Was Jefferson a Pessimist?

This is the contention of Maurizio Valsania in his new book The Limits of Optimism. Anyone familiar with Jefferson would probably find this a dubious claim, including myself. It is an interesting thesis, but after careful examination of Valsania’s argument M. Andrew Holowchak, an expert on Jefferson, concludes: “Valsania’s Jefferson is a figure unrecognizable to one amply acquainted with Jefferson’s writings.”

Valsania’s thesis may be a dud, but Holowchak’s considered review of the book is worthwhile if you’re at all interested in Jefferson: History News Network | Review of Maurizio Valsania’s “The Limits of Optimism: Thomas Jefferson’s Dualistic Enlightenment (Jeffersonian America)”

Here is an excerpt from the review: “Valsania’s imprecise usage of language throughout the book lends itself to vagueness, or at least, ambiguity. Many times he seems to sanction a strong thesis—namely, every Jeffersonian utterance of optimism betrays plainly an equal (or nearly so) amount of pessimism. At other times, he seems to countenance a weak thesis—namely, utterances of optimism often (or sometimes) betrays plainly an equal (or nearly so) amount of pessimism. Valsania never unequivocally settles on one thesis or the other throughout the book—everything rides on him doing so—therefore, at day’s end, chary readers are confounded.”

The limits of optimism

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