|Jonathan Edwards 1703-1758|
It appears that the first philosophers of the later United States of America were either politicians or clergymen. Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) belongs especially to the latter group, and as is to be suspected, the topics of his works are rather biblical. Yet, they contain some obvious references to philosophical discussions of the time, and writers like Locke, Hutchinson and Hume are explicitly mentioned.
I shall begin somewhat nonsensically from the latest work, the posthumous book on original sin, mainly because the biblical/philosophical -ratio is heavily balanced on the biblical side. Edwards' target is apparently John Taylor, who wrote a rather non-traditional work on original sin, in summary proclaiming that it is actually not a biblical doctrine. I shall not go into great details to Edwards' argumentation that the doctrine does have a background in Bible. Far more interesting are the slight bits of philosophy hidden among all the biblical quotes and exegesis. For instance, Edwards considers the at first sight rather odd demand that Adam as the first human being could be seen as forming a one entity with all his progeny, thus making it reasonable to punish all mankind for Adam's sin. Edwards defends this view by simply noting that God as the creator of all laws, moral and natural, can decide that there is a lawful connection between the sin of Adam and the guilt of all humankind. Edwards thus jiggles towards God, when it comes to the famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God decide what is good or is good independent of God's decision?
Edwards also tries to answer the rather obvious criticism of original sin that an assumption of an inborn tendency to evil would undermine all morality, which can be applied only in cases where a free choice is made by the will – if a person already has a tendency to certain actions, he cannot be thought responsible of them, unless this tendency follows from an earlier sinful choice leading to that tendency. Edwards sees a problem in this argument. If one could not determine the guilt of someone not merely from his tendency to do evil actions, but only from a sinful choice, an infinite regress would ensue. The choice itself would be an action, the sinfulness of which could not be determined by a mere tendency to do such choices, if the chooser is to be responsible. Thus it would have to be caused by a further sinful choice and so on. In effect, Edwards is arguing that either all notion of responsibility must be null or then even a given tendency to do evil things can be judged evil. Edwards is obviously endorsing the second prong of the dilemma, but it might well be asked whether his arguments could be used for denying validity of all moral evaluations.
The short writing on the end of the world has also a religious theme and Biblical exegesis is also used as an argument, but the work contains also interesting arguments. The main result of the work feels rather Neo-Platonist: God must, as it were, emanate and let his perfection become an active force, or otherwise it wouldn't be so perfect. In other words, God is like an artist that must unleash his creativity and create a world that perfectly reflects himself. One might of course ask why God has not created world for the living beings and their happiness and think of God as self-centered, because of his motives, but Edwards notes that the two ends need not necessarily contradict one another. To this end, Edwards introduces an important distinction between ultimate and final end. Final end is just an end that is not means and there could well be many final ends. Still, some of these final ends are more important than others and most important of these is what Edwards calls the ultimate end.
Edwards also explains the distinction between final and ultimate ends through the following analogy. Picture a man who tries to get married, not for the sake of anything else, but for the sake of marriage itself. The marriage is thus a final end of the man. Now, after the marriage is in force, the man might have another final end, like living a peaceful life of a husband. Still, the original ending was more ultimate, because the man couldn't have even hoped for the new final end without first reaching the first end. Similarly, one might imagine that God had at first just the final end of creating the world as a representation of his own glory, but later on God decided to also care for the denizens of the world. Note the interesting hint that Edwards might apply temporal terms to God's existence, which appear to imply that even God could change his mind.
The work on the nature of true virtue seems by far the least finished, but it is most clearly a philosophical work, but I will only have space to note some interesting points. The true virtue for Edwards is the love of God as the true source of all being. In other words, in loving God, a person loves also everything else, as reflecting God, while mere love towards anything else – even the whole universe – will contain only a limited fraction of all the possible love and will thus be deficient and even evil in comparison with the ultimate love. Out of this rather religious and mystical basis Edwards manages to make rather intriguing comments on ethics in general.
For instance, Edwards raises the question whether self-love can be a basis of virtue. He notes that the question is actually ambiguous, because self-love can be understood in two different manners. Firstly, self-love might just refer to a want of feeling good. In that sense, Edwards states, self-love can truly be basis of virtue, because, contrary to Kant would later say, even a virtuous person can and even should feel good about what he does – by loving and helping others, one also loves and helps oneself.
Secondly, self-love might also mean caring for one's own advantage. Such a selfish desire will inevitably restrict one's love in some manner and will thus close of a person from true virtue, Edwards concludes. Then again, he admits that such selfishness need not be completely closed off from love of other people. A selfish person might well note that e.g. taking care of some limited group of persons (say, one's family or country) one does good to oneself also. Thus, self-love in the second sense can at least be basis of limited love of others.
Edwards also discusses the idea of Hume and Hutschinson that morality is ultimately not based on reasoning, but on some feelings, like sympathy. Edwards agrees with the sentiment partially. He admits that morality is quite likely to be genetically based on feelings. Indeed, he suggests that God himself must have instilled such instinctual feelings to human mind, in order to guide them towards good life. Then again, Edwards does not accept the idea that feeling would be the ultimate foundation of all morality – even if we would become aware of morality through feelings, this does not mean that we could not argue for morality through proper reason. Edwards especially wants to steer away from the idea that a beginning of morality in feelings would make morality somehow relativist. Instead, Edwards emphasises that certain basic moral sentiments are spread universally throughout human race and are therefore most likely absolute decrees of God.
The works of Edwards show thus an interesting interaction between religion and philosophy that has been quite apparent in the few American philosophers I have now read. Next time I shall move back to the Old World and to laws of England.