I recently read an essay by Joseph Epstein on George Santayana, The Permanent Transient. What is enjoyable about Joseph Epstein is the broad and liberal humanism of his letters, tinged with the sense of discreet intimacy of the personal essayist along with what seems to me so particularly a Jewish touch—as if you’re getting a glimpse of his neurosis to understand where he’s coming from. If Epstein is free and tolerant to a fault, his writing is nevertheless not without its proper learning and usually comes with an insight of satisfying penetration. Santayana was of a broad and liberal humanism as well, though, as Epstein points out, tinged with traces of anti-semitism, but not in such quantities as spoils the overall enjoyment of the collection of letters Epstein reviews.
In contrast to this, I have been reading another of the works of Iain Murray, and of a character as similar in outlook to Murray as Santayana was to Epstein; I am reading Murray’s biography of David Martyn Lloyd-Jones. There is in Murray’s account of the young Lloyd-Jones an earnestness that is completely foreign to Epstein, but also something of a childishness of which Epstein is entirely free. I may not have characterized this accurately as childishness, but I have wondered about it again because in reading the books of Iain Murray—always with profit if not always with pleasure, though I suspect Murray would smile gently and point out that perhaps pleasure was not his aim so much as profit.
How exactly to characterize the fault I find in Murray, the sense of lack of breadth I find in his writing? What gave me a glimmer of light was Epstein’s mention of Santayana’s word on Puritans, that they were people always busy applying first principles to trivialities. Granted, Santayana had the Puritans Lloyd-Jones read and admired wrong, but not entirely. The world of learning which chaps like Epstein, Santayana and even Scruton inhabit has not entirely done justice to the Puritans of old, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got them all wrong (that last is the colloquialism it seems to me the personal essay thrives on, so I allow myself the liberty). I think modern admirers of Puritans such as Murray could profit from the perspective of the broad learning of men like Epstein and Santayana.
I am, incidentally, reading about Lloyd-Jones because the library most available to me at the moment is one that might have been built exclusively from the catalog of the Banner of Truth Publishers—and probably was—over the years. It has been my experience—though not unvaried—that in circles such as venerate Puritans there is often such a veneration as renders people blind to a broader interest. In other words Reformed people usually are as insular as many fundamentalists, the only difference being that the Island of the Reformed is more hospitable to genuine piety. I would prefer a library with more of the mystics, the Quietists and Pietists, Thomas Aquinas and Augustus Hopkins Strong, along with the severities of Thomas a Kempis instead of the severities of John Calvin exclusively. (And what is interesting about Lloyd-Jones is that in a way he combines these two severities, being Reformed and early in his career on record for opposing daily bathing as a frivolity and a symptom of the decline of Christianity in Wales—the latter something I can readily imagine a Kempis seconding with dour intensity.)
This is where I want to go: the idea that Puritans want to apply first principles is laudable, and the idea that they tend to apply first principles to trivialities is not. It ought perhaps to be said without a capital P: a puritan is one whose grasp of first principles has somehow led him to persist in applying them to trivialities. One might further amend the statement by saying Pharisee instead of Puritan, but that would distort the focus. I do not want to talk about people whose cup is dirty on the inside, but of people whose concern is always the cup to the exclusion of the rest of the table settings, and indeed, the meal itself. Granted, this distorts the focus on clean implements because it takes in more, but if your only concern in setting the table is the important but not exclusive concern of clean implements, then I’m not sure I want to attend your banquets all the time. One wants to have meals in circumstances characterized by good hygiene, but one also wants to enjoy the meals on principles such as the atmosphere, the congruence of things served, and perhaps even the pleasing flavor of the food.
It is similar with modesty. I went to a school where some of the rules were concerned with modesty to the exclusion of grace. In other words they required unattractive habits of dress in the name of modesty. It is easier to focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else, but the result is limited and often, because of that, silly. Or the result is that you make out the truth to be ugly, creating a conflict between ontology and aesthetics, or between ethics and aesthetics, which seems to me a sign of an inferior culture (and it seems to me this false conflict is what some serious people think when they think of Calvinism—I have in mind the vague references you get when George MacDonald’s upbringing comes up—sometimes understandably).
It seems to me an apt warning whether it applies to puritans or not. Applying first principles to trivialities shows a ready earnestness about first principles, an eagerness to put them into practice in every circumstance, especially if first principles are being applied in serious and weighty matters. It does not exhibit a well-developed breadth of judgment, and I think it is because earnestness is not seriousness: it is a good harbinger of seriousness to come and for that reason a sign of immaturity. Perhaps I can call earnestness seriousness in the bud. Seriousness, in a way, is earnestness matured by a sense of proportion, and earnestness about everything absolutely is disordered by the lack of proportion it exhibits. Not that in our present age there is overmuch concern with first principles to begin with, but that in our present age a concern for the breadth of perspective liberal learning affords is not overmuch in demand.