Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/18/2009

Jefferson: God hath created the mind free? (did he know any TLE hypergraphics?)

The Presidential Epicure

The Presidential Epicure

“Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it…beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do…”  (Thomas Jefferson, “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” 1779).

Habits of meanness: “small-minded or ignoble,” or “inferior in grade, quality, or character” ( The etymology is too complicated to list here, but it ends with: “Meaning ‘inferior, poor’ emerged c.1300; that of ‘stingy, nasty’” first recorded 1665. “Inferior” or “stingy” is obviously Jefferson’s meaning.

Quoting Jefferson is absurd in relation to a discussion of the inner workings of one’s mind. But here goes again. In a letter from Monticello to his former secretary, William Short, on October 31, 1819, Jefferson said, famously, that he was an Epicurean, but urged Short to understand the true philosophy of Epicurus. At the end of the letter, Jefferson provides Short with a “syllabus” of the philosophy of Epicurus which includes:

  • Happiness is the aim of life.
  • Virtue the foundation of happiness….
  • Virtue consists in 1. Prudence 2. Temperence 3. Fortitude 4. Justice.
  • To which are opposed, 1. Folly. 2. Desire. 3. Fear. 4. Deceit. 

epicurus-no-21Virtue is the foundation of happiness? God hath created the mind free? The “Holy Author of our religion” chose not to “propagate [his] plan by coercions on either [mind or body]”?  I’m not at all sure where I am headed with this. Somewhere between rage and self-pity, I suppose. I’ll let you decide. I woke up at 4:45 AM this morning (a tad later than the last few mornings). I have work to do, important job-related work that’s absolutely necessary to finish NOW! I turned on my laptop, where the work is organized and waiting to be finished, and got ready to do it.

I could do nothing until I came back to this computer (always on, always waiting) and wrote. This.  My compulsion to write is not virtuous by Jefferson’s reckoning. It comes at least from “desire” and “fear,” if not from even more base instincts.

OK. I can hear my friends saying, “Stop beating up on yourself.” I know all that stuff (I have a better, four-letter word also beginning with “s” for what they are saying). At the very least, I should not appropriate Jefferson’s noble and creative ideas to write about my own selfish and miniscule world. Yes, I am feeling sorry for myself this morning. What harm is this little obsession? How self-pitying would I be if I had a real disease, a real challenge? What a pain in the ass I would be if I had leukemia or Parkinson’s disease. I saw what happened to my mother as she descended into Alzheimer’s disease: all of her worst characteristics were magnified: bossiness, control, judgmentalism, anger.

All I have is this bizarre need to write. To write. To write. At least these days I’m trying to do it so that it makes sense to someone (you, dear reader) instead of the eyes-closed, type-as-fast-as-you-can regurgitations of the grotesque, eccentric, comical compulsions of my undisciplined little mind. I am trying to use some of Jefferson’s “1. Prudence 2. Temperence [sic]” (I told a student Friday that he didn’t need to use [sic] in a situation like this. Now I have no idea which is correct).

My hero (yes, if I have an intellectual life, its hero is Thomas Jefferson) gave all Americans for all time the belief in the “pursuit of happiness” (thank God he jettisoned Locke’s “pursuit of property,” except hoarding material goods might be easier than finding “happiness”). I don’t know how to pursue happiness when at every turn, I live by compulsion. I don’t know if it’s TLE, Bipolar disorder, addictive personality, or just plain self-centeredness, but it is what it is.

Groucho, I am sure, pursues happiness. A nuzzle against my hand to insist on a scratch behind his ears where he can’t quite reach, enough food to maintain his health, a clean litter box, and sleep for 22 out of every 24 hours lying next to me on a chair (oh, yes, and now a few bats at the chord that connects my camera to the computer). 

Groucho the Epicurean

Groucho the Epicurean

His whole life is based on prudence and temperance [sic]. I envy him. I’ve never seen him cry. “All attempts to influence [him]…beget habits of” boredom and complete disinterest. I’d like to be a little more disinterested in what goes on in my mind. Jefferson kept two bear cubs.


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