Self-Evident Truths: The Radical Declaration

I teach this class called Theory of Knowledge, kind of a philosophy-lite, discussion-oriented class to get the IB seniors to think about how they have acquired knowledge over their years of school. We’re in a unit on math, kind of just starting out, so the other day we were talking about how mathematical knowledge is achieved. Of course, we started out talking about axioms and theorems, proof vs. conjecture, and in the process of having this discussion, I realized something startling. Math, like logic, is built on the construction of deductive arguments, that is, arguments in which a series of self-evident premises are laid out, and proved. The most classic one of these is:
1) All men are mortal
2) Socrates is a man
3) Socrates is mortal
The idea behind achieving mathematical proof is to construct a deductive argument which is lock-tight, where there’s no room for ambiguity. And the way to do this is to design premises which are lock-tight.
Now the interesting thing to me is this phrase “self-evident.” Seems I can’t hear this phrase without thinking of Mr. Thomas Jefferson and that sentence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Now, Jefferson was a student of the Greeks, of logic, and deductive arguments. In re-examining these ideas the other day in class, it occurred to me for the first time that Jefferson’s word choice may not have been an accident. That is, he chose the phrase “self-evident truths” deliberately, putting the “all men are created equal” idea right up there with the other self-evident truths of the physical universe, the natural world, if you want to call it that. Things like gravity, etc.
That’s a radical notion, if you ask me. We have a tendency to consider the laws of the natural world more certain, more immutable than other things out there. So Jefferson was really putting it out there to claim that the equality of all men was as immutable, as built into the foundation of the world, as the other physical laws. In the context of the British empire, where the King was certainly on a higher plane than his subjects, or all colonies, for that matter, this was a radical idea. And so I don’t think it’s an accident that Jefferson uses this phrase to push forward his argument for independence. If he belongs to a school of thinking that says, “God created all men equal,” and the Brits are saying, “You are less than us,” there has to be revolution. These two governmental visions are mutually exclusive.
Now, of course, this is setting aside, the issue some people have with slavery persisting in the colonies despite Jefferson’s words. I’ve personally wrestled with this idea for awhile now. I’m not sure I’ve completely come to a satisfactory place, but I know we can’t simply dismiss Jefferson’s words by calling him a hypocrite. That would be foolish and short-sighted.
Anyway, just a thought about the Declaration. Did they know they’d change the world?

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