Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Pythagoras, Ben Franklin, and American Independence

I like philosophy. In my room I have a comfortable chair with a dim lamp, and in the wee hours of this morning I sat there reading A History of Western Philosophy, by Bertand Russell. The chapter dealt with Pythagoras, so I was surprised to come upon a section that discussed the U.S. Declaration of Independence!

The second paragraph of America's Declaration of Independence reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, author Walter Isaacson tells the story of how the term self-evident came to be in the Declaration of Independence...

On June 21, after he had finished a draft and incorporated some changes from Adams, Jefferson had a copy delivered to Franklin, with a cover note far more polite than editors generally receive today. "Will Doctor Franklin be so good as to peruse it," he wrote, "and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate?"

Franklin made only a few small changes, but one of them was resounding. Using heavy backslashes, he crossed out the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" and changed it to read: "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

The concept of "self-evident" truths came less from Jefferson’s favored philosopher, Locke, than from the scientific determinism of Isaac Newton and the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. Hume had distinguished between "synthetic" truths that describe matters of fact (such as "London is bigger than Philadelphia" ) and "analytic" truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition. ( "The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees" or "All bachelors are unmarried." ) When he chose the word "sacred," Jefferson had suggested intentionally or unintentionally that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. By changing it to "self-evident," Franklin made it an assertion of rationality. (emphasis added)

Where did Franklin's wording come from? Sheila O'Malley thinks the change makes the document angrier in tone. Another author suggests something similar - that Jefferson's words weren't strong enough. After all, people can deny anything – and frequently do. Maybe that was part of Franklin's goal. Rabbi Marc Gellman seems to think the change was intended to make America more secular - and perhaps too scientific (in his view).

The term "self-evident" is a philosophical one that has greatly impacted mathematics, as well. And while Franklin may have taken it from Hume and/or Newton, the truth is that the idea dates all the way back to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (who actually lived in Italy, by the way). Most of the self-evident truths that Pythagoras and his students espoused were mathematical (or geometric, if you want to separate out geometry as a field unto itself). And math and philosophy became intertwined from Pythagoras onward in history because the great truths of math could be contemplated in the privacy of your basement - without reference to observation of the world. Bertrand Russell, a mathematician (among many other things), calls the tangling of ways between math and philosophy "unfortunate" in his history...

In epistemology (the theory of knowledge, of how we know things), a self-evident proposition is one that is known to be true by understanding its meaning without proof. Rene Descartes (I think, therefore I am) introduced (or re-introduced) the importance of things that were self-evident. John Locke, Jefferson's favorite philosopher, worked to expand the list of things that were self-evident and explain how they pushed us toward conclusions about reality. But the idea of self-evident truths seems to have been first put forth by Pythagoras, expanded greatly by Euclid in his 13 volume math and geometry text book, Elements, and in Bertrand view, brought firmly and finally into philosophy by Plato.

meAs the fathers of America worked on the Declaration of Independence it was, after all, the Age of Enlightenment. So when Jefferson "slipped up" and fell back on religion by using the word "sacred" to explain why we should be free, Franklin corrected him. Franklin himself made at least 48 alterations to Jefferson's draft, but this one probably impacted the world the most. If Jefferson's "sacred" had been left in, the Arabs of Iraq and the Hindus of India could have looked at Democracy (at least in light of our Declaration of Independence) and said, "Ha, Christians! What do they know?" As a result of Franklin's change, the idea became rational (and secular) instead of being based on revelation from God.

Jefferson produced a second draft incorporating the changes, and it was presented to the Continental Congress on June 28, 1776. The vote for independence took place on July 2, 1776. A final draft of the document was approved on July 4. On both votes the delegation from New York abstained. On July 6, the Pennsylvania Evening Post published the Declaration of Independence for its readers. The new document was read in public in Philadelphia on the night of July 8 at bonfires around the city. The official signing on the parchment copy wasn't until August 2, 1776.

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