Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review: The Metaphysical Club

I am in Nashota, Wisconsin today... flew last night from Indianapolis to Milwaukee by way of Minneapolis (huh?). I spent some of the plane ride reading the first chapter of a book John Drury recommended called The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America.  From what I gather so far, it is a tale of the most formative influence on American thinking in the second half of the 1800's, namely, pragmatism.

The reason why John and I find this subject so interesting is because it seems that a lot of the genius of the IWU Religion Division in the first decade of this century. as well as the founding genius of Wesley Seminary, can be summed up under the heading of pragmatism in the philosophical sense. The term has a negative connotation to some, but there is also a rather profound side to it.

In any case, I read the first chapter, "The Politics of Slavery."  It means to show what pre-Civil War Boston was like and what the father of the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes was like in that era. I'll confess that the chapter created some inner turmoil in me, because of my pragmatic sympathies.

We sometimes say things like, "If so and so were here today, he or she would..."  Likewise, we sometimes try to project ourselves into the past.  "If I had been born in 1830, I would have taken this position on slavery." But of course it is impossible to say who we would have been if we had grown up in a different time and place. Without our memories and formative experiences, we probably can say little other than what our fundamental personality might have been.

No, time travel of this sort only makes sense if we transport ourselves at a certain age and wipe our memory of the future clean, an age after our identities now were largely formed. We're probably talking at least our early twenties. For me, you would perhaps want to send me back in time at about the age of 30, maybe even 40.

Would I have been an abolitionist?  Yes, I would have been strongly in favor of abolition. I would have been in favor of helping runaway slaves continue on their way to Canada or to some place of safety. I would have disobeyed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 if I could get away with it.

But I would also have been in favor of the union, a unionist.  And many abolitionists--according to Louis Menand--didn't give a rip about the union. I was reminded of the Stoics: "Let justice be done though the heavens fall." That is to say, most abolitionists were idealists who largely didn't care about the practical consequences of how they went about getting abolition. Many were "all or nothing" type people, a way of thinking I find absurd in most cases. It often does an equal or greater amount of harm for the good it accomplishes--that is, when it even wins out. I suspect it usually loses.

No, I can see what course I would have supported. I would have supported a course of gradual abolition, following a political path. I look at the Missouri Compromise and I see the masterful art of compromise, turning the trajectory of the nation away from slavery. As a matter of principle, no abolitionist would have voted for it (Menand indicates they didn't hardly vote at all so as not to taint themselves, let alone run for office). And yet I shudder to think what might have happened if the Missouri Compromise had not passed.

Of course many of those opposed to slavery in the North were just as racist as anyone else. Ulysses S. Grant even wrote later that, "The great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South in the protection of this particular institution" (11).

The tension between the principle of abolition and the principle of union is fascinating. I would have opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 because I didn't believe in slavery. But I would have to support the authority of the federal government to prevail over the laws of individual states in such matters. So we have civil disobedience against a specific law but acceptance of federal authority in principle.

I have a hunch where the book might be headed. The "all or nothing," "do away with slavery or die" approach of some abolitionists was a path to war, a war that cost more American lives than any war since. And of course the post-Civil War South was a mess for both former slaves and former slave owners. The trajectory of the purist and the anarchist is not entirely dissimilar, the purist just doesn't know it.

I hope I can find the time to continue reading...


FrGregACCA said...


What are you up to in Nashota?

Beautiful campus, huh?

Ken Schenck said...

I haven't seen the campus yet, but the lakes are beautiful. I'm helping with a faculty evaluation.

JohnM said...

Ken, Yes, of course no way to know, but it would have depended a lot on where in the country you were - and maybe what, if any stake you had in the issue.

As for me, if my G-G Grandfathers are any indication I might have been a bit conflicted - three or four of them were in Missouri after all.

Three were Union soldiers, one was Confederate (not entirely sure why, the boy was Pennsylvania Dutch), and one was both at different times. The other three I don't know, but there were some slaveholders. Yes, I think the last were wrong - now.

Not that you asked :)

Even allowing for identify formation, you know, I don't know -it would still be like me to be conflicted ;) seeing the immoratilty of slavery but aware of he constitutional issues, seeing the point of states rights and the advantages of decentralized government, but also the advantages, and maybe just plain rightness, of union. Maybe I would have just migrated west out of the way of things. :) said...

Prof. Schenck, are you going to post a review of Enn's "Evolution of Adam?" Would love to hear your thoughts.

Kathryn E. said...

Note the example of the abolitionist "purist" John Brown (of later Harpers Ferry fame), hacking 5 pro-slavery men to death with broadswords at Pottawatomie Creek during the Bleeding Kansas conflagration. The subsequent historical debate was whether he was a fanatic or insane. Perhaps a common response to the overt (and proactive) purist?