Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Puritan Hypothesis Personified

We live in a period where Whig history is the only history that most people know. The west conquered the evils of Nazism and racism, and is moving towards a progressive utopia. People don't know the term 'Whig history', but they know the idea alright.

To me, the best summary of Whig history comes from our modern secular saint, Martin Luther King, who summed it up thus:
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
The history of this quote is a fascinating one.

The MLK quote is actually a paraphrasing of a longer quote by Theodore Parker, who said:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
I'd never heard of this guy before. I actually came across this while looking up the MLK quote as part of writing a different post, but ended up down this rabbit-hole instead.

The reason is that the story of Theodore Parker seems almost shockingly tailor-made to support Moldbug's puritan hypothesis of leftism - that it is primarily an offshoot of mainline American Protestantism that came out of New England Puritans, and over time gradually morphed to replace God with Social Justice.

First off, where would you guess that Theodore Parker was born? Where else, but Massachusetts! Lexington, MA, to be precise.

And for some reason, it wasn't a big surprise to find out that the rest of his life story fits almost eerily into place.

He was an ardent abolitionist, living from 1810 to 1860.

If I told those facts alone, what might you guess about his education and profession?

Would you guess, perhaps, a Unitarian Universalist preacher who had both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University?

Ding ding ding, we have a winner!

Even his ancestry is exactly on point:
His paternal grandfather was John Parker, the leader of the Lexington militia at the Battle of Lexington. 
Remember this the next time conservatives are revering the founding fathers. Their descendants, both literal and intellectual, are leftists. Skip the standard Jefferson and Washington hagiographies and read some Thomas Hutchinson instead.
Among his colonial Yankee ancestors were Thomas Hastings, who came from the East Anglia region of England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, and Deacon Thomas Parker, who came from England in 1635 and was one of the founders of Reading.
East Anglia, East Anglia, where have I heard that name before?

That's right, it's from David Hackett Fisher's book 'Albion's Seed'. It's where the English Puritans came from before they moved to Massachussetts.

But so what, a skeptic may say. Who cares about his background if he was able to perfectly capture the importance of aiming towards what is just and right?

Well, perhaps it might do to know exactly what the "justice" was that he thought the universe was bending towards. Because it looks an awful lot like "leftism".

First up, feminism! From Parker himself
"The domestic function of the woman does not exhaust her powers... To make one half of the human race consume its energies in the functions of housekeeper, wife and mother is a monstrous waste of the most precious material God ever made"
and from the mouths of others
Stanton called his sermons "soul-satisfying" when beginning her career, and she credited him with introducing her to the idea of a Heavenly Mother in the Trinity.
I'm no Christian, let alone a biblical scholar, but I apparently missed the Heavenly Mother part of the Trinity.

But don't strain yourself too hard trying to reconcile it, as Parker was pretty upfront about his perversions of Christianity. Next up, trying to bowdlerize the Bible to take out anything he perceived as inconvenient, leaving a mush of vague sentimental spiritualism:
  “I preach abundant heresies,” he wrote to a friend, “and they all go down—for the listeners do not know how heretical they are.” For years he had wrestled with the factuality of the Hebrew Scriptures, and by 1837 he was wishing “some wise man would now write a book…and show up the absurdity of…the Old Testament miracles, prophecies, dreams, miraculous births, etc.’”
In 1841, Parker laid bare his radical theological position in a sermon titled A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity, in which he espoused his belief that the scriptures of historic Christianity did not reflect the truth. In so doing, he made an open break with orthodox theology. He instead argued for a type of Christian belief and worship in which the essence of Jesus’s teachings remained permanent but the words, traditions, and other forms of their conveyance did not. He stressed the immediacy of God and saw the Church as a communion, looking upon Christ as the supreme expression of God. Ultimately, he rejected all miracles and revelation and saw the Bible as full of contradictions and mistakes. He retained his faith in God but suggested that people experience God intuitively and personally, and that they should center their religious beliefs on individual experience.
The Bible is all a metaphor filled with mistakes and superstitions, just go with what you feel, man. But I'm still Christian, don't you know.

It will not come as a shock to find out that Parker's successors felt less bound to utter the last part. But Parker himself was definitely ahead of the curve, as you have to be when you're deemed heretical by the Unitarian Church (of all organisations).

By contrast, if you want to find out what someone thinks who actually does take the bible literally and cares what it says about slavery, read Robert Dabney's 'A Defense of Virginia'. In it, you will find over 100 pages of exhaustive yet fascinating discourse on what exactly the Bible has to say on the slavery question, and it's probably not what you'd think. Dabney was well acquainted with men like Parker, and skewered them wonderfully:
The Socinian and skeptical type of all the evasions of our Scriptural argument has been already intimated. If the most profane and reckless wresting of God's word will not serve their turn to make it speak abolitionism then they not seldom repudiate its authority. One of their leaders, long a professed minister of the Gospel, declares at the close of a train of tortuous sophisms that if he were compelled to believe the Bible countenances slavery he should be compelled to give up the Bible, thereby virtually confessing that he had never been convinced of the infallibility of that which for thirty years he had been pretending to preach to men as infallible. Others more blatant and blasphemous when compelled to admit that both the Bible and the American constitution recognized slavery exclaimed "Give me then an anti slavery constitution, an anti slavery Bible, and an anti slavery God!" 
This is almost exactly what Parker did.

And even outside slavery, the list of causes Parker supported is almost straight out of modern leftist orthodoxy
As Parker's early biographer John White Chadwick wrote, Parker was involved with almost all of the reform movements of the time: "peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, the physical destitution of the poor" though none became "a dominant factor in his experience" with the exception of his antislavery views. He "denounced the Mexican War and called on his fellow Bostonians in 1847 'to protest against this most infamous war.'"
Let's just count up how many modern leftist causes this guy managed to hit - blacks, hispanics, pacifism (of a sort), education, feminism, criminals, poverty, hating the rich. Parker loses points, however, for not having the foresight to also agitate about homosexuality and the environment. Had he been slightly more visionary on these fronts, he'd be a shoo-in for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination.

But still, justice! Who can forget that famous arc of justice, to which the moral universe is inevitably tending?

Well, it might not hurt to examine how exactly Parker advocated pushing that moral universe on its way, because he certainly wasn't interested in letting the universe work things out in its own due course. Parker was unusually far-sighted in terms of how he applied leftist aims too. Behold a life full of civil disobedience, incitement to violence, funding of guerrilla violence, and general Alinsky-style agitation:
He wrote the scathing To a Southern Slaveholder in 1848, as the abolition crisis was heating up and took a strong stance against slavery and advocated violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 which required the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Parker worked with many fugitive slaves, some of whom were among his congregation. As in the case of William and Ellen Craft, he hid them in his home. Although he was indicted for his actions, he was never convicted.
Guilty as Sin, Free as a Bird. He's the Bill Ayers of 1850.
During the undeclared war in Kansas (see Bleeding Kansas and Origins of the American Civil War) prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Parker supplied money for weapons for free state militias. As a member of the Secret Six, he supported the abolitionist John Brown, whom many considered a terrorist. After Brown's arrest, Parker wrote a public letter, "John Brown's Expedition Reviewed," arguing for the right of slaves to kill their masters and defending Brown’s actions.
Obviously, the South were the untrammeled instigators of the Civil War through their reckless secession. They should have just stuck around to deal with guys like Parker who advocated for terrorism and slaves murdering their masters. Be reasonable, Southern slave owners!

Of course, you may think this is all just incidental to the original quote with which we started - the guy liked justice, even if in other arenas of his life he was a bit extreme.

But it turns out these ideas aren't incidental to the main point. They are in fact the essence of the idea. Here's the full context of the quote, from quote investigator
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
In the context of everything he did and said, it is hard to read the last line as anything but a threat.

This was in 1853.

12 years and 620,000-odd corpses later, America had done a lot of trembling alright.

This is the context of the famous MLK quote with which we began. You will find a version of this quote on the MLK memorial in Washington D.C., which tells you how much the idea has become a source of bipartisan inspiration.

And this, incidentally, is the second Parker quote lightly paraphrased by a modern secular saint, and memorialised in Washington D.C. The other is even more famous. Parker, as well as agitating for violent overthrow of slavery, was a big fan of democracy:
A democracy — of all the people, by all the people, for all the people
And so at last, we see an odd correspondence between the old and the new.

For in fact,
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
in practice means
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward leftism. 
Which could be ever-so-slightly rephrased as:
Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left.

When stripped of the marketing, Parker, MLK and Moldbug can all agree on the trend, even if they disagree on how they feel about it.

It's not for nothing that they carve it in marble in Washington D.C.


  1. Sorry, Shylock, but this is an area where too slavish devotion to Moldbug leaves Neo-Reaction with incomplete analyses. I love Moldbug as much as the next guy, but his understanding of Church history has many lacunae. In the Modern period, it is not as if the sole source of liberal heresies is found in New England. From reading Moldbug, who would know that higher criticism of the Bible was invented in Tubingen in Germany, not Harvard? That Pope Pius XI’s Syllabus of Errors condemned the liberalism ultimately championed by French Catholic priest Alfred Loisy? The French Revolution was born in the Masonic Lodges, not in Protestant churches in France, of which there were essentially none. Modernity is an equal opportunity Western problem. I would like to see theoretical developments focus on the things Western countries have in common, such as the university system, capitalist economics, increased work specialization, and perhaps most important of all, large and growing populations. I would particularly like to see a focus on this latter point, because it seems to me that the sheer size of Modern populations makes comparisons with Medieval and Ancient civilizations almost impossible. Quantity has a quality all its own.

    1. This is a great point. I know very little about Church history, but it did strike me that the Puritan hypothesis is by necessity very Anglo-Saxon-centric, and within that mostly US-centric (at least after the English Civil War). Which isn't a problem in itself, but it does mean, as I'd thought about before, that you're going to have a hard time using it to explain the French Revolution. The other examples are interesting too, I'll have to read up more.

      Which was partly why it was interesting to find the kinds of threads to the Puritan past that Moldbug was talking about, even when I wasn't looking for them. It may not explain everything, but there's definitely evidence in its favor.

      In other words, it seems possible to get to leftism through other mechanisms - that it might have been independently evolved in several instances, likely due to similar underlying causes. But the Puritans (and the Quakers) do seem to play an outsized role in its history in the US, and from there spread to a lot of the world in the modern era.

  2. I'm a little lost by Anonymous's criticisms. I can't speak with much authority here as I have only read some of Moldbug, as his work is painfully in need of an editor.

    However, I do know its absurd to claim his 'Puritan Hypothesis' suggests New England puritanism to be the 'sole source of liberal heresies' in the modern era, let alone an origin for such heresies. His 'church history' simply notes the effect of progressivism (the timeless 'W-force' as he coins it) on the church itself. And, he has a particular interest in Puritanism simply due to its proximity to the US for the reasons Shylock ends his comment above with. The puritans are a significant modern hotbed for leftists ideas, no more, no less.

    Regarding Anonymous's last comments regarding other forces that may be of interest, I believe its a little confused. In short:

    University: neutral. Was rightist; now leftist. ie. just a tool
    Capitalism: Ironically for conservatives, is leftist.
    Work Specialization: If you mean people as artisan/belonging to a caste or trade then rightist; if you mean automation and delegation of minutia, leftist.
    Population size: neutral. Population size has no bearing on what constitutes a 'good society'. It might make Moldbug's 'order' more difficult to maintain, but the principle remains.

  3. Bottom line: something other than low church Protestantism causes Leftism. So let's work on identifying those things.