Traveling Philosophy Series, Thomas Jefferson Edition: Prologue

As I sit here in the airport terminal in Salt Lake City, waiting for one of my connecting flights to DC, I sleepily munch on French fries and watch the crowd go by. My ever-generous darling awoke with me at three thirty this morning to drive me to the airport, and though I’m almost too tired to think, I can’t sleep either, as is usually the case at the beginning of a trip (I can usually sleep on the way home).

So as I’m watching the crowd, I’ve got Thomas Jefferson in the back of my mind, as I’ve been immersing myself in biographies, lectures, discussions, and author’s talks about his life and thought over the last couple of weeks. On the first leg of my trip, I had just been re-reading the first chapters of Susan Jacoby’s marvelous Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, in which Jefferson’s Enlightenment philosophy, his Deism, and his efforts to enshrine a robust conception of human rights and separation of church and state in state and federal law play a large role.

A strong belief in the basic natural goodness and perfectibility of humankind underlie Jefferson’s view of human nature and his political philosophy. In the airport, I see those traits personified which would justify Jefferson’s faith in humanity if they were as universal as he hoped. I see cooperation, courtesy, patience, and friendliness abound: people chat freely with others they just met; others stand in line and in crowded aisles with forbearance, and courteously let others go ahead of them, or step around them with a smile, if they are burdened with children or slowed by age or disability; still others helpfully pick up a bag or a scarf dropped by a fellow passenger in a hurry to get their things so as not to delay others. I just saw a man give up the standby seat he had just won to the woman who had forfeited it, who was on the verge of tears because she arrived mere moments before her flight was due to take off.

I also see a wide diversity of race, culture, and creed represented in the crowd peacefully assembled here, cooperating seamlessly with one another, which the slaveowning-yet-abolitionist-yet-repatriationist Jefferson thought impossible (more on these contradictions in a later piece). He didn’t think, for one thing, that people of different races could live harmoniously in one place, not to mention his dim view of women’s ability to fully engage in public life and the professional world! I see an elderly woman murmur fervent prayers in a low voice to an image of a Hindu saint (I think) perched on the bag in her lap, with no-one protesting or even batting an eye; I see a black woman with a cross prominently displayed on her bosom accept instructions from the woman of apparent Middle Eastern descent at the podium, and then share pleasantries with her; I see a young white apparently Mormon man praising the sweet looks and winning personality of the child of Indian parents across the aisle, comparing her virtues to those of his own children at home; I sit next to two women, smelling of stale smoke, missing a few teeth, and wearing cheap clothes, happy, chatting, and smiling about the adventure they’re embarking on, without any show of feeling out of place next to the obviously much wealthier woman sitting next to them on the other side (and who, in turn, shows no sign of noticing or even caring about ‘rubbing shoulders’ with those of a different economic class). I see a young female pilot stride confidently down the aisle, a young boy gazing at her admiringly.

This airport, right now, in so many ways, is the America of Jefferson’s dreams, in some ways realizing his rather idealistic view of human nature, and in many more ways surpassing it. I wish he could see it right now, to relish this justification of his hopes for what his country could be, and to learn that human nature is capable of being even better than he thought possible. But when I think about all that’s going on in the world right now, I know we still have a long way to go. For now, I’m not going to dwell on that. I’m just going to enjoy this microcosm of human goodness I find myself in right now.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

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