December 21, 2019

1. Perry Miller on the Puritans

Perry Miller was a Harvard professor who specialized in American intellectual history, and pioneered the field of American Studies. Among scholars, he has a high reputation, but he’s rarely read outside the academy. I started reading one of his best-known books, The New England Mind: the Seventeenth Century (1939). Miller followed this book with a sequel called The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953). One might compare Miller to intellectual historians like A. O. Lovejoy, Werner Jaeger, and Frances Yates, all of whom I’ve discussed at length in this e-zine.1

Miller is a deep thinker and a first-rate stylist. He realizes that NewEngland Puritans had much in common with English Puritans, so he doesn’t try to isolate the New Englanders. Thus, his work can teach the reader much, not only about NewEngland Puritans, but about Puritans in general, about Calvinists, about Protestants, about the Reformation, and indeed about Christianity.

A. The Bible

The Pilgrim (1904)
Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Philadelphia, Fairmount Park East, near Lemon Hill Mansion

As the above image suggests, the Bible had a special importance for Puritans. They were wary of reason, they aimed to follow the word of God, as found in the Bible. They preferred St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas, they preferred enthusiasm to logic. Catholics were content to leave the Bible in Latin, and let priests dispense it to the laity. But the Puritans translated the Bible into the vernacular tongues, so everyone could read the word of God for himself. One Puritan, John Eliot, even translated the Bible into a NativeAmerican language.

Where could you find truth, where could you find guidance, if not in the Bible? You can’t find truth in reason,

because divine reason is above and beyond the human; not in the church, because God is not committed to preserving the orthodoxy or purity of any institution; not in immediate inspiration, because inward promptings are as apt to come from the Devil as from God.2

The Bible is the sole guide to truth. What the Pope was for Catholics, the Bible was for Puritans. “The Bible is fiat,” Miller writes. “It cannot be questioned, it alone is authority.”3 If you want to find truth, simply read the Bible.

The Puritan looked upon discoverable truth as already discovered, set down in black and white, once and for all, by the supreme wisdom. There was nothing essential to be learned outside revelation. Puritan thought was incurably authoritarian and legalistic. Every proposition had to be bolstered by chapter and verse, and the margins of books, whether of divinity or politics, science or morals, the margins even of love-letters, had to be studded with citations.4

B. The Hidden God

There was, however, one door that remained ajar, one path for intellectual discovery. The Puritans distinguished between God’s revealed will and his secret will. His revealed will, found in the Bible, tells us what we should do, his secret will decrees what will be, including who will be saved, and who will be damned. The Bible doesn’t reveal God’s secret will. “The soul of Puritan theology is the hidden God, who is not fully revealed even in His own revelation.”5 Through this narrow crevice, Miller says, “ran the highway of intellectual development.”6 There’s still a place for exploration and discovery.

The God of the Puritans isn’t rational, and can’t be grasped by reason. “The Puritan God is entirely incomprehensible to man.... God, the force, the power, the life of the universe, must remain to men hidden, unknowable, and unpredictable.”7

Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is omnipotent and benevolent, why is the world full of evil and suffering? Again, the Puritans have recourse to the notion of the hidden God, the notion of God’s secret will. “Seeming contradictions between the creator’s goodness and the creation’s visible evils necessitated no denial of either; they merely reinforced the distinction between God’s revealed and secret wills.”8

But though God can’t be comprehended, man in his frailty needs to form some approximate notion of God, and so the Puritans developed the theory of God’s “attributes.” God must be perfect, and perfection implies that God doesn’t have flaws, it implies “negative” attributes such as “simplicity, eternity, immensity, immutability.” God also has “relative” attributes: “creation, providence, lordship, benignity, mercy, justice.” And finally, God has “positive” attributes: “wisdom, will, holiness, liberty, and omnipotency.”9

God endowed man with some of his own attributes. John Preston spoke of “the most noble dispositions of the divine nature in us, which are the prints and imitations of those his attributes.”9B (Or did we endow God with the “prints and imitations” of our attributes? Who is the architect here?)

C. Anguish

Puritan piety begins with anguish — the feeling that I’m messed up, my life is messed up, and the world is messed up. God made a wonderful world, man has messed it up. Man isn’t happy or content, he’s filled with “saucy doubts and fears.” Man feels like a stranger in the world.

Man dwells in a splendid universe, a magnificent expanse of earth and sky and heavens.... Yet for him it is not a pleasant or satisfying world.... Man is not at home within this universe, and yet... he is not good enough to deserve a better; he is out of touch with the grand harmony, he is an incongruous being amid the creatures, a blemish and a blot upon the face of nature.10

It wasn’t always like this, at first man was content. “Man, a part of created being, must once have been happy, though now he is everywhere miserable.” Puritanism emphasizes “the overwhelming anguish to which man is always subject,” and it promises comfort and “ultimate triumph.”11

God put man in the Garden of Eden, where man was completely happy. God didn’t make man miserable, man made himself miserable by sin. To convince yourself of man’s sinful nature, you need only look inside yourself, and look at the world around you. Gibbon said, “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” God made a wonderful world, sin ruined it.

Is the Puritan doctrine of original sin obsolete? Or is it consistent with today’s psychology? Original sin reminds me of Jung’s theory that everyone has a dark side, a shadow side, everyone has evil tendencies. Freud’s view is much the same; Freud said that when inhibitions are removed, man is “a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.”12 So it seems that the doctrine of original sin is consistent with today’s psychology.

On the other hand, today we believe that man has positive drives that are at least as strong as his negative drives, hence we’re inclined to say that man should act spontaneously, man should express himself. On this point, we differ with the Puritans. One might say that Puritanism was like a French garden, clipped and straight, while the modern view is like an English garden, wild and natural.

D. Ecstasy

The Puritan’s goal was ecstasy, sometimes called “regeneration.” In the moment of ecstasy, we feel complete, at peace with the world. The moment may not last, but the memory remains. Regeneration was “the very heart of Puritanism.... the single goal of the Augustinian piety.”13 “All men seek the good, but only those who in unforgettable moments are ravished by it ever come to know it.”14 I’m reminded of satori, the ecstatic feeling that Zen writers often discuss. Does every spiritual tradition emphasize ecstasy?

Ecstasy is fleeting, but it seems to change a person’s life in a lasting way. Miller says, “It regenerates not merely his mind and his will, but the whole man, giving him a new inclination, a new heart, a completely new life.”15 Likewise, the Zen writer says that, after satori,

all your mental activities are now working to a different key, which is more satisfying, more peaceful, and fuller of joy than anything you ever had. The tone of your life is altered. There is something rejuvenating in it. The spring flowers look prettier, and the mountain stream runs cooler and more transparent.16

What the Zen writer says of satori could be said by the Puritan writer of regeneration: “Satori comes upon one abruptly and is a momentary experience.”17 A psychologist might say that both the Zen writer and the Puritan writer are describing a psychological experience — the integration of the unconscious with consciousness.

Puritan writers said that ecstasy can’t be achieved by your own efforts, ecstasy comes from outside, Christ possesses you (like the unconscious breaking into consciousness). But many religions try to induce ecstasy by music or dance, even by drugs or sex. Did Puritans make any attempt to induce ecstasy? What about the camp meetings and Methodist revivals of the 1800s — did they try to induce ecstasy?

The Puritan doctrine of grace/ecstasy is related to the doctrine of predestination. Those who experience grace are the elect, the chosen, the saved. Grace comes to those whom God chooses, not to those who have earned it. God chooses by “his mere good pleasure.... as he sees meet.”18 You can’t achieve grace or salvation by your own efforts, they come from outside, they come from God. Either you’re chosen, or you’re not.

The Puritans believed that regeneration would be followed by moral behavior, justification would be followed by sanctification. Once you experienced regeneration/grace, then moral behavior, saintly behavior, would naturally follow. As one Puritan writer put it, “We grant much comfort from good works, for though they do not justify us, yet hereby we know that we are justified.”19

Without regeneration, we only understand religious truths with our mind, we don’t feel them, we don’t experience them in our lives. “Religion learned by rote was not the religion of the heart... an understanding of theology was not an experience of grace.”20 Puritans distinguished between outside knowledge and inside knowledge, between mind-knowledge and heart-knowledge, between knowledge from learning and knowledge from living. If faith wasn’t experienced and felt, Puritans dismissed it as “historical faith.”

The experience of regeneration raises a question: Isn’t God always guiding and sustaining? How does the experience of grace/ecstasy differ from God’s ordinary guidance? According to the Puritan doctrine of concursus, “God created and sustained all natural processes.”21 According to the doctrine of providence, God “directed and controlled all the operations of mind and body.” Was grace/ecstasy separate from ordinary providence? Does God have two levels?

For the orthodox Puritan there was no way out except to keep the two activities of God, providence and regeneration, on separate planes. God diffuses Himself through space to create and sustain the world, but there is a second emanation, over and above the original one, which is grace.22

Theology is complicated, hence Puritan theologians worked long hours, and used lots of ink. “Puritan divines counted that day lost in which they did not spend ten or twelve hours in their studies. They sacrificed their health to the production of massive tomes.”23

Puritan piety begins and ends with subjective feelings, it begins with anguish, and hopes for ecstasy. Here again we’re reminded of Augustine —

the same subjective insight, the same turning of consciousness back upon itself, the same obsession with individuality, the same test of conclusions not so much by evidence or utility as by the soul’s immediate approbation or revulsion — these qualities which appear in Augustine almost for the first time in Western thought and give him his amazing “modernity,” reappear in force among the early Puritans. Like his, their meditations are intensely introspective, and in their own breasts they find the two fundamental issues: the natural emptiness of the heart and its consuming desire for fullness.24

E. Sobriety

There was a danger in ecstasy: it could disrupt the even tenor of a person’s life, and it could disrupt society. In 1636, just six years after John Winthrop & Co. settled Boston, the Boston community was rent asunder by “the emotional excitement aroused by Anne Hutchinson.”25 Puritan preachers tried to moderate emotion; “the Puritan ideal was one of intensity but not of emotional abandon.”26 Puritan preachers often avoided talking about ecstasy; “much of the preaching was given over to the inculcation of sobriety and self-control.”27

But sobriety didn’t mean asceticism, and the wearing of hair-shirts. Puritans weren’t opposed to fine clothes and fine wine, as long as they were enjoyed with moderation. Your attitude toward worldly pleasures should be one of detachment, “weaned affections.” Wine is from God, said Increase Mather, but the drunkard is from the Devil. Be in the world, but not of it. Likewise, in business you should be diligent but not emotionally attached, diligent but “dead-hearted.”28

As the Puritan doctrine of grace/ecstasy reminded us of Zen, so the Puritan doctrine of detachment reminds us of other spiritual traditions; I’ve discussed detachment in relation to Jung, Proust, Shakespeare, etc. Detachment is a key element in spiritual growth, so it’s not surprising that Puritans advocated it.

Puritans respected business more than leisure; they exemplified the Protestant work ethic, and they represented the rising middle class. “God sent you not into this world as into a Play-house, but a Work-house.”29 Find a calling, and pursue it. “Faith draws the heart of a Christian to live in some warrantable calling.” Even the wealthy aristocrat should not lead a life of leisure: “If thou hast no calling, tending to public good, thou art an unclean beast.” Puritan saints “may not be useless monks or unnatural celibates.” God wants us to perform a function and raise a family.

But even the sober businessman should, according to Puritanism, have a high ideal, and pursue it tirelessly. Virtue isn’t a mean, as Aristotle believed, virtue is an extreme.30 Is it possible to be too pure and holy? No, it isn’t, not even if you’re as holy as Christ himself. English Puritans were particularly rigorous; when the Pilgrims lived in Holland, they criticized the Dutch for not strictly observing the Sabbath. When English Puritans came to America, they became even more rigorous. “Everybody had to advance at the double-quick under full pack.... It was all or nothing, white or black, God or the Devil.” Man should be judged by a divine standard, though he could never actually attain it.

Puritans believed in original sin. Since man is a sinner, we shouldn’t be satisfied with the natural man. Puritans believed in “a perpetual judgment of all things by the loftiest conceivable standard, and an unflagging intensity of purpose.”31 Puritans advocated intensity and enthusiasm, they had no use for “deadness of heart,” apathy, and “spiritual mediocrity.” “Lukewarm water goes against the stomach, and the Lord abhors such lukewarm tame fools.... therefore appear in your colors what you are, that you may be known either a Saint or a Devil.”32

One of the main differences between Catholics and Protestants is that Catholics believe you can be justified/saved by good works, whereas Protestants believe in justification by faith alone. But though good works couldn’t save you (according to Protestants), they were a sign that you were one of the saved, one of the elect.

Puritans devised various tests to see if you had experienced grace, if you were one of the chosen. Puritans were constantly reviewing their lives, evaluating themselves, wondering if they were saved or damned. “If ever a theology tortured its votaries it was that taught by New England divines, and if ever mortal was driven to distraction it was the mother who, as Winthrop tells, drowned her child that it might escape damnation.”33

In theory, you could tell if a person were justified, but in practice it was a thorny question. Even if you felt sure that you had experienced grace/ecstasy, there were bound to be moments when you felt low, when you doubted. And if it was difficult to tell whether you yourself were justified, it was far more difficult to tell whether someone else was.

Moral behavior might be a consequence of grace, or it might have another source, such as fear of hell. Puritan preachers often castigated virtue that didn’t come from grace, “they frequently delivered what amount to tirades against morality.”34 Those who are virtuous for the wrong reason are “as abominable to God, as those that run into the greatest outrages.”35 Moral behavior is only valuable if it flows from “an intoxicating and ravishing faith.”36

Would Puritanism have become a force in the world if it had preached nothing but doom and gloom? Perhaps the success of Puritanism is due to its emphasis on bliss — bliss in the present, and the confident hope of bliss in eternity.

The one pure, unqualified, and absolute beatitude was the inward ecstasy of regeneration.... Men were made believers by an inward gladness, and they remained true Puritans as long as they found in their belief the supreme source of joy and an inexhaustible delight.37

To the Puritan, God’s love was so real that he could taste it.

2. Scientific Philosophy

We usually think of philosophy as wisdom about life, but we can also think of philosophy as a description of reality, not unlike science. The scientist discovers truths about atoms, planets, galaxies, the philosopher discovers truths about people, nations, civilizations. Both the scientist and the philosopher make their discoveries through intuition, not through collecting data. Data-collection usually follows discovery; data-collection helps to persuade others; the person who made the discovery is certain about it before he begins data-collection. Both the philosopher and the scientist usually make their discoveries when they’re about 20 years old, when their intuition is active, before they’ve had time for data-collection.

Einstein said that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared (e = mc2). This is a big idea, an original idea, and widely regarded as a true idea. But is it relevant to human life? Do people act differently because of this discovery? Einstein’s idea seems to have little or no relevance to human life. Einstein’s idea led to the atom bomb, so it could be argued that Einstein’s idea had a harmful effect on society.

Perhaps the highest achievement of philosophy is to discover truths that are relevant to life, and have a positive effect on life. Such truths could be the basis for new approaches to religion and morality. Such truths can be compared to the operating-system of a computer — often overlooked, but the foundation of other projects. The teachings of religion and morality are like e-mail and web-surfing, truths about reality are like the operating-system.

In the U.S., philosophers like Thoreau have emphasized wisdom about life. We don’t have a tradition of scientific-philosophy, reality-philosophy. German philosophers like Schopenhauer viewed philosophy as akin to science. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung — all made discoveries about reality, discoveries that could be the basis for religious and moral teachings. (Freud and Jung are usually classified as psychologists, not philosophers, but I think we can describe them as philosophical thinkers.) The scientific approach to philosophy is as old as philosophy itself; Aristotle took a scientific approach, but he didn’t stop at people, nations, civilizations, he also dealt with the physical aspect of the universe.38

Scientific philosophy and moral philosophy aren’t entirely separate. Thinkers like Schopenhauer and Jung offer wisdom about life as well as new truths. Scientific philosophy and moral philosophy are both valuable, we shouldn’t view scientific philosophy as superior to moral philosophy.

We should begin with truths about man and the universe, then build religious and moral teachings on this foundation. A Japanese man said to his father, “Life has no meaning,” and then he went on a killing spree. If we develop a philosophy that starts from reality, then moves to wisdom, we can help people in all countries to find meaning in life, we can make the soul calmer, the world more peaceful.

3. Marriage Story

I saw the new Netflix movie Marriage Story, which deals with the break-up of a marriage. It has received good reviews from the public, great reviews from critics. I agree with the public, I would call it good but not great. At first it captivated me with its wit, and its strikingly-realistic portrayal of contemporary America. But eventually I began to wonder, What do all these realistic details add up to? Is this a work of art, or “reality TV”? Many of the details are sordid, there’s nothing uplifting in the movie.

The writer/director, Noah Baumbach, is something of a specialist in divorce. His earlier movie, The Squid and the Whale (2005) dealt with his parents’ divorce, and received high praise. He also went through a divorce himself, and this experience probably left its mark on Marriage Story.

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. Miller may have been inspired by Samuel Eliot Morison, who wrote about the history of Harvard, and the books that were read at Harvard in the 1600s. Or he may have been inspired by an early interest in John Winthrop’s diary.

Miller says that the best Puritan writers were Milton and Bunyan; New England didn’t produce such writers. NewEngland writers weren’t original thinkers; “not until Jonathan Edwards was there a mind capable of sustained independent speculation.”(p. 48) But according to Miller, the very weaknesses of NewEngland writers make them a good subject for study. Lovejoy would agree, Lovejoy said that mediocre writers are interesting to the historian of ideas since they show the tendencies of their time, perhaps more clearly than first-rate writers.(The Great Chain of Being, Ch. 1)

Another pioneer of American Studies was Henry Nash Smith, who’s best known for Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth.

Miller led a rather adventurous life. He was born in Chicago in 1905. After one year at the University of Chicago, he left college for four years, traveled in the western U.S., went around the world on a cargo ship, lived alone in a remote cabin, etc. He died at 58 from alcoholism — unusual for a scholar. As for his politics, it is said that he had “leftist leanings.” back

2. Ch. 1, “The Augustinian Strain of Piety,” pp. 19, 20. One Puritan, Samuel Mather, wrote, “Almost all the sin and misery that hath filled the World, hath broke in at this door, hearkening to reason against Institution.” By “Institution” he means God’s rules and teachings, as set forth in the Bible. A Christian in our time could point to Stalin’s Gulag etc. and say that Mather was right, reason does lead us astray, does fill the world with misery.

According to Puritans, “Thomistic theologians had erred by making God too rational — an error of which Anglicans like Richard Hooker were still guilty.”(p. 13) “Thomists” are followers of Thomas Aquinas. Richard Hooker should not be confused with the Puritan Thomas Hooker. back

3. p. 20 back
4. p. 20 back
5. p. 21. Calvin, Luther, Pascal — all speak of the hidden God, deus absconditus. back
6. p. 21 back
7. p. 10 back
8. Ch. 2, “The Practice of Piety,” p. 39 back
9. Ch. 1, p. 12 back
9B. p. 186 back
10. p. 7. Freud agrees with the Puritan conception: “It seems certain that we do not feel comfortable in our present-day civilization.”(Civilization and Its Discontents, Ch. 3) back
11. p. 8 back
12. Civilization and Its Discontents, Ch. 5 back
13. pp. 34, 25 back
14. p. 9 back
15. p. 27 back
16. D. T. Suzuki, “On Satori — The Revelation Of A New Truth in Zen Buddhism” (from Essays in Zen Buddhism, first series) back
17. Suzuki, “Chief Characteristics Of Satori” (from Essays in Zen Buddhism, second series) As Miller says, “The Puritans were certain that in the majority of instances the translation from sin to grace was so abrupt that a man could tell when it happened to himself, and others could recognize the outward evidences. Textbooks such as Ames’s Marrow listed the tests.”(p. 51) William Ames was the author of The Marrow of Theology; he’s probably the ancestor of the Ames family of North Easton, Massachusetts. back
18. p. 17 back
19. p. 51 back
20. p. 31. I’m reminded of my earlier remarks on classics as opposed to scholarly books: “Classics contain personality and pathos and suffering and anger and humor, all of which scholarly books lack. Classics are written with passion, and arouse passion in those who read them. Scholarly books are dry, cold and impersonal.” back
21. p. 32. Nature/matter is impotent without God. “The frame of nature would be dissolved the next moment, if there were not an hand of Providence to uphold and govern all.”(p. 14, p. 392) According to Miller, this doctrine is close to pantheism, so Augustinians were always struggling to avoid pantheism.

So God infuses a kind of energy/life/consciousness into all matter. But that’s not all. God also gives nature direction/aim/telos; nature has not only vitality but also purpose.

The Philosophy of Today also believes that matter has energy/life/consciousness, and we might ascribe purpose to matter, too. How did life arise, if matter has no tendency to advance? And how did life evolve and develop, if there’s no progressive tendency?

Another similarity between the Puritan worldview and the Philosophy of Today: we agree with the Puritans that the future is predetermined, that there’s some sort of fate in the world. And we also agree with the Puritans that, paradoxically, the individual has a certain freedom. So we subscribe to the paradox that man is both fated and free; we agree with the Puritans that “freedom is no illusion; and yet in autonomous pursuit of their sovereign choices they contrive to bring about predetermined consequences.”(p. 15) back

22. p. 33 back
23. p. 21 back
24. p. 22. We feel empty, we want to feel full. Puritanism is preoccupied with these feelings, Miller says, it’s not preoccupied with the afterlife. “I find it difficult to believe,” Miller writes, “that the conception of the afterlife was as vivid to most Puritans as was their realization of sin or their experience of divine grace; there are but few sermons specifically devoted to immortality compared with the tremendous number drawing out the lessons of depravity or analyzing in minute detail the processes of regeneration.”(p. 37) back
25. Ch. 2, p. 48 back
26. p. 48 back
27. p. 48 back
28. pp. 42, 43. Puritans knew a thing or two about earthly love. “The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves,” wrote Thomas Hooker, “he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, muses on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parlies with her in each place where he comes.... the heart of the lover keeps company with the thing beloved.”(p. 62) back
29. p. 44. Miller often doesn’t give the source of a quotation. Instead, he deposited a book in the Harvard Library with complete footnotes.

For more on the Puritans and their theology, consider Kenneth Murdock’s biography of Increase Mather and Robert Middlekauff’s The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728, which won the Bancroft Prize. back

30. p. 46 back
31. pp. 44, 45 back
32. p. 58 back
33. p. 56 back
34. p. 52. Though Puritans sometimes doubted whether they were saved or not, they could at least hope for the certainty of salvation, whereas Catholics could never hope for certainty. Catholics believed in justification by works, but since man knew himself to be a sinner, he would despair of salvation. Protestants said they could free man from this despair. “An indispensable element in all Protestantism,” Miller writes, “was the equating of faith with the certainty of salvation. ‘The life of faith doth not only bring us on to justification, but in time it brings us to the assurance of it.’”(p. 50)

When Joan of Arc was captured, “Her prosecutors tried to trick her by asking her if she knew she was in God’s grace. Because church doctrine said that no one could know that for certain, she couldn’t answer yes without being guilty of heresy. She also couldn’t answer no, because that would be taken as an admission of guilt. Joan avoided the trap by saying, ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.’”(footnote/link) back

35. p. 52 back
36. p. 53 back
37. pp. 62, 63 back
38. Nietzsche expressed the wish that he could turn the clock back and give Emerson a rigorous training, a really scientific education (wirkliche wissenschaftliche Cultur). As it stands, Nietzsche wrote, “in Emerson we have lost a philosopher.”(Letter to Franz Overbeck) This remark shows that, much as he admired Emerson, Nietzsche didn’t think that Emerson was a real philosopher. This remark illustrates the difference between the NewEngland approach to philosophy and the German approach. The NewEngland approach is more poetic, the German approach more scientific. The NewEngland approach tries to inspire the reader, the German approach tries to capture reality. back