Skip to main content

The New England Mind Revisited

ISSUE:  Summer 1982
Moral Philosophy at Seventeenth-Century Harvard: A Discipline in Transition. By Norman Fiering. University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture. $24.00.
Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context. By Norman Fiering. University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture. $30.00.

Behind Norman Fiering’s erudite scholarship in Moral Philosophy at Seventeenth-Century Harvard and Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context lies the unshakeable presence of Perry Miller, whom all serious students of American civilization have to confront as they stake out positions in the field of American studies. In some books Miller hovers behind and within the arguments, his vast synthesis of Puritan thought exercising a frightening degree of control over the authors’ varied ambitions. In others he is present almost like a muse, as if scholars were unable to compose a single sentence without acknowledging that it is only through him that they are at all able to write on topics concerning early American literature and culture. And it is a further index to his inordinate influence that he is not only a demon or angel with whom young academics must wrestle to win the blessings of promotion and tenure; his many books and essays continue to preoccupy even the most mature scholars, many of whom devote their most productive years to elaborating or revising his assessments of the American mind.

Two of the most prominent of these scholars are Sacvan Bercovitch and Fiering himself. But unlike Bercovitch, who in The Puritan Origins of the American Self and The American Jeremiad responds to what we might term the imaginative legacy of Miller’s scholarship—that is, to such seminal essays as “Errand into the Wilderness” and “From Edwards to Emerson,” in which Miller speculates on the relation of Puritan thought to the metaphorical meaning of America— Fiering challenges Miller on more basic, and perhaps more important, grounds. It is the accuracy of Miller’s portrayal of the intellectual contours of the New England mind from 1630—1750—his very findings as an historian— that occupies Fiering in these two weighty books. More specifically, Fiering has sought to provide for Puritan New England a history of its moral philosophy—that is, of a science of human nature that has as its goal the establishment of an indisputable foundation for moral virtue—a subject that Miller virtually discounted in his rendition of the New England mind, and then to illustrate how Jonathan Edwards, whom Fiering considers “more profound and original, and more acute in philosophical reasoning, than any other American of the eighteenth century,” emerged from this philosophical tradition to shape his own contribution to 18th-century theories of benevolence. Fiering’s thus is no mean task, especially when we consider that it involves a large-scale corrective to two of Miller’s most important works, The New England Mind (1939) and Jonathan Edwards (1949).

Fiering undertakes his project with respect and patience, two virtues often lacking in revisionist historians. No matter how fundamental his disagreement with Miller, for example, he refrains from hacking away at the corpus of his scholarship like some incensed patricide. And Fiering has learned the worth of properly doing his homework: his arguments are convincing because he clearly has taken the time to master the sources and then to write the history of moral philosophy as it must be written, with a sharp eye to context and a willingness to explore what now seem obscure byways of intellectual history. Golius, Eustache, Burgersdyck, Heereboord—names that receive passing (if any) notice in The New England Mind, but whom Fiering restores to central position in our understanding of 17-century moral philosophy. Nicolas Malebranche, Samuel Clarke, William Wollaston, Francis Hutcheson—philosophers who receive short shrift in Jonathan Edwards, yet who in the 18th century shaped the transatlantic debates about virtue and benevolence in which Edwards was a major participant. The results of such assiduous scholarship are substantive and invigorating: one has to be in a position of intellectual strength to claim that “in general, Miller’s discussion of Locke and Edwards on pp. 52—68 [in Jonathan Edwards] is probably the worst piece of writing he ever did, judged in terms of substance and interpretive accuracy.” But because Fiering himself has placed Edwards so squarely in the context of 18th-century philosophy, we know that such criticism is not half-baked speculation.

Any brief attempt to recapitulate Fiering’s analysis in these two books is foolhardy, and here I wish only to indicate some of his more striking arguments, particularly those that bear directly on how we hitherto have conceived the Puritan mind. Most basically, Fiering illustrates beyond challenge the colonial New Englanders’ concern with a science of human nature per se; or, put another way, how the Puritan faith was very solidly grounded in a particular view of man as a psychological animal. To be sure, Miller and others have amply demonstrated how men of the 17th century still regarded theology as the queen of the sciences; but despite the sophisticated analyses we have of such topics as the moral implications of a sinner’s preparation for conversion or the behavioral ramifications of the renaissance of sacramental piety that occurred in the late 17th century, no scholar before Fiering has so carefully delineated the psychological view of man that made the New England Way possible. Instead, historians most often have begun with the theology itself, and, rather like the blind men feeling the elephant, they have not provided a totally accurate description of Puritan thought.

Fiering is most interested in what happened to moral philosophy in New England in the late 17th century, when the supremacy long accorded to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics finally came under challenge by philosophers who examined human nature with a Cartesian eye, that is, by men who adopted Descartes’ emphasis on axiomatic method and tested their philosophical ideas—including those about human nature—by the clear light of reason. With Montaigne began a “naturalistic re-examination of human nature” that led inexorably to Hobbes’ insistence on the direct observation of human motive without any preconceptions, theological or otherwise; and by 1680, in America as well as across the Atlantic, moral philosophy had become firmly established on refreshingly empirical grounds.

Fiering also reminds us that the Cartesian interest in mind/ self/soul coincided with a growth of religious concern with the constitution of the inner man among both Catholic and Protestant pietists, and the result of this confluence of theology and philosophy was a profound exploration of the “passions” and their role in human behavior, a subject that in the early 18th century became of utmost importance to students of human nature. Between 1680—1750, Fiering argues, any philosopher worth his mettle had to consider the relation of sentiment to reason in questions of moral judgment, and the best philosophy of the earlier half of the 18th century was written to analyze the subtleties of “conscience” and “obligation,” particularly as they were used to establish moral criteria for “benevolence.”

As he covers these large and complex topics, Fiering also weaves one of the arguments that links both books: that, as he succinctly puts it, “there are important and demonstrable connections between certain elements in the psychological theory of some Puritans and the psychological theories implicit in eighteenth-century preromanticism, sentimentalism, evangelicalism, and related phenomena.” And it is precisely here that his understanding of late 17th-century Puritan thought most differs from Miller’s: where the latter saw a profound break between Edwards and his predecessors, including his illustrious grandfather, Solomon Stoddard (himself no mean student of moral philosophy), Fiering sees unmistakable continuities. As he reads the intellectual history of the period, the acrimonious debates during the Great Awakening among evangelicals, old-light Calvinists, and liberal Arminians were merely an extension of the late 17th-century debates over the nature of man that are discernible in the reading lists and commencement quaestiones of students at Harvard College as well as in the pedagogy of many of their instructors—most notably in Charles Morton, John Leverett, and William Brattle, all of whom were instrumental in introducing their students to the freshest currents in moral philosophy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In this sense, the Great Awakening was not so much an awakening from a deep spiritual slumber as the explosive climax of long-standing debates about the relation of human will to moral obligation.

And it is here, too, that Norman Fiering most sharply challenges Miller’s portrait of Edwards, particularly his notion of Locke’s influence on the young Yale graduate. In his essay “The Rhetoric of Sensation” as well as in Jonathan Edwards, Miller claims that Locke is the veritable touchstone to both Edwards’ conception of human nature and his theological development, and he goes far out on what turns out to be a shaky limb to claim that Edwards was the first man in America to comprehend the revolution that Locke had wrought. On this point Fiering easily and skillfully shakes Miller to the ground. Not only does he show beyond doubt that rather than being some giant in the discipline of moral philosophy Locke only “confirmed some already existing trends in philosophical method” in the late 17th century, but he also illustrates that Edwards himself, particularly in the writings on the psychology of religion that he prepared to defend the massive revivals of religion that occurred in the 1740’s, was far less revolutionary than we have thought. Much of what Miller claimed Edwards so serendipitously “discerned” in Locke already was available to him in other books that he had read, as well as in the sermons and treatises of such contemporaries as his grandfather Stoddard and his cousin Elisha Williams, later rector of Yale College. Fiering’s analysis of the intellectual context in which Edwards was raised—an analysis carried out through, among other methods, an assiduous review of all the books that Edwards is known to have read—confirms that Locke is the key neither to Edwards nor the Awakening. To use a line that Miller himself was fond of quoting from his beloved Puritans— Miller’s similitude runs not upon four feet.

Finally, Fiering finds in Edwards’ discussion of “disinterested benevolence” his major contribution to American (and transatlantic) moral philosophy in the mid-18th century, for it was through his criticism of the almost certified divorce of moral philosophy from theology, a suit pressed (consciously or not) by Clarke, Wollaston, Hutcheson, and David Hume, among others, that Edwards found his true philosophical voice. Viewed in this light, Edwards was not so much a man who reinvigorated a decrepit Calvinism through an infusion of Locke and Newton but rather someone who took to the battlements to defend the belief that revealed religion finally could not be separated from morality. As he sat in his primitive study in the wilds of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he had gone to minister to the Housatunnock Indians after his dismissal by his Northampton parishioners, Edwards pondered such immense topics as the meaning of sin and the nature of true virtue. Fiering notes that because Edwards saw that “with the diminution of clerical and scriptural authority among intellectuals, the rhetoric of serious discourse about man and his relations to other men and to God [had become] increasingly the property of moral philosophers,” he tried to construct “a new philosophical anthropology that would meet naturalism on its own ground.” From Edwards’s ruminations came, among other works, his dissertation on The Nature of True Virtue, his permanent contribution to 18th-century theories of benevolence. If his sudden death by smallpox shortly after his assumption of the presidency of Princeton robbed posterity of the summa of which True Virtue was a part, in it we still have been given one of the most profound, and unblinkingly honest, definitions of what it means for man to be “good.”

I might conclude by mentioning that Fiering’s books are not easy reading, primarily, I suppose, because of their subject matter: only the historians of philosophy among us will be familiar with such terms as “eupraxia,” “ velleity,” and “synteresis,” or with such philosophical schools as “illuminationism,” “neo-stoicism,” and “Amyraldism.” But such precise terminology goes with the intellectual territory, and any nonspecialist should approach these books with humility and a willingness to learn. Also I think it should be said that despite all the awesome scholarship Fiering brings to his subjects, and for all the justness of his criticism of Miller, he finally lacks the master’s gift for the felicitous phrase. This is but a quibble, and I suspect that Fiering’s two books will be greeted (and justly so) in the same laudatory spirit as Richard Beale Davis’ monumental Intellectual Life in the Colonial South; now there can be no doubt of Fiering’s admission to the inner circle of the premier students of American intellectual history. And yet—and here perhaps is my own obligatory invocation of the Millerian muse—because of the nature of his prose he finally is unable to invest his subject with the philosophical urgency that so pervades Miller’s writing. When one is reading 700 pages, this makes a lot of difference.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading