During the 1740’s in America, there was a massive movement that swept through New England called the “Great Awakening,” in which religious fervor reached soaring heights. As a result, the colonies became heavily influenced by Protestantism, with families going to church to hear the itinerant preachers, leading to the domination of religious feelings. However, the Great Awakening is also responsible for giving rise to one of the first and greatest philosophers in American history: Jonathan Edwards. Despite being strictly Calvinist, Edwards has gone down in philosophical history as one of the greatest minds in America as well as one of the defining figures in the tradition of idealism.
Edwards was born in 1703, and it was evident he was destined for great things; at the age of 13, he was admitted to Yale. The young Edwards was always curious, nearly as bright and prolific as any professional writer, for he wrote numerous essays before going to college, his interests ranging from biology to philosophy, from spiders to metaphysics. Edwards was introduced to Newton and Locke a year after coming to Yale, diving head first into the most recent groundbreaking thought, committing himself to both men’s ideas. Three years later, when he was only 17, Edwards graduated, and in 1734, he began preaching in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he stayed until 1748, when he was forced out of his position by angry churchgoers, finally becoming a missionary for the Native Americans. From sources we know that Edwards was intensely passionate about his work—so dedicated was he that on summer mornings he would wake up at four, and in winter, at four. It worked out that Edwards became head of the Congregationalist Church since his grandfather was Solomon Stoddard, the former pastor. In 1662 the Half-Way Covenant was put into effect. This rule made it so that only select people could attain church membership, and if they baptized their children, they, too, could be members of the church. Stoddard removed the covenant while pastor, but Edwards had different ideas, so he reversed his grandfather’s decision and made it stricter than the covenant, for he restricted church membership to saints and saint alone, reserving communion only for the elects. Edwards was a notorious speaker. His sermons were not traditional, insofar as he ruled through fear. H.W. Brands writes, “[H]is auditors shrieked and moaned, their horror exceeded only by the exquisiteness of their agony…. At least one listener was so moved that he decided to end his life rather than continue his torment.” It is no surprise, then, why his outraged followers kicked him out of the church. And, interestingly, he was the grandfather of Aaron Burr, and the writer O. Henry was a descendant of his.
Having read Locke at a young age, Edwards’ metaphysics were based on his education. His thought mirrors closely that of George Berkeley’s, but it is generally agreed that Edwards did not read his works but rather thought of his system on his own. Edwards concurred with Berkeley, claiming that secondary qualities—like color, texture, and smell—were conceived in the mind. He reasoned that primary qualities were really just different applications of resistance: solidity was pure resistance, figure is the termination of resistance, and motion is the communication between two resistances. This raises the question of how resistance comes to be, how resistance can exist outside the mind. According to Edwards, resistance is God’s doing, and if resistance is not resisting anything, which, he thinks, is irrational, then it is simply resistance. Therefore, if resistance is external to men’s minds, and if resistance is the work of God, then it must follow that this world in which we live is God’s creation—his mental creation, that is. Like Berkeley, Edwards conceived of a unique subjective idealism, since he saw reality as the mental creation of God. A contemporary group at the time, the Cambridge Platonists, spread Platonic thought to America, where Edwards absorbed it, using it in his own philosophy. The corporeal, physical world is imperfect, flawed, illusory, a phantasmagoria, a faulty reflection of the otherwise perfect spiritual reality wherein God resides. Similar to the Allegory of the Cave, Edwards believed salvation was like getting out of the cave: man, rescued from his chains of illusion, sees the magnificence that is God. Regarding the nature of God, Edwards acknowledged the impossibility of there existing any being outside of Being, which Edwards interprets as existence in all that it encompasses. But because God is Being, He is non-solid; and he asserted alongside Parmenides that nothingness cannot exist, so God is space, God is omnipresent. Further, since God created reality, it means that nature is God manifest, and since God is beautiful, nature is beautiful. Edwards adopted Malebranche’s causal theory of Occasionalism, stating that events happen in coordination with God’s will. For example, if an object is dropped, it just happened to drop at the same time God willed it to drop. Edwards took it further and distinguished two causal necessities: natural and moral. Natural necessity is an external hindrance, one that is external, and it must happen; the latter is an internal inhibition, and while it seems out of our control, it really is not. A natural necessity would be hunger, as it is out of power and must happen, whereas a moral necessity might be gluttony, as while feeding ourselves is necessary, overindulging is not. Impulses, therefore, are common moral necessities. Edwards’ most famous sermon is Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), in which he says that, because God created this world and us, we owe it to him to be faithful, otherwise he will destroy us all—it also created the strongest uproar:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath toward you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.
You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment;…
In his essay The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1757), Edwards defends the idea that man is, by nature, sinful. Carrying the burden of Adam upon his back, man has fallen from grace. Originally given two motives, self-love and benevolence, man was stripped of the latter when he upset God, meaning man acts purely out of self-interest, which, although some good can come of it and is to some extent necessary, is primarily bad. His next essay, A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue (1765), draws a connection between virtue and beauty, stating that the former is a form of the latter, particularly in the form of benevolence, which, as Edwards said, was taken away from us. But of beauty he distinguishes two types: natural and divine. Natural beauty is that which occurs in the world, and it comprises unity, harmony, and variety. This beauty is acquired through the senses. When we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste anything which has unity, harmony, or variety, we think it beautiful. Harmony, he posits, is proportional to an object’s Being. A nobler object will have more Being than an ignoble object, and thus more harmony. But Edwards does not see beauty as a property that objects have but a relationship between subject and object. An object cannot be beautiful unless it is seen as agreeable by a viewer. Divine beauty, on the other hand, is knowledge of God in nature. Benevolence, the most sought after virtue according to Edwards, is defined as the love Being, of existence, in all its entirety. Benevolence to Edwards is not how it is to us, traditionally, for Edwards sees it as intransitive rather than transitive; in essence, Edwards thinks of benevolence not as directed toward a person, nor even as being directed, but as openness to everything. Instead of being benevolent toward this person, or toward that tree, we must be benevolent of Being. This is troublesome, though, because Edwards says we do not have the capability of being benevolent, despite its being the highest virtue. Edwards insisted that grace is what enables us to be virtuous, and grace comes from God himself; therefore, only a few people have the fortune of being endowed with grace, and so with benevolence. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746) deals with what Edwards calls the “religious feeling,” which he defines as the total dependence on God. (This view is astoundingly prescient of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theory of Abhängigkeitsgefühl, or absolute dependence). Edwards rejected the compartmentalization of the mind, but he kept the idea that there were two faculties—understanding, or heart, or sensation, and inclination, or volition, or will. In addition to the five senses, Edwards explored the idea of an incredibly rare sixth sense: divination. He did say, however, that we all are given a moral conscience which allows us to share a common view of justice, similar to a collective unconscious. Just as Edwards and Schleiermacher shared views on dependence, so they had in common the idea that emotion is superior to intellect. The religious life was man’s only end, thought Edwards; as such, the religious life could not be lived through the mind but through the heart. Emotion, he claimed, is God-given, so we ought to use.
There was a distinction drawn between goodness and godliness, for Edwards thought the two obfuscated the definition of virtue. Goodness can be achieved by anyone and therefore is not true virtue. Goodness can be viewed as Aristotelian virtues, such as bravery, temperance, and prudence. Benevolence is true virtue, and it is an example of godliness, as it is synonymous with sublimity. Only saints are endowed with grace, meaning only saints can be virtuous, or benevolent. The spiritual life, in addition, is a lifelong commitment, lived until death, so it was up to the saint to take care of his “gracious sincerity.” Edwards was certain that normal people can be good and will be remorseful on Judgment Day; saints, however, can be godly and will repent on Judgment Day. This is the reason Edwards reserved church membership for saints. Saints were predestined to achieve salvation, and they had access to benevolence. Edwards then tackled the Problem of Free Will in his essay The Freedom of the Will (1754). The difficult thing for Edwards was reconciling Calvinist predestination and Newtonian determinism with Lockean freedom. Edwards began by defining “will” as “choice.” He subscribed to folk psychology, which states that words like will, preference, desire, and inclination all mean the same thing and refer to volition, the will to do things. Will was a passive force, influenced the active force of God. When we are faced with a decision, Edwards said we choose the greatest good, strongest urge at the time. Basically, Edwards took the side of Schopenhauer, who said, “Man can do what he will, but he cannot will what he does,” by which he means that our choices are determined, but we ourselves are free to act upon them. Freedom was synchronicity with God’s will in the eyes of Edwards. This supports his Occasionalism: if what we choose to do coincides with what God willed us to do, then we have done something morally done, but if we choose something contrary to God’s will, we have committed sin. Choices, Edwards thought, were open to praise and blame, as we have our own motives on which we act; a wicked motive, for instance, means a bad choice, so we deserve blame, and vice versa.
 Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, p. 147
For further reading:
The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands (2000)
The Growth of the American Republic Vol. 1 by Samuel Eliot Morison (1956)
Men and Movements in American Philosophy by Joseph L. Blau (1952)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 2 by Paul Edwards (1967)
Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis (2003)
American Philosophy by Marcus G. Singer (1985)