The Scottish Enlightenment and Greek literature

When Jefferson made a reading list for a friend, he excluded Plato, Aristotle, Thyucidides, Hesiod, the pre-Socratic philosophers, and the Greek dramatists. What’s up with that?

In 1771, when Jefferson was 28, a 23-year-old friend asked him for a list of books to make up his personal library. [Full text of the request and the reply at the jump.] The result, I suppose, is a reasonable guide to what the Tidewater intelligentsia was reading at the time.

Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Enlightenment gets some play: Hume’s History of England and his essays, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Locke, but not Hobbes. Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu all make appearances, but not Machiavelli.

Jefferson seems to have caught the very first wave of what became romanticism; he includes not only Percy’s Reliques, but Ossian, which he admired extravagantly.

But what struck me was the selection of classical authors, or rather the omissions from that selection. A fair sample of Latin: Virgil, Seneca, Cicero, Tacitus, Josephus, Caesar, Livy. Much less Greek: Homer (in Pope’s version), Epictetus, and Xenophon’s Memorabilia.

That’s it. No Plato. No Aristotle. No Thucydides. No Polybius. None of the pre-Socratics. No Hesiod. None of the dramatists. This seems strange.

Query to my more learned readers: Was aversion from, or at least indifference, to Greek drama, history and philosophy characteristic of the English-speaking Enlightenment generally?

Update Andy Sabl says “Yes,” partly because Greek is harder to learn but also because Plato and Aristotle were considered disreputable. (He also notes that “Enlightenment” was a later and Continental term that Jefferson and his crowd wouldn’t have used about themselves.) James Winberley notes that the Arabic scholars who translated Greek science by the truckload mostly ignored Greek drama. A reader writes:

Plato was seen by many Enlightenment figures as an airy-fairy mythologist — perhaps the hangover from his long association w/ the Timaeus, which as you probably know was the only work of his known in the West for centuries post-Rome.

And you know what a beating Aristotle took from the Renaissance on.

In general, the Romans were seen as more pragmatic, doers rather than thinkers.

But I think the other problem is that, while “everyone” studied Latin, few besides professors and divines studied Greek.

Thanks to all for the illumination.

Second update Another reader points me to this letter, in which Jefferson, at the end of his life, reports to Adams on having just (!) read the Republic. Jefferson also says that up until then he had never worked his way through an entire dialogue. J. seems to think that he knows what the actual Socrates taught (presumably from Xenophon), and considers Plato’s works “libels on Socrates.”

I recall as a tenth-grader having more or less the same reaction to the Lesser Hippias* as Jefferson had to the Republic: “Hun? Howzzat again?” There’s a clear pedagogic lesson here: always start with the Apology, which was historically the first of the dialogues, and remains incomparably the most dramatic and easiest to grasp.

But Jefferson’s letter lays out the deeper source of his animus toward Plato: he blames Plato for the neo-Platonic accretions to Christianity. I rather doubt that Jefferson’s astoundingly shallow mind had fully grasped the mystical element in the Gospels themselves, but he may well be right to say that we owe some of the odditities of Christian theology, including the Doctrine of the Trinity, to the neo-Platonists. So just as Aristotle suffered unjustly at the hands of the Renaissance thinkers for the sins of the Scholastics, Plato fell victim to Eighteenth-Century reaction against the mysticism of the neo-Platonists.

One amusing side-light: Jefferson’s arrogance in, after having acknowledged Cicero’s authority, simply dismissing Cicero’s admiration for Plato as a mere foible, rather than asking himself whether Cicero might have actually seen something in Plato not visible from Monticello. I wonder whether Madison, who as a thinker stood head and shoulders above his political mentor, was fully aware of just how risible a figure Jefferson cut in his pose as a philosophe.

Still, I’d rather have a self-deluded intellectual wannabe in the White House than someone proud of his (or her) ignorant self-assurance.

Third update

From still another reader:

One factor that hasn’t come up yet is that Roman thinkers were, in two obvious ways, more intellectually appealing to the Enlightenment. As far as politics goes, one doesn’t find much in the way of a philosophical defense of democracy in Greek thought, while the Romans had a conception of res publica much more congenial to the early moderns. And in ethics, the humanism of Roman thinkers would have seemed much more relevant and honest to an intellectual generation that was trying to throw off a theocentric worldview than an ethical tradition that, like that of the Greeks, thought grappling with one’s relationship to the divine order was a significant part of the project of ethical thought. This preferance isn’t particular to Jefferson at all. Both Hume and Kant liberally quote from Tacitus, Horace, Seneca, and Cicero, but not from any Greeks.

* Just to be clear: No, I wasn’t reading Plato recreationally at age 15. I was such a pain in the butt in English class that my teacher “suggested’ that I spend that class period in the library, and (possibly out of annoyance) gave me the Lesser Hippias to read. I was bored and puzzled, and couldn’t figure out what it was all about. The difference between Jefferson and me is that I didnt make the leap from “I can’t make heads or tails of this” to “This is bullsh*t.”

A Virginia Gentleman’s Library.

As Proposed by Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith in 1771.

Robert Skipwith to Thomas Jefferson

Dear Sir,

This I have left at the Forest to remind you of your obliging promise and withal to guide you in your choice of books for me, both as to the number and matter of them. I would have them suited to the capacity of the common reader who understands but little of the classicks and who has not leisure for any intricate or tedious study. Let them be improving as well as amusing and the rest let there be Hume’s history of England, the new edition of Shakespeare, the short Roman history you mentioned and all Sterne’s works. I am very fond of Bumgarden’s manner of binding but can’t afford it unless Fingal or some other of those new works be bound up only after that manner; that one, Belisarius, and some others of the kind I would have if bound in gold. Let them amount to about five and twenty pounds sterling, or, if you think proper, to thirty pounds.

With the list please send to me particular directions for importing them, including the bookseller’s place of residence. Your very hble servant,

Robt. Skipwith


To Robert Skipwith with a List of Books

Monticello, Aug. 3, 1771


I sat down with a design of executing your request to form a catalogue of books to the amount of about 50 lib. sterl. But could by no means satisfy myself with any partial choice could make. Thinking therefore it might be as agreeable to you have framed such a general collection as I think you would wish and might in time find convenient to procure. Out of this you will chuse for yourself to the amount you mentioned for the present year and may hereafter as shall be convenient proceed in completing the whole. A view of the second column in this catalogue would I suppose extort a smile from the face of gravity. Peace to its wisdom! Let me not awaken it. A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?

I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with it’s deformity, and conceive an abhorence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously. We never reflect whether the story we read be truth or fiction. If the painting be lively, and a tolerable picture of nature, we are thrown into a reverie, from which if we awaken it is the fault of the writer. I appeal to every reader of feeling and sentiment whether the fictitious murther of Duncan by Macbeth in Shakespeare does not excite in him as great a horror of villany, as the real one of Henry IV. by Ravaillac as related by Davila? And whether the fidelity of Nelson and generosity of Blandford in Marmontel do not dilate his breast and elevate his sentiments as much as any similar incident which real history can furnish? Does he not in fact feel himself a better man while reading them, and privately covenant to copy the fair example? We neither know nor care whether Lawrence Sterne really went to France, whether he was there accosted by the Franciscan, at first rebuked him unkindly, and then gave him a peace offering: or whether the whole be not fiction. In either case we equally are sorrowful at the rebuke, and secretly resolve we will never do so: we are pleased with the subsequent atonement, and view with emulation a soul candidly acknowleging it’s fault and making a just reparation. Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. We are therefore wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written. This is my idea of well written Romance, of Tragedy, Comedy and Epic poetry. — If you are fond of speculation the books under the head of Criticism will afford you much pleasure. Of Politics and Trade I have given you a few only of the best books, as you would probably chuse to be not unacquainted with those commercial principles which bring wealth into our country, and the constitutional security we have for the enjoiment of that wealth. In Law I mention a few systematical books, as a knowledge of the minutiae of that science is not necessary for a private gentleman. In Religion, History, Natural philosophy, I have followed the same plan in general, — But whence the necessity of this collection? Come to the new Rowanty, from which you may reach your hand to a library formed on a more extensive plan. Separated from each other but a few paces the possessions of each would be open to the other. A spring centrically situated might be the scene of every evening’s joy. There we should talk over the lessons of the day, or lose them in music, chess or the merriments of our family companions. The heart thus lightened our pillows would be soft, and health and long life would attend the happy scene. Come then and bring our dear Tibby with you, the first in your affections, and second in mine. Offer prayers for me too at that shrine to which tho’ absent I pray continual devotions. In every scheme of happiness she is placed in the foreground of the picture, as the princi-pal figure. Take that away, and it is no picture for me. Bear my affections to Wintipock clothed in the warmest expressions of sincerity; and to yourself be every human felicity. Adieu.



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Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: