Saturday, January 2, 2021

A "gap in sensibility"

 "To break through almost impenetrable forests, to cross deep rivers, to brave pestilential marshes, to sleep out in the damp woods, those are exertions that the American readily contemplates, if it is a question of earning a guinea; for that is the point. But that one should do such things from curiosity is more than his mind can take in. Besides, living in the wilds, he only prizes the works of man. He will gladly send you off to see a road, a bridge or a fine village. But that one should appreciate great trees and the beauties of solitude, that possibility completely passes him by.

     "So nothing is harder than to find anyone able to understand what you want. You want to see forests, our hosts said smiling, go straight ahead and you will find what you want. They are there all right around the new roads and well-trod paths. As for Indians, you will see only too many in our public places and in the streets; there is no need to go very far for that. Those here are at least beginning to get civilised and have a less savage look. We were not slow to realize that we should not get the truth out of them by a frontal attack and that it was necessary to manoeuvre.

     "So we went to call on the official appointed by the United States to see to the sale of the still uninhabited land that covers the district of Michigan; we represented ourselves to him as people who, without any decided intention of settling in the country, might yet have distant interest in knowing what land cost and how it was situated. Major Biddle, that was his name, this time understood wonderfully well what we wanted to do, and entered a once into a mass of details to which we paid avid attention. 'This part here', he said to us, pointing out on the map the St. Joseph River which, after many a bend, flows into Lake Michigan, 'seems to me the best suited for your scheme; the soil is good there; there are already some fine villages established there, and the road leading thither is so well maintained that public conveyances traverse it daily.' 'Good'! we said to ourselves. 'Now we know where not to go, at least unless we want to visit the wilds in a mail van.' We thanked Mr. Biddle for his advice, and asked him with an air of casualness and a pretended scorn, what part of the district had so far least attracted the attention of emigrants. 'In this direction', he told us without attaching more importance to his answer than we had to our question, 'towards the northwest. As far as Pontiac and in the neighbourhood of that village some fairly good settlements have been established. But you must not think of settling further on; the ground is covered by almost impenetrable forest which stretches endlessly to the northwest, where one only finds wild beasts and Indians. The United States are always considering opening up a road; but so far it has barely been begun and stops at Pontiac. I say again, that is a part you should not think about.' We thanked Mr. Biddle again for his good advice, and left determined to take it in just the contrary sense. We could not contain ourselves for joy at having at last discovered a place to which the torrent of European civilisation had not yet come.

     "On the next day, the 23rd July, we hastened to hire two horses. As we contemplated keeping them for ten days or so, we wanted to leave a sum of money with their owner; but he refused to take it, saying that we could pay on our return. He showed no alarm. Michigan is surrounded on all sides by lakes and wilds; he let us in to a sort of riding-school of which he held the door. When we had bought a compass as well as provisions, we set out on our way, rifle on shoulder, as thoughtless of the future and happy as a pair of schoolboys leaving college to spend their holidays at their father's house."

     Alexis de Tocqueville, Journey to America, ed. J. P. Mayer and trans. by George Lawrence (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1960), 334-337, as quoted and referenced here.  For a readily accessible early 20th-century edition of the original French, see De Tocqueville's Voyage en Amérique, edited with introduction, notes, and vocabulary by R. Clyde Ford (Boston:  D. C. Heath & Co., [1909]), pp. 19 ff.  I was put onto this example of the incomprehensibility of the Romantic sensibility for or "awe at wilderness" to the pragmatic American of the early 19th century by Charles Taylor, A secular age (Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press of the Havard University Press, 2007), 349-350.  Cf. Democracy in America, vol. 2, bk 1, chap. 17, "On some sources of poetry among democratic nations" (The Henry Reeve text as revised by Francis Bowen, now further corrected and edited . . . by Phillips Bradley, vol. 2 (New York:  Knopf, 1997), 74):

In Europe people talk a great deal of the wilds of America, but the Americans themselves never think about them; they are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests that surround them till they fall beneath the hatchet.  Their eyes are fixed upon another sight:  the American people views [only] its own march across these wilds, draining swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature.

"it is not with respect to our convenience or discomfort, but with respect to their own nature, that the creatures are glorifying to their Artificer."

      St. Augustine, De civ. Dei 12.4, trans. Dodds.  CSEL 40.1, 572:

"Non . . . ex commodo uel incommodo nostro, sed per se ipsam considerata natura dat artifici suo gloriam."

Considered not from [the point of view of] our convenience or inconvenience, but for the sake of itself [alone] does [a given] nature give the Maker his glory.

Trans. Bettenson:

"it is the nature of things considered in itself, without regard to our convenience or inconvenience, that gives glory to the Creator."

     Charles Taylor, A secular age (Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press of Havard University Press, 2007), 342-343:

     The story [of the apologists of modern 'design-argument' 'Providential Deism'] runs on, accumulating more and more detail, and gradually gets ridiculous.  God appears as a fussy parent, anxiously moulding every detail of creation to our well-being and comfort.  The rebellion cannot but come, but it often is made by people who still believe in design in general, like Voltaire, but cannot stomach the ludicrous detail, and above all, the absence of any place in the story for the tragedies that life itself produces, like the famous earthquake at Lisbon.

     Now, the earlier understanding of the world as God-produced cosmos wasn't open to these attacks.  This ealier view wove the history of world events in secular time into the framework of higher times.  The things and happenings of our world had a depth in God's eternity which they lost when the sense of this faded.  At the same time, it was understood that God had other purposes than our well-being; and indeed, some of his purposes for us included chastisement, both as retribution and as training.  What was abundantly clear was that we couldn't hope to reason all this out on our own.  Much of the modern design-argument would have been unthinkable earlier.  It arose in the context of a post-Galilean or -Newtonian science, which hoped to fathom God's providence in its own terms.

Do what I say, not what I do? Do what I do, not what I say?

      "The surprise here, of course—and one of the things that intimates that Calvin's actions and decisions were being governed by a deliberate and crafted plan rather than a principled conviction—is that he lambasted the Nicodemites for doing precisely what he was instructing the French Calvinist communities to do, namely, hide.  'Our Lord is not content,' he wrote to the Nicodemites, 'if we acknowledge him secretly and in our hearts, but he strictly requires us to confess him publicly by an external profession that we are his.'  Meanwhile his word to the Reformed church in Montélimart was that he and Beza had learned:  'that you are considering establishing a public preaching of the word.  We ask you to put away that idea and not to think about it until God provide you with a better opportunity. . . .  When you hold your meetings peaceably in private homes, the rage of the wicked will not be easily inflamed.'  To the faithful at Poitiers:  'I wrote you a while ago pointing out the means I approve of for defeating the malice of your enemies:  it is that in order not to expose yourselves needlessly you should plan not to gather the whole congregation together, but instead assemble in small groups, now in one place and now in another.'  Continuing, he urged the believers in Poitiers to make their homes available for this purpose.  Such instructions provide a glimpse into Calvin’s mind and ministerial machinations."

In short, "Calvin [and Bèza] designed Geneva’s ministry to France in such a way that it systematically employed falsehood and dissembling to hide what they were doing from the French authorities and probably from the Nicodemites as well.  Indeed, their ministry was, by their own standards of honesty, as mendacious as that of the Nicodemites."

     Jon Balserak, "Geneva’s use of lies, deceit, and simulation in their efforts to reform France, 1536-1563," Harvard theological review 112, no. 1 (2019):  90, 99 (76-100).  Cf. Nicodemism and the English Calvin, by Kenneth J. Woo (Leiden and Boston:  Brill, 2020), which, published in the year following, does take this article into account (though whether entirely sympathetically or not, I can’t yet say for sure).  There is also, of course, a prior body of scholarship, some of it cited by Balserak, and some of it, apparently not.  An example of the latter might be Jason Zuidema, "Flight from persecution and the honour of God in the theology of Peter Martyr Vermigli," Reformation & Renaissance review 15, no. 1 (April 2013): 112–26 (again, so far unread by me).