Monday, October 13, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's Recommended Reading List

From George Washington, my favorite founder, we turn to Thomas Jefferson, my least favorite. A recent post in the sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes interesting, The Art of Manliness, contained the third president's recommended reading list.

While Jefferson was, to put it bluntly, a bit of a backstabber, manipulator, hypocrite, and weasel, he was well-read, with an admirable commitment to learning. His personal library was the original Library of Congress, after all. (I wonder if Jefferson underlined passages in his books or talked back to the authors in the books' margins like I do. I would love to know.)

The post points out that: 1819, at the ripe age of 76 years old, he founded the University of Virginia as a secular institute. At the center of this undertaking — quite literally — was the library. Traditionally, the chapel would be at the center of campus. At UVA, though, Jefferson put the library in the center of campus, thereby signaling his belief that books were central to one’s education.
This last sentence is true as far as it goes. But I also think that the library at the center of the Jefferson-designed campus was meant to say that, in Jefferson's world view, human beings are at the center of the universe, masters of their own fates, with no need of God. This perspective shouldn't surprise coming from the intellectual gadfly who decided that the miracles recorded in the Bible couldn't have happened, he needed to produce a more accurate account of things. (And you thought that Bill O'Reilly and the Jesus Seminar were the first people to pull that crap.) (By the way, I mention Jefferson's belief in a human-centered universe, very popular today, here.) Jefferson's philosophy is what some today would call, secular humanism, which is a fairly accurate and non-pejorative label, I think.

I have to confess that Jefferson's reading list is daunting. I haven't read most of the books, though I have read lengthy excerpts from some, have read Canterbury Tales, The Bible (many times), and lots of the plays of William Shakespeare. (But like Dylan in Idiot Wind--the second mention of that song in recent days here, I have to tell Jefferson across the mists of time, "I can't even touch the books you've read.")

It's a good list though, worth exploring by some ambitious readers with some time on their hands. So, get to it and report back here sometime next week on your progress. (I'll gladly grant extensions, if you feel the need.)


No comments: