DIMwit - Part IV

seddon's picture
Submitted by seddon on Tue, 2012-09-18 23:19

This post is more like a little note that I thought some of you Soloists would find interesting. Note 131 on p. 356 deals with a sentence in the Declaration of Independence. “The claim that ‘these truths are self-evident,’ . . . has been held to be rationalistic, since rights, the critics say, cannot be established on the basis observation (a view with which many of the founders would disagree). But, it seems, the founders had no common view on meta-ethical questions, nor even much interested in them. It is more likely that they regarded ‘self-evident’ not as a technical term denoting an epistemological category, but rather as a rhetorical synonym without deeper meaning for ‘obvious,’ ‘uncontroversial,’ and the like.”

But we KNOW how that line came to be. Jefferson originally written, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” It was Ben Franklin that changed “sacred and undeniable” to “self-evident.” Here’s the story as told by Walter Isaacson in his autobiography of Franklin.
“The idea of ‘self-evident’ truths was one that drew less on Locke, who was Jefferson’s favorite philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. [yes, Objectivists, good old Hume] In what became known as ‘Hume’s fork,’ the great Scottish philosopher, along with Leibniz and others, had developed a theory that distinguished between synthetic truths that describe matters of fact . . . and analytic truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason or definition. By using the word ‘sacred,’ Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question . . .was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.” (312)

The document itself can be view in Washington, D. C. but if a trip is out of the question, Isaacson reproduces it as Plate 23 and one can plainly see Franklin’s characteristic heavy backslashes change “sacred and undeniable” to “self-evident.”

Peikoff is welcome to use this information in the second edition of DIM HYPOTHESIS.


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seddon's picture

""Sacred" doesn't necessarily refer to god or religion; it could just mean "massively important" or "overwhelmingly valuable.""

Perhaps. But all of the references in the OED to the use of that word in the 18th century mention either religion of the deity. You may be reading by to Jefferson and Franklin a meaning that is current today in a less religious atmosphere.


Jefferson vs. Franklin

Kyrel Zantonavitch's picture

Jefferson's phrase seems far more powerful. I think Franklin erred with his edit. "Sacred" doesn't necessarily refer to god or religion; it could just mean "massively important" or "overwhelmingly valuable."

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