I was reading a little today in Hugh Brogan's The Penguin History of the USA. I remembered that there was something about July 2 rather than July 4. The acts of independence were signed on the 2nd. It was the Declaration of Independence, mostly written by Jefferson, that was adopted on July 4th, with some edits (for example, they took out Jefferson's condemnation of slave trade to appease South Carolina and Georgia). I guess it always irked John Adams that July 4th ended up the holiday ;-)
I was thinking about the famous preamble: "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." Brogan argues that it is the preamble that made the Declaration stand out and endure as a document of interest. "Had the Declaration been no more than an opportune and eloquent political manifesto its blemishes, and its occasional character, would have ensured that it was long ago forgotten: it would have diminished beside the enormous fact which it asserted, the independence of America" (175). Brogan argues that it was the preamble that made it inspire and endure as a document of interest.
It is indeed a great preamble. We can of course examine it. But the inspiration for this post was not to critique the preamble. It was to point out why we could critique it--or any great thinker from the past.
Someone might say, "Who are you to question Thomas Jefferson?" (here meaning anyone, not me in particular). Someone might say, "Do you think you're as smart as Thomas Jefferson?" The answer does not have to be yes for us to critique them.
Even if I am an average thinker, there have been many minds as brilliant as Jefferson since (or since any great thinker). I doubt I come anywhere close to being as smart as Immanuel Kant or Thomas Aquinas or Augustine. But there have been countless "thoughts" by intelligent men and women that rival theirs.
It is because we today stand on the shoulders of all the thinkers that have gone before us that it becomes possible for us to critique them. If I critique the brilliant of the past well at any point, I do so because the history of thought did not stop with them...