Introduction: Distinguishing Hawthorne’s moral philosophy from his political criticism
Today, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter has become a staple of the high school curriculum. Hawthorne’s most retold and remembered fables are The Birthmark, The Artist of The Beautiful, and Rappucini’s Daughter. Through his stories, Hawthorne shows his great range as a writer. On one hand, his readers see him revivifying history and the past, and on the other, his stories can pass for science fiction looking into the future. However, It is little wonder that Hawthorne acquired such range as an author. Alexis De Tocqueville prophesied that democratic readership would implore the artist as writer flex a full range. Tocqueville writes,
(democratic people) like books that are procured without trouble, that are quickly read, that do not require learned research to be understood…they need lively and rapid emotions, sudden clarity, brilliant truths or errors that instantly pull them from themselves and introduce them suddenly, almost violently, into the midst of the subject”(Democracy in America, page 448).
My argument is that the tales less widely read are those which do not proffer sudden clarity and brilliant truths but nonetheless provide insight into the moral philosophy of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In order to answer the questions posed by Hawthorne regarding the polity in his most widely read works, one must consider the framework of individual morality sketched in Hawthorne’s stories in which the individual has departed from political society. Such stories illuminate the tension apparent within the American soul which regards salvation and civic duty as incommensurable; the demands of both pose the question regarding what a man should do in an age of democracy where the preservation of religious liberty is contradicted by religious intolerance or religious laxity. My aim in the following essays is to forsake Hawthorne’s tales which are more explicitly critical of Puritan society and scientific materialism, and resituate those tales most critical of the polity within the framework of his more intimate tales regarding the decisions to be made by the individual regarding the human heart. I seek further to prove that Hawthorne and Tocqueville, who write differently about America’s Puritan ancestry, understand the point of departure similarly. In writing about the Puritans they similarly critique democratic society urging that it adopt certain mores necessary for the preservation of freedom. Tocqueville and Hawthorne are complementary in that they are in agreement upon what is necessary to sustain liberty. Where Tocqueville provides advice regarding how society should embrace the individual, Hawthorne provides the mode in which the individual should properly embrace society; they come about their complementarity by considering that which is most harmful to democratic society, and what the collective and what the individual should do about it.
In considering Hawthorne’s two genres, readers may draw two criticisms that at first appear mutually exclusive. Hawthorne critiques his contemporaries as men who wish to impiously overcome their inherent frailty through science, and he concomitantly criticizes his ancestors as fanatics who harness political coercion to serve their faith. Hawthorne derails scientific materialism and transcendentalism while also dismissing his ancestors as worthy of emulation. It thus appears that he leaves his audience no stable foundation for flourishing and salvation, and nothing worthy of the commitment of man’s life. Hawthorne, however, sees in the transcendentalist, the materialist, and the Puritan, one similarity: they disregard man’s original sin and attempt to overcome it subverting God’s providence. Hawthorne attempts to moderate the influence of his contemporaries on the regime by drawing parallels between their shortcomings and that of his ancestors. He thereby details America’s own original sin as the ignorance of man’s nature as inherently flawed and limited. But in considering Hawthorne’s political philosophy through the context of his moral philosophy it becomes apparent that he urges that progress is possible only through the slow improvement of the conscience through charity and a bolstering of the human heart through community and the family. Hawthorne understands that such mores supplant the democratic desire for rapid and unchecked change with a dedication to fundamental principles that rear men of humility.
Section 1: Habits and Hearts
In 1835, Alexis De Tocqueville remarked, “Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants”; however, as Hawthorne’s career as an artist progressed, he would bare witness to the very thing that Tocqueville feared as a “shelter” for all future tyrants. Hawthorne saw the spirits of transcendentalism and scientific materialism as the direct enemy of (1) reliance on God’s will, (2) a proper understanding human nature and of liberty, and likewise (3) a respect for the human heart.
Near the middle of his career Hawthorne writes Rappaccini’s Daughter and its corrective The Artist of the Beautiful in direct response to this new tendency of the American mind to rely on scientism for progress. He later pens The Scarlet Letter detailing the project of an apparently pious people attempting to harness political coercion for the salvation of souls and the purification and subsequent transcendence of the township. All parties usurp the power ascribed to God in different ways, and all meddle with God’s creation attempting to harmonize the earthly with the heavenly.
It is often understood that Hawthorne writes The Scarlet Letter simply in rebuke of his ancestors, but that is not the whole of it. A careful reading of Hawthorne’s sketches and short stories reveals a much more complex critique present in the novel that has proved itself immortal. A more robust study of Hawthorne’s philosophy lays naked his purpose in writing The Scarlet Letter as a critique of his contemporaries and reveals his true purpose in realigning protestantism between the two extremes of the moral laxity of the present and the moral obstinance of the Puritans.
The themes that drive Hawthorne’s most widely read work can be seen in the Boston of Hawthorne’s own time. In viewing Roger Chillingworth, one sees the reckless abandon of moral limitations due to a mastery of the scientific, and one sees a striking parallel between the transcendentalist and the Puritan society who both wish to perfect man’s moral character in order to bring about heaven on earth. All parties, through their infirmity in judgment, cannot but violate the sanctity of the human heart in demanding such perfection, performing what Hawthorne takes to be the greatest sin of all.
The assumption of the proper bounds of freedom has long been the test of American politics. The question of how men may be taught to respect the rightful bounds of their freedom without the application of force by government is therefore of the utmost importance in a polity dedicated to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter he uses Puritan society to paint a backdrop that considers two forms of tyranny in Chillingworth and Puritan society, one of which Americans of his day still have to fear while the other appears to have been overcome. As a city in a free nation, the Boston of Hawthorne’s time does not institute what Aristotle would consider distributive law favoring any one religious sect. In 1780 the Congregational Church was disestablished and in 1833 state funding was suspended. Hawthorne chooses to write about a Puritan society that utilizes distributive justice and through such power neglects the punishment of the one man who uses his intellectual might to transform himself into a devil, committing the most grave of crimes by meddling with the sanctity of the human heart. Then, Hawthorne utilizes Roger Chillingworth to prove the twofold point that through harnessing the power of the mind man may transform himself into a devil and that the expansion of man’s own freedom through mastery of the scientific perhaps leads to the enslavement of the spirit. What is noteworthy is that Hawthorne critiques both ends of the spectrum: the scientific and the religious when vested with a power that is not in accord with the laws of nature restrain man’s ability to serve both the self and the collective. That said, transcendence properly understood is that which invests man with the power to know himself in terms of his nature: knowing his natural limits are therefore just as important as his ambition to overcome those limits.
Many who teach Hawthorne’s novel today fall into the pit of historicism, concluded that The Scarlet Letter is a firm critique of an overbearing religious society and Hester, in breaking down barriers is to be praised as the hero. They thus conclude that Hawthorne was dedicated to tearing down the maxims of the Puritans. However, this would be to dismiss both Hawthorne’s words regarding Hester as hero, as well as Hester’s regard for herself as hero. Hawthorne bookends his novel between a conclusion and an introduction that are of utmost importance when considering the “parable” that this story establishes. In his Custom House introduction he apologizes for any stern remarks he may place at the graves of his ancestors, and in his conclusion he renders Dimmesdale himself the parable. Dimmesdale is regarded as a parable to “express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man’s own righteousness” and that “in the view of infinite purity, we are all sinners alike”. What is most curious is that Hester, not Dimmesdale was intended to become the parable at the outset of the novel. Hester was meant to become “a walking sermon on sin”, and Dimmesdale supplants Hester to that end. But in order for Dimmesdale to become the parable that Salem needs he must defeat Chillingworth, not Puritan society itself. Puritan society can be redeemed through Dimmesdale, if only Dimmesdale acts properly. Hester exhausts her efforts attempting to upheave society itself, but Dimmesdale in finally committing himself to his own spiritual survival is able to usurp Hester’s place as protagonist. He thus renders the antagonist not society itself, but Roger Chillingworth.
Both Hawthorne and Tocqueville are particularly concerned with the heart. Hawthorne regards the sanctity or violation of the individual heart as definitive when considering one’s ability to preserve freedom, whereas Tocqueville considers the collective heart of the community as paramount to the preservation of liberty. In Democracy In America, Tocqueville defines mores as “habits of the heart”. He considers “this word (as) the whole moral and intellectual state of a people” (Democracy in America, Page 275). To Tocqueville, not only were mores habits of the heart, but also applied “to the different notions that men possess, to the various opinions that are current in their midst, and to the sum of ideas of which the habits of the mind are formed” (Democracy in America, Page 275). These habits of the heart, Tocqueville considered “one of the great general causes to which the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States can be attributed”. Tocqueville and Hawthorne both considered the heart the agent that would check the democratic mind from overturning all that was customary and overrunning all that stood as apparent barriers for the progress of equality. Both understood that the heart would need cultivation if democratic man were to submit himself to those things worthy of self-sacrifice. In The Scarlet Letter, true repentance for both Dimmesdale and Hester can only come about through sacrificing their pride. Dimmesdale must cease pretending he is doing all in his power to cleanse himself by repenting alone and holding onto his lie, and understand that only submitting himself wholly to the judgment of the city will he surrender his guilt. With Dimmesdale’s death, Hester must come to the realization that although she may resist and lash out against the society which alienates her for her sin, God’s justice is irresistible, ultimate, and forgiving.
Teachers who teach The Scarlet Letter as a tale only in rebuke of Puritan society miss the point. Although the injustices of Puritan society are definitive, the acceptance of that society is ultimate if we are to consider Hester’s end a happy one. In order for Hester to become heroine, she must accept the society that has rejected her, and work from within in order to become the prophetess who will moderate that society and overturn the unjust law that is the perceived antagonist of the story. Roger Chillingworth is a mere shadow of the law itself which agitates Hester Prynne. He violates the Reverend Dimmesdale’s heart just as civil society violates Hester’s. He acts as the parallel punishment for Dimmesdale, and Dimmesdale must accept and forgive him in order to pave the way for Hester’s ultimate acceptance and forgiveness of society.
What is most important though is that both heroes of the parable of sin and redemption accept the very thing that proliferates their suffering in order to ultimately purify their antagonists. Where Tocqueville understands that democracy in America is most stable because of the several associations that temper her citizens, he understands that what is to be most feared is the breaking of the ties that unite individuals in various groups that satisfy, guide, and moderate the American appetite to serve one’s self interest. Hawthorne refers to this connection of citizens with a similar interest when he writes of “the electric cord” that unites Pearl, Hester, and Dimmesdale. Both Hawthorne and Tocqueville understood that materialism and the scientific captivated the American mind and had the capacity to undermine these associations by making men believe that through science and knowledge they could transcend in order to become self-sufficient without relying upon others within society. However, Chillingworth’s once virtue, knowledge, is at least part of the reason he is able to undergo the transformation of man to devil. His knowledge, marred by his broken heart, allows him to do that which Dimmesdale could not. Because of the self-assurance his own intelligence provides he is convinced that he is capable of escaping all associative bonds and live with a false face to the multitude. Through his escape, his action goes unchecked by his fellow man. Because of his pain, his actions go unchecked by his conscience. At least part of the reason that civil associations are important for liberty is that they are a useful tool for checking passion.
Perhaps Hawthorne’s greatest lesson is that which is set in motion by Pearl. He unites Hester and Dimmesdale by the link that is Pearl who thus urges the Reverend to “be true”. What she means by this, is to tell Dimmesdale to live up to the compact that he signed by committing adultery with Hester Prynne. In order to do this he must be honest with himself and with society that he has partaken in a relationship that cuts against the principles of the very society of which he is considered preeminent. Hawthorne does not wish to dismiss the dedication of the Puritans to serving some good, but rather he wishes to relegate the work done by society to the realm of the several associations that comprise society itself. In free society praise and blame can only progress a people when it utilizes love and holds the heart and conscience to be sacred. Pearl is therefore able to urge Dimmesdale where the rest of the city cannot. Society, however homogenous, is a collective of several human passions and interested associations and thus cannot be counted on to urge praise and blame while respecting individual liberty. The problem with the transcendentalist authors of Hawthorne’s time mirrors the problem of Chillingworth, and embodies all of the vices of Aristocratic literature and materialist thought to which Tocqueville refers: it has the tendency to ignore the bounds of individual liberty and use its power as an excuse to assert its control where it ought not.
Transcendentalism became peculiar to America as romanticism grew stale, and its poetic expression has colored much of the way American literature is approached to this day. The expression of the idea of transcendence in this world is a peculiar expression and appeals to the American sense of self-reliance and individualism. Tocqueville understood that democratic people, and Americans particularly, conceived of man’s ability to better himself in a way much unprecedented. He writes
Although man resembles the animals in several points, one feature is peculiar to him alone: he perfects himself and they do not perfect themselves. The human species could not fail to discover this difference from the outset. The idea of perfectibility is therefore as old as the world; equality did not give birth to it, but it gives it a new character.
Puritan society, in envisioning itself a shining city upon a hill, embodies the sentiment of the indefinite perfectibility of man. The great critique drawn from Hawthorne’s famous novel is the critique of Puritan society and the severity of the punishment conferred on poor Hester. However, what many American’s miss is that the punishment of Hester Prynne as sinner is expressive of the American character itself. The peculiarity of Hester’s punishment is that it is done publicly in hope that she will become a “living sermon on sin”. Although Americans today do not prescribe distributive laws, much legislation is geared toward progressing the limitations on practical liberty that prove a bane to the people as they hope to pursue objects of their own happiness. The Puritan society of The Scarlet Letter is no different from the America of today when considering the end toward which it strives. The mastery of Hawthorne’s great work is not only that it encapsulates a period of American history that is defining of America and distant from the artist himself, but that he is able to use history to teach a perennial lesson to Americans. Unfortunately, much of that lesson perishes when the Puritan society of the novel is so far divorced from our own contemporary reality that it becomes a strawman that serves to bolster our appreciation for progress rather than a reminder that some things ought not be strived for by collective society no matter the power of the collective will. The greatest lesson that Hawthorne may teach us is an echo of Tocqueville. Tocqueville is sure to include that the severe punishments doled out by the Puritan settlers were democratically decided, and Hawthorne is sure to have the women of Puritan society urging a harsher punishment for Hester Prynne. What Hawthorne’s great novel calls into question is the tendency of democratic progress to defy the bounds of morality. This lesson that Hawthorne teaches calls into direct question the project of the naturalist to revivify the prospect of man’s transcendence. Where Tocqueville and Hawthorne both understand that habits of the heart have a way of conditioning the mind, the Transcendentalist wishes to unleash the mind for this project of bringing about heaven on earth. What is most striking about Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is its relevance as a teaching for the readers of his own time and the transcendentalist movement of which his often incorrectly considered a part.