'The last and brightest empire of time': Timothy Dwight and America as Voegelin's 'authoritative present,' 1771-1787.

Author:Gamble, Richard M.
Position:Essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) aspired to write epic poetry worthy of a great empire. At Yale College, he and his fellow "Connecticut Wits" intended, in historian Henry May's words, "to provide America and New England with a national literature, and in doing so to show the world that republicans were capable of wielding a correct and elevated style." (1) There was reason for doubt. Proponents in Europe of what became known as the "degeneracy theory" denied that the New World could ever produce an artist or author or academic of the first rank, a prejudice that stung Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and their generation. (2) Europe's critical reception of the Wits' most earnest and ambitious attempts at eloquence also gave little hope that much good could come from America's provincialism and old-fashioned literary taste. Still, Dwight and his circle at Yale pressed on, fully confident in America's future. Indeed, they portrayed their emerging republic as nothing less than the seat of the millennial kingdom. Dwight was at the forefront of this work of the imagination. His orations, sermons, and poems in the last third of the eighteenth century--during the critical years of the nation's founding--reveal a framework of thought that situated America as the endpoint toward which all prior history had been tending. Indeed, Dwight's presuppositions conform closely to the eighteenth-century philosophy of history that Eric Voegelin mapped out in his book From Enlightenment to Revolution, including especially the new doctrine of grace Voegelin called the "authoritative present." (3)

Voegelin turned to the eighteenth-century French philosophe D'Alembert to piece together the internal logic of the authoritative present. In the preface to the first volume of the Encyclopedie (1751), D'Alembert constructed a selective genealogy of humanity's intellectual progress. The weight of factual evidence, as amassed in the Encyclopedie, was supposed to prove that man's present enlightenment surpassed every prior epoch. D'Alembert arranged this evidence into an intramundane story of linear progress. This thread of progress served as a substitute for an authentic transcendence and for the Classical and Christian anthropology that had once situated man within that transcendent order. Progress's preoccupation with power over nature and the accumulation of knowledge useful to that end displaced the bios theoretikos and destroyed the practice of contemplative history suited to that larger definition of man's nature and his place in the universe. Enlightenment utilitarianism placed a premium on Baconian transformation of nature and reduced a now truncated man to his material needs, denying him any telos higher or larger than mastery over nature. (4)

Having also reduced the meaning of history to mere finite, intramundane facts, the ideology of progress then constructed a new web of doctrine around those facts in order to "read" their ultimate meaning and to tell a purportedly universal story. The point the civilized world had reached in this imagined genealogy of progress was by definition superior to everything that had come before. The present (as embodied by the most advanced nation) became the standard by which to judge the rest of the world's enlightenment. D'Alembert and other philosophes constructed stage theories of history to plot the world's gradual improvement, to tell an ersatz story of redemption. At this point, the philosophes imported their own eschatology. Not only was the present stage the most advanced in history, it was also the last, giving even greater authority to the present. The present stood as the endpoint toward which history had been moving. Western civilization and its emerging political, religious, and commercial freedom would never be superseded. History had stopped. It had ended by arriving at the authoritative present. (5) History as mere chronology would go on, but the future would be merely the further elaboration of the present.

The present, therefore, gave meaning and legitimacy to those parts of the past that prefigured itself, reducing the past to mere prototype or anticipation of the present. Likewise, individual human beings had meaning only as part of the masse total that was undergoing collective, earthly redemption. In progressive ideology's worst manifestations in the twentieth century, individual human beings became merely "fertilizer" for the inexorable march of progress. (6) Read through the lens of the progressive mind, history lost its tragedy. Suffering became invisible in the triumphant story of progress. But short of this grim potentiality, the progressive ideology read the past (and still reads the past today) only in terms of the present (or of an imagined future as a perpetuation of that present). The authoritative present functioned, in Voegelin's words, as "a special doctrine ... to bestow grace on the present and to heighten an otherwise irrelevant situation of fact into a standard by which the past and the future can be measured. This act of grace, bestowed by the intellectual leaders of Enlightenment on themselves and on their age, is the source of the genuine revolutionary pathos that animates the idea of progress. ..." (7)

In short, the authoritative present limits itself to "an inner-worldly chain of human events," masquerades under a false universality that claims to have decoded the meaning of the whole, reduces the complexity of human civilization to a single thread of progress, announces that humanity is on that path of progress, and then anoints one nation as the Christ to lead the world out of darkness into light. By the eighteenth century, Voegelin argued, nations gradually became substitute "mystical bodies" of Christ. The new sacred stories they told about themselves became "genuine evocations of new communities which tend to replace the Christian corpus mysticum." (8) The philosophes, of course, anointed France as the obvious Christ among nations, the embodiment of the authoritative present. And yet for a time, the americanistes among them identified their trans-Atlantic brothers as the chosen people. (9)

There would be something comical in the idea of provincial America being history's "authoritative present" if Americans themselves had not been encouraged in this flight of fancy by such key figures as Turgot, Condorcet, and Richard Price. America's "misconstruction" of its Messianic identity came from domestic and foreign sources. It was both homegrown and imported. For a time, radical thinkers in France and England embraced the emerging American republic within the family of elect nations. Turgot, the most esteemed of the group, made the most modest claims. He limited himself to saying that if America, the "hope of the world," became sufficiently enlightened then it might well prove to be a "model," an "asylum," and "an example of political liberty, of religious liberty, of commercial liberty, and of industry." (10) Turgot's disciple and biographer, Condorcet, responded affirmatively in 1783 to the Abbe Raynal's smug question, "Has the discovery of America been beneficial or harmful to the human race?" Though expressing his frustration in this essay and elsewhere with America's failure to adopt absolute free trade and to end slavery, its use of religious tests on the state level, and its lingering fondness for complex government in the form of bicameralism, separation of powers, and checks and balances, Condorcet nevertheless praised America for extending the dominion of human rights and liberty. (11) The discovery of America had indeed benefited the human race. Surpassing any secular millennial claim of the time, Turgot's English friend, the dissenting radical Presbyterian Dr. Richard Price, claimed in 1784 that the American Revolution took second place only to Christ's incarnation and that the colonies' independence was nothing less than "one of the steps ordained by Providence" to usher in history's "last universal empire," the "empire of reason and virtue." (12)

America's identity as history's "last universal empire" appeared in Timothy Dwight's poetry as early as 1771, well before Turgot, Condorcet, or Price ever flattered America with their praise. Dwight's fellow Wit and undergraduate at Yale, Joel Barlow, later read and quoted from Price's Observations, and the radical dissenter's economic thought seems to have influenced Dwight's hope for international harmony through peaceful trade. But Dwight's understanding of America as the authoritative present came from sources other than the philosophes. If anything, they possibly gave him only more reasons to believe what he already knew. He read and admired many Enlightenment figures, but his vision of America owed more to a set of presuppositions inherited elsewhere. From Homer via Alexander Pope's verse translations and from Virgil in the original, he inherited the epic tradition, from Milton the possibilities for a Christianized epic. From the Scientific Revolution he inherited his Baconian faith in man's capacity to bend nature to his will and conquer sickness and death. From his Puritan ancestors he inherited the assumption that America was a New Canaan for God's elect, an honor they had previously conferred on Reformation England. (13) From his grandfather Jonathan Edwards and from other New England divines, he inherited a complex way of decoding the prophetic mysteries of Daniel, Isaiah, and Revelation and the ability to see America as the millennial kingdom of God in such passages as Isaiah 60 (although Dwight never qualified his claims about America with the word "probably" the way his grandfather usually took care to do). (14) He also inherited his culture's habit of reading history primarily as the warfare between Protestantism and Catholicism. For many New Englanders in the eighteenth century, as in the sixteenth century before them, the engine of history was the protracted global...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP