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The Limits of Optimism

Thomas Jefferson's Dualistic Enlightenment

Maurizio Valsania

Publication Year: 2011

The Limits of Optimism works to dispel persistent notions about Jefferson’s allegedly paradoxical and sphinx-like quality. Maurizio Valsania shows that Jefferson’s multifaceted character and personality are to a large extent the logical outcome of an anti-metaphysical, enlightened, and humility-oriented approach to reality. That Jefferson’s mind and priorities changed over time and in response to changing circumstances indicates neither incoherence, hypocrisy, nor pathology.

Valsania’s reading of Jefferson, the Enlightenment, and negativity helps to make sense of the many paradoxes typically associated with that eighteenth-century thinker. At the same time, it provides a corrective to the common though erroneous equation of Enlightenment thinking with rationalism and shallow optimism.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-x

I am indebted to many institutions and individuals for their generous support in the preparation of this book. The American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (in particular, Paul Erickson and Caroline Sloat); the Library Company and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia...

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pp. 1-8

As every biographer knows, Thomas Jefferson always coped with the challenges of life very valiantly. In spite of this, the conclusion that he was a gullible eighteenth-century optimistic humanist, although seemingly evident, is not really justified. Jefferson’s humanistic message was in constant dialogue...

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Enlightenment & Dualism

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pp. 9-31

Late eighteenth-century American leaders have often been portrayed as prototypes of stubborn self-reliance and inescapable optimism. Over the years, philosophers, political scientists, historians, sociologists, journalists, and countless first- and second-rank intellectual figures have put considerable...

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Optimism as Certainty

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pp. 32-55

Before entering the world of the dualist philosopher, we need to examine Jefferson’s unabated optimism. It might seem paradoxical, after all the arguments made in the previous chapter, but Jefferson often championed unabated optimism. The Enlightenment and all its tensions were periodically...

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From Faith to Hope

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pp. 56-77

Correctly understood, Jefferson’s most interesting optimism was a mode of hope, not certainty. The precritical optimism discussed in the previous chapter was accompanied, in Jefferson’s writing, by a critical optimism, an optimism that was at once thoughtful and problematic. The present chapter is...

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Nature and Time as Overwhelming Powers

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pp. 78-113

Jefferson’s hope that all will be right is not incompatible with the awareness that humans, as hoping and desiring creatures, are swept along by the boisterous sea. There is always the possibility, and perhaps the probability, that the wheel of fortune will take an odd turn. What about the necessity of a bad...

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Impossibility & Despondency

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pp. 114-138

Jefferson’s language of satisfaction, we have seen, was a radical strategy to resist the burden that the Enlightenment imposed on its adepts. More interesting, at least for those readers who look for tension and conflict, he also made frequent use of the languages of projection and possibility, and even with that...

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Dream, Imagination, & Expediency

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pp. 139-164

Thomas Jefferson dealt extensively in hope, but what is the exact boundary between hoping and dreaming? Between hope and self-deception? As a hopeful man, Jefferson knew anxiety; he knew the unyielding law of necessity; he knew, as well, impossibility and pessimism. It is likewise legitimate to expect...


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pp. 165-190


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pp. 191-202


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pp. 203-208

Recent Books

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813931517
E-ISBN-10: 0813931517
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813931449
Print-ISBN-10: 0813931444

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 784958292
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Limits of Optimism

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Subject Headings

  • Enlightenment -- United States.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1775-1783.
  • United States -- Intellectual life -- 18th century.
  • Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826.
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