Wednesday, October 05, 2005

1842: William B. Greene at 22

William Batchelder Greene's first major work was an essay titled "First Principles," which appeared in the transcendentalist periodical The Dial, in January 1842. Greene was, at the time, just starting his exploration of theology. His martial poem, Song of Espousal, had been written only two years before, while he was serving in Florida during the Second Seminole War. Still only 22, Greene was going through some rapid changes in his life. His religious conversion was little more than a year before, and his introduction into transcendentalist circles, in part through the mediation of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, was even more recent. Around this time, after consulting with Ralph Waldo Emerson, he entered the Baptist Theological Seminary at Newton, on special exploratory student status. He fairly quickly convinced himself that he was a Unitarian, and was off to Harvard, where he was admitted as a senior. By late 1845, he was installed at a church in West Brookfield, Massachusetts.

In 1843, Greene would expand the ideas in "First Principles" into the much more elaborate Doctrine of Life: With Some of Its Theological Applications. By that time, Orestes Brownson's Mediatorial Life of Jesus had been published--and that essay, with its unique theology and its elements of French socialist philosophy, that would have a profound influence on Greene's development.

Here's a taste of "First Principles:"


THE stream flows between its banks, according to Love. The planets sustain and restrain themselves, in their courses, by this same principle. All nature governs itself by Love.

By this I understand that each created thing, is gifted to act, as though it knew the properties, and ends to be attained which belong to each of the others; and that each one so guides itself as not to interfere with, or restrain, the workings of another; except when a clashing of properties takes place, and then, a just and equitable compromise is immediately effected.

This regard to the peculiarities, and constructions of each other, appears to be an application of the principle of justice.

The sentence, "All nature governs itself by Love," implies a power--the Power of Love. But this is not always perceived.


Looking out upon nature, we find all things moving, and revolving according to some apparently everlasting and unchanging laws, of which we have, as yet, obtained no knowledge, save that of their mere existence.

Immediately we sum up all the changes of the seasons; the summer with its overpowering heat; the winter with its intense cold; the movement of the winds and the waves; the growth of the trees; the revolutions of the sun, and the moon, and the stars; and then we turn our eyes inward, and perceive in our own souls, that we decide concerning the performance of any action, according as the motive for, is stronger or weaker than the motive against; and because we have seen all this, we say:

There are in nature two classes of things: things which are governed, and things which govern. The things which are governed are matter and spirit. The things which govern, are the laws of matter and the laws of spirit. Then we sum up all the laws which we know, and find that they may be included in the first thought of justice or love. But the view is changed; we now perceive the element of Activity, or Power. Power (or activity) I call will, (not free will.)As in the word Love, Power (or activity) is implied, so in the word Power, Freedom is implied. But this is not always perceived.


There is a chain of causes and effects, which proceeds from the eternity of the past and passes, link by link, through our little dominion of time, thence stretching onward, till it is lost in the dim eternity to come. The description of this chain, is the history of the universe.

When we have performed an action, it is no longer ours, it belongs to nature. As soon as an action goes forth, it gives birth to another action, which last gives birth to still another, and so on through all eternity. The little bustle and noise, which we have made, appears small, beside the motion of the rest of the universe; but that little bustle and noise will have their precise effect, and this effect will continue to produce and reproduce itself forever. All that has been done before my time, has left effects, to serve me as motives. All that I do, and all that nature does in my time, will serve as motives to those who come after me. All nature has been at work from the beginning of time, until this day, to produce me, and my character.

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