Victor Nuovo: The mind of Jonathan Edwards
It is regrettable that Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) is mostly remembered for a sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” As his biographer Perry Miller once remarked, that sermon “did more to damage his reputation than all of his critics combined.”
However, a careful study of his writings, including his unpublished notebooks and journals, has caused a reassessment, and his reputation has grown, so much so that he is regarded as arguably the greatest American thinker of the colonial era. His writings reveal a thinker of deep philosophical and moral insight, which is rarely matched, and has not been surpassed to this day. They are expressions of a world class mind, and they range over every major problem of philosophy.
Best of all, one need not subscribe to his religious beliefs to be instructed by them.
Philosophically, Edwards was an idealist; a follower of the British philosopher, George Berkeley–pronounced Barklee (1685–1753). Edwards was persuaded by Berkeley that all reality is substantially mental or spiritual. We continue to perceive bodies as solid, and we’re certain that no two of them can occupy the same place; but this is just because we perceive them that way: esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived,” from which it follows that whatever is out of sight and out of mind, simply doesn’t exist.
We all have heard the timeworn question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears the sound of it, did it really fall?” Berkeley, and Edwards after him, had an answer ready: God who is omniscient, sees all things and knows them, including falling trees in deserted forests and foxes hidden in their holes.
Berkeley and Edwards had read the works of Isaac Newton (1643–1727) and when they walked into a forest and saw fallen trees, they knew how they got there. But the only way to be sure that they remained there when no one on earth was watching them, was to prove that they were still being watched. Like Isaac Newton, they believed that infinite space is God’s sensorium; it is alive with intelligence.
Berkeley was also a staunch empiricist, so was Edwards. They were schooled in John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1690) and learned from it that all our knowledge derives from experience, and that all experience derives from the perception of the senses.
Edwards’ desire to know was insatiable, and it caused him to be a keen observer of nature. Because he believed that all things happen only because God had willed them, and because he was certain that God never acted without purpose, he was confident that everything in nature was an expression of some divine intention or purpose. Rocks and rills, forests and meadows, night and day, the seasons, the passage of time, the ordinary activities of everyday life: they are all “Images or Shadows of Divine things,” which is the title of a notebook that he kept throughout his life. It expresses his firm belief that bodies and all other natural things, notwithstanding their bulk and solidity, are mere shadows of the spirit that made them and which they represent.
“Images and Shadows” consists of occasional observations and musings. It states no thesis, presents no argument. It is a collection of short prose poems, composed in the firm belief that everything has a divine meaning. “The works of God are but a kind of voice or language of God to instruct intelligent beings in things concerning himself.”He imagined God to be a great artist. All images and shadows are enlightening, but not all bring comfort. Many are discomfiting. For example, bubbles are images of vainglory: “A bubble when it is blown up, when it is come be largest and full of fine colors, is near breaking … it vanishes in a moment.’” Other examples are: “The mole opens not his eyes till he be dead,” or “The whole material universe is preserved by gravity or attraction, by the mutual tendency of all bodies … so that one part of the universe is hereby made beneficial to another. This is a type of love or charity in the spiritual world.”
The last observation provides the key to Edwards’
moral philosophy. “True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to Being in general. Or perhaps to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity, and union of heart to Being in general that is immediately exercised in a general good will.” Morality takes root in the love of nature, which is to say, of everything that has being.
It is commonly supposed that modern philosophy started with the reflections of René Descartes, who seated alone in his lodging close to a warm stove, attempted to unburden himself of all his beliefs; he tried to imagine that there was nothing at all, not even himself. In the end, he discovered that even such bold doubts could not erase the irrefutable fact of his own existence, although it required some effort to regain his confidence of the reality of universe around him.
Edwards was not bothered by such artificial doubts. He went about the world with his eyes wide open, impelled by a boundless curiosity in a world wonderfully diverse, and in all ways a challenge to the understanding. Besides, he had read Plato, and had learned from him how to think dialectically.
Among his early philosophical reflections is one asserting the irrationality of a belief in nothingness; he shows the incoherence of the very idea of it, for as soon as we attempt to say what nothing is, we grant that it exists. “Nothingness is …” No more needs be said.
It would be well if someone would teach this lesson to Donald Trump and his minions.
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