In an earlier post (August 24) I said that TJ trusted God, and therefore he trusted human nature. But why exactly did he think that human nature was primarily trustworthy? There were two main reasons, both of which had to do with how the Creator had created human beings.
The first had to do with our mind. God had given humans the capacity to reason--to think, calculate, and plan. He wrote frequently in praise of human reason and its ability to show us how to rise above our problems. Logical thinking raised us above the animals and brought us closer to an understanding of God. He was an enthusiastic scientist both because he loved to learn new things and more importantly, because he felt science had some ability to reveal the mind of God. Although he thought reason was limited in its reach, he thought it could help us approach real wisdom. Some of those who have studied TJ saw his belief in reason as justification for seeing him as primarily an intellectual who lacked strong emotions, some even claiming he lacked a sense of humor. Such opinions demonstrate a lack of understanding of the man and what he stands for.
There was another human quality that meant even more to TJ than reason. That quality he called, like some of the philosophers of his time, "the moral sense". This is the part of us that knows what is right, good, and compassionate, and strives to do those things. It is our benevolent, caring nature, and he sang its praises. If it came to a battle between reason and the moral sense, he would trust the latter. He made this quite clear in a letter where he said he would rather trust the common moral sense of a farmer than that of a professor.
In one of his most famous and beautiful letters he wrote "A Dialogue Between the Head and the Heart". Some scholars have foolishly thought the Head won this literary debate. Yet, it is clear that TJ saw the Heart's qualities as the source of kindness, pleasure, and love, without which he thought life wouldn't be worth living. Thinking, of course, was valuable, but it needed to be guided by the goodness of the heart. He knew all to well of the evil that could be done by brilliant minds lacking clear guidance from their own moral sense. Emotions in turn generally need to be directed by reason, but not suppressed by it. For TJ, the head and the heart both operate best in a balanced relationship.
What does this have to do with us today, you might ask. Well, quite a lot actually. Psychological research, when it finally began in recent years to study morality, has begun to prove that TJ was right about our possessing something like a moral sense. We are apparently a benevolent species. Our democracy has been built in large measure on this Jeffersonian faith in our capacity to know what is right and to do it without being told or forced by others who claim to know what is best for us. But, on the other hand, because we share a common, innate moral sense and generally have the freedom to discover and exercise it, we should be able to generally agree on what is right and good. To keep our democracy alive and vibrant we need to trust ourselves and our ability to use both our head and our heart to guide our lives and the life of America.
Do you believe in a moral sense? Do you think we need to be taught to be kind and compassionate or is it natural? Do you have an explanation for the evil things people do? Do you think TJ was a naive idealist or an astute observer of human nature?
Morals were too essential to the happiness of man, to be risked on the uncertain combinations of the head. She laid their foundation, therefore, in sentiment, not in science. 1786