“A Jeffersonian believes that books are at the center of any full and mature life. Thomas Jefferson approached life essentially through books…Reading was one of his favorite activities. He prepared himself for adult life with the severest possible course of reading. For a significant period of his life, from about the age of fifteen to twenty-five, Jefferson essentially read every waking minute of every day. With the possible exceptions of Theodore Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams, Jefferson was intellectually the best-prepared president in American history.
“…Jefferson’s reading habits were eclectic, but he clearly preferred non-fiction, and his immense library was essentially a reference collection. What Jefferson wanted most were information, facts, data points, and statistics. He saw books primarily as information delivery systems. He would be pleased at the size, scope, and accessibility of the public library system in the United States, and thrilled at the world wide web and the internet.”
—Clay Jenkinson, Becoming Jefferson’s People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century (Bismarck, ND: Marmarth Press, 2004), 29-30.
“Competition was essential to Dorothy Walker [Bush’s mother]—not mindless competition, but competition in order to pursue, test, and exhibit excellence.”
“For families such as the Bushes, athletics were a maker and a measure of character. Sports were to be taken as seriously as one’s studies, or one’s manners, for they were perennial pursuits, permanent features of life.”
—Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York, NY: Random House, 2015), 24-25.
“Markedly a gentleman.”
“Nice boy, popular, friendly, gets on well with adults, very very polite. Slow but a hard worker… Ambitious and self-confident but perhaps not self-assertive enough. Real interests are athletics…Always a gentleman, responsible, courteous, generous.”
“Other students were drawn to him; they felt protected and secure in his orbit.”
“Serene on the outside, reaching out to smooth others’ paths through life…”
–Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York, NY: Random House, 2015), 35. The first two quotes are by Bush’s evaluating teacher at Andover Academy, where he began attending when he was 13. The second two are by the author.
What’s more important: intelligence and knowledge, or wisdom and goodness of heart?
I think most of us would say wisdom and goodness, but that’s not always how we approach education, is it? We worry about our tots getting into the right preschool because this could determine the rate of their early cognitive development, which could mean the difference between a public school and a magnet school, which could mean the difference between a great and just an average college, which could make or ruin their lives! We put time and effort seeking ways to make our little ones smart, whether through having them listen to Bach from the womb, to buying everything Dora the Explorer so that they can learn Spanish (this is in fact a great idea if your child lives in the United States), to putting them in Chinese immersion schools or classes so that they can compete in the global economy.
Of course, none of these things is bad in itself. But it’s worth asking if we’re neglecting our children’s moral formation at the expense of their intellectual development. Here we can learn from our nation’s second president, John Adams. As we learn in Harlow Giles Unger’s excellent biography John Quincy Adams, though Adams was deeply concerned about and demanding when it came to his son John Quincy’s education, he recognized that character trumped intellect, that the “sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head,” as he wonderfully put it. Listen to Adams, abroad serving as an ambassador, instructing his wife Abigail on their son’s education:
“I am under no apprehension about his proficiency in learning. With his capacities and and opportunities he can not fail to acquire knowledge. But let him know that the sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head. Let him be sure that he possesses the great virtue of temperance, justice, magnanimity, honor, and generosity, and with these added to his parts, he cannot fail to become a wise and great man.
“… Treachery, perfidy, cruelty, hypocrisy, avarice, &c & should be pointed out to him for his contempt as well as detestation” (18).
In Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015), theologian and church history professor Carl Trueman (who is Presbyterian, not Lutheran) provides an excellent treatment of the great 16th-century Reforming Augustinian monk – more than biography, it’s a careful and critical consideration of Luther’s teachings on the Christian life, from salvation by childlike faith to obedience to civil government to doing marriage and parenthood.
Trueman on Luther is excellent all around; he’s devoted decades of study to the man who launched the Reformation. But my favorite part of the book was the few pages on Luther’s marriage and on Luther and Katie (Katharina von Bora) as dedicated parents (he would read his catechism with his children every day, saying that he, though he was a brilliant Reformer and minister of the gospel, was as much a learner of doctrine as they were). The bit below is a delightful and exemplary snapshot not just of the marriage of Martin and Katie Luther, but of the blessing that she was to him. You have to admire the practicality and thoughtfulness she brought to their marriage! (Indeed, much like that brought by my own wonderfully practical wife, Laura.)
“His unexpected [because he was a monk] marriage to his Katie proved to be delightful, loving, and fruitful. Today, visitors to the Augustinian cloister in Wittenberg…will see that the door frame has a little stool built into it on each side. The door frame was a present from Katie to her husband, made at a time when she felt they were not spending enough time talking to each other. Thus, at the end of a busy day, Martin and Katie could sit on either side of the door and talk to each other. Inside and upstairs, there is a similar arrangement, presumably for when the Saxon weather made an outdoor tryst somewhat wet and cold. This in itself speaks eloquently of the love and the happiness that marriage brought to the life of the Reformer” (Kindle, chapter 8).
In Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (Penguin 2006), Pulitzer winning American historian Gordon Wood makes the bold assertion that we are not going to get leaders like the founders again, and for this he gives a provocative and, at least to me, convincing reason: that the forces unleashed at the founding have in effect prevented that we’ll again get leaders of the quality of the founders. These forces democratized politics, extending them to the “common man,” and in so doing they deteriorated the discourse – and with this the ideas – with which men like Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams engaged.
On the book itself, I heartily recommend it. It is a learned and highly readable collection of brief biographical treatments of the founders, including the black sheep Aaron Burr and that genius pamphleteer of a Brit, Thomas Paine.
“If we want to know why we can never again replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders, there is a simple answer: the growth of what we today presumably value most about American society and culture, egalitarian democracy. In the early nineteenth century the voices of ordinary people, at least ordinary white people, began to be heard as never before in history, and they soon overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being. The founders had succeeded only too well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people; indeed, they succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves” (28).
1. Jefferson’s Books by Douglas Wilson
I picked up this monograph at Monticello, and at least for this lover of books, it was delightful. Douglas Wilson shows us the founding father as reader and book collector, featuring images of his reading lists and diagrams classifying types of knowledge (Jefferson was a great list maker and was perhaps most himself when classifying things). This treatment of Jefferson and his books was generally educational, practically instructive, historically interesting, and above all, fascinating. “As Jefferson’s library revealed,” Wilson writes, “books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (See my blog post on this book here.)
2. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama
The eminent political scientist of “End of History” fame does it again. Here he traces the development of political institutions through world history, beginning with our hunter gatherer ancestors and showing how the first modern state developed in China, rule of law in India, and an accountable state in Europe. Fukuyama is nothing if not ambitious, drawing on disciplines as varied as anthropology and evolutionary biology to offer a unified theory of state formation and political stability.
3. Gilead by Marylinne Robinson
Everyone and their aunt had recommended this novel to me, so I finally read it, and I was captivated by its penetrating beauty. Robinson masterfully gives voice to a Midwestern preacher in the last days of his life who is writing to his young son, offering an account of his times that showcases Robinson’s eye for the terrible beauty that imbues so much of the ordinariness of life. The Washington Post was right in saying of this book that “one feels touched with grace just to read it.” This is a generations-spanning family drama that does the soul good. (See my blog posts on Gilead here, here, and here.)
4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If nothing else, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a fearsomely powerful writer. His June 2014 Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations” sparked a national conversation on the notion that Americans need a reckoning with the legacy of racism and injustice against blacks. Between the World and Me is a harrowing meditation on what it means to be black in America and what this says about America. Coates’s words are a cry of protest and an indictment on our nation, which he says was built on the backs of blacks, whose “bodies,” as he so frequently writes, remain completely unsafe from the depredations of a thoroughly racist system. (See my blog post on this book here.)
In this book Trueman, a British transplant and professor of theology and church history, skewers Left and Right as he calls on Christians to engage politics intelligently and responsibly. A pro-life, pro-traditional marriage supporter of stricter gun control and universal healthcare, Trueman brings the valuable perspective of a foreigner, one who is also a careful thinker and is concerned more with responsible Christian engagement with political issues than with who is up or down in the perpetual war between Democrats and Republicans. At least for this lover of all things political, this book is a helpful tonic that cuts both ways and encourages me to engage more thoughtfully, carefully, and even lovingly.
This Independence Day weekend I went to Monticello, and there I bought Douglas Wilson’s Jefferson’s Books, a delightful monograph that shows us Jefferson as the remarkable book collector and reader that he was. Much of it deals with his decades-long, setback-ridden (fires! thieves!) building of his library, whose 6,700 volumes became the founding contribution to the Library of Congress upon his retirement.
I have more, much more, to learn about Jefferson, but at least in the matter of books and reading, he may be my ultimate role model. Not that I want to build extensive, world-renowned libraries, but I want to dedicate myself to the systematic study of books to improve my knowledge and to share it with others and encourage them to read more – all things at which Jefferson excelled.
Below are some choice quotes from the book, a recommended reading schedule he gave to a friend, and a picture of his revolving bookstand, one of the coolest (okay, maybe cool isn’t the right word here) items in his Monticello house.
“As Jefferson’s library revealed, books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (8)
“…the book-hunting chores he tirelessly performed for his friends back home far outnumbered his own requests for help.” (25)
“The amount of money [he] spent for books while he was in Paris and throughout his life was prodigious…He was aware that his indulgence in books amounted to extravagance and sought to moderate it by buying cheaper and smaller format editions wherever possible, and driving a hard bargain when offered an expensive book.” (25)
“His library, from an early period, formed an essential part of his vision of the good life.” (26)
“Jefferson was dependent on books, tended to take his knowledge from them rather than from direct experience, and approached the world with studied eyes.” (29)
“The need to know seemed to to come as naturally to him as the need to breathe. He spoke often of his belief that nature had formed him for study, and he exercised his remarkable powers of discipline to find time for reading even in the busies and most hectic times of his life.” (29)
“I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” (46)
His favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, said of him: “Of history he was very fond, and this he studied in all languages [he knew seven], though always, I think, preferring the ancients. In fact, he derived more pleasure from his acquaintance with Greek and Latin than from any other resource of literature…I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than with any other book.” (48-49)
“Jefferson was constantly being consulted on matters relating to books and education and conscientiously made out dozens of reading lists at the requests of his friends.” (50)
To a friend he recommended this reading schedule:
– Before 8 am: Physical Studies, Ethics, Religion, Natural Law
– Eight to 12 pm: Law
– 12-1 pm: Politics
– Afternoon: History
– From dark to bedtime: Belles-lettres [literary works admired for their style], Criticism, Rhetoric, Oratory
And finally, his revolving bookstand, on which he liked to have five reference books while he wrote letters to friends:
In a day when what it means to follow Christ can be so grossly distorted by a pastor saying he “needs” a $65 million-dollar jet to carry out his ministry, we need all the more the examples of self-sacrificial men and women eager to give away their earthly possessions to advance true gospel-centered ministry. One of the founders of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791), was such a man. His example is commended to us by pastor and author Thabiti Anyabwile in his excellent Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons (Crossway, 2012), to illustrate the view of money and possessions that should characterize church elders, those who “shepherd” and watch over the flock.
After you read Wesley’s example below, ask yourself: Could you do something similar (it doesn’t have to be as radical) with your earnings? If not, what keeps you from doing so? And what does this say about what you really value in life – that is, what your heart treasures? These are questions I want to continually ask myself through the years, so as to not let money and possessions (stuff!) control my decisions and make me a less generous, small-hearted person.
“Wesley preached that Christians should not merely tithe, but give away all the extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, the Christians’ standard of giving should increase, not his standard of living. He began this practice at Oxford and he continued it throughout his life. Even when his income rose into the thousands of pounds, he lived simply and quickly gave his surplus money away. One year his income was slightly over £1,400; he gave away all save £30. He was afraid of laying up treasures on earth, so the money went out in charity as quickly as it came in. He reports that he never had as much as £100 at one time… When he died in 1791, the only money mentioned in his will was the miscellaneous coins to be found in his pockets and dresser drawers. Most of the £30,000 he had earned in his lifetime he had given away.” (89)
To put it in perspective for us, Thabiti points out that “Wesley’s income in today’s dollars would be $160,000 annually. Yet he lived on only $20,000 of it.”
In her terrific Democracy on Trial (1995), the late political theorist and public intellectual Jean Bethke Elshtain (whom I had the privilege of having as a professor as an undergraduate – she was one of Georgetown’s best-kept secrets!) reflects on the ills afflicting American democracy, among them the obliteration by both Left and Right of the private-public distinction (e.g. feminists’ 1970s slogan “the personal is political,” or conservatives’ attempts to involve the government in private sexual lives) and what identity politics, where groups such as women and ethnic minorities militantly pursue a politics revolving around a perceived victimization demonize the “oppressor” to the point that any meaningful dialogue, one of the currencies of democracy, is ruled out or made impossible. More importantly, in this book Elshtain reminds us that true democracy is not just a system of government but also a set of “democratic dispositions” among citizens that enables them to debate, compromise, and respect their fellows as they seek, not utopia, but a “more perfect Union,” as Lincoln so aptly put it.
One of my favorite moments in the book comes when Elshtain recounts her response to a radio broadcaster’s question: “What does it mean to you to be an American?” She “stammered and mumbled for a moment before I got my bearings and responded”:
It means that one can share a dream of political possibility, which is to say, a dream of democracy; it means that one can make one’s voice heard; it means both individual accomplishment as well as a sense of responsibility; it means sharing the possibility of a brotherhood and sisterhood that is perhaps fractious – as all brotherhoods and sisterhoods are – and yet united in a spirit that’s a spirit more of good than ill will; it means that one is marked by history but not totally burdened with it and defined by it; it means that one can expect some basic sense of fair play…I think Americans are committed to a rough-and-ready sense of fair play, and a kind of social egalitarianism, if you will, an egalitarianism of manners. I think that’s the best I can do. (35-36)