Thomas Jefferson, the Stoic

Thomas Jefferson was perhaps one of the most important presidents of the United States. He helped elaborate upon the most important document in US history – The Declaration of Independence – not only for the rights of the US, but for human rights in general. He was also precise when separating what he could control from what he could not, which is the key tenet of Stoicism. By doing so, he changed the course of history and the profile of an entire country.

“Every day is lost in which we do not learn something useful. Man has no nobler or more valuable possession than time.”

Thomas Jefferson

Being a Stoic

The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Stoicism goes beyond the simple fact that Epictetus´ Enchiridion was a permanent book on his nightstand, as his Stoic values can be easily seen in his words and actions. It is important to note that Jefferson declared himself an Epicurean; however, his way of facing life, his writings, and his thoughts, lead us to recognize him as a Stoic in practice.

“If you want something you’ve never had you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.”

Thomas Jefferson

It is said that Jefferson had a speech problem that made it impossible for him to be a great speaker, but led him to be one of the greatest writers in US history. In this instance, we can notice that Jefferson accepted what he could not control, but found other ways of reaching where he wanted to go. If he could not speak successfully, he would write. Just as he could not change the minds of the British, he managed to increase the independence movement.

 “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”

Thomas Jefferson

Ten Rules to Live By

In a letter titled a “Decalogue of Canons for observation in practical life”, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, who wished to pass Jefferson’s wisdom down to his own son so that he may become an honorable man. This letter contained a list of advice in the form of ten rules, which strongly resemble the values of Stoicism.

  1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.
  2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
  3. Never spend your money before you have it.
  4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
  5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
  6. We never repent of having eaten too little.
  7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
  8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!
  9. Take things always by their smooth handle.
  10. When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred. 

The Pragmatic Man

Some of those lines are clearly linked to Stoic teachings. For example, rule number 9 refers to Epictetus, who explained that there are two handles: one is problematic, and the other is comprehensive. The latter handle is the one we should take, and Jefferson calls it the smooth one.

Return your attention to rule number 8. What about wasting time worrying about things that never end up happening? This is one of the main concerns of Stoics when it comes to using time well and not struggling with things you cannot control. Jefferson was not a man of expectations; he was a hands-on man who focused on the present. That is exactly why he became one of the Founding Fathers.

The last item on Jefferson´s list is based on a quote by Seneca: “the greatest remedy for anger is delay.” This is just one of many references, as it is possible to identify various teachings from the great Stoics in Jefferson´s words. This shows that Stoic philosophy was just as valuable during its conception in the ancient Hellenistic period, to the time of US independence, to our modern world today.

His Legacy

Thomas Jefferson is best known as the man who wrote The Declaration of Independence of the United States, famously signed on the 4th of July. However, the relevance to this document is not restricted to America, as many other nations have been inspired by that document and Jefferson’s words.

This document, among other important documents, has been an upholder of human rights and has had an enormous importance worldwide. As we can see in the latest events of violence occuring around the world, we can see that Jefferson was really ahead of his time.

He graduated  law school, despite many setbacks, and never let any difficulties hold him back. He built a house, known as the Monticello, that is now considered a UNESCO World Heritage site. Jefferson became the third president of the United States and maintained his leadership for two mandates. He was also the founder of the University of Virginia and was its first Dean. Most relevant of all his achievements, he later withdrew from his political life and devoted himself to the development of himself and his thoughts.