Brahmin quotes from "The Metaphysical Club"

I just finished reading The Metaphysical Club, which traces the intellectual history of the middle third of American history. It begins with Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who coined the term “Boston Brahmin” in 1860 to describe the New England intellectual elite. A doctor, writer, and Harvard graduate, Holmes belonged to that class:

[Holmes] was unabashedly provincial. His chief ambition was to represent the Boston view in all things.[…] On the other hand, he regarded the Boston point of view as pretty much the only point of view worth representing. He considered Boston “the thinking centre of the continent, and therefore of the planet.” […] He was an enemy of Calvinism (which had been his father’s region) and a rationalist, but his faith in good breeding was nearly atavistic, and he saw no reason to challenge the premises of a social dispensation that had, over the course of two centuries, contrived to produce a man as genial and accomplished as himself. (p. 7)

The book is fascinating in its own right, the first third especially so for those interested in the crypto-Protestant explanation of progressivism. Some more choice quotes:

Unitarianism, to which Harvard College essentially converted following the appointment of Henry Ware as Hollis Professor of Divinity in 1805, was a creed founded on a belief in the innate moral goodness of the individual (in reaction to Calvinism, which was a creed founded on a belief in the innate moral depravity of the individual). It was in many ways a religion that led its followers naturally to oppose slavery.[…] But many Harvard professors were Unitarians of a different stripe. They were social conservatives. They believed in law and order and the sanctity of property. (p.8)

On Henry James Sr., theologian best known as the father of William James:

[Henry James] considered Catholicism a superstition, and the Catholic church “a mere scabies upon the life of the nations.” He equated true spirituality with Protestants, which he regarded as fundamentally a movement for the democratizing of religion. He regarded democracy, by the same token, as the political equivalent of Protestantism. (p. 87)

AIAcC? More like HIAcC (Harvard is a christian college):

One of the things that had held back scientific education in American colleges […] was the dominance of theology in the curriculum, which obliged scholars in every field to align their work with Christian orthodoxy. Theology was the academic trump card. Agassiz insisted on the independence of scientific inquiry from religious beliefs–and for that matter, from political and economic beliefs as well. He did not attend church himself, but he was an outspoken deist, and that was evidence enough of religious commitment for a Unitarian institution like Harvard. It allowed Agassiz to secularize scientific research without completely alienating the ministers. (p. 100)

On race:

It was a distinctly Bostonian view of race–revulsion at the racism of others (p. 134)

On English individualism and English exceptionalism:

Buckle called Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations “probably the most important book that has ever been written,” and announced the burden of all his researches to be that “the great enemy of civilization, is the protective spirit; by which I mean the notion that society cannot prosper, unless the affairs of life are watched over and protected at nearly every turn by the state and the church.” (The failure of the French and Germans to grasp this truth, he explained, was a reason for the superiority of British civilization) (p. 194, emphasis mine)

Some more quotes on Brahmins from the web. The first, on intra-white competition. (I plan to really play up the fratricide trope on this blog)

In Boston, the Brahmins fought fiercely to close immigrants out. While they may have prided themselves on being the champions of abolitionism, they did not actually want black Americans, or any other non-Brahmin group, encroaching on their power or society.

On moral responsibility:

“There is, however, in New England, an aristocracy, if you choose to call it so, which has a greater character of permanence. It has grown to be a caste—not in any odious sense—but, by the repetition of the same influences, generation after generation, it has acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy….” This series of articles collectively became the novel Elsie Venner, published in 1861. 

The object of Elsie Venner was, “an attempt to illustrate the doctrine of inherited moral responsibility for other people’s misbehavior. (emphasis mine)” In broad terms, this was an intentional contradiction of certain theological (Calvinist) beliefs such as pre-destination. An unintended consequence of describing a New England Caste of strict progeny, educational, religious, and business practices, was to later make the Brahmin families appear quite elitist.

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2 Responses to Brahmin quotes from "The Metaphysical Club"

  1. J says:

    “Aristocracy is a good sign. Aristocracy has been the hue and cry in every community where there has been anything good, any society worth associating with, since men met in cities. It must be every where. ‘Twere the greatest calamity to have it abolished. It went nearest to its death in the French Revolution, of all time. And if, tonight, an earthquake should sink every patrician house in the city, tomorrow there would be as distinct an aristocracy as now. The only change would be that the second sort would have become first but they would be as unmingling, as much separated from the lower class as ever the rich men of today were from them. No man would consent to live in society if he was obliged to admit every body to his house that chose to come. Robinson Crusoe’s island would be better than a city if men were obliged to mix together indiscriminately heads & points with all the world. Envy is the tax which all distinction must pay.”

    —Emerson, Journals 1824

    Emerson, of course, was a friend of Henry James Sr. and godfather of William James. He was strongly influenced by his aunt Mary Moody Emerson, an eccentric Calvinist.

    “My father was a theologian of the “twice-born” type, an out-and-out Lutheran, who believed that the moral law existed solely to fill us with loathing for the Idea of our own merits, and to make us turn to God’s grace as our only opportunity. But God’s grace, in Mr. James’s system, was not for the individual in isolation: the sphere of redemption was Society. In a Society organized divinely our natures will not be altered, but our spontaneities, because they then will work harmoniously, will all work innocently, and the Kingdom of Heaven will have come. With these ideas, Mr. James was both fascinated and baffled by his friend Emerson. The personal graces of the man seemed to prefigure the coming millennium, but the resolute individualism of his thought, and the way in which his imagination rested on superior personages, and on heroic anecdotes about them, as if these were creation’s ultimates, set my father’s philosophy at defiance. For him no man was superior to another in the final plan. Emerson would listen, I fancy, as if charmed, to James’s talk of the “divine natural Humanity,” but he would never subscribe; and this, from one whose native gifts were so suggestive of that same Humanity, was disappointing. Emerson, in short, was a “once-born” man; he lived in moral distinctions, and recognized no need of a redemptive process. My father worked off his mingled enchantment and irritation in the following pages, in which he pits Emerson’s unconscious being against his conscious intellect, and treats the latter as symbolic of the natively innocent Humanity that is to be.”

    —William James,

  2. nickbsteves says:

    I plan to really play up the fratricide trope on this blog

    Ooh yeah. Gotta get me more a dat!

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