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Thomas Jefferson: A Life

Randall, Willard Sterne | HarperCollins, 1994


pp. 154 - 155

Jefferson read everything. He was a ferocious learner, studying hours daily and also practicing his Amati violin. Here he is in a letter to Robert Skipwith of 1773, defending his program of general reading in a way that would have pleased Jonathan Edwards: “Everything is useful which contributes to fix in us the principles and practice of virtue. When any signal act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary, when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity and conceive an abhorrence of vice. Now, every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions. . . .Dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit . . .the exercise being of the moral feelings, produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously. We never reflect whether the story we read be truth or fiction.” (J goes on to cite Shakespeare, among others, as a champion of depicting vice (murder of Duncan by Macbeth) and virtue.