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The Limits of Optimism

The Limits of Optimism: Thomas Jefferson's Dualistic Enlightenment

Maurizio Valsania
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Limits of Optimism
    Book Description:

    The Limits of Optimismworks to dispel persistent notions about Jefferson's allegedly paradoxical and sphinx-like quality. Maurizio Valsania shows that Jefferson's multifaceted character and personality are to a large extent the logical outcome of an anti-metaphysical, enlightened, and humility-oriented approach to reality. That Jefferson's mind and priorities changed over time and in response to changing circumstances indicates neither incoherence, hypocrisy, nor pathology.

    Valsania's reading of Jefferson, the Enlightenment, and negativity helps to make sense of the many paradoxes typically associated with that eighteenth-century thinker. At the same time, it provides a corrective to the common though erroneous equation of Enlightenment thinking with rationalism and shallow optimism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3151-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    As every biographer knows, Thomas Jefferson always coped with the challenges of life very valiantly. In spite of this, the conclusion that he was a gullible eighteenth-century optimistic humanist, although seemingly evident, is not really justified. Jefferson’s humanistic message was in constant dialogue with an antihumanistic outlook. Likewise, his typical optimism always interacted with a pessimism, his sense of mission with a sense of failure, and his Enlightenment with a threatening darkness.

    This book focuses on several examples of Jefferson’s allowance for all that negated human hopes, despite his enduring commitment to the Enlightenment or, better, because of it. Jefferson...

  5. 1 Enlightenment & Dualism
    (pp. 9-31)

    Late eighteenth-century American leaders have often been portrayed as prototypes of stubborn self-reliance and inescapable optimism. Over the years, philosophers, political scientists, historians, sociologists, journalists, and countless first-and second-rank intellectual figures have put considerable emphasis on tropes such as “heroic action,” “Manifest Destiny,” the “new Israel,” and “world-redeeming ambitions.” They have thus forced their audience to believe in the legitimacy of the automatic identification between these ambitions and a childish “unshakable optimism.” The late eighteenthcentury leader has often been portrayed as if he only saw the course of time as substantially complaisant to America’s ultimate triumph.¹

    In particular, late eighteenth-century...

  6. 2 Optimism as Certainty
    (pp. 32-55)

    Before entering the world of the dualist philosopher, we need to examine Jefferson’s unabated optimism. It might seem paradoxical, after all the arguments made in the previous chapter, but Jefferson often championed unabated optimism. The Enlightenment and all its tensions were periodically belied by this type of optimism, unabated, unshakable, and unswerving. It had little in common with the kind of optimism we encounter in the following chapter.

    As a man of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was never at rest. He was always trying, tinkering, and experimenting. Pulling up and tearing down became customary habits of this enlightened Virginian, not limited...

  7. 3 From Faith to Hope
    (pp. 56-77)

    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, an optimism that was at once thoughtful and problematic. The present chapter is devoted to a lengthy study of hope as opposed to assured faith. Jefferson’s famous optimism is considered in a way that permits the Enlightenment’s dualism, tensions, and disharmonies to emerge. To state the issue in a slightly “poetic” way, in Jefferson’s critical optimism rational energy begins to face its enemy.

    Jefferson’s unabated version of optimism stemmed from...

  8. 4 Nature and Time as Overwhelming Powers
    (pp. 78-113)

    Jefferson’s hope that all will be right is not incompatible with the awareness that humans, as hoping and desiring creatures, are swept along by the boisterous sea. There is always the possibility, and perhaps the probability, that the wheel of fortune will take an odd turn. What about the necessity of a bad turn? Is the shipwreck just probable? Did Jefferson know something about necessity? Jefferson’s philosophy contains discourses on faith, satisfaction, and self-satisfaction, and also on anxiety, hope, and precariousness. But that is not all. The idea that “irrational” energy might reveal itself as a fate and a commanding...

  9. 5 Impossibility & Despondency
    (pp. 114-138)

    Jefferson’s language of satisfaction, we have seen, was a radical strategy to resist the burden that the Enlightenment imposed on its adepts. More interesting, at least for those readers who look for tension and conflict, he also made frequent use of the languages of projection and possibility, and even with that of anxiety and precariousness. Whoever relies on the heart and hope by living in the continuous anticipation of a better future likely becomes prey to anxieties, fears, tremors of reservation, confusions, forebodings, and a sense of threat. As an enlightened traveler, he confronted limits, and negativity had always been...

  10. 6 Dream, Imagination, & Expediency
    (pp. 139-164)

    Thomas Jefferson dealt extensively in hope, but what is the exact boundary between hoping and dreaming? Between hope and self-deception? As a hopeful man, Jefferson knew anxiety; he knew the unyielding law of necessity; he knew, as well, impossibility and pessimism. It is likewise legitimate to expect that, to some extent at least, he recognized that his hopes might have been no more than daydreams. Jefferson was a creature of hope, but might he also have been a deluded man? This question forms the content of the present chapter.

    In general terms, the difference between hope and dream or between...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 165-190)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-202)
  13. Index
    (pp. 203-208)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 209-209)