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LibraryThing, Jefferson, Plato

Over at Librarything, they are adding Thomas Jefferson's catalogue to their stock, along with all his notes on books read. Here is his review of Plato's Republic, from a letter to John Adams written on 5 July 1814 (two years after their reconciliation, almost exactly twelve years before they both died). He was not impressed:

I am just returned from one of my long absences, having been at my other home for five weeks past. Having more leisure than 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 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, futilites, & 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 ... (TJ to John Adams, 5 July 1814)


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 16th, 2007 12:57 pm (UTC)
Hehe - I think I might forward this to the Plato expert in our department! I'm sure she will be amused. I'm also interested to see that he uses 'it's' for 'its' - I may well cite this case in future to those who complain that it is a modern malaise.
Sep. 16th, 2007 05:20 pm (UTC)
Careful, you don't know that that isn't a transcription error: note also that he is supposed to have written "Having more leisure than than here for reading," which I doubt he actually did. It's more likely to have been "more leisure there than here" instead.
Sep. 16th, 2007 06:26 pm (UTC)
Actually one of my favourite blogs addressed this some time ago, concluding that this spelling is a Jeffersonian idiosyncracy even for that time.

It's not a transcription error, though; see my reply to strange_complex below.
Sep. 16th, 2007 06:25 pm (UTC)
See this example - twice in one of the most famously quoted paragraphs of Jefferson's writing:

"...& what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not
warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit
of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them
right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few
lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed
from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is
it's natural manure. Our convention has been too much impreſsed..."
Sep. 16th, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC)
Oh, very interesting! I also followed the link you gave to del_c, above, where I see that Jefferson vacillated between including the apostrophe and not doing so. I shall still get out the red pen when I see students getting it wrong in essays, though!
Sep. 16th, 2007 02:01 pm (UTC)
Presumably Jefferson read Plato in the original?
Sep. 16th, 2007 04:20 pm (UTC)
No, it's the 1763 Spens translation into English.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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