Sunday, July 06, 2008


To Dr. Joseph Priestley(April 9, 1803)

To Dr. Joseph Priestley

Washington, Apr. 9, 1803

Dear Sir, -- While on a short visit lately to Monticello, I received
from you a copy of your comparative view of Socrates & Jesus, and I
avail myself of the first moment of leisure after my return to acknolege
the pleasure I had in the perusal of it, and the desire it excited to see
you take up the subject on a more extensive scale. In consequence of some
conversation with Dr. Rush, in the year 1798-99, I had promised some day
to write him a letter giving him my view of the Christian system. I have
reflected often on it since, & even sketched the outlines in my own
mind. I should first take a general view of the moral doctrines of the
most remarkable of the antient philosophers, of whose ethics we have sufficient
information to make an estimate, say of Pythagoras, Epicurus, Epictetus,
Socrates, Cicero, Seneca, Antoninus. I should do justice to the branches
of morality they have treated well; but point out the importance of those
in which they are deficient. I should then take a view of the deism and
ethics of the Jews, and show in what a degraded state they were, and the
necessity they presented of a reformation. I should proceed to a view of
the life, character, & doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of incorrectness
of their ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them
to the principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes
of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice
& philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. This
view would purposely omit the question of his divinity, & even his
inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages
his doctrines have to encounter, not having been committed to writing by
himself, but by the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they
had heard them from him; when much was forgotten, much misunderstood, &
presented in very paradoxical shapes. Yet such are the fragments remaining
as to show a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most
benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently
more perfect than those of any of the antient philosophers. His character
& doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend
to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and sophisticated
his actions & precepts, from views of personal interest, so as to induce
the unthinking part of mankind to throw off the whole system in disgust,
and to pass sentence as an impostor on the most innocent, the most benevolent,
the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to
man. This is the outline; but I have not the time, & still less the
information which the subject needs. It will therefore rest with me in
contemplation only. You are the person who of all others would do it best,
and most promptly. You have all the materials at hand, and you put together
with ease. I wish you could be induced to extend your late work to the
whole subject. I have not heard particularly what is the state of your
health; but as it has been equal to the journey to Philadelphia, perhaps
it might encourage the curiosity you must feel to see for once this place,
which nature has formed on a beautiful scale, and circumstances destine
for a great one. As yet we are but a cluster of villages; we cannot offer
you the learned society of Philadelphia; but you will have that of a few
characters whom you esteem, & a bed & hearty welcome with one who
will rejoice in every opportunity of testifying to you his high veneration
& affectionate attachment.

from the Library of America edition of
Jefferson's writings

Merrill D. Peterson, editor

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