Stephen Mitchell | Philosopher

Stephen Mitchell’s books include The Book of Job, Tao Te Ching, The Gospel According to Jesus, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. and Genesis: A New Translation of the Classic Biblical Stories.

  What draws you to Thomas Jefferson?
I've been in love with Thomas Jefferson for a couple of decades. What draws me to him is his integrity, which is present in every word that he wrote and everything that he did. There's a radiance about him that I've seen in very few people in public life. Ever.

“He is a statesman and so much more, but essentially he is a good man.”

  We tend to think of the history of our country in terms of politics. You suggest with Jefferson there might be another way to see the birth of our country?
I think we're very lucky to have had so many men of integrity at the birth of our country. But even among these great men, Jefferson stands out. He is a statesman and so much more, but essentially he is a good man. His goodness goes very deep and his compassion spreads very wide.

  Where do you hear this goodness? Where is the music of Thomas Jefferson for you?
If you can talk about the music of Thomas Jefferson, it's the music of prose and the music of morality, and I think when you go to a certain depth of morality it becomes a thing of beauty. That's what I hear. On the surface, he was one of the least poetic of great men, but if you penetrate a little more deeply you can see the great passion at the root of everything he said.

  We think of him as a nation builder, but you take him as a teacher, a mentor...
I feel very personally about Jefferson. He's been an enormously important figure in my own inner life. At a certain point in 1980, after seven years of intensive Zen practice in a completely contemplative mode, I found it necessary to put his portrait above my desk as an icon of counterbalance. Here was a man fully engaged in the world but with a sense of serenity at his core.

  When you look in the eyes of that portrait, who do you see?
When I look in the eyes of that Rembrandt Peale portrait, I see shining through it a man of great intelligence, of a certain degree of spiritual depth, of enormous clarity and with a hint of humor, too, that doesn't usually come out in his letters. But there's a smile in those eyes.

“Thomas Jefferson was deeply pained by the institution of slavery.”

  This man wrote the words "all men are created equal." Yet he owned 200 human beings whom he never saw fit to manumit. How do you deal with the contradictions of Thomas Jefferson?
Well, I don't think that that is really a contradiction. We're all born into a certain culture, and we're all unconscious of the weak and dark places in that culture. It may be that in 200 years the cultural consensus will be that all of us non-vegetarians were obscenely immoral for killing animals and eating meat. I know that Thomas Jefferson was deeply pained by the institution of slavery. He thought it was a corrupting force, and he said that, many times, in his letters. He tried to pass legislation to lighten the burden and was unsuccessful in that and saw that it was going to be unsuccessful for quite a while. I think it's an honor to him and to the country that he felt such pain about it. Since he was a true visionary, he saw where slavery was leading us and was appalled, saw that freedom would come sooner or later, saw the cost of it. And embraced that, contained that pain.

“There was a great spiritual dimension to Jefferson.”

  It seems you see a powerful spiritual dimension to Thomas Jefferson. What is that about?
There was a great spiritual dimension to Jefferson. I think very few people in public life—and very few people, period—have thought so constantly and so centrally about religion, especially about the figure of Jesus, who was very important to him. I would even say that from the death of Jesus to the 19th century, nobody saw Jesus with the stunning clarity that Jefferson had.

  And yet he's accused of being an atheist. How do you reconcile the politician and the inner man?
People did accuse him of being an atheist and a devil for wanting there to be religious freedom in this country. But there's a saying that when a pickpocket sees a saint, he sees only his pockets. People were seeing him only from a very narrow Christian point of view. In fact, Jefferson's religion was central and very wide. He understood that the essence of religion is being decent and kind and compassionate to our fellow human beings. That was the beginning and the end of it. People who were, for whatever reasons, invested in doctrine, in ideas about God or ideas about Jesus, think that it can't be that simple. But it is that simple.

  He edited the writings of Jesus. Can you talk about that?
Jefferson's editing of the words of Jesus was a great inspiration to me for one my books, The Gospel According to Jesus. It's a startling idea. Nobody thought of it before Jefferson. One person in the next century thought of it. That person was Tolstoy, who of course didn't know about Jefferson's project. What Jefferson did was to sift through the words and the doings of Jesus and select for his own private use the sayings and doings that seemed to him authentic, that originated from the historical Jesus. He made two different selections—once in his first term as president and then again in 1820, when he was 77 years old, doing a slightly more thorough job of it. And he is said to have used that collection as his nightly reading before he went to bed every night. Obviously Jesus—the authentic Jesus—meant a lot to him.

  And what did he say about picking these sayings?
He said it was as easy to distinguish the authentic sayings of Jesus from the sayings added by the church as to pick diamonds from a dung hill. A very strong expression.

  Why should we care about him in the late 20th century? What is Jefferson saying to us with his selections of Jesus' teachings?
We're very lucky in this country to have had at our source such a great man, with such a clear vision. And I think that people who are interested in living a deeply compassionate life could do a lot worse than go to the words of Jefferson about Jesus. He was very intelligent and extremely clear about what was important in this life, and I think says it as well as anybody has ever said it.

Statute for Religious Freedom

  How important, then, is the Statute for Religious Freedom?
Only on the surface does it seem that there's a contradiction between a man who's truly religious and a man who wants to separate religion from politics. In fact, that is a great act of kindness. Because he had seen, from his reading in the history of Christianity, the murder and mayhem that religions have caused in human affairs, and he wanted to avoid that at all costs. So really, it's a very religious act in his sense, and in my sense too, to take all political power away from religions.

  And yet one sees a popular notion of Jefferson as a dabbler, a crank... One doesn't have the sense that people appreciate his spiritual dimension.
Yes. I go to him not for depth—at least in spirituality, because he didn't have a depth of experience there. But his clarity is remarkable, and clarity is a very precious quality. It's quite rare. And it's a quality that to me is really thrilling and that permeates everything that he wrote.

  I've found him sort an evangelist for humankind.
Yes, of course. He had a deep love of humanity, however uncomfortable he may have been in particular personal relationships, especially with women. I feel he was not comfortable, and that's a part of his character that is pretty obvious. But he was filled with love of humanity and hatred of injustice, and this is a passion of his that you can feel resonating from the page, almost vibrating off the page. And it's a wonderful quality. We all should be very grateful to him for that.

  It sounds as though you consider him a mentor.
He was a, let's say, spiritual friend for me at a particular point in my own path when I needed the figure of somebody actively involved in the world, as he was. "Mentor" I would reserve for people who have been more important to me in the depths.

  Why does he appeal to both conservatives and liberals?
I really don't know. I don't know many people who call themselves conservative.

Sally Hemings' Accusation

  Can you talk about Sally Hemings?
The Sally Hemings business is a very dramatic and sexy story that people want to believe in because of the current cynicism about the decency of great men. People aren't comfortable with the notion that there are such creatures. And people are also distrustful of even the notion of integrity. My sense is, from what I know of how that story got started, that it's taking the sleaziest of tabloid journalism as historical truth. Who would believe what the Star says about anything, with a total lack of corroborating evidence? It seems to me that anyone who has a sense of integrity will recognize integrity in Jefferson and won't believe that there was an atom of possibility that the Sally Hemings story happened, since Jefferson was such a deeply compassionate man and felt the way he did about slavery. Besides, he simply didn't have that strong a libido. I just don't think it's possible that he was a liar and a whoremaster. Few people can be that schizophrenic.

  If you could be the proverbial fly on the wall, what event would you like to have witnessed in Jefferson's life?
I would love to see him talking with his wife, to know what that marriage was all about. It's clear from his letters and from other sources that he was deeply in love with her, but I would be interested to get a sense of the quality of that love. How deeply filled out it was, how mature he was emotionally with her. How much he understood her as a woman. All of these are question marks in my mind.

  He seems to be filled with contradictions, almost a metaphor for America.
People talk about Jefferson's contradictions, but I think that he has far fewer contradictions than most people do and that they are pretty easily reconciled—most of them, anyway. It doesn't seem to me that there was a contradiction between his protestations of not wanting to be a public person and then being a great political figure. This wasn't disingenuous rhetoric. I think he was being sincere about his love of privacy, his perfect contentment with being just a country gentleman and scholar. But he had an enormous sense of duty to the country and was essentially pushed by the hand of God, if you will, into being president. After all, on his gravestone, the presidency was not one of the three things that he was proudest of and wanted to be remembered for.

“It had nothing to do with hedonistic pleasure. It had to do with deep satisfaction....”

  What does he mean by "the pursuit of happiness"?
As he meant it, I think it had nothing to do with hedonistic pleasure. It had to do with deep satisfaction—including the satisfactions of doing your duty to your country, of doing the right thing by your friends and by your enemies, even. It's an odd phrase, isn't it? In Buddhist terms, it leads nowhere, because as long you're pursuing happiness, happiness is running away from you. It's a pursuit that can never have an end but unhappiness. But in political terms, it's a useful substitute for the other term—property. Was Locke the original source of "life, liberty, and property"? "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" gives more room to the human venture, I think. Still, in a larger sense, it's a very questionable phrase.

  I like its abstraction.
I think that phrase can be interpreted in a deeper sense. Every being in the universe—not only human beings—wants to be happy. And there really is a happiness at the core of our being. Ironically, I think when we're able to stop pursuing happiness, happiness is already there.

  What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he said "Always take things by the smooth handle"? His approach to governing...
Jefferson has a certain degree of kinship with Lao-tzu, and I think he would have been delighted to discover Lao-tzu. Of course, the words of Lao-tzu and the words of the Buddha weren't available to him. I think he would have been enormously interested in their words. His inner compass was very much in keeping with the Tao Te Ching, seeking harmony, not pushing things, not trying to control, steering a course that would reconcile the opposite sides of a question. He had an instinct for that, I think, in his personal life too. That was his natural way of doing things.

  What, finally, is his legacy?
It seems to me that Jefferson's legacy is more than his words—even his greatest words in the Declaration of Independence, for instance. There's a sense of his presence that is available to us all if we look clearly enough. And I think that is his greatest gift to the country—the sense of integrity at the center of his life.

  He is the country, in a way...with his contradictions...
He's the best of our country. I don't think it's an accident that he died on July 4, 1826. Somewhere in the depths of his unconscious this date was very cleverly planned. It's another aspect of his gift to us. What passionate patriotism he must have felt to have died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. A very moving final bow.

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