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Journal of No. 118


December 13th, 2008

The Final Adventures of John and Tom: Does Magnetism go to Heaven? @ 02:04 pm


One of the things that struck me in the later letters was how staunch a materialist Jefferson was. And yet religious. Religious materialism seems curious today, since the existence of the spiritual seems to go hand in hand with religion. But back in the day, some materialists were charging the spiritualists with impiety, for suggesting that God was not omnipotent enough to make material creatures with the power of thought. Leading into the first quote, Tom finds of great interest the early discoveries of the brain, and the identification of particular structures with particular functions. What might he have made of the mind reader?

Pi Day, 1820: "And they [materialist philosophers] ask why may not the mode of action called thought, have been given to a material organ of peculiar structure, as that of magnetism is to the needle, or of elasticity to the spring by a particular manipulation of the steel. They observe that on ignition of the needle or spring, their magnetism and elasticity cease. So on dissolution of the material organ by death, its action of thought may cease also, and that nobody supposes that the magnetism or elasticity retire to hold a substantive and distinct existence. These were qualities only of particular conformations of matter; change the conformation, and its qualities change also.
Mr. Locke, you know, and other materialists, have charged with blasphemy the spiritualists who have denied the Creator the power of endowing certain forms of matter with the faculty of thought."

8-15-1820 "When he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action called thinking, shall show how He could endow the sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the track of their orbits ... then the Materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercises the faculty of thinking.
When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. To talk of immaterial existences, is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial is to say, they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise.
At what age of the Christian Church this heresy of immaterialism, or masked atheism, crept in, I do not exactly know. But a heresy it certainly is. Jesus taught nothing of it. He told us, indeed, that 'God is a Spirit,' but He has not defined what a spirit is, no said that it is not matter. The ancient fathers generally, of the three first centuries, held it to be matter, light and thin indeed, an ethereal gas; but still matter."
Jefferson goes on to quote Origen, Terullian and others, regarding the corporeality of god.
...
"Rejecting all organs of information, therefore, but my senses, I rid myself of the pyrrhonisms with which an indulgence in speculations hyperphysical and antiphysical, so uselessly occupy and disquiet the mind. A single sense may indeed be sometimes deceived, but rarely, and, never all our senses together, with their faculty of reasoning. They evidence realities, and there are enough of these for all the purposes of life, without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms.
I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be but of which I have no evidence."

A cranky Adams on 1-22-1825, discussing Jefferson's decision to hire Europeans to teach at the University of Virginia: "The Europeans are all deeply tainted with prejudices both ecclesiastical and temporal, which they can never get rid of. They are all infected with Episcopal and Presbyterian creeds and confessions of faith. They all believe that great principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton's universe, Herschell's universe, came down to this little Ball to be spit upon by Jews. And, until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there will never be any liberal science in the world."


Not from their correspondence from each other, but also quoted in the book.

From Adams' Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765), bearing somewhat on the history of the separation of church and state:
"But another event still more calamitous to human liberty, was a wicked confederacy between the two systems of tyranny above described. It seems to have been even stipulated between them, that the temporal grandees should contribute every thing in their power to maintain the ascendancy of the priesthood, and that the spiritual grandees in their turn, should employ their ascendancy over the consciences of the people, in impressing on their minds a blind, implicit obedience to civil magistracy.
...
It was this great struggle that peopled America. It was not religion alone, as is commonly supposed; but it was a love of universal liberty, and a hatred, a dread, a horror, of the infernal confederacy before described, that projected, conducted, and accomplished the settlement of America."

From Jefferson's autobiography, regarding the passage of his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia:
"Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting the words “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."

Finally, Jefferson makes some bold statements and finally an interesting, if wrong, prediction, in a letter to Dr. Waterhouse:
"Now, which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? Or the impious dogmatists as Athanasius and Calvin? Verily I say these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to climb up some other way. They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him. Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian."


In general, I (all too obviously) enjoyed reading the founding fathers' own words on these topics in the book. The editor provided footnotes that generally identified the many personages referred to in the letters. However, the book could have used a little stronger editorial hand, providing some better historical context to the arguments and history recorded in the letters.
 
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Journal of No. 118