JONATHAN EDWARDS-Part III: THE SENSE OF BEAUTY

For Edwards, “the emotions are one and the same with whatever is meant by the will.” This is something that Edwards’ enemies could not understand.

…[T]o the Davenports, emotions are irresistible seizures, like love in popular balladry, and man is their victim; to the Chauncys, emotion is something to be measured out in judicious quantities upon suitable occasions, and at other times stored in the refrigerator.

Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards

For Edwards, this sense of beauty depends on its being perceived as part of “a system of coherence.” Like every act, “either faith or lust,” the apprehension of beauty is not an instrument of cause and effect. True beauty is not an exact or photographic reproduction of the external world. “The difference is fundamental.” Faith is not instrumental and God does not wait upon man. The Puritan founders had confused this point: by smuggling Arminian free will into their notion of the covenant, they had in effect mistakenly made faith instrumental and a causal condition of salvation. Because fledgling America was committed to all of these notions, Miller concludes, “…the nature of things must in fact be opposed to the appearances of American society.”

The supreme test, then, is a sense of the beauty of the universe, and because this is a sense and not an imagination, it is a sense of reality.

Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards

…The sense of the heart enables the sight; without the sight, the universe remains the same universe, but “unless this is seen, nothing is seen that is worth the seeing; for there is no other true excellency or beauty.” If this is not understood—Edwards was here at his most defiant—nothing is understood that deserves to be understood.

“Perception was the way a man conducts himself in the face of reality. It was the irreversible sentence of judgment.”

From the way Edwards describes this perception of beauty, Miller reflects, “everybody would seem to be capable of it—except that not everybody is.” The question that arises—Why not?—goes to the heart of Edwards, of America, and of Protestantism.

The perception of beauty involves recognition of a system of order, like the way individual notes and chords relate to a melodic structure, exhibiting a natural “consent” of one thing to another. “The more the Consent is, and the more extensive,” Edwards wrote, “the greater is the Excellency.” The human mind takes a disinterested pleasure in such things, a pleasure which has nothing to do with utilitarian gains or instrumental manipulations. “Nature requires grace, not as a supernatural invasion or correction, but as an aesthetic fulfillment.” Such perception leads ultimately to an acknowledgment of the beauty of the world, an acceptance of the perfection or sufficiency of the universe as it is. This realization, however, does not deny the existence of evil or preclude the possibility of supererogatory acts and moral goodness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.