Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Thoreau was quite unhappy about slavery and about the Mexican War. (This would be the war that "freed" Texas from Mexico. The problem wasn't exactly the war, but what kind of state Texas would be if and when it was admitted to the Union. Would it be slave or free? And what were we doing slugging it out with Mexico over Mexico's own territory? Can you just invade a sovereign nation and grab the land because you want to? Lots of people were unhappy about the Iraq --oops -- Mexican war.)
Thoreau was so unhappy, he declined to pay his taxes, for which offense he spent a night in jail. While there, he discovered that his body could be locked up, but his mind was free to ramble, and it rambled right on over to considering who has the right to tell him what to do. The government, he decided, does not have the right to govern him in ways contrary to his own conscience. It must respect him as an individual; he does not owe it respect as a government, unless it keeps its end of the bargain.
In case you purged everything that came earlier in the semester, remember that this is straight out of Rousseau, who believed that the only legitimate government is the one that supports the rights of the individual. Further, Rousseau asserted that individuals who are NOT so supported can choose to opt out of being governed. Rousseau, remember, believed that people were basically good. It was only governments that were bad. Thoreau saw the obvious problem with this and decided to say that government attracts to itself people who are not as good, as intelligent, or as "able" as most people. It's a kind of idiot farm, really. And as such, nobody has to pay any attention to it if they don't want.
Does this seem simplistic? It's a little naive, for sure, because Thoreau was operating on the basic principal that people would, left to their own devices, treat each other well and do the right things. Obviously he had never heard of Enron. And too, he was living in Concord, not in a slum in New York or Philadelphia, where he might have been less charitable about his landlord.
At any rate, he wants to refuse to support the government the only way he can, which is to withhold his taxes. Not content with that, however, he reminds his neighbors that they, too, are acting immorally when they pay taxes to a corrupt government. Further, he reminds us that merely "voting right" is slactivism of the worst kind; it does nothing to better the condition of one's fellow man. Even further, he says that in a society that imprisons men unjustly (and he implies that he was himself unjustly jailed), the only place for a truly just person is in jail right alongside them.
To "opt out" of government may seem like a great idea, but there are problems. For one, even in Thoreau's time, the taxes did more than pay for wars; they built roads, schools, and provided courts and law enforcement. In our own time, we might complain about taxes, but we do not have the money ourselves to pave our own highways, build our own schools, or hire bodyguards to replace public police.
Another problem is that governments do, in fact, offer us a kind of protection and legitimacy that we take for granted because they are invisible. We are free to travel about the world as American citizens, and if we get into trouble abroad, the embassies are there to back us up (sometimes). Not having citizenship can be a real problem -- just ask the Palestinians.
A third problem is what to do with those who decide not to be governed. Do they have to live in a special no-service area? Do they have to pay to use roads and schools? To whom do they resign, anyway: "Dear Congress, I hereby declare that you don't govern me"?
Thoreau resigned from paying the mandatory tithe in Massachusetts by saying that he does not wish to be enrolled in any organization that he never joined in the first place. It seems simple enough. It's only when we apply that idea to citizenship itself that it becomes quite a thorny issue.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Emerson's house, The Old Manse (see the painting above), was an attractive one, large enough for his four children, plus servants, plus friends. Thoreau lived there for years, off and on. From the house, Emerson could stroll through peaceful woods and fields, where "Nature, red in tooth and claw" was rarely visible. Instead, his vision of Nature was one of peace and plenty, tamed by farms and made productive by farmers. Emerson could walk philosophically through rain and snow, knowing that his warm, snug abode lay nearby. That takes a lot of the sting out of the cold.
From this comfy position, it's possible for Emerson to write that Nature is a human being's spiritual guide, moral teacher, and source of wisdom. He can advocate contact with Nature as a cure for mental and physical disease, and can, without any sense of hypocrisy or irony, proclaim that Nature directs itself always to the good of humans, with a human-like benevolence. He doesn't mean, of course, that Nature "thinks" the way people think, but he does believe that it was designed (by exactly who or what, Emerson is vague) to benefit people.
Later in the 19th Century, people like Ambrose Bierce looked at this view of nature and scoffed mightily. They found it at best naive, and at worst, unforgiveably anthropocentric. In Emerson's world, humans are at the center of Nature, its point and focus. Nature reasons like a human, behaves like a human, and focuses creative energy on teaching humans and helping them develop sound bodies and minds. Nature functions a lot like a Boy Scout leader, to be honest. It's easy to believe in the utter goodness of Nature when one lives in Concord, and has scenes like the Old North Bridge, above, to comfort one. I still wonder, what would Emerson have thought if he'd lived in Canada and routinely been chased by mad walruses, or perhaps had his aunts nibbled by polar bears? I'm betting Nature wouldn't be so cuddly . . .
Henry David Thoreau, the Iconoclast of Concord, took Emerson at his word and set off, once, into the Maine woods, where he almost died from an overdose of Nature. The awareness that -- gasp -- Nature was indifferent to him created a crisis in his philosophy and a bit of a breach between himself and Emerson. Thoreau remained a Transcendentalist, but he backed way off from the idea that Nature is aware of humans and wants to help them. I think this is the saner, and safer, position.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
What makes Edgar Allan Poe "gothic" as opposed to merely another overwrought Romantic, staring down the abyss? The concept of the sublime only sort-of comes into play with Poe. I'd venture to say that none of his settings fall into the "sublime" category of nature that Romantics were so fond of, but his storms do. The thunderstorm in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is definately siblime. And, happily, it scares the mortal poo out of everyone. I digress. "Ligeia" has so many gothic elements, it's hard to list them all, but you can't go wrong with dead women, weird turreted bedrooms, Medieval wall hangings, and the suggestion of madness and decay. Don't forget ghosts, suspected vampires, and unreliable narrators.
Yet another Poe question intrigues me. He writes in the first person so that he can show the interiority of his narrators -- their emotions, thoughts, fears, and insanity -- in ways that you just can't do with an external narrator. This limits him, though, because it means that his narrators always have to survive. You know at the beginning of a first-person story that the narrator isn't going to croak at the end of it; otherwise how would that person finish the tale? Does this survival-of-the-narrator strategy hurts the overall horror factor of Poe's tales? I kind of think it does, because I'm always thinking, "If this was so scary, how did you make it out?" I suppose this is a good place to remember the differences between terror and horror.
One of the characteristics of literature of this period is its unwillingness to do all the work for the reader. The endings of everything from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to "Ligeia" leave the reader with questions. Why do these writers refuse to tie up all the loose ends, and how does that reflect the ideas of literary Romanticism?
Let's see, we might also find ourselves discussing the condition of women in the 19th Century and the things that shaped that condition -- Romanticism, Christianity, and the American legal system come to mind. How do women fare in the stories and poems we read these past few weeks? Which writers seem sympathetic to women, and which are clearly not?
Sojourner Truth can obviously be paired with Phillis Wheatley, although their lives never overlapped. The contrasts between the two are more important than the similarities, but one has to wonder what ST would have been like if she'd had Wheatley's education. Perhaps she would not have been as forceful an advocate for justice; the experience of injustice at the hands of her owners is what made her so adamant to protect others, after all. Wheatley was less an abolitionist because she had no abuse or injustice to protest. This lack of personal experience in injustice is also what kept a number of women quiet on the subject of women's rights. They were comfortable, and felt that other women's discomfort was their own fault.
One of the characteristics of Romantic literature is the unreliable narrator, or the unreliable experience. It would be helpful to think about the ways that Goodman Brown's experiences may or may not be real, and the ways the narrator in "Ligeia" might be unreliable. Come to think of it, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" may be pulling our leg, and so might "The Raven." I see a trend.
Some short takes: It's good to know the ways that the Enlightenment and Romanticism opposed one another. Situate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Fenimore Cooper in the same philosophical box, too, in their treatment of Native Americans. Women and slaves have some of the same problems, but not the same solutions.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
In an essay entitled "Theme and Parody in 'The Raven,'" Dennis Eddings has made a nicely substantiated case for Poe's most famous poem to have been a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the outrageous gothic poetry of his day. Eddings contends that Poe was too good a poet to make the kinds of mistakes that we see all over "The Raven."
Remember, Poe was a literary critic as well as a poet and short-story writer. He was deservedly famous for his acerbic comments about other people's work and some people read his critiques for the pleasure of his cutting remarks. He saved his particular nastiness for the group of poets who later got named -- hysterically, in every sense of the word -- the Spasmodics.
He accused this group of being overly self-absorbed, hystrionic, unreasonable, sloppy, and careless of rhythm, phrase, and tone. By the 1840's Poe was very much dissatisfied with the Romantics and particularly with Romantic poetry.
If we look at "The Raven" as a parody, some things make sense. All of the little mistakes (like uncertain rustlings of curtains and "tinkling" footsteps on carpet), become deliberate mockery of poets who got those things wrong on purpose. The progression of the narrator from merely gloomy to absolutely plunged into the depths of despair, and all this because he's talking to a bird, takes on a new, and far less sinister, meaning. The narrator is one of those ridiculous Romantics, who cannot keep himself from falling into his own navel.
Poe frequently said, in critiquing poetry toward the end of his life, that the unrestrained imagination leads to a "dead end." Eddings makes the case that, for the narrator in "The Raven," this is exactly what happens -- he gets more and more worked up by his own imagination, and winds up stuck in the dark with a talking bird. Hardly a helpful place to be.
Possibly the most conclusive evidence that Poe is satirizing Romantic poetry lies in the form of "The Raven" itself. It is exactly the same form that Elizabeth Barrett (later Browning) used in her poem "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." Poe had reviewed Barrett's poetry unfavorably, so it's unlikely that he copied the poem for purposes of flattery. Instead, he seems to be doing, in "The Raven," everything that he criticized in Browning.
What did Poe say about the poem? He didn't get a chance to say, "Hey, this is satire!" because when it was published, it became a huge hit, and he never had the nerve to say, "Just kidding."
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Ingredients of Gothic Fiction
- exotic locations -- look for haunted moors, craggy landscapes, and lots of fog; thunderstorms are popular, too, preferably supernaturally strong ones
- Medieval-ish settings -- castles and manor houses, often haunted, usually dark and foreboding, inhabited by people wearing old-fashioned clothing and looking deathly pale
- helpless women -- think Kate Capshaw's character in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. These women scream a lot, wear filmy nightgowns at inappropriate times, and faint inconveniently.
- supernatural elements -- we prefer, of course, the spirits of the vengeful dead, but any spirits will do. Don't forget the malevolent house, the haunted bridge, and the demonic forest.
- Various mysterious maladies -- think bizarre inherited diseases, curses from beyond the grave, dark family secrets, and all kinds of neuroses, twitches, and nervous tics
- Strange and terrible events -- for a given value of strange and terrible, of course. The 19th C. version of gothic horror can't match modern horror movies, but a good gothic story will suggest all kinds of torments, physical, mental, spiritual.
- Generalized anxiety -- the reader experiences sensations of suspense and dread
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Rousseau's life, spanning the years 1712-1778, was marked with controversy, both because of his philosophy and because he was apparently a really annoying person. In addition to fathering a tribe of illegitimate children for whom he took no responsibility, he quarreled with everybody, even people who agreed with him, sort of like Thomas Paine with better brains.
The Short Course in Rousseau looks like this:
- Modern civilization is bad for people. It makes them soft, lazy, and unnatural.
- People in their natural, uncivilized state, are inherently noble, for a given value of noble.
- All natural appetites and impulses are good and healthy. Attempts to stifle these by "civilizing" are unhealthy and anti-human.
- The only legitimate government is one that has the universal approval of the governed, acting according to their aggregate wishes. (And what planet was Rousseau on where this is even slightly likely?)
- The truly noble, honest human is the savage, whose life has not been blighted by European culture.
- Studying the arts and sciences just produces more culture, which creates weak people.
Rousseau's philosophy increases in popularity after his death, and will inform much of American literature in the first half of the 19th Century. The concept of the noble savage is his, and it creates a renewed interest in the Native Americans, who are in short supply on the east coast of America and therefore safe to idealize. (Nobody suggests that those savages bashing brains on the frontier are noble. They must have been "civilized.") Literary romanticism, with its idealization of the natural world, the natural man, and raw, unfiltered emotions, comes straight from Rousseau. It will lead everywhere from Poe to Whitman, so buckle up.
Rousseau's major works include his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, (1750), wherein he explained how the study of arts and sciences perpetuates the corrupting influence of modern society. Anything that could remotely be labeled "cultural" was helping to perpetuate oppression of the individual. The notable exception to this was music, which Rousseau loved, performed, and wrote.
The Social Contract (1762) described the problem of government: we need to be organized somehow, but most of the ways to do it (monarchy for example) are wrong. Government needs to reflect the will of the people, banding together for the common good. Any person who wants can opt out of this system and be free of the government. I over-simplify, of course, but this is the gist. Note the emphasis on the individual, for whom the state exists. This opposes the more common European scheme, where the state exists for the individual to serve.
Emile, or On Education (1762) proposed the ideal education for a young man, one that was directed by his own natural inclinations rather than by a state intent on "civilizing" him and bringing his desires and expectations into line with conventional thought. In this polemical novel, Rousseau also asserts that women exist only to serve and please men, and bear children. Goodbye Enlightenment ideas about equality.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Ben Franklin and women: Of all the Founding Fathers, Franklin is the one who had the most forward-looking attitude about women. From his early Silence Dogood letters, through the "Polly Baker" satire, and all the way to his abolitionist activities at the end of the century, Franklin affirms that women have just as much ability to reason, learn, and be productive intellectuals as men have. In fact, he asserts that the reason women seem preoccupied with trivia is because they aren't encouraged to read and think and wrestle with bigger issues. Abigail Adams agrees with him; Phillis Wheatley is evidence for his point of view, and yet, the Revolution doesn't improve conditions for women at all. Why do you suppose that was?
John Locke and human worth: How can a nation that proclaims "liberty and justice for all," allow the ownership of slaves? Are the Founding Fathers being hypocritical, or expedient, or what? This is one of those questions that plagues me, because I think they really did not see Africans and women as "people" in the Lockian sense, and THAT raises a whole 'nother set of issues, doesn't it?
Slave narratives and captivity narratives -- Once again, we have similarities that, if people were paying attention, would have screamed "Slavery is wrong!" Like Mary Rowlandson and the Puritans before his time, Olaudah Equiano compares himself and his fellow slaves to the Jews in Egypt. His compares his journey to the journey of the children of Israel out of slavery and into freedom. As some people pointed out in class, it's not quite the same thing, though. Even though Equiano gains his freedom, he doesn't get to go home. His family, his culture, his whole world is gone. It would be wise to be able to compare the two genres, and contrast them, too.
Thomas Jefferson and John Locke: Go ahead. Make my day. Explain how Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is based in Locke's philosophy. This is so easy, it's like taking back the country from the British.
Jonathan Edwards and God: While we're explaining things, it might be good to think about how Jonathan Edwards, that uber-Puritan, that throwback to the austere faith of his fathers, was also a revolutionary. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is certainly a hellfire and brimstone sermon, but it's not conventionally Puritan because of the freedom of choice it offers. What does that mean, do you think? Is Edwards going soft? Is Puritanism changing? Has somebody figured out that Calvinism has huge problems? Inquiring minds want to know.
Jefferson and the aristocrats: Yes, I almost typed "Aristocats," which was a Disney movie, I think. Jefferson advoated an aristocracy of ability, not birth. What do you think he meant? I wonder what talents we need now, to create an aristocracy of merit. We tend to confuse "celebrity" with aristocracy, so we have famous people who are of absolutely no benefit to society. We have very talented, helpful people who cannot get anything done for our society because they aren't famous, or because their ideas are unpopular. Jefferson would, I think, be spinning in his grave if he could see who Americans venerate now. What has changed that makes us value Paris Hilton, say, as some sort of aristocrat?
Wheatley and poetry -- you'd better believe you're going to have to explain what makes her a.) neo-classical and b.) derivative.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
In Hawthorne's case, though, I have to make an exception. His great-great-great grandfather, William Hathorne, was one of the Puritans to come to the Massachusetts Bay Colony after the first wave of colonists. He quickly became a judge in Salem, and if the Puritans had been given to levity at all, his name would have been Hanging Bill. He was widely known for the harsh penalties he doled out. His son, John, was one of the judges in the witch trials, and not surprisingly, given who his father was, the only judge who never repented of his actions. Not a snuggly family.
By the time Nathaniel's father, Nathaniel Sr., came along, the family was in rather reduced circumstances, and Nathaniel Sr. was the captain of a merchant ship. He died in Suriname when his son was quite young, and from then on, the family lived in a variety of places in New England, with a variety of relatives. None of them stuck in Nathaniel's mind quite like Salem.
When he was in his twenties, Hawthorne added the "w" to his name for reasons he declined to specify, at least anywhere we can find them. Most people feel he was trying to distance himself from his Puritan ancestors and their harsh ideas about justice. If this was the case, he certainly didn't avoid the topic of Salem, Puritanical hypocrisy, or injustice masquerading as morality. Most of his short stories and novels deal with some form of those topics.
A lot of high school students have to read The Scarlet Letter, and because they are young and (we hope) haven't had much experience of a.) adultery, b.) Puritans, and c.) subtle psychological torture, they miss most of the fine points. The short story "Young Goodman Brown," also a high school favorite, shares many of these same components, with a large dollop of allegory thrown in for free. Hawthorne was very gifted at subtle plot gestures, which is why people still read him.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
I have some theories, but that's all they are. I think the first one goes back to the Puritans' love for education and their need for an educated clergy. They didn't just let anybody preach who might have felt led to do so. Preachers had to have a college education, so they could rightly instruct the flock. As a matter of fact, one popular speaker at Old North Church (Second Church) was denied the pulpit because he had not been sufficiently educated.
These people founded Harvard, remember, when they were still swatting Native Americans with one hand and starving with the other. I don't think that education equals writing NOW, but it surely did then, and the New Englanders had the possibly correct view that before you could spill wisdom OUT of your brain, you had to put some IN.
In any event, there's an amazing group of writers I can find here in Boston and the nearby areas. In addition to our Revolutionaries, Franklin, Adams, and Hamilton, we will later find Nathaniel Hawthorne (a descendant of one of the Salem judges), Bronson Alcott and his daughter, Louisa May, Ralph W. Emerson in Concord, and his friend Henry David Thoreau. When we expand our writers to the Northeast, it includes almost everybody -- Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Washington Irving. The only person south of the Mason-Dixon Line is Edgar Allan Poe.
While I think the Harvard influence accounts for some of it, I suspect that the focus of attention in the southern states was different. For one thing, the communities south of Philadelphia were smaller (with the exception of Charleston, SC), and more agricultural. For another, people weren't as likely to be educated, or to own many books beside the Bible. Obviously there were exceptions, particularly in Virginia and South Carolina, but the general thrust of intellectual life in the south is not literary.
And there's this. If you're going to enslave people, you can't think about it too much. Slavery becomes a deterrent to intellectual growth, and that includes writing and literary effort, because it is very hard to support the inhumane treatment of humans, if one spends any time at all thinking about it. The northern colonies relinquished slavery pretty quickly, in part, at least, because they didn't have huge farms that needed armies of farmworkers. The south felt that it couldn't let go of the free labor. I'm not saying this was the only literary difference, but it has to be on the table.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The thing that took me to the BPL is that it houses 2,700 volumes of John Adams' 3,500 volume personal library. Mind you, it's not the easiest thing in the world to find. It's on the third floor in the Rare Book and Manuscript Room, a beautifully appointed space at the end of a maze of seemingly dead-end corridors and tatty storage areas. Odd beyond odd.
Why is Adams' library so important? Because information is important, that's why, and in Adams' day, books were the only avenue to much of that information. We are so used to multiple channels of learning -- texts, video, Internet, even teachers -- we forget that in the 18th Century, if you wanted to learn about anything, you needed a book. Since lending libraries wouldn't be around for another 200 years, you needed to OWN the book, or have access to someone willing to loan you such a valuable thing.
Books, even those published in America, were expensive to produce. People didn't waste publishing resources on trivia, so you would not see copies of, say, Lusty Witches of Salem. What almost every household did have was a Bible, and often some books of sermons, and maybe a translation of a Latin rhetorician, to teach logic. After that, the more wealthy households would have books of poetry from England and France, works of major Roman thinkers like Cicero and Cato, and sometimes the philosophical volumes of Rousseau, Locke, and Kant.
Reading these works would be an education in itself, and true education was impossible without access to books. This is why Benjamin Franklin's ready access to a library is so important. He needs to know so many things, and books are his only avenue for finding them. Remember, his father didn't keep him in school, so he absolutely had to self-educate.
Adams, being a lawyer, had a somewhat specialized library of law books, many of whom he bought from the estate of his foremost law professor. He also had some amazingly interesting books that he commented on extensively in the margins. The surprising member of this collection? A very heavily annotated copy of An Historical and Moral View of the Progress of the French Revolution, by Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Wallstonecraft (later) Shelley, author of the novel Frankenstein. That Adams owned and extensively used this volume is astounding, given Wallstonecraft's well-known assertions that women were intellectually equal to men and should be given equal education and civil rights.
I would like to see what Adams wrote in the margins of this book, but I lack the nerve. Anyone at all can request access to Adam's books; you only have to know the name of the book and have a plausible reason for wanting to study it. If it's not out touring as part of an exhibit, the staff will bring it to you in a small reading room, and keep a beady eye on you while you use it. I couldn't bring myself to do this, because curiosity isn't a good enough reason to be allowed to handle a book, and I wasn't really going to lie about being an Adams' scholar.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
1754-63 The French and Indian War. England and France have been at war for 1200 years, but this time they got smart and decided not to fight it on their own soils. A young George Washington is less than stellar in this series of bloody skirmishes.
1760 King George III crowned. Just because you’re born in a royal bed doesn’t mean you’ve got good sense. He wound up talking to trees.
1765 The Stamp Act and the Quartering Act piss off the colonies. Quartering is particularly abominable, because nobody wants a houseful of rambunctious, hungry soldiers . . .
1768 . . . who arrive in Boston because Parliament has heard that its taxes are unpopular . . .
1770 . . . and kill people because they don't have anything else to do. The Boston Massacre is proof that armies need to be kept busy, or they'll get into trouble.
1773 The Sons of Liberty throw tea in Boston Harbor as a gesture of defiance. People start drinking bergamot tea, which is a gesture of gastronomic stupidity.
1774 First Continental Congress meets, and meets, and meets.
1775 The Second Continental Congress meets and eventually adopts the Declaration of Independence, which is Thomas Jefferson sounding more like John Locke than John Locke. War breaks out, more or less.
1778 The French, seeing an opportunity to REALLY get even with England over the whole F&I war, support the rebellion, pretty much guaranteeing a win.
1781 Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown, stunning the British, who declared early that it would all be over by teatime, Christmas at the latest.
1783 The Treaty of Paris – America is a nation, and Britain is broke.
1787 The Constitutional Convention finally creates a government. For several years, we were running on adrenaline, apparently.
And these uniforms don't look silly at all. As a matter of fact, the red ones are just perfect for fighting in a wilderness setting.
The writers of the Revolution -- Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine -- were men of passionate rhetoric and (except for Paine) remarkable intelligence and diplomacy.
The post-revolutionary writers, architects of the new government -- James Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton -- were a lot duller, but necessary. If Thomas Paine wrote the constitution, Ron Paul would have been canonized by now.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Thursday, September 17, 2009
In 17th Century Europe, philosophers realized that Galileo was right about the universe. It did seem to be governed by "natural" laws that did not require supernatural intervention. Even though this was not called the Age of Enlightenment until the 1770's, my own personal date for its beginning is with René Descartes and the publication of his Principles of Philosophy in 1644.
The short-short version of Cartesian philosophy is this: People can use reason -- the ability to think about things -- to learn truth. Aristotle had asserted that experience was the only valid teacher, and all truth could be derived from it. Descartes said that some things were accessible only through reason, but they are still true. He also affirmed that natural laws could govern the world without help from supernatural sources. Finally, Descartes is responsible for the "mind-body split" that divides the world into material objects and the mind that thinks about them. "Mind," for Descartes, is close to being what "God" is to William Bradford.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Troubling Question #1: Why did the Puritans' "City on a Hill" go down the tubes?
There are lots of good ways to answer this, and most of them have to end somewhere around the "nobody's perfect" statement. It's hard to create a perfect society with imperfect humans. One answer has to come, though, from Christianity itself. Can anybody show me any place in the New Testament, where God tells Christians to separate themselves from the world and set up a government? I thought not. A religion that concerns itself primarily with the relationship of individuals to God is not going to make a good framework for a theocracy. Plus, have you ever noticed that in theocratic governments, it's always some human calling the shots?
Troubling Question #2: Why did William Bradford hate Thomas Morton so much?
Again, this can go a lot of ways, but we do have to consider how this relates to the "City on a Hill." If you are going to establish a Perfect Society, it helps if everybody's on the same page about what that is. Imagine how angry Bradford must have been when he saw Morton throwing parties and consorting with natives and (shudder) dancing. We just can't have a perfect City on a Hill with him whooping it up next door. Worse, people were starting to look at the activities at Merrymount and think, "Hmmm, that looks like more fun than listening to five sermons a week." Obviously, Morton has to go.
Troubling Question #3: What role does humility play in Puritan literature?
Most of the virtues practiced by the Puritans would be considered legalistic in even the most conservative churches today, but humility is one they got right. When we read Bradford and Anne Bradstreet, and even Mary Rowlandson, the striking thing we see is each writer's humility before God and before other people. Bradstreet, who clearly has a poetic gift, doesn't brag about it, and did not consent to the publication of her work. Rowlandson, who has been dragged into the wilderness and suffered atrocious treatment, says it's no more than she deserves. Bradford is so humble, he never even mentions himself by name in his history of Plymouth. More deeply, no Puritan writer will ever blame God for his or her difficulties, despite believing that both good and evil come from God. Why? Because the Puritans recognized that God's ways are not their ways, and God's thoughts are not their thoughts. They did not feel that God owed them an explanation, nor did He have to justify Himself to them. Who were they to call God on the carpet?
Troubling Question #4: What was Cotton Mather thinking when he said, "If a drop of Innocent Blood should be shed in the prosecution of the Witchcrafts among us, how unhappy are we! . . . But on the other side, if the storm of justice do now fall only on the heads of those guilty, Witches and Wretches which have defiled our land, How Happy!"
Cotton Mather has always bothered me. His writing borders on incomprehensible in places, and when we CAN comprehend it, we often wish we didn't. I have to keep reminding myself that belief in witchcraft and in supernatural explanations for natural things was not just common -- it was the default belief. It still troubles me that he could believe people like George Burroughs and Rebecca Nurse guilty of malevolence, based on nothing more than dreams and visions. The trouble with this kind of thing is that we're always ready to believe evil of people we don't like and disagree with, even now. Sigh.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
It's when someone sees the "spectre," or apparition, of another person, doing some evil act. The actual person can be miles away at the time, but witches were believed to lend the devil their bodily form, and further, people believed that the devil could not assume their appearances unless they gave permission.
This is how people could be convicted of acts of witchcraft despite being able to prove that they were nowhere near the scene of the acts. Their "spectres" were there, and that was enough. Sometimes these spectres showed up in other people's dreams, and this was also admissable as evidence. A huge number of the accused in Salem were imprisoned on the basis of spectral evidence, against which there was no defense. If someone says they saw your apparition doing something evil, you would not be able to prove that it wasn't.
Increase Mather was so deeply troubled by the abuses inherent in this, that he wrote a letter urging judges to admit spectral evidence only as support for stronger, empirical evidence. By itself, Mather decreed, the evidence was worthless. The devil could certainly assume the form of an innocent person as well as a guilty one, and therefore innocent Christians would suffer.
The end of spectral evidence put an end to the witch trials. It seems that actual, physical proof wasn't thick on the ground, and in the years following, judges like Samuel Sewell would repent of their use of it.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Nonetheless, what we will find in William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, and Mary Rowlandson, is the unwavering conviction that the Seperatists in America are God's chosen people, the New Israel, sent to take hold of the New Canaan, the promised land of America.
In 1630, the Puritan preacher John Winthrop, in talking to a boatload of Pilgrims bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, famously said "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken... we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God... We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going."
No pressure here.
(Essay test question: What does it mean to be "A city on a hill," and does America still consider itself one? Why or why not?)
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
If we want to understand William Bradford and the Puritans, we have to wrestle with the problem of evil. How do we reconcile the following facts?
1. God is omnipotent.
2. God is good.
3. Evil exists in the world.
The study of the problem of evil is called theodicy, and it goes back as far as human thought can be traced, so let's not expect too much of our own quick overview. In short, many modern theologians take the view that God has imposed limits on His own omnipotence in order to allow human beings to truly have free will. This means that people have the ability to make real choices, and those choices are not restricted by God in any way. Since this means that people can choose evil -- intentional, malevolent harm -- evil exists.
The Puritans weren't having any of this "God limits Himself" stuff, and they also did not believe in free will. Strict Calvinism means that people are following God's script to the letter and cannot deviate from it, even if they want to. That lead the Puritans to believe that the fourth part of the syllogism above must be:
4. God is responsible for evil as well as good.
Nevermind that this is a direct contradiction to scripture; it is the central tenet of Puritan religious thought. If evil happens, God caused it, NOT merely "allowed" it. If something evil happens to an individual -- let's say the savages murder a child -- it's because God is punishing that individual for something he or she did. This is why, when his wife is dying, Cotton Mather is downstairs in his study, asking God what he did wrong, instead of upstairs comforting her.
Other solutions for the problem of evil exist, and the thinking person has to sort it out for himself, or herself. The Puritan view is probably not your best option.
Monday, August 24, 2009
1001 Leif Ericsson settles somewhere in America. Since the Vikings were kicking mortal hell out of everybody in Europe, no one cares much about how far away they get. Plus, the Vikings did not know Rule One.
1492 The rest of Europe catches on that there's Something Out There. Columbus mistakes the Bahamas for India.
1497-1506 Amerigo Vespucci explores Central and South America. Bad news for the natives.
1524 Giovanni Da Verrazzano explores the east coast of North America.
1565 Permanent Spanish settlement at St. Augustine in what is now Florida.
1607 John Smith and his crew of entrepreneurs establish Jamestown, England's first permanent settlement, in what is now Virginia.
1619 Slaves arrive in Jamestown from Africa. If you want to know how far slavery goes back in America, the answer is "all the way."
1620 The Puritans land at Plymouth and set up another English colonial outpost in what is now Massachusetts.
1630 The Massachusetts Bay Colony is founded by Puritans, for Puritans. John Winthrop, not William Bradford, is the first governor. Bradford was the governor of the Plymouth Colony, to the south.
1636 Puritans create Harvard College. Yes, it really is this old.
1637 Thomas Morton writes New English Caanan, complaining about the Puritans' treatment of everyone. He has also sold rifles to the natives, resulting in much colonial bloodshed.
1642 Civil war in England, as Oliver Cromwell attempts to reform everything. Ask how the Levellers fared in this bid for freedom and democracy.
1650 Anne Bradstreet writes poetry in America. You may find yourself wishing she hadn't.
1656 The Quakers show up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans are not amused, but then, they're never amused. Puritans are not big on other people's religious freedom.
1675 Mary Rowlandson is kidnapped by the natives. Her experiences will become the hugely popular Narrative of Captivity and Restoration. This year also sees the brief, bloody war between Indians and Colonists, known as King Philip's War.
1692 Strict Puritanism falters in New England, and Satan must be the culprit. The Salem witch trials begin.
1693 Cotton Mather writes his spiritual history of the Puritans in America, The Wonders of the Invisible World. This book adds fuel to the witch trials and establishes Mather as more literary than his father, Increase.
1697 Samuel Sewall confesses that his condemnation of innocent people as witches was a sin. Over a dozen jurors and judges will similarly apologize for the deaths they caused.