Monday, September 08, 2008

Puritans and Prigs

From James Wood's review of Marilynne Robinson's latest books in the New Yorker:
She loathes the complacent idleness whereby contemporary Americans dismiss Puritanism and turn John Calvin, its great proponent, into an obscure, moralizing bigot: “We are forever drawing up indictments against the past, then refusing to let it testify in its own behalf—it is so very guilty, after all. Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore incompetent.” We flinch from Puritanism because it placed sin at the center of life, but then, as she tartly reminds us, “Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore beset as all humankind is beset.” Calvin believed in our “total depravity,” our utter fallenness, but this was not necessarily a cruel condemnation. “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain,” Robinson writes in her essay “Puritans and Prigs.” Nowadays, she argues, educated Americans are prigs, not Puritans, quick to pour judgment on anyone who fails to toe the right political line. Soft moralizing has replaced hard moralizing, but at least those old hard moralists admitted to being moralists.


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