sympathetic emotion of virtue" and that fiction may also serve to "carry home to the heart every moral rule of life." In the same letter, Jefferson responds to Skipwith's request for a "List of Books for a Private Library." Volumes recommended by Jefferson include topics in fine arts, criticism, politics, trade, religion, law, modern and ancient history, natural philosophy and natural history. Following are excerpts from his letter written in 1771:
“I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original 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, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously...
Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. We are therefore wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life.”
Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, Monticello, Aug. 3, 1771.