Sunday, October 26, 2008

Noble Pagans

As the years go by, I'm sure eventually I'll produce a book or two that relates to the Founding & religion. Right now, I'm 1) too busy, and 2) haven't yet found my novel angle. I won't self publish or write a book that no one will read. If it won't show up at Borders or Barnes & Noble, I doubt I'll write it. I'm thinking of a title like "Noble Pagans: America's Founding Heretics" or just "Noble Pagans." A provocative title that will catch people's eye is a must.

My research has moderately explored America's Founders' strong affinity for noble pagan Greco-Roman antiquity. And this in turn was part of their Whig-Enlightenment worldview. I've noted how Washington's hero was a figure from antiquity named Cato the Younger who committed suicide as a matter of principle rather than submit to the tyranny of Caesar. The authors of the Federalist Papers adopted the surname "Publius." And Washington (and some of his soldiers and intimates) were affiliated the Society of Cincinnati named after the pagan figure LUCIUS QUINTIUS CINCINNATUS. This is from their 1783 founding order:

Tuesday, 13th May, 1783

The representatives of the American Army being assembled agreeably to adjournment, the plan for establishing a Society, whereof the officers of the American Army are to be Members, is accepted, and is as follows, viz.:

It having pleased the Supreme Governor of the Universe, in the disposition of human affairs, to cause the separation of the Colonies of North America from the domination of Great Britain, and after a bloody conflict of eight years, to establish them Free, Independent, and Sovereign States, connected by alliances, founded on reciprocal advantages, with some of the greatest princes and powers of the earth.

To perpetuate, therefore, as well the remembrance of this vast event, as the mutual friendships which have been formed, under the pressure of common danger, and in many instances cemented by the blood of the parties, the officers of the American army do hereby in the most solemn manner, associate, constitute and combine themselves into one SOCIETY OF FRIENDS, to endure so long as they shall endure, or any of their eldest male posterity, and in failure thereof, the collateral branches, who may be judged worthy of becoming its supporters and Members.

The officers of the American army having generally been taken from the citizens of America, possess high veneration for the character of that illustrious Roman, LUCIUS QUINTIUS CINCINNATUS; and being resolved to follow his example, by returning to their citizenship, they think they may with propriety denominate themselves ---

There is actually quite a bit in Washington's writings on the group.

I should note there were, I have found, orthodox Trinitarian Christians who were involved with things such as affinity for Greco-Roman antiquity, the excessive use of reason/natural law in religion, and Freemasonry. My point is these things were 1) at the very least a-biblical, and 2) essential to understanding Founding era ideology. They were as essential as the so called "Judeo-Christian" tradition. So when folks say America's Founding has a "Judeo-Christian" Foundation or the Founding documents represent a "Judeo-Christian" worldview, they peddle, at best, a half truth. America's Founding mixed the Judeo-Christian tradition in an ideological synthesis with a noble pagan, Enlightenment and Whig worldview. Which, if any of those worldviews dominated and whether such an ideological synthesis is truly compatible with historic orthodox Christianity is a matter of debate. But there is no denying the historical reality of dynamic.

Take for instance, George Washington's dithering on the afterlife to ANNIS BOUDINOT STOCKTON, August 31, 1788:

But, with Cicero in speaking respecting his belief of the immortality of the Soul, I will say, if I am in a grateful delusion, it is an innocent one, and I am willing to remain under its influence. Let me only annex one hint to this part of the subject, while you may be in danger of appreciating the qualities of your friend too highly, you will run no hazard in calculating upon his sincerity or in counting implicitly on the reciprocal esteem and friendship which he entertains for yourself.

The felicitations you offer on the present prospect of our public affairs are highly acceptable to me, and I entreat you to receive a reciprocation from my part. I can never trace the concatenation of causes, which led to these events, without acknowledging the mystery and admiring the goodness of Providence. To that superintending Power alone is our retraction from the brink of ruin to be attributed.

Now, if George Washington were a Christian in the sola scriptura, Christ only, orthodox Protestant sense (as some on the Christian America side shockingly assert) why on Earth would he appeal to Cicero as an authority for the immortality of the soul, but instead cite verse and chapter of scripture (which, despite the occasional biblical allusion, he never did)?

Or take Thomas Jefferson's letter to Richard Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, on the ideological sources of the Declaration of Independence and lists them as "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. ..." Jefferson certainly was no orthodox Trinitarian Christian; Washington may have been (I doubt it). But one thing for sure is the "Christianity" of the key Founders, Washington's for instance, was nothing like Francis Schaeffer's, who typifies to many modern evangelicals what Christianity should be about. Even if Washington were an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, his theology downplayed orthodox doctrine and integrated natural law, Aristotelean and pagan elements. Some orthodox Christians think this perfectly fine. Many traditionalist Roman Catholics embrace their Aristotelean roots as their hero Thomas Aquinas did. But not Francis Schaeffer. See him rail against this admixture of Christian and noble pagan elements that was (perhaps unbeknownst to him) key to American Founding thought and the theology of men like George Washington.

Sure there were plenty of "Francis Schaeffers" during the era who supported the American Founding. One thinks of Timothy Dwight (President of Yale) or Jedidiah Morse (one does NOT think of John Witherspoon, President of Princeton, who himself was imbibed in the philosophical rationalism that Schaeffer argues against here). George Washington communicated with them, supported their free exercise of religion and otherwise had no problem with them. However he was not that kind of Christian and it was NOT this kind of Christianity that drove the American Founding.


Brad Hart said...

Nice post, Jon. I loved the video. I was actually thinking about bringing up the Society of the Cincinnati. It is a fascinating group to learn about.

When you do get around to publishing a book, don't forget about the rest of us, Ok?

Ray Soller said...

From what I've read of Washington's belief when it comes to his "dithering on the afterlife" he appears to have been comfortable with a generalized belief in the transmigration of the soul.

Here's part of an entry from Wikipedia: The idea of transmigration of soul comes from the ancient Greeks. In transmigration after death, the soul or, shade of a living human, while in Hades, or underworld, drinks from the river Lethe and loses all past memories of their previous life and then morphs (or transmigrates) into another [intelligent, not necessarily] human form and is reborn. It was thought the soul had been, and always would be, eternal. It had no beginning or end.

When a person looks at what Jesus had to say on the subject, he too appears to have relied on the same concept: "[W]hen they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels[stars] which are in heaven"(Mk 12:25)... "He [God] is not God of the dead, but the God of the living (Mk 12:27)"

Phil Johnson said...

Now, we're getting into some interesting territory with this video.
The idea of any particularist view of reality in contrast to what is available to us through the unfolding of history hits directly at the heart of what neo-conservatism is all about. And, it certainly deals with the ongoing argument regarding America as a Christian nation. It would be the neo-conservatives that argue it is which might be a little devious on their part.
BTW, I've got Frankie Schaeffer's book around here some place. I read it last winter. It's about his relationship with his father, Francis. My sister was acquainted with Francis' wife who stayed with them in S.A. on occasions if I'm not mistaken. I'll have to check it out with her.

Phil Johnson said...

Mistake, it wasn't Schaeffer's wife, it was Carl McIntrye who was heavily influenced by Schaeffer. Sorry about that.

Tom Van Dyke said...

True, the Romans in particular were of interest and of inspiration in the new American republic, but that Cincinnatus was a pagan means no more than Algernon Sidney being a Christian.

Interesting here---Sidney credits the "Schoolmen" [Catholic theologian/philosophers following Aquinas] with discerning the "natural" order of liberty, even though they are to be denied any credit for it.

Like Jefferson, Sidney here claims anything but Christianity---specifically the papists---is responsible for the philosophical grounds for liberty, but this is protesting too much. Had the Schoolmen [Suarez in particular] been so uninfluential, Sidney could simply have skipped over them instead of taking such pains to deny them.

More on Sir Robert Filmer's defense of the divine right of kings when time permits.