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Freedom and Fate in American Thought: From Edwards to Dewey

reviewed by J. David Hoeveler, Jr. - 1979

coverTitle: Freedom and Fate in American Thought: From Edwards to Dewey
Author(s): Paul F. Jr. Boller
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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Many students and teachers of American intellectual history have become familiar with the works of Paul F. Boller, Jr. His several texts, including especially American Thought in Transition: The Impact of Evolutionary Naturalism, 1865-1900 (1969) and American Transcendentalism, 1830-1860: An Intellectual Inquiry (1974) are useful and insightful summaries of two critical periods in the history of American ideas. In his latest work, Boller has charted a large thematic course that centers on one of the most elusive but most intriguing and suggestive themes in our literature, the issue of freedom and fate. Boller gives these terms elastic meanings: "freedom," "liberty," "free will," "natural rights," "determinism," "predestination," "discipline," and "authority" express their several variations. And the spectrum of opinion runs the full length of extremes. On the Right, expressing the skeptical position on freedom, are Mark Twain and Jonathan Edwards. In the middle stand Ralph Waldo Emerson, John C. Calhoun, and John Dewey. The "radical" voices of freedom are Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, Edward Bellamy, and William James. But one hesitates to categorize sharply; any division is misleading. Edwards was not at all a mechanistic fatalist like the later Twain, nor did James feel comfortable with the abstract and metaphysical view of natural rights endorsed by Paine and Douglass. In fact, one cannot read these essays closely without making dozens of cross- references along the way.

Freedom and Fate bears Boller's customary lucid style. He has an eye for the quotable quotation and the sprightly writing enhances the rich intellectual content of this work. Boller does not set out to make a philosopher's resolution of the problem under consideration and his is by no means a technical study. Rather, the freedom versus fate question serves two different functions. It is first a means of illuminating the larger system of an individual's thought. Jonathan Edwards, for example, believed that a true theology hinged on this question. Chance and free will could have no place in a universe where the will and omniscience of God reigned supreme. All the modern heresies that gathered under the name of Ar-minianism drew their breath on the doctrine of human freedom, and Edwards set out with all the logic and irony of his devastating intellect to slay this blasphemous monster. For William James, on the other hand, freedom of the will was "the pivotal question of metaphysics, the very hinge on which our picture of the world shall swing from materialism, fatalism, monism, towards spiritualism, freedom, pluralism." Boller shows in fact that this was the pivotal question of James's whole intellectual and spiritual life. For others who are treated here, freedom and fate were not always the main doctrinal or metaphysical questions. But for one such as John Dewey, it is clear that the resolution of this problem related to many other conclusions that constitute Dewey's version of pragmatism.

This focus suggests the second use of Boller's study. For the theme emerges as a kind of guideline through the history of ideas in America. Edwards's painstaking resolution of this question illuminates the Puritan-Calvinist tradition in America, while Thomas Paine articulates the Enlightenment's faith in a benevolent universe and the body of natural liberties that it sustains. Emerson is our major spokesman for American transcendentalism and his meaning of freedom elaborates the romantic religion of the mid-nineteenth century. Likewise, James and Dewey express two contrasting versions of pragmatism. But clearly, as Boller shows, this question is not the exclusive domain of philosophers. Calhoun's defense of the rights of groups, his thorough rejection of Paine's natural laws, and his reluctance to bestow any validity on individualism show how philosophical questions reach out into the arena of politics. And the opposing sentiments of Frederick Douglass, the former slave, demonstrate the vitality of these ideas in antebellum political discourse. Freedom and fate appear also as literary devices, as the chapters on Bellamy and Twain illustrate.

But these sections suffer in comparison with those on the American philosophers. Twain's determinism is little more than the loud laments of a pessimistic old man, and in fact often appears immature and childish. Bellamy's utopianism is so cliche-ridden that sentimentalism replaces hard thinking altogether. Each of these occupies opposite extremes. But a striking theme emerges when one shifts to the philosophical discussions, one suggestive perhaps of the American temperament generally. The chapters on Edwards, Emerson, James, and Dewey are challenging and highly rewarding, and, with the exception of James, they seem to show the force of a dominating and then lingering Puritanism. For both Emerson and Dewey have much in common with Edwards. All three want to subordinate a radical personal freedom to a higher discipline. Edwards most literally reinforces John Winthrop's assertion that we find true liberty only when we join our will to the will of God. Natural liberty is an animal freedom devoid of meaning, purpose, and moral responsibility. Emerson emphatically endorses this principle. He would use the transcendentalist's Reason, which is our escape of freedom from the tyranny of society, history, and tradition, as a means of locating a personal discipline under moral law. Emerson's reflections on aesthetic creativity are most revealing, for this American romantic will not go the whole route of subjectivism and labels as the true artist the creator who has tapped the inner power of the Universal Spirit. The great artist, in short, attains that status when he becomes the vehicle of the Oversoul. Dewey, finally, in his unrelenting war against dualism, wished to dissolve the freedom/authority dichotomy as well. His organic philosophy located the individual within the continuum of the environment and rejected all metaphysical and subjectivist resolutions of the freedom question. Freedom is the outcome of the measures and controls of the scientific method, which meant especially for Dewey organized intelligence in social affairs. And to this extent, Dewey emerges as an apologist for discipline and authority in education, against the more indulgent interpreters of his ideas. For Edwards, Emerson, Dewey, and even James on this matter, freedom was the corollary of the widest possible knowledge, whether divine or secular. The extreme subjectivity of a Rousseau dies hard on American intellectual soil. The American philosophers as represented here look with suspicion on the exclusively inner quest for freedom and truth and look outward for a source of authority.

Finally, one cannot help but notice that for all the strivings of the intellect, in most cases this difficult question is subjectively resolved. Edwards, who made the best case against freedom of the will, in the end concluded that it was not a matter of logic but a matter of faith. And for this powerful thinker, nothing was so moving or so inspiring as his imaginative sense of a sovereign God. On the other side, it was James who left us the powerful reminder that for many of life's most compelling issues we believe first in order to know. From Twain to Douglass and the rest of the persons included here, the articulation of rational thoughts on freedom and fate was the means of resolving a desperate inner need.

Freedom and Fate will prove to be a useful book. Students of ideas in America will freshen and expand their knowledge even of familiar spokesmen. They and others will also profit by the critical bibliography that organizes the secondary literature by subject and also includes some recent discussions on free will and determinism.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 80 Number 4, 1979, p. 789-791
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1113, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 3:13:32 AM

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About the Author
  • J. Hoeveler, Jr.
    University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
    E-mail Author
    J. David Hoeveler, Jr., is Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is the author of The New Humanism: A Critique of Modern America, 1900-1940 and has recently completed a biography of James Mc Cosh.
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