The New England Mind: The 17th Century (Miller)

Miller, Perry.  The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

One reads Perry Miller for the same reasons one reads Edward Gibbon: the delightful prose and the breathtaking scope of his topic. Never go to Miller for accurate doctrine.  He gets much of it wrong.  That might not be accurate, though.  Miller has read the primary sources, and there are many of them.  How well he understood them is another question.

On Predestination

“….penetration of God’s sovereignty into his [the Puritan’s] personality” (Miller 17).


“Virtue is not, as Aristotle and the scholastics said, a mean between two ends, but an extremity itself” (46).

Peter Ramus

Many Puritans considered him as dying “equally for the cause of logic and of Christ” (Miller 117). Missionaries would translate Ramus and condense him down so the Native Americans could read him alongside the Bible.

Aristotelian systems divided the whole of logic into three parts: simple terms, proposition, and discourse (122ff). A simple term contains the predicable.  The key is that its logic didn’t focus on method so much as learning the predicables.

To Ramus most of this was unnecessary memory work and didn’t actually train the student to use systems and methods. By focusing more on method than memorizing predicables, a Ramist was able to show how the terms are interconnected, something Aristotelians could not always do.

Logic is divided into invention and judgment.  “Invention is the part in which are arranged individual terms, the concepts, the arguments or the reasons, with which discourses are constructed; in judgment are contained the methods for putting arguments together”(128).

Arguments can be either artificial or inartificial.  An artificial argument is the facts as they are observable (e.g., fire causes heat).   The argument is embedded in the thing itself. An inartificial argument is one whose cause is not immediately apparent.

The most important point is that the syllogism serves the axiom, not the other way around. This removes the tendency, probably common among scholastics, to reduce everything to syllogisms.  In other words, “judgment is made immediately from axiom, mediately from syllogism” (135).

Ramus went even further.  He simplified the syllogism “into two modes, which he called the simple and composite” (136). A simple syllogism is one of the standard three figures.  A composite is something like a hypothetical or disjunctive syllogism.  Whereas Aristotle emphasized the square of opposition, Ramus introduced the opposition in a catalog of arguments.

Ames: “Contradiction in the composite syllogism always ought to divide the true from the false” (138).

“Method proceeds from universals to singulars.”

Miller suggests that the division between Aristotelians and Ramists is like the one between nominalists and realists, with the former seeing logic as a product of the mind (146).

Invention: an act of faculty intelligence performed according to the law of truth.

Ramism ran headlong into a problem: how can one really assert the identity between arguments and things (155)?  They denied that concepts were merely mental and subjective, which would seem to be nominalism.  Both the medieval nominalists and the Puritans (at least as Miller reads them) believed in an almighty, albeit arbitrary God. By putting rationality in the nature of things, Ramus allowed the Puritans a God without the chaos.

Ames illustrated how art (i.e., the rule of making and governing things to their ends) moves from God to man: the mind of God → enacted by God → clothed with objects and forms → extracted from objects by the human mind.

While he was a Ramist, much of William Ames’ theology is quite Thomist.  He asserted divine ideas or “platformes” in the mind of God.  The idea of a thing preexists in the mind of God. Especially as relates to “art,” these divine ideas are the radii of divine wisdom (167).

“Affections” are “the instruments of the will as it embraces or refuses a thing” (253).

Ramus didn’t so much as attack Aristotle on rhetoric; he simply got rid of the unnecessary parts.  Ramus’s students, especially ministers of the Word, saw that forcing a sermon to fit the grid of “praecisio, significatio, extenuatiom digressio, progressio, regressio, iteratio, dubiatio” was useless, if not actually impossible (315).  Ramus argued that the logical form (which the student would have already covered in the dialectic) could carry the weight of the “rhetorical” aspect.  Ramus said a student was better off imitating Cicero than trying to reproduce an Aristotelian manual.

This view on rhetoric led quite naturally to the “plain style” of Puritan preaching.  By plain style they didn’t mean “ignorant.”  They meant setting forth the “reasons” and “use” of a text.

The Covenant of Grace

Here is where Miller gets in trouble.  He writes, “Accordingly, between 1600 and 1650, English Puritans were compelled, in order to preserve the truths already known, to add to their theology at least one that hitherto had not already been known, or at least not emphasized, the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace” (366). This statement is false on every level.

Maybe he isn’t saying that, though. A few pages later, he mentions that the covenant of grace was in earlier Reformers.  What he suggests, I think, is that the Covenant of Grace took on a new practicality among the New England Puritans who also happened to be Ramist, Federalist, and Congregationalist all at once (374).

The problem is not that Miller hasn’t read the sources.  I dare say few have read New England Puritanism as intensely as he did.  He limits his vision, though.  He is completely aware of any developments/origins of covenant theology outside of North America and some aspects of Perkins and Ames.


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