Man Without Qualities

Thursday, July 18, 2002

Surely You Jest!

During the last Presidential campaign, George Bush said that his favorite philosopher was Jesus!

Wasn’t that a silly thing to say?

Perhaps it was. Some liberal commentators certainly said as much.

But, if it was a silly thing to say and think, George Bush is now at least the second person to occupy the White House who said and thought just that.

The first such person appears to have been Thomas Jefferson, who was not a Christian and did not believe Jesus was God. Just his favorite philosopher.

Specifically, Jefferson wrote that in the teachings of Jesus “a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.

Jefferson also wrote:

“[My views of] the Christian religion ... are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”

And he wrote that Jesus' "moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers.

In fact, Jefferson was so impressed with Jesus as a philosopher, that Jefferson created his own version of the Bible (the “Jefferson Bible”).

And in the course of all this, Jefferson also took time to specifically compare Jesus in writing with other philosophers (Greek, etc.), and tried to show that Jesus was the best of the bunch.

Weren’t those silly things that Thomas Jefferson said? Favorite philosopher! Mr. Jefferson, surely you jest!

And what about that John Kennedy, who famously said, during a dinner for Nobel laureates, that the White House hadn't seen such a gathering of great minds since Thomas Jefferson dined alone!

UPDATE: Technically, Mr. Bush stated that Jesus was his "favorite political philosopher." Few people - and few of Mr. Bush's critics - have focused on the "political" qualifier, and commenters on his response often (perhaps usually) acknowledge that Jesus' moral teachings have generally been construed as having consequences affecting political and most if not all other relationships among people and peoples. Few people seem to have construed the use of the word "political" in the question as limited to that word's narrow meaning, which refers to government. Common use of the word "political" now goes way beyond that narrow meaning. "Sexual politics," "gender politics," "racial politics," and many (if not all) other categories of human interactions which at one time might have been more readily seen as posing "moral" questions are now routinely discussed as political. Indeed, the so-called critical legal studies movement considers virtually all social decisions political ones. Mr. Bush was surely not adopting the argot of that movement, but the fact that the movement chooses the vocabulary it uses (especially its use of "political") indicates how broad the meaning of this word has become as a matter of current popular and educated use. Mr. Bush was correct to treat the word the way he did. And Mr. Bush's friends and foes alike are correct to construe his response as indicating that he was referring to Jesus as his favorite philosopher of human relations. Jefferson also appears to have admired Jesus in this capacity.

It's also worth noting that John McCain answered that his favorite political philosopher was Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt was many things, and he even engaged in some political philosophy. But is it correct to describe Roosevelt as a philosopher? In the narrow meaning of this term, Roosevelt was not a philosopher; that just wasn't his focus. But in the context of this question, which seems to have been phrased to allow the Iowa debate participants a great deal of latitude to interpret the language, I think the answer is a clear "yes." Roosevelt at least arguably had a political philosophy and Mr. McCain was saying that Roosevelt's philosophy had deeply affected Mr. McCain in a manner he highly valued.

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