On Dreaming of Pagans and Thomas Jefferson

Who are these pagans Thomas Jefferson loved? Last night I dreamt of them (or so I think) as it must have been Lucretius who stood beside me in a great stadium filled with star struck people to whisper in my ear everyone is a sack of atoms and all atoms are senseless and so, we can make of our lives what we wish.

In the way of dreams the stadium was local. I think it was the mighty Carrier Dome at Syracuse University. Imagine! I was at a sporting event with Lucretius!

(BTW: when pagans attend sporting events, they do not imagine God has anything to do with the score.)

Pagans. Admit them. They saw Gods cared nothing about human affairs. Who instead relied on observation for evidence. Our ancestors who bequeathed us science, democracy, and the Enlightenment.

Jefferson desperately needed them. He especially needed Lucretius. If you’re plan is to overthrow the king, you must tackle “divine right” head on.

Christopher Hitchens writes in his grand tour de force God is Not Great:

“In some ways, the most attractive and the most charming of the founders of antireligion is the poet Lucretius, who lived in the first century before Christ and admired the work of Epicurus beyond measure. Reacting to a revival of ancient worship by the Emperor Augustus, he composed a witty and brilliant poem entitled De Rerum Natura, or “On the Nature of Things.” This work was nearly destroyed by Christian fanatics in the Middle Ages, and only one printed manuscript survived, so we are fortunate even to know that a person writing in the time of Cicero (who first published the poem) and Julius Caesar had managed to keep alive the atomic theory. Lucretius anticipated David Hume in saying that the prospect of future annihilation was no worse than the contemplation of the nothingness from which one came, and also anticipated Freud in ridiculing the idea of prearranged burial rites and memorials, all of them expressing the vain and useless wish to be present in some way at one’s own funeral. Following Aristophanes, he thought that the weather was its own explanation and that nature, “rid of all gods,” did the work that foolish and self-centered people imagined to be divinely inspired, or directed at their puny selves:

Who can wheel all the starry spheres, and blow

Over all land the fruitful warmth from above

Be ready in all places and all times,

Gather black clouds and shake the quiet sky

With terrible thunder, to hurl down bolts which often

Rattle his own shrines, to rage in the desert, retreating

For target drill, so that his shafts can pass

The guilty by, and and slay the innocent?

Atomism was viciously persecuted throughout Christian Europe for many centuries, on the not unreasonable ground that it offered a far better explanation of the natural world than did religion. But, like a tenuous thread of thought, the work of Lucretius managed to persist in a few learned minds. Sir Isaac Newton may have been a believer—in all sorts of pseudoscience as well as in Christianity—but when he came to set out his Principia he included ninety lines of De Rerum Natura in the early drafts. Galileo’s 1623 volume Saggiatore, while it does not acknowledge Epicurus, was so dependent on his atomic theories that both its friends and its critics referred to it as an Epicurean book.”

Excerpt From: Christopher Hitchens. “God Is Not Great.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/xNwuv.l

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So the Pagans might not have been great scientists—it took the Enlightenment to raise scientific reasoning to its modern place—but they were avowedly, even wickedly smart about superstition.

Here is Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”2

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Strong stuff. I like the word “uniformity”. Here Jefferson means it in the sense of “harmony” (one of the word’s earlier meanings.)

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What else does Jefferson gain from knowing the Pagans?

He knew well this famous passage from Epicurus:

“Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.”

And this:

“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and the aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, that produces a pleasant life. It is rather sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs that lead to the tumult of the soul.”

Here is Thomas Jefferson in a letter to James Madison:

“…life is of no value but as it brings gratifications. among the most valuable of these is rational society. it informs the mind, sweetens the temper, chears our spirits, and promotes health.”

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Back to the stadium. The pursuit of happiness can’t be a spectator sport. It requires, among other things, a banishing of harmful beliefs.

If you need a gold test for how to banish harmful beliefs, remember that the “golden rule” is also Pagan: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

And the golden rule is why Jefferson wanted to keep church and state wholly apart in the United States.

Here is the text from his Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom:

An Act for establishing religious Freedom.

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;

That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,

That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;

That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;

That even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;

That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,

That therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right,

That it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it;

That though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;

That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;

That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;

And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.[4]