The Greeks and America’s Founding Fathers Part 1: The Greek Frame - The Objective Standard

Editor’s note: This article is part one of a three-part essay adapted from a lecture series created for the Politismos Museum of Greek History. Parts two and three will be published in the Winter 2016–17 and Spring 2017 issues of TOS respectively.

No place in America more perfectly symbolizes the influence of the Greeks on America’s founding fathers than the central lawn of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The lawn is framed on three sides by the central Rotunda, which housed the library like the brain of the school, and the two porticoes that reach out like arms and originally housed the dormitories. Some students still reside in them today. The architect who designed these buildings was, of course, the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who among his many other accomplishments was one of America’s first architects.

The style is Roman, and therefore, essentially Greek. Jefferson designed the buildings as a teaching device for the university’s architecture students. As they walk along the central lawn, students can see each of the classical orders represented: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and composite.

One reason the university so aptly represents the Founders’ connections to the Greeks is that they largely knew of the Greeks through the Roman lens, not just in building but in thought as well. Jefferson got his classical Greek architecture from Roman models. And it is largely thanks to his efforts that to this day, our government buildings are primarily classical in style. It was his copy of the Roman temple known as the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France, that became the state capitol building for Virginia. He also collaborated with Benjamin Latrobe in designing the first version of the U.S. Capitol building and even secretly entered a classically inspired design in the competition for the president’s house. In all of these, his model was Italian architecture, adapted to local needs in various elegant ways. Most notably, both his home, Monticello, and the university, though classical in design, are built from brick made locally out of Virginia soil. Jefferson was a state-of-the-art thinker, made—like his buildings—of Virginian materials. But his mind was fashioned on classical forms.

As in their architecture, so in their thought, America’s founding fathers looked primarily to the Romans for their political and legal foundations, but what they found were ideas that largely originated with the Greeks. In some cases, this was because the original writings of, say, Plato and Aristotle, either were still lost, or were obscured by poor translations or by fake books falsely attributed to the ancients during the American Revolutionary period. Despite his classical education, which enabled him to read Greek and Latin—as well as Spanish, Italian, French, and Anglo-Saxon—Jefferson was not adept at spotting forgeries. Among his favorite poets was “Ossian,” purportedly an ancient Anglo-Saxon poet whose work was actually forged by the man who claimed to be his translator. During Jefferson’s life, it was fairly well known among educated men that Ossian was a fake, but Jefferson couldn’t bring himself to believe it.1

As for the ancient Greeks, many were known to the Founders through the Roman lens as well. They got their Plato and Aristotle largely through Cicero, for example, and their Epicurus through Lucretius—as we still do today.

I want to focus on Epicurus and Lucretius, because even now Epicurean ideas are not as instantly recognizable to ordinary people as those of Aristotle or Plato. Yet Epicurus had the strongest influence on Thomas Jefferson. This is less true of political ideas—Greek politics largely served the Founders as models to avoid, rather than ideals to be imitated—than of his ideas about the nature of man and what the good life should be. But as we shall see, all of these ideas came together in Jefferson’s final and proudest achievement.


Epicurus was born on Samos in 341 BC. As a young man he moved to Colophon, on the coast of present-day Turkey, and then in 306 BC, to Athens, where he founded a school known as the Garden of Epicurus, not far from Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. He was a brilliant and prolific writer and thinker. Yet thanks to the war against his ideas that Christians waged during the Medieval period, Epicurus has been largely obliterated from our history. Of the three hundred or so books Epicurus is said to have written, only four letters remain today, in addition to some scattered passages quoted in other manuscripts and collected in lists of aphorisms. We also have the writings of some of his followers, the most important of which is the incomplete epic poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, a Roman who lived two and a half centuries after Epicurus, between 99 BC and 55 BC. Even his beautiful and intriguing poem was lost to the West for centuries after the fall of Rome and was not published in translation until less than a century before Jefferson’s birth.

Given how little is today remembered about him, one might imagine that Epicurus was a minor figure in the ancient world, but he was among the most widely respected thinkers of Greco-Roman era. Schools, like monasteries, devoted to Epicureanism were found in all the major cities. His followers wore jewelry with portraits of him and hung his picture in their homes. Epicureanism was not only influential in this sense, but it was, according to Norman Wentworth Dewitt, “the first missionary philosophy”2—the first school of thought that actively sought to convert others to its central tenets.

Yet those tenets were not religious. Epicurus was a thoroughly secular philosopher, and we might call him the true founder of secular liberalism. The two best-known elements of his thought were his materialism and his hedonism, and it was these ideas that, when Rome fell and mysticism rose in the Western world, made him so controversial that Christians sought to purge him from history. To this day, in fact, the Hebrew word for heresy is apikoros, or “Epicurus.”

Epicurus’s primary metaphysical doctrine was atomism. All of reality is made up of tiny atoms, or seeds, which exist in a void, moving at different speeds and different directions. These atoms combine or break apart, forming the world around us. Water atoms and earth atoms mix to make clay, which makes up a pot. Light atoms stream through space and strike our eyes, enabling us to see. This idea was not original to Epicurus; an earlier Greek, Democritus, is credited with devising atomism. But with Epicurus, it became the foundation of a philosophic school. There is no such thing as a spiritual or magical influence in the world. Everything is material, including the soul, which is nothing but atoms moving inside of us.

The arguments for atomism are strikingly ingenious, given that the men who worked out these ideas had none of the sophisticated scientific equipment we have today. They reached their conclusions purely by abstract reasoning. Even where their arguments are wrong, they are clever and persuasive. For example, when explaining the phenomenon of color, Lucretius tells us that it is the result of atoms of sunlight striking colored objects and knocking off some of their atoms, which in turn bounce off and strike the eye, resulting in the sensation of color. This explains why we do not perceive color in the dark, and why a brightly colored object will fade over time, as more and more of its “seeds” are scattered by sunlight. This is basically correct.

Because all that exists are atoms and void, the gods, though they exist, are themselves physical entities, and are not capable of miracles. In fact, they really do not involve themselves in human life at all. Epicurus and his followers were not actually atheists, but believed in what in Jefferson’s day would be called deism: the gods basically let humanity alone. The Epicureans focused their hostility not on the existence of gods, but against the religious beliefs that surrounded them. On this subject, they were quite clear: mysticism is a positive evil in the world, the source of anxiety and fear, which can only be dispelled by reason. Lucretius, who begins De Rerum Natura with an invocation to the goddess Venus, explains that his enemy is not the gods, but rather the “superstitions and the threats of priests.”3 Fear of death was a particular malady, because it caused cowardice, despair, superstition, and all number of evils. Yet, death, wrote Epicurus, “is nothing to us,” because “all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation.”4 There is no need to fear death, as once we are dead, we will be unable to feel any pain or terror. Abolishing the fear of death “makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality. For there is nothing terrible in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living.”5

Worse than the fear of death is the way in which false beliefs about the gods render us vulnerable to manipulation, fraud, and tyranny. This is particularly important to Lucretius. In the most famous passage of De Rerum Natura, he retells the myth of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. The God Apollo had demanded her death as the price of allowing the winds to blow so that Agamemnon could sail to Troy:

As a maiden, pure of stain,
To be impurely slaughtered at the age when she should wed,
Sorrowful sacrifice slain at her father’s hand instead,
All this for fair and favourable winds to sail the fleet along!
So potent was Religion in persuading to do wrong.6]

The cure for this evil was to sweep away “[t]his dread, these shadows of the mind . . . / by observing Nature and her laws.”7 In the place of mythology and magic, the Epicureans offered a philosophy of materialism, reason, and scientific inquiry. This would not only give us better knowledge of the real world and avert the evils of theocratic rule, but it would accord better with our own happiness. “A man cannot dispel his fear about the most important matters if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but suspects the truth of some mythical story,” wrote Epicurus. “So that without natural science it is not possible to attain our pleasures unalloyed.”8

For Epicureans the goal of life was happiness, or, to be more precise, pleasure. This has come to be called “hedonism,” but that word has misleading connotations, thanks in large part to the misrepresentations of Epicurus’s religious enemies. The Epicureans were not indulgent pleasure seekers in the sense of pursuing whatever feels good at the moment. Epicurus is quite clear about this:

Since pleasure is the first good and natural to us, for this very reason we do not choose every pleasure, but sometimes we pass over many pleasures, when greater discomfort accrues to us as the result of them: and similarly we think many pains better than pleasures, since a greater pleasure comes to us when we have endured pains for a long time. Every pleasure then because of its natural kinship to us is good, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen: even as every pain also is an evil, yet not all are always of a nature to be avoided.9

The true Epicurean is carefully indulgent, often abstinent, so as to avoid the hangovers that inevitably result from unwise choices.

On this, Epicurus differs slightly from Aristotle, a philosopher who for the most part is on the same page as Epicurus. For Aristotle, too, happiness is the good, but where Epicurus saw the goal of virtue as pleasure, for Aristotle, the great-souled man aims toward virtue, and happiness arises as a by-product of that effort. Just as a plant or an animal flourishes when it exerts itself to meet its capacities, a human being reaches his end when he strives for virtue by exercising his practical wisdom. Pleasure is not the goal; full living, or self-abundance, is the end of human life. Virtuous actions are done for the sake of their nobility, not for the consequent pleasure. This is a subtle difference, but it manifests itself in two ways. In a famous passage of his Nichomachean Ethics,10 Aristotle depicts the great-souled (megalopsychos) man as being like an artist or an artisan. He will spend his money in “large and fitting” ways “for honour’s sake.”11 He will walk, but never run. Although not fond of danger, he will face it unstintingly when it comes, “knowing that there are conditions on which life is not worth having.”12 He gives generously but is reluctant to receive gifts, and is more reluctant to ask for help. He is dignified but unassuming, candid about what he hates and loves, honest and without concern for the opinions of those beneath him. He does not make his life revolve around another and is in general “a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones.” He is a fundamentally self-sufficient man. He is a sort of ideal striver for perfection.

Epicurus depicts a much less strenuous and aristocratic ideal. His goal is not greatness but tranquility—ataraxia—harmony with the world and with the self. This means that happiness is not the pursuit of excellence but the avoidance of pain. Epicurean man is retiring and calm. He enjoys the study of nature, relishes its bounty but does not pursue honors or seek great and notable deeds. To reiterate, this does not mean self-indulgence or shyness, let alone cowardice, which is a state of fear and therefore of disharmony. He is virtuous in a bourgeois sense, rather than an aristocratic sense.13 “It is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently, and honorably and justly,” says Epicurus, “nor again to live a life of prudence, honor and justice without living pleasantly. And the man who does not possess the pleasant life, is not living prudently and honorably and justly, and the man who does not possess the virtuous life cannot possibly live pleasantly.”14 Where the Aristotelian great-souled man prizes excellence because it is excellent, Epicurean man prizes happiness and is content to till his own garden, to accept what cannot be changed, and to relish the pleasant experiences of life.

This difference affected their different political ideas as well—though we must always keep in mind that we have so little of Epicurus’s writings or those of his disciples that it is hard to be certain of what they believed when it comes to politics. Neither Aristotle nor Epicurus distinguished sharply between government and society—that distinction was one of the great discoveries of Jefferson’s own age. But for Aristotle, political society was an outgrowth of man’s nature in a hierarchically structured world. He is normally viewed as holding an “organic” view of politics, associated with the conservatism of Edmund Burke (and thus the polar opposite of Jefferson’s views): seeing political society not as an artificial product of conscious deliberation but as a consequence of natural drives, like the family.15

Epicurus’s followers, on the other hand, offered a sort of social compact theory that harmonizes well with the views of America’s founding fathers. According to Lucretius—who, by the way, gives a fascinating vision of biological evolution some nineteen hundred years before Darwin—government is not created by the gods or by nature but is a human construct. In the beginning, mankind lived in a savage state, without language or civilization: “They did not know how to treat things with fire, or know about / The use of hides, or how to dress in skins despoiled from kills.”16 Eventually, “Nature gave the tongue its different sounds to say,”17 and with the power of language mankind made the great discoveries of fire, metalworking, and organized hunting. At last, “cities and citadels sprang up, founded by kings, / Who constructed these defenses for their own protection and / Divided up among their subjects herds and lots of land.”18

This monarchism, however, had its downside, for people soon began to compete for political advantage, “[a]nd at the apex of their climb, / Often Envy would blast them like a thunderbolt, to fell / Them with disdain and hurl them in the pit of hateful Hell.”19 These political conflicts eventually led to social collapse, “[a]nd mankind was reduced once more / To chaos, the very bottom of the barrel, as each sought / Power and glory only for himself.” After many years, mankind—“sick to death of spending their lives in violence”—learned how to create a new, better kind of political society that would protect people from danger without leading to such constant civil strife. This was the idea of the rule of law:

Later, some taught
Men to establish a constitution, set magistrates in place,
That people would want to live by laws; because the human race,
Weary of leading all their days in violence, bled dry
From constant clashes, were all the more eager to put by
Their own will and submit to the rigid rule of law.20

This is obviously a direct ancestor of the social compact theory that more than sixteen centuries later would be articulated by John Locke and by the American founding fathers.


How can we be sure of the influence here? In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt tells the dramatic story of how Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura was almost entirely lost to history—destroyed and neglected by Christian scholars, until January of 1417, when a book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini managed to find what may have been the world’s only surviving copy in the library of a German monastery. Literary collectors snatched up copies in the decades that followed. One of them was Niccolò Machiavelli, whose own personal copy, dated 1497, still resides in the Vatican library. Another was the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi, whose writings were especially prized by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

Machiavelli is best known today as the author of The Prince (Il Principe), a short and nasty work of political advice to tyrants on the best ways to stay in power. He may seem an unlikely figure to place at the beginning of modern political philosophy, but what made his writing unique was his single-minded focus on human and practical concerns: gods, miracles, and the realization of abstract virtues play little role in his philosophy; his political perspective is, so to speak, from the bottom up. He takes a strictly mechanistic view of society, in which people and rulers are motivated by practical self-interest, rather than seeking to manifest transcendent principles.

At any rate, that was what his English admirer Francis Bacon thought. Bacon, who lived from 1561 to 1626, is often overlooked in American political history, but he was one of the three men—along with John Locke and Isaac Newton—whom Jefferson admired most. He esteemed Bacon principally for his scientific work; Bacon is largely thought of as the father of the experimental method in science. But Bacon was also a great lawyer who tried to codify the laws of England21—a project Jefferson replicated in 1776 when he took on an enormous project of cataloging and revising the laws of Virginia.22

It is Bacon who first uttered the famous dictum that knowledge is power. We sometimes forget just what he meant by this. The Medieval era had sought power—had focused on ways to command nature by the invocation of some special formula that might overpower nature’s ordinary behavior and breach the boundary between the material and the spiritual. Esoteric mysteries could transform lead into gold or achieve other feats through magic.23 This was the goal of the alchemists, the wizards, the occultists. Against this, Bacon contrasted knowledge—the understanding of nature’s laws that would allow man to exploit nature’s already existing powers, not by reaching into the spiritual realm but by focusing on this world, with its mechanistic causes and effects. To say that knowledge is power meant that the powers were not esoteric but real and open to any person’s understanding. This was the potential of science. Bacon was a materialist in the same vein as Lucretius, and he cites Lucretius in his writings.24

He cites Machiavelli as well—praising him for “writ[ing] what men do and not what they ought to do.”25 And Bacon’s personal secretary was Thomas Hobbes, who later authored the infamous book Leviathan and is considered by many to be the father of liberal social compact theory. If we are looking for a direct person-to-person transfer of the knowledge of Epicurean philosophy, then, we have it: Lucretius to Machiavelli to Bacon to Hobbes, which in a sense echoes the earlier intellectual family of ancient Athens: Socrates to Plato to Aristotle to Alexander.

But it is not necessary to assume the influence of these particular individuals. Epicurean ideas were circulating among the intellectual elites across Europe in the years following the rediscovery of De Rerum Natura. Pierre Gassendi, too, was an admirer of Lucretius, as well as an acquaintance of Hobbes, and Locke and Jefferson were enthusiasts for his writing. It is in any event clear that the rediscovery of Epicurean philosophy in 1417, in the form of De Rerum Natura, sparked a tremendous intellectual explosion. It became one of the centerpieces of the Renaissance and, thanks to Bacon and Locke, of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was a period in which intellectual leaders devoted themselves to rational, scientific investigation and the pursuit of the good life in especially Epicurean terms. The word “enlightenment” itself comes from a philosopher of this period: Immanuel Kant, who defined it as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.”26 That meant putting away the myths by which mankind had so long lived, whether it be the myth that lightning is the wrath of God—dispelled, of course, by Benjamin Franklin—or the myth of the divine right of kings—dispelled in large part by Jefferson himself.

Very often this Enlightenment skepticism clashed with the religious orthodoxy of the time; and just as Epicurus had often been accused of atheism in his day, so Enlightenment figures such as Thomas Jefferson were also frequently accused of atheism. In reality, Jefferson was not an atheist, but his religious views are close enough to those of Epicurus and Lucretius. Jefferson denied the possibility of miracles—to such an extent that while he was president, he literally took a penknife to the Bible, eliminating everything he considered unnecessary or forged. The result was a short pamphlet now known as The Jefferson Bible, which includes none of the Old Testament, no virgin birth, and no rising from the dead. Jefferson said later that the task of picking out the genuine doctrines of Christ from among the falsehoods was as easy as picking diamonds out of a dunghill.27

Jefferson even flirted with the idea that the soul itself is a purely physical property, like magnetism or gravity. “I can concieve [sic] thought to be an action of a particular organisation of matter,” he wrote, “formed for that purpose by it’s [sic] creator, as well as that attraction in an action of matter, or magnetism of loadstone.” People who deny materialism and claim the soul is an immaterial spirit are the true heretics, he argued, because they are actually denying the reality of the soul: “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. . . . [T]his heresy of immaterialism [is] masked atheism.”28 These arguments parallel those of Epicurus and Lucretius, although unlike them, Jefferson seems to have believed the soul was immortal. Lucretius argued that it was not—that the soul, like everything else, is made of atoms, and that when we die, it floats away like smoke.29 Jefferson considered himself a Christian because he found Jesus’s ethical teachings valuable—equal, in fact, to those of Epicurus—but he was a materialist and thought the spiritual or mystical aspects of Christian dogma had been fraudulently attached to Jesus’s actual teachings over the centuries.

Although Jefferson was careful to keep his views concealed from the public during his lifetime—he certainly never told any but his closest friends about cutting up the Bible—he was nevertheless accused of atheism and heresy throughout his political career. According to one story, Jefferson was visiting a friend’s plantation just outside Washington, when the friend’s slave accidentally cut his leg with an ax. Jefferson helped to sew up the wound, and as he walked back to the house, remarked that it was strange for God to have put the fleshy part of the leg on the back, instead of the front where it might cushion the shinbone. An anti-Jeffersonian politician on hearing of the remark cried, “What is the world coming to! Here this fellow Jefferson, after turning upside down everything on the earth, is now quarrelling with God Almighty himself!”30


I have said that Epicurus’s political ideas were less of an influence on America’s Founders than his views on the good life, and I want to return to that, because there is an important sense in which those two realms of thought do intersect. And that intersection affects the way many of us live our lives in modern America.

In 1819 Jefferson exchanged letters with William Short, who had once been his protégé when Jefferson was serving as the United States’ ambassador in Paris in the 1780s. Short was now an ailing, sixty-year-old former ambassador himself. “I feel the effects of advancing age,” Short wrote.

I have come to consider repose as the summum bonum, so that when driven out of this heated brick kiln in the summer, my first aim is to reach that place of repose which can be the soonest & the easiest attained. . . . This growing indolence (which I know I am wrong to indulge & yet continue to do so . . .) has made me give up by degrees my daily exercise on horseback—I have so far adopted the principles of Epicurus, (who, after all I am inclined to believe was the wisest of all the ancient Philosophers, as he is certainly the least understand & the most calumniated among them) as to consult my ease towards the attainment of happiness in this poor world, poor even in making the best of it.31

To this, Jefferson replied,

As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. . . . [The Stoics’ and Platonists’] great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines. . . . Epicurus give[s] laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others. . . .32

But Jefferson also paused to scold his former pupil.

I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that “the indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided.” Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know, is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road. . . .33

Jefferson was reiterating the point I made earlier about Epicurus’s hedonism. The philosopher did not mean that one should indulge in all pleasures or lead a life of indolence but that the good life was one of carefully measured, properly proportioned activity. It meant the pursuit of knowledge, proper exercise, relishing the goods of life—a life of harmony and fulfillment. In short, it meant the pursuit of happiness.

This phrase “pursuit of happiness” is best known to us from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, although Jefferson was paraphrasing the words of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, issued a month before his own Declaration, and written by his friend George Mason. According to Mason’s Declaration, “all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights,” which include “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”34 But, Mason continued, “no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”35

This wording is profoundly Epicurean. It supposes that the purpose of government is not to make people good, or to ensure that they act in compliance with the will of God—but that the state exists to help protect the freedoms of people who are “pursuing” their “happiness” and seeking “the enjoyment of life.” This word “enjoyment,” in particular, is an especially Epicurean concept. No other philosopher of the classical age emphasized the value of enjoyment as thoroughly as Epicurus. For Aristotle, the goal of life was flourishing, achieving one’s natural end, which will tend to result in a state of joy, but the enjoyment itself is not the purpose of the activity. For the Stoics, the purpose of life was virtue, even—perhaps especially—when that virtue led to suffering. But for the Epicureans, the purpose of life is enjoyment, meaning an unimpeded harmony with nature—and an active harmony, not mere passive indulgence36—not a “relaxation of mind” or an “indifference to everything around you.”

If there were any doubt on this front, we can consult John Locke, who first used the exact phrase “pursuit of happiness” in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which was heavily influenced by Gassendi. Locke wrote:

The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action.37

And when the Virginia Declaration of Rights says that “a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue” goes hand in hand with the pursuit of happiness, it echoes Epicurus’s warning that it is “not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently, and honorably and justly.”


In short, Epicureans such as Locke and Jefferson believed that if our souls are to be rightly ordered, we will pursue pleasure in the right way by exerting ourselves appropriately toward those things that will, in fact, make us happy by enabling us to enjoy an active harmony with the world; eliminating pain or suffering and empowering us to relish life: proportionality, intelligence, proper exercise and nutrition, curiosity, love, reason, friendship, good literature, good wine, good conversation. Incidentally, this last is one of the most charming of Greek contributions to civilization: The Greeks were so fond of conversation that they invented the tradition of writing it down.

Joyful conversation, exertion in thought and work, were essential to Jefferson’s way of life. Visitors to Monticello or to the White House during Jefferson’s presidency were often treated to sparkling dinnertime conversation from some of the most brilliant minds America had to offer.38 Jefferson hosted dinner parties virtually every other day, and during just the first year of his presidency, spent $2,262.33 on wine.39 Of course, being a true Epicurean, Jefferson is never known to have become intoxicated.

On any one night, Jefferson—himself an inventor and philosopher of the highest order; president of the American Philosophical Society; creator of a new kind of plow; the first archaeologist in America—might have at his table Thomas Paine, the author of Rights of Man and The Age of Reason; scientist Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen and founded the Unitarian Church; the woman of letters Margaret Bayard Smith; the comedian John Bernard; the poet Joel Barlow; the artist John Trumbull; the explorer John Ledyard; the physician Benjamin Rush; the young prodigy John Quincy Adams; and many others. Political conversations were purposely avoided at these dinners, and the guests might discuss instead the latest news of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the best place to view the Potomac at sunset, or how to attract more Italian immigrants to America to ensure that the new nation had sufficient musical talent.40 For Jefferson, an intellectually stimulating conversation around a well-stocked table was the very sweetness of life. During the Revolutionary War, while he was serving as governor of Virginia, Jefferson invited a French military officer to dine at Monticello. Discovering that they were both admirers of Ossian, they quoted lines from the poet to one another until at last they had to pull down a copy and read it out loud. A little thing like a war could not be expected to interrupt an exciting conversation about books.41

Yet the pursuit of happiness, Epicurus believed, was inconsistent with the life of politics. In his view, politics means conflict, ambition, deceit, frustration, and disharmony that at best distract us from the pursuit of happiness. Thus he and Lucretius are unambiguous in recommending against becoming political involvement.42 This may seem strange, given Jefferson’s lifelong participation in politics—he was elected to the Virginia legislature at the age of twenty-six and, with only brief interruptions, served in public office for some forty years. But he spent almost all that time lamenting that he was compelled to serve and claiming that he yielded to that call only because of the extraordinary urgency of the times.43

Of course, it is easy to dismiss this as mere talk—it was part of the required code of conduct for any eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman that he disclaim any desire for office, and some of his contemporaries thought it was all a show. John Adams thought so; Jefferson, he said, was secretly as ambitious as Oliver Cromwell.44 But however much Jefferson may have taken the opportunity to govern, he appears to have actually wished not to. He genuinely preferred “my family, my farm, and my books,”45 and loved more to cultivate his garden and oversee construction at Monticello than to attend to political business. He believed strongly in the mission of 1776, and in what he called the Revolution of 1800, when his countrymen chose him over John Adams. He therefore did not shrink from advancing these principles whenever he had the chance.46 But he never sought out political arguments as, for instance, Alexander Hamilton did. Whenever one was unavoidable, he looked for ways other than direct confrontation, often sending deputies into the fight instead. This gained him a reputation in some quarters for duplicity or cowardice, but it seems to have genuinely pained him to come into political conflict.47 He was a practical and extremely successful politician, but his maneuvers to avoid political strife were not just for show. Washington could stare down his political opponents; Adams seemed sometimes to relish disapproval; Madison would argue and cajole and even write newspaper editorials. But Jefferson did none of this. He genuinely tried, as he put it in one particularly Epicurean phrase, to “take things by the smooth handle.”48 Even in retirement, when he and his former arch-nemesis Adams reconnected, he refused to take any of Adams’s repeated invitations to political debate. And unlike Washington, Patrick Henry, or even Madison—who all served in some public capacity after they retired—Jefferson left the presidency in 1808 and never again left the state of Virginia. He would write to politicians about his ideas and engage in lively political conversations around the Monticello dinner table, but true to his Epicureanism, he never again sought public office.49


Instead, he devoted the final decade and a half of his life to his most Epicurean project of all: the founding of the University of Virginia.

Jefferson’s plans for the university were a radical departure from the European tradition. Not only was the architecture based on his distinctive blend of classical and Virginian—Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian pillars framing brick buildings made from Virginia soil—but there would be no chapel. (In fact, Jefferson at first planned not even to include religion in the school’s curriculum, although this proved too controversial and he was obliged to reverse.) European universities had always been centered around a church. But Jefferson’s university would be centered around the library instead. That architecture announced a dramatic new educational plan. The University of Virginia would be the first secular college in the United States—and a lighthouse of the Enlightenment.

More than that, the university would take a quintessentially Epicurean attitude toward education. “All that is necessary for a student,” Jefferson wrote, “is access to a library, and directions in what order the books are to be read.”50 This and free-flowing discussion were the keys to learning. This was a quintessentially Greek attitude. The philosophical dialogues of Plato are where we get the word symposium, after all. And Jefferson attributed his own education less to his formal instruction at the College of William and Mary than to the many hours he had spent in the company of his teachers and scholars in Williamsburg a half century earlier, when he had been a frequent dinner guest of Professor William Small and Virginia Governor Francis Fauquier.

Jefferson’s original vision for the university was modeled on this conception. There would be no mandated curriculum; students would choose their own classes through a revolutionary new “elective system.” Nor would there be degrees in the sense common at the time; the institution would award only the title of “Graduate” to students who completed one or another course of study, and “Doctor” to advanced research students. It would not be a sort of advanced English boarding school as William and Mary had been when Jefferson was a student there; instead it would be an “academical village,”51 with learning based on a combination of independent study and critical conversation with others. As to discipline, the students would maintain that themselves, through a student-run honor court that would mete out punishment to wrongdoers.52 And the school would be centered around a lawn that echoes the famous Garden of Epicurus53—that would, he said, “afford that quiet retirement friendly to study.”54

We today think of a university as a source of intellectual breakthroughs and a boisterous training ground for the next generation of upwardly mobile entrepreneurs and activists. But Jefferson envisioned his university as a place of learning for a generation of virtuous American farmers—a people who would strive for self-sufficiency, virtue, and tranquility. This ideal was part of what some have called Jefferson’s “moral agrarianism”55—a basically Epicurean notion that to live the good life of harmony and pleasure requires that we interact directly with nature. “Though an old man,” Jefferson wrote in the years when he was working on the school, “I am a young gardener.”56 The university lawn—and the areas he planned for a school of botany and an experimental farm—would help connect students to the earth and teach them the agrarian virtue that was central to his version of Epicureanism.

Sadly, Jefferson’s original plan soon clashed with crowds of rowdy students more interested in drinking and carousing than in careful study. In 1825, less than a year before his death, students at the university rioted. One of the three leaders of the riot was Jefferson’s own grandnephew. When the university’s governing board—which along with Jefferson included James Madison and James Monroe—met to determine how the students would be punished, the elderly Jefferson collapsed in tears. “The shock,” said Margaret Bayard Smith, “was electric.”57 The grandnephew was expelled. Sadly, although the board adopted a more stringent disciplinary system afterward, the situation improved little. Not for another half century would the University of Virginia gain the respectable reputation it now enjoys.

Still, many of Jefferson’s other innovations did survive. Secularization is now the norm in American colleges, and a version of the elective system is now typical. And although universities today award degrees, they are specialized by major in a way that mimics Jefferson’s original plan for abolishing the degree system that existed in his day. Epicurus’s garden outside Athens had been a famously egalitarian school, open to both sexes, open even to slaves interested in learning and philosophy. Jefferson certainly did not go that far. But considering that universities in Jefferson’s era were steeped in script and rote memorization, dreary traditionalism, mandatory religious observances, and that even Harvard ranked its students by their family’s social status rather than by scholastic achievement, we can respect how essentially democratic Jefferson’s educational ideas truly were.


I have focused on Thomas Jefferson here—although obviously he was not America’s only founding father, and his beliefs on matters of religion and politics were often unpopular among his contemporaries—because he was nevertheless at the intellectual forefront of the American Revolution. His friend Benjamin Rush once remarked that while Washington fought for America, Jefferson and Adams thought for America.58 Jefferson’s life is easily summed up in a famous phrase now carved into his monument in Washington, D.C.: “I have sworn upon the altar of God,” he wrote, “eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”59

We can judge how well he accomplished this by consulting his grave marker, which he himself designed. He asked that it list the three achievements of which he was proudest: the authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the founding of the University of Virginia. Each of these makes good on his belief in freedom in a different way: the Declaration stands for political freedom, the Statute for Religious Freedom stands for the liberty of conscience, and the University represents intellectual liberty. Each in its way demonstrates the commitment to thought and virtue that makes good on the debt America’s founding fathers owed to the philosophers of ancient Greece—in this case, particularly to Epicurus. Thus, although Jefferson was a leading intellectual, sometimes far ahead of his countrymen, much of his philosophy was shared with the millions of Americans who voted for him, admired him, and celebrated his memory after he died.

I will leave you with one example of how pervasive these sentiments were. Some time after he became president, Jefferson began putting together a scrapbook of poems that he liked. He would cut them out of newspapers and paste them into the book—which eventually grew to four volumes. These poems were written for the most part by ordinary Americans: by teachers, lawyers, newspaper editors, and others who were not particularly good poets but who enjoyed expressing themselves in this way. Jefferson even wrote a few of them himself.

One of these poems was actually an extract from a Renaissance-era poem called “Mirror for Magistrates,” written by an unknown author. It expresses the connection between virtue and the good life, particularly for political leaders, that was essential to Jefferson’s version of Epicureanism.

What doth avail to have a princely place,
A name of honour, and a high degree;
To come by kindred of a noble race,
Except we princely, worthy, noble be!
The fruit declares the goodness of the tree.
Do brag no more of birth or lineage then;
For virtue, grace, and manners make the man.

Beside this poem, Jefferson wrote in pencil, “As good now as when it was written.”60


1. Kevin J. Hayes, The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 133-47.[groups_can capability="access_html"]

2. Norman Wentworth Dewitt, Epicurus And His Philosophy (New York: Meridian, 1967), p. 26.

3. A. E. Stallings, trans., Lucretius: The Nature of Things (London: Penguin, 2007), p. 6. Stallings’s translation is less literal than others but so much lovelier, I cannot resist using it.

4. Epicurus to Menoeceus, in Whitney J. Oates, ed., The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers (New York: Modern Library, 1940), p. 30.

5. Epicurus to Menoeceus, p. 30.

6. Stallings, p. 6. This last line, tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, is Lucretius’ most famous.

7. Stallings, p. 7.

8. Principal Doctrine XII, in Oates, p. 36.

9. Letter to Menoeceus, in ibid., p. 32.

10. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. 4, chs. 2 & 3, in Richard McKeon, The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941), pp. 988–95.

11. Nichomachean Ethics, p. 989.

12. Nichomachean Ethics, p. 993.

13. See Dierdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

14. Epicurus, Principal Doctrines V, in Oates, p. 35.

15. Harry Jaffa, “Aristotle,” in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963), p. 74, has a different view on this point.

16. Stallings, p. 178.

17. Stallings, p. 180.

18. Stallings, p. 183.

19. Stallings, p. 184.

20. Stallings, p. 184.

21. An excellent biography of Bacon that focuses heavily on his work as a legal scholar and philosopher is Daniel R. Coquillette, Francis Bacon (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

22. Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life (New York: Holt, 1993), p. 285.

23. J. Bronowski, Magic, Science, and Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981).

24. Robert M. Schuler, “Francis Bacon And Scientific Poetry,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 82 (2) (1992): 34–42.

25. Francis Bacon, De Augmentis, vii. 2, in The Works of Francis Bacon (London: M. Jones, 1815), vol. 7, p. 137.

26. Imannuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?,” in An Answer to The Question: What Is Enlightenment? (H. B. Nisbet, trans., London: Penguin 2010), p. 1.

27. Jefferson to John Adams, Oct. 12, 1813, in Merrill Peterson, ed., Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), p. 1301.

28. Jefferson to John Adams, Aug. 15, 1820, in ibid., pp. 1443–44.

29. Stallings, p. 89.

30. B. L. Rayner, Sketches of the Life, Writings, and Opinions of Thomas Jefferson (New York: A. Francis & W. Boardman, 1832), pp. 327–28.

31. William Short to Jefferson, Oct. 21, 1819,

32. Jefferson to William Short, Oct. 21, 1819, in Jefferson: Writings, p. 1430.

33. Jefferson: Writings, p. 1432.

34. Virginia Declaration of Rights, ¶ 1 (1776).

35. Virginia Declaration of Rights, ¶ 15.

36. See also Raphael Wolf, “Pleasure And Desire,” in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, ed. by James Warren (Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 158–78.

37. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk. 2 §51, (Kenneth P. Winkler, ed., Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), p. 108.

38. These dinners were, of course, cooked and served by slaves. But then, so were the dinners eaten by Epicurus and his friends. Epicurus owned at least one slave, whom he freed in his will. Diskin Clay, “The Athenian Garden,” in Cambridge Companion, p. 27.

39. William Curtis, Thomas Jefferson (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1901), p. 319.

40. Hayes, pp. 467–69.

41. Hayes, p. 143.

42. Voltaire, of course, parodied this savagely in Candide.

43. See, e.g., “The Anas,” in Jefferson: Writings, p. 676.

44. Adams to John Quincy Adams, Jan. 3, 1794,

45. Jefferson to Mrs. Church, Nov. 27, 1793, in Jefferson: Writings, p. 1013.

46. Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York: Random House, 2012), makes this point, although the title wrongly suggests that Jefferson sought power for its own sake. As Meacham’s text makes clear, however, Jefferson sought to use political power to implement his vision of a just society, which, in Jefferson’s words, would “restrain men from injuring one another” and “leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” First Inaugural Address, in Jefferson: Writings, p. 494.

47. See, e.g., Letter to Randolph, op. cit.

48. Jefferson to Mme. de Tott, Apr. 5, 1787,

49. M. Andrew Holowchak, Dutiful Correspondent: Philosophical Essays on Thomas Jefferson (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), pp. 88–89.

50. Jefferson to John Garland Jefferson, June 11, 1790, in Jefferson: Writings, p. 966.

51. Jefferson to Hugh L. White and others, May 6, 1810, in Jefferson: Writings, p. 1223.

52. Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos, Rot, Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 41.

53. Karl Lehmann, Thomas Jefferson: American Humanist (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985), p. 186.

54. Letter to White, op. cit.

55. M. Andrew Holowchak, “Jefferson’s Moral Agrarianism: Poetic Fiction or Normative Vision?,” Agriculture and Human Values, vol. 28 (2011): 497–506.

56. Jefferson to Charles Wilson Peale, Aug. 20, 1811, in Jefferson: Writings, p. 1249.

57. Bowman and Santos, p. 34.

58. Rush to John Adams, Feb. 17, 1812, in L. H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1951), vol. 2, p. 1127.

59. Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800, in Jefferson: Writings, p. 1082.

60. Jonathan Gross, ed., Thomas Jefferson’s Scrapbooks (Hanover: Steerforth Press, 2006), p. 244.[/groups_can]

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