Sunday, March 27, 2005


The other day I had the opportunity of visiting Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home. I'm sure the visit gave me a much better impression of what Jefferson actually was than I could have obtained in a comparable time merely reading about him. He was into architecture, and left a great deal of himself there. The value of a beautiful object is mainly in the message it presents, which unlike a book makes its presentation quickly. Put objects of beauty about you, and when you are in a foul mood, you only have to look up to be reminded of ideas that can put you aright. Such is what I can imagine Jefferson was about. Little geometric patterns, attractive maps, painting, art, etc., in a background calculated not to distract. None of the striving for perfection so charcteristic of childish ideas toward decoration. No emphasis on perfect polish, etc. Too often people when decorating reject beautiful items that aren't perfect and "virginal" looking, and instead concentrate on absence of imperfection. If a painting is a copy and not original, well, it is not perfect, so avoid it. If a painting is authentic, well, it is likely to have a condition reflecting that age, a not perfect condition, and so again, that scares people. How silly. Original paintings are better--much of a painting lies in its brush strokes, but their often extreme expense does of course prevent most people (like me) from buying them. Anyway, I have decided maybe I should try to decorate my living space more--to get rid of decorations or visual fields that both lack beauty and distract, and replace them with a few fine artworks, even if just copies (probably all copies, actually). The idea of hiding clutter away on one level seemed dishonest to me, like sweeping dirt under a carpet, but I see, I have decided, that is just an insane approach to take. Clutter distracts only when looked at, so if hidden, it is OK.

Everything about Jefferson's house suggests his desire for wisdom and understanding. Obviously I must admire him greatly for that. More than any politician nowadays, needless to say. When in his bedroom (which to me looked to be designed to make the right impression among those who in the future would be visiting his death bed) I could feel his presence so strongly, I felt a haunting chill (well, maybe it was just a draft, but possibly it was more).

I look back at the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and I wonder whether people nowadays read them in the correct light. Maybe in those days "Rights" had something of its original meaning. I.e., when the Founding Fathers said that men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights", the word "rights" was chosen partly because it still meant to some extent "those things that are right", i.e., "rights" as the opposite of "wrongs". The more conservative monarchists believed liberty in the pedestrian sense of freedom from arbitrary rule or despotism was a wrong, so it was necessary to emphasize that in fact it was a right. I suppose Locke is the one to read to elucidate this matter more clearly. There is in Monticello a painting of Locke, who according to the tour guide was one of the three men most admired by Jefferson. Accordingly, I've beeen looking at Locke more closely lately. I've never much put stock in his idea that all people are created equal (also in the Declaration of Independence), which seems quite contrary to observation and everything one knows about genetics, but looking at him more closely, I sense Locke's philosophy of understanding is much superior to his political philosophy. His arguments in "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" are written with a craft more characteristic of fine authors than of what one has come to call philosophers. And his arguments that ideas are not naturally imprinted are at least when not carried to extremes quite full of common sense and carefulness. I suspect what is non-sensical about him results from his being too angry and pasionate in his struggles against those espousing absolute tyrrany, emotional responses which can lead to exaggerations all too easily.

Anyway, I think libertarianism is dangerous. Trying to call all or most freedoms rights is a dangerous thing. If the founding fathers called freedoms like freedoms of expression rights, maybe that should suggest to us that they considered these freedoms being right important justification for their being appropriate freedoms to declare inviolate. In particular, "freedoms" to hurt oneself or enslave others are not necessarily freedoms one should have.

Locke: (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter II "Of the State of Nature", 6)

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another's pleasure. And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind, and not unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

So there you have it. Locke, who had such a hand in influencing Jefferson apparently feels man "has not the liberty to destroy himself" or to "quit his station willfully".

Like it or not, we as humans are in this world together. Everything we do affects everyone else. Even doing nothing is doing something. Not only is it is bad speaking to say that people should have the "right" to screw up their own life or to allow someone else to screw up their life for them, it's also bad speaking to say they shouldn't have these "rights", because they are not "rights". You hurt humanity by engaging in these behaviors, which accordingly should not be liberties. Such would not be rights, but wrongs. Liberty is not generally strengthened by being "free" to lose your liberty if (say) you think you want to. Sodomy, in particular, should be illegal. Alcohol and drugs also should probably be illegal, but perhaps only if sodomy is illegal (if sodomy is not illegal, the existence of drug addictions serves the useful purpose of reminding people that chemical addiction is a real phenomenon different from stupid behavior as a result of mere stupidity).