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Thomas Jefferson, Rudolf Steiner and Seraphim of Sarov – Their Contrasting Ideas of Man

As we all know, it is quite impossible to give any but the most simple sketch of any subject in a short essay. While recognizing such impossibility, I shall try to present some basic, though hopefully helpful and stimulating comparisons of the ideas of man in the cosmos of Jefferson, Steiner and Seraphim.

All three men held the same general conception of the greater spiritual cosmos within which man stood, lived and died. This cosmo-conception, readily imaginable via the name Dante, or more fundamentally for Western Man’s biography, Dionysius the Areopagite, or the idea of the “Great Chain of Being”, is historically proto-typical, archetypical for all of Man’s ancient lores, legends, religions, aboriginal shamanism, Orient and Occident, and such.

Though in our shared secular society today, including our modern and “post-modern” minds: sceptical, uncertain, questioning, questioning questioning, agnostic or uncertain of spiritual realities, we would generally agree on the “phenomenological” existence of, say, McDonald’s and US Dollars, Hollywood and Schwarzenegger, sciences’ atomic bombs and international communications, we are profoundly less commonly agreed on the ontological status of Archangels, Exusiai and Cherubim, spirits good and evil in nature, fallen sparks of God deifiable in man, and various characteristics and entrance requirements to the lower levels of hell. I would wager a decent sum, that a greater number of those here how listening in this room shared a worry this week with dollars, rather than anxieties of spiritual damnation, or elevation. If this seems to be an obvious easy disbalance, we can surely ask ourselves whether we have become perilously neglectful, in time, of what is seriously purported by some to be our ultimate eternity. But such are of course the conditions of our civilization, not so much the “spirit” as the “matter of the times”. Very few of us, in our intellectual occupations and preoccupations probably have any daily active thoughts of the greater spiritual cosmos which, it is said, encompasses our natural, physical world, and our own personal years of earthly, bodily existence; but the thoughts of each of these three selected men – with the possible exception of Jefferson – collapse completely, like grand illusions, if these worlds, these “terra incognita”, do not actively exist somehow around us and our lives right now in this very room – like storms of ghosts unseen…

In the wide-spread, hodge-podge confusion of our post-modernized minds, angelic and demonic hierarchies – however vividly or vaguely conceived – shall seldom be more than “words, words, words” in our perhaps self-flattering “universes of discourse” – and the emotional vaudeville shows of preachers ranting hellfire and brimstone. And this shall remain so, unless we be uncommonly blessed or damned by some extra-natural experiences, until after our deaths, when such purported realities will confirmed in their existence, or we shall not even know the oblivion my late grandfather calmly predicted for himself of the “hereafter”.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams towards the end of lives (both dying on July Forth 1826 – fifty years to the day after the signing of the great historical, modern earthly Declaration of Independence) from Monticello on May, 17, 1818:

But these are speculations [concerning independence efforts in South America], my friend, which we may as well deliver over to those who are to see their development. We shall only be lookers on, from the clouds above, as now we look down on the labors, the hurry, and the bustle of the ants and bees. Perhaps in that super-mundane region we may be amused with seeing the fallacy of our own guesses, and even the nothingness of those labors which have filled and agitated our own time here.

En attendent, with sincere affections to Mrs. Adams and yourself, I salute you both cordially.

However these ideas of Jefferson, and mine here today, may appear “from the clouds above”, down here we can only understand the ideas of life, world and man for Thomas Jefferson, RS, and Seraphim of Sarov, by recognizing their conceptions to, as it were, reside within the greater spiritual cosmos. But how they differ fundamentally – and here they could certainly cast various spiritual anathemas at each other – is in their ideas of man within the cosmos. To forecast the essence of my simple explications, in Thomas Jefferson we find an “anthropology or reason”, in Rudolf Steiner an “anthropology of nous”, and in Seraphim an “anthropology of heart”. Jefferson’s ideas shall be the major focus, and the centerpiece for my comparison of Steiner and Seraphim.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800)
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800)

Though Thomas Jefferson was baptized as a child in Virginia’s mild, established Anglican Church (which itself understood man, in it particular way, to stand inside of the greater spiritual cosmos); as a young man at the College of William and Mary he became exposed and converted to ideas labeled as of the “Age of Reason”, the so-called “Enlightenment”. In this way he began to examine Christianity and its ideas: of God as a Trinity, man, the Fallen world, sin, Divine Judgment, etc., with what he later described as the “Tribunal of Reason”. (This tribunal subjected the Trinity, for example, to its reason, and found it unbelievable, impossible or unknowable.) His revealing notations from this early period reveal fundamental, sceptical ideas and attitudes, towards religious, theological and philosophical history – especially under the strong influence of his readings in Bolingbroke, which he held all his life, until, that is, he had the opportunity after his death to look down “from the clouds above… on our own guesses”.

Jefferson was an active intellectual who surrounded himself all his life with books, reading widely, even if he tended more to read a book on history, political theory or nature, rather than theology or philosophy. He, for example, generally always detested Plato’s “foggy mystifications”. After the British had burnt much of Washington, D.C., Thomas Jefferson’s personal library was purchased to form the nucleus of its second collection: the Library of Congress now known throughout the world. Jefferson had at least three periods of in-depth exposure to most of the ideas integral and related to the greater spiritual cosmos and man’s position in it, during his lifetime from 1743-1826. These were via Lord Bolingbroke’s Philosophical Works, the works and life of Joseph Priestley, and William Enfield’s History of Philosophy (a two-volume abridgment, in English, of Johann Jakob Brucker’s influential six-volume Latin work Historia critica philosophiae which was seriously studied by such as the Encyclopaedists, Kant, Hegel, Goethe, et al.

Of the three major acts in his life which Jefferson could presumably easily review after his death, they having, upon his instruction, been inscribed on his tombstone: the Declaration of Independence, the “Virginia Act Establishing Religious Freedom”, and the Founding of the University of Virginia; I shall focus on his words in the Declaration of Independence – the “American Creed” as it has sometimes been appropriately called, words which are now known and still repeated throughout the world today:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain [inherent and (Jefferson)] inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

It is crucial to recognize, in order to understand Thomas Jefferson’s meaning here, not only – as is commonly done in standard Jefferson scholarship – what he affirmed as his idea of man, what here I have called his “anthropology of reason”; but also what Jefferson rejected, which, in my view, is inadequately appraised in its greater significance in human history. While Jefferson was of course far from unusual in what he rejected (of religion, theology, religious anthropology and philosophy) as superstition, illusion, distortion, priestal fabrication, etc., it is enlightening to consider in greater depth ideas of man, life, world and God which he essentially denied as impossible, or rejected as unknowable.

In Bolingbroke’s dense and tedious Philosophical Works, the young Thomas Jefferson was exposed to essentially all of the then known ideas of religion and philosophy from throughout the world, not only the obvious Ancient Near East, Judaeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman worlds, but also from India: Hinduism, Buddhism (then known, poorly, as “Fo”). In his notations from Bolingbroke, it is clear that Jefferson basically accepted or agreed with Bolingbroke’s sceptical and rational critique of religions’ histories, claims, doctrines, etc., as well as especially of Plato’s “foggy mysticism”. In sum: the natural, physical world could be known by empirical experience and sober human reason; all claims concerning what Jefferson later described as the “country of spirits” is unknowable, of fantasy, which not deliberate deceptive fabrication.

Thomas Jefferson came basically at this time to hold – and did so throughout his life – what could be called a diminished cosmology and a diminished anthropology – they being partial, reduced versions of the original prototypical, greater, spiritual cosmos (which embraced the physical world) and Man’s position in it, which origins can be traced back to the Indo-Europeans. Jefferson was not – as is very popular in America today – ignorant of the origin and history of ideas such as: of a nine-tiered hierarchy above (and below) man, from angels up (devils down) to the Trinity (center of Hell); that all of the natural world not only had “Nature’s God” (Jefferson), but also various spirits attending the traditionally-divided mineral, plant and animal worlds; that man was, for example, a microcosm, that he carried a spark of beclouded divinity – indeed, that the mind had an earthly and divine aspect, that the spiritual worlds could be experienced in visions, ecstasy, inspiration, oracles, of not only man’s being body, soul and spirit, but having etheric and astral sheaths; that evil sourced in a war in heaven; of the “perennial philosophy” (Augustino Steuco); of Platonic and Pauline views of man and world; Athanasian Christianity; etc., etc., etc. He knew all this from Bolingbroke’s compendium of these ideas; these and many other integral and related ideas which one can find today (often) shattered and scattered like pieces of a broken globe – so popular in “spiritual or new age” bookstores whether in San Francisco, Boston, London, Paris, Berlin or Moscow. Before Jefferson had written his now famous words, he had rejected in deed a great deal of ancient lore concerning man and cosmos. It was the time of the Enlightenment, and Jefferson was a “man of reason”. For Thomas Jefferson, and his “American Credo”, man existed on earth amidst nature’s great, visible “chain of being”. Men were equal, as a specie, in this great design by “Nature’s God”. But the “above” (into which Jefferson believed he and his friends and family would die) and the “below” of heavens and hells were inherently unknowable “terra incognita” to the limited mind of man. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were to be pursued in this natural world – though the interpretations of these “ideals” would vary greatly from the noble humanitarianism of Monticello to the scarcely-concealed hedonism of Hollywood. Man to Jefferson was a noble, reasonable creature; but, as he wrote in 1801in a private letter while US President: The laws of nature have withheld from us knowledge of the country of spirits, and left us in the dark as it were.

Rudolf Steiner (1905)
Rudolf Steiner (1905)

When the Baconian, nominalist and lay-scientist Jefferson wrote these words, Goethe – as the Goethe scholar RS later would emphasize, also in his “anthroposophical period”, till the end of his life – Goethe was laboriously seeking a way for man by inner enhancement to discover a new, deeper relation and/or reunion of man and the “laws of nature”; Seraphim of Sarov was in the early part of what would be a thirty-year withdrawal into seclusion from society, seeking a renewed, redeemed human existence and relationship to the “country of spirits”. Whereas for Jefferson, the spiritual worlds were a sort of distant possibility, or mystery (“heaven” he hoped to exist, “hell” he tended to view as an unfortunate, troubling necessity for civil order and human justice), for both RS and Seraphim of Sarov (and the religious-mystical tradition he is an excellent “modern” example of), the greater spiritual cosmos was a fundamental element of their lives, world-views and cosmologies. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite was not some deranged or devious writer, but a cosmographer of worlds both Steiner and Seraphim claimed in each of their differing ways to know.

Many essential and engaging aspects of the differing historical, biographical, epistemological, psychological, et al views of Thomas Jefferson, Rudolf Steiner and Seraphim of Sarov can not even be touched on the such a brief space; but a crucial difference between the focal religious “anthropology of the heart” with Seraphim and the more philosophical “anthropology of the mind” (nous, Vernunft) of Steiner, are strikingly reminiscent of the earlier contrast and debate concerning the essential center and core of man as either the heart or the head – both of which make far greater claims to man’s being made in the “Image of God”, than Jefferson’s “anthropology of reason” (and conscience) as the greatest gift to man by his creator. The Biblical, Pseudo-Macarian anthropology of the heart in contrast to the Iranian-Platonic-Neo-Platonic-Origen-Evagrian location of the core of man inside the skull. These two deep but differing views of man find recent presence in the cardial anthropology of Hesychasm – with its claim to tradition, orthodoxy, orthopraxis, spiritual visions and guidance, etc., – and the noetic anthropology of Steiner, responding as he did to Kant and Darwin, with Goethean exegesis and a revived sort of Platonic heirarchy of knowledge leading to what he called Geisteswissenschaft (a scientific knowledge of spirit). The path of the heart – of the nous-prayer which historically became “Jesus Prayer”, also known as the “Prayer of the Heart”, withdrawal, asceticism, visionary experience and even transfiguration in Seraphim – where one brings the intellect down into the heart, contrasted to the epistemological struggle and noetic self-realization as the basis for spiritual vision in Rudolf Steiner, where the heart is brought up into the head. Interesting comparisons can be made of their contrasting methods of achieving spiritual gnosis and being, in spite of the fact that the affective cardial path might condemn the intellectualist-noetic as being lost in the mind, and the noetic critique the cardial path as leading to vague mysticism. (Cf. RS, The Course of My Life, Chapter XI) But while one could fruitfully compare the Hesychast-Russian Orthodox and “Anthroposophical” views of the spiritual hierarchies and the Trinity; Christology and Man; the First and Second Adams; Free Will, Grace and the Holy Spirit; their views of evil, transfiguration and apocatastasis, here I shall only document their contrasting anthropologies of, on the one hand: man standing in a creative world of ideas, and Seraphim’s man standing as a “child of God” in the heart’s powerful vision of the divine light.

Steiner’s anthropology – in this aspect – can be found in his work entitle, in English, Theosophy: An Introduction to the Supersensible Knowledge of the World and the Destination of Man (1904), from which I shall select a few extracts:

“In the first region of Spiritland, man is surrounded by the spiritual archetypes of earthly things. During life on earth he learns to know only the shadows of these archetypes which he grasps in his thoughts. What is merely thought on the earth, is in this region [of the spiritual worlds] experienced, lived. Man moves among thoughts; but these thoughts are real beings. [Such idea can be seen as early in Zoroastrianism, in the system of Origen, and others.]
“Anyone disdaining the application of strenous intellectual exertion in the effort to attain higher knowledge, and preferring to turn to other forces for that end, fails to take into account that thinking is the highest of the faculties possessed by man in the world of the senses.”

Steiner’s noetic anthropology here – which concerns of course Vernunft not Verstand, Разум not Рассудок, nous poeticus not nous patheticus, Reason not Understanding – and in this it distinguishes from Thomas Jefferson (and Kant and Darwin), must be viewed in relation to the kindred views of man which can be found in and since the Indo-Europeans, and surfacing again and again in Western spiritual intellectual history (anthropography).

The Russian Orthodox, religious-Christian view of Man made in the Image of God – especially derived or related to the old Hebraic-Biblical and Near Eastern idea of heart (more or less mythically, mystically, or exactly conceived) – could also call forth a host of citations. I shall read a few to document my argument, culminating in a quote by Seraphim of Sarov. Quot:

“The West has often associated the Image of God with man’s intellect. While many Orthodox have done the same, others would say that since man is a single unified whole, the image of God embraces the entire person, body as well as soul.”

This quote is from Timothy Ware’s popular The Orthodox Church; it, by the way, reveals a common modern unclarity as to the idea of man as “body and soul”, and the actual traditiona, ancient tripartite body, soul and spirit, e.g. sarx, psyche, pneuma; corpus, anima, spiritus; et al.

In regards to Hesychasm, Ware appropriately with the Origenist-Evagrian conception, the “Intellectualist” view – cites the fundamental Pseudo-Macarian Homilies which

“…revert to a more Biblical idea of man – not a soul imprisoned in a body (as in Greek thought), but a single and unified whole, soul and body together. Where Evagrius speaks of mind, Macarius uses the Hebraic idea of the heart. The change of emphasis is significant, for the heart includes the whole man – not only intellect, but will, emotions, and even body. Using ‘heart’ in the Macarian sense, Orthodox often talk about “Prayer of the Heart”. What does this phrase mean? When a man begins to pray, at first he prays with his lips, and has to make a conscious intellectual effort in order to realize the meaning of what he says. But if he perseveres, praying continually with recollection, his intellect and his heart become united: he “finds the place of the heart”, and so his prayer becomes “prayer of the heart”. It becomes something not merely said by the lips, not merely thought by the intellect, but offered spontaneously by the whole being of man – lips, intellect, emotions, will, and body.”
Saint Seraphim of Sarov. Lifetime portrait (1833)
Saint Seraphim of Sarov. Lifetime portrait (1833)

To bring in St. Seraphim – and thus to include the idea of Transfiguration which he reported to have revealed at times in his life, in written fragments by Seraphim we read:

“In order to receive and feel Christ’s light in the heart, one must withdraw possible from all visible things. When the soul, with inner faith in the Crucified, has purified itself by repentance and good works, one must close the eyes of the body, make the understanding descend into the heart, and calling unceasingly upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, according to the measure of his zeal and fervor towards the Beloved, finds in the invocation of the name consolation and sweetness, and this arouses in him the desire to seek higher illumination”. (p. 77,The Jesus Prayer)


Bringing the head to the heart (Seraphim, Hesychasm), or the heart to the head (Steiner) – of these in any higher sense were excluded by Thomas Jefferson. (His «Dialogue of the Head and the Heart» to Maria Cosway should be considered here.)

Summarizing, Thomas Jefferson, Rudolf Steiner, Seraphim of Sarov all required the greater, spiritual cosmos for their understanding of man’s life on earth. Thomas Jefferson’s view was closest to most of our own experiential conditions and positions – even if not our intellectually-held or feelingly-known world-views. Man can live in and know the natural world and himself therein. Contrariwise, for both the Orthodox Hesychast tradition and modern anthroposophy, we are only visitors here in this world – which we secularly have forgotten or disbelieved – and our task here is not the pursuit of happiness, but of transfiguration, one via the heart, the other by the head. It seems to me, innocent though I be, that a combination of both be best, especially in our post-nationalist history. If Thomas Jefferson describes our spiritual plight, that we are blinded to the «country of spirits», the greater, spiritual cosmos; both Rudolf Steiner and Seraphim reveal a greater identity to man by way of which he may become a citizen there again.

Paper delivered at Second International Conference on Philosophy and Culture, 10-15 August 1995, St. Petersburg.