Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Monkish Ignorance: Views Differ

George W. Bush visited Monticello on Independence Day and said, in part,

On the 50th anniversary of America's independence, Thomas Jefferson passed away. But before leaving this world, he explained that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were universal. In one of the final letters of his life, he wrote, "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be -- to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all -- the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government."
Ed Brayton notices that Bush's quotation of Jefferson misses an entire dependent clause that qualifies the nature of the chains Jefferson had in mind:
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.
It was "monkish ignorance and superstition" that kept people in the thrall of monarchs who claimed a "divine right" to rule. Jefferson didn't deny the existence or the relevance of (deist) god to political economy, but his Declaration of Independence forcefully denied that god enthrones or legitimates monarchs. Instead, Jefferson's god endows people with the capacity for self-government -- "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," not from kings and clergy threatening damnation. This is the central argument of the Declaration of Independence, an argument that is carried forward, underscored, and embodied in the USA's god-free Constitution.

In keeping with his tendencies to wish a simpler reality into existence and befoul everything he touches, it is not surprising that Bush would be uncomfortable with recalcitrant words about "monkish ignorance" and cut them from his remarks. It is probably too charitable to assume, in the first place, that Bush himself had anything to do with the drafting of this speech. Perhaps we should be thankful for every word of Jefferson's that Bush leaves unspoken on a "pearls before swine" principle.

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