The United States of Amnesia

21st century citizen

Do you belong in this day and age? Do you feel comfortable being a citizen of the 21st-century? If you do, explain why—and if you don’t, when in human history would you rather be?

What if it could be shown that . . .

…an eighteenth-century literary artist reconciled psychology and physics, solving the problem of evil?

His name was Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and he was—maybe still is—America’s foremost philosopher, theologian, educator, and literary artist. Edwards devised a powerful linguistic innovation he called “naked ideas,” a bare rhetorical style stripped of all metaphor, ambiguity, and confusion harnessed to a powerful emotion which won him renown throughout New England and the world for such sermons as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” When the Great Awakening of 1740-1743 “became a frenzy and a social upheaval,” the liberal clergy and the merchants Edwards antagonized for their avarice and moral corruption turned on him, expelling him from the Northampton community he had served for 23 years. The hypocritical “liberals” among the clergy and merchants had replaced the basic tenets of their religious faith with a covenant or contract whereby “man could extort salvation from God,” still insisting they were good Calvinists. The reaction against Puritanism only intensified over time and Edwards was its victim. For nearly two hundred years, Edwards’s achievement in harmonizing the inherent good of moral consciousness (psychology) and the objective good of natural necessity (physics) remained buried with him.

In 1949 Puritan scholar and preeminent historian of American national identity, Perry Miller rescued Edwards’s life and accomplishment from the mudslide of historical amnesia in his monumental biography: Jonathan Edwards. Miller revealed (among other things) that Edwards had indeed reconciled moral and natural necessity by showing that man lives on the plane of both the inherent good of consciousness and the objective good of the external material world. Both kinds of good are governed by pleasure; but inherent good is distinguished by a passionate, disinterested, universal “sense of the heart” or an aesthetic awareness of systemic beauty and coherence, while the objective good is distinguished by utilitarian gain, or profit. This distinctive mark of man’s inherent good, which Edwards thought of as “excellency,” Miller calls “gracious consent.” Edwards’s further discovered that “an absolute and ineradicable evil” –self-love or egotism– is the result of one’s living only on the plane of the objective good.

A virtual allegory of America, Edwards’s story poses one of the central problems confronting our civilization: the conflict between egalitarian public welfare and utilitarian commercial expansion.

On the strength his biography of Edwards, and with the help of a grant from the Bollingen Foundation, Perry Miller spearheaded a massive project: that of issuing a new critical edition of all of the writings of Jonathan Edwards, edited with an introduction by individual scholars with Miller serving as general editor.

Miller died in 1963. Forty-three years later, the first twenty-six volumes of Edwards writings were published by Yale University. Works of Jonathan Edwards number more than seventy volumes and are freely available for researchers in digital format at the Edwards Center of Yale University. So: why did it take forty-three years to fulfill the project Perry Miller began? Most Americans have never heard of Miller. Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote that “The career of Perry Miller rebukes us all,” that Miller “had the best historical mind of his generation, perhaps of his century,” and that “at the level he worked, thought will not bear leading.” Most historians pay Miller lip service, but few have read or understood the true achievement Perry Miller’s work represents. And why has Miller’s claim that his narrative history The New England Mind: From Colony to Province represents “a sort of working model for American history” been ignored?

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