One year before he died, Thomas Jefferson was asked by a friend to give some life advice to his young boy.
Jefferson obliged, penning a letter in which he listed his top 10 rules for personal behavior. His rules—a “decalogue of canons for observation in practical life”—were inspired by lessons from his own life as well the lessons from Classical antiquity, and are vaguely reminiscent of Ben Franklin’s list of 13 Virtues, written a few years earlier.
Given Jefferson’s continued influence in today’s world, it’s perhaps unsurprising that his rules are as relevant today as they were in 1825. As it happens, the ingredients for a fulfilled life haven’t changed that much:
- Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day.
- Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
- Never spend your money before you have it.
- Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
- Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
- We never repent of having eaten too little.
- Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
- How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
- Take things always by their smooth handle.
- When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.
Jefferson’s 8th rule is an idea he originally voiced in a 1816 letter to John Adams, in which he articulates the uselessness of worrying about things that may not ever happen:
“You would ask if I would agree to live by 70—or rather 73—years over again? To which I say Yea. I think with you that it is a good world on the whole, and it has been framed on a principle of benevolence, and more pleasure than pain dealt out to us.
There are indeed (who might say Nay) gloomy and hypochondriac minds, inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, and despairing of the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may happen. To these I say: How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened?”
Like Franklin, Jefferson’s 10 rules point to a life of moderation, humility, and self-control. His rules are not highfalutin mandates for philosophers and presidents; rather, they are meant for an infant boy. They are achievable by anyone who acknowledges and internalizes their worth. In fact, Jefferson never considered himself to be above the average American. He once wrote: “I live so much like other people, that I might refer to ordinary life as the history of my own.” If he could master his own ten rules of life, then most people can.
What is the purpose of living the way Jefferson describes? Follow his axioms, and “so shall the life into which you have entered be the portal to one of eternal and ineffable bliss.”