Some thoughts on Free Will and Rerunning the Silver Age

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been reading a lot of Yvor Winters lately (here’s Aaron Haspel’s best shot re: why you should too). Indeed, In Defense of Reason is a hell of a collection, and well worth your time–especially if you are, like me, very much invested in Romanticism… There’s something to get your blood up on almost every one of its’ 610 pages! I don’t have time to get into all of it right now, but I’ll say this–anyone whose theories re:consistency force him to treat Jones Very as a major American poet has problems! I love Winters when he goes after Poe (who is legitimately overrated) and Henry Adams (who did have a ridiculous view of human history)–but Winters’ tendency to obsess on Romantics who go right ’round the bend and justify his disgust with the whole “nominalist” tradition is just sick (he doesn’t just imply that Hart Crane did right by killing himself–he actually comes out and says it!)

Anyway, my teeth are still recovering from all of the gnashing they did each time I read Winters’ thoughts about the perils of “determinism”… Listen people–the idea that we have “free will” is preposterous, and if you want to know why, just check out Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will. That’s a long piece, and I don’t agree with much of it (unless you want to think of “God” as a metaphor for “Fate” or “circumstance” or what have you)–but just imagine what the concept really means! Basically, you’re saying that your choices are undetermined! How on Earth could that be? As soon as you try to think about it, you’re in infinite regress territory.

You come to a fork in the path. You take the left road. Why? Because you chose to. But why did you choose to choose that path? Because you chose to choose to choose it. We could go on like this all night, but I don’t want to break the C’s , H’s, O’s, S’s, and E’s on this keyboard. Sooner or later, you’re going to come to a point where you’ll just throw up your hands and say–“well jeez, I dunno, I guess I didn’t choose it after all!” You want to quit smoking, but you just don’t have the “willpower”. Why not? Would you really choose not to have willpower? (and if you would, why would you choose to choose not to?)

Winters offers no defense against this position. He simply argues that the Calvinist position leads to moral apathy. (We’ll forget about the historical fact that, quite to the contrary, Calvinist-“infected” nations have a very successful record of promoting social justice…) For Winters, the concept of “free will” is a “useful truth”–’nuff said. He doesn’t seem to understand that even a firm champion of predestination will be curious about what comes next on the program! Do you stop watching a movie because you know that it was filmed long ago and the characters’ actions are predetermined? The point is that “God” knows what’s in store for you–and whoever you are, you ain’t god my friend! The whole drama of Calvinism is that you never know if you are one of the “Elect” or not. I can tell you–having read some of their journals–that the chief magistrates of Puritan Massachusetts didn’t have a clue. In fact–their betes noires were Quakers and Antinomians who claimed to know that they were “saved”. That’s where predestination gets detrimental to public morals–when you think God’s talkin’ to ya, and you hear things like “to the Pure, all things are Pure” (even a little Munster mayhem!)… Jones Very’s ideas cannot be construed as the logical outcome of Puritanism–he was a (very entertaining) nutjob who talked to himself, get it? Emerson did. Winters does too–but he errs in assuming that all Romantics (even Keats?)–insofar as they are “Romantic”–must be sideshow freaks. And anyone who wants to to take a swing at justifying that notion can step up to the plate right now!

Also, I will never agree with Winters that works of art in prose or verse are, preeminently, “moral judgments about human experience”. So what’s my “One-Definition-To-Explain-Everything”? Why, they’re radiant fields of language around an Abyss of otherness, of course!

And now, before I go, I want to salute Sean Collins and Jim Henley for getting some more mileage out of ADD’s ill-advised statements about the “lost innocence of the silver age” (which he has never defended, by the way–I’d love to see him try!). For the record, I don’t really care one way or the other about this new Marvel Age thing… at least, not unless they’re gonna try to redo the letters pages and Bullpen Bulletins too! (as always, when it comes to the superheroes, it’s far more a question of form than content with me)

Good night friends



  1. Actually the idea that we have free will is not preposterous, and if you want to know why just check out Peter Van Inwagen’s An Essay on Free Will.

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