Russell Brunelle (russellb) wrote,
Russell Brunelle
russellb

Thoughts on Thomas Jefferson's "Counsel to a Namesake"

In 1825, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a newborn boy named "Thomas Jefferson Smith," at the request of the boy's father. In this letter, Mr. Jefferson laid out his ten axioms for practical living. They're listed below, with my own thoughts in brackets on how changes in our society, and consequences of advances in technology, may have since affected each:


  1. Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day. [Still sound, with the caveat that in the modern era you need to be even more careful to refuse activities which shouldn't be done by you at all, given that closer living (both physically and in terms of the reach of electronic communications) means it's easier for people to ask you to do things in their own violation of the very next of Mr. Jefferson's rules...]
  2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself. [It's easier to learn to use the internet than it is to learn to ride a horse and then take care of that horse on an ongoing basis. In the modern era, when you ask for help you're often not only putting an unreasonable request on someone else but even acting against your own best interests: after all, the gap between the amount of time it takes to ask someone else to do something for you once, and the amount of time it would take you to learn to do that same thing on your own, is steadily diminishing to nothing.]
  3. Never spend your money before you have it. [Given the easy availability of credit, this is even more important now than it was in Mr. Jefferson's era. Note carefully how the current financial crisis is bottomed on "liquidity," in other words not in terms of any present harm to your actual financial interests, but rather harm to your ability to go even further into debt. This raises a good question: does hindering your ability to hurt yourself really count as hurting you?]
  4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. [The reason I know most of the things we purchase are garbage is that they generally end up in the garbage. Why not save yourself a step?]
  5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold. [Interesting... I would argue that the equalizing effect of the internet, i.e. giving everyone access to the same pool of information and the ability to comment on that same information, makes it even less necessary than before to obsess on being given proper credit for whatever you've done. This is in addition to the fact that if you've achieved something once, your time might be better spent on a second achievement than defending how you were credited for the first achievement.]
  6. We never repent of having eaten too little. [Of course not, but then this puts the cart before the horse given that in Mr. Jefferson's era some level of physical strain was woven into the fabric of everyday life: in the modern era, this would be better stated as "We never repent of having exercised."]
  7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly. [Granted, with the caveat that you can also "willingly" refuse to do something, which saves you from doing that thing at all. In Mr. Jefferson's era, I should note, gentlemen didn't call each other because "Solitaire" on their Windows installation wasn't working LOL :)]
  8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened. [Granted, but given that this is probably a core aspect of inherited personality, what can you do? If it's in your nature to worry, I doubt there's any piece of advice from ancient times to the New Age which will stop you. What you can do is choose a profession where this hard-wired tendency is an asset, where the fruits of your worry benefit society.]
  9. Take things always by their smooth handle. [Even more important now, given the explosion of options.]
  10. When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred. [I disagree, on the basis of the differences between society now and society in Mr. Jefferson's era. In Mr. Jefferson's era, one's life was tied to land, and one's neighbors. One's neighbors might aggravate you, but there was also a down side to provoking conflict, since they had to live next to you. Now, in modern cities where the people you interact with are unlikely to live in close proximity, people who choose to be aggravating or predatory don't lose much even in the worst-case scenario by doing so, and as a result I think it's fair to unleash on them much earlier: after all, it isn't as if their calculus that "there are millions of other people I could prey on" doesn't apply to you in the sense that there are millions of other people you could instead associate with.]
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