Friday, June 14, 2013

Thomas Jefferson's Skepticism of Plato And His Belief in Jesus

One of my few direct confrontations with Jerry Coyne, who writes like the Andrew Breitbart of neo-atheism, included him citing Plato as an authority on the question of morals.  I rejected that citing Plato's hatred of democracy, his aristocratic hatred of non-aristocrats, his likely involvement with two bloody aristocratic putsches in Athens and his insane adoration of the horrible, fascistic military regime of Sparta, under which he would not have been allowed to live since the practice of philosophy was banned there as counterproductive to its war machine.  Coyne didn't take it well.  He sent me an e-mail telling me I was a "sourpuss" and asking me to not comment at his blog anymore.  I, of course, complied with the request, though I never promised not to cite such an amusing e-mail.  One is not to notice the contents of Plato's writing, the intellectual dishonesty of it, everything set up in the most absurd and puerile manner so that his Socrates always wins the argument.   One is not supposed to note his likely involvement in the blood baths his relations and friends drew from the population of Athens, twice.

Reading this letter Jefferson wrote to John Adams, in which he specifically identifies the corruption of Christianity by Platonism, I would guess he means through Augustine and the other neo-Platonists, I couldn't resist posting it as a refutation of a number of neo-atheist myths all at once.  Note the passage I've underlined and the date, about five years after the death of Thomas Paine, in relation to the frequent neo-atheist assertions about the phantom correspondence Jefferson allegedly sent to him.

Monticello, July 5, 1814
Dear Sir,

I 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 through the whimsies, the puerilities, and 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? Although Cicero did not wield the dense logic of Demosthenes, yet he was able, learned, laborious, practised in the business of the world and 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, and 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 and incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind is for ever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen through a mist, can be defined neither in form nor dimension. Yet this, which should have consigned him to early oblivion, really procured him immortality of fame and 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 its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power, and 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 canonized: 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. 

Note:  I don't set up Jefferson as any kind of moral authority, as anyone who read my criticism of his slave owning from last week could see.  I don't set up any of the "founding fathers" as moral authorities or even as being particularly wise or admirable.   My position on them, that they were men of their time and, in many cases, not even especially fine contemporary examples of that.  In many ways I think Jonathan Edwards has more to learn from in that regard, though, with Jefferson, I'm not a Calvinist.

My purpose in going over this is to correct some of the more widely held myths of people who claim to be champions of the truth and the enemy of myth and superstition.  Only their record shows they and those authorities they depend on are quite eager to create a phony, myth filled account of people such as Jefferson, contradicted by his own words, in the plainest and most clear of terms.  He was aware of that danger and plainly said it was his motive in not publicizing his religious convictions in a letter to Benjamin Rush,

Washington, April 21, 1803.
Dear Sir,
In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic: and I then promised you, that, one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. At the short intervals since these conversations, when I could justifiably abstract my mind from public affairs, the subject has been under my contemplation. But the more I considered it, the more it expanded beyond the measure of either my time or information. In the moment of my late departure from Monticello, I received from Doctor Priestely his little treatise of 'Socrates and Jesus compared.' This being a section of the general view I had taken of the field, it became a subject of reflection while on the road, and unoccupied otherwise. The result was, to arrange in my mind a syllabus, or outline of such an estimate of the comparative merits of Christianity, as I wished to see executed by some one of more leisure and information for the task, than myself. This I now send you, as the only discharge of my promise I can probably ever execute. And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies. I am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public; because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquisition over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behoves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behoves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God and himself. Accept my affectionate salutations.
Th: Jefferson.

Note:  This letter was written about six years BEFORE the death of Thomas Paine.   If "Dr. Conway" saw the letters noted yesterday, they were almost certainly forgeries. 

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