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The Early Idealism of Jonathan Edwards



Gardiner, H. N. “The Early Idealism of Jonathan Edwards.” The Philosophical Review 9, no. 6 (1900): 573–596. https://doi.org/10.2307/2176996.


https://archive.org/details/philosophicalrev09cornuoft/page/572/mode/2up


The history of philosophy in America attracts but little notice from those who treat of the general history of philosophy. It is hardly considered even by ourselves. And indeed it must be confessed that America has hitherto had but little direct influence on the main currents of the world's speculative thought. In this department of the spiritual life we have been more imitative than creative. Nevertheless the history of philosophy in America is nothing to be ashamed of, and it contains at least one great name. Competent critics unite in regarding Jonathan Edwards as the most original metaphysician and subtle reasoner that America has produced, while there is not wanting authority for pronouncing him not only the greatest of American thinkers, but " the highest speculative genius of the eighteenth century."


Until recently Edwards has been best known as a philosophical theologian by his treatise on the Will. This work is still spoken of as "the one large contribution which America has made to the deeper philosophic thought of the world." Now, however, there is a tendency to qualify somewhat the admiration formerly expressed for this great work, and to emphasize rather the importance of such writings as the Treatise on the Religious Affections, the Observations on the Nature of Virtue, and the Treatise on God's Chief End in Creation, while the key to Edwards's thought, his theology, his preaching, and, in a manner, the very type of his piety, is sought in the undeveloped essays of his youth. These essays he himself never published. His biographer, Sereno E. Dwight, first published the notes on 'The Mind ' and on ' Natural Science ' in an appendix to his Memoir of the theologian in 1829, The Miscellanies, containing observations on topics of divinity, exist still for the most part only in manuscript. It is generally known that the two series of notes first mentioned contain an 'expression of idealism akin to, if not identical with, that of Berkeley, though it is not generally understood precisely what the relation is. Strangely enough, Edwards never once certainly alludes to his early view of the material universe in any of his finished writings. And yet it can be shown, I think, both that the conception was with him an original expression of personal insight, and that there is no reason to suppose that he ever abandoned it, that in short it was no mere accidental product of youthful fancy, or echo of another's teaching, but was intimately connected with the deepest and most permanent elements of his speculation. I propose therefore to call attention once more to these still little regarded writings of Edwards, and to attempt at least a general estimate of their significance.


As bearing on the question of originality, it is not without importance that Edwards intended by these notes on ' The Mind ' and on ' Natural Science ' to prepare two great treatises embracing the whole mental and material universe. On the outside of the cover containing the notes on ' Natural Science ' were written hints on the arrangement of the work, and on the inside a longer list of rules to be followed in its composition. Among the latter, the following are perhaps worth citing as characteristic of the author's intellectual straightforwardness : "Try not to silence, but to gain "; "Not to insert any disputable thing, or that will be likely to be disputed by learned men ; for I may depend upon it,. they will receive nothing but what is undeniable from me, that is, in things exceedingly beyond the ordinary way of thinking;" "In the course of reasoning, not to pretend anything to be more certain than anyone will plainly see it is, by such expressions as It is certain It is undeniable etc.;" "Let much modesty be seen in the style." There are two series of things to be considered or written about, one of 33, the other of 88 numbers, among which lists the notes proper are interspersed. Besides these, there is an introduction on the "Prejudices of the Imagination," followed by three propositions and seven postulates dealing with conceptions of general physics. Finally, there are two essays separate from the rest, one a highly theoretical discussion of atoms, the other, of the greatest importance for our purpose, a metaphysical discussion 'Of Being.' The notes throughout are full of accurate observation and acute reasoning, containing more than one anticipation of later discoveries, and showing plainly that if Edwards had devoted himself under favorable circumstances to scientific pursuits, he would have attained in them the highest distinction.


The series of notes on 'The Mind' begins with the full title of the work proposed, namely, "The Natural History of the Mental World: being a Particular Enquiry into the Nature of the Human Mind with respect to both its Faculties the Understanding and the Will and its various Instincts and Active and Passive Powers." Following this is a brief sketch of an introduction explaining the distinction between the external and internal worlds, and showing the importance of the latter as an object of study. Then comes an enumeration of the topics to be treated, the mentioned being evidently nothing but memoranda jotted down at intervals as they happened to occur to the writer.


Many of these topics are extremely interesting, not only as showing the kind of subjects with which Edwards's mind was at this time occupied, but also as indicating his attitude on certain important questions. I will mention a few of them to illustrate. Among those of a logical character, we note one on the nature of judgment, proposing to show that judgment differs from the mere mental presence of ideas, and is hence not the perception of the agreement or disagreement of ideas. Edwards is here getting beyond Locke's definition in the direction of more modern doctrine. In another topic we have a certain anticipation of Hume in the recognition of a twofold ground of assurance, the law of contradiction, and the law of causal connection. The former is still regarded, as universally before Kant, as the principle of mathematical demonstration, but the latter is held to be entirely distinct and irreducible. Among the psychological topics, we note the significantly large number which directly or indirectly treat of the affections and the will. I find no less than twenty two relating to these subjects, considerably more than a third of the whole. We note too such topics as the following: the nature of the sensation a man has when he almost thinks of a thing; whether the mind perceives more than one object at a time; how far the mind may perceive without adverting to what it perceives, and similarly of the will; how far all acts of the mind are from sensation; whether there could have been any such thing as thought without external ideas; how far imagination is involved in thought. The subject of imitation is suggested. Edwards is much impressed by the effect of example and desires to study its influence on opinion, taste, and fashion, and why it is that at one time a vogue lasts an age, while at other times it is of but short duration. He had an unusual opportunity for the investigation of this subject later, at the time of the Great Awakening, and he has, in fact, left us a work, in his narrative of that movement, which is rich in material for the student of social suggestion; but its significance in this respect, though not wholly ignored, was little considered at the time by himself. One of the most noteworthy of the purely psychological topics treats of the connection of ideas. Locke had recognized only one principle, custom; Edwards, as later Hume, distinguishes three, association of ideas evidently Locke's custom resemblance, and cause and effect, and all three processes he speaks of in quite mechanical fashion as a kind of mutual attraction and adhesion of ideas.


Strangely enough, very few of the numbers have to do directly with ethical matter except in relation to other topics; indeed, strictly speaking, there is perhaps only one, that concerning the proper foundation of blame. On the other hand, there are at least four which treat of the sense and influence of beauty.

Of the more properly metaphysical questions, we observe with special interest the following: "In how many respects the very being of created things depends on laws, or stated methods, fixed by God, of events following one another;" and again, "the manifest analogy between the nature of the human soul and the nature of other things . . . how it is laws that constitute all permanent being in created things, both corporeal and spiritual." In these and other numbers we have a clear indication of the author's idealism; the language here used suggests even the more modern formula, that the essence of things is constituted by relations. But the point of special note is that Edwards intended to base his whole treatise on metaphysics. In the topic numbered 8, he tells us that the positive exposition of the "Nature of the Human Mind" was to be preceded by a discussion concerning being in general, with the object of showing to what extent the nature of entity determines human nature.


The notes proper follow the enumeration of the topics to be treated. And the relation between the two is a very free one they by no means correspond either in order or in subject. Thus of the 56 topics in the programme, I find 21 which are not discussed in the notes directly at all, while of the rest the discussion is in part fragmentary, and in large part in other connections and from different points of view from those originally suggested. On the other hand, I find at least 10 of the 72 numbers of the notes treating of topics not mentioned in the original list at all.


Edwards's general theoretical standpoint appears clearly in his theory of knowledge. He recognizes in no uncertain way both the fact and the importance of the sensational element. He holds that "all our ideas begin from sensation and that without sensation or some other way equivalent wherein the mind is wholly passive in receiving ideas, there could never be any idea, thought, or act of the mind." So essential does it seem to him that the mind should have data furnished it to work on that he suggests that the first ideas even of the angels must be of some such kind as those we receive from the affection of our senses. Sensational elements enter into the higher processes of thought and reasoning, and the ordinary sequence of thought depends on the mechanical association of ideas. At the same time, he holds that in its capacity for reflection, the mind has power to actively deal with its data, and to behold and contemplate things spiritual (59). And not only is it active, but it contains its own principles of action. One of these principles is being: it is an absolute necessity that something should be. Another is causality: whenever we see anything that begins to be, we intuitively know that there is a cause for it (54). A third is the principle of the final cause (54).


An interesting feature in this general discussion is the treatment of universals. Edwards rejects the nominalist view on the ground that deaf-and-dumb persons, and not only those who use language, abstract and distribute things into kinds. At one time, following Locke, he seems to consider all such distribution as arbitrary. But in later numbers he holds that many of our universal ideas are not arbitrary, but have their foundation as well in the order of nature and the constitution of our minds as in the circumstances and necessities of life. Indeed, "the foundation of the most considerable species or sorts in which things are ranked is," he says, "the order of the world the designed distribution of God and nature." This order is what constitutes the real essence of things. Edwards, therefore, by no means agrees with Locke in identifying real essence with nominal essence. With this doctrine of universals agrees his doctrine of truth. He vacillates in his language, defining truth now as the perception of the relations between ideas, and now as the agreement of our ideas with existence; but strictly speaking, he says, truth is the consistency and agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God; it consists not merely in the perception of the relation of ideas, but in their adequateness. We here rise to the conception of a higher kind of universality than that contemplated in the ordinary doctrine of abstract ideas, the conception namely of the universality of a divine order in the world. It is here that the doctrine of real essence first gets metaphysical significance. And with this we have reached once more the subject of Edwards's idealism.


The idealistic doctrine is variously expressed and defended in the notes on 'The Mind,' particularly in the articles entitled 'Existence' Substance,’ and 'Excellence'; also in the article 'Of Being' in the notes on 'Natural Science.' This last is a curiously interesting document, and there is good reason for regarding it as the first of the series setting forth the idealistic view. As Edwards seems to allude to it more than once in other of his notes, and as the question of its date has some bearing on the originality of the conception, I venture to give a somewhat full analysis of its contents.


It begins by discussing the absurdity of attempting to conceive a state of absolute nonentity. Such an attempt, says Edwards, puts the mind into mere convulsion and confusion; it is the greatest contradiction and aggregate of all contradictions. "If any man thinks that he can think well enough how there should be nothing, I'll engage that what he means by nothing is as much something as anything he ever thought of in. his life." To get a complete idea of nothing, he says later, "we must think of the same that the sleeping rocks dream of." But if it is impossible to think absolute non-being, then it is necessary that some being should eternally be, and this necessary and eternal being must be infinite and omnipresent. Such a being is space, and space is God. Nor would anyone "stick at" this assertion, were it not for the gross conceptions that we have of space. "And how doth it grate upon the mind," continues Edwards, after further insisting on the necessity of being, "that something should be from all eternity and nothing all the while be conscious of it ... yea, it is really impossible it should be that anything should be and nothing know it." This is the idealism: all existence is existence for consciousness. "Then you'll say, if it be so, it is because nothing has any existence anywhere else but in consciousness. No, certainly," he replies, "nowhere else but either in created or uncreated consciousness." He then proceeds to elucidate the conception. He first supposes a world of senseless bodies known only to God; but what sort of a being could such a world have other than in the divine consciousness? To the objection that on the same grounds a room in which there was no finite mind would only exist in the mind of God, he replies that created beings are conscious of the effects of what is in the room, but that otherwise there is nothing in a room shut up but only in God's consciousness. "How can anything be there any other way?" he asks, adding that this will evidently appear to anyone who thinks of it with the whole united strength of his mind. It is only our imagination that leads us to suppose the contrary. Suppose the world devoid of light and motion. If there were no light, there would be no color; and if there were no motion, there would be no resistance, and so no solidity, and if no solidity, then no extension, figure, or magnitude. What then is to become of the universe? The conclusion is drawn that, apart from sense-experience, a universe can exist nowhere but in the mind of God. The whole concludes with the corollary that only those beings which have knowledge and consciousness are properly real and substantial.


The impression conveyed by even this mutilated account of this essay is unmistakably one, I think, of youthful ardor and mental independence. The thesis is stated with a positiveness, an assurance of conviction, quite out of proportion to the strength of the argument. A mature thinker would have been both more cautious and more logical, especially a thinker of Edwards's caliber. In the treatise on the Will we have a closely reasoned argument meeting the objector point by point. Here we have the bold assertion of an intuition that has taken possession of a mind metaphysically predisposed, but the grounds and difficulties of which have not yet been fully thought out. And this impression of youthfulness is greatly enhanced by a perusal of the whole article, especially in the form in which it has recently been printed from the original manuscript with all its absence of punctuation, its bad spelling, and its misuse of small letters and capitals. Professor Smyth, to whom we are indebted for this reediting, has made it well-nigh certain from a careful comparison of the MSS. of Edwards' s early writings, that this essay on Being was written when Edwards was still a sophomore in Yale College.


The other articles mentioned show more maturity, and serve to bring out the idealistic view in greater fullness. Thus in the article on l ‘Existence,’ having first shown that the objects of vision are mental, "since all these things, with all their modes, do exist in a looking glass," the author proceeds to argue that the resistance which still remains to body is equally, with its modes, solidity, figure, and motion, dependent on mind. This last line of argument is worked out still more completely in the article on 'Substance.' The point is first made that the essence of bodily existence is solidity. Take away solidity and nothing is left but empty space. It is then contended that solidity or impenetrability is as much action, or the immediate result of action, as gravity. We attribute the falling of bodies to the earth to the influence of a force; why not attribute their coming to rest to a like power? But it is entirely from such phenomena as this that we get the idea of solid body. Our experience, according to Edwards, is as follows: We receive from certain parts of space ideas of light and color, and certain other sensations by the sense of feeling; and we observe that the places whence we receive these sensations are successively different. We also observe that the parts of space from whence we receive these sensations resist and stop other bodies, and again that bodies previously at rest exist after contact in different successive parts of space; and these observations are according to certain stated rules. "I appeal," says Edwards, "to anyone who takes notice and asks himself, whether this be not all that ever he experienced in the world whereby he got these ideas; and that this is all we have or can have any idea of in relation to bodies." But if body in our experience is nothing but this, then what we call the substance of the body must be a power or agency, and there is nothing in the nature of the thing itself why, when set in motion, it should stop at such limits rather than at any others. Edwards concludes that this agency is intelligent and voluntary.


Like other idealists, Edwards is at great pains to defend his view of the material universe from misunderstanding. It is not meant, he explains, that the world is contained in the narrow compass of the brain; the brain itself exists only mentally, as other things do, and its place is only an idea like other places. Therefore things are truly in those places in which we find them to be. Nor is this view inconsistent with physical science. For to find out the reasons of things in natural philosophy is only to find out the proportion of God's acting; and the case is the same as to such proportion whether we suppose the world only mental or otherwise. Nor again is it necessary to make use of any other than the common terms in speaking of things. For although in the absence of human perceptions material things exist only in the divine mind, yet the effects of God's acting are in every case just as if things had continued to exist in finite minds. And although ideas of sensation depend on the organs of the body, and the organs of the body have only a mental existence, still it is not proper to say that those ideas depend only on other of our ideas; for the organs of the body exist in the divine mind even when they have no actual existence in finite minds. Indeed, Edwards goes so far as to reject as wholly misleading the statement that bodies do not exist without the mind; for within and without, he says, spatial terms and space relations are themselves mental. The doctrine that the material universe exists only in the mind means that it is absolutely dependent on the mind for its existence. In another note he explains more fully why and how material things must be supposed to exist in the divine mind when they have no existence in created minds. The explanation rests on the assumption that the order of nature is fixed. Things are so connected that were anything other than it is, the whole universe would be different. Hence the existence of anything not actually existing in ideas in finite minds consists in God's supposing of them in order to render complete the series of things as eternally conceived by Him; and this supposing is nothing but God's acting in the course and series of his exciting ideas as if the things supposed were in actual existence in our experience. At the end of this note Edwards quotes Cudworth's account of Plato's subterranean cave, indicating that he considered sensible things as shadows and ectypes of the divinely conceived order. His own most adequate statement of his idealism is in the following noteworthy passage: "That which truly is the substance of all bodies is the infinitely exact and precise and perfectly stable Idea in God's mind, together with His stable Will that the same shall gradually be communicated to us and to other minds according to certain fixed and exact established methods and laws; or, in somewhat different language, the infinitely exact and precise divine Idea, together with an answerable, perfectly exact, precise and stable Will with respect to correspondent communications to created minds, and effects on their mind."


Such in brief outline is Edwards's idealism as it appears in these early and loosely connected notes. The conception is not worked out, and the expression is in places crude; but the conception as a whole is penetrating and profound, and the reasoning at times wonderfully acute. We have now to consider two questions which may contribute towards a just estimate of its significance. The first is: Where did Edwards get these ideas? And the second: What was their influence on his own later thinking?

The answer at once suggested to the first question is, from Berkeley. All readers have been struck by the resemblance between the views of the young American thinker and those of his elder British contemporary. Eraser calls Edwards "an able defender of Berkeley's great philosophical conception;" he and Johnson, he says, 'adopted' and 'professed' Berkeley's philosophy. Professor Fisher, of Yale, also calls Edwards a Berkeleyan. Georges Lyon, in treating of Edwards in his work on English Idealism in the eighteenth century, declares that the dependence on Berkeley is unmistakable. He even undertakes to point this out in some detail. He quotes, e. g. the following: "the ideas we have by the sense of feeling are as much mere ideas as those we have by the sense of seeing," remarking that this is precisely the position whereby Berkeley in his Principles did away with what was equivocal in the Theory of Vision. He refers to Edwards's argument for the merely mental existence of all the objects of vision, because, namely, "all these things . . . do exist in a looking glass," as almost a phrase of Berkeley's, and at any rate one of his favorite proofs. He also considers the argument to be similar to Berkeley's in which Edwards maintains the unlikeness between our ideas of space and those which a man born blind would have.


All the evidence for this alleged influence of Berkeley is entirely internal. There is no external evidence that is worth considering. Fraser suggested that Edwards may have become acquainted with Berkeley's philosophy through Samuel Johnson, who was tutor at Yale between 1716 and 1719, while Edwards was a student. This suggestion, about which much has been plausibly argued on both sides, has lately been pretty definitely refuted from Johnson's own manuscript, entitled "A Catalogue of Books read by me from year to year since I left Yale College." The record begins with the year 1719-20. There is no mention of anything of Berkeley's before 1727-28. In that year and the year following the Principles are entered, and in 1729-30 the Dialogues and the Theory of Vision.


We may dismiss then the view that Edwards was made acquainted with the Berkeleyan theory by Johnson. It is probable that Johnson himself first learned of it when he went to England for episcopal ordination in 1723. But may not Edwards have read Berkeley? This is possible as far as the dates go, for Berkeley's Principles were published in 1710, his Dialogues in 1713. From four to seven years, therefore, elapsed between the publication of Berkeley's early philosophy and the earliest date claimed for these writings of Edwards. Against this, however, must be set the opinion of the late President Porter that there is no evidence that any of these works was known at Yale College when Edwards was a student, and that there is reason to believe that they were not then accessible. This opinion is confirmed by a letter of Berkeley's to Johnson dated from Newport the 25th of June, 1729, in which the writer does not know whether, even so late as then, his disciple possesses a copy of his Principles and expresses his intention of sending him one. It is more than likely, to be sure, that many of these notes of Edwards were written after graduation in the years of his tutorship. Indeed, there is positive evidence from a note in his diary that as late as February I2th, 1725, he was still meditating on these problems. But considerations of this sort, which allow more time for the acquaintance with Berkeley, are offset by the evidence for the very early date of the essay 'Of Being,’ which already contains the idealism.


We are thus thrown back on the internal evidence and on general probability. Lyon finds the view that these notes on 'The Mind' and on 'Natural Science' were the original work of a college student utterly incredible. If they were, he says, then Edwards would have united in himself the genius of several Pascals and have surpassed by far in intellectual gifts Galileo and Newton combined. This exaggerates the claims actually made for him. No one maintains that he invented all this physics and metaphysics out of whole cloth that he reproduced nothing of what he read or heard, that he owed nothing to others for stimulus and suggestion. Nor is it necessary to assume that all the notes were written before he graduated. Still it would be remarkable if a mere boy of fourteen or fifteen should have arrived independently, even allowing for outside suggestion, at an idealistic conception of the material universe, even a crude one. But Edwards was a remarkable boy. Already at the age of ten he had composed a curious and somewhat humorous little tract on the immateriality of the soul. Lyon considers this, to be sure, a mere echo. Possibly. The same, however, can hardly be said of his paper on the flying spider written when he was about twelve, "a child," he calls himself in the letter introducing it. This boy's paper on the flying spiders combines the most careful personal observations of these insects with the most acute scientific reasoning and hypothesis, and is surely one of the rarest specimens of precocious scientific genius on record. Just before his thirteenth birthday he entered Yale College, and the next year, at the age of fourteen, he read Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, enjoying, as he tells us, in the perusal of its pages, a far higher pleasure "than the most greedy miser finds, when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold, from some newly-discovered treasure." In view of this extraordinary precocity of his mental development, and the undoubted independence, vigor, and originality of his mind, there is nothing incredible in supposing that he arrived at his idealism under similar influences to those which affected Berkeley. There is no improbability in supposing that he reached this conception while still an undergraduate, and that he expressed it at first crudely in the article on 'Being' and afterwards more adequately as the idea unfolded in his mind. Berkeley himself, we remember, began the Common-place Book containing the material for his Theory of Vision and his Principles shortly after taking his first degree at the age of nineteen. Edwards graduated at seventeen, and there is every reason for believing that his intellectual powers, at no time inferior to Berkeley's, matured much earlier than the latter's. Moreover, he had been brought up from earliest childhood in an atmosphere of theological conceptions highly stimulating to a temperament so naturally one might almost say so preternaturally reflective, and so eagerly and profoundly speculative.


But however it may be with the precise data of the article on 'Being,' there are strong, and to my mind, convincing indications in the notes themselves that Edwards was not dependent for his idealism on Berkeley. In the first place there is no mention of Berkeley's name. To be sure, Edwards is not given to the mention of other writers, being much more interested in the exposition of his own ideas. Throughout the two series of notes on 'The Mind' and on Natural Science the only authors referred to by name are Cudworth, Newton, Locke, Hobbes, and Ptolemy. But as Professor Fisher observes, "Edwards was not the man to conceal a real obligation." x Dr. Smyth cites an instance of his candor in this respect in his remark at the end of a brief note on 'Density Pores,' "N.B. This has been thought of before." But no one can read Berkeley without a vivid sense of the novelty and originality of his thinking. The young student who had read Berkeley must surely have felt himself under a real obligation. But there is nothing whatever of this in Edwards. On the contrary, there is evident consciousness of independence. He is preparing, as we have seen, to write a book in which these views of his will be given to the world. He is aware of their novelty. He is careful, therefore, to guard himself against misapprehension, especially in the matter of the seeming denial of the existence of bodies outside the mind. "It is from hence I expect the greatest opposition," he writes. This, I take it, is an expression of a sense of personal ownership in his ideas.


Moreover, if Edwards had derived his idealism from Berkeley, we should expect a much more direct reflection of Berkeley's thought and language. How, for instance, could he have written as he did on the subject of universals if he had been acquainted with Berkeley's vigorous polemic against the doctrine of abstract ideas? No ideas are more characteristic and oft-repeated in the early works of Berkeley than the following: the impossibility of perceiving distance by sight, the arbitrariness of God in connecting ideas of sight and ideas of touch, the influence of suggestion a peculiarly Berkeleyan word -in perception, the objects of sight a divine visual language. Is it conceivable or to be regarded as a mere accident that a young student, reproducing ideas derived from the reading of Berkeley, should have given no hint of being affected by these all-pervading and altogether fascinating conceptions? But they are entirely absent from these notes of Jonathan Edwards. In comparison with this negative evidence, the parallelisms of language and argument cited by Lyon appear trivial. How could any idealist fail to observe that ideas of touch are as much ideas as those of sight? And what more natural illustration of the ideality of objects of vision than their reflection in a looking-glass? Or what more likely an observation than the difference between a blind man's ideas of space and ours? This last moreover he could have got, and probably did get, from Locke.


But we can go further. Not only is there no proof that Edwards derived his idealism from Berkeley, but it is clearly evident that his idealism has, to say the least, a different accent and character from that of the author of the Principles of Human Knowledge and the Dialogues of Hylas and Philonous. Berkeley's early doctrine is, as everyone knows, that the esse of material things consists in their percipi. Now it is no doubt true that in urging this doctrine his main interest was to enforce the truth of the divine being and action, and the substantiality and causality of spirit. That spirit is alone substantial and causal is indeed the real Berkeleyan idealism. But the relation of things sensible to spirits and especially to the mind of God is hardly considered by Berkeley in his early writing; he contents himself with the thought that God imprints the ideas of material things on our senses in a fixed order. To the objection that material things when not actually perceived by us must be non-existent, he can only reply that "there may be some other spirit that perceives them though we do not." The esse of things is thus their percipi. Later in life Berkeley went beyond this, and taught that the esse of things is not their percipi, but their concipi, that the world in its deepest truth is a divine order eternally existing in the mind of God. But it is this doctrine which, along with the phenomenalism which he shares with Berkeley, is the characteristic doctrine of Jonathan Edwards. It is implied in his conception of the real, as distinguished from the nominal, essence, and in his conception of truth as the agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God, and it is definitely expressed in various passages, best perhaps in the formulation of his idealism already quoted: "That which truly is the substance of all bodies is the infinitely exact and precise and stable Idea in God's mind, together with His stable Will that the same shall gradually be communicated to us and to other minds according to certain fixed and established methods and laws." The phenomenalism in Edwards is relatively subordinate. But similar ideas appear at all prominently in Berkeley only in Siris, which was not published till 1744.


If now, discarding the hypothesis of Berkeleyan influence, we raise the question where then, Edwards got the suggestions for his ideas, I am inclined to answer: Mainly from three sources: from Locke with his doctrine of ideas; from Newton with his doctrine of colors; and from Cudworth with his diffused Platonism. These authors we know he read. If we go beyond these, I would as soon include hypothetically Descartes with the problematical idealism of the early part of the Meditationes, or John Norris, whose Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World, published in 1701, reproduced ideas of Malebranche, which, as Lyon has pointed out, are startlingly paralleled in some of these notes of Edwards, as I would include Berkeley, whose doctrine was itself developed under similar influences. The fact is, idealism was, so to say, in the air, and in Arthur Collier we have a contemporary illustration, if we may believe his account of himself, of a similar independent development of idealistic doctrine to that which we here claim for Edwards. Collier's Clavis Universalis was not published indeed till 1713, but he adopted, he tells us, his new thought concerning the meaning of sensible existence as early as 1703. He was then twenty-three; Berkeley at twenty-five published the Principles six years later.


The question still remaining, namely, as to the effect of this early idealism on Edwards's later thought, is more difficult to answer in detail and it can only be touched on here with the greatest brevity. As already indicated, the formal expression of the doctrine, so far as it relates to the material world, is strangely absent from the later theological treatises. There is a suggestion of such an expression in a passage cited by Dr. Fisher from the treatise on ‘Original Sin', where it is said that late improvements in philosophy have demonstrated the course of nature to be nothing but the established order of the agency and operation of the author of nature; but this view is not necessarily idealism, for, as Edwards tells us, it was also held by his opponent Taylor. There is, however, another, passage in the same treatise cited by Dr. Smyth 3 which has a decidedly idealistic complexion, Edwards observing "that all dependent existence whatsoever is in a constant flux . . . renewed every moment as the colors of bodies are every moment by the light that shines upon them; and all is constantly proceeding from God, as light from the sun." This is perhaps the nearest approach to a restatement of the earlier view in the theological treatises that can be found. But there is evidence that Edwards continued his reflections along the lines struck out in the youthful essay ' Of Being,' and that its fundamental thought influenced him profoundly. It recurs, for instance, in a number of the notes in the Miscellanies with probable allusions to that essay. In the note in the Diary of the I2th of February, 1725, to which reference has been made, Edwards writes that what he now wants is as clear a knowledge of the manner of God's exerting Himself with respect to spirit and mind as he has of his operations concerning matter and bodies. Dr. Smyth cites from the MS. of the Miscellanies a number of passages which show Edwards at work on this problem, endeavoring to apply the idealistic conception to the relation of God's mind to finite minds. Thus No. 210: "Man's reason and conscience seems to be a participation of the divine essence"; 301: "An inclination is nothing but God's influencing the soul according to a certain law of nature"; 697: God comprehends the "entity of all His creatures, they are but communications from Him: communications of being are not creations of being." In 267 he finds the existence of God implied in the mere coming to pass of a new thought in the creature. He further applies his idealism to the more specific theological doctrines. Thus in the following passage cited by Dr. Smyth, he applies it to the doctrine of the Trinity.


"I will frame my reasoning thus: If nothing has any existence at all but in some consciousness or idea or other; and therefore the things that are in us created consciousness have no existence but in the divine idea; or, supposing the things in this room were in the idea of none but God, they would have existence no other way, as we have shown in the natural philosophy, and if the things in this room would nevertheless be real things; then God's idea being a perfect idea, is really the thing itself ; and if so, and all God's ideas are only the one idea of Himself, as has been shown, then God's idea must be His essence itself, it must be a substantial idea, having all the perfection of the substance perfectly; so that by God's reflecting on Himself the Deity is begotten: there is a substantial Image of God begotten." His view of the union of the two natures in the person of Christ is also colored by his conception of a universe constituted of divine ideas and their intercommunications.


In a charming little tract on the Excellency of Christ, which Professor Smyth first published from the MS. in 1880, Edwards expatiates on the visible world as a reflection of the glory of Christ's divine attributes: the flowery meads and gentle breezes are emanations or adumbrations of His benevolence; the fragrant rose and lily, of His love and purity; the green trees and fields and the singing of birds, of His infinite joy and benignity; and similarly of other aspects of natural beauty. "There are also many things," he continues, "wherein we may behold His awful majesty; in the sun in his strength; in comets; in thunder; in the hovering thunder-clouds; in ragged rocks, and the brows of mountains." Nor is all this, as it may perhaps at first appear to us, purely phantastic. There is a profound philosophical thought underlying it, the same, namely, as that of Plato in his conception of the visible world as an image or shadow of the eternal Ideas. Here the thought takes on a theological coloring from its connection with the doctrine of Christ as the creative Logos. "Now we have shown," writes Edwards, in introducing these reflections, "that the Son of God created the world for this very end, to communicate Himself in an image of His own excellency. He communicates Himself properly only to spirits, and they only are capable of being proper images of His excellency, for they only are proper beings, as we have shown. Yet He communicates a sort of glimpse of His excellencies to bodies, which, as we have shown, are but the shadows of beings, and not real beings. "Where has he shown this? Nowhere, so far as we know, but in those early notes on 'The Mind ' and on 'Natural Science.' The document fits in with the other notes on ' ‘Excellency,' though having a more theological cast of expression. If we may judge from its place in the series of observations in the Miscellanies, the 16th, and assume with Dwight that the first 150 belong to the two years preceding and the two following Edwards's graduation, we shall not be wrong in finding in it an allusion to those other series of notes. But while there are indications in the note on 'Excellence' of the thought here expressed concerning the relation of Christ to creation, it is to one of the latest of Edwards's works that we must go for its elaboration. The "Dissertation concerning the End for which God created the World" has for its entire subject this very theme. This work, posthumously published, may justly be regarded as the most boldly speculative work in English in the eighteenth century. The very title, as Dr. Allen remarks, "suggests the profound and fascinating speculations of Gnostic theosophies." The subject is so lofty that Edwards himself confesses its obscurity and the imperfection of the expressions used concerning it. Nevertheless, he essays to discuss it in the pure light of reason, and the result is a work comparable only to the works of the great speculative mystics. The central thought of the treatise is this, that there is in God a disposition, as an original property of His nature, to an emanation of His own infinite fullness, and that it was this disposition which excited Him to create the world, and so that the emanation itself was the last end which God aimed at in the creation. This being so, the creation itself tends to appear as an emanation. Indeed, this is the language which Edwards constantly uses in speaking of it, without, probably, being aware of its associations and implications. "The old phrases," says Dr. Allen, "such as the overflow of the divine fullness, diffusion of the divine essence, an emanation from God compared with the light and heat which go forth from the sun, these constitute the verbal signs of Edwards's thought." To be sure, where he uses these phrases, he refers more particularly to the spiritual creation, and there is no direct suggestion in any part of the treatise of the early phenomenalistic view of matter. But the whole trend of the thought is towards a comprehensive idealism which makes God all in all.


This was, indeed, the whole trend of Edwards's thought throughout. His mind is steeped in the contemplation of the perfection and absoluteness of God. He conceives of God as the absolutely sovereign Reason, loving supremely His own infinite perfections and the creature so far as it manifested and reflected them, creating the world for this sole purpose, and governing it according to His sovereign pleasure. In the early note on ‘Excellence,' it is argued that God, being Infinite Being, all other being must necessarily be considered as nothing: "in metaphysical strictness and propriety, He is and there is no other." In the latest of the treatises, the whole system of created beings is spoken of "as the light dust of the balance (which is taken no notice of by him that weighs), and as less than nothing and vanity." Relatively to God, man has no power: he is an elect vessel either of His beneficent grace or else of His retributive justice. The language of the Calvinistic theologian concerning decrees is only the reflection and investiture of the deeper thought of the speculative philosopher that God's activity is from and to Himself an uninterrupted exercise of glorious will. In harmony with these views, Edwards's type of piety is thoroughly the mystic type, the enjoyment of God in complete self-surrender to His spirit. And God communicates Himself to spirits directly by an immediate illumination. This is the theme of one of Edwards's most remarkable sermons.


Now this conception of God is what underlies his conception of the ideality of the material universe. It is not that the phenomenalism brings with it the idealism: it is the deeper idealism of the thought of God which brings in the phenomenalism. It is not necessary, therefore, that we should look for precise expressions in the later works of the early view. As Edwards himself said in the notes on 'The Mind': "Though we suppose that the existence of the whole material universe is absolutely dependent on Idea, yet we may speak in the old way, and as properly and as truly as ever." And it is in the old way that he speaks, in the main, in the works by which he is best known. But the early metaphysics blends with the later theology; its spirit pervades it; and it is scarcely to be doubted that had Edwards been asked at any time in his later years to state exactly what he thought of the constitution of the material universe, he would have replied in much the terms in which he had expressed the meditations of his youth, that its substance was the "infinitely exact and precise Divine idea, together with an answerable, perfectly exact and stable Will, with respect to correspondent communications to created minds, and effects on their minds."