The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson


1. Reason as Absolute


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Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson

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Objectivists and those Libertarians heavily influenced by Ayn Rand all claim Thomas Jefferson as their patron saint, as does every other political faction now-a-days, it seems. But some of the very basic premises of Objectivist philosophy vary from many of the basic premises of Jefferson, and these differences suggest a fundamental incompatible, in spite of there being some selected statements by Jefferson which Objectivists and Libertarians wholeheartedly embrace.

As with any philosophical system taken seriously by highly intelligent adherents, Objectivism is an intricate, complex set of doctrines that occupies the best mental energies of some very capable people. We have no intention here of discussing the intricacies of Objectivist theory. What we intend to show is that Jefferson's thought included some basic premises that formed a foundation for a political philosophy which, while including some statements that are consonant with Objectivist beliefs, is nevertheless in overall disagreement with their general conclusions. This is not intended as a critique or challenge to Objectivism, nor does it pretend to be an examination of that philosophy as a whole. It merely examines certain of their fundamentals that differ from Jefferson's fundamentals and points out how these differences necessarily cause Objectivism and Jeffersonian Democracy to reach conclusions that are incompatible. The basic premises discussed here do not involve complex philosophical excursions into the upper reaches of abstract thought; this discussion merely examines some simple "self-evident" truths that can be appreciated by the mind of any thoughtful person.

Objectivists do not treat Jefferson's thought as a complete philosophical system. Rather, they treat his writings as a resource from which they can extract certain isolated thoughts and use them to support their own positions. This causes them to ignore other thoughts of Jefferson that do not fit their purposes, and that put those more acceptable statements of Jefferson in a different context. But any careful examination of Jefferson's thought will reveal that his statements are not just isolated ideas; they all fit together into a complete philosophy of liberty and self-government. All of his statements are built upon certain fundamental ideas, and derive their force from the basic premises that give meaning to the whole. These essays, then, will focus entirely on these broad, fundamental truths that are the foundation of Jeffersonian Democracy, and that contradict the Objectivist system.

    Reason as an Absolute

In providing a summary of her own philosophy, Ayn Rand stated:

    "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievements as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." --Ayn Rand in the appendix to Atlas Shrugged.

The first three tenets and their relativistic terms--"heroic," "happiness," and "productive"-- are necessarily arbitrary, subjective evaluations, and cannot describe a standard founded in objective reality. Nothing can be defined using those terms, save in its comparative relationship to some other subjectively evaluated condition. Without addressing those three, we will here consider the last, since it relates to an essential first step towards any philosophy, political or otherwise, created by human intellect, i.e., an understanding of the role of the intellect itself.

In declaring reason as man's only absolute, Rand was making the point that it is through reason that man makes progress in knowledge and understanding, not through feelings or the authority of religious revelation or the pronouncements of any other kind of authority. Reason is the only means by which man can rightly govern his life and make the choices necessary for his optimum existence. It is the only means by which he can properly deal with reality, which she viewed as "objective," as opposed to the subjectivity of feelings and imagined states of mind in which reality is sometimes said to be a creation of our consciousness. Hence, she called her philosophy "Objectivism."

Unfortunately, in her eagerness to stamp out all subjectivity, she erred in the other direction, and in declaring reason an absolute, in fact raised it to a level of trustworthiness that cannot be sustained. Reason became to her an absolute because it is the only valid means of comprehending reality. But reason itself is highly unreliable and can only be viewed as an absolute through an abstract process which is as separate from reality as any subjective concept. What Rand apparently failed to include as a part of her philosophy is the fact that reason, however indispensable, is itself flawed in its real-world uses. It can be as wily and slippery as an eel, and will only become a path to self-deception if thought of in any way as an absolute.

    Jefferson and Reason

Jefferson was certainly an advocate of reason and its employment in the government of human affairs. The whole idea of democratic self-government was that it was based on reason in its operation, not on force, and without reason, self-government could not exist.

    "Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes with an unprepared people a tyranny still of the many, the few, or the one." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815.
It is this reliance on reason that made republican government superior to all others.

    "The preeminence of representative government [is maintained] by showing that its foundations are laid in reason, in right, and in general good." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1810.
But for Jefferson, there was nothing absolute about reason; reason is a tool for testing what is natural and true.

    "Questions of natural right are triable by their conformity with the moral sense and reason of man." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793.

And it is truth that is the primary aim. Reason is merely a means for getting there, a way of discovering and refining truth.

    "We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." --Thomas Jefferson to William Roscoe, 1820.

Rightful government would result from a face-off with any difficulty if its course is determined by the investigations of reason.

    "I have so much confidence in the good sense of man, and his qualifications for self-government, that I am never afraid of the issue where reason is left free to exert her force." --Thomas Jefferson to Comte Diodati, 1789.

Reason is the tool to be used in guiding the course of government by its legislative councils. The true worth of reason is made manifest in collective activities, i.e., when the reason of one person is tested against the reason of another.

    "It is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own action." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1786.

The conclusions of reason are not justified by conformance to some absolute standard, some abstract, final determinator of right and wrong, but by the process of reason itself.

To all this, the Objectivist would likely respond that he is in total agreement. But the disagreement comes in practice and in the idea that reason can produce an absolute result.

    The Limitations of Reason

Objectivists will often cite Jefferson's statements in support of reason, but then omit his many cautions on its limitations, as when he wrote:

    "I have learned to be less confident in the conclusions of human reason, and give more credit to the honesty of contrary opinions." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1824.

Indeed, there is nothing absolute in the individual's conclusions drawn from the use of reason. The conclusions of reason are at best tentative because reason is always subject to misapplication and error.

    "In every country where man is free to think and to speak, differences of opinion will arise from difference of perception, and the imperfection of reason." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waring, 1801.

And that error can only be sifted out when reason is tested, not against itself, but against the reason of others in the unrestrained free market-place of ideas.

    "Our people in a body are wise because they are under the unrestrained and unperverted operation of their own understandings." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802.

Reason is not absolute, but is a progressive development in every human consciousness and in society itself. Indeed, rather than being an absolute, reason leads to deeper and better insights as reason is tested against reason.

    "Liberty... takes root and growth in the progress of reason." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815.

Certainly, in an individual's private life, he is and must be led by his own reason. This lays the foundation for personal responsibility.

    "Everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, 1808.

Thus, everything should come before the bar of reason.

    "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787.

But while an individual must be led by his own reason, he cannot assume that his reason is absolute in any social situation. He must acquiesce in society when overruled by the reason of everyone else, even if he cannot agree with everyone else. He makes a grave error if he assumes that reason is absolute and can lead to absolute conclusions, thus forming an intolerance that makes association difficult, if not impossible.

    "Every man's reason is his own rightful umpire. This principle, with that of acquiescence in the will of the majority, will preserve us free and prosperous as long as they are sacredly observed." --Thomas Jefferson to John F. Watson, 1814.

Reasoning is not just an individual, but a group effort when employed in politics, and it frequently requires some individuals to compromise on the conclusions reached by their own reason.

    "A government held together by the bands of reason only, requires much compromise of opinion." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1824.

Indeed, reason in and of itself is always suspect, because reason, far from being absolute, is easily subjected to distortion by self-interest.

    "The known bias of the human mind from motives of interest should lessen the confidence of each party in the justice of their reasoning." --Thomas Jefferson to James Ross, 1786.

And because reason is such a wily attribute, Jefferson valued integrity above the reputed soundness of reason.

    "[We] know too well the texture of the human mind, and the slipperiness of human reason, to consider differences of opinion otherwise than differences of form or feature. Integrity of view, more than their soundness, is the basis of esteem." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.

Integrity of view, i.e., internal consistency, more than soundness, i.e., apparent rightness (almost always an intuitive and prejudiced judgment), is the basis of esteem, i.e., worthy of respect. Because of the easy fallibility of reasoning, Jefferson had little difficulty putting his own conclusions aside when confronted by the reasoning of others, knowing that his own reason was not an entirely reliable resource, and that no intelligent person should rely upon it absolutely.

    "I see too many proofs of the imperfection of human reason to entertain wonder or intolerance at any difference of opinion on any subject, and acquiesce in that difference as easily as on a difference of feature or form, experience having long taught me the reasonableness of mutual sacrifices of opinion among those who are to act together for any common object, and the expediency of doing what good we can when we cannot do all we would wish." --Thomas Jefferson to John Randolph, 1803.

Morality itself is not dependent on reason alone or even chiefly.

    "The moral sense... is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787.

If we say that reason is absolute and that he who reaches erroneous conclusions is not using reason, then we have redefined reason in terms of its results instead of as a process of mind. But such remedies are only a way of establishing bias, because there is no criteria of reason outside of the human mind, and when it decides that it is in possession of "true reason," who is there that can overturn such a judgment?

Reason, therefore, is hardly an absolute save in an abstract, idealized sense. In real terms, confidence in reason easily becomes the path to self-deception, especially when it is viewed as an absolute. Every bigot is absolutely convinced of the rightness of his positions, and looks upon those who differ from him as mentally defective. But reality and truth are the only true absolutes, and reason that is not in service to truth becomes mere rationalization, sophistry, self-justification, and self-deception.

    The Delusion of Certainty

Rand speaks of the supremacy of reason, as in:

    "We cannot fight against anything, unless we fight for something--and what we must fight for is the supremacy of reason, and a view of man as a rational being." --Ayn Rand: "Philosophy: Who Needs It"

Thus she calls for and demands that decisions be made on the basis of reason above all other criteria, and rightly so. We should never countenance any decisions made contrary to reason. But when reason is employed in the interactions of people, it is imperative that we abandon all thought of absoluteness. Here, especially, is where reason must be tested, and the testing is as much a part of the reasoning process as thought itself. This is not a place where one contender claims reason for his side, and therefore assumes the other side is in error. Opinion is tested, and reason itself decides the issue. Indeed, a free society can deal with error only if reason is permitted freely to contradict it.

    "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.

This means one person's reason against another's. It is the combat that is essential, not the conclusion by one side that their argument is based on reason. Hence, the use of reason has no absolute value in and of itself; it has value only as part of a process to discover truth. The idea that each individual might put absolute trust in his own reasoning is the height of folly. The "supremacy of reason" is a myth, for we know that reason may be, and always is, used in support of any philosophy. To put an absolute faith in reason is to overlook one essential step in the rational process: the possibility that you may be mistaken. As a Nobel prize-winning scientist said,

    "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you're the easiest person to fool." --Richard Feynman

Or as Thomas Jefferson put it:

    "It is not enough that an individual and an unknown one says and even thinks he has made a discovery of [great] magnitude... Not only explanation, but the actual experiment must be required before we can cease to doubt whether the inventor is not deceived by some false or imperfect view of his subject." --Thomas Jefferson to Shelton Gilliam, 1808.

The intelligent person finds his biggest challenge in dealing with his own tendency toward bias: the possibility that he himself may be "deceived by some false or imperfect view of his subject." More than just logic and reason is required; we want to see the actual results, we want evidence, we want proof. Self-deception is the great danger to be avoided, and the one to which Objectivists are most prone. Read this chilling statement posted by one of Rand's followers on the Prodigy Bulletin Boards:

    "I have come to realize that what peaves others the most when they 'discuss' things with us is our uniformly (there's THAT word again) held characteristic of self assurance. It's not so much that we are right that tick's others off, but that we are so CERTAIN that we are right and we are impervious to attacks upon that assurance. None of us (imo) started with self-assurance as a personal goal, but it appears to me to be an inevitable burden which occurs naturally on it's own when reality is seen and accepted and that is coupled with an unrelenting committment to the use of 'valid' reason. The greatest danger faced by Objectivists is that there is a tendency to become so CERTAIN of 'reality-based-morals' that one can easily fall into the trap of thinking, 'Now that I know for absolute certain what is and is not moral action, then [there?] COULD be nothing wrong is [in?] "forcing" others to behave in accordance with the irrefutable moral principles.' Trust me, there is a STRONG tendency to fall into that trap. Despite the fact that I am unshakably certain as to what is moral and not moral (and can prove it), I still fight daily to remind myself that 'moral principles' apply ONLY to the individual who has derived these principles." --Dan Draper

A similar absolutist sentiment was recently expressed in a Usenet Newsgroup by another Rand follower:

    "Being convinced of the veracity of Objectivism as an entire philosophical system does not make one 'doctrinaire' in the sense that I think you mean it. Certainty is not dogmatism, contrary to popular belief in our bankrupt culture." --Jason Lockwood

Logic and reason are excellent for analyzing the arguments of others, but they are powerless when up against our own biases and prejudices. The concept of the supremacy of reason is an idealistic, floating abstraction that has no real existence in individual cases, hence no real existence at all. It is a theoretical construct, but its assumption by any specific individual is a delusion, because reason is easily corrupted by the blindness of emotions and self-interest. Rand says with respect to such differences:

    "Your mind is your only judge of truth--and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal." --Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

Her point is, of course, that when there are differences of opinion, objective reality--the facts, what is actually true--is what must determine which opinion is correct.

But reality does not hold court. There is no final arbiter of whose reason is correct, because every such judgment is just the conclusion of someone else's reason. And no human being possesses reason as an absolutely valid attribute. Moreover, reality should not be the "court of last resort." It must be the beginning of all investigation! Without it, interest and ego are established at the very beginning and diminish the chance of ever uprooting error. The contest of reason comes at the commencement, not at the end after ego has established a face-saving vested interest. A truly rational man will always guard against his own tendency toward bias, and will consider vigilance on that front as his primary object.

Reality is objective--of course!--just as Rand says. But that is no help. Any given individual's perception of reality is necessarily subjective because it is his own, and is often clouded by preconception, bias, prejudice, misconception, error, etc. It is not given to us humans to be able to deal absolutely with objective reality. Reality is there, but we can only see it ourselves subjectively, "as through a glass, darkly." Therefore, reason itself is indispensable for guiding the individual in his own affairs, but when used in isolation, it is an imperfect guide. Its fullest value is realized only when it is freely subject to examination, to contrary evidence and to the different opinions of others.

    "Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth; and that, I am sure, is the ultimate and sincere object of us both. We both value too much the freedom of opinion sanctioned by our Constitution, not to cherish its exercise even where in opposition to ourselves." --Thomas Jefferson to P. H. Wendover, 1815.

Truth is the ultimate, the absolute. The idea that reason is absolute has no application in the real life of an individual. It exists only as a fantasy that no single individual ever gets to experience. The intelligent individual always is aware that his process of reasoning is subject to revision and correction.

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Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents
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