"I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of Grief could be intended."
-- Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson suffered during his life from periodic bouts of dejection and despair, shadowed intervals during which he was full of "gloomy forebodings" about what lay ahead.
Not long before he composed the Declaration of Independence, the young Jefferson lay for six weeks in idleness and ill health at Monticello, paralyzed by a mysterious "malady." Similar lapses were to recur during anxious periods in his life, often accompanied by violent headaches. In Jefferson's Demons, Michael Knox Beran illuminates an optimistic man's darker side -- Jefferson as we have rarely seen him before.
The worst of these moments came after his wife died in 1782. But two years later, after being dispatched to Europe, Jefferson recovered nerve and spirit in the salons of Paris, where he fell in love with a beautiful young artist, Maria Cosway. When their affair ended, Jefferson's health again broke down. He set out for the palms and temples of southern Europe, and though he did not know where the therapeutic journey would take him or where it would end, his encounter with the old civilizations of the Mediterranean was transformative. The Greeks and Romans taught him that a man could make productive use of his demons.
Jefferson's immersion in the mystic truths of the Old World gave him insights into mysteries of life and art that Enlightenment philosophy had failed to supply. Beran skillfully shows how Jefferson drew on the esoteric lore he encountered to transform anxiety into action. On his return to America, Jefferson entered the most productive period of his life: He created a new political party, was elected president, and doubled the size of the country. His private labors were no less momentous...among them, the artistry of Monticello and the University of Virginia.
Jefferson's Demons is an elegantly composed account of the strangeness and originality of one Founder's genius. Michael Knox Beran uncovers the maps Jefferson used to find his way out of dejection and to forge a new democratic culture for America. Here is a Jefferson who, with all his failings, remains one of his country's greatest teachers and prophets.
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May 31, 2007
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Excerpt from Jefferson's Demons by Michael Knox Beran
I am burning the candle of life," he told a friend, "without present pleasure, or future object." "A dozen or twenty years ago this scene would have amused me," he said. "But I am past the age for changing habits." Under the perpetual dullness of the winter sky, Jefferson contemplated the "empty bustle" of Paris and studied the means by which the beautiful people in that city sought to escape their demons.
He drew, in a letter to one of his American friends, a picture of the pointlessness of a Parisian existence. It is an elaborate letter, written to a rich and, as it happens, pretty lady called Mrs. Bingham, a great hostess in Philadelphia. The high Parisians, Jefferson told Mrs. Bingham, sought always to escape from the "ennui" (literally, the annoyance) of the "present moment." But they inevitably failed. We are, he said, "ever flying from the ennui of that [i.e., the present], yet carrying it with us." We -- and here Jefferson means we; he is no longer talking simply about morally decayed Parisians -- are "eternally in pursuit of happiness which keeps eternally before us."
Odd, disconcerting even, to find Jefferson dredging up, in the depths of his distemper, the famous words, the brighter faith of the Declaration of Independence. He was quoting himself, alluding to the person he had been eleven years before, when he wrote out his draft of the Declaration during the heat of a Philadelphia summer. But there is in the letter nothing like the younger man's joy. In the darkness of a Paris winter, an older Jefferson -- he would turn forty-four in April 1787 -- questioned the promise of the earlier springtime.
We figure him as a man heroically active, prodigiously vigorous, but Jefferson's grandest acts and his most illuminating experiences were always preceded by muddy stretches, periods in which he was at once dull spirited and full of trepidation. It was in such a ragged condition that he lay, invalid-like, in April 1776, not long before the happy inspiration under which he composed the Declaration of Independence. It was in such a state that he now surveyed the dreariness of his Paris life, oblivious of the approach of the dry light that was for a time to dispel the mists. It was in such a state that he would later find himself during the barren periods of the 1790s, when he tried to reconcile his dream of an ideal republic with the imperfect reality.
"My temperament," Jefferson said,
is sanguine. I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern. My hopes indeed sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy. There are, I acknolege, even in the happiest life, some terrible convulsions, heavy set-offs against the opposite page of the account. I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of Grief could be intended.
He chose his words, as always, with care. He spoke not only of his "sensations of Grief," that sensitivity to the tears in things that formed so unexpected a part of his mental equipment, but also of his "forebodings of the gloomy," the burden of presentiment that lay heavily upon him, an apprehension of possible futures that enabled him to become a great man, but that also made him a nervous and often an indecisive one.
To bring order to this interior confusion, Jefferson carefully devised rules of conduct. Indolence was to be avoided at all costs. When the mind was indolent, Jefferson told his daughter Martha, or "Patsy" -- given up to "snaggle-toothed laziness" -- one's "being becomes a burthen, and every object about us loathsome." Idleness, Jefferson warned, "begets ennui," and "ennui the hypochondria." (The word hypochondria was not limited, in the eighteenth century, to the morbid apprehension of imaginary diseases; the term was more often used to indicate an habitual melancholy, thought in those days to be caused by a defect in the nervous system or by the epigastric juices of the abdomen, those "hypochondrial" regions of the body where the liver, the spleen, and the gallbladder are found.) Hypochondria led to hysteria. "No laborious person," Jefferson said, "was ever yet hysterical."
Exercise was especially important in the struggle to preserve sanity. "Not less than two hours a day should be devoted" to it, Jefferson believed. Of all the exercises, he maintained, "walking is best." "I have known some great walkers," he said, "and had particular accounts of many more; and I never knew or heard of one who was not healthy and long lived." A brisk walk, according to Jefferson, "shakes off sleep, and produces other good effects in the animal |conomy." The "object of walking," he said, "is to relax the mind." "You should not permit yourself even to think when you walk," he advised. "Never think of taking a book with you."
Labor, discipline, a scrupulous avoidance of the dark places of the mind -- these were, for Jefferson, the principles of a healthy life, precepts by which a man might hope to be guided to a serene old age. The consequences of not following so prudent a course were likely to be grave: a descent into the abysses of ennui and hypochondria, perhaps even into madness. For Jefferson even so simple a thing as staying up late with a book was a bad idea, a transgression of salutary limits. The night has often been the nursery of genius; but Jefferson had an almost superstitious abhorrence of its power. "Rise at a fixed and an early hour," he advised, "and go to bed at a fixed and early hour also." "Sitting up late at night is injurious to the health," he maintained, "and not useful to the mind." The night was a dangerous time, a time when the mind's discipline was relaxed, and dreams came. That is why, Jefferson explained, he never went "to bed without an hour, or half hour's previous reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep." Even the sleeping mind had to be coaxed into submitting to a Jeffersonian discipline.
Jefferson walked fast; his unremitting labors kept him exceedingly busy; he read moral literature before bedtime. But still the shadows came. He was not, like his father, a work of natural simplicity, a stout man of action, a vestige, it seemed, of a more vigorous epoch in human development -- a throwback to the Bronze Age. In the constitution of the son's mind there were complications; there were refinements of spirit; there were depths.
In order to invent America, he had first to invent himself. He was called to be an architect of a liberating (Whig) revolution, but it is a paradox of the Whig system that it cannot be built without a resort to the very materials it is supposed to render obsolete. Jefferson dedicated his life to freeing men, not only from the forms of oppressive authority, but also from the varieties of mystic craft. For according to the Whig, it is precisely this mystic craft that enables the tyrant to perpetuate his primacy. "I have," Jefferson said, "sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Superstitious faith -- the awe of things that "stand above" -- was, Jefferson believed, the most potent form of mental tyranny. He stood, he said, for common sense, and he was skeptical of any claim that could not be verified by it. But no more than other people could Jefferson live without those uncommon trumpets, mystic and nonsensical, that bid a man rise from his moperies and act with an heroic creativity.
Jefferson was, in his philosophy, a materialist, and he was devoted to the rational interpretation of empirical facts. But his theories were unequal to his perceptions, and his yearnings outstripped his philosophy. It is because he understood the inadequacy of his theories before the great mysteries of existence that he resorted, on occasion, to a language stained in mysticism, and truer to the strangeness. It is one of the principal oddnesses of his life. If he was to be a model Whig, he could not be wholly a Whig. To build the modern (Whig) world he dreamed of building, he would have to do more than act commonsensically in the universe his heroes -- Bacon, Newton, and the other grandpas of the Enlightenment -- had painted for him. To be a complete Whig, Jefferson would have to be at least partly a Tory. He might pace the pillared spaces of his villa entranced by the reasonableness of Locke's intelligence, or Voltaire's wit, or Gibbon's history; he might adorn his house with the rational luxuries of an eighteenth-century taste; but if he were to succeed in rousing himself from his lassitudes and show himself capable of action, he would have to descend to the Tory crypts and assemble, in those strange vaults, in the light of those dim candles, a philosophy that did more than reason and common sense could to facilitate the expedition of the will.
This book is a portrait of Jefferson descending. In those secret laboratories we find him melting down strangely unenlightened creeds, orthodoxies, patterns of thought and belief. We find him mixing the molten materials together and anxiously pouring the glowing liquid into the cast of a livable life. Ever since Garry Wills published, in 1978, his book Inventing America, it has ceased to be possible to think of Jefferson as simply a good Whig, dedicated to an unbinding of the chains, a liberation of the spheres. Wills showed that Jefferson's Whig ideas were colored by a form of sentimental faith highly fashionable in the eighteenth century. These sentimental canons were a secular edition -- revised and corrected for the eighteenth-century press -- of an older European mysticism. This was the medieval language of love, and the revivified love song appealed to lapsed Christians who, if the truth were confessed, found themselves bored by the wit and enlightenment of Voltaire. Sentimentality touched them in the depths of their blood, in the agony of their stony places, in a way Voltaire never could; it endowed with coherence a universe tottering on the edge of anarchy.
But sentimentality was not the only mystic fabric Jefferson took up, fondled, intellectually caressed. The modern man's life is, Jefferson said, a continual pursuit of happiness, a perpetual chase; amid the plenitude of possibility, the infinity of choice -- the superabundance of creeds and destinies on sale in the Whig markets -- the modern man must find his way, through trial and error, to a faith, or at least to an ?claircissement. Jefferson did, although he was always a little mysterious about its character. "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know," he told Ezra Stiles in the decade before he died.
Just now we are between Jeffersons. Older editions of the man have been put aside. No new volume has yet been issued to take its place. "All honor to Jefferson," Abraham Lincoln said,
to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
Lincoln believed Jefferson to be the greatest teacher of liberty in the American tradition; but by the 1930s, Lincoln's Jefferson had given way to another Jefferson, that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Inspired by Claude Bowers's pungently partisan Jefferson and Hamilton (1925), F.D.R. invoked the third president as a fellow struggler against the "economic royalists" who, in the tradition of Hamilton, had erected the "dynasties" which the New Deal was intended to destroy. "I have a breathless feeling as I lay down this book," Roosevelt wrote in a review of Jefferson and Hamilton in the Evening World. (It was the only book Roosevelt ever reviewed for publication.) "Hamiltons we have today," the future president said. "Is a Jefferson on the horizon?" After he won the White House, F.D.R. laid the cornerstone for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, and he watched with approval as John Russell Pope's dish of neoclassical vanilla ice cream rose on the banks of the Potomac. Each April, on the anniversary of his hero's birth, the president dispatched a courtier to Monticello to lay a wreath at Jefferson's tomb.
Roosevelt's Jefferson, a New Deal tribune of the plebs, was succeeded by the Jefferson of the postwar imperial republic, the idol of the bright confident men who made the American Century. Unsurprisingly, this Jefferson possessed many of the virtues which the makers of the American Century attributed to themselves. They discovered, in the master of Monticello, a cool, rational, somewhat technocratic genius -- a man who might without incongruity grace a cover of Time magazine. This was the Jefferson John F. Kennedy invited the Nobel laureates to feast upon at a famous dinner in 1962. The Nobels, Kennedy said, represented "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Kennedy's Jefferson was a supertalented New Frontiersman, a shade more versatile than McGeorge Bundy, a more masterly version of Robert McNamara. It is this Jefferson -- the forerunner of the best and the brightest -- who is enshrined in the greatest work of Jeffersonian hagiography which the last century produced: Dumas Malone's Jefferson and His Time. But the placidly rational Jefferson of Malone and John Kennedy is dead, killed off by exposure to scandal and DNA testing. Can we find another Jefferson to take his place?
Jefferson once wrote that he envied a young man who was embarking on "his classical voyage to Rome, Naples and Athens." A classical voyage -- it's not a bad way to envision Jefferson's own life. His mental odyssey took him to curious and splendid ports: to the brutish ecstasies of the old pagan cults, to the piety and rage of the Hebrew prophets, to the charity of the Christian Gospels.
Think of him as a man beguiled by the old virtues and ideals, but one who did not wish to be enslaved by them. Shopping in the grandest marts of his civilization, Jefferson brought back with him what he thought could be useful. (The library at Monticello was never merely ornamental; it was here that the intellectual pirate hoarded his cultural treasures.) Jefferson tried to translate what was useful in the archaic forms into the American vernacular, and through this fruitful sorcery to raise the tone of the young republic's civilization. A large ambition, to be sure, perhaps an impossible one. Jefferson hoped to influence, not just America's public culture (its politics and governing traditions), but also the private culture of the individual citizen, as revealed in those little communities (the family, the village, the neighborhood, the school) in which so much of American life is actually lived. His ideas about what causes these modest gardens to flourish have been too often neglected, which is a pity, for it is in these places that he can most directly touch our own lives.
He lived a large part of his life in his books. To understand what he became, it is necessary to understand the esoteric intellectual rites that made him what he was. He was born on the remote frontier of a great empire, but although he grew up in a British province, his mind was not provincial. Modern scholarship too often is. Bereft of the comprehensive visions of Bowers and Malone, contemporary historians tend either to confess their bafflement before the sphinx or to involve themselves in small-beer controversies about the great man's sexual proclivities -- history as gossip, a literary style dear to our epoch. Oddly (Jefferson might say predictably) the people who line up at the gates of Monticello to tour his house have a more sympathetic insight into the value of his secret studies. The tourists might not, for the most part, have been bred up in scholarly arts; but their perceptions are in some ways truer than those of the professionals. They sense what the higher learning has failed to see, or forgotten how to appreciate. The people gather to glimpse the sanctuary of a (mostly) benign wizard, a Virginia Prospero -- a prime author of the American pageant. They feel the enchantment of his spirit, in spite of its perversities and hypocrisies, while the professors, with their academic squabbles, massage the flesh of the corpse.
Jefferson grew old learning new things, and this suppleness of mind made it possible for him to become something more than a statesman: he was also an educator. Jefferson conforms to an historic type of visionary leadership, the statesman who possesses certain qualities of the artist, qualities that enable him to adapt the older mystic intuitions of his civilization to the altered conditions of the present. These qualities, if they did not always make Jefferson attractive as a man, allowed him to be effective as a teacher, one who showed how the meat of his civilization's obsolescent carcasses could be used to nourish new patterns of cultivated order. The ancient Greeks, whom Jefferson read closely during the greater part of his life, believed that a nation is forged not only by force of arms and structures of law but also by acts of poetic will. Think of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which helped to form the American character, or the oratory of Churchill, which defined the fighting spirit of the British. Jefferson's achievement is of that kind, and on that order: he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Those whose minds, like so many in our own age, have been formed in a school of disenchantment need to work a little harder to perceive the reach of his statesmanship. Great republics are not founded on common sense alone: they flourish only where their founders, with their common sense and common faults, possess also the uncommon ability to reach into the auger hole of time and impose their ideals on the future. The state-making man, according to the poet Virgil, must seek out the Sibyl in her prophetic cave before he can found his city; but our contemporary historians, preoccupied with Sally Hemings, fail to perceive the lawgiver's descent:
thus in the wind, on the light leaves,
the Sibyl's oracle was lost.
Of course his sins matter: nor can human nature forbear to peep into the closets of the great. But if we end by becoming a nation of valets, so also will we be a nation destitute of heroes. Stripped of our teachers, we will be left with nothing more than an "odor of phrases."
The oracular splendor of Jefferson's state-making work was not without a psychological cost: his creative activity was rooted in the peculiarities of his nervous organization. The exquisite sensitivity that enabled Jefferson to attain, in his highest work, a prophetic strain was closely connected to his struggle with ennui, those sensations of "tedium vitae" which he called the "most dangerous poison of life." Ennui was what the French psychologists called soul error (erreur d'?me), a man's inability to be satisfied with his situation in the one and only moment he has within his power, the present. As a man grows older, Jefferson observed, time becomes more precious to him, but the man in the griping hand of ennui is careless of his temporal blessings. He laments the shortness of the time even as, a half dozen times a day, he finds himself dissatisfied by its dullness and wishes he could transfer himself to one of eternity's happier shores. He comes to resent the time; possibly he tries to kill it -- smother it, as, Jefferson observed, the grand Parisians did, in gossip and card games; certainly he is unable to do justice to its greatest gift, the present moment, to get the most out of it and act creatively and usefully in it.
Ah, but to do that, to take up the time and wring from it its deepest revelation, to do it the exquisite justice of action, one must put the whole of one's self into its arms. One cannot, in the manner of an eighteenth-century gentleman, offer up only one's surfaces; one must hold some communication with one's depths. Jefferson, after his periodic inward struggles, was ready to heed his own oracles, to draw on his depths. But it is difficult to be a suppliant -- a suppliant even to one's self -- when one is wearing silk stockings, and has powder in one's hair, and is resolved to be in all things smooth and gentleman-like. Some mystic drapery is requisite, and Jefferson was always trying on different robes. The man who confessed, in the emptiness of a Paris winter, to a dissatisfaction with his life was yet determined to squeeze out of it the last enchantment of its mystery. He wrung it more fiercely than we know or have cared to see.