Edwin H. Wilson
August 23, 1899 – March 26, 1993
Edwin H. Wilson, the father of organized Humanism in the U.S., died in Salt Lake City, Utah, March 26, 1993. He was 94 years old.
Ed’s meritorious service to rational thought and responsible behavior brought world-wide recognition and respect to the humanist movement. He was a key figure in drafting the Humanist Manifesto I, published in 1933 and the revised version, published 40 years later in 1973. He founded the New Humanist magazine and the Humanist Bulletin, serving as their Managing Editor from 1928 to 1941 when they were combined into one publication titled the Humanist which continues to be the official publication of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Wilson was the Editor of the publication from 1941 to 1957 and again from 1963 to 1965. He was the first Executive Director of the American Humanist Association which he helped to establish in 1941.
For his service to humanism, Ed was honored in 1955 with the AHA Humanist Merit Award in 1972, the Unitarian Universalist Association presented him their top award “For Distinguished Service to Liberal Religion”, and in 1979 he was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. In addition to his distinguished career with Humanism, Edwin H. Wilson was also an ordained minister of the Unitarian Church. One of his ministries was the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City from 1946 to 1949.
The Humanists of Utah was organized two years ago with the guiding hand of Ed Wilson. The 100 members of the local Chapter appreciate his leadership and his inspiration. In his honor, we will continue to promote his philosophy of seeking rational solutions to the problems confronting the human race.As a tribute to our beloved friend, we quote the following. It was written by an old companion, Corliss Lamont, in his book, Humanism as a Philosophy. It is a fitting epitaph.This Life, This Nature is Enough!
Humanism is an affirmative philosophy. It is essentially yea-saying. It says: “Yes, this mighty and abundant Nature is our home: in it we ever live and move and have our being. This Nature produced the marvel of life and the race of man(humankind). It sustains us with its varied goods and stirs us with its wonderful beauty. Yes, this is a good earth and upon it we can create a worth-while and happy existence for all humanity. Yes, we men (humans) possess the glory of mind and the power of freedom; we know the grace of body and the splendor of love. We are grateful for the many simple pleasures that are ours, for the manifold enjoyments which art and culture and science bring. We mortals delight in the sweetness of living rather than lamenting its brevity. And we rejoice in being able to hand on the torch of life to future generations. Yes, this life is enough; this earth is enough; this great and eternal Nature is enough.”
Proposed Ten Principles of the Humanist Community of
San Jose, California
The Humanist Alternative To Traditional Religion
First Principle: We humanists offer ennobling ideals that don’t insult your intellectual and emotional integrity, because we ask more modest, but more interesting, questions–focused on human, rather than theological, concerns.
Second Principle: Humanists have no social or religious creed, but do have a distinctive character–an approach to life that cherishes a diversity of traditions.
Third Principle: We believe in people. We honor the possibilities of human personality–in the individual and in the entire human species.
Fourth Principle: Naturalistic humanists hold that the scientific project of explaining everything in the universe without recourse to non-natural entities is sound. The God of the gaps in dead. We see the world as seamless.
Fifth Principle: Accepting our finitude and the transient nature of life itself, Humanists cherish the fleeting moment even more. “Now” is all you ever have.
Sixth Principle: The image of humanity as a child of the stars is a scientific metaphor that puts the human species “in its proper place”—This planet is my home, all life forms are my body. I am the key to all future human possibilities. In this context I write a story with my life, using my unique gifts to their fullest.
Seventh Principle: Humanist communities can be regarded as either “secular,” “religious,” or both—depending on how these words are defined.
Eighth Principle: Some clergy oppose access to sex education, birth control, abortion and assisted suicide; interfere in sexual issues; curb artistic expression. We won’t let them foist their partisan mores on us; we will resist their use of the State to intrude into our lives.
Ninth Principle: We acknowledge that intelligent people of goodwill may disagree with us. Therefore, we enter into honest dialogue with people of varied beliefs and unbeliefs, cooperating with them for the greater good.
Tenth Principle: In supporting these or any other principles, we acknowledge that new circumstances and insights could make us reconsider them.
All I Really Need To Know About How To Live And What To Do And How To Be I Learned In Kindergarten
From the book by Robert Fulghum
- Share everything.
- Play fair.
- Don’t hit people.
- Put things back where you found them.
- Clean up your own mess.
- Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
- Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
- Wash your hands before you eat.
- Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
- Live a balanced life–learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
- Take a nap every afternoon.
- When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
- Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
- Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the styrofoam cup–they all die. So do we.
- And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned–the biggest word of all–LOOK.
- Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.
- It is still true, no matter how old you are–when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.
Report To The Membership
Now that a full year has gone by since I became officially a part of the leadership of this Chapter, I need to make a report about what I have been up to and why. I want to emphasize that from the beginning I have always asked two questions of myself: “What is humanism and what should I do about it?” and “Do I know what I am doing?” I am only now beginning to understand the first, and no, I don’t always know what I am doing. I do the best I know how; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work too well. But I do work at it. My comments are from my own point of view and form a personal narrative. They are meant to be constructive although they may offend some local chapter members and some American Humanist Association (AHA) members as well. They are meant for this Chapter only. I tend to be plain spoken and I write about matters of great importance to me.
From the beginning there have always been two choices for the Chapter program I prepare. One is to follow the lead of the AHA and most other Chapters to concentrate on exposing the errors of religion and engage in critical inquiry into the problems of contemporary society. The other is to define humanism and present an alternative to theistic supernaturalism. The first would seem almost mandatory for humanists living in Utah and would be a very easy thing. However, the second is my choice, and is by far the more difficult.
There are good reasons why the first choice was rejected. When I first read the Humanist magazine and the newsletters of many other Chapters, I got a feeling of “dread,” a feeling of uneasiness, anxiety and apprehension. It was not comfortable so I just don’t read them. I know that I may be quite alone in this, and that other AHA members of the Chapter read the magazine and enjoy it. What accounts for the difference? I suggest that most probably it is the different way I came to humanism.
I suggest that the way each regards humanism is dependent upon the way one left supernatural religion. Most people come to humanism in one of two ways. One is after rejecting the supernatural which usually follows the occurrence of an event which precipitated a crisis. The other is by accepting humanism as a replacement for theology.
In my case. I rejected the supernatural only after I had accepted humanism. I was presented the Humanist Manifestos and found something I could accept and could then leave my own religion knowing I had found something better. There is no need for me to revisit the act of rejection. It is over, finished, gone. I have something else in its place and I want to build on it. The question for me is: “What do I do now?”
I put forward the proposition that those who first rejected the supernatural need to find a substitute before they can really leave the supernatural. Focusing on the negative and critical reinforces the rejection and justifies the heresy. That does not help the people like myself who come to humanism either having found, or who are in search of, an alternative.
The question I have had in my mind for a while now concerns the effect criticism and negativity has on the reader of the Humanist over the long term. I have formed the opinion that it brings about an alienation from society, a splitting of the individual from the mainstream. One begins to look for what is wrong, the negative, with special attention to religious errors, and becomes hostile to all religion and forces of society which are seen as oppressive and hostile. It becomes “us” vs. “them” resulting in a “fortress mentality,” leading to a morbid sensitivity to any incident in which religious practices appear to encroach on individual rights.
It seems to me that humanists have problems enough dealing with the fact that we are not Christian in a Christian society; that we use reason, not emotion; depend upon the scientific method, not revelation or guidance from religious leaders; and are continually learning and aware of what is going on in our world. What we humanists need is help to live in this world positively. There isn’t much of it in the current humanist reading material.
There is something about theological religion which we all must understand if we are to deal with that religion intelligently.
As stated in a recently reviewed book:
“If you believe that you possess an immortal soul, that your stay on earth is short, and that the character of your faith will determine how you spend eternity–in torment or in bliss–then religion is a very serious business, more serious than anything else you can do or think about. To die in your faith, if you believe that to do so is to gain eternal bliss, is obviously no loss whatever compared to living out of your faith, and losing heaven.”1
We as humanists should be glad that we don’t have to spend a lot of time trying to change people who are only doing what they sincerely believe they have to do to reach their ultimate goal of salvation. We accept the concept that it is in their very nature to do what they do. It is in the nature of the humanist to be tolerant. Most of my family and many of my friends continue in the LDS Church and find it gives their life meaning and purpose and are content with what they have. They accept my decision to go my separate way. Am I to return that grace with my condemnation of their religion? If I am to expect my decision and my idea-system to be respected, I must also respect their decision to remain with theirs.
I know; the extremists, like the fundamentalists, have named “secular humanism” as one of their principle enemies but I don’t think that they mean us, the Humanists of Utah. We are insignificant compared to their real enemy: the educational establishment, which teaches school children and college students how to think for themselves through the study of the humanities and sciences. The intelligent, well educated, thinking, reasoning person will almost always have a problem with theological religion sometime. Why do we ignore that?
The real question is: “What are we offering these thinking, reasoning people so that they might reject their theological religion and become humanists?” If we can’t give answers to what to do during this human interval between birth and death and provide a community for our human needs, we ought not to criticize those institutions which do.
Every organization such as ours which hopes to succeed must first decide: (1) who is your target population?, (2) what do you want to tell them?, and (3) what do you want them to do? We drew up a mission statement in August of 1992 which largely addressed these questions. In summary, it is this: We are looking in the community for intelligent, thinking, reasoning people. We want to tell them about humanism, and we want to give them information which will first present them with an alternative to theistic supernaturalism and then give them reasons to join us.
I am convinced that there are more people out there who are looking for an alternative, something else, than those who want to express their anger and outrage over the apparently egregious actions of our dominant faith. The latter only goes so far.
The lecture this month concerns the debate over what people should do in this short period of time between birth and death. Just because we reject the premise of theology doesn’t mean that the problem of what to do in that interval goes away. It is very much the concern of humanism. I accept the comment of the two volunteers from Los Angeles who state:
“What it all boils down to is the simple human logic of helping where we are able, living the best we know how in this one and only life we believe exists, and doing it for no other reason than it is ‘right’.”
I may be a cockeyed optimist but I believe that the average American will continue to reject extremists like the fundamentalists. I believe that there are people belonging to religious organizations with their faults and contradictions, who will want to find something else. I also believe that humanism will prevail and that it is doing well. I know that the educational system will continue to produce thinking, reasoning humanists.
Sixty years ago, May 1, 1933, the May-June, 1933 issue of the New Humanist, Edwin Wilson, Editor, published A Humanist Manifesto bearing the signatures of thirty-four prominent humanists. This Manifesto presents the alternative to which I have referred. In the introduction, the editors, after presenting the problem facing religion, left a challenge:
“…any religion that can hope to be a synthesizing and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. It is a responsibility which rests upon this generation.” The need for such a religion is needed even more today.
I suggest we continue the work Ed Wilson was so instrumental in beginning.
As an example of what I mean, I give you a metaphor: a movie, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. In this movie, Bill plays a TV weatherman covering Groundhog Day in that town in Pennsylvania. He is an egotistical, negative, critical person who finds himself having to live the same day over again and again. After failing to halt his endless existence, he resolves his dilemma by becoming a different person. He becomes a Renaissance man, a humanist, with sprezzatura. On one final day we see him do everything right, and then he goes on to the next day!
I leave you, a thinking, reasoning person, to see the meaning of the metaphor. If you haven’t seen the movie, please go to it, because it is one with meaning, and it is funny.
One final word. I sincerely believe and affirm that the function of an organization of humanists is to facilitate the process of becoming a humanist. It is a process which never ends!
Free Will Debates in 16th Century Europe
Answers will be suggested for certain interconnected questions: Why did thinkers in the sixteenth century fuss about free will? What were the positions in the debate and why were they irreconcilable? What were the implications of the debate for a more general subject of interest in the sixteenth century, the relation between human intellect and human action?
Lecture given by Dr. Michael Rudick on April ll, 1993. The following is edited by the Journal staff from the lecture transcript.
The talk tonight is about the problem of free will in a historical context with respect to western Europe in the sixteenth century. We must first recognize that the issue concerns only the question of freedom to do acts that have some moral content. And, we need to narrow the issue even further so that we can appreciate that in the sixteenth century the issue comes to us in a religious context: the question of the effective role of the individual moral will in determining the soul’s salvation. This question engages for this epoch the most crucial human outcome imaginable: where one spends eternity after that relatively brief span of time in which one deals with life’s choices.
It is conventional to distinguish the Renaissance from the Middle Ages by the degree of secular concern exhibited by the cultures in each period. We’re taught to call the Middle Ages the Age of Faith, and to imagine medieval Christians so preoccupied with theology and worship and the salvation of their souls, as to be minimally attached to the things of this world. We are then taught to conceive the Renaissance as the moment of rebirth in which humanity and the things of this world become proper objects of concern. Indeed it’s in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that the words “humanities” and “humanists” become established in the European languages. But we need to remind ourselves that we, in our century, use those words differently from their meanings in the sixteenth century. And we need to remind ourselves that the sixteenth and the better part of the seventeenth century was most surely an age of religious enthusiasm, as much as the Middle Ages in that persons then faced conflicts of allegiance between radically different kinds of Christian faith.
We do tend to be captives to that stereotype of the Renaissance that regards it as an epoch of emancipation from religious authoritarianism. And we can’t ignore the emancipatory power of the Reformation itself: Luther’s doctrine of Christian freedom through which–under conditions he proposed to understand–the soul is liberated from the obligation to earthly authority made by an institutional church. And yet Luther’s age is the first age in a long time in which some rather disturbing propositions about human freedom could be taken seriously: that the human moral will was not free, not free to will good actions, therefore of no effect in determining the soul’s salvation, and perhaps even that human free will in the largest sense was pretty much an illusion.
The prehistory of the sixteenth-century disputes begins with one of the earliest Christian documents, Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Paul addresses there a problem that had emerged among the gentile Christians in Rome, the question of whether they could be saved, given that Jesus had directed his ministry to the Jews. Paul’s answer was “yes,” God could give eternal life to anyone He wanted to, and the availability of salvation to the gentile Christians was made evident by Paul’s God-given mission to evangelize them. It has always seemed one of the great ironies of history that, in the process of reassuring the Roman Christians that they, too, could be saved, Paul bequeathed to Christianity a problem it still wrestles with, that knotty one of predestination. The question, can the individual soul do anything to effect its own salvation? Or is it determined entirely by God’s inscrutable will?
It is convenient to distinguish between what is called “tough” readings and “tender” readings of Romans. The most prominent example, before Luther, of a “tough” reading is that of St. Augustine, who interpreted Paul to have been a predestinarian with respect to salvation and then (in a move my colleague Peter Appleby calls “biting the theological bullet”) implied that, if one could do nothing to effect one’s salvation, one could do equally nothing to effect one’s damnation. It was all up to God’s will: in effect, a double predestination, which is about as tough as you can get, leaving no room for a human power of choice in what matters most.
The historical context of Augustine’s tough argument is his controversy with the Pelagian heresy, a tender position that taught pretty much an unconditional human freedom in matters of moral will and action. Pelagians held that one could not only know the difference between right and wrong, but could (and should) act on the knowledge. Salvation was the reward of a moral life, and moral obligation entailed the ability to do moral deeds. St. Augustine couldn’t accept this because it amounted to a Christianity without Christ. Unconditional moral freedom ignores the corruption of the human will due to original sin, and denies Christ’s sacrifice as the necessary gesture toward atonement for original sin. Pelagianism implied that even virtuous pagans could be saved.
The tradition of tender readings begins with Boethius in the sixth century. He argued an influential position that would preserve human freedom (and consequent reward for goodness) while at the same time preserving the absolute power of God’s will. It went something like this: God did predestine certain souls to salvation; His special grace protected them from sin, even from the will to sin. To all other Christians, He extended His grace to make them eligible for salvation, but left it up to their free wills to use or to refuse that grace. In particular, it recognized freedom in one crucial requisite for salvation, that is, penitence, the will to ask God’s forgiveness for sins. This is about as tender as one can get without wandering into the Pelagian heresy. It retains God’s grace, granted because of Christ’s sacrifice, as the condition sine qua non of salvation, but allows human freedom some consequential scope, and thereby preserves the system of reward and punishment given according as the Christian person uses what scope it has.
From the institutional church’s point of view, there was nothing to be gained by a decisive, authoritative settlement of the question since there was no final pronouncement that could possibly have satisfied all parties and ended the debate. What’s interesting is that the tough and the tender are focusing on a particular issue: if a person can, as it were on his or her own steam, will a good act and do it, then that person deserves some credit. Are human beings entitled to such credit or merit? The tough say “no”; all the merit belongs to God, and good deeds are done only when God enables them. The tender say “yes”; this is a position associated with the later scholastic thought of William of Ockham: God enables good works by giving human beings free will, permitting them, in effect, to do or not do the right thing, then exercising His justice by rewarding their merit and punishing their demerit. This is a critical issue in understanding the Christian program of salvation, but that when formulated this way, the debate begins to engage the question of natural human potentiality. Is the human creature so wretchedly weak as to carry no power for good, no merit, no dignity? Or is the human condition one of substantial dignity, carrying the potential to transcend bodily weakness and earthly limitation, to rise or fall by its own moral powers? There is an important sense in which the side one took on this was governed less by an interpretation of Christian doctrine than by a value judgment placed on the human creature.
There also existed the more down-to-earth Renaissance thought that just assumes free will. Human agents were seen as significantly restricted in their scope for action by the conditions they find themselves in, but believed they could do something about it. Their thought assumes a human power over circumstance.
To the extent that there was a common, publicly available doctrine preached by Christians in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, it might be called “the doctrine of doing one’s best” (that’s the actual language used by the mainstream theologians). Human beings were in certain respects limited in their capacity for good by original sin, but God had granted them in nature enough power to control their decisions and actions, such that some good could come. They could at least cooperate in their salvation; if they would only do their best with the natural powers they had, God’s grace would help them the rest of the way.
In outline, the doctrine of doing one’s best is the one Erasmus adopted, implicitly in his earlier writings and explicitly in his writings against Luther in the 1520’s. We think of Erasmus as the renaissance humanist par excellence (by the modern definition), mainly because we recognize his primary interests. His main concern was ethics, the behavior appropriate to a Christian life. Ethical teaching makes no sense if the taught can’t choose to follow it or if persons have no capacity for moral discipline. It’s no surprise that he would accept the tender reading of Romans, since he’d focus more on Paul’s moral and spiritual advice than on the theology of grace, justification, and election. Erasmus almost always asked his audiences to view Paul, and the apostles generally, as examples of Christian living, not as metaphysicians or theologians. Erasmus was an advocate of the utility of ancient learning to contemporary ethical and political issues and assumed a connection between intellect and action, and in that sense, his position was essentially that reason is choice, that a human agent acts freely when he or she acts upon a prior rational deliberation. He appreciated the power of habit, both for bad and for good and he had a conviction that mental and moral effort mattered. When Luther’s doctrine denied this, Erasmus’s first response was outrage. He had faith that given a good enough reason to try their best, people would do so.
There was from the 1520’s a saying current among writers to the effect that “Erasmus laid the eggs and Luther hatched them.” There was in fact much in common between Erasmus’ reform agenda and Luther’s. Erasmus was, up to a point, reluctant to fault Luther’s criticism of the institutional church. But whatever attitudes they may have shared, the differences between these two men were enormous, and most of them are on display in their published debate about free will. To Luther, free will was the basic issue in Christian belief.
The leading Lutheran texts for free will are his Preface to Romans (1522) and his treatise On the Freedom of a Christian (1520). Romans was for Luther the central document in the New Testament because it set out the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Lutheran interpretation of Paul, goodworks–keeping the Mosaic moral and ceremonial law, obeying the ten commandments, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so forth–counted for nothing when salvation was at stake. Good works done without faith in Christ were worthless because they were done for the wrong motives. Faith would indeed produce good works, but good works wouldn’t earn faith. Faith came from God for reasons known only to God. So, what is the “freedom of a Christian?” Here’s how Luther expresses it: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to none.” The paradox comes clear if we recognize the language Luther is using, a legal language, the language of ownership.
When Luther speaks of the Christian, he doesn’t mean just any person who worships in a Christian church; he means instead a saved soul, one who has received God’s grace. Think again of property. The Christian is owned by God, God’s dutiful servant, bound to obey God’s orders. Christian freedom is, first of all, a freedom from, a liberation from bondage to all that isn’t God, whether written law or human obligation. Then the freedom from carries with it a freedom to, specifically the freedom to obey God the master who commands that human beings to love their neighbors, and so the Christian becomes a dutiful servant in love to all humankind.
To a Lutheran, to be bound by God’s good will is the only way to be freed from one’s own bad will. It is the only condition in which good deeds can matter to salvation. And Luther was perfectly ready to accept the consequence of this; in fact, the consequence is his premise: human free will has nothing to do with this process. The soul elected by God has in fact no will at all, except insofar as it is congruent with or the same thing as God’s will. Those whom God has reprobated to damnation also have no free will; they’re left in bondage to the evil forces God’s providence permits to range abroad in the world. In either case, a power of necessity does the driving, and that fact obliterates any freedom. Luther minces no words on this: good is the necessary consequence of God’s grace. “This being so,” he wrote in reply to Erasmus, “enlarge the power of ‘free will’ as much as you like…but once you add this doleful postscript, that it is ineffective apart from God’s grace, staightway you rob it of all its power. What is ineffective power but (in plain language) no power? So to say that ‘free will’ exists and has power, albeit ineffective power, is…a contradiction in terms.” It’s the Erasmian position that’s doubletalk as far as Luther was concerned.
The force of Erasmus’ argument in favor of free will depends on what stock one places in the late-medieval doctrine of doing one’s best, which is pretty much what Erasmus relies on substantively. This was ultimately a matter of temperament, as was Erasmus’ rhetoric. On dark matters of doctrine, like free will and predestination, Erasmus always tried to be as latitudinarian as he could, believing as he did that no good ethical purpose was served by hardening positions, the way Luther had. He refused to harden his own, which allowed him to condemn Luther for being too severe. In the context of this debate, Erasmus comes off the eternal liberal–the reluctant adversary who tries to sound sweet and reasonable, argues a moderate position; confesses uncertainty, tries to make light, not heat, and prefers to compose and placate disputing actions rather than provoke further dissension. Luther, on the other hand, is the uncompromising fighter who goes straight for the jugular. Viscerally convicted of the certain truth he thought God had given him, Luther took Erasmus’s very moderation as the sign his opponent wasn’t just wrong, but also indifferent about truth.
Erasmus was obnoxious to Luther, worse than a Pelagian heretic, more like a Laodicean, who blew neither hot nor cold. The issues of free will and predestination were the ostensible subject of the debate, but there was more to it than that. Erasmus recognized that Luther called into question any number of subsidiary points that he, Erasmus, would feel less inclined to let Luther get away with. The most important of these was Luther’s questioning the connection between intellect and action. This is where he really hit Erasmus where he lived, challenging the very principles Erasmus had based his public career on: that learning, that intellectual effort and progress, could and did have a salutary effect on the moral life; that right learning and right thinking led to right doing. In ethical thought, there’s something of the Aristotelian in Erasmus, in the stress on habituation and moral discipline as the effective path to virtuous living; but there’s also a touch of the Platonist, in the conviction that knowledge is virtue, that correct belief disposes its possessor to correct action.
Luther would have none of that. If souls are justified by faith alone, and persons must have that directly from God, not from themselves or any other source, intellectual striving for correct belief is just another ineffective human work, a fictional power. To Luther, faith is not belief, faith is “an experience in the depths of the heart…something God effects in us. It changes us.” So morality wouldn’t come from human knowledge or study. Good behavior might be habituated or constrained by external forces, but there’d be no exercise of free choice in that.
We cannot overestimate how seriously this Lutheran challenge affected Erasmian thought, and we are back to the question of human potential for intellect and action based on faith. The works of Dante, especially the Divine Comedy, would be the best place to see this, the better part of that poem focussing continually on rational deliberation as the prerequisite for freely chosen moral activity. An early sixteenth-century work that foregrounds the problem is the Utopia by Erasmus’ good friend and coadjutor Thomas More, published in 1516, the year before Luther tacked up his Ninety-five Theses. Utopia is a very complex and tricky work to interpret, but there are reasons to read that dialogue as well as the invention of a putatively ideal state that hint toward More’s skepticism about the relation between intellect and action. At a minimum, More sees the relation as deeply problematic.
Now, Thomas More was no Lutheran, and it might be said that just the gesture of trying to invent a Utopia reflects an optimism about human moral progress through rational endeavor. Luther may not have read Utopia, but in his tract on Secular Authority (1523) he stated clearly that an ideal polity could never materialize unless it were populated entirely by, and governed by, true Christians (ie…saved souls), and this was never going to happen because far the greatest proportion of humanity was surely damned. Hence the best efforts of sound ethical or political philosophy weren’t going to reform the world’s injustices. Needless to say, the latter part of the century was a time for skeptical explorations of the question of how much credit human beings might claim for themselves, in the spheres both of intellect and of action. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in 1600 or 1601, seems to be a good example.
The action of the play shows us that the man can think straight; that the thinker who meditates so long, so hard, and so exquisitely about the pursuit of his revenge can also, on occasion, act with remarkable impulsiveness; also that the man of scrupulous morality can behave rather crudely, even cruelly, toward others and seem not troubled in conscience for doing so. Human character has its contradictions; the problem is to discover a philosophical frame in which they make sense.
No surprise, then, that interpreters ask if they’re to judge Hamlet a success. In some real sense, we can say he was. He appears to have achieved moral certitude, and he did kill Claudius. But at what cost? The man temperamentally indisposed to bloodiness has left a trail of dead bodies behind him. And did the moral certitude have anything to do with the revenge effected? We’re left to puzzle over both questions. It’s in that light that we might read the well-known “What a piece of work is man?” speech in Act II. Does Shakespeare’s play suggest the human creature is in fact less close to any angel or a god than to a “quintessence of dust”?
Let us conclude by returning to Luther and asking where the appeal lay in his position. Over the broad range of history, tender mindedness usually wins out, but Luther’s toughness had plenty of sympathizers, among intellectuals and among people with no pretensions to great learning. We should recognize that the tough position of double predestination could be attractive, could even provoke tenderness. One of the last sections of Luther’s tract against Erasmus is titled “Of the comfort of knowing that salvation does not depend on free will.” Here the knowledge of human inadequacy leads to intolerable human anxiety. It’s the guilt, the anxiety of human moral shortcoming, and the uncertainty of outcome that are relieved by predestination, and, in what may sound an odd sort of way, even those predestined to hell can share in this. If their lack of assurance makes them fear hellfire, they’re disposed to behave themselves on the expectation of reward, real enough to them, if false in fact. So, at least in this life, they, too, along with the saved, can enjoy an almost epicurean calm of mind. A philosophy of intellectual striving and consequent moral discipline entails the opposite of comfort, which can’t be had as long as the uncertain human creature, in its weakness, operates on its own steam. To hear fatalism in Hamlet’s speeches in Act V may well be to hear a man finding his peace and security in the knowledge that his and everyone else’s fate is governed by something beyond himself.
A final observation: this attitude isn’t unique to Protestantism. The most vocal movement in the Roman Catholic counter-reformation was the Jesuit order, founded by Igatius of Loyola in the 1530’s. This order conceded the role of free will in salvation, but in their religious lives, they did all they could to suppress their freedom. It was Ignatius’ determination that each member of the order would “abandon his own will, consider himself bound by special vow of obedience to the present Pope and his successors”. Further, obeying orders was only the first surrender of will; obedience had to be internal, there had to be an “inner wish” to obey authority–not only to will what the superior commanded, but also “think the same as the superior.” Perfect obedience was “the true resignation of our wills and abnegation of our own judgments” to the point where, Ignatius says somewhere, the Jesuit will believe black to be white and white to be black if that’s the teaching of the church.
So Luther believed there was no free will, and the Jesuits believed there was enough free will to make it dangerous. How much difference is there between them? In the comfort of not worrying about how to create alternatives for oneself, none.
A note from the Editor and Program Director. Now, I know what you are going to say: “Why do we need to know all of this “theology”–didn’t we leave it all behind when we joined the Humanists? NO. We still need to know it, for it is still very much a part of our culture. Most of the present-day controversies are rooted in the concepts discussed in this Lecture. You need to understand the concepts of this lecture before you can make sense of what comes next in our study of Western Intellectual History. The meeting attendance has been down lately. Perhaps it is because you know you will be able to read about the lecture in the Journal. Therefore, we have not edited the transcripts as much as we might have so you would not miss a thing!