The statue of John Witherspoon, outside East Pyne.
Brett Tomlinson/PAW

President Eisgruber ’83’s focus on Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, as well as the entire tenor of his inaugural address and early administration, taps into Princeton’s rich history in moral philosophy. For generations moral philosophy, which emphasized self-discipline and self-control as key to a successful life, was at the core of the Princeton curriculum. Students learned these lessons and then applied them in various ways, such as the creation of the Constitution.  Princeton should make this history available and put it on display. Just as Independence Hall is a monument to America’s founding, so Nassau Hall should be a monument to the education behind that founding. That education informs our understanding of Princeton’s role in American history and offers guidance for today.

The statue of John Witherspoon, outside East Pyne.
The statue of John Witherspoon, outside East Pyne.
Brett Tomlinson/PAW


Moral philosophy is now relegated to an introductory offering in the philosophy department, “Introduction to Moral Philosophy.” It also is tucked into a variety of courses under the purview of the University Center for Human Values. Yet moral philosophy used to be the capstone course in a Princeton education.  It was taught by Princeton presidents such as John Witherspoon, Samuel Stanhope Smith, and, a hundred years later, by James McCosh.

Moral philosophy taught that human nature consisted of certain “faculties” ranging from reason and a moral conscience at the top to emotional and instinctive impulses near the bottom. These impulses were labeled “passions” and included pride, greed, arrogance, and lust. The ideal individual subjugated these passions to reason and self-control. With self-discipline, a person could engage in self-construction to make, in President Eisgruber’s words,  “a human life worth living.” Without it, a person was subject to being overwhelmed by his passions leading to self-destruction, i.e., tragedy. The entire curriculum, including the classical learning of Greek and Latin, divinity, rhetoric, history, French, math, and natural philosophy, was to develop a balanced character, which enabled a long-term view beyond immediate self-interest and promoted individual fulfillment and the public good.

Influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, moral philosophy reconciled science with religion, which marched together for human progress. Moral philosophy taught the individual how to live a moral and successful life, keeping his passions in check and culminating in decisions for maintaining a community and building a nation. To be clear, by promoting reason and a moral sense, moral philosophy was teaching students to develop their divine attributes for controlling baser instincts. Natural philosophy (we call it science today) complemented moral philosophy by teaching natural law or how God thinks. 


Nassau Hall was the embodiment of this teaching. First, take location. Nassau Hall was built in Princeton precisely because Princeton’s rural location was far from urban temptations that would incite the passions. That is, Princeton satisfied the trustees’ desire for a location “more sequestered from the various temptations attending a promiscuous converse with the world, that theatre of folly and dissipation — and one nearer the center of the province.”    

Second, from the outset, a bust of Homer guarded the main entrance to Nassau Hall. Homer no doubt represented not only Greek but also Princeton’s entire curriculum, in the words of the college charter, to educate ``Youth in the Learned Languages and in the Liberal Arts and Sciences'' to prepare students for government as well as the ministry. Homer’s universal themes of heroism, justice, personal responsibility, and controlling one’s passions constituted essential lessons for life, regardless of one’s ultimate career. The goals of Enlightenment education and the goals of Christian living and preparation for the ministry happened to overlap. Princeton’s founders were well aware that the educated elite in Ancient Rome learned Homer, Greek, and Greek culture to help control passions and prevent both individual and national self-destruction. Both in imitation of Rome and to avoid the fate of the Roman Republic, early Princetonians learned the same. Their study of the classics taught how demagogues could inflame the passions of the people to lead them astray, such as going to unnecessary war. 

Third, consider David Rittenhouse’s orrery, which Princeton president John Witherspoon purchased and had installed in Nassau Hall in 1771. The orrery was a mechanical model of the solar system. It is now mounted in the lobby of Peyton Hall to the left of the main entrance.  In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the orrery was central to Princeton’s course in natural philosophy. It taught the rational order of natural law by showing the orderly motion of the planets around the sun. It demonstrated both the work of God in creating the universe and the balance in life that humans need to attain. 


Given his illustrious roster of students, including James Madison 1771, John Witherspoon is regarded as one of the most influential teachers in all of American history. Given his role as father of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Madison is regarded as the most influential Princetonian ever. So the question naturally arises: What did Madison learn from Witherspoon that made its way into the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, and Madison’s actions as congressman, secretary of state, and president? Conventional wisdom is that Witherspoon introduced Madison to the works of David Hume, where Madison picked up the idea of an extended republic with multiple factions to prevent any one faction from oppressing the rest. This may be correct. For example, notice the striking similarity between Hume in “The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth”(1742-54) and Madison in The Federalist Papers No. 55 (1788): 

Hume: “Cardinal de Retz says, that all numerous assemblies, however composed, are mere mob, and swayed in their debates by the least motive.” 

Madison: “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” 

Madison’s language suggests, however, that Madison received from Witherspoon something even larger yet less visible than the works of David Hume, namely, a unified vision of human nature where the balanced character to be promoted in the individual is directly tied to the balanced government to be promoted in the state. Just like a balanced individual would want a balanced government as the surest way to protect his own freedom, a balanced government would want balanced individuals as the surest way to maintain its own stability. So each entity – whether individual or government – has an interest in keeping passions within bounds set by reason and a moral conscience. This is likely the lesson Madison learned from Witherspoon’s lectures on moral philosophy. We see this lesson applied everywhere throughout the Constitution, e.g., checks and balances, separation of powers, Senate veto over the House, presidential veto over Congress, the implied power of judicial review over everyone, indirect election of senators by state legislatures (changed to direct election by the 17th amendment), and indirect election of the president by the Electoral College. We see it also in the Bill of Rights, which is to prevent the trial and conviction of another Socrates, a prophet, or even Jesus himself.

Moral philosophy also played a role in the capital’s permanent location. The received view is that Jefferson had a dinner for Hamilton and Madison, who agreed to Hamilton’s financial program in exchange for a more southern location for the federal government. The truth is probably a little more complicated. The capital was moved from the urban financial centers of New York and Philadelphia to the rural wilderness along the Potomac precisely to insulate the government from the corrupting influence of money. The concern was that money and urban luxuries could seduce federal officials from exercising wise and moral judgment. Hence, the logic that put the capital in a remote but centrally located agrarian area on the Potomac – to protect reason and conscience from urban corruption and passions – drew from the same logic that moved the colonial College of New Jersey (as Princeton then was called) from Elizabeth and Newark to the remote but centrally located rural village of Princeton. 


The foregoing may be of interest to some, but otherwise seem obsolete and even quaint. After all, Homer no longer guards the entrance to Nassau Hall, the Rittenhouse Orrery is no longer the centerpiece of Princeton’s scientific apparatus, and the modern municipality of Princeton is hardly a remote country village. Moreover, an overriding curricular focus on moral philosophy appears outdated in an increasingly secularized society where the top priority is the bottom line.

But if this is the case, then Princeton has lost its way, and some would argue its soul as well. Yet whatever inspiration prompted presidents Witherspoon and McCosh to teach moral philosophy still appears in the thought of Princeton Presidents today. Consider the following remarks by Princeton’s 16th president, Robert F. Goheen ’40 *48, a classics scholar, at his inauguration in 1957: 

“Liberal education is not a luxury item which a free society can well afford to surrender, or even much dilute. Liberal education is, in the most essential way, education for use – never more critically so than in times such as ours. The complexities of modern life put great pressures on individuals to abrogate responsibility. Too often the way out, when faced with private or public dilemmas, seems to be to surrender to instinct and unfettered emotion.” 

And consider these recent comments by President Eisgruber at his inauguration: “Notions of the common good and promises of future returns feel abstract and feeble by comparison to the intensity of immediate experience. This short-term perspective threatens America’s colleges and universities.”

From the point of view of moral philosophy, this short-term perspective threatens the freedom of the individual and American society as well.


Let’s return to the beginning of this discussion and go back to Nassau Hall, which is both the embodiment and symbol of all that is best in Princeton over the centuries. As it turns out, the old song is true. Nassau Hall, “the best old place of all,” does offer freedom “from all this earthly ball” for the Princeton student to grow capacities for reason and a moral conscience both to curb individual passions and lead society itself away from the herd mentality that can take it so readily and energetically over a cliff. Princeton needs to do more to showcase this history at Nassau Hall as it relates to both America’s founding and the great issues before us today. The central struggle of self-construction v. self-destruction, which plays out in so many different arenas and recesses of the life of the mind, the individual and society, and forms so much of Greek literature and for that matter the scriptures of all religions, is classical precisely because it is never-ending. By reconstructing how their instruction in moral philosophy helped Princetonians manage this struggle, not only in creating the Constitution but also in other endeavors such as public education, the treatment of mental illness, temperance, the formation of a 12-step program for managing addictions, and issues of slavery, Indian removal, women’s suffrage, and religion, not to mention finance and banking and scientific discovery, Princeton can use its past to enlighten the present and help preserve and protect the future.

In a few months Wayne S. Moss ’74 will finish his psychiatry residency at the University of Florida, having graduated from the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine in 2010. Previously he was a Maine assistant attorney general. The genesis of this article was the Program in American Civilization, which Moss took with classmates Bob Noto ’74 and Jeff Wolcowitz ’74. He dedicates this article to them as their 40th reunion approaches.

For a discussion of moral philosophy, faculty psychology, John Witherspoon, James Madison, and the Founding Fathers, see Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press 2009), especially pp. 5-17, 48-103. For a concise description of moral philosophy and its role in American education, see Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press 2007), pp. 450, 459-69, especially pp. 463-65. For the removal of the national capital from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., see Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press 2009), pp. 289-93. For the relationship between early Princeton and the early American republic, see Mark Noll, Princeton and the American Republic, 1768-1822: The Search for a Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith (Regent College Publishing 2004, originally published by Princeton University Press 1989).