The Metaphysical Club, 1

Reading: Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, preface-Ch. 2 and 351-58.

In his preface, Menand reveals that the “story of ideas in America” (of the subtitle) that he’s going to tell has to do with a new mode of thinking that developed gradually in post-Civil War America. The Civil War, he tells us, “swept away . . . almost the whole intellectual culture of the North” (x). (This claim seems somewhat hyperbolic, given the importance of Darwinism, but Menand later makes a good case for the impact of the war on two of his main characters, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and William James.) Menand credits Holmes and James, along with Charles Peirce and John Dewey, with developing the modern mode of American thought. He proposes that these men shared “an idea about ideas”–“that ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools — like forks and knives and microchips — that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves” (xi). This “idea about ideas” — the notion that ideas are simply tools rather than universal truths — is the core premise of the new philosophy of pragmatism that Menand argues that Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey invented during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Oddly, Menand does not use the word pragmatism in his preface!

Given that this is a book about pragmatism, it seems worthwhile to skip ahead to the section where Menand takes another stab at defining what pragmatism means. He does so on pages 351-58. Because you have to skip over 300 pages to get to this section, it’s not going to be completely clear at first glance, but it’s still useful to look ahead.

Menand starts here by giving pragmatic description of the human decision-making process. He concludes near the top of page 353 that “so often, we know we’re right before we know why we’re right,” because “there is no noncircular set of criteria for knowing whether a particular belief is true.” This idea is too complex to be swallowed easily. If we bear with Menand for a few more pages, though, he explains that William James believed that “no belief . . . is justified by its correspondence to reality, because mirroring reality is not the purpose of having minds” (356). This (negative) analogy does help. Minds are not mirrors. It sure would be nice here to have a positive analogy to explain what a mind is or does, wouldn’t it? Menand doesn’t quite give us that, but he does give us, in these pages, a few formulations of James’s idea that “the true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief” (355). We could probably rephrase this to say that “the truth is what works.” Our minds don’t mirror reality, then, but they do provide us with tools for coping with reality. We cannot possibly say if our ideas match up to reality–all that we can know is whether or not our ideas have what James called “cash value.” Having said all of this, don’t get too bent out of shape if this section still seems obscure. Menand is going to tell many personal stories about his main characters in order to help us understand pragmatism.

Back to the beginning of the book. The focus of part one is Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Harvard graduate and Civil War veteran who eventually served on the Supreme Court. In these early chapters, Menand introduces a multitude of characters, most of whom don’t come up again. In doing so, though, he paints a brilliant picture of the context from which Holmes emerged — namely, the context of pre-Civil War Boston and Harvard. As we read, then, we need to pay attention to how Menand connects that context to Holmes. Menand’s main point for this whole section of the book involves the impact of the Civil War on Holmes. Menand argues that the war made the assumptions of pre-war Boston “obsolete” and that the war made Holmes “lose his beliefs in beliefs” (4). Oh dear.

As we forge ahead, the main thing to keep an eye on is how the young Holmes was influenced by our old friend Ralph Waldo Emerson (who was a friend of his father) and was subsequently drawn into the movement to abolish slavery and the Civil War itself. By the end of the second chapter, we can see that Holmes was becoming somewhat disillusioned by the war effort.

In addition to the questions on your reading guide, by my lights there two main questions to ask about these first two chapters: 1) How and why did Holmes get drawn into abolitionism and military service, and 2) Why did he begin to lose faith in the war?

Thoreau’s Principles

Reading: Henry David Thoreau, “Life without Principle” (originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863).

Thoreau warned his readers in the introduction to “Life without Principle” (which was based on an 1854 lecture titled “What Shall it Profit”) that he would give them “a strong dose” of himself and that he would “leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism.” As he considered “the way in which we spend our lives,” he did indeed indulge himself while unleashing a searing critique of the way that most Americans seemed to him to live, immersed in business, first and foremost, but also in politics and in the civil society constituted by newspapers, reform societies, and other such institutions.

In his attack on business, commerce, and other seeking of money, it should be noted, he did not say that people should stop worrying about making a living. Rather, he argued that one’s mode of getting a living was so important that it shouldn’t be dominated by materialistic concerns. He memorably stated his concern: “I do not need the police of meaningless labor to regulate me.” He explained further: “If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for.” He was willing to work enough to support himself simply, but he suggested that working for money degraded a person.

Throughout the essay, Thoreau disparaged collective efforts of all kinds. He dismissed politics (and institutions in general) as frivolous and unworthy of attention. In doing so, he might be seen as playing the role of a gadfly, challenging his fellow New Englanders to strive for a less meddlesome and more purposeful political and society life. Unfortunately, it is also possible to read the essay as a defense of disengagement. Thoreau frankly admits to paying little attention to politics. Although he was a teacher, writer, lecturer, and friend who sought out society and companionship — albeit on his own terms — he seems relatively oblivious to the profound and sometimes positive ways in which society and culture shape individual character. In other words, he seems to have failed to see the ways in which the self that he wished to mine (like a gold-rusher) was partially a gift from society. He was perhaps thus too quick to seek respite in nature — whether the external nature of the woods or the internal nature of the self. For these reasons, his trenchant social critique at times comes across as a recipe for self absorption.

Thoreau and Disobedience

Reading: Henry David Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” in The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, ed. Lawrence Buell (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 257-77.

Writing in the late 1840s of his experience of being jailed overnight in 1846 for his failure to pay a small state poll tax, Henry David Thoreau declared that the American government was disgraceful, not only for its protection of slavery but also for its invasion of Mexico (presumably on behalf of slaveholder interests). In “Resistance to Civil Government” and (and a decade later in his “Plea for Captain John Brown”), Thoreau honored the memory of the American Revolution and the “right to revolution” (261), but he refused to show respect for the American constitutional order that he deemed “evil” (266). Like his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau felt no responsibility to right every wrong in the world; unlike Emerson, however, he felt a duty to at least “wash his hands of it,” — “it” being in this case his allegiance and support of the abusive state (263). One might say, then, that Thoreau here protested against slavery and state power only insofar as they besmirched his personal sense of moral purity. But to so conclude would be to miss Thoreau’s critique of majoritarian government and its coercive machinery.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did Thoreau use the “machine” metaphor to describe the state?
  2. What criticisms did Thoreau make of electoral democracy? What alternatives did he offer?
  3. Did Thoreau have any real chance of lodging an effective protest — simply by refusing to pay his tax and by publishing this essay?
  4. How does this essay cast light on Thoreau’s 1859 plea for John Brown?

Margaret Fuller’s “Great Lawsuit”

Margaret Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit” [1843], in The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, ed. Lawrence Buell (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 301-20.

As a woman who died fairly young, Margaret Fuller never quite achieved the same level of celebrity reached by her friend and collaborator Ralph Waldo Emerson, but she nevertheless firmly established herself as an American public intellectual. For several years, she earned money by leading a series of “conversations” for well-off women in Boston. As a writer, she completed notable translations of German texts, reported on the 1848 revolutions from Europe, and published Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), and emphatic an erudite defense of women’s equality with men. Not only did she influence her fellow Transcendentalists (and other sympathetic writers), but she also helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the women’s rights movement that would soon emerge out of the antislavery movement.

It is fitting that Fuller began “The Great Lawsuit” with a discussion of the principle of liberty, because the liberation of women (and humanity in general) became her main theme. Although she recognized the limits of freedom in the United States, she declared: “still, it is not in vain, that the verbal statement has been made, ‘All men are born free and equal.'” “That, which has once been clearly conceived in the intelligence,” she hopefully asserted,” “must be acted out” (303).

Fuller’s argument reflected both Unitarian-style “self-culture” and Transcendentalist “self-dependence.” She postulated growth as a basic human need: “[H]uman beings are not so constituted, that they can live without expansion; and if they do not get it one way, must another, or perish” (306). Not only did male-dominated society impede this necessary growth in women, but it discouraged self-reliance: “This self-dependence, which was honored in me, is deprecated as a fault in most women. They are taught to learn their rule from without, not to unfold it from within” (309). Thus Fuller applied a basic Transcendental principle to help her assess the position of women in her society.

Although Fuller seemed prepared to concede that some real differences separated men from women, she denied that these differences were fundamental or definitive: “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman” (319). Therefore, she drew her firm conclusion that “woman [should] lay aside all thought . . . of being taught and led by men” (320).

Emerson’s Giant

[NOTE: 2008 American Thought students: Save this post to read alongside “Self-Reliance” for 10/14.  You don’t need to read it for 10/9.]

Reading: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” in The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, ed. Lawrence Buell (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 210-31.

In his famous 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson called traveling “a fool’s paradise.” He explained by declaring “place is nothing” (227). Place was nothing because one could not escape oneself. As Emerson put it: “My giant goes with me wherever I go” (228). This phrasing seems quite apt. Emerson did bestow upon the self — both his own and the self generally — gigantic proportions. His various disquisitions on the self thus left him open to charges of “transcendental selfishness,” to use the phrase of Orestes Brownson. Although Brownson’s accusation has some merit, Emerson proposed to trust the self because he believed that the self was infused with a divine intelligence.

When Emerson told his listeners and readers to assert “godlike independence,” to “trust thyself,” or to “go alone,” he enjoined them to reject conformity and to transcend the inherited wisdom of the past (212, 211, 223). In short, he encouraged people to think, feel, and act for themselves, without being limited by social pressures, aged institutions, or yellowing texts.

Emerson’s individualistic ethos often led him to issue bold statements. Defending his resolution to follow his impulses, he told a friend: “If I am the devil’s child, I will live then from the devil” (213). Swatting at the do-gooders who knocked on his door, he declared:

[D]o not tell me . . . of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. (213-14)

By making such statements, Emerson seemed to be showing his readers that he did not concern himself with worrying about what people would think about what he said.

Although some of Emerson’s comments might sound like pure selfishness, he repeatedly argued that the self was a conduit to a higher and divine spirit. He joked that he would write “Whim” above his door, but he also hoped “it is somewhat better than whim as last” (213). He recommended that “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within,” precisely because he believed that inner gleam had origins outside of the self (210). He perhaps explained this phenomenon best when he said: “We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us organs of its activity and receivers of its truth. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams” (219). He wanted Americans to open themselves to these truths that he believed would emerge from within.

Emerson was neither the first nor the last American thinker to promote such inward searching. Although his individualistic gospel has influenced American culture — notice the number of famous or familiar lines in this essay — many of his contemporaries continued to believe in the need for collective effort, and the crisis over slavery even led Emerson himself to somewhat modify his position.

Enlightenment and its Discontents

While the European Enlightenment produced a number of outliers — including skeptics and materialists — this intellectual movement in American tended to be more moderate and coherent, at least insofar as it affected culture and politics. American philosophes, to be sure, varied in terms of their opinions regarding Christianity and their faith in the possibility of human progress, but they tended to share a general confidence in the ability of human reason to identify universal human values and rights and thereby to improve both personal and social life. The founding documents of the United States and its constituent republics embodied these Enlightenment values, and they also reflected the different levels of engagement with Christianity that characterized the American Enlightenment. (For instance, while the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 asserted the duty of everyone to worship the creator and empowered the legislature to support churches through taxation, the U.S. Constitution included no mention of a deity, and with the ratification of the first amendment forbade Congress from establishing religion.) In ways that the founders did not anticipate, however, the Enlightenment principles embedded in these documents generated conflict for later generations.

Although historians (including, most notably, Henry May) have identified multiple stages or versions of the Enlightenment in America, the movement generally accepted a creed that might be boiled down as follows: the rational and benevolent creator God (whether the Judeo-Christian Father or the less anthropomorphic “Nature’s God”) made an orderly, law-abiding universe, within which fairly rational and good-natured human beings might live freely and happily, if only they could organize their societies and governments to harmonize with the divine laws of nature. Such a vision was versatile: it could mix as easily with Christian millennialism as with market capitalism, and for many Americans it informed both.

Although Enlightenment modes of thought became pervasive in American culture, they did not by any means fully displace older Christian ways of thinking and seeing. Many Americans still believed in an interventionist God whose grace worked in their hearts and whose millennial plan for making earth into heaven was slowly unfolding. Those who did embrace Reason found that their idol often came up short. In politics, for instance, onetime democrat Orestes Brownson was stunned at how easily “the people” had been fooled during the election of 1840. In the realm of religion, a variety of ministers, former ministers, and writers, who became known as Transcendentalists, began to turn to the intuition (or “the heart”) for spiritual knowledge, rather than relying exclusively on the empirically observed world for information.

While the Enlightenment was doubtless liberating for some Americans, for others it had quite the opposite effect. As Herman Melville tried to show in his 1853 short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” to be reasonable could mean embracing one’s own oppression (see page 13, line 37). Thus, black and white abolitionists turned against the federal constitution that permitted slavery. Small numbers of women began to question the reasonableness of their exclusion from political privileges. And various reformers began to question the logic of the market revolution that seemed to enrich some while making others dependent or impoverished.

Writing in the early 1920s and sounding much like a latter-day Henry David Thoreau, D. H. Lawrence lashed out at the pretensions of the Enlightenment (symbolized for him by Benjamin Franklin):

We do all like to get things inside a barbed wire corral. Especially our fellow men. We love to round them up inside the barbed wire enclosure of FREEDOM, and make ’em work. “Work, you free jewel, WORK!” shouts the liberator, cracking his whip. Benjamin, I will not work. I do not choose to be a free democrat. I am absolutely a servant of my own Holy Ghost.

The Enlightenment made many promises. The question was whether or not they could or would be kept.

Franklin, Paine, and the Enlightenment

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were born about three decades and a few thousand miles apart. Neither came from especially privileged families, but both achieved international celebrity. While Franklin gained fame first as a scientist and then as an American patriot and revolutionary, Paine earned renown as the author of several revolutionary pamphlets, including Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, with the first two of these probably being the most widely read English-language pamphlets of the 18th century, and with the latter being popular but also fiercely attacked.

Franklin and Paine met briefly because of their common intellectual interests when Franklin was serving a diplomatic mission in England, and his letter of introduction helped Paine to land on his feet (after recovering from serious illness) when he arrived in Philadelphia in late 1774. While both Franklin and Paine supported republican revolution in the late 18th century, Paine took more radical positions, leading scholar Craig Nelson to describe him as “Benjamin Franklin unleashed.”

Franklin and Paine also both had religious upbringings: Franklin as a Presbyterian and Paine as an Anglican and Quaker. Neither, however, was inclined to accept the creed of any church, and each tried his hand at writing (and publishing) a personal statement of belief. (These credos are included in the assigned excerpts.) Ultimately, both men believed that religion was necessary to support public virtue — note the second paragraph of the Paine excerpt, for example — but while Franklin charitably supported multiple Christian churches, Paine launched a vociferous attack on revealed (Biblical) religion, which he considered to be both false and morally harmful. Franklin only leaned strongly towards the firm deism that Paine adamantly promoted.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did Franklin and Paine, each in their own way, articulate Enlightenment principles in these writings?
  2. How did Franklin’s and Paine’s views on religion (and Christianity) differ?
  3. How do these two excerpts reflect the influence of Protestant thought?

For an irreverent, alternate view of Franklin, see D. H. Lawrence’s famous 1923 send-up.

Puritans and Economy

Our discussions of Puritanism have focused largely on their spiritual and social aspirations, but it’s important to note that Puritans also had economic motives for migrating to New England. One of the factors “pushing” Puritans to leave England was their anxiety about their own economic status. Puritans tended to come from what was known as the “middling” classes. They were not generally wealthy, but they enjoyed financial independence and relative security. Economic changes in England, however, threatened the future security of some Puritans, and some of them were thus moving to America in search of greater economic security. In early-17th century England, there was a swelling class of paupers and drifters, and some Puritans feared that they too might end up impoverished, given the direction of economic change.

Not surprisingly, Puritan anxieties about their economic status had spiritual reverberations. Because of their great uncertainty about the state of their souls (would they be saved?), Puritans tended to look for “signs” of God’s favor. The best sign of God’s grace, of course, was a new birth or conversion experience, confirmed by a virtuous mode of life. Part of living a good life was working hard. And if hard work led to some worldly measure of success, then that too was a good sign that one lived in God’s grace. Although economic success or failure could not be taken as a certain indicator of grace, it was nevertheless a sign. Hard-working Puritans thus lived in fear that they might be reduced to poverty and dependence if they remained in England.

Once in New England, furthermore, generations of Puritan families found that with hard work and discipline, they could prosper on the land — sometimes gained only after conflict with Indians. Although they seldom gained great wealth, they often managed to secure independence and competence for themselves and their families. Their religious culture and even some of their laws discouraged profiteering, greed, and lavish consumption, but they very much valued the prospect of making a decent living.

(Although I haven’t reviewed it in some time, I am drawing here in part on Alan Taylor’s excellent chapters on New England in American Colonies, which is available on reserve in the Cofrin Library.)

“Early American Murder Narratives”

Reading: Karen Halttunen, “Early American Murder Narratives: The Birth of Horror,” in Richard W. Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds., The Power of Culture” Critical Essays in American History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993), 66-101.

In this masterful essay, Karen Halttunen not only traces an important cultural change — from the Puritan execution drama to the 18th-century murder narrative — but she also provides a compelling analysis of the significance of “the birth of horror.”

This essay requires careful reading. As Halttunen moves forward in time from the 1600s to the late 1700s and early 1800s, her argument becomes increasingly sophisticated, until she pulls everything together in the final few pages. Be sure to read the entire essay.

To understand Halttunen’s argument fully, it’s important to know how she uses the words liberal and liberalism. She is not referring to our modern-day political distinction between liberal and conservative. Instead, she is using liberal to refer to a worldview developed during the 18th-century intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. According to the liberal vision, human beings were essentially good, and they were able to act with a large measure of freedom. (Note the contrast with the 17th-century Puritan worldview, in which humans were essentially sinful and therefore had limited ability or freedom to pursue the good.) I’m going to leave it to you to figure out the role of liberalism in Halttunen’s argument, but know that it does figure into her central conclusions.

Here are several questions to consider as you read:

  1. Read the first two paragraphs of “Early American Murder Narrative” very closely. What change does Karen Halttunen say that she is exploring? What “historical significance” does she cite for her work?
  2. According to this essay, what important social and cultural functions were played by the Puritan ministers and Puritan beliefs, within the context of the execution drama? Does Halttunen cast Puritanism in a favorable or unfavorable light?
  3. How did post-1750 murder narratives differ from execution sermons? How did they explain evil?
  4. What major shifts or transitions does Halttunen describe? (From X to Y.)
  5. What’s the largest and most significant argument that Halttunen makes in this essay?

Note: If you found this article to be interesting, check out Halttunen’s book-length study of murder and horror, titled Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination.

p.s.–Karen Halttunen graciously posted a comment below, in which she poses a very interesting question. Take a look.

The Puritan Enterprise

Reading: Jim Cullen, “Dream of the Good Life (I): The Puritan Enterprise,” in The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), 11-34.

In the context of America, Puritanism refers to a joint religious and social movement, to an attempt on the part of thousands of reform-minded English Christians to establish Christian communities in New England in the early-to-mid 1600s. In the “Great Migration” of the 1630s, tens of thousands of Puritans crossed the Atlantic Ocean and undertook the difficult and often dangerous task of colonizing the “New England” region, substantially north of Virginia, an earlier British settlement. (Click for a map of early British settlements in North America.) While the Pilgrims (who founded Plymouth in 1620) had already given up on the established Church of England, the Puritans at least theoretically wanted to purify the church by stripping it down to its New Testament essentials. For all intents and purposes, though, when the Puritans forsook England for America, they were creating their own autonomous churches, which they hoped would be the center of their new towns. In leaving their homeland, then, they sought freedom, but it was a limited freedom, because they envisioned tight-knit and homogeneous communities.

In some cases, at least, they succeeded in creating such communities, even as they experienced their fair share of conflict. (Click here for a map of the New England colonies.) The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony featured an Indian and a plea to “come over and help us.”
Massachusetts Bay Seal
By the mid-1600s, Puritans did actually make efforts to convert Indians to Christianity, but they also brutally fought Indians (such as the Pequots) who refused to surrender valuable land. They hung several Quakers, who seemed a civil and religious threat, and even as their vision of a Christian commonwealth fell victim to imperial demands for toleration in the 1690s, they executed nearly twenty alleged witches on the basis of highly problematic evidence.

Puritan New England has alternately been conceived as a cradle of American democracy and a cauldron of American intolerance. Jim Cullen documents these ambiguities regarding Puritan New England, but he also finds something admirable in the “Puritan Enterprise,” — namely their “faith in reform” (15), which he sees as a fundamental component of the American Dream.

They sought to reform not only the church, but also society in general. Cullen doesn’t go into much detail about how they structured their society, but it’s worth noting that local congregations and town meetings lay at the heart of their social and political organization. Massachusetts Bay Colony was not a theocracy — the ministers did not rule. But the religious system did overlap with the political system. Each town taxed its residents to support the local church, which everyone was expected to attend. Up to the 1690s, in order to have the right to vote in colony-level elections, Massachusetts men (only men could vote) had to be full members of their local congregation, which is to say that they had to experience a spiritual conversion and satisfy their peers that they were good Christians. (Because of their “new birth” experiences and their history of upright behavior, the full church members were called “visible saints.”) Although Cullen doesn’t mention it, most towns had more inclusive policies for their town meetings, where all independent men could generally participate, regardless of their status in the church. (On this point, see Michael Zuckerman’s work on New England towns.)

Although some New England towns managed to sustain cohesive, Christian communities for a generation or so, as time went on, a variety of pressures damaged the enterprise. The growing white population of New England led to dispersion and also provoked intense and disruptive conflicts with the Indian inhabitants of the region. By the end of the century, too, the empire intervened and imposed toleration and severed the connection between church membership and voting. Puritanism was by no means dead, but during the 1700s it began to evolve in different directions, as David Hall suggests in his essay from the Companion to American Thought.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What core theological beliefs did Puritans share?
  2. Why did Puritan beliefs tend to cause them anxiety? What strategies did they develop for dealing with that anxiety?
  3. How did Puritans tend to define the good life?
  4. What problems undermined the Puritan experiment?
  5. What enduring influences might Puritanism have had on American culture?