Sunday, February 03, 2013
Inquiry Into Truth
Difference of opinion leads to inquiry, and inquiry to truth.
- Thomas Jefferson to PH Wendover, March 13, 1815
Well here's an interesting conundrum. We finished off John Adams today (then went on, appropriately enough, to watch Absolute Power starring Laura Linney on Amazon Instant Video), and there's a scene with an aged Jefferson writes to his old friend:
As long as there is government there will be differences of opinion. Everyone takes his side in favor of the many or the few. Nothing new could be added by you or me to what has been said by others and will be said in every age.
Naturally I went looking for source material since this one cannot trust dramatizations (even one so good as this show takes a lot of shortcuts, some small, some glaringly egregious). Part verbatim, part summary, turns out:
To me, then, it appears, that there have been differences of opinion and party differences, from the first establishment of governments to the present day, and on the same question which now divides our own country; that these will continue through all future time; that every one takes his side in favor of the many, or of the few, according to his constitution, and the circumstances in which he is placed; that opinions, which are equally honest on both sides; should not affect personal esteem or social intercourse; that as we judge between the Claudii and the Gracchi, the Wentworths and the Hampdens of past ages, so of those among us whose names may happen to be remembered for awhile, the next generations will judge, favorably or unfavorably, according to the complexion of individual minds, and the side they shall themselves have taken ; that nothing new can be added by you or me to what has been said by others, and will be said in every age in support of the conflicting opinions on government ; and that wisdom and duty dictate an humble resignation to the verdict of our future peers.
I really like the expanded version, which recognizes that politics has been ever thus and ever will be. And that it's all good.
But I went looking for more because I thought Jefferson certainly must have explored this quite a bit. I found many instances of this:
In a free society with a government based on reason, it is inevitable that there will be no uniform opinion about important issues. Those accustomed to suppression and control by governmental authority see this as leading only to chaos. But a government of the people requires difference of opinion in order to discover truth and to take advantage of the opportunity that only understanding brings.
I dig that since I've often made similar observations about how the clash of opinions in the political process really is the crucible from which come our solutions to problems. Absolute certainty and agreement is intellectual tyranny and anathema to a republic such as ours.
Now this is where I ran into some difficulty. All roads lead to Rome, and all links lead to a now-defunct page at UVa. The old version of the site used to be a favorite starting point for me when researching Jeffersonian thought--always had good nuggets and citations that allowed me to delve into more detail with source material.
Alas, in a strange departure from its usual thoroughness, the page did not provide a specific cite for the quotation above. The updated site had no record of these words, nor did any of the places UVa linked to, like the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia. At least not that I could find.
The closest I came was a speech given by Senator Feinstein in 2005 during an executive session debate about, oddly enough, Bush's nomination of Priscilla Owen to the 5th Circuit and the attendant controversy over the "nuclear option":
Thomas Jefferson consistently advocated for our country based on the free flow of ideas and open debate. And maybe up to this point we have taken for granted that a government of the people must be based on reason, on choice, and on open debate. But before our Nation was founded, modern governments were based on authoritarian domination. The people, in general, were considered little more than cattle to be governed and controlled by those possessing wealth, property, education, and power. The Founding Fathers introduced the revolutionary idea that government could rest on the reasoned choice of the people themselves.
In a free society, with a government based on reason, it is inevitable that there will be strong disagreements about important issues. But a government of the people requires difference of opinion in order to discover truth.
It's not obvious to me that she's quoting Jefferson so much as alluding to him and then providing her own interpretation. It appears to be the latter, but the Congressional Record isn't entirely clear. Could it be a gross misattribution and really DiFi coined something that Jefferson gets credit for, or is this a spurious quotation that DiFi thought was Jefferson's?
Curiouser and curiouser.
- George W Bush, May 24, 2005
Anyway, I've submitted a query to the folks at Monticello to see if they can help solve the mystery. This could very well be one of those things that people think sound like Jefferson, or sound great but would be more impressive if it came from him. Like a lot of those damned Facebook memes.
Or it's real and somebody was just sloppy at UVa, and we'll learn what letter contains these words. But it's weird that no local search engine at all these places with Jefferson collections can bring up that very graf, and teh Google keeps pointing back to the same page.
Thanks a lot, Obama!
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