In Engl 170-01 yesterday, we looked at Thomas Jefferson's letter to Isaac McPherson regarding the "peculiar character" of ideas. Unlike physical property, an idea can be transferred from one person to another, claims Jefferson, without being lost by its originator: "no one possesses [it] the less, because every other possesses the whole of it." This — an economist would say — "nonrival" character of ideas is fortunate, Jefferson suggests, because it permits ideas to "freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition."

Lawrence Lessig and other advocates of "free culture" similarly see the free (as in speech, not as in beer) circulation of culture as essential to humanity's forward progress. They emphasize how the stuff of culture is continually remixed to make new culture. As we move ahead in our class to Lewis Carroll's Alice books, we're beginning to ask how these books remix bits and pieces of the culture Carroll knew.

Before we leave Jefferson behind, though, we should note a bit of subtle remixing that he introduces directly into his explanation of why ideas must circulate freely. In the quotation below, note the words I've flagged in boldface:

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Compare these words from the King James version of the Bible, Acts 17.28:

For in him we live, and move, and have our being.

Jefferson hasn't exactly quoted, hasn't exactly alluded to, but has certainly made very intentional use of this characterization of the deity.

What do you think he hopes to accomplish by doing so?

1 Comment

  1. Unknown User (mrb21)

    From what I understand of Christian history, Acts (of the Apostles) is the book of the New Testament that details the actions of the apostles going forth and spreading The Word after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps what is more important than the quote is where in the Bible it comes from - Acts is all about the free spread of ideas about Jesus Christ for the moral instruction of man, and the improvement of his condition.

    That particular passage comes as Paul is in Athens, a very democratic and philosophical part of Greece, preaching to the Athenians about their worship of idols and telling them about his God, which he proclaims to be the one they worship when they make sacrifices to the altar "To an Unknown God". He is spreading his ideas with the hopes of improving the moral and spiritual lives of the Athenians and is speaking freely, spreading ideas that were not even written down yet.

    Perhaps Jefferson, in referencing this particular story and book of the Bible, is referencing a time when great ideas could be spread free of copyright and that this is not always to the detriment of the idea - certainly the Bible spread far and wide even without copyright laws protecting its ideas or stories. Maybe Jefferson is simply trying to show a specific instance where ideas were able to spread freely across the globe, and indicate in doing so that maybe copyrights aren't such a necessary thing after all.

    Just a thought. (smile)