U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Pop quiz: Edwards or Emerson?

(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of weekly guest posts by Rivka Maizlish. — Ben Alpers)

Can you tell which of these quotations belong to Calvinist crusader Jonathan Edwards, and which belong to Harvard heretic Ralph Waldo Emerson?

1) Nature can only be conceived as existing to a universal and not to a particular end; to a universe of ends, and not to one,–a work of ecstasy, to be represented by a circular movement, as intention might be signified by a straight line of definite length.

2) Virtue is an act of will, but an act of will follows and is determined by a perception, and the perception of virtue is love, love to the totality of being. The love of self can be extended indefinitely (just as the particle can be indefinitely subdivided), from the self to family, to town, to nation, and still not become the perception of love until the mind leaps from all specific loves to a love of being. Out of selfishness arises a disinterested benevolence that adores the order in which the self is without reference to that self’s particular pleasures or pains.

3) The high and divine beauty which can be loved without effeminacy, is that which is found in combination with the human will. Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue.

4) 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.

5) When in innocency or when by intellectual perception he attains to say, –“I love the Right; Truth is beautiful within and without for evermore. Virtue, I am thine; save me; use me; thee will I serve, day and night, in great, in small, that I may not be virtuous, but virtue;”—then is the end of creation answered and God is well pleased.

6) The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws.

7) How can that be true love of beauty and brightness, which is not for beauty and brightness ’sake?

8) Where there is a kind of light without heat, a head stored with notions and speculations, with a cold and unaffected heart, there can be nothing divine in that light.

9) The mind beholds and is pleased with beauty no less because it has itself bestowed that beauty upon things which in themselves are neither beautiful nor ugly.

10) The source of human error is not the sense, which never deceive, but an inability or a wanton refusal to comprehend the evidence of the sense.

11) The minds of men are not so much independent existences, as they are ideas present to the mind of God; that he is not so much the observer of your actions, as he is the potent principle by which they are bound together; not so much the reader of your thoughts, as the active Creator by whom they are aided into being.

12) A man in the view of absolute goodness adores, with total humility. Every step downward is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.

13) It is the abundant, extensive emanation and communication of the fullness of the sun to innumberable beings that partake of it. It is by this that the sun itself is seen, and his glory beheld, and all other things are discovered; it is by a participation of this communication from the sun, that surrounding objects receive all their lustre, beauty and brightness. It is by this that all nature is quickened and receives life, comfort, and joy.

14) The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory in almost everything thing. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, the moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, tress, in the water, and all nature.

15) To you therefore it belongs, to everyone who now hears me, to look anxiously to his ways; to look less at his outward demeanour, his general plausible action, but to cleanse his thoughts. The heart, the heart is pure or impure, and out of it, are the issues of life and of death.

16) Whereas till of late, the world was supplied with its silver and gold and earthly treasures from the old continent, now it is supplied chiefly from the new, so the course of things in spiritual respects will be in like manner turned.

1. JE; 2. JE; 3. RWE; 4. JE; 5. RWE; 6. RWE; 7. JE; 8. JE; 9. JE; 10. JE; 11. RWE; 12. RWE; 13. JE; 14. JE; 15. RWE; 16. No, this isn’t from “The American Scholar,” it’s Jonathan Edwards!

Perry Miller’s essay, “From Edwards to Emerson,” first published in the New England Quarterly in 1940 and then reprinted in Errand into the Wilderness (1956), is Miller’s greatest work under 300 pages. In this brief essay—the consummate  example of Miller’s breath-taking prose—Miller’s entire intellectual project, and its revolutionary implications for the practice of history, is laid bare. Miller prefaced this essay in Errand into the Wilderness with a rare qualification: “There can be no doubt that Jonathan Edwards would have abhorred to the very bottom of his soul every proposition Ralph Waldo Emerson blandly put forth,” admitted Miller. “If Edwards ever laughed,” Miller continued, “then he would have laughed—along with other theologians of his party, few of whom were given to laughter—over the discomfiture of the Unitarians upon discovering a heresy in their midst. . . . In that strictly historical regard, then, there is no organic evolution of ideas from Edwards to Emerson.”[1] Jonathan Edwards may not have been given to laughter, but Perry Miller was even less given to prefacing his most flamboyant arguments with defensive clarification. After all, this is a man who wrote, in the preface to his dissertation, ‘’I am fully conscious that I have treated in a somewhat cavalier fashion certain of the most cherished conventions of current historiography. I lay myself open to the charge of being so very naïve as to believe that the way men think has some influence upon their actions, of not remembering that these ways of thinking have been officially decided by modern psychologists to be just so many rationalizations. “[2] The fact that Miller took a step back and qualified his original argument from 1940 in the preface to “From Edwards to Emerson” in 1956 suggests the importance of this essay to his personal philosophy and intellectual goals. Usually agreeing with Emerson that “to be great is to be misunderstood,” Miller did not want to be misunderstood in this piece.  What, then, was at stake for Miller in comparing Edwards and Emerson? Why does it matter that it’s possible to pull quotes from these two thinkers in an admittedly manipulative fashion and conceive a quiz to fool even intellectual historians?

At immediate stake for Miller were his (consciously) Hegelian interpretation of Puritanism and the American origins of Transcendentalism.  Miller believed that Puritanism contained a “dual heritage” that sowed the seeds of its collapse into Unitarianism on the one hand and Transcendentalism on the other. “At the core of [Puritan] theology there was an indestructible element which was mystical, and a feeling for the universe which was almost pantheistic; but there was also a social code demanding obedience to external law.” Puritanism “gave with one hand of what it took away with the other,” wrote the atheist Miller with awe and admiration, “it taught men that God is present to their intuitions and in the beauty and terror of nature, but it disciplined them into subjecting their intuitions to the wisdom of society and their impressions of nature to the standards of decorum.”[3] Unitarians not only wiped away the uncomfortable and draconian doctrines of Predestination and limited atonement, but they wrote the “beauty and terror” out of Puritanism. “And if these desires could no long be satisfied in theology, toward what objects would they now be turned,” Miller asked. “If they could no longer be expressed in the language of supernatural regeneration and divine sovereignty, in what language were they to be described?”[4] The language of the Over-Soul and the transparent eyeball, perhaps?

Miller needed to believe that the language of New England Transcendentalism came from the dialectical evolution of New England Puritanism because this meant that the ideas he loved so deeply might still speak to contemporary Americans, and, Miller hoped on days when he was more optimistic, might save spiritually bankrupt, consumerist, industrial American society from itself. That Emerson can sound as much like Edwards as like Kant or Coleridge means he has a place in an American story. Americans, then, Miller hoped, might find Emerson’s thought meaningful “if not for what it held, at least for whence [Emerson] got it.”[5] “From Edwards to Emerson” can therefore be read as an Emersonian cry for American philosophy—in the nineteenth century and in the twentieth.

More important, a philosophy of intellectual history is at stake in Miller’s connection between Edwards and Emerson. “The history of ideas,” wrote Miller in his 1956 preface, “if it is to be anything more than a mail-order catalogue, demands of the historian not only a fluency in the concepts themselves but an ability to get underneath them.” So Miller clarified that “Emerson is an Edwards in whom the concept of original sin has evaporated,” and that Edwards sought the shadows of the divine in nature, but believed that man, since the fall, was cut off from the possibility of full communion with God through nature, while Emerson went to nature convinced that man could enjoy an original relation to and a direct communion with the universe. His debt to the skeptics and historicists thus paid, Miller then dismissed these doctrinal differences. “That will do for the textbooks,” he stated, “yet true though it be, such an account leaves out the basic continuance: the incessant drive of the Puritan to learn how, and how most ecstatically, he can hold any sort of communion with the environing wilderness.”[6] Beneath Puritanism and Transcendentalism is a similar disposition and a similar longing, which crude historicism ignores. Attacking historicists who act as though ideas are frozen in time and place, and who scoff at the notion of any connection between the austere Puritan preacher and the rhapsodizing sage of Concord, Miller nevertheless uses historicist tools to collapse the difference between Edwards and Emerson.  He accuses historicists of taking Emerson out of history. The Concord Sage, argues Miller, consciously grappled with Puritan heritage; he was well aware of the language he took from the New England tradition and how he used it. Furthermore, have historians forgotten that Edwards faced charges from certain Puritan theologians (most notably Charles Chauncy, father of Unitarianism) similar to the charges that got Emerson ostracized from Harvard University? Miller uses history to show points where history collapses—where the minds, longings, and questions of Emerson and Edwards meet, and where the contemporary mind, if moved by the same concerns that lived beneath the doctrines of Puritanism and Transcendentalism, might meet the New England Mind.

I urge my fellow intellectual historians to clear away prejudices and preconceptions about Edwards, Emerson, and Miller, and enjoy an original relation to their universe. Miller’s “From Edwards to Emerson” is a great place to start.

[1] Perry Miller, Errand Into the Wilderness, 184.

[2] Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, xxv.

[3] Miller, Errand, 192

[4] Miller, 197

[5] Miller, 187

[6] Miller, 185.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Wonderful work, Ben.

    Beneath Puritanism and Transcendentalism is a similar disposition and a similar longing, which crude historicism ignores.

    We might say that Edwards and Emerson met on the common ground in the love of wisdom, although I don’t know how they could get around the doctrine of original sin. Still, I can picture them having a beer together, maybe often. Personally, I admit to finding Edwards the more interesting, standing astride the classical and the Enlightenment, fully fluent in both.

    “They are chiefly indeed young Persons, sometimes Lads, or rather Boys: Nay, Women and Girls; yea, Negroes, have taken upon them to do the Business of Preachers.”

    Charles Chauncy, he of “liberal” unitarian theology, or stodgy old Jonathan Edwards? Heh heh. Rebels are so conventional sometimes.

    To your and Perry Miller’s point, historically it’s quite true that the American Puritans became the non-hierarchal [“democratic”] Congregationalists, whose unitarian faction later ‘democratically’ took over the church and its churches. ‘Twas this intramural victory that led to the disestablishment of the last established state church in America [Massachusetts] in 1833, not secularism.

    And of course Emerson and his faction [Theodore Parker, a weary William Ellery Channing] took over that church until by the 1850s there was barely a Christianity left atall, only “free-thinking.”

    [Today’s Unitarian Universalist Church was created in a merger in 1961 of the declining Unitarian and Unversalist sects. This successor organization holds legal title to many of the Founding-era church buildings including United First Parish Church, where John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams are buried.]

    In the end, Miller could be quite correct, that the Puritans of 1620 are today’s northeastern liberal establishment. It’s a fascinating story, one of “progress.” Or entropy.

    • Wonderful work, Ben.

      FTR, by that of course I meant “Wonderful work, Ben, publishing fantastic guest posts by Rivka Maizlish.”


Comments are closed.