"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Ignoring Jefferson In The Age Of COVID–Individualism At The Expense Of Community And The Commonweal

In the nearly 250 years since Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and wrote that Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness were to be the foundational principles of the new Republic, these Enlightenment ideas have been interpreted, misinterpreted, and distorted.  They have become facile notions about living the good life, valuing individual freedom and liberty, and pursuing one’s personal goals above all else.   Their immutability, sense of fundamental morality and universality thought to be essential for the constitution, survival, and prosperity of a nation have been ignored.

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Jefferson never denied the importance of the individual – not because of any secular commitment to economic or social enterprise, but because of its relevance to achieving divine grace.  The Enlightenment itself, so insistent on logic, did not value rationality for its own sake but as a tool for spiritual understanding.   Everything that Jefferson and his colleagues wrote, therefore, had a profound religious sentiment.

Community should be seen as Augustine’s City of God – a place where faith precedes logic, but that revelation and spiritual evolution can only be achieved with both.  Augustine, perhaps the most influential of early church theologians made it clear in his Confessions and The City of God that faith must precede reason.  The only way to fully understand the mysteries of God was to put faith in his divine wisdom and to apply the logic necessary to more fully understand it.  Although his journey to faith was a long and difficult one, Augustine found faith and then, like the Christian thinkers who preceded him, used reason to explain and justify the words and intent of the Bible.

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American community for Jefferson was to be a secular home, a shared place of common interests, and for a universal consideration of God.   In other words ‘community’ was never simply a collection of individuals, but an expression of like moral and spiritual commitment.  An individual may pursue his own happiness, but only if it contributes to the commonweal and never detracts from it. 

Jefferson, an astute student of human nature, understood of course that these philosophical principles would be ignored, derogated, and co-opted for selfish ends; but it was necessary to state them, to set forth the ideals of a Republic.  Such has always been the case for seminal documents.  The Bible and the Koran are explicit in their statements of principle, godliness, and citizenship.  Many may ignore or defy them, but without them there would be no universal accord and no commandments against which to measure behavior, right and wrong.

So Jefferson and others were clear and unequivocal in their vision for America.  It would be a land of individual enterprise, free from the dictates of King, princes, or Popes and the exploitative interests of foreign colonial powers.  Armed resistance, righteous indignation, fiery refusal to buckle under to unreasonable and unworthy demands of oppressors should cease now that Independence was gained.  However we should never lose our vigilance for such arrogation of power and authority, which given the tracts of history, could very well occur again; but such vigilance should be peripheral to establishing a nation of complementary, communal interests.

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It of course is in the American mentality to debate, disagree, and contend; and Jefferson was no fool and understood that as the new republic grew and expanded, there would necessarily be contests of will, authority, and power.  The Constitution written soon after the Declaration addressed these political issues; but the intent was clear.  America was to be a moral, principled, and internally strong nation,

So it was with considerable disappointment that many Americans have witnessed the divisiveness in the country today – virulent, obsessive, hateful antagonisms at every level of public discourse and conference; a lack of willingness to listen, to compromise, and to act in the larger interest of the nation.  To be sure, the loudest, most shrill voices insist that they are not dividing the country but appealing for unity.  Unity on their terms of course.  Every new president, member of Congress, or holder of high office always claims to wear the mantle of unity; but few if any have succeeded in influencing a more temperate society. 

Identity politics have been one of the most disruptive, corrosive expressions of crass individualism and a lack of respect for broader community values.  Race, gender, and ethnicity have become the only characteristics on which to judge personal value, worth, opportunity, and ambition. 

Individual talent, particular intelligence, compassion, will, ambition, goodness, or spiritual grace are ignored; or as activists say ‘deferred’ until the battle for equality is won.  But in the meantime, in those years when Jefferson’s ‘divine soul’ or Nietzsche’s absolute will, or Sartre’s social existentialism are put aside, the selfishness, arrogance, and intemperance that must come from such a dismissal of more universal values will dominate.

The case of anti-vaxxer refusal to be vaccinated against COVID is a perfect example of Jeffersonian polity gone horribly awry.  The vaccine, proven to be safe, effective, and efficient, is the best way to protect oneself and one’s family, but as importantly to contribute to the herd immunity which will neuter the virus or at least force it into latent dormancy.  Refusing to vaccinate denies medical science and even more importantly denies and rejects Jeffersonian principles of equity, polity, and community.

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