Thomas Jefferson to John Adams (July 5, 1814)
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 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 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, & 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. 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.
—but why am I dosing you with these Ante-diluvian topics? because I am glad to have some one to whom they are familiar, and who will not recieve them as if dropped from the moon. our post-revolutionary youth are born under happier stars than you and I were. they acquire all learning in their mothers’ womb, and bring it into the world ready-made. the information of books is no longer necessary; and all knolege which is not innate, is in contempt, or neglect at least. every folly must run it’s round; and so, I suppose, must that of self-learning, & self sufficiency; of rejecting the knolege acquired in past ages, and starting on the new ground of intuition. when sobered by experience I hope our successors will turn their attention to the advantages of education. I mean of education on the broad scale, and not that of the petty academies, as they call themselves, which are starting up in every neighborhood, and where one or two men, possessing Latin, & sometimes Greek, a knolege of the globes, and the first six books of Euclid, imagine & communicate this as the sum of science. they commit their pupils to the theatre of the world with just taste enough of learning to be alienated from industrious pursuits, and not enough to do service in the ranks of science.
we have some exceptions indeed. I presented one to you lately, and we have some others. but the terms I use are general truths. I hope the necessity will at length be seen of establishing institutions, here as in Europe, where every branch of science, useful at this day, may be taught in it’s highest degrees. have you ever turned your thoughts to the plan of such an institution? I mean to a specification of the particular sciences of real use in human affairs, and how they might be so grouped as to require so many professors only as might bring them within the views of a just but enlightened economy? I should be happy in a communication of your ideas on this problem, either loose or digested. but to avoid my being run away with by another subject, and adding to the length and ennui of the present letter, I will here present to mrs Adams & yourself the assurance of my constant & sincere friendship and respect.