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Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic Paperback – July 6, 2015
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“Impassioned, noble, and necessary.”
- Brook Wilensky-Lanford, New Republic
“[A] splendidly polemical account of the philosophy of the founding fathers.”
- Jonathan Ree, Prospect (UK)
“Enthralling and important… [A] pleasure to read, its often surprising conclusions supported by elegant prose.”
- Buzzy Jackson, Boston Globe
- Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times
- Barton Swaim, Wall Street Journal
“Brilliant… breathes fresh life into our understanding of the American Revolution. Beautifully written and lucidly argued, Nature’s God…will set the agenda for serious discussion of the American Revolution’s significance in world history.”
- Peter S. Onuf, author of The Mind of Thomas Jefferson
“Splendid…imaginative but never fanciful, even at its most surprising.”
- Alan Ryan, author of The Making of Modern Liberalism
“A lively, powerful, and erudite refutation of the myth that the framers of our secular Constitution had any intention of founding an orthodox Christian nation.”
- Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
About the Author
Matthew Stewart is the author of Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World and The Management Myth: Debunking the Modern Philosophy of Business. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
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Stewart tries to explain the way in which America is an "empire of reason" and to show that Barlow was correct in his assessment.
"Nature's God" is a lengthy, difficult and multi-faceted book that demands a great deal of perseverance and attention to read. The distinction between "popular" and "academic" writing frequently becomes blurred, no more so than it is in this book. The book examines historical events, such as the Boston Tea Party, the Second Continental Congress, the Battle of Ticonderoga, together with a large scope of philosophical and literary books. The love of learning and the erudition are inspiring. Yet, for all its length, it may move too fast in places over the complex intellectual arguments it conveys. The book frequently is an uneasy mix between disparate components of history, both well-known and obscure, and philosophy.
Stewart's book has a passionate, teaching tone about the message it wishes to convey which I find admirable and with which I largely agree. The converse side is a tendency to polemic and perhaps to underestimate one's philosophical opponents. Sections of this long book are muddled and repetitive but the heart of Stewart's position is clearly stated. Stewart writes about Enlightenment thought and its influence on the American Revolution. He takes Enlightenment well beyond 17th and 18th century Europe to begin with the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and the Roman poet, Lucretius in "The Nature of Things". Stewart argues that nature and ethics lack a supernatural base but instead rest upon reason, understanding, investigation, and what Stewart terms immanentism. He wants to reject Abrahamic theism and Christianity in favor of immanentism and understanding and he pursues and expands upon his path throughout the book.
When it comes to the Enlightenment, Stewart distinguishes between its "moderate" and "radical" as discussed in a series of important, controversial books by the scholar Jonathan Israel, e.g.Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. Moderate Enlightenment for Israel reached an uneasy compromise with theism and is personified by John Locke among others. Radical Enlightenment carried the project of reason further and its key figure was Spinoza. Having made Israel's distinction, Stewart tries to collapse it. He tries to show that Locke was, in fact, a Spinozist and hid his commitment to Spinoza's philosophical programme behind the waffling, equivocal, contradictory language of his books that will be familiar to those who have struggled with Locke. Stewart doesn't look as closely as he might at Spinoza's metaphysics and its difficulties and at Spinoza's own use of language. In any event the heretical Spinoza, as captured for Stewart in the equivocations of Locke, becomes the founder of the ideas of the American Revolution. A difficulty with this argument is that there is little or no evidence that the American Founders knew of or had read Spinoza. It thus becomes critical for Stewart to transmit Spinoza to the Founders through the works of Locke. The Founders did know their Locke.
The book makes a great deal out of two early Americans whose achievements many will find unfamiliar. First, Ethan Allen, the hero of Ticonderoga, wrote, or at least claimed to write, and obscure philosophical book, "The Oracles of Reason" which expressed non-theistical, immanentist thinking. Allen's friend, Thomas Young, was self-taught and a physician and a hero of the Boston Tea Party. Young gets attention in another new book of more historical than philosophical scope by Nick Bunker, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America. Stewart explores the parallel lives of Allen and Young in part to question the claim made by some scholars that Young wrote Allen's book. Some of this material on Allen and Young is fascinating. On the whole it is overdone and distracts from the flow and force of Stewart's presentation.
The book finds the glory and lasting significance of America and its Revolution not in the overthrow of a king but in its efforts to take a transcendental deity and claimed Revelation out of public life. The book is sharp, pointed and eloquent in this aim. Stewart draws another distinction, this time between the "radical" thought of the Enlightenment and the "common" thought of unschooled common sense. He tries to find the source of theism in "common" thought, so defined. The leaders of the Revolution, to a greater or lesser degree were committed to the "radical" project under the term of deism. The tension between "radical" and "common" thought was palpable in the Revolutionary Era and remains so in the United States today. Stewart attributes the American Revolution and the values that make the United States important to "radicalism" -- in freedom, intellectual curiosity, openness, economic opportunity, individual growth, and arts and culture. For the most part, Stewart stays relatively clear of current topical political issues which one cast one position as unequivocally right and the other position is unequivocally wrong.
The book brought to mind many discussions I have had with people about issues addressed in this book -- particularly a concern about the return of faith-based religions whether of a "conservative" or a "liberal" cast to American public life. For all their importance and complexity, the religious arguments in this book are done in places in an overly free-wheeling style. I have a great deal of sympathy with the approach and the argument and with Spinoza -- but that may be perceived by some as preaching to the choir.
Stewart has written a wonderfully challenging and provocative book for readers willing to make the effort. Not the least of it is his positive portrayal of America, its origins, and its promise, in face of an age of skepticism. Another large value of the book is its commitment to reason and understanding. Stewart rejects postmodernism, the "narrative" theory of understanding and history, and other forms of relativism which sometimes get used
to provide an excuse for continued religious thinking. A commitment to reason and the pursuit of truth is refreshing. The book stresses the importance of learning, study, and the life of the mind. It is inspiring to see their importance and their pursuit in this book tied in so well with a discussion of the intellectual foundations of American life.
The writing is clear and fairly snappy, but the author traces every line of the intro to the Declaration of Independence back to the ancient Greek philosophers--Why "we hold these truths to be self-evident"? Who is this "Creator" who endowed us with rights? What does "the pursuit of happiness" mean?
It turns out that "Nature and Nature's God" might just mean "nature," and deism is more or less the equivalent of atheism, in his parsing. And it turns out that Ethan Allen was quite a revolutionary indeed, and in fact all the founding fathers were trying not just to separate from the British motherland, but to create a whole new sort of society, never seen before in political history.
Well worth the effort.
That said, the information you need about those authors beforehand can easily be found on the Internet, so you should not be afraid of picking this book up. If you have enjoyed smart humanistic books, like Grayling's 'The God Argument', you will like this one, too. 'Nature's God' is not a strident rant against deities, but an extremely intelligent discussion of why a society based on secular skepticism is the best we humans can expect. (And about why the notion of the U.S. as a “Christian Nation” is nonsense.)
Rewarding and elegantly written. Recommended.