our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness Phaedr. 244a

2012/09/26

one nation, under glass

It troubles me that when I go to Monticello now everything is under glass, that I can't linger, explore, look at the books. Instead, I'm watched and herded by a bossy tour guide.

I lean forward and ask if there are any Masonic books at Monticello. The guide acts like I'm mad. And true; Jefferson was one of the few Founding Fathers who wasn't a mason.

For years, I wondered if he might be Rosicrucian. He wasn't.

But now I understand him better, who he was and what shaped him.

I'm remembering the first time I went to Monticello. Fascinating, the classical design, those strange reliefs in the plaster that used to run around the walls -- the bull's skull, the urns. (The latter you can still see, behind glass, just across the street in the museum.) But when we think of Enlightenment Deists like Jefferson, the thing a trained eye sees most of all is their understanding of the Greeks. It's in the house, the gardens, the things Jefferson and his ken wrote, embraced, and shaped into our government.

The more I know about the Greeks, the more I grow to appreciate that shaping. Their concept of Reverence, I think, above all. It's been torn from us, and we all feel the wound.

Heal a bit:

Excerpts from the introduction to Paul Woodruff's wonderful book, Reverence, Renewing a Forgotten Virtue


"To forget that you are only human, to think you can act like a god -- this is the opposite of reverence. Ancient Greeks thought that tyranny was the height of irreverence, and they gave the famous name hubris to the crimes of tyrants. An irreverent soul is arrogant and shameless, unable to feel awe in the face of things higher than itself. As a result, an irreverent soul is unable to feel respect for people it sees as lower than itself -- ordinary people, prisoners, children.
...
"It is a natural mistake to think that reverence belongs to religion. It belongs, rather, to community. Wherever people try to act together, they hedge themselves around with some form of ceremony or good manners, and the observance of this can be an act of reverence. Reverence lies behind civility and all of the graces that make life in society bearable and pleasant.
...
"... Plato's view is that reverence is not a primary virtue at all. Plato taught that all you need do for reverence is to practice the other virtues that the gods favor, principally justice. Plato was afraid the Greeks of his day were trying to use reverence to win over the gods, in the hope that the gods would forgive any kind of wickedness on the part of people who gave abundant sacrifices. That is why Plato treated reverence as a part of justice, so that no one would think you could be reverent without being just. But if reverence is part of justice, then you will have it if you cultivate justice as a whole -- as you should -- and you need not spend another moment's thought of reverence.

"After Plato, I turned to the ancient poets and became disenchanted with Plato's simple theory. From Homer through Euripides, the poets treat reverence as a substantial virtue, and I began to see their point. More surprising, I began to suspect that reverence has more to do with power than religion. I was struck by the fact that Thucydides prizes reverence while condemning credulity in people who persist in seeing a divine plan behind the natural consequences of their own mistakes. If Thucydides believes that reverence is good but credulity is foolish, he is plainly thinking of reverence as a moral virtue that is detachable from traditional beliefs about the gods. Could this be possible? Could reverence be detached from belief? The answer turned out to be complicated. Reverence depends to some extent on belief, but not at all on formal creeds. And so I realized with shock and delight that reverence could -- in theory, at least -- be shared across religions. In fact, what religious people today admire in other religions cannot be faith (since they reject most of the content of other faiths), but reverence. So they know about reverence, though they don't call it by that name....
"... a writer about virtue must not expect to deliver the sharp-edged definitions or the clear criteria that some philosophers crave. Aristotle urges us -- with virtue in mind -- not to ask the same precision of ethics that we would with mathematics. Poets often understand virtues better than philosophers, so that the wisdom of poets over time is essential to this subject. Also essential to this study of virtue is the experience that you, the reader, bring to the subject. Virtues are about emotions, and you can't learn much about emotions from a book.
...
"Religious wars are endemic in our own time, which is a time with little care for reverence. ... If a religious group thinks it speaks and acts as God commands in all things, this is a failure of reverence. A group like that may turn violent and feel that they are doing so in good faith. Nothing is more dangerous than that feeling.
"War is nothing new, and neither are killer strains of religion, pathogens that take hold of a people and send them into paroxysms of violence. War and religion will always be with us; we can't expect to shake them off. But we can ask what it is in religion that might keep the dogs of war on a leash, and what it is that whips them into frenzy and lets them loose. It is reverence that moderates war in all times and cultures, irreverence that urges it on to brutality. The voices that call in the name of God for aggressive war have lost sight of human limitations. They have lost reverence, even when they serve a religious vision. So it is when a people believe that their god commands them to take land from others, or insists that they force others to their way of thinking. Even when the goal of the war is something as noble as freedom or peace, it may be irreverent to think we can impose these goals by force.
"When Agamemnon waited on the beach with his ships and the chariots and with men who hungered to capture Troy, the winds remained hostile, and he asked a diviner what he should do. He had faith in his diviner, and the diviner had faith in his power to speak for the gods. He said he knew what the gods desired -- the life of the kings daughter. And so Iphigenia came, summoned to he wedding in all the veiled finery of a bride. At the altar stood her father with the priest. But there was no young husband, only the great sharp knife poised to end her life.
"The poet Lucretius tells the tale, as I have done, to be the introduction for his work of philosophy. He ends with the strong line, tantum religio potuit suadere malorum (1.101) -- "so great is the power of religion to lead us to evil." He gives us Iphigenia to stand for all the huge unholy cost of war when it is driven by men who believe they know what the gods want. But he does not mean to condemn everything that falls under religion. Lucretius may be hostile to some kinds of faith, but he begins his work with an invocation to the goddess who stands for Nature. He too is a poet of reverence.
"Reverence runs across religions and even outside them through the fabric of any community, however secular. We may be divided from one another by our beliefs, but never by reverence. If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone shares your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent."


Down the road from Charlottesville is the place where Jefferson let down his hair. Poplar Forest. There, you can find pagan  designs similar to the ox skulls and urns that used to be seen at Monticello. (Wonder if they've put them back yet.)

Again, Jefferson's reading of Greek and Roman texts shaped his work, as is evident in the foundation of his nation. And his houses.



from the Poplar Forest website:


Adhering to the proper hierarchy, Jefferson used the Doric order in the central room—a more ornate decoration. For the room’s entablature he commissioned a sculptor to replicate an ancient frieze from the Roman Baths of Diocletian, alternating two elements: human faces, carved in low relief, and triglyphs, a “grill” of three vertical bars common to Doric friezes.

Jefferson broke the rules of neoclassical architecture, adding a third element, ox skulls, to the design. He explained to the confused sculptor, “You are right…those of the Baths of Diocletian are all human faces….But in my middle room at Poplar Forest I mean to mix the faces and ox-skulls.” In this private building, he felt he could follow his “fancy,” which, he wrote, “I can indulge in my own case, although in a public work I feel bound to follow authority strictly.”

For the parlor, Jefferson used the even more elegant Ionic order, commissioning his sculptor to replicate the entablature of the Roman temple of Fortuna Virilis. The delicate frieze consisted of small putti, or cherubs, alternating with ox skulls, connected by swags of foliage.


Architecture at Poplar Forest

Poplar Forest is considered Jefferson’s most mature architectural masterpiece. At Poplar Forest, elements from ancient, Renaissance Palladian and 18th century French architecture, as well as British and Virginian design, fuse into a harmonious whole. The 16th century architect, Andrea Palladio, greatly influenced Jefferson’s plan for the revival of ancient Roman architecture and integration of landscape design into the architectural design.

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"I'm driven with a mission from God," Bush told us. "God speaks through me." Goodness. Who would be so impious? So irreverent