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No one can be happy who has been thrust outside the pale of truth. And there are two ways that one can be removed from this realm: by lying, or by being lied to… Lucius Annaeus Seneca

This is the third in a series of four reviews that deal with books that show the cultural and ideological divide between the industrialized north and the agrarian South both before and after the Civil War. The first two reviews covered the common ground of Manifest Destiny – at least partially common ground – the South was suffering from soil depletion and saw expansion as opening new areas to farming which meant, of necessity, slavery. The north was becoming increasingly urban and with the typical urban lack of understanding of agriculture did not understand what the South – and by extension the entire nation – needed.

Add to this the northern need for expansion due to immigration – immigrants who did not bring an appreciation of the culture that had fostered the Revolution and who had at best a rudimentary appreciation for republican democracy – along with the industrial desire to control the transcontinental railroad and you have the real cause of schism between north and South. Ironically the historical picture painted of the abolitionists ignores the fact that they not only did not want slaves in the new territories but they were equally opposed to free blacks there. Their solution both before and during the war was deportation and it was only a combination of opportunism and their desire to punish the South that led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

The fundamental ideological difference between the two sides was that the north was coming increasingly under the sway of European modern thought while the South maintained the traditions of Christianity and English common law. For the South slavery had existed in Biblical times and could exist in their times with no apparent contradiction of Christian belief. The north – blind to everything Burke and Carlyle had warned of – embraced liberty, equality and fraternity insofar as they allowed a steady return on capital and developing their Rousseauian civil religion had no use for any church that did not recognize the primacy of the state.

In one of his famous misdirections of the second inaugural Lincoln tells us, Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes, and then goes on to tell us how he is serving God’s purposes. He never quite gets around to admitting that he is not even a Christian but then again few politicians do.

The plain and simple fact is that they did not pray to the same God. The South prayed to the God of the King James Bible, and maybe with a little too much emphasis on the Old Testament and slightly less on the New, but strongly within the Christian tradition. The north was using a “translation” by Abner Kneeland who was part of the Unitarian universalist movement and who would later abandon Christianity altogether in order to become a deist and then the north would swing behind  John Gorham Palfrey‘s New Testament but both of them were students of the German Johann Jakob Griesbach who was more interested in the history of the Bible than in its authority and is the beginning of that chain that has led to not only the Revised Version but the contemporary Reversed Vision.

This book is not really about new thought. It is about the northern thinkers finding the truth of Seneca’s cynical assessment that,  religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful, and translating that formulation into the relativist interpretation that can allow the Constitution to support two opposite positions at the same time without imploding. Whether you call it loose construction, liberal interpretation or just plain fuzzy thinking these are the man who left behind objectively knowable ideas of good and evil – along with the responsibility to act on those standards – and gave us laws that could change and adapt to the requirements of the society.

The Metaphysical Club New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001 Louis Menand United States Intellectual life Hardcover. 1st. ed., later printing. xii, 546 p.: ill.; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 499-520) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG   

The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Well Holmes, Jr., future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court William James, the father of modern American psychology and Charles Sanders Peirce, logician, scientist, and the founder of semiotics.

The Club was probably in existence for about nine months. No records were kept. The one thing we know that came out of it was an idea – an idea about ideas. This book is the story of that idea. Holmes, James, and Peirce all believed that ideas are not things “out there” waiting to be discovered but are tools people invent – like knives and forks and microchips – to make their way in the world.

They thought that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals – that ideas are social. They do not develop according to some inner logic of their own but are entirely dependent – like germs – on their human carriers and environment. And they thought that the survival of any idea depends not on its immutability but on its adaptability.

The Metaphysical Club is written in the spirit of this idea about ideas. It is not a history of philosophy but an absorbing narrative about personalities and social history, a story about America. It begins with the Civil War and ends in 1919 with Justice Holmes‘s dissenting opinion in the case of U.S. v. Abrams – the basis for the constitutional law of free speech. The first four sections of the book focus on Holmes, James, Peirce, and their intellectual heir, John Dewey. The last section discusses some of the fundamental twentieth-century ideas they are associated with. This is a book about a way of thinking that changed American life.


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