“An Honest Heart and a Knowing Head” | Lessons from Thomas Jefferson on How to Live Well

The following is an essay/meditation from my sister project, Pneuma. If you’d like to listen to the podcast, visit my website, pneumameditations.com or search Pneuma By Daniel Finneran on any of your favorite podcast streaming platforms.

Hello all you beautiful, brilliant, remarkable people, and welcome to this episode of Pneuma.

The great sages of the past from whom I take my lessons, under whose sacred tutelage I voluntarily, happily, and, above all, profitably place myself each and every day, are varied in the extreme. I’m sure that you’ve recognized this fact by now, having heard me cite everyone from Aristotle, to Epicurus, to Marcus Aurelius, to Seneca, to Cicero, to Thoreau, to Emerson, to Viktor Frankl, to Andrew Marvel, to Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha, all the way to Gandhi.

I do so always with the following couplet penned by Alexander Pope–the great English Catholic poet of the Augustan age–dancing around my head:

“But ask not to what Doctors I apply;

Sworn to no master, of no sect am I:

As drives the storm, at any door I knock;

And house with Montaigne now, or now with Locke”.

By “Doctors”, it should be said, Pope refers not to highly-paid practitioners of the medical arts, by whom our afflictions are treated and our wallets plundered (I kid!), but to the leading instructors of the several schools. In its classical sense, from which we’ve lately strayed, a “doctor” was a “teacher”, merely–not necessarily one equipped with a prescription pad, stethoscope, and white gown with which to declare, upon entering a room, his or her importance.

As for his reference to Montaigne or Locke–the one was a Frenchman, the other an Englishman, by whom starkly divergent approaches to life were at once advised and practiced.

Montaigne was a delightfully unstructured and natural writer, whose intimate tone, effervescent wit, and breadth of learning ought to confer upon his Essays a prime placement on your shelf. I, for one, keep the work ever within reach on my bed stand toward which, as my bed beckons, and my screens dim, I inevitably feel my hand creeping; there’s perhaps no better book with which to aid one’s transition into sleep than Montaigne’s Essays. That said, you should buy yourself a copy.

John Locke was of a very different humor. Whereas Montaigne was an introspective, playful, carefree journalist, Locke was a serious scientist. Empiricism’s most distinguished and convincing exponent, Locke also set forth the philosophy of republican government and natural, universal rights on which this country, America, and many others re-organized in her image, was founded. His Second Treatise on Government might also put you to sleep, but for a different reason.

With so great a variety of instructors comes, perforce, the occasional surprise–the man or woman from whose checkered history and doubtful morality, there’s little expectation to derive a benefit.

For us, today, that man is Thomas Jefferson (to whom, as it happens, John Locke was an intellectual idol. Indeed, Jefferson claimed him, along with Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, to be the three greatest men ever to have lived).

Upon the moral shortcomings of Jefferson, of which, no doubt, there were many, I need not here dwell. On my sister podcast, Finneran’s Wake, which I urge you all to visit, I plan to publish a longer episode exploring this very complicated and, perhaps, too hastily canceled man. He is, if nothing else, an intriguing character fit for your study, a brilliant writer of letters and political treatises, whose exile from our public consciousness would be, in no uncertain terms, a very heavy and crippling loss.

Instead, today, I’d like to focus on a single letter he wrote to his nephew, Peter Carr.

Carr, a somewhat negligent student of fifteen years of age, was living on Jefferson’s sprawling estate at Monticello in Virginia. Jefferson, to whom the young lad’s education was entrusted, was alarmed by his nephew’s lack of progress in the classroom, lack of discipline in life, and the inducements to sloth and immorality by which, in every direction, he was temptingly surrounded.

As a corrective, Jefferson penned the following letter (written in Paris) from which I’ll now quote and by which, so long as we carefully attend to the message and not the messenger, we’ll undoubtedly be improved.

In the pursuit of all goals, Jefferson advised, the “purest integrity” and the most “chaste honor” should be preserved. Integrity and honor, above all else.

The defect of these virtues, he said, “Can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind”. That is, no amount of learning, no accumulation of wealth, no acquisition of strength, no increase in agility or stamina or charisma would suffice to fill the gaps left by integrity and honor. The space they occupy is too large. It can’t be filled.

Jefferson’s advice: Make these things, integrity and honor, your first object. Make them the objects of primary importance. Have integrity, and be honorable. This, before all else.

He goes on:

“Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act”. One should never succumb to immorality. You’d rather be broke, obscure, benighted, and hated than be immoral. You should prefer to be reduced to the most wretched state of poverty and infamy rather than commit an immoral act. Nothing could be worse.

“Never suppose”, he then warns, “that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you”. For does not the slightest dishonor often lead to one much greater? When a dishonorable act, no matter how small, presents itself to you, resist it.  

“Whenever you are to do a thing”, Jefferson then advises, “though it can never be known (to anyone) but to yourself, ask yourself: ‘How would you act if all the world were looking at you?’ (Then, having contemplated that question), “act accordingly”.

Ah, yes–the timeless adage: act as though your conduct were to be made universally visible. There’s something of Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative in this profound, yet simple piece of advice. Kant’s formula for morality was basically this: act as though your behavior were to be made a universal law, of which all could take notice, and to which all were duty bound.

If all the world were watching, if everyone were taking notice of you, would you behave in that way? Would you leave your workstation a mess for the next person to clean? Would you eat that second bowl of ice cream on which you know you ought to pass? Would you notice and then walk by an elderly woman struggling to put groceries into her trunk?

Those are trivial examples, granted, but good enough for the point being made.

Jefferson goes on:

“Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises; being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual”.

Excellent advice. Like your biceps or your glutes (on which I see you ladies at the gym endlessly working), your virtues must be exercised. Unlike those muscles, however, the virtues aren’t so easily exhausted. Their initial recruitment, I admit, might strain you a bit more, but, once called upon, they have a limitless store of energy. Day or night, when you’re hungry or well-fed, restful or deprived of sleep, the virtues can be roused and exercised to good effect. And, in time, they will be strengthened. You’ll soon have virtues of Schwarzeneggerian strength.

And then, in time, the exercise of the virtues, like the exercise of the body, will become habitual. Remember from a previous episode: thoughts produce acts; acts, habits; habits, character. 

Let no opportunity pass to exercise your virtue. Any opportunity is as good as the “best” one.

For instance, when you’re at the counter of a busy Starbucks, behind which an overwhelmed barista is visibly frazzled and frantically scurrying, exercise virtue by being patient and sympathetic. Imagine yourself in her place. Take the moment to be mindful, and to extend to her your fellow feeling. It is a small act, but one that will contribute to the refinement of your character. Practice gratitude upon the receipt of your breakfast sandwich for which, in the grand scheme of things, you really didn’t wait all that long. Practice temperance in its consumption. Eat it slowly and mindfully, appreciative, with each bite, of all that went into its preparation and delivery (the chickens raised in the pasture, the eggs they dropped, the worker who gathered them, the flour and butter of the croissant, the baker who bake it, etc).

Opportunities to exercise your virtue are abundant. They’re everywhere. You need only see and embrace them.

Back to Jefferson:

“If ever you find yourself surrounded by difficulties and perplexing circumstances, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations”.

“Though you cannot see, when you take one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice, and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible”.

Truth, justice, and plain dealing (or honesty). These are akin to Platonic Ideas. I don’t know if Jefferson had the giant of Greek philosophy in mind but, whether he did or not, these ideas, or Forms, are the unerring guides by which we’ll never be led astray. 

Jefferson then evokes an image from the time not long after Plato’s death. He says, if you fix your path unwaveringly to truth, “The knot which you thought a Gordian one, will untie itself before you”.

I just love this line! The Gordian knot was, until the clever intervention of Alexander the Great, deemed by everyone impossible to untie. If only you follow truth, justice, and honesty, complexities will be simplified.

And here, Jefferson offers some advice on Lying:

“Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties ten fold; and those who pursue these methods, get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed”.

“It is” in that case, “of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth”.

“Never to tell an untruth”.

If only we could rise up and adhere to this exalted standard. Though not quite a Biblical injunction (at least not in those precise terms), we see something similar to Jefferson’s recommendation against lying in the language of the Ninth Commandment: “Thou Shalt not bear false witness”. In so many words, the penultimate Commandment of the decalogue is prohibiting us from telling untruths.

Jefferson, an avowed deist, by whom, in all his writings, the word “God” is never uttered, goes on:

“There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible (than lying); and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions”.

A most salutary warning: “Falsehood of the tongue leads to falsehood of the heart”. A true tongue, in other words, is the preservative of a true heart, whose truth you ensure by being careful about what you say.

“An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second”.

In passing, I wanted to include this Jeffersonian pearl of wisdom, this brilliant apothegm to whose light, at this point, I don’t plan further to expose you. He goes on in his letter to Carr to prescribe a useful and diverse list of books with which his nephew might furnish his library, and improve his mind.

Perhaps, if Thomas Jefferson’s recommended reading list tickles your curiosity, I can talk about it at greater length. I’ll mention, for now, just a few authors and titles of which it boasts: under the heading of “morality”, for instance, it includes Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Plato, and Cicero–all authors to whom, on this channel, we repeatedly return.

You can send me a note, an email, or a comment if you’d like me to delve into these authors (and the others of whom Jefferson makes mention) in greater detail.

But, for now, I’d like to move on to Jefferson’s single, simple. salutary recommendation for the care of one’s body: Walking.

As you know, here on Pneuma, I value walking very highly. Not only is it an excellent way to exercise the body, but it’s a supreme way to strengthen the mind. It’s also a great way to implement and practice mindfulness. If interested in doing so, you can check out some of my other episodes for guided walking meditations, to which you can walk along after finishing this episode.

Jefferson advises you commit at least two hours each day to exercise. I know this isn’t possible for everyone out there in the modern age, but it is, notwithstanding the restraints imposed upon your time during the day, highly desirable. Mind you, 120 minutes of “exercise” need not be completed in one bout in a poorly-ventilated, sweaty old gym. Perhaps you can divide it into, say, two thirty-minute walks–one with which to begin, and another to end the day–a half-hour of kettlebell swings, and a half-hour of stretching.

“A strong body”, he says, “makes the mind strong”. The former is more than just the vessel in which the latter is carried. The quality of the body directly shapes the fitness of the mind.

The ancient Greeks, of whose timeless philosophy Jefferson was, along with many of his fellow humanist, classically-trained, Philhellenic Founders, amply knowledgeable, believed wholeheartedly in this body-mind relationship. You’ll recall, in Plato’s Republic, the youngsters destined for the Guardianship were given to regular exercise in the local gymnasium.They set the foundation of their bodies before addressing their souls. This was thought to be the proper order of things.

When it comes to the art of walking, of which Jefferson seems to have been a master, he advises against “taking a book with you”. This is something I’m often inclined to do. For accompaniment on my walks, I often bring along a book, but, if you’re unlike me, you can easily substitute “cell phone” for “book”, and Jefferson’s message obtains.

“The object of walking”, he says, “is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk: but divert your attention to the objects surrounding you”.

I’d like to interpret Jefferson’s advice a bit differently, without sacrificing its meaning. He’s not calling upon you to be utterly mindless while on your walk. No–just the opposite. He wants you to be mindful, acutely mindful, in fact, of all the picturesqueness and subtlety of nature by which you’re surrounded, of which you’d normally take no notice if otherwise engaged. He wants your walk to be an immersive experience, one in which your entire being is engaged.

“Walking”, he assures us, “is the best possible exercise”.

I tend to agree.

You should “habituate yourself to walk very far”.

My agreement is doubled.

To highlight the point, he offers the following memorable passage: “The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man; but I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained, by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much, the degeneracy of the human body”.

Substitute “cars” for “horses”, with which the modern day is overrun. We have subdued the combustion engine, the machine for our uses; but I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained, by the use of these automobiles”.

There is, he concludes, “No habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue”. Think of the last time the limitations on your endurance prevented you from fully enjoying an activity. It’s an unpleasant and even embarrassing feeling from which, at one time or another in our lives, we all suffer. To obviate that unpleasantness, you must work on your stamina.

At what time should you walk?

Jefferson advises the afternoon, “Not because it is the best time for exercise, but because it is the best time to spare from your studies”.

That said, he makes a healthy allowance for walking in the morning: “A little walk of half an hour, in the morning, when you first rise, is advisable also. It shakes off sleep, and produces other good effects in the animal economy”.

I daresay, I needn’t spell out exactly what he means by “animal economy”. As anyone with an effortless bowel regimen will attest, early movement has an agreeably stimulating effect.

Note the hour at which he recommends you to walk: “when you first arise”. That’s excellent advice! At this time, when the sun is rising yet still low, you should be filling your visual field with natural light, and awakening your peripheral ocular regions. Expansively educated though he was, I doubt Jefferson knew much about the human circadian rhythm, on whose proper ordering early light exposure has a most beneficial effect.

Finally, perhaps borrowing from his friend, mentor, and fellow “Committee of Five” member, Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson tells us to, “Rise at a fixed and an early hour, and go to bed at a fixed and early hour also. Sitting up late at night is injurious to the health, and not useful to the mind”.

The mind, for the solidification of memory, the elimination of debris, the cleansing of tangles, and the strengthening of synapses, must rest. Some contest this fact, but their dispute is in vain. If you think that by reading, or writing, or studying, or tweeting deep into the night you’re somehow gaining an advantage on the rest of the sleeping world and, as a happy consequence of your lucubrations, enhancing your cognitive powers, you are mistaken, and you’re likely doing no small damage to yourself. The mind must rest, and it does so best at a timely and an early hour.

And, with that, we’ve reached the end of Thomas Jefferson’s advice on how to live well. We covered, first and foremost, lessons in morality, before moving to knowledge more broadly and then to physical fitness. We learned the importance of having an “honest heart and a knowing head” (two organs between which, later on, in his famous letter to Maria Cosway, he sketched a supremely edifying dialogue). We learned that, in accordance with the Hebrew Bible’s ninth Commandment, we should never tell untruths. We learned that virtue, like an exhaustless muscle, should be exercised on every occasion; that integrity and honor should be prioritized before all else; that one should act as though the whole world were his audience. We learned that walking is the best exercise, not only for the body, but also for the soul, and that “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”.

And so he shall be.

And so you shall be.

Thank you so much for joining me on what must’ve been an unexpected adventure! There are, no doubt, many unfavorable criticisms by which the once pristine and sanctified name of “Jefferson” has been, in recent years, besmirched. For his moral shortcomings, examined through the eyes of a stridently uncharitable and unforgiving present, there is, lenient as I’m disposed to be, little excuse. That said, it’s not my intention here to conceal the glaring defects of his character, nor to add to his discredit.

I seek the past for wisdom wherever it be found, and by whomever given. As it happens, Thomas Jefferson was extraordinarily, historically, almost super-humanly wise, and his prescription for a good life, on that account, mustn’t be ignored. Let us salvage from the man what we may, and be not just the beneficiaries of his Declaration, but of his good advice as well.

Be sure to subscribe to this channel. Leave a comment, review, or a five-star rating. Send me an email if you’re so inclined. Check out my newest podcast, “Finneran’s Wake for Kids”, by which you and your child will instantly be transformed into geniuses. I’m very grateful for your support, and I hope to produce better and better content. Again, thank you. And with that, I bid you farewell, from Pneuma.

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