Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The private memoirs and confessions of a justified blogger - also, James Hogg's novel of a related title

So I distinctly remember asking the same question in two different college classes, and getting the same answer.  In one class we were discussing the settlement of New England, and in the other Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Puritans and related groups, I was told, believed in predestination.  Salvation and damnation were unrelated to worldly acts, good or evil.  God had already decided who was going where after death.

Clear enough, I thought.  But then why not sin, sin, and sin some more?  I acknowledged some possible reasons – doubt, for example, fear that the rules are not as clear as they look.  But let’s say a person knew, just knew, that he was saved, or knew that he was damned?  Was there any constraint on his behavior?

The same answer, twice:  The Puritans just didn’t think that way.  A little glib, I thought, and especially ridiculous in the context of Weber.  Calvinists respond more forcefully to economic incentives than anyone else, but do not respond at all to clear incentives embedded in their own beliefs.  Anyway, my question wasn’t about “the Puritans,” but about some Puritans.  Even one.  I didn’t know it, but I was asking about Robert Wringhim, the sinner in the title of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824).

Bibliographing Nicole is writing about Hogg’s wild, odd novel as her Scotch Challenge book, so I recommend that the interested reader start here.

Summary version:  Robert knows that he is saved, and goes on a rampage.  He sins to the extent he does because he is under the influence of the devil, or a psychopath, or both.  He still has a conscience, though, and still has doubts, which is why he decides to write up, and even publish, this story.  “Justified” means elect, but Robert is also justifying his sins in the more usual way, deflecting blame.  The devil made him do it, even if he is that devil.  Hogg never lets the reader settle on a solution.

The truth of the novel is actually more unstable than it seems, a topic for the future, perhaps.  One of us should write about that.  And the Brocken Spectre, who’s going to write about the Brocken Spectre?

The most important point to make about the novel, and I’ve taken care of that here, is that I was right and those two professors were wrong.


  1. If you're chosen by God, then the natural and proper response to such justification is a life of thankfulness and virtue (also only possible through God's help.) The elect live pure lives because they're set apart. Nothing to stop them not doing so, of course, if they have an unnatural response to grace, but the natural and usual response would be purity. That's one large element of the Puritan/ Calvinist/ Lutheran answer.

  2. I wrote about De Quincey and the Brocken here:


    That's the best I can do, about the Brocken, at least.

  3. Suspiria de Profundis - ah, that's the one that was eating at me, that I was just on the edge of remembering. Thanks so much. I'll note here that De Quincey wrote that 20 years after Hogg's novel.

    Any discussion of theology on my part will be based on little more than ignorance. But I am easily taught, so think of this as helping me out. Given that, Jenny: that nothing stops the sinner, and that the sinner suffers no consequences - that was my question, exactly. It seems to have been Hogg's, as well. Whether a particular response is natural or not - I don't know what that means - and whether it's usual - that sounds like an empirical question.

  4. But then why not sin, sin, and sin some more?

    I see this as equally problematic for other types of Christianity, at least for other types of Protestantism. Even minus the predestination, can't you just sin, sin, sin some more, and then repent?

    I'm not crazy about the total shedding of personal responsibility that predestination implies, but on the other hand I have always had a very soft spot for Calvinism. It's just so logical—omnipotent god-->determinism. I could be a Calvinist myself—just one fated never to believe. Rather elegant.

  5. Great post and comments! I have an award for you at my blog (http://bibliophiliac-bibliophiliac.blogspot.com)

  6. Natural from the point of view of a nature created by God, I mean, of course. And therefore usual. Not populated normally by sociopaths who wouldn't be grateful for grace, and so forth.

    The sinner doesn't "suffer no consequences." The sinner suffers the consequences of sin: poverty, disease, unhappiness, worse. Just not damnation. Is the idea.

  7. Jenny - thanks, that's helpful. I don't want to brag about my understanding of all this, though. (For example: aren't poverty, disease, and unhappiness consequences of life?) You've also helped remind me that what caught my attention here was not doctrine, but in psychology. Given the doctrine, whatever it is, what do people actually do? No doctrine is psychologically complete - meaning, not everyone responds the same way. So then we can start telling stories.

    That's what Hogg is writing about. I was unimaginative enough to only picture the man convinced of his damnation, sinning more and more, ending in despair. Hogg - and this is the brilliant stroke - traces the path for one of the elect and also ends with despair.

    Nicole - I agree, many doctrines, taken legalistically, share some of the same curious features, although they don't all have this possibility of certainty. I'm not convinced that Calvinism is particularly logical - more logical along certain paths, but then new snares appear. Where do Robert's doubts come from in the novel? Does he ever doubt that he's elect? He seems to always doubt the doctrine instead. Or am I misremembering?

    biblophiliac - uh, thanks!

  8. Okay, now some of my thoughts are coalescing. Yay!

    Where do Robert's doubts come from in the novel? Does he ever doubt that he's elect? He seems to always doubt the doctrine instead.

    Yes, but he always doubts the specific doctrine that is "heretical" and which the devil convinces him of; he doesn't doubt the existence of the elect in general. But more importantly, you are right, he never doubts that he is elect—information he got from the elder Wringhim, whom Robert considers divine but whom we know to be otherwise.

    So I think one thing here is that you can only get away with all this business if you know you are elect. Wringhim thinks he knows, but according to the more usual tests (you shall know them by their fruits &tc.) he fails (note that tests like that throw in some circular reasoning to solve some of the problems you raise).

    Anyway, back to the logic thing. You'll note that Wringhim has a thing for logic from the very beginning, when he shows up his mom—who argues only from preestablished doctrine—about "ineffectual calling," something he's deduced from the existence of "effectual calling." Blanchard's speech to Robert, among other things I'm not remembering specifically, gave me to believe that part of the message is: Calvinism in particular and religion in general are very vulnerable to too much logicking, which will end you up with the devil.

  9. And it's the logic-chopping of the fanatics that the editor openly mocks - arguments about the eight or twelve different kinds of faith.

    You're right, one thrust of the novel is that logic, in religion, is Satanic. I'd better watch my step.

  10. No one is going to mistake the bad guy in Hogg's novel for a good guy. The book is just a reinforcement, mistakenly so by the Author, of the proof that the Elect are recognized by their fruit. Rotten produce is easy to recognize, it only takes a small sniff. Hogg on the other hand thinks the reader must be pasted with overly ripened tomatoes. God pre-ordained a place for Hogg's bad guys. It just does not happen to be Heaven.

  11. Mistakenly so by the Author! Good one!