When America was new, her most promising candidates for pulpit and classrooms were sent to Europe to complete their education. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s appeal at Harvard College for a distinctly American scholar would seem to deplore this custom. His complaint that we had listened “too long to the courtly muses of Europe” was quoted and hailed as the wisdom of the hour in certain circles. Yet the real effect of the “reformation” was to make it unnecessary for American scholars to study abroad to attain the new learning. Higher education on this side of the Atlantic was Europeanized, albeit not after the “courtly” tradition.
America’s roots grew deep in Europe. Longfellow gathered from there the work of poets who shared his love for God, family, home and the Bible. His anthology, Poets and Poetry of Europe, has never been surpassed as a compilation of traditional European literature, linking Americans with their roots in the Old Country.
While a whole nation of readers were buying more of Longfellow’s books than any other, except the Bible, what dominant faculty of his could have prompted dissent from his “enlightened” critics? Considering their attitude toward traditional Christianity, it is not hard to guess.
For more than 200 years the historicity of the Judeo-Christian foundation of civilization was not a question for scholarly debate in America. The Bible in courtroom and classroom was the standard by which truth was measured.
American life was unashamedly Christian, but world changing philosophies were in store. German and French universities had been revolutionized by the Enlightenment. Americans who studied there were offered a whole new way of viewing the world. Importation of “scientific thought” into major universities began the long battle to restructure the nation’s thought and social order. For some, “truth” was related to this purpose rather than to reality.
The history of Europe was well-known to educated Americans in the 19th century. Christian missionaries in the first century had followed Roman roads and trade routes throughout the empire to tell the story of Jesus, the Nazarene, who, though crucified was alive. Christian teachers devised alphabets for unwritten languages and taught barbarian people to read and write. They had furnished books from which learning could be had.
The trappings of Roman civilization worked no profound change in Anglo-Saxon, Frank, Viking, Scott nor Pict. But long before the Enlightenment something gentled Europe’s marauding tribes. The fact that entire tribes, with their kings, received the Christian message and were baptized en masse, cannot be irrelevant. Failure to take account of the Christian history of western civilization seems to be at the root of modern man’s confusion.
The record indicates that Rome’s civilizing influence would have been swept away if it had not been for the Christian Church. When citizens of the Empire fled before barbarian hordes, to seek safety in Rome, they left fortified government buildings, good roads and decaying manor houses as Rome’s only legacy north of the Alps. Christian teaching provided cohesive purpose for the fusion of civilized and barbarian Europeans into nations.
The civilizing influence of Christianity on northern Europe preceded Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxon warrior-king, Widukind. Charlemagne, king of the Franks ordered the destruction of Widukind’s wooden god Irminsul. Methods used by Charlemagne to bring Christianity to all citizens of his vast realm still arouse controversy, but to side against Charlemagne is to opt for pagan chants and charms, warriors cudgels and mud daubed huts, instead of homes, cathedrals and market places in Paris and Berlin. Leaders like Charlemagne made history by melding unwieldy, warring tribes into nations.
In the 19th century, come-lately American prophets of the Enlightenment, such as Emerson and Eliot, found no significance in the fact that Greece and Rome did almost nothing to tame warlike Europeans. Like these, we moderns tend to forget who taught Westerners to reverence the learning that can be had from books. We have no such direct inheritance from Greece and Rome; nor did our forbears go to Rome for inspiration before they knew of that city as the place where the apostles Peter and Paul preached and died.
When scientific inquiry burst into life across Europe, during the 15th and 16th centuries, the men who responded were products of Christian education. In spite of this obvious fact, philosophers of the Enlightenment by-passed Jerusalem and Galilee to return to pre-Christian morality, learning and myths.
Voltaire, Hegel and Rousseau might be cited as products and preachers of the Enlightenment. The man, however, who contributed the most to our vein of thought was the French philosopher, Claude Adrien Helvétius – an associate of Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists in the foment of the French Revolution.
Helvétius was the product of the social and moral decline of 18th century France. At the college of Louis le Grand, young Helvétius made friends with Voltaire and the Encyclopedists. In Paris he frequented salons where radicals discussed social issues that would soon throw France into bloody revolution.1
Helvétius’ first book, De l’esprit, was published in 1758. Both civil and religious authorities were angered when the book appeared. They pronounced it “atheistic, sacrilegious, immoral and subversive!“2 Nor was De l’esprit applauded by the Encyclopedists, who had urged him to publish outside France.
Their efforts to find a moral code more palatable to the Church became futile when De l’esprit brought their entire movement into conflict with authorities. Helvétius, who held that sexual enjoyment was the greatest of all human pleasures, made self-love the basis of ethics. After his book was published, he was seen as principle spokesman for an “organized philosophic movement that proposed to supplant the Church.“3
The philosophy of Helvétius contains the essence of humanism. He defined the object of life as earthly happiness, rather than salvation, and advocated legislation, certainly not preaching, as the means by which happiness for the greatest number would be achieved. He said, “Great virtues are made possible by great passions.“4 Christianity was in this way construed to be a deterrent to virtue.
Helvétius believed man is entirely a product of his environment,5 and will develop according to the cultural pressures to which he is subject. He thought education accounted for all differences between individuals and must be utilized to realize “the ideal of general intelligence, virtue, and happiness.” Even though he admitted there was no way to prove this, he said society must act as though it were true.6
Denying all absolutes of justice, good and evil, Helvétius held that self-love is the mainspring of human action. In his system, the only pleasure that is immoral is one that conflicts with the pleasure of the greatest number.7 The final test of any action, then, is its utilitarian value – its use to the public. The ideal government, he believed, would bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number, and universal education would make children useful to such a society.8
He advocated legislation of punishments and rewards to force men to contribute to public welfare. Under such a system, he felt only madmen could prevent themselves from being good citizens. Individual preferences and rights are lost to Helvétius in the all-consuming importance of public interest. He believed “only the union, the identification, of private and public interests,” and suggested that “fine women” be offered as prizes for publicly beneficial acts. He found Christianity to be at cross-purposes with his entire scheme.9
Ralph Waldo Emerson and critics who caviled American literature and education as too heavily dependent on Europe would have been hard put to pursue their own philosophical goals without reference to some European prophet of progress. There is no purpose here to suggest solidarity among the philosophers. Eliot’s new appointees at Harvard University were not troubled by congruities between idealism and rationalism. The common denominator between thinkers who were to dominate American learning seemed to be rejection of biblical truth.
America in the 1980s, to a startling degree, is a product of European “wisdom” tapped by Eliot, Emerson, William James, and men of like mind, who thought to improve America’s education and literature as a means of erecting for her a new social order. The index of any textbook of philosophical, political, or social interest gives evidence that Helvétius, Emerson and James have gained stature, even in our own time.
If we can believe the statistics on homelessness, drug abuse, crime, and suicide; obviously the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment have not brought “the greatest happiness to the greatest number.” In spite of protests and pressures, government has been unable to squeeze out happiness for even a small number. More “freedom” has not led American scholars to greater accomplishment. Instead, the so-called “reformation” of American learning seemed merely to accomplish rejection of biblical truth.
To the prophets of the Enlightenment, government seemed to dispense less happiness when its taxes were lower and its intrusions fewer. It seems apparent that neither sophistication gained in the classroom nor increased government spending impart ability to cope with human relationships, irresponsibilities or addictions. When the sum of individual freedoms threatens civic order it takes little imagination to foresee that our choice must lie between chaos and police-state-control, unless self-control has by that time been rediscovered.
Philosophers who engineered the grand scheme of human progress, it should be noted, individually demonstrated no special abilities other than those useful in creating books and social unrest. Having rejected the biblical view of life, they contrived a view more to their liking without benefit of wide experience or wise counsel. For them, the truth of an idea was determined by its usefulness rather than its relationship to reality.
1 Smith, D.W., A Study in Persecution (Oxford University: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 12. 2 Ibid, p. 25. 3 Ibid, p.48
4 Grossman, Mordecai, Ph.D. The Philosophy of Helvétius, (New York, NY: Bureau of Publications, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1926), p. 107.
5 Smith, p. 14. 6 Grossman, p.122. 7 Ibid, p. 101. 8 Ibid, p. 105.
9 Ibid, p. 100.