Jonathan Edwards, Calvinist preacher and philosopher, was America’s first eminent philosopher. Metaphysically, he was an idealist like Berkeley, but his primary concern was not with the traditional problems of philosophy but with theological issues that had a direct bearing on the religious practices of his time. He used his philosophy to assert the absolute sovereignty of God and to reaffirm the doctrine of original sin. He argued that reason and natural goodness are not enough to make a man virtuous: man needs revelation and disinterested benevolence if he is to be worth-while as a religious person. Showing the influence of Locke and Newton, Edwards argued that every event has a cause; he then went on to maintain that man is free, nevertheless, in that he can do as he wills and is therefore responsible for his actions.
The effect of Edwards’ work was a strong revival of idealism and Calvinistic pietism. His own congregation responded with a surprising number of conversions, as he reports in his essay. “Narrative of Surprising Conversions” (1736). Edwards attributed what he called the “awakening” to God’s influence, but it is clear that his efforts were at least instrumental. The Puritan revival grew to such proportions that the phrase “The Great Awakening” was devised to describe the period between 1740 and 1742.
Edwards’ earliest philosophical efforts are preserved in his “Notes on the Mind,” an early product of his reading of Locke’s ESSAY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING. Edwards went beyond Locke in much the same critical manner as Berkeley, pointing out that the primary qualities of extension, motion, and figure, are as much dependent on the senses as are the secondary qualities of color, taste, sound, and odor. Like Berkeley, Edwards decided that objects are combinations of ideas and that the “Substance of all Bodies, is the infinitely exact, and precise, and perfectly stable Idea, in God’s mind. . . .” Edwards identified perceptions with ideas and attributed all ideas to the influence of God. Like later idealists, he defined truth as the consistency of ideas with themselves: to know that a proposition is true one perceives the relations between ideas, but to have a false idea is to suppose that certain relations obtain among the ideas which, as a matter of fact, do not so obtain. The essay also presented an analysis of value in terms of “the inclination and disposition of the mind.” In NOTES ON THE MIND we also find the claim that “all Virtue, which is the Excellency of minds, is resolved into LOVE TO BEING,” an idea which was later developed in more detail in the essay titled “A Dissertation on the Nature of True Virtue.”
In the essay on true virtue, written in 1755, Edwards wrote that “true virtue,” by which he meant actual, as distinguished from merely apparent, moral excellence, “consists in benevolence to Being general. Or perhaps to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to Being in general, that is immediately exercised in a general good will.” Edwards argued that all sin is the result of self-love which resists the directives of the “natural conscience.” True virtue is the actual consent to Being, the acceptance of God, and must be distinguished from the natural conscience which approves of true virtue, although it is not itself the virtuous response to Being.
For many outside of Edwards’ faith, the problem has always been that of reconciling the idea of God’s sovereignty with the idea that God, as Being, should be the object of disinterested benevolence, or love. In his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God ,” for example, Edwards spoke from the pulpit of the imminence of hell for the wicked: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God. By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation. . . .” He went...
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