15 March 2005

Better Than Good

It is good to point out that in his Philosophical Dictionary Voltaire once wrote, "The better is the enemy of the good"; it is better to note that he actually wrote, "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien."

Early in college, I wrote a paper deftly exploring various aspects of Voltaire's philosophical writings. Computer spell-checking then existed in that transitional state between uselessness and annoyance, and thus my mention that Voltaire was a deist was promptly corrected to indicate his true status as a dentist. Thankfully, I was attending Washington State University and not a more academically-rigorous program. That aside, it's fair to say that Voltaire a) was French; and b) is deceased. If noting these two facts about someone doesn't put a smile on your face, perhaps you should peruse the new book Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.

I hear you, though: "When it comes to our nation's founding fathers, save your pithy quotes, Voltaire Boy! Good isn't good enough . . . we want better!" Today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) highlights the work of several Princeton academics who are compiling and annotating the complete papers of Thomas Jefferson. Certainly, this is a project worth doing well, but perhaps not too well; it seems the project has become bogged-down in detail:
No-stone-unturned research and marathon editors' notes have added to the delay. In a four-line note on Feb. 24, 1800, for example, Jefferson asked one John Barnes to pay $14 to Jefferson's "washer-woman." But in the latest volume, No. 31, that prompted 81 lines of editors' notes identifying Barnes and the washer-woman; a mention of the comptroller of the currency and his role in Jefferson's financial affairs; a discourse on some of Jefferson's other financial transactions that month, and the sad admission that 10 more letters between Jefferson and Barnes, including their dates and where they were mailed, are lost.

Demonstrating once again that you can't spell "analysis" without "anal", completion of the project is anticipated to take 83 years, coincidentally enough the length of Jefferson's life. That aside, it's fair to say that Jefferson a) was once an ambassador to France; and b) is deceased.

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