The Growth of Philosophy in America
Theosophical Quarterly, April, 1908
It has long been a conviction of mine, that when the American genius awakens, when America realizes the existence of the spiritual world, this young nation will turn to the problem of spiritual life with a faith, an immediate will, an unhesitating and hearty certainty, which have rarely been equaled in human history. The American people already have one of the supreme qualities of the mystic, the immediate action of the will, which turns conviction into act. There is no lingering, no vague and wasteful dreaming, no speculating too finely on the event, none of that weak diffuseness which sharply distinguishes the dreamer from the real mystic. As soon as a conviction is reached, it is acted upon, with faith, with enthusiasm, and the joy and gladness which go with confident, positive power. Owing to this very power of immediacy, of instant will, we see in America a materialism more complete, more sweeping, more triumphant in detail, than anything known to human experience. Having determined to conquer material forces, material powers, material obstacles, the Americans go at them with a vigor and nerve that carry all before them. They have implicit faith in themselves, implicit faith in the power of the will, and there is none of that fatal leakage between thought and action, which has rendered the plans of so many gifted peoples and persons null and void. One of our comic papers had a story the other day which illustrates this. A small boy was being put to bed, and, before saying his prayers, was being instructed in the rudiments of religion. His mother told him that the great Father of all was in every place, filling the whole of His world with His divine Presence. The little boy listened eagerly, and then asked: “God is everywhere?” “Yes!” answered his mother. “God is here, in this house?” “Yes, dear!” “Right here in this room?—here quite close to me?” “Yes, dear!” answered the mother. The small boy sat up in bed and remarked, with cheery conviction, “Hello, God!”
When the American genius awakes to the presence and immediacy of divine life, it will do exactly the same. It will turn that conviction into immediate action, following after sacrifice and aspiration as swiftly, with as whole-hearted, cheerful faith, as it now follows after the conquest of material forces. And the result will be a power that will raise humanity.
An immense service has been rendered to American thought by the writing of a recent book entitled “American Philosophy, the Early Schools,” by Isaac Woodbridge Riley. He has shown, and shown with admirable lucidity and cogency, that American thought has already a consistent being, reached through a development of nearly three centuries, and producing at least two mystics of undoubted genius; and this steady growth in the past is the best possible reason for belief that American thought will produce even greater fruit in the future. Dr. Riley, though preserving an admirable impartiality throughout, and doing ample justice to all schools, mystic or materialist, Puritan or Deist, has an evident bent toward mysticism himself, and his purpose in this volume seems to be, to lead gradually up to Emerson, and to show that Emerson is, on the one hand, a genuine child of American thought, a genuine successor to many American thinkers of less renown but of undoubted force, and, on the other, a really original genius, a connnanding figure in the history of modern philosophic thought.
One of the most enlightening things in this very enlightening book is, it seems to me, the way in which Dr. Riley shows how the philosophical speculation of different periods of American history was related to the political life of these periods, and, further, how different tendencies found their expression in different parts of the country. Thus
“in its broader aspects the North stood for idealism, the South for materialism, and the Middle States for the mediating philosophy of common sense. In addition to this broader distribution there was a more precise localization of the philosophical schools, since the places where they originated also depended upon the periods in which they originated. Here the larger colonial colleges, almost in the order of their founding, constituted so many radiating centers of speculation, Harvard being identified with deism, Yale with idealism, and Princeton with realism.”
Such a sentence as this at once gives a new interest to the study of the intellectual life of America, and a new meaning to our national universities. Dr. Riley works out this development in detail, with lucidity, vividness, humor and logical force, bringing us in certain directions up to about the middle of the nineteenth century.
But perhaps the most striking thing in the present volume is the way in which Jonathan Edwards is revealed, not as a narrow and iron-hearted Puritan, consigning “one to Heaven and ten to Hell,” for the greater glory of God; but rather as a mystic, a man of genius, the first authentic expression, perhaps, of the American spirit in philosophy, and what is specially interesting to lovers of Emerson, in many things the forerunner of that great mystic and seer. Dr. Riley shows the true Jonathan Edwards in the best of all possible ways: by letting Edwards reveal himself; for instance, in such a passage as this:
“We have shown that the Son of God created the world for this very end—to communicate Himself and image of His own excellency. . . . When we behold the light and brightness of the sun, the golden edges of an evening cloud, or the beauteous bow, we behold the adumbrations of His glory and goodness; and in the blue sky, of His mildness and gentleness. There are also many things wherein we may behold His awful majesty: in the sun in his strength, in comets, in thunder, with the lowering thunder-clouds, in ragged rocks and the brows of mountains.”
There is something profoundly mystical in this perception that the things seen are an expression of the things unseen, eternal.
Edwards himself tries to express this truth, that Nature is the revelation of the Divine, when he writes:
“And, indeed, the secret lies here: That, which truly is the Substance of all bodies, is the infinitely exact, and precise, and perfectly stable Idea in God’s mind, together with His stable Will, that the same shall gradually be communicated to us and to other minds, according to certain fixed and exact established methods and laws; or, in somewhat different language, the infinitely exact and precise Divine Idea, together with an answerable exact, precise, and stable Will, with respect to correspondent communications to created Minds, and effects on their minds.”
We need hardly point out that this is exactly the same thought as that in the ancient teaching of India, in which God is spoken of as Parabrahm, the Will of God being called Purusha, and the Thought or Idea of God Prakriti; the visible universe being due to the interaction of the active Will and the passive Idea, with result that the picture of Nature is imprinted on the consciousness of the hosts of individual minds, or Jivas. Here, as in Emerson, we find the essential kinship between American mysticism and Oriental wisdom.
The most eloquent passage quoted from Jonathan Edwards is, perhaps, this:
“After this my sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and the blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon for continuance; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the mean time singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce anything, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly, nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunder-storm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, so to speak, at the first appearance of a thunder-storm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the lightning play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my sweet and glorious God. While thus engaged, it always seemed natural to me to sing, or chant forth my meditations; or, to speak my thoughts in soliloquies with a singing voice. Holiness, as I then wrote down some of my contemplations of it, appeared to me to be of a sweet, pleasant, charming, serene calm nature; which brought an inexpressible purity, brightness, peacefulness, and ravishment to the soul. In other words, that it made the soul like a field or garden of God, with all manner of pleasant flowers; all pleasant, delightful, and undisturbed; enjoying a sweet calm, and the gently vivifying beams of the sun. The soul of a true Christian, as I then wrote in my meditations, appeared like such a little white flower as we see in the spring of the year; low, and humble to the ground, opening its bosom, to receive the pleasant beams of the sun’s glory; rejoicing, as it were, in a calm rapture; diffusing around a sweet fragrancy; standing peacefully and lovingly, in the midst of other flowers round about; all in like manner opening their bosoms, to drink in the light of the sun. There was no part of creature holiness that I had so great a sense of its loveliness as humility, brokenness of heart, and poverty of spirit; and there was nothing that I so earnestly longed for. My heart panted after this-to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be . nothing, and that God might be All.”
We shall find a new meaning in the Connecticut valleys and the Berkshire hills, if we think of them as inspiring such pure rapture and aspiration; and no one who is familiar with Emerson can fail to be reminded of his words:
“Within every man’s thought is a higher thought; within the character he exhibits today, a higher character. The youth puts off the illusions of the child; the man puts off the ignorance and tumultuous passions of youth; proceeding thence, puts off the egotism of manhood, and becomes at last a public and universal soul. He is rising to greater heights, but also rising to realities; the other relations and circumstances dying out, he entering deeper into God, God into him, until the last garment of egotism falls, and he is with God; shares the will and immensity of the First Cause. . . .”
Another passage of Emerson’s, which seems to me to take up again the strain of Edwards, and to sound it with a deeper note, is this:
“But when, following the invisible steps of thought, we come to inquire, whence is matter? and whereto, many truths arise out of the recesses of consciousness. We learn that the highest is present to the soul of man; that the dread universal essence, which is not wisdom, or love, or beauty, or power, but all in one, and each entirely, is that for which all things exist, and that by which they are; that spirit creates; that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present. As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws, at his need, inexhaustible power.”
Next to the revelation of American mysticism as already articulate in the genius of Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the most interesting thing in Dr. Riley’s book is the fact that a number of American thinkers, with the great Benjamin Franklin at their head, openly professed the Oriental belief in Planetary Spirits. Franklin, and those who thought as he did, held, that the Supreme Eternal could not be personified and conceived as taking a direct, minute interest in this earth of ours, which is but a small planet of one among countless suns, or its inhabitants, who are, as it were, almost imperceptible atoms on the surface of the world. These men logically and consistently asserted their belief that there must be lesser gods appointed to guide and oversee each domain of the cosmos, so that such a planet as ours would have its guardian Planetary Spirit to preside over its destinies. As many of our readers know, the Orient believes profoundly in these delegate gods, and holds that the divine beings who appear as the founders of religions are, in one aspect, the manifestations in human form of the Planetary Spirit, thus incarnated to teach mankind. It is both interesting and inspiring to find this belief openly avowed by the founders of American scientific thought, while at the same time we find the mysticism of the East revealed in the genuinely native genius of such men as Edwards, in the eighteenth century and Emerson in the nineteenth.
We shall look forward with uncommon interest to the appearance of a separate volume on Emerson, from Dr. Riley’s pen; and we feel confident that he will do full justice to the lofty insight, the purity of vision, the genuine inspiration of the greatest thinker and seer this New World of ours has yet produced.