There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. . . . Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” 1836
Perry Miller died fifty years ago today at age fifty-eight. After his death, letters of appreciation from friends and former students flooded the desk where Elizabeth Miller was working to complete her husband’s The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War. In their letters, students expressed gratitude, friends offered Elizabeth their support, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. confessed that Miller’s death, coming on the heels of President Kennedy’s assassination, had left him in a deep depression. “Perry, as you well know,” wrote Schlesinger, “was one of the first influences in my life.” “He was a superb teacher,” Schlesinger recalled. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a frequent correspondent of Miller’s and a careful reader of all Miller’s books, published an obituary for his friend in the New York Herald Tribune. At a meeting of the American Antiquarian Society, Edmund S. Morgan delivered a moving tribute to his advisor, in which he insisted that Perry Miller’s contributions would be understood only “when philosophers become historians and historians become philosophers.”1 David Hollinger chose Morgan’s words to begin his invaluable interpretation of Miller’s thought, “Perry Miller and Philosophical History,” published in 1968 in History and Theory. In this article, Hollinger noted that “little effort has been made to analyze in depth [Miller’s] view of American history.”2 Fifty years after Miller’s death, and nearly fifty years after Hollinger’s article, historians have still made little effort to analyze Miller’s thought, and possess no understanding of “philosophical history” in his published works and personal commitments. At the semi-centennial of his death, it is time to reevaluate and rehabilitate Perry Miller, and to discover the potentials of what Hollinger called “philosophical history.”
One of the great contributions of Hollinger’s article was to highlight the central tensions animating Miller’s work— tensions that historians continue to ignore. As Francis T. Butts recently argued, historians treat Miller “primarily as a foil.”3 They inaccurately accuse him of believing that the realm of thought takes places completely removed from environmental influences, of stressing intellect at the expense of emotion, and of portraying Puritan thought as static and one-dimensional. Against these characterizations, Hollinger demonstrated how Miller not only refused to resolve, but also reveled in the tension between mind and environment (or “the conscious” and “the mechanical” as Hollinger described it), between reason and emotion, and between the “mystery” outside of time and the Puritan in time.
Hollinger presented Miller as an artist whose medium was tension and paradox. Revealing “intensively purposive and creative activity” and “a depth of aesthetic sensitivity,” Miller’s best work, Hollinger argued, “achieves a level of artistic merit rare in his generation of historians.”4 According to Hollinger, Miller’s art was primarily epistemological and historical because it was informed by ideas about the relationship between perception and reality, and based on Miller’s conviction that “the heart of the human problem is history,” or how to live a life in time, the ultimate meaning of which is not given in time.5
Despite his incisive analysis of Miller’s mind, however, Hollinger left only clues as to what, exactly, “philosophical history” is, and how historians might apply the lessons of Miller’s approach both to their research and their intellectual life. Beginning with Morgan’s challenge that “philosophers become historians and historians become philosophers,” one might pursue the problem of “philosophical history” in Miller’s thought by picking up where Hollinger concluded his article— with a quotation from Miller’s biography of Jonathan Edwards. “One has to look directly into the blinding sun,” Miller wrote of Edwards’ intellectual commitment.6 Miller, speculated Hollinger, similarly possessed “some emotional need ‘to look directly into the blinding sun.’”7
Interestingly, looking directly into the sun is what Socrates argues the philosopher must do to achieve enlightenment in Plato’s Republic.8 When Plato’s philosopher, freed from imprisonment in a cave of shadows and echos, first casts his or her (yes, it is his orher for Plato) eyes upon the sun, he or she is blinded. “At first he would most easily make out shadows,” Socrates explains, “later, the things themselves.” “And from there,” continues Socrates, “he could turn to beholding things in heaven and heaven itself, more easily at night . . . than by day— looking at the sun.”9 Eventually, however, the philosopher can look at the sun, and concludes that it is “the source of the seasons and the years and is the source of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing.”10 Because sunlight allows the eye to see objects clearly, in the Republic Socrates uses the sun as a metaphor for that which he believes allows the soul to be guided by reason.
For Miller, inclination, ideology, and “determinations of love or hate” constituted the metaphorical sunlight by which objects of history are illuminated.11 This is not to say that Miller identified ideas as the “cause” of historical events. Rather, he believed that ideas were what organized, made sense of, and gave shape to the objects of history, as Plato’s sunlight does not cause objects, but allows the eye to perceive them clearly. “What man sees as the truth of history is what he wills to prevail,” wrote Miller. “The disposition of man,” he affirmed, “makes the truth of history.”12 Or, in Jonathan Edwards’ view, “what men call history is the idea they have of the past, not the actual events which they never witnessed.”13 Without the idea, there is no coherence to events. Miller explained in his biography of Edwards that the Northampton preacher delighted “in showing how at every juncture of history, learned men, philosophers, and academic historians, missed the significance of their epoch, and did nothing but collect facts without meanings.”14 Facts without meanings, like shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, lack integration with that which gives them shape— “the disposition of man,” “what he wills to prevail,” “the idea . . . of the past,” the sun.
Miller’s “philosophical history,” therefore, requires that the historian examine the assumptions and affections that shape various understandings of man’s place in time. For example, Miller vowed to excavate the “real being” behind Puritanism, which lay “not in its doctrines but behind them,” meaning the anxieties and longings that expressed themselves as Puritan doctrine in a specific time and place.15 If Miller’s “philosophical history” demands looking at the metaphorical sunlight through which the Puritan project took shape (or the metaphorical sunlight through which Melville conceived of the White Whale, or Emerson became an invisible eye-ball), Miller’s history also suggests that historians confront the dispositions, affections, assumptions, or anxieties that shape the writing of history by other historians. Therein lies the unique value of intellectual history, if historians can learn from Perry Miller: to bring into focus, to historicize, and to interrogate the assumptions and longings that shape ideas of the past for our subjects, our fellow historians, and ourselves.
In the chapter in which he suggests that “one must look directly at the blinding sun,” Miller explains that Edwards critiqued both the rationalist opponents of the Great Awakening and the enthusiasts who took religious emotionalism too far. “The point of his critique of both rationalism and enthusiasm,” Miller wrote of Edwards, “was that each of these emergent monstrosities, though in different ways, would absorb the individual into . . . a scheme . . . of comprehension which in itself was all too comprehensible.”16 “Sooner or later,” Miller and Edwards each warned their contemporaries, “when their schemes prove incapable of coping with the multiplying accidents and the torments of existence . . . then the real terror comes, not the terror of hell and of flames, but the emptiness of the soul that has seen nothing worth seeing, has understood nothing worth understanding.”17 Miller’s warning to contemporary historians is that they learn to examine the intellectual frameworks that (whether the historian is aware of them or not) necessarily absorb the historical subject and shape the historian’s understanding— or risk seeing only shadows without recognizing the light of the sun.
In 1962, one year before Miller’s death, John Higham called for a new kind of history that would allow the historian “to grasp the moral tone of a particular time and place,” and explore the “tangled combinations . . . of love and hate . . . pervading a career, a movement, or a period.”18 Early in his intellectual life, Miller had already discovered, and indeed gone beyond, Higham’s new history. “An idea in the mind is not only a form of perception but is also a determination of love and hate,” Miller wrote in Errand into the Wilderness.19 It is fitting that Higham’s concept of the historian as moral critic parallels Miller’s “philosophical history.” Miller’s philosophy represented critical moral inquiry. For Perry Miller was as much a social critic as he was an historian or a professor of literature.
As a social critic, Miller struggled to be both philosopher— critically interrogating assumptions regardless of the consequences to institutions or foundational ideas— and professional historian of American literature, with commitments to institutions such as the University, to society, and to the nation. Miller ‘s struggle echoes a problem Plato examined at length throughout his body of work. As Thomas More paraphrased in Utopia, Plato desired that “philosophers become kings, or kings become philosophers.”20 The coincidental similarity between this statement and Edmund Morgan’s formulation hints at a more serious connection: Plato could only have his philosopher-kings in the imagined city Socrates created in the Republic. In reality, even so much as trying to be a philosopher and a publicly engaged citizen proved impossible for Socrates; the city executed him. Thomas More, too, struggled to serve King Henry VIII while following a moral code he had arrived at through philosophical inquiry; the King executed him. Jonathan Edwards’ Northampton congregation voted to remove him from the pulpit when his philosophy did not meet their needs. Ralph Waldo Emerson was banished from Harvard University in 1838 after the ideas he presented in his “Divinity School Address” threatened the foundations of Unitarian thought, and Henry David Thoreau chose self-exile, first at Walden and then (briefly) in prison, rather than conformity. Although he did not, as Socrates did, face the threat of execution, Miller confronted the same major tension that lies at the heart of the Platonic corpus and in the lives of More, Edwards, Emerson, and Thoreau: how to make the work of the philosopher or scholar relevant to society without conforming to the practical and material demands of society— or being ignored and marginalized (or executed).
Hollinger would remind us that Perry Miller thrived in tensions like this. Rather than trying to resolve the tension between philosophy and politics, Miller lived in it, found it generative, and used it to inform his view of professional humanities as philosophy. Miller’s version of “philosophical history” implied a pedagogy and public stance that encouraged the scholar to “keep alive a passion for knowledge that is first and foremost its own excuse for being,” or risk becoming “merely an instrument of national policy.”21
To a great extent, Miller embraced academia as a welcome retreat from society. He also feared the entanglement of the humanities with an increasingly mechanized and business-oriented ethos. In an autobiographical essay called “The Plight of the Lone Wolf,” published in 1956, Miller recalled how, as a student at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, his professors “all seemed so magnificently a law unto themselves that I could conceive of no greater measure of earthly felicity than to grow up, learn enough, and become as like them as possible.”22 Miller apparently failed to recall that before he conceived of no greater pleasure than to become an alienated academic, he tried two other forms of separating himself from society. After his first year as an undergraduate, Miller abandoned his studies and lived for a brief time in a secluded cabin in Colorado (a devotional imitation of Thoreau), and later joined the crew of a cargo ship that took him around the world (like the castaways on the Pequod).
In 1931, after completing his PhD at the University of Chicago, Miller became the first officially-titled Professor of American Literature at Harvard University. There he brought his “philosophical history” to life, not only in scholarship such as The New England Mind and Jonathan Edwards, but also in speeches at conferences and commencements, and in magazines such as The Nation and The New Republic.At the heart of Miller’s public “philosophical history” was his belief that“nothing, not democracy itself, and not even the American way of life, is so sacred that it cannot be studied, analyzed, and criticized.”23 “There is a kind of invigoration that comes with contending against society for the welfare of society, and of this paradoxical strength American education now stands in desperate need,” Miller argued in 1949 in an essay attacking the requirement of loyalty oaths for teachers.24
Accused of turning the youth of Athens into subversive philosophers and critics, and of impiety to the ideological foundations of his city, Socrates had audaciously declared that his reward should be maintenance at public expense in the grand chief office of Athens. Similarly, Miller suggested that the scholar was of greatest value to democratic society, even— or especially— when he or she “contended against society.” “What we are worth,” Miller said of his fellow intellectuals, “is much more than even this luxurious America can afford to pay us, so that it shamefacedly reacts by underpaying us. This it does, I hasten to say, by its standards, not by ours.”25
Miller believed that the highest purpose of graduate studies— in any field— was to produce philosophers alienated from society, capable of critiquing society, and thus better able to provide a positive critical influence on society. “The paradox we have to deal with,” Miller explained, “is that the very being of a graduate school is inevitably a challenge to that policy which brings it into being and which manfully supports it.”26 Under this view of graduate studies, both student and teacher are engaged in philosophy— radical interrogation of assumptions and foundations regardless of consequences. “We all have to work toward the engendering of dissimilarity, work for the opportunity to examine, question, and if need be to dissever the nerves of solidarity, rather than to rest in pre-commitment to their preservation,” insisted Miller as philosopher. “For this purpose,” added Miller as professional historian of American literature, “graduate school exists.”27 In the ideal graduate program, Miller held,“both the instructor and the student are perpetually reminded of their invincible ignorance.” “The beauty and terror of our study is precisely that we constantly face this admission, but that somehow we persist,” Miller declared.28 According to Socrates, philosophy constituted a desire for wisdom that stemmed from acute awareness of one’s own lack of wisdom.
Miller feared that this ideal graduate program, capable of producing philosophers who pursue knowledge of its own sake, did not, or could no longer, exist. “Young students are little instructed in what scholarship signifies,” Miller complained in 1956, “instead, they are urged by all the pressures of the times to find for themselves a place in the department.”29 “I tremble for our civilization,” explained Miller dramatically, “when the methods of Madison Avenue penetrate the scholar’s sanctuary.”30 Miller was primarily concerned with the scholar’s need to “fit in,” and the pressure to market his or her work. This approach might be professional history or professional humanities, but it is not philosophy. Miller wanted to see graduate schools produce philosophers and critics, regardless of the pressures of the market or the needs of the state. “The illiteracy rate may be reduced to zero, but a diffusion that does not carry with it the excitement of discovery, though it may have clear prescriptions for the optimum citizen, will become an assembly line for the production of serviceable robots,” Miller worried.31
With these words, Miller anticipated student activist Mario Savio’s rallying cry in Sproul Plaza against the mechanization of the modern university, in a speech delivered almost exactly one year after Miller’s death. “If [the university] is a firm, and if the board of regents are the board of directors, and if [UC Berkeley] President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something,” Savio cried, “the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to . . . have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product,” pronounced Savio on December 2, 1964. It will remain unclear what position Miller would have taken on the actions and ideas of the student left, had he lived past 1963. A radical individualist, a conservative critic of the Enlightenment, a Stevenson Democrat who worried that the New Deal would quash individual liberties, and an atheist who preferred Jonathan Edwards’ worldview to Benjamin Franklin’s, Perry Miller defies easy political categorization. He thought outside traditional categories of “radical” and “conservative” and beyond such contemporary favorites as communist and anti- communist. Although a proponent of liberal democracy, he was not a cold warrior, preoccupied with the Soviet threat or concerned that countries around the world might fall to communism; though an admirer of John Brown and William Faulkner, he remained silent on modern questions of racial justice. Nevertheless, throughout the 1940s and 50s, Miller articulated some of the criticisms of the modern University that guided the early student movements of the 1960s, and remain relevant today.
For example, Miller foresaw that the humanities had signed a compact with the Devil by embracing the support of institutions concerned with Cold War cultural diplomacy. If intellectuals, understandably excited to receive unprecedented recognition and funding, articulated the value of the humanities strictly in terms of their utility for national policy aims, they would be at a loss to defend the importance of their work once the government, as it inevitably would, abandoned the cultural Cold War and moved on. “The humanists have nobody else but themselves to blame for the incoherence of the picture they offer to the pragmatic world,” Miller exclaimed, prophetically, in 1950.32
Despite his paeans to the excitement of discovery and knowledge for its own sake, Miller was too honest a philosopher and too sharp an historian to romanticize the life of the mind into an impossible caricature. He was, at times, highly cynical about what he called “the looming nihilism of what was formerly the scientific promise of mechanical bliss.”33 At a conference on intellectual community in 1961, Miller warned his fellow humanists against the temptation “to construct tiny oases of gentility around the library, the art museum, the concert hall.”34 He constantly reminded students and colleagues that the Romantic New England mind was the same mind that brought about the technological era, that Emerson believed Transcendentalism and technology went well together, and that Thoreau wrote poetically about the sound of the train as well as the titmouse. “The mind of the nation flung itself into the mighty prospect, dreamed for decades of comforts that we now take for granted, and positively lusted for the chance to yield itself to the gratifications of technology,” Miller declared. Deploring “how seductively our fondness for Poe or Thoreau distorts our image of the era,” Miller asserted that “the age was grasping for the technological future, panting for it, crying for it.”35
Miller called upon intellectuals to claim responsibility for the dangers and the ugliness of postwar American life, and not “regress into the womb or irresponsibility.” Miller’s ideal philosopher or scholar did indeed need to maintain a distance from the values and opinions of the herd, but this distance should not mean a retreat from responsibility to society. “If in an age of machines and of helpful gadgets our propensity be nourished to live with less and less understanding of all that we ought to comprehend, what happens when our debilitated faculty is told that it has to live under the shadow of nuclear weapons?”36 If it was more important than ever that philosophy articulate dissent from the massification of the university and the values of mass consumer culture, it was also more important than ever, Miller believed, that philosophy and the humanities reach out to society to help Americans strengthen that debilitated faculty. To this end, Miller envisioned a true philosophical community of learning beyond the professional humanities. He encouraged intellectuals across all faculties to engage in critical dialogue. “Baseball is endlessly fascinating, but it need not be the sole noncontroversial diversion when intellect meets intellect,” Miller reminded his audience at the conference on intellectual community.37
“It may be,” conceded Miller, “that every exertion toward a community of learning is bound . . . for the remainder of our existence, to come to no decisive conclusion.” “But,” he wondered, “is success the only goal?”38 Jonathan Edwards’ theology “gave [men] no other redemption than their own appreciation of the system that holds them,” Miller explained with affection and admiration in his biography of Edwards.39 Similarly, the only positive advice Miller offered for reclaiming the examined life in a mechanical age was an exhortation to face the situation that confronted modern man “without flinching.”40 To look, that is, directly into the blinding sun.
“Yet, is it nothing but a burden?” asked Miller. “Not in the least,” he answered. “Like the precious, beautiful, insupportable and wholly irrational blessing of individuality, with all the myriad quandaries of responsibility therein involved, the responsibility for the human mind to preserve its own integrity amid the terrifying operations of the machine is both an exasperation and an ecstasy.”41
1 Edmund S. Morgan, “Perry Miller and the Historians,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 74 (1964), 18.
2 David Hollinger, “Perry Miller and Philosophical History,” History and Theory, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1968), pp. 189-202, 189.
3 Francis T. Butts, “The Myth of Perry Miller,” American Historical Review, 87:3 (1982), 666. As Butts points out, Robert Middlekauff gravely misunderstood Miller’s entire scholarly enterprise when he asserted that “form for Perry Miller may be thought of as having existence outside of experience; form indeed may be outside of history.” Alan Simpson similarly misunderstood Miller when he complained that Miller “told us too much about the Puritan mind and not enough about the Puritans’ feelings.” Historians such as George Marsden and Gary Wills have upbraided Miller for overemphasizing the influence of John Locke on Jonathan Edwards, yet these historians spend more time lamenting Miller’s influence than explaining where he went wrong, and they offer no alternative theories about the origins of Edwards’ epistemology. See George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 61-64, and Gary Wills, Head and Heart: American Christianities, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2007), 100. In his chapter on “Philosophy and Jonathan Edwards,” in A History of Philosophy in America: 1720-2000, Bruce Kuklick supports Miller’s argument about the influence of Locke on Edwards. See Bruce Kuklick, A History of Philosophy in America: 1720-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2003).
4 Hollinger, 200.
5 Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1949), 305.
6 Miller, 195.
7 Hollinger, 202.
8 What follows should be taken as a very lose analogy. I am not trying to suggest that Miller was a Platonist (he wasn’t), nor am I trying to suggest that “Plato” is synonymous with “philosophy,” though if I had to pick one name that was, I would go with Plato.
9 Plato, Republic, Allan Bloom, translator, (United States of America: Basic Books, 1968), 195 (116a-b).
10 Bloom, 195 (116b-c).
11 Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1956),179.
12 Miller, Jonathan Edwards, 312.
14 Miller, 313.
15 Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 4.
16 Miller, 193.
18 John Higham, “The Historian as Moral Critic,” American Historical Review, 67:3(1962), 622.
19 Miller, Errand into the Wilderness, 179.
20 Thomas More, Utopia, 1516 <http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/more/utopia-I.html>
21 Miller, Perry, “Education Under Crossfire,” in Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines: Essays by Perry Miller, (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press 1979), 96.
22 Miller, “The Plight of the Lone Wolf,” in Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., 9.
23 Miller, “Education Under Crossfire,” 96.
24 Miller, 96.
25 Miller, “Liberty and Conformity,” in Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., 189.
26 Miller, “Education Under Crossfire,” 79.
27 Miller, “Liberty and Conformity,” 194.
28 Miller, 193.
29 Miller, “The Plight of the Lone Wolf,”14.
30 Miller, 11.
31 Miller, “Education Under Crossfire,” 92.
32 Miller, “The Plight of the Lone Wolf,” 13.
33 Miller, “The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines,” in Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., 212.
34 Miller, 199.
35 Miller, 202.
36 Miller, 210.
37 Miller, 212.
38 Miller, 213.
39 Miller, Jonathan Edwards, 190.
40 Miller, “The American Humanities in Industrial Civilization,” address delivered at the University of Massachusetts, July
6, 1956, 10.
41Miller, “The Responsibility of mind in a Civilization of Machines,” in Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., 213.