The Nature of True Virtue: Theology, Psychology, and Politics in the Writings of Henry James, Sr., Henry James, Jr., and William James

By James Duban | Go to book overview
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From Edwards to Swedenborg: Henry Senior's
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THE EDWARDSIANISM OF HENRY JAMES, SENIOR—WHETHER DERIVED FROM JOHN Walker or from first-hand study at Princeton Theological Seminary—clearly relates to the writings of the eighteenth-century Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Although existing scholarship sees Swedenborg as the main inspiration for the elder Henry's religious philosophy, the senior James more likely admired Swedenborg's writings because those reminded him of the most admirable feature of Edwardsianism—that is, a love of Being in general—without the limitation of Edwards's angry God. The elder James implied that readers who were already inclined to value benevolence over selfishness would inevitably and advantageously find their way to the thinking of Swedenborg: "Every man who sincerely loves the neighbor, or whose zeal for the human race is at least equal to the zeal he is in the habit of expending on his own account, is bound eventually to stumble on "Swedenborg's" unostentatious books, and reap the abundant stores of nutriment there" (SRFM, 138). For the senior Henry, that love of neighbor would already have been conditioned, beyond the New Testament, by the theology of Edwards. What the elder James located in the writings of Swedenborg was a liberal and mystical amplification of Edwardsian points compatible with nineteenth-century socialism.

In America, Swedenborgianism pervaded socialistic communes because it provided a spiritual basis for Fourierism. As John Humphrey Noyes remarked, "Fourierism had Swedenborgianism for its religion" (HAS, 550; cf. 263, 548–49). Nonetheless, Noyes felt that Swedenborgianism was ultimately "not favorable to Communism or to close Association of any kind" because "Swedenborg in his personal character was not a Socialist," the mystic respected "the ordinary principle of private property," and nineteenth-century Swedenborgianism was insufficient to "dissolve old-fashioned familism" (HAS, 589, 591). Noyes's reservations might also account for the elder Henry's Edwardsian approach to Swedenborg, especially as it pertains to a definition of True Virtue that is inimical to "private" (HAS,

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