The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson

By Adrienne Koch | Go to book overview

Conclusion
THE PERENNIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF
JEFFERSON'S THOUGHT

ANYONE who reads Jefferson seriously today is likely to come away with an inescapable impression of the actualité of this thought; and the experience is more likely with Jefferson's writings than with the writings of any other political figure in America, including Lincoln. It is almost a duty, therefore, to try to crystallize out from his thought those features which are of perennial significance--understanding by "perennial," not sub specie aeternitatis, but persisting and deep traits with respect to our culture.

First, one is struck by Jefferson's belief that American political procedures represent something novel in the history of civilization. Jefferson appreciated fully "the American experiment," crediting it partly to the spontaneous adaptation of immigrants of Scottish and English ancestry to a new soil and fresh problems, but tending to view the "experiment" with the eyes of a classicist and a scholar. The resulting amalgam, formed of first-hand experience and reflection upon the "sages" of Greece and Rome and the thinking men of his time in England and France, is both instructive and refreshing. One is led to imagine Jefferson, the son of a surveyor, looking keenly at the American Indian tribes, the rugged white freeholders in his neighboring states, the frontiersmen already beginning to explore further West, but seeing them as if they might become the future citizenry of an ideal Ciceronian republic. The philosophical significance of this approach is that it prepared Jefferson to receive the empirical, positivist philosophies without hesitation.

This way of keeping himself in the midst of "reality" and fact, and training upon that daily life his wise learning, actually gave the American experiment, at its very start, the proportion of dignity and bearing.

-186-

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