Jonathan Edwards’s Achievements – Part One

If Roger Williams framed the parameters of our cultural conundrum concerning religious and intellectual freedom, Jonathan Edwards posed one of the central problems confronting our civilization: the conflict between egalitarian public welfare and utilitarian commercial expansion. It should not surprise us that this conflict, couched in terms of Christian morality, signaled a rift in both the clergy and the wider society. Essentially a problem of understanding the nature of freedom, the bitter quarrel that emerged in the Connecticut Valley in the early decades of the eighteenth century sparked and framed a broad array of social, political and cultural challenges that would have profound implications for the emerging nation.

Jonathan Edwards stands at the very heart of this dramatic watershed in the evolution of American culture.

In the American tradition, Edwards is the most formidable defiance yet leveled against the liberal spirit, against the cult of progress that starts with a denial of man’s kinship with nature and claims to elevate him above the workings of cause and effect.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) accomplished something in his short life that, had it been widely recognized, would likely have changed the course upon which America was already embarking. As it turned out, Edwards’ achievement did in fact change the course of history, though not in a way that he likely would have approved. Edwards succeeded in merging or reconciling the external world of necessary and sufficient causality and the internal world of the human psyche or soul. Edwards called the former the “objective good” and the latter the “inherent good.” The two orders, “of the objective and the subjective, of the mechanical and the conscious,” were incompatible.

The one, we find, forced us back to Newton and natural law, the other to Locke and perception. …it appears that Edwards saw exactly where the modern problem is centered, upon this incompatibility of Newton and Locke, of the objective and the subjective, of the mechanical and the conscious. The effort of his life was to unite the two.

Kant made a similar distinction between a physical realm of events described exclusively in terms of causal determinism (in which neither evil nor freedom can exist) and an intellectual realm of ideas in which freedom does exist in the form of acting morally, that is, in accord with the moral law. It would never have occurred to Kant that the two realms needed to be united, since he believed they were already one.

And therein lies the distinction of Edwards’ profound achievement. From his reading of Locke, Edwards saw that man does not perceive the object as it is in itself but only his idea of the object. To resort to an example Miller gives, “pain is not in the needle,” but resides within us in human sensation.

Edwards’ second insight was his realization that desire and will are one and the same, the source of one’s inclination or disposition to act; it is the determinant of motivation. “ . . . the emotions are one and the same with whatever is meant by the will:”

“all acts of the affections of the soul are in some sense acts of the will, and all acts of the will are acts of the affections.”

How one is inclined to act is mediated by a sense of beauty that Edwards called the “sense of the heart.” “It is,” Miller writes of Edwards’ cousin Ephraim,

“an inclination or want of one (Ephraim had no inclination to treat the Indians fairly).”

What Edwards had discovered was a new way to define the content of man’s tendency to act: “The affections are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exertions of the inclination and will of the soul.” By uniting human understanding and will, Edwards “came in the end to declare the supremacy of passion.”

Puritanism had always recognized a distinction between what it called “speculative” religion and living religion. . . . Edwards concluded that as a man perceives, so is he—and that as he will perceive, so he is predestined to be! If he perceives in a cold, dull, lifeless frame, the coldness is not in the inert object, but is his own. “He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it.” To see is to have a sense; to have a sense is to have an inclination; and as a man inclines, he wills.

Edwards’ liberal opponents like Chauncy and Taylor relied on the old scholastic model of the mental “faculties” which held that the will must wait on reason’s decision before it can act. Nonsense, Edwards in effect said:

“A man’s act is not the result of a meshing of gears, but the expression—the “image” he was later to say—of the whole man. . . .”

Or, as Miller puts the point: “Man lives on the plane both of the objective good and of the inherent, not because he is both body and soul, but because he is one being, and the law of his life is that he must perceive things, yet as he perceives them, so they are and so he is.”          

What began as an argument about “a work of God” in the Great Awakening was transformed into “contention about the nature of man.” But how to explain scientifically and to distinguish authentic emotions—namely, those governed by a disinterested apprehension of the spiritual reality inherent in the beauty of all things through the “sense of the heart”—from counterfeit emotions that are mere “mechanical reflexes, one in kind with collision among stones,” or from “affections” that are nothing more “than the juices of the glands.”


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