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Sometimes, no matter what I do, the writing of fiction just does not happen.  Or it happens, but then I throw it all out.

It was that kind of day today, and that brings me back to the Puritans.

Actually, it also brings me back to the High Middle Ages, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

I’m still reading Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century.  It’s a truly wonderful book, but it needs careful reading, and I’m going to be with it for a while.

If Miller is at all accurate in his description, the Puritans were a sort of reincarnation of the Medieval mind, with a lot of the fancy ornamentation stripped away.

They didn’t believe in the Real Presence and they didn’t hold for fancy decorated churches with stained glass windows and paintings of the Virgin Mary, but their concepts of everything from epistemology to civil government were solidly 13th Century.

They thought they disputed Thomas Aquinas and the Schoolmen.  Instead, they were virtually recreating everything the Schoolmen did.

The reason this is important is that it brought to the American continent a theory of civil society that I think may be exclusive to Christianity.

It’s not that all Christian societies follow this formula, but that I don’t know of any other societies that do. 

But I don’t know as much about other societies as about the ones that arose in Western civilization, so I may be completely wrong. 

This theory of society goes like this:

The purpose of secular government is to provide an environment where men and women will find it possible to practice the virtues.

It is important to note that we’re talking about practicing the virtues, not following a lot of thou-shalt-not rules.

The thou-shalt-not rules mattered, but they were secondary to things like maintaining and active and vigorous faith in Christ and his Church, treating all people with charity and as you would if they were not themselves but Christ appearing before you, and dozens of smaller things.

The smaller things for the Puritans included things like modesty, sobriety, and that work ethic Max Weber kept going on about.

A lot of the things that seem outrageous, or tyrannical, or just plain stupid about both the societies of the Middle Ages and the Puritans in New England can be understood if you start with the premise that their idea of what a government was and what it must do was radically different from our own.

Well, okay–radically different from what we say is our own idea of government.  I’ll get back to that.

But seriously, look at it.

If my purpose is to construct a society where you will find it possible to practice the virtues, and I believe that men and women are inherently prone to be led into vice, then I must suppress heresy and censor heretical publications.

I must do that because a diversity of religious opinions must, by definition, consist of mostly wrong ones.  When they are allowed to flourish, people will be seduced by them, or confused.  Men and women find it hard to practice true religion and believe the truths God gave them.  Therefore, to make it possible for them to live their faith, we must as far as possible eliminate the temptation.

In a world where only true religious views are allowed a hearing, men and women will find it easier to accept such views and to trust in them completely.

The same is true about things like laws against vice.  You prohibit prostitution and gambling and public drunkenness because if you allow those things then it will be harder for ordinary men and women to practice chastity, modesty, prudence and sobriety.

It’s true, of course, that in a society where the vices are not prohibited some people will still lead virtuous lives–but those are the strong ones.

Concern must be focussed on the weaker vessels, who find temptation difficult or even impossible to resist.  In order to make it possible for them to lead virtuous lives, we must take temptation out of their way. 

In a rightly ordered polity, all encouragement is given to virtuous behavior, and vicious behavior is so circumscribed that most people don’t even conceive the thoughts that might lead them down the garden path.

Let me note here that the psychology of this isn’t entirely wrong. 

A man with the urge to have sex with children may not even know that that is what he has the urge for if there is no sign of any such thing in the world he lives in.  If he does know he has the urge, he thinks he’s alone and perverted, a freak of nature.  He suppresses his desires, or does what he can to take himself out of the way of having them aroused, because actually acting on them is unthinkable and repugnant. 

That same man, confronted by the NAMBLA web site and its arguments in favor of doing what he wants to do anyway now sees that he is not alone after all, that other people feel what he feels, and that some of them have plausible arguments for why feeling that way and acting on it are not bad things.

A world full of lotteries and Indian casinos will have more gamblers than one without, and will of necessity have more compulsive gamblers. 

A world full of alcohol will have more driners than one without, and will of necessity have more alcoholics.

You can do that all the way down the line.

If you think I’ve abandoned my principles and signed on in favor of morals legislation, I haven’t.

The argument for a libertarian polity has never been that in libertarian circumstances all people will behave well.  They won’t, and in libertarian circumstances, lots of people will ruin themselves who would not have in a stricter and more constricted environment.

And it’s true that even in the strictest societies, some people will go ahead and practice vice anyway, no matter what the penalties.

But the Medieval scholars and the Puritan New Englanders didn’t need, and didn’t expect to get, one hundred percent success.

The City on the Hill was not conceived as Paradise Regained or as the uncorrupted world which Christ would institute on His return.

The idea was only to create a society that would minimized the losses, a society in which even the weakest of human beings had a chance to achieve the daily practice of virtue.

Reading Perry Miller, what keeps hammering itself into my head is this:  a society so conceived is what the people promoting speech codes, hate crimes legislation, Bloomsberg food and smoking restrictions, and all the rest are trying to construct for the rest of us.

The idea of government as a moral enabler has become almost entirely a phenomenon of the secular left. 

The religious right wants to ban vice, but not because they believe it will mean that fewer people will commit sin. 

The religious right wants to ban vice because they think it is intrinsically evil, and that evil should be prohibited even though people will commit it right and left. 

Some day those people may Get Religion (literally), but that will be the Grace of God and not anything we’ve done about it.

Written by janeh

June 30th, 2012 at 8:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Commonwealth'

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  1. So – are we back to the perfectibility of human beings? With the Christians saying it’s not possible in this world, but we all need to struggle towards that, and we need to encourage and support those struggle with temptations (imperfections? And the leftists (Progressivists?) believing that humans are perfect (all that stuff you read about how we’re all perfect in our own way) and any niggling little problems they may have can be fixed by, err, encouragement and support to change, but from the government rather than the church? Dig deep enough, and there’s a certain similarity, isn’t there? Except, of course, the Christians are inspired by morality and the Progressive types science. Which isn’t true because (a) their science is often pitifully bad (http://velvetgloveironfist.blogspot.ca/) and (b) there’s not a lot of diffenrence between having a moral conviction that one needs to work towards perfection in the next life and that one has to live perfectly self-fulfilled in this one. Except that the first is a bit more understanding of failure even if some of them lived in times when failure was punished by beatings and executions rather than ostracism.

    I think libertarians are out of it entirely if they can’t support morals legislation!


    30 Jun 12 at 11:11 am

  2. More or less in agreement with the post, but a few nuances:

    Ever and always, worth remembering that (1) the Puritan logic train did not necesarily lead to a religious establishment. You can’t get more Puritan than Oliver Cromwell, who proclaimed religious toleration and re-admitted the Jews to England after centuries of expulsion because, in his view, being a Puritan required these things. His Calvinist brethren in the Netherlands came to similar conclusions. (2) While Muslims and Counter-Reformation Catholics sent armies, Calvinists sent preachers and pamphlets. They sought conversion, not conquest.

    New England is different to a degree. One reason is the understanding of the Puritans that this was THEIR community, to be run THEIR way, and that by coming there, people had signed on for this. They didn’t send out armies or assassins to get rid of Quakers, but they expected the Quakers to stay in Pennsylvania, where they belonged.

    No one listens to me, but again, I can’t emphasize too strongly the importance of Fisher’s ALBION’S SEED which discusses the “folkways” of America’s four different colonial roots. I’m thinking here of the chapters on differing concepts of freedom. You can see to this day that the concept of freedom (“reciprocal liberty”) brought to the middle colonies by the Quakers differs vastly from freedom as it was understood in Virginia and points south and west, or as the Border people understood it, who would settle West Virginia, Tennessee and on into Texas. Fisher does his best with New England (“ordered liberty”) but I don’t think they really had a concept of freedom as anyone else understood the term–and it spreads with them across the “northern tier” to Humphrey’s Minnesota, Madison Wisconsin and McGovern’s North Dakota.

    And yes, a lot of Movementism is religion for atheists. Watch how a Green will enforce a rule which actually harms the environment–but is understood to be one of The Rules. It’s the practice rather than the consequences which are important–the exercise of virtue, rather than some worldly objective.

    But even the Puritans who weren’t book-burners and who didn’t pursue a state religion generally weren’t big on theater, houses of prostitution, public drunkenness and plural marriage. Before we go finding some moral equivalency between the secular left and the religious right, I’d at least consider Edmund Burke, who was no one’s Puritan, but rightly observed that human society was a vast and complex thing. We don’t know how all the pieces interact, and throwing out wholesale the rules of centuries and even millenia is not a prudent thing to do. Jane, you keep telling me that the pure strain Libertarian is under no illusions about the faults of individuals. Maybe so. But he’s a cock-eyed optimist about human society, convinced that he can pitch a thousand years of rules about how we live together and still have a nation and not a Hobbesian state of nature. I’d say the first rule of piloting a strange vessel is to be sure you know how the thing works before you start disabling the controls.

    Not that it matters. Pretty clearly the short-term winners will be the Movementists, and I don’t think the Libertarians are even next in line.


    30 Jun 12 at 3:53 pm

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