“I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal enmity against all tyranny over the minds of men.” — Jefferson
In 1960 I was in Washington, D.C. It was the first time for me in that city. Kennedy was in office. I was a sophomore at Queens College. My mother had died that spring of uterine cancer. I was alone and lonely. Of all the monuments, the Jefferson Memorial attracted my attention, more welcoming breast than the phallus of the Washington Monument. I came to nurse.
The statue of Jefferson in the middle of the rotunda was the standard, failrly boring effort. This was no Lincoln sitting majestically on a throne a mile or so away. What grabbed me were the foot-high letters that expressed Jefferson’s Weltanschauung — they were chiseled in a circle that circumnavigated the rotunda.
I stood there not in awe, nor was I touched. Moved, perhaps. I cannot recollect the feeling, and it is not to be retrieved. Perhaps it was an intellectual response (most likely) that I had. At that time I was profoundly removed from my feelings, my adolescence savagely cut down by my mother’s death — the kind of primal interruption that takes decades to heal.
in any case, i stood there, somehow moved at some level of sensibility. I set out to consciously memorize the words of Jefferson, the Deist. Like the hokey DeMille The Ten Commandments, I felt I was Moses before the burning bush, on hallowed ground, as those words were inscribed in flame into my mind — alas, not my heart. I etched them into my self. I have never forgotten them.
Three decades plus have passed. I wonder if one atom of my existence broods somewhere in the memorial, my sign of affinity, a stone on a grave, a marker. I know that these words, particularly, “. . .all tyranny over the minds of men,” now move me on a feeling level as well, as a teacher, therapist, and man. I realize that incipient in me at that young age was some raw sense to be intellectually and spiritually free.
In awkward and stumbling fashion, in peculiar and odd misadventures, self-enigmatic pursuits, I see that it is a significant feature of who I am. It explains why I read deeply the writings of Krishnamurti, why I challenge convention, why ideas, alas, appealed to me intellectually — I avoided their emotional roots; and why I became a therapist — what more powerful tyrant than the unconscious and repetitive self, what more powerful tyranny than the repetitive follies of the species.
A college professor of education once said to me that he admired Lincoln of all the presidents, in part, because of his essential Jesus-like characteristics, his martydom, his ability to speak to the common man in a clear way. I favored Jefferson. Jefferson was consonant with my limitations at that time — reason vs. emotion. No Rousseau for me.
Significantly, the power of Jefferson’s oath — reason as light, as force, as truth, as emancipator and liberator, reason as tool, reason as the highest expression of rational assault upon the forces of darkness –still moves me. What kind of valor leads to such majestic effrontery? What Grecian value did Jefferson possess to make him valorously laugh at the darkness within and without?
Consider this quotation as part of the Declaration of Independence and it fits in beautifully. It is limpid and incisive and felicitous — if anything, Jefferson’s words are as felicitous as “All men are created equal.”
As I see it now, Jefferson’s words served an ulterior purpose, for they supported the neurotic strains in my young adulthood. Feelings were denied. The mind or intellect was the true counsel. Perhaps Eighteenth-Century man vested too much in the powers of reason — just a roll in the hay with the Twentieth century takes care of that. It seems that no judgement need be made, for I see it as mankind raising its eyes above the primeval ooze for a look-see.
It was necessary to test reason in all ways, for it is a powerful instrument. Freud’s works are a testament to the use of reason to shed light. However, Freud, in his later essays, some of them like Bach’s fugues, wrestle with the strengths and weaknesses of reason in freeing mankind (“Analysis: Terminable and Interminable”).
Imagine Freud and Jefferson at dinner. The Jew and the WASP; the short and the tall; the Austrian and the American. Schlag mit grits. I wonder what Jefferson might say about the unconscious mind — would he advocate more reason? Spiritually, in my fantasy, both men, heirs of the Enlightenment, join together in freeing man of his fetters — conscious and unconscious.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau wrote. It is a kind of tyranny each one of us, at moments, feels deeply. At this point, one may ask: what good is reason? In fact, reason brings me to the conclusion I am desperate –and alone, existentially so. Reason gives me so much light — truth –that it is blinding. I am only human, and I can only handle so much light. Like the sad genius of the schizophrenic, allow me to find a nether place, to rest in sweet shadow, to come away from what I can plainly see. And so insight can do so much.
I wish I could return to the rotunda and soften Jefferson’s thrilling sentiments, his cosmic call to arms through the centuries to come. I would suggest to the master that he leaven his words with the sense of relationship; that he speak to the human need to emotionally change and that he address the need to feel connected to other men and women not only rationally but spiritually, in communion. Man cannot live by reason alone.
I would not erase Jefferson’s magnificent shout at the gods. I would say, Dear Mr. President, what do you have to say about feelings? — I’d give him a day or two. Plenty of time for Tom.