We have seen how Jefferson’s reading of the Bible applies a standard whereby anything “against the course of nature” is to be rejected as “fables not belonging to history” (To William Short, August 4, 1820). In light of this statement, we are asking how Jefferson reconciles his strict adherence to the dictates of reason with a providential view of American history. For this, we need a more precise determination of his conception of God. But to understand his conception of God, we first have to consider his most basic assumptions about the nature of reality, his metaphysics or first principles, which he summarizes with the words, “I feel: therefore I exist” (To John Adams, August 15, 1820).
Not I think, but I feel:
I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existences then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need…When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind (Jefferson’s emphases; ibid.).
Based on this and other of his statements, we feel comfortable in stating that philosophically Jefferson was an empiricist. In the same letter, he traces what he calls “my creed of materialism” back to Locke, one of the founders of English empiricism (as well as, it might be noted, one of the founders of political liberalism). For Jefferson, even thoughts themselves are material phenomena: “I can concieve (sic) thought to be an action of a particular organization of matter, formed for that purpose by it’s (sic) creator” (ibid.). Nevertheless, we have not realized just how radical Jefferson’s materialism is until we recognize that, for him, even God is a material being.
To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise…At what stage of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But a heresy it certainly is. Jesus taught nothing of it. He told us indeed that ‘God is a spirit,’ but he has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that it is not matter. And the antient (sic) fathers generally, if not universally, held it to be matter: light and thin indeed, an etherial gas; but still matter (ibid.).
His casting of those who believe in a nonphysical God as atheists is quite striking. And what may seem even more striking is the vehemence with which he pursues this line of thought.
In England these Immaterialists might have been burnt until…the writ de haeretico comburendo was abolished: and here until the revolution, that statute not having extended to us. All heresies being now done away with us, these schismatists are merely atheists, differing from the material Atheist only in their belief that ‘nothing made something,’ and from the material deist who believes that matter alone can operate on matter (ibid.).
His presupposition, which he bases entirely on the senses, is that what has no material basis is necessarily nothing. If what has no material basis is nothing, then obviously someone who believes in an immaterial God believes in nothing and is thus an atheist. But alongside these “Immaterialists,” he sets two other categories, “the material Atheist” and “the material deist.” He defines the latter as someone who “believes that matter alone can operate on matter.” Beyond this, he leaves the category undefined, but the term is useful in helping us determine how it is that Jefferson can at once profess an almost absolute faith in reason while at the same time claim to believe in Providence. If he is not a material deist, then presumably he believes that a divine intelligence can operate on matter, even if that intelligence is itself a material being. As we will see next time, that is exactly what he believes.