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

Introduction

The elder Henry James was a theoretical socialist who, while economically "leisured," sincerely believed that human equality, fraternity, and disinterestedness would triumph over selfishness and usher in a state of heaven on earth. For that reason, his many writings consistently exalt the notion of disinterested benevolence, a virtuous ideal common among thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Kant, to Jane Austen, to the Romantics. Recalling that socialism purports to transcend selfish individualism, one is reminded of the more general history of ideas linking virtue to benevolence.1 Indeed, a heretofore neglected Puritan-American manifestation of benevolence informs the theological socialism of the senior Henry, one that has vital significance for his writings and—through paternal transmission—for those of Henry Jr. and William James.

A notably Calvinistic gloss on disinterestedness appeared in the New York Christian Inquirer—a newspaper mindful, in 1851, of Henry Senior's Calvinistic upbringing and schooling at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Jonathan Edwards had been selected as president. The Christian Inquirer attributed the elder Henry's attacks on self-interest to "the old dogma of disinterestedness" harbored by Calvinists, that is, presumably, by Jonathan Edwards and his New-Divinity interpreters. In 1853, Edward Beecher would review such ideas about disinterestedness in The Conflict of Ages, a work to which Henry Senior's The Nature of Evil (1855) was a direct response. Later, William James would quote Edwards on disinterestedness in The Varieties of Religious Experience. With reference to the eighteenth-century Puritan articulation of disinterested benevolence, the Christian Inquirer must be credited with having first attributed the theological underpinnings of Henry Senior's socialistic denunciation of selfinterest to the American Calvinist "dogma of disinterestedness." Neither the newspaper column nor its vital importance for James-family studies has received attention yet from the scholarly community.

The newspaper's linking of the socialistic theology of Henry Senior to a Puritan valuation of disinterestedness casts a more illuminating light upon the elder Henry's claim, in 1843, that "'Jonathan Edwards redivivus in true blue would, after an honest study of the philosophy that has grown up since his day, make the best possible reconciler and critic of… philosophy'"

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