I say at once, of Nonsense. we must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the Amphibologisms into which they have been led by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging, the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. the result is an 8vo of 46. pages of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed & acted on by the unlettered apostles, the Apostolic fathers, and the Christians of the 1st century. their Platonising successors indeed, in after times, in order to legitimate the corruptions which they had incorporated into the doctrines of Jesus, found it necessary to disavow, the primitive Christians, who had taken their principles from the mouth of Jesus himself, of his Apostles, & the Fathers cotemporary with them. they excommunicated their followers as heretics, branding them with the opprobrious name of Ebionites or Beggars.

For a comparison of the Graecian philosophy with that of Jesus, materials might be largely drawn from the same source. Enfield gives a history, & detailed account of the opinions & principles of the different sects. these relate to

the gods, their natures, grades, places and powers;

the demi-gods and daemons, and their agency with man;

the Universe, it’s structure, extent, production and duration;

the origin of things from the elements of fire, water, air and earth;

the human soul, it’s essence and derivation;

the summum bonum, and finis bonorum; with a thousand idle dreams & fancies on these and other subjects the knolege of which is witheld from man, leaving but a short chapter for his moral duties, and the principal section of that given to what he owes himself, to precepts for rendering him impassible, and unassailable by the evils of life, and for preserving his mind in a state of constant serenity.

Such a canvas is too broad for the age of seventy, and especially of one whose chief occupations have been in the practical business of life. we must leave therefore to others, younger & more learned than we are, to prepare this euthanasia for Platonic Christianity, and it’s restoration to the primitive simplicity of it’s founder. I think you give a just outline of the theism of the three religions when you say that the principle of the Hebrew was the fear, of the Gentile the honor, & of the Christian the love of God.

An expression in your letter of Sep. 14. that ‘the human understanding is a revelation from it’s maker’ gives the best solution, that I believe can be given, of the question, what did Socrates mean by his Daemon? he was too wise to believe, & too honest to pretend that he had real & familiar converse with a superior5 and invisible being. he probably considered the suggestions of his conscience, or reason, as revelations, or inspirations from the Supreme mind, bestowed, on important occasions, by a special superintending providence.

I acknolege all the merit of the hymn of Cleanthes to Jupiter, which you ascribe to it. it is as highly sublime as a chaste & correct imagination can permit itself to go. yet in the contemplation of a being so superlative, the hyperbolic flights of the Psalmist may often be followed with approbation, even with rapture; and I have no hesitation in giving him the palm over all the Hymnists of every language, and of every time. turn to the 148th psalm in Brady & Tate’s version. have such conceptions been ever before expressed? their version of the 15th psalm is more to be esteemed for it’s pithiness, than it’s poetry. even Sternhold, the leaden Sternhold, kindles, in a single instance, with the sublimity of his original, and expresses the majesty of God descending on the earth, in terms not unworthy of the subject.

  ‘The Lord descended from above   And bowed the heav’ns most high;
And underneath his feet he cast The darkness of the sky.
On Cherubim and Seraphim Full royally he rode;
And on the wings of mighty winds Came flying all abroad.’6
Psalm XVIII. 9. 10.

The Latin versions of this passage by Buchanan & by Johnston, are but mediocres, but the Greek of Duport is worthy of quotation.

  Ουρανον αγκλινας κατεβη· ὑπο ποςςι δ’ ἑοιςιν
Αχλυς αμφι μελαινα χυθη, και7 νυξ ερεβεννη.
Ῥιμφα ποτᾶτο Χερουβῳ οχευμενος, ὡςπερ εφ’ ἱππῳ·
Ἱπτατο δε πτερυγεςςι πολυπλαγκτου ανεμοιο.

the best collection of these psalms is that of the Octagonian dissenters of Liverpool in their printed Form of prayer; but they are not always the best versions. indeed bad is the best of the English versions; not a ray of poetical genius having ever been employed on them. and how much depends on this may be seen by comparing Brady & Tate’s XVth psalm with Blacklock’s Justum et tenacem propositi virum of Horace, quoted in Hume’s history Car. 2. ch. 65. a translation of David in this style, or in that of Pompei’s Cleanthes, might give us some idea of the merit of the original. the character too of the poetry of these hymns is singular to us. written in Monostichs, each divided into strophe and antistrophe, the sentiment of the 1st member responded with amplification or antithesis in the second.

On the subject of the Postscript of yours of Aug. 16. & of mrs Adams’s letter, I am silent. I know the depth of the affliction it has caused, and can sympathise with it the more sensibly, inasmuch as there is no degree of affliction, produced by the loss of those dear to us which experience has not taught me to estimate. I have ever found time & silence the only medecine, and these but assuage, they never can suppress, the deep-drawn sigh which recollection for ever brings up, until recollection and life are extinguished together. ever & affectionately yours

Th: Jefferson

P.S. your’s of Sep ___ just recieved

RC (MHi: Adams Papers); edge trimmed, with missing text supplied from PoC; at foot of first page: “President Adams”; endorsed by Adams as answered 25 Nov.; docketed by Charles Francis Adams. PoC (DLC). Enclosure: enclosure no. 2 to TJ to Adams, 22 Aug. 1813.

Adams’s partially dated letter to TJ with an aug. 16 postscript is printed above at 14 Aug. 1813, while the partially dated letter from John Adams mentioned last by TJ in the opening sentence above is printed at 22 Sept. 1813.

enfield’s judicious abridgment: William Enfield, The History of Philosophy, from the earliest times to the beginning of the present century; drawn up from Brucker’s Historia Critica Philosophiæ, 2 vols. (Dublin, 1792; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 1337; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 9 [no. 518]). Johann Jakob brucker’s six-volume work was first published in Leipzig, 1742–47.

The stagirites (stagyrites) were followers of Aristotle, who was a native of the Macedonian city of Stagira (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 ). TJ’s first attempt to cull Jesus’s true teachings verse by verse from the Bible is printed in EG description begins Dickinson W. Adams and Ruth W. Lester, eds., Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels, 1983, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 55–105. The ebionites were first-century Christians who denied the divinity of Christ (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 ). finis bonorum: “chief good.” Socrates discusses his daemon, a guardian angel that spoke to him when he was about to make a mistake, in Plato’s Apology, 31c–d (Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, trans. Harold North Fowler, Loeb Classical Library [1914; repr. 1990], 1:114–5).

The editions of the psalmist cited by TJ included Nahum Tate and Nicholas brady, A New Version of the Psalms of David, Fitted to the Tunes Used in Churches (London, 1696); Thomas sternhold and John Hopkins, The Whole Booke of Psalmes, collected into Englysh metre (London, 1562); James Duport and George buchanan, Psalmorum Davidicorum Metaphrasis Graecis versibus contexta … Cui in oppositis paginis respondens accessit Paraphrasis Poetica Latina (London, 1742; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4399), with the Greek extract quoted by TJ appearing on p. 44; Arthur johnston, Psalmorum Davidis Paraphrasis Poetica et Canticorum Evangelicorum, ed. William Benson (London, 1741; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4398); and A Form of Prayer, and A New Collection of Psalms, for the use of a Congregation of Protestant Dissenters in Liverpool (London and Liverpool, 1763; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 1513). The last-named publication was used by the octagonian dissenters, who met at a chapel called the Octagon in Liverpool, England, 1763–76 (Richard Brooke, Liverpool as it was during the last quarter of the eighteenth century [1853], 58–60).

Thomas blacklock’s English translation of Horace’s poem beginning justum et tenacem propositi virum is in David Hume, The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to The Revolution in 1688 (London, 1790–91; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 370), 7:496. The Latin original is in Odes, 3.3 (Horace, Odes and Epodes, trans. Charles E. Bennet, Loeb Classical Library [1914; repr. 1995], 178–85). car. 2: Charles II, king of England. Girolamo pompei’s Italian translation of Cleanthes is in Brunck, Gnomici Poetæ Græci, 147–9. monostichs: poems or epigrams of a single metrical line; such lines alternating within a dialogue (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 ).

Adams’s letter to TJ of sep ___ referred to in the postscript was received at Monticello on 13 Oct. and is printed above at 4 Oct. 1813.

1Preceding two words interlined.

2TJ uses this and the following dash to signal his omission of a sentence each from Enfield’s History of Philosophy, 2:208.

3TJ here omits “any thing like” from Enfield’s History of Philosophy, 2:209.

4Preceding two words interlined.

5TJ here canceled “power.”

6Omitted closing quotation mark editorially supplied.

7Word editorially expanded. TJ used the Greek ampersand, a lowercase kappa with a tail.

Index Entries

  • Adams, Abigail Smith (John Adams’s wife); correspondence with TJ search
  • Adams, John; and TJ’s syllabus on Jesus’s doctrines search
  • Adams, John; letters to search
  • Adams, John; on religion search
  • Bible; Psalms referenced by TJ search
  • Blacklock, Thomas; as translator of Horace search
  • Brady, Nicholas; as translator of Psalms search
  • Brucker, Johann Jakob; Historia Critica Philosophiæ search
  • Buchanan, George; as translator of Psalms search
  • Cleanthes; Hymn to Zeus search
  • Duport, James; as translator search
  • Enfield, William; The History of Philosophy search
  • Historia Critica Philosophiæ (J. J. Brucker) search
  • Horace; translators of search
  • Hume, David; The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 search
  • Hymn to Zeus (Cleanthes) search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Jesus search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; loss of loved ones search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Psalms search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; religion search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; syllabus of Jesus’s doctrines search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth search
  • Jesus; TJ on search
  • Johnston, Arthur; as translator of Psalms search
  • Moses (Hebrew prophet) search
  • Pompei, Girolamo; as translator search
  • religion; TJ on search
  • Socrates (Athenian philosopher) search
  • Sternhold, Thomas; as translator of Psalms search
  • Tate, Nahum; as translator of Psalms search
  • The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 (D. Hume) search
  • The History of Philosophy (W. Enfield) search