A review of Moral Education at Seventeenth-Century Harvard: A Discipline in Transition, by Norman Fiering
An accurate assessment of 17th-century Puritan thought may help us to understand better why America turned out as well as it did. If it is true, as I think, that our Founders tempered their embrace of John Locke's prosaic modernism with a nobler concern for the promotion of human excellence, the Puritans deserve part of the credit.
Since Perry Miller published The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939), scholars have been aware of "the extent and depth of Puritan rationalism" (Fiering, p. 248). Nevertheless, most Americans continue to associate Puritanism with an intense religiosity to the point of superstition and an intellectual life of sectarian narrowness. Although it was not the main purpose of his book to do so, Fiering confirms and in some ways sharpens Miller's thesis, through his careful review of the way moral philosophy was taught at Harvard during the 17th century.
For all its elegance and erudition, Miller's work suffers from the historicist bias of its author: that there is a single New England "mind" that agrees on all fundamentals. Norman Fiering's book, by contrast, documents that two leading positions regarding morality-the "intellectualist" and the "voluntarist"-contended more or less openly at Harvard, the center of the life of the mind in New England. The "intellectualist" view, which tended to predominate, maintained that "The end of moral philosophy is human happiness; i.e., the sort of state as perfect as possible for man, prescribed by correct natural reason for his life on earth among men" (p. 63, quoting Burgersdyck, a prominent author read at Harvard). This position stems from Artisotle's Nicomachean Ethics, especially as the teaching of that book was domesticated within Christianity by Thomas Aquinas. The "voluntarist" view, on the other hand, argues that man's excellence consists in his will or passions attaching themselves to their proper object-namely, God. Christian voluntarism tends to deny to unassisted human reason the capacity to discover in nature and to follow true principles of right conduct (the natural law), and it thereby makes revelation and divine grace all-important, not only for the life to come, but even "on earth among men."
American Puritans were never quite willing thus to secure piety at the expense of the intellect, and so an Aristotelian rationalism coexisted (sometimes uneasily) with Calvinist suspicion of a human nature corrupted by the Fall. Although Cotton Mather, for example, regarded "the employing of so much Time upon Ethicks in our Colledges" as "A Vile Peece of Paganism"-he would have preferred that future ministers "Study no other Ethics, but what is in the Bible"– his view remained in the minority among the educated (p. 40). Nevertheless, Mather's worry was understandable, for the intellectualist might be tempted to "give out, as if saving Grace and Morality [based on human reason] were the same"-a view that was widespread by 1674, if we are to believe Mather's father Increase (p. 40).
All this is brought out well by Fiering, although his own leading concern lies elsewhere. The principal thesis of his book is that Protestant voluntarism, as expressed by such English writers as Henry More and Theophilus Gale, helped prepare the way for the "sentimentalist" school of eighteenth-century British ethics, represented especially by the Scottish moralist Francis Hutcheson. "The sentimentalists argue that the source of moral judgments and of moral conduct is in special feelings or affections, rather than in reason or intellect, and that man is naturally endowed with such moral affections" (p. 5). Fiering does show convincingly that the theories of the will and the passions developed by More, Gale, and their Protestant predecessors possess "an inner affinity" with sentimentalism-except for their overriding religiosity. But this means there remains an unbridgeable difference. Like the medieval Mutakallimun complained of by Maimonides, these Protestants "considered how being ought to be in order that it should furnish a proof for the correctness of a particular opinion [namely, Christian faith], or at least not refute it" (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, I, 71). Fiering himself says of More that "his writing was suffused with pietistic warmth, even an evangelical strain" (p. 240). The sentimentalist school, on the other hand, begins from a strictly philosophical attempt, completely separate from the convictions of faith, to understand morality and the passions on the basis of the teachings of Descartes and his successors.
Fiering probably overrates the connection between Puritan voluntarism and modern sentimentalism because of his historicist bias, which he accepts "as a matter of faith" (p. 4): that the thought of human beings is to be explained by the concept of a "history of ideas," according to which ideas are caused by previous ideas or by "preexisting cultural conditions involving society, politics, and economics." Such a scheme reduces faith and reason to a common level that implicitly denies dignity to both, for faith claims to come from God, while reason claims independent insight into the things themselves. Neither, in its own self-understanding, can be understood by reference to history.
In spite of this important reservation, Fiering has written a very useful book. His painstakingly conscientious-sometimes tedious-study of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Puritan writings enables his reader to see the issues that the early Americans wrestled with. Because he presents such detailed exegeses of a variety of texts, the reader is given a more reliable picture of Puritan thought than that dispensed in sweeping surveys like Perry Miller's. Further, Fiering helpfully places the writings he examines into the larger picture of developments in European philosophy and theology, so that their rank and uniqueness may better be assessed.
A proper appreciation of the course of early American moral and political thought is complicated by the rise of the distinctively modern approach in such authors as Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza. At first this approach had its strongest effect in Europe, but since America looked to Europe for almost all of its reading matter and many of its professors, the modernist influence soon made itself felt in America. We may judge something of the temper of that influence from this description by an observer of Leiden University in Holland during the 1670s: "No one speaks to [our youth] any more of Religion or of the Catechism. One begins and ends with a Cartesian seminar where one must doubt of all things, even of whether there is a God. If by chance the Bible is spoken of, this is greeted with a laugh; as a book full of errors, not to be put on a level with the light of nature" (quoted by Fiering, p. 98). One wonders how much of the free-thinking spirit secretly insinuated itself into New England at this time.
Although modern authors were widely read and celebrated in the period leading up to the American Revolution, they were read partly in light of the tradition of classical rationalism that had already taken firm root in Puritan New England (and elsewhere in the colonies). Fiering's book bolsters the case of those, such as Harry V. Jaffa, who maintain that America's version of Lockeanism was shaped by the spirit of classical political philosophy, which had an important place in the education of the Founders.