Jefferson's "Master Epicurus" and the Nature of the American Regime


While the American regime is often criticized as Hobbesian, the letters of Thomas Jefferson provide evidence that it may be more accurately described as Epicurean.

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Are American political institutions oriented toward the promotion of virtue or radical autonomy?

Debate over this question has escalated recently, with Robert R. Reilly proposing that, for the Founders, the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inherently limited, ordered to and by the laws of nature and nature’s God. Patrick Deneen, meanwhile, has argued, with specific reference to Federalist 10, that the Founders designed our government to protect the diverse faculties of men. This is a formula for radical individualism that makes the exercise of rights subject to individual will. Reilly, who regards Deneen’s position as a serious misinterpretation, has issued a challenge to critics of the American Founding to point to the express sentiments of the Founders themselves, rather than relying on inferences, in order “actually to prove that the Founding was Hobbesian.”

In the interpretation of at least one of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson, American political institutions are not constructed to direct citizens toward virtue, but simply to direct them toward ease, convenience, and the satisfaction of desire. Jefferson attests to this Hobbesian aspect of the American regime in a series of letters he authored in praise of Epicureanism. Epicurean political theory of the sort that Hobbes proposed is a repudiation of the political priorities of other premodern philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Thus, by praising Epicureanism as the most rational system of ancient philosophy, Jefferson seems to contradict his assertion that the principles of the Declaration align with the ideas of Aristotle and Cicero.

Epicurean Ethics, Politics, and Metaphysics

In a letter to his friend William Short (1819), Jefferson confesses, “I too am an Epicurean.” Jefferson concludes the letter with an outline of the basic teachings of “our master Epicurus.” Epicurus, an ancient Hellenistic philosopher, was a materialist who asserted that everything in existence is composed of matter and is the result of the random collision of atoms. Epicurus taught that the universe is nonteleological and that it is entirely devoid of divine providence. In addition to espousing this atheistic view of the universe, Epicurus argued that sense experience is the source and standard of all truth.

Epicurean ethics and politics accord with Epicurean metaphysics. For Epicurus, pleasure is the highest good. Happiness is tranquility, or the absence of pain, while virtue is that which is useful for the attainment of tranquility. The narrative on which Epicurean political theory is based is described by Lucretius, whose didactic poem, De rerum natura, is the most faithful exposition of Epicurean doctrine. In Book V, Lucretius relates the movement of human beings from a prepolitical state to political society. In this Epicurean narrative, human beings enter contractual relations with one another for the sake of utility. Cicero appropriately describes justice in the Epicurean tradition as an artifice developed for the sake of convenience. Epicurus, however, believed it was entirely natural for individuals to leave the state of nature, where the pursuit of pleasure causes violent conflicts, by agreeing to mutually beneficial terms of cooperation. In Principal Doctrines XXXI, Epicurus writes, “The justice which arises from nature is a pledge of mutual advantage to restrain men from harming one another and save them from being harmed.”

Cicero famously ridiculed Epicurean doctrines in the first century BC. Through the Christian era that followed, philosophers and theologians excoriated Epicurean thought because of its atheistic and hedonistic elements. In fact, Dante placed the Epicureans in the sixth circle of hell, far from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, the virtuous pagans inhabiting hell’s outskirts.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, some philosophers sought to rescue the true teachings of Epicurus from the alleged falsehoods attributed to him by Cicero and multiple generations of Christian thinkers. For this reason, Thomas Jefferson insists that “the Syntagma of Gassendi” contains the genuine doctrines of Epicurus rather than those wrongly imputed to him. And, in two separate letters, Jefferson recommended Gassendi’s Syntagma to his friends William Short and Charles Thomson (1816).

What Greece and Rome Have Left Us

Pierre Gassendi (1592-1695), whose work Jefferson praises, is the French philosopher who is primarily responsible for the modern reconstruction of Epicurean thought. Gassendi revived Epicurean philosophy in order to provide a viable alternative to Scholasticism, the blend of Christianity and Aristotelianism that was prevalent in universities throughout Western Europe. Gassendi’s first work was a full-throated rejection of dogmatic Aristotelianism, while his final work, Syntagma Philosophicum (1658), was a systematic presentation of his neo-Epicurean philosophy. Jefferson described this last treatise, a modern restatement of the doctrines of Epicurus, as “the most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients.”

Thomas Hobbes, who spent over a decade in France and who formed a close friendship with Gassendi, exported Epicurean materialism to England. Indeed, Hobbes’s mechanistic political philosophy is indebted not only to Galileo’s science of motion, but also to Gassendi’s restatement of Epicureanism. Thomas Creech, an English translator of Lucretius, perceived that Hobbes used elements of Epicurean thought, writing that Hobbes’s “Politics are but Lucretius enlarged. … [The] Natural Consequents of the Epicurean origin of Man.”

Like Gassendi, Hobbes sought to dismantle the “vain philosophy of Aristotle,” which was “mingled with the Scriptures to make School divinity.” Hobbes denied that there are “certain essences separated from bodies, which they call abstract essences, and substantial forms.” Hobbes, who contested the notion that man is a rational being, advanced an anti-Stoic and anti-Socratic conception of man. According to Hobbes, human beings are led by desire, which means that they can only engage in instrumental rationality, making calculations based on past sequences in order to attain what they want. Hobbes robbed both nature and human nature of its teleology. There is no intention or purpose in the Epicurean universe, only matter moving blindly. Because Hobbes believed that the universe consists of bodies in motion and that knowledge proceeds from sense experience, he denied the power of the intellect to ascertain truths that transcend material reality.

While Gassendi and Hobbes presented modernized versions of Epicureanism to combat Aristotelianism, philosophers who attempted to refute Hobbes employed the language of the Platonists and Stoics, respectively. The Cambridge Platonists, for example, a group that included Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), were ethical idealists who argued that the immutable principles of morality, grounded in the divine mind, can be discerned by our rational faculty.

The Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) appropriated the language of the Stoics. In his inaugural address as the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow, Hutcheson defended man’s natural sociability against what he perceived to be Hobbes’s radical individualism. The main tenet of modern Epicureanism, according to Hutcheson, is that the sole end of every act is intended toward some “worldly advantage, some bodily pleasures or the means of them.” Opposing this neo-Epicurean view, Hutcheson devised a Christian-Stoic synthesis prioritizing the natural sociability of man, the divine governance of the universe, and the ennobling power of virtue.

These philosophers, who were educated in the Latin classics and who devised modern variations of ancient philosophies, knew quite well the genealogies of the philosophical schools. The Platonist (i.e., Academic) and Peripatetic schools both traced their lineage to Socrates. So, too, did the Stoics, whose founder, Zeno of Citium, was a student of the Academy. Cicero, in his philosophical dialogues, often treats differences between these Socratic schools as merely terminological, while he considers them to speak in unison against the Epicureans.

Epicurus, who totally rejected Plato’s teaching and insulted both Aristotle and his successors, established his sect in opposition to the Socratic schools. The Epicureans, who taught that the soul is material, renounced the incorporeal soul of the Platonists and the substantial form of the Aristotelians. The Epicureans, who engaged in an empirical method of inquiry, denied that human beings can understand transcendent truths or develop knowledge of essences. The Epicureans espoused political conventionalism, which is a rejection of both the Stoic conception of natural law and the Platonic view that justice is a transcendent norm. The Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics, on the other hand, grounded their respective theories of justice in a teleological view of the universe.

The intellectual battle between these schools was a central feature of Roman philosophy. And Jefferson unambiguously states his preference. The Stoics taught that happiness requires the possession of virtue alone. Modern Epicureans, though, frequently claimed that the virtue of the Stoics was merely glory-seeking in disguise, i.e., hypocrisy and vain striving. According to Jefferson, it was a “great crime” for the Stoics to persist in “their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines.” Jefferson attacks Cicero, too, whose anti-Epicurean diatribes, he claims, were “enchanting” but ultimately “vapid.”

Jefferson proceeds to insult Cicero’s “prototype Plato,” for “dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind.” Jefferson notes that the positive doctrines of Plato were the product of “his own whimsies,” while the metaphysical and moral doctrines espoused by modern Christian Platonists are simply “fabrications.” Hobbes also disparaged the Socratic schools in this way, describing their moral philosophies as “but a description of their own passions.”

Jefferson’s critique of the Platonists and Stoics stems from a basic philosophical commitment, which Jefferson describes, in a letter to John Adams (1820), as “my creed of materialism.” In this letter, Jefferson quite explicitly echoes Hobbes, who asserted that everything in the world is corporeal. For this reason, Hobbes described immaterial substance as “an absurdity of speech.” And Jefferson seconds Hobbes, remarking, “When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings.”

According to Jefferson, “sound philosophy” entails an empirical method of inquiry that spurns metaphysics, those “speculations hyperphysical and antiphysical [that] so uselessly occupy and disquiet the mind.” Jefferson insists that all the certainty we need in philosophical matters can be built “on the basis of sensation, of matter and motion,” which does not require us to plunge “into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms” that made the Socratic schools so appealing to Christian minds.

Gassendi and Hobbes, in spite of their considerable differences, shared one major philosophical aim: to turn their versions of modern Epicureanism into a viable alternative to the prevailing Socratic schools and, in particular, to the prominent Aristotelian conception of reality. By engaging with these two thinkers, Jefferson ponders a question pertinent to the nature of the American regime: Does the philosophical heritage of Greece and Rome belong to the classical tradition of Platonic contemplation, Aristotelian virtue, and Stoic natural law, as interpreted by way of Jerusalem, or does it belong to Epicurean materialism, hedonism, and self-interest? Jefferson makes his choice evident when he claims that Gassendi’s neo-Epicureanism contains “everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” 

Epicurean Political Theory

Gassendi’s neo-Epicureanism introduced the mechanistic philosophy that set the trajectory for modern political theory. Hobbes’s version of Epicurean political theory, while related to Gassendi’s, is more radical in that it emphasizes humanity’s asocial nature and unquenchable desire for pleasure, and the indivisibility of sovereign authority. Both of their political theories, however, are derived from their Epicurean visions of reality. Thomas Tenison, an early critic of Hobbes, observed that “Epicurus . . . teacheth the same original of just and unjust with Mr. Hobbes.”

Thomas Jefferson did indeed repudiate Hobbes, referring to his description of justice as artificial, or man-made, as “humiliating.” But Jefferson could easily have found a solution to this problem in Gassendi’s Syntagma. Though Gassendi was a conventionalist who described justice as a scheme for mutual advantage, he also considered justice to be natural, because human beings have a natural propensity to agree to terms of cooperation, based on a utility calculation. Modern Epicureans portray justice as a scheme for mutual advantage. And this scheme is legitimate to the degree that it garners the consent of individuals who are intent on pursuing happiness. Happiness, in this account, is not objective but subjective, based on a calculation of pleasures and pains.

What, then, might Jefferson have meant when he proposed in the Declaration of Independence that each individual has an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness? In Jefferson’s own words, “happiness” consists in “well-regulated indulgences,” satisfactions of desire that accord with political conventions that are designed to promote mutual advantage. They are well-regulated insofar as they do not prevent others from pursuing their own advantage in their own way. For Jefferson, at least, happiness does not consist in the kind of virtue extolled by the classical philosophers. Instead, as Jefferson declares, “The summum bonum is to be not pained in body, nor troubled in mind.”

Virtue is merely that which is useful in attaining this state of ease, pleasure, and convenience. Liberty is indeed ordered, then, to whatever one wants it to be ordered to, for the sake of his own peace of mind. Jefferson conceives of happiness in an entirely subjective manner. And by favoring the Epicurean conception of man, Jefferson sacrificed a rich notion of virtue, which could have been supplied by the other philosophical traditions, in favor of a minimal theory of virtue, according to which virtue is simply a minister to pleasure.

There are obvious limitations to using a series of letters written by Thomas Jefferson, which are not intended as a commentary on American political institutions, to prove that the American Founding is Hobbesian. But this is merely a first step, an effort to gauge at least one Founder’s familiarity with philosophical trends out of which liberal political theory developed. If, as I think is likely, the very terminology of liberal political theory is neo-Epicurean in character, then, to the extent that the American regime adopted that language, we can describe our regime as, if not strictly Hobbesian, then certainly Epicurean.

Aaron Alexander Zubia, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, is a PhD candidate in political theory at Columbia University. He is currently working on his dissertation, which is on the neo-Epicurean roots of liberal political theory.

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