- The Limits of Optimism: Thomas Jefferson’s Dualistic Enlightenment
Thomas Jefferson, Enlightenment
Thomas Jefferson’s optimism is legendary. Pick up any popular biography or scholarly monograph about Jefferson, and almost surely it will mention his optimistic outlook for the nation and the world. In The Limits of Optimism: Thomas Jefferson’s Dualistic Enlightenment, Maurizio Valsania takes exception to all these treatments of Jefferson’s optimism, finding them simplistic. Instead, he suggests a more nuanced approach, arguing that Jefferson’s optimistic outlook was not without a tinge of pessimism. Taking his cue from Henry Vyverberg’s Historical Pessimism in the French Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA, 1958), Valsania suggests that Jefferson, as a major figure of the Enlightenment, advocated the empiricism, the positivism, the rationalism it represented but nevertheless acknowledged the existence of a dark underworld. Literally or figuratively, the process of enlightenment, after all, is a matter of supplanting darkness with light.
Valsania is not the first to recognize Jefferson’s duality. John Bernard, an English stage comedian who came to Philadelphia in 1797, befriended Jefferson when he was vice president and, during Jefferson’s presidency, occasionally dined at the White House. Bernard’s reminiscences, published decades later as Retrospections of America (1887), constitute one of the fullest records of Jefferson’s table talk available. One day at dinner, the conversation turned to literature. “I was bred,” Jefferson told Bernard, “to the law; that gave me a view of the dark side of humanity. Then I read poetry to qualify it with a gaze upon its bright side; and between the two extremes I have contrived through life to draw the due medium.” Valsania does not use this anecdote, but he could have—and should have. Bernard’s snippet of table talk shows that Jefferson acknowledged humanity’s dark side. Yet it also reveals something Valsania obscures. Though Jefferson recognized a dark side, he understood that he did not have to dwell on it. Instead, he could look toward poetry and other creative works—architecture, art, music—and take inspiration from them.
If the concept of Jefferson’s dualistic enlightenment has been known at least since Bernard’s reminiscences were published in 1887, then what new does Valsania have to offer? As the fullest work on the subject, The [End Page 510] Limits of Optimism emphasizes the complexities involved with understanding Jefferson’s optimism. The biggest problem with Valsania’s work is that his subject does not merit book-length treatment. His introduction convinces me of the importance of understanding Jefferson’s enlightened optimism in relation to a threatening darkness. After he sets forth a convincing argument in his introduction, Valsania leaves me wondering: Why do I need to read any further? This question recurred frequently as I read the rest of the book, in which Valsania defines his terms ad infinitum.
Each time Valsania introduces a term, it seems, he defines it, qualifies his definition, and then qualifies his qualifications. In Chapter 1, a general chapter treating the concepts of Enlightenment and dualism, Valsania defines Enlightenment, defines dualism, and explains how the two relate to one another. Chapter 2, “Optimism as Certainty,” begins, “Before entering the world of the dualist philosopher, we need to examine Jefferson’s unabated optimism” (32). In other words, after thirty-two pages, nearly one-fifth of the book, Valsania has yet to enter Jefferson’s world. He really needs to work on his chapter beginnings. Chapter 3, “From Faith to Hope,” begins, “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” (56). Valsania seems to be saying that the previous chapter was all wrong, that Jefferson’s optimism was not a matter of certainty. Chapter 3 thus serves to qualify the previous chapter. The optimism of Chapter 2, we now learn, was merely “precritical optimism”: a term Valsania might have introduced earlier. The terms “precritical” and “critical” suggest a sequential development, but...