Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Alexander Hamilton on God and natural calamity

As I've been communicating with family members back in North Dakota this week, I have heard of the tremendous suffering faced by the people in the Minot area, suffering caused by massive floods there.  In the face of such natural disasters, one question that is often raised involves God's presence or absence during such events.  While not one to try to resolve the recurring problem of theodicy here on this blog, I thought it would be interesting to note that Alexander Hamilton, while still a young man living in Jamaica, addressed the topic of God and natural disasters in his 1772  Letter on an August Hurricane.  A reconstruction of Hamilton's letter is available at the link.

In his letter, Hamilton ponders the transitory nature of human life, of the power of natural disasters to demonstrate how powerless and weak human beings are.  In the face of the power of the storm, the foolishness of human declarations of self-sufficiency is revealed.  From from standing on his own, man is in need of God's aid to deal with the fragility of his situation.  "[L]earn to know thyself," Hamilton urges, "[l]earn to know thy best support."  Instead of elevating oneself, the proper path is to embrace humility and "adore thy God."  As a consequence, human beings would enjoy the "sweet...voice of an approving conscience," and would have no fear in the face of natural disasters.  "Let the Earth rend.  Let the planets forsake their course. Let the Sun be extinguished and the Heavens burst asunder.  Yet what have I to dread"  My staff can never be broken -- in Omnip[o]tence I trusted."

The fury of the storm, so great and terrible, brought to Hamilton's mind his mortality, and reminded him of the "baseness and folly" of living a life apart from God.  God uses the forces of nature, Hamilton states, to bring people back to understanding their dependence on Him:  "That which, in a calm unruffled temper, we call a natural cause, seemed then like the correction of the Deity."  Aware of his sinfulness and despairing of God's mercy, Hamilton writes that that calming of the hurricane was to him an act of God's deliverance, for which each person should rejoice and be humble "in the presence of thy deliverer."

Hamilton cautions against viewing a positive outcome from the storm as an opportunity for self-glorification or selfish happiness.  Instead, he urges compassion for those who suffered from the storm, to feel empathy for them and to realize the physical and spiritual damage caused by the disaster that had befallen.  In the face of injury, sickness, poverty and death caused by the storm, Hamilton urges the wealthy to step forward to ease the burdens suffered by their fellow human beings.  "O ye, who revel in affluence," Hamilton writes, "see the afflictions of humanity and bestow your superfluity to ease them.  Say not, we have suffered also, and thence withhold your compassion, What are you[r] sufferings compared to those?   Ye still have more than enough left."  The proper response of those spared is not selfishness but service, not selfishness but self-giving.  As Hamilton puts it, "Act wisely.  Succor the miserable and lay up treasure in Heaven."

For Hamilton, the Hurricane of August 1772 called people to humble themselves before God and to realize their need for His support and mercy.  For those who made it through the storm relatively unscathed, the proper response to their good fortune was not self-satisfaction, but self-giving, to reach out to help those who were suffering from the effects of the storm. Hamilton provides no great metaphysical answer to the problem of suffering in the world, but instead offers practical advice for dealing with such suffering -- to see in it the opportunity to turn back towards God and to each other.  In a world where we can only, to borrow a phrase from St. John, "see through a glass darkly," Hamilton's advice is worth listening to.

On a side note, Hamilton's letter was so well-received that it served as an impetus for a group of benefactors to send him to America to get a formal education.  From that point on, Hamilton was involved in the struggle for American Independence, then for adequate constitutional reform to allow the infant Republic to thrive, and then for Union and sound fiscal management.  Without his letter bringing him to the attention of his benefactors, Hamilton could have been left on the island of Jamaica and our nation deprived of his invaluable service. The hand of Providence, perhaps?


Tom Van Dyke said...

Mark, see also the New Madrid [US, Missouri] earthquake of 1811, of which William Clark of the touring country band Lewis & Clark wrote:

"Whereas the Catalogue of miseries and afflictions, with which it has pleased the Supreme Being of the Universe to visit the inhabitants of the earth there are none more truly awful and destructive than Earthquakes. . ."


Theodicy is interesting. Lacking better words and concepts, it "pleased Supreme Being of the Universe" to "visit"...

Which was a propitiatory way of saying, glad you visited. And it's OK with us if don't visit us again very soon, if such is your pleasure...

Mark in Spokane said...

Well put. The theodicy problem is, like the so-called scandal of particularlity, one of the recurring problems that theology has to deal with.

Daniel said...

I suspect that Hamilton was referencing the maxim of the Oracle at Delphi: "Know Thyself." Although it is often repeated as if it were about psycho-therapeutic self-actualization, it was actually meant in the sense that Hamilton used it: Know your place before the gods. Or in Hamilton's case, before God.

Fietsbode said...

Hamilton did not live in Jamaica. He lived on the islands of Nevis and St. Croix.