Puritanism Again

Hooker 01 Portrait Left-Glancing

Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600)

In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1597), theologian Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600) undertook one of the earliest comprehensive critiques of Puritanism – specifically of the insurgent English Puritanism of his day.  Hooker’s analysis of the tactics of agitation and propaganda used by the Puritans, and again of the narrowness of the Puritan consciousness, so impressed the political philosopher Eric Voegelin that he devoted a chapter of his New Science of Politics (1952) to it – Chapter 5, “Gnostic Revolution: The Puritan Case.”  Voegelin’s thesis that the modern or progressive mentality revived the Gnosticism of Late Antiquity might indeed be said to have sprung, in no little part, from his reading of Hooker’s exposition.  Voegelin’s “Second Reality,” the radical vision of a reformed and utopian cosmos to be realized through the conversion or annihilation of all parties who resist it, finds a powerful anticipation in Hooker’s description of the agitator’s cause and his method of seducing gullible others to underwrite it.  According to Voegelin modernity is Gnostic by virtue of its four central conceits, all of which are deformations of Christian symbolism: (1) The linked conceptions of history as closed, such that its plan might be discerned and even hastened, and of redemption as entirely this-worldly and within the capacity of man to effect; (2) the necessity of a leader styling himself as “Paracletic”; (3) the “prophet of the new age,” who might be identical with the leader; and (4) “the brotherhood of autonomous person.”  Voegelin finds that Hooker recognizes these four conceits in the ultra-protestant sects of his day.

Hooker’s Elizabethan prose style, with its many postponements of the final clause, puts obstacles in the way of comprehension so that Voegelin, in his commentary, wisely quotes from the book selectively and otherwise contents himself with paraphrasing its arguments and insights.  It is nevertheless worth the effort to read Hooker’s original exposition as fully as possible.  I have made some slight alterations in Hooker’s syntax, mainly by eliding supernumerary clauses, so as to render the long sentences a bit more comprehensible to a Twenty-First Century reader.  The suite of paragraphs below, taken from the Preface of The Laws, constitutes the heart of Hooker’s analysis.  In addition to simplifying Hooker’s syntax, I have introduced the paragraphing.  In my facsimile of the original there is no paragraphing whatsoever.  I remark in advance with no little surprise that Hooker, like Oswald Spengler, makes reference to the Pythagoreans as a prototype of Puritanism.  I offer a few comments after the transcription. –

(1) The method of winning the people’s affection unto a general liking of “the cause” (for so ye term it) hath been this: First, In the hearing of the multitude, the faults especially of higher callings are ripped up with marvellous exceeding severity and sharpness of reproof; which being oftentimes done begetteth a great good opinion of integrity, zeal, and holiness, to such constant reprovers of sin, as by likelihood would never be so much offended at that which is evil, unless themselves were singularly good.
(2) The next thing hereunto is, to impute all faults and corruptions, wherewith the world aboundeth, unto the kind of ecclesiastical government established. Wherein, as before by reproving faults they purchased unto themselves with the multitude a name to be virtuous; so by finding out this kind of cause they obtain to be judged wise above others: whereas in truth unto the form even of Jewish government, which the Lord himself… did establish, with like shew of reason they might impute those faults which the prophets condemn in the governors of that commonwealth, as to the English kind of regiment ecclesiastical… the stains and blemishes found in our state; which springing from the root of human frailty and corruption, not only are, but have been always more or less, yea and… will be till the world’s end complained of, what form of government soever take place.
(3) Having gotten thus much sway in the hearts of men, a third step is to propose their own form of church-government, as the only sovereign remedy of all evils; and to adorn it with all the glorious titles that may be. And the nature, as of men that have sick bodies, so likewise of the people in the crazedness of their minds possessed with dislike and discontentment at things present, is to imagine that anything, the virtue whereof they hear commended, would help them; but that most, which they least have tried.
(4) The fourth degree of inducement is by fashioning the very notions and conceits of men’s minds in such sort, that when they read the scripture, they may think that everything soundeth towards the advancement of that discipline, and to the utter disgrace of the contrary. Pythagoras, by bringing up his scholars in the speculative knowledge of numbers, made their conceits therein so strong, that when they came to the contemplation of things natural, they imagined that in every particular thing they even beheld as it were with their eyes, how the elements of number gave essence and being to the works of nature. A thing in reason impossible; which notwithstanding, through their misfashioned preconceit, appeared unto them no less certain, than if nature had written it in the very foreheads of all the creatures of God.
(5) After that the fancy of the common sort hath once throughly [sic] apprehended the Spirit to be author of their persuasion concerning discipline; then is instilled into their hearts, that the same Spirit leading men into this opinion doth thereby seal them to be God’s children; and that, as the state of the times now standeth, the most special token to know them that are God’s own from others is an earnest affection that way. This hath bred high terms of separation between such and the rest of the world; whereby the one sort are named the brethren, the godly, and so forth; the other, worldlings, time-servers, pleasers of men not of God, with such like.
(6) From hence, they are easily drawn on to think it exceeding necessary, for fear of quenching that good Spirit, to use all means whereby the same may be both strengthened in themselves, and made manifest unto others. This maketh them diligent hearers of such as are known that way to incline; this maketh them eager to take and to seek all occasions of secret conference with such; this maketh them glad to use such as counsellors and directors in all their dealings which are of weight, as contracts, testaments, and the like; this maketh them, through an unweariable desire of receiving instruction from the masters of that company, to cast off the care of those very affairs which do most concern their estate, and to think that then they are like unto Mary, commendable for making choice of the better part. Finally, this is it which maketh them willing to charge, yea, often-times even to overcharge themselves, for such men’s sustenance and relief, lest their zeal to the cause should any way be unwitnessed. For what is it which poor beguiled souls will not do through so powerful incitements?
Hooker 04 Voegelin Right-Glancing

Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985)

In The New Science and in the fourth volume of Order and History, Voegelin described Gnosticism as “metastatic.”  Voegelin’s term implies that the “Second Reality” is both contagious and pathological; it is a phenomenon of the crowd or the mob, and therefore it addresses itself to the lowest common denominator of the intellect.  As the first paragraph of the excerpt from Hooker’s Preface argues, the Puritan makes it his initial order of business to ‘gin up resentment by blaming the usual self-inflicted disappointments of life on people of established station whose rank facilitates the incitement of envy at street-level: “The faults especially of the higher callings are ripped up with marvellous exceeding severity and sharpness of reproof.”  The selfsame zeal of the street-orator offers itself as a model for imitation; the audience member thinks to himself that his ire is as great, if not greater than, the orator’s and he pitches his own zeal accordingly.  Hooker remarks the inevitable dualism of the zealous reformer, who poses as representing the “singularly good” as against “that which is evil.”

The first line of the second paragraph might be rewritten as follows: The agitator, urging the listener not only to exaggerate his own disappointments but radically to displace responsibility for them on the establishment, reinforces the dualism already set in order.  Hooker’s phrase “the finding out of” means to discover or to reveal to someone a fact or condition of which he previously remained unaware.  Hooker’s insight, however, is that the discovery or revelation is factitious.  The orator discovers or reveals to the listener the putative fact of his special misery and announces the identity of its author or authors, but it is an inversion of truth.  In the shared emotion of outrage the listeners in their plurality posit their faith in the orator.  In this way the orator purchases the credulousness — and the obedience — of the crowd.  The orator offers a utopian vision in which the flaws of a fallen world become amenable to correction even though to the clear-sighted they appear objectively as negotiable by arrangement but ineradicable.

In the third paragraph, Hooker uses medical language that anticipates Voegelin’s coinages such as metastasis and pneumopathology.  The orator offers his listeners the “remedy” of their affliction; and not only that, but, in the hyperbole, “the sovereign remedy,” a formulation that suggests the magical elixirs of alchemy.  This is an absolute and wicked lie.  The agent of the affliction – and there is an affliction – is the orator himself whose rhetoric has induced the “crazedness of… minds” in his audience under the spiritual disequilibrium of which the followers crave novelty and whatever is the most radical – “that which they have least tried.”  In a sane mind, emotion and reason maintain a balance.  Hooker sees that one goal, at least, of the orator is to banish reason and inflate emotion (his “heart”) so that it dominates behavior.

In the fourth paragraph, Hooker describes a type of intellectual manipulation familiar in the reigning modernity of our time: The abolition of authentic literary interpretation and its replacement by an ideological grid.  Thus the only thing that Foucauldians see when they read a book is power; and the only thing that the race-class-gender crowd sees is race-class-gender.  Hooker’s Pythagorean analogy is rich with implication and pleasantly in accord with Spengler’s notion that the Pythagorean School was analogous to Seventeenth Century Puritans, especially in its reference to “scholars.”  The Puritan orators of the present day are the place-holders of the university faculties, who can do nothing, so to speak, except count beans, and who, in counting them invariably see a pattern of evil that calls down nemesis.  In this paragraph Hooker practically formulates Voegelin’s “Second Reality.”  He writes that “a thing in reason impossible” might, under the effect of “preconceit,” show itself to “crazedness.”

Hooker recognizes that self-sortition is essential for the maintenance of the “preconceit.”  In the fifth paragraph, the true-believer can brook no contradiction and he fears being contaminated by the impure.  He naturally takes himself apart while continuing his hateful opposition to everything established, which he hopes fervently to abolish.  The phenomenon of self-denomination comes into play.  The righteous ones are “God’s children,” “God’s own,” and “the brethren”; and their constant virtue-signaling serves as the “special token” of recognition.  The term Huguenot is such a “special token,” deriving from the German Eidgenosse, or “he who shares his oath (Eid) with the others.”  The Cathars of Provence apparently referred to themselves as “les bonhommes” – “the good men.”  If I am not mistaken, the motto of Google is, “We are good people.”  Hooker’s phrase, “separation from the world,” should not be taken lightly.  It has an epistemological connotation beyond the sociological one of mere self-sortition.  “Separation from the world” belongs to “crazedness.”  It is a form of cognitive dissociation and as such resembles in advance the pneumopathology of Voegelin’s usage.

The sixth paragraph tells the story of every guru-led, self-separating mass-movement from the Carpocratians to Jim Jones and beyond him to the current self-styled Resistance, which increases its orgiastic hysteria every day.  Hooker repeats his earlier observation that the converted suffer from a restriction of consciousness that wants to hear over and over only what provoked its conversion to zealotry in the first place.  Once again, Hooker might be describing a modern university humanities faculty or the managerial class of a Big Digital Corporation in Silicon Valley, where many of “the brethren” today enjoy their self-sortition.  Voegelin argues in The New Science that, in modernity, “Gnosticism overcame the uncertainty of faith by receding from transcendence and endowing man and his intramundane range of action with the meaning of eschatological fulfillment.”  Commenting on Hooker, Voegelin writes that “once a social environment of [the Puritan] type is organized, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to break it up by persuasion.”  The brotherhood – or sisterhood – is in its psychology “iron-clad and beyond shaking by argument.”

Of Hooker himself, Voegelin has this to say: “Hooker discerned that the Puritan position was not based on Scripture but was a ‘cause’ of vastly different origin.  It would use Scripture when passages torn out of context would support its cause, and for the rest it would blandly ignore Scripture as well as the traditions and rules of interpretation that had been developed by fifteen centuries of Christianity.”  It all applies with obviousness to the present political and cultural moment.

13 thoughts on “Puritanism Again

  1. Pingback: Puritanism Again | @the_arv

  2. “John Q. Public” posts smarmy remarks that advance no argument, make no positive contribution to the discussion, and give the impression that they are generated by an algorithm. From now on I am committed to deleting them from my thread. TFB

  3. Hooker is, as you say, tough going, especially in the books that follow the deservedly famous Preface. I’ve pushed my way through these, but it took three or four years of intermittent effort. Hooker’s grand theme is the insufficiency of the Bible as a law of ecclesiastical (or any other sort of) polity. The Bible had primacy in Hooker’s system, but he said no church could survive if everything not stipulated in the Bible was left to individual conscience. The heart of the Puritan system was extreme rigidity on matters that were (in their view) clearly commanded in the Bible, and extreme license on everything else. If God did not command or forbid it, no one had the power to command or forbid it. Thus Puritanism would, as I believe Hooker says somewhere, “burn down the world.”

    The parallel I see with our situation today is the effort to build a society on Science. This is, perhaps, more foolhardy than the Puritan program since Science does not command or forbid anything. It only predicts consequences. But it does undermine rival authorities, and therefore open the field to the mountebanks and agitators you describe.

    • Progressives treat science selectively, just as the Puritans in Hooker’s view treated Scripture selectively; they also treat science in a reductive literal-minded way as though it could forbid or allow. Among the overlapping topics in my two most recent posts, scientism more or less begs to be included. I see the traits of scientism, as it has been called, and of Puritanism, in, for example, the person and presentation of Richard Dawkins and those like him. There is a scientistic righteousness just as much as there is a sectarian self-righteousness.

      I strain to read Hooker’s chapters. It seems to me (but then the impression might be hallucinatory) that Hooker is an ameliorist of sectarian differences. He makes the argument, as far as I can discern, that the sects should stop quibbling and that people should judge one another, partly under specifically Christian terms, but also in terms of a moral common sense that is older than Christianity and that articulates itself usefully in the Greek and Latin writers.

      The rhetorical device of the Preface is possibly significant: Hooker’s “Ye,” whom he addresses in his own first person, is apparently the brethren themselves, whom he is describing for their sake that they might, as it were, see themselves mirrored. What an optimist!

    • Science is indeed too thin a reed upon which to base a society. Science, properly understood, is merely a methodology for identifying theses about the physical universe that are provisionally correct in light of the credible observations known at a given time. Those theses that are most durable do eventually take on the patina of Truth, but are always up for revision or rejection if credible observations inconsistent with them are made and recorded. [I will not address Scientism, a perversion of Science almost as blatant as Gnosticism.] A similar limitation obtains for Mathematics, wherein Godel proved that, given a set of axioms at least as rich as the Natural Numbers (1,2,…), there are true statements about that set of axioms that cannot be proven. One is led to conclude that the faculties of human reason are limited, by His Design. Once I got over that in my own studies, I find it a compelling reason for people to be .. humble, particularly when it comes to imposing their conceits upon others. The other conclusion to be drawn is that the domain of Faith dwarfs the domain of Science.

      • Some time ago at The Orthosphere, I argued for the imperative of “epistemological humility.” As Emerson wrote, “What I know is as a point to what I do not know.” That is the equivalent, I believe, of your statement that, “The domain of faith dwarfs of domain of science.” Very little of what we do after we climb out of bed in the morning is based on scientific certainty; most of what we do is based on faith. Richard Cocks’s recent Orthosphere essay about Goedel’s Theorem makes the same point.

    • The set of Hooker’s works that I have is basically a soft-cover inexpensive reprint of Keble’s edition. Michael Russell, who edited this edition, added a resource that makes it much easier to get through. For each book of the Lawes he has written an outline that contains concise summaries of the thought for each paragraph in each chapter. You can read through the entire Blueprint first, and in much shorter time than it would take to read the Lawes, giving you a good “whole picture” of Hooker’s thought. Unlike many of the inexpensive editions of classical Anglican works that are currently on the market, this is not a poorly done photo-reproduction of a library copy that is barely readable at points. It does reproduce the layout in Keble’s edition, albeit with a slight adjustment in order (Keble’s introduction is put in the final volume and Hooker’s sermon on justification is moved to the beginning), but every word is legible and where the page numbers of Keble don’t match those of Russell both are included.

  4. Pingback: Puritanism Again | Reaction Times

  5. Jacques Maritain echoed Thomas’ views on epistomological humility in his great farewell, ‘A Peasant of the Garonne’, if my memory serves me well. He stood tall for Realism as opposed to the Idealism which has dominated for so long.

  6. Your intelligence has always stood out for me as a Christian commentator. I’m curious what you think of the modernized versions of King James. You could detect a poor translation far better than the average lay person.

    • @dvdivx: If it were me to whom you refer (although the invocation of “intelligence” and the ascription of being a “Christian commentator” lead me somewhat to doubt it), I would need to say that I am no Bible scholar, but that I like the language of the King James Bible and generally find modern translations insipid. I particularly dislike translations that omit the distinction between You and Thou, the distinction being an important one. I fear, however, that these remarks are inappropriate, as you were probably addressing mickvet.

  7. Throughout my intellectual travels, i have found myself journeying between several different philosophical schools of thought. Rationalism, empiricism, and metaphysics have all captured my interest. I find value in all of the yet I find myself lacking a blind faith to each. Maybe I fall into the school of pragmatism. As I look at my travels up to this point in time, I am glad I have lacked a puritanical or blind devotion to a specific set of those ideas. Yet I do believe in standards and some type of order.

    • Thank you for commenting, Jim. There is a word for confronting life open-mindedly. It is faith. Puritanism is a violation of faith.


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