The Egoism of Jonathan Edwards

Essay by sflam August 2005

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As a preacher, revivalist, philosopher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards echoes through the history of America as the foremost Christian thinker of the 18th century. Reported as "the only intellectual, modern revivalist of the Church" by the Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Geisler, 209), Edwards remains a pivotal piece of Christian America. Often connected with the strong Puritanical restraints that reflected the late colonial period of America, Edwards ethical philosophy is branded with this stereotype, not allowed to fully reveal the preacher's thoughts. This paper examines the ethics of Jonathan Edwards compared to the ethic of egoism first outlined by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan. Comparing advocates and opponents of an Edwardian egoism, this paper reveals the similarities between the egoism of men like Hobbes and the righteous piety of Jonathan Edwards.

First, precision demands that a clarification of terms concerning egoism. In philosophy circles, two major types of egoism exist.

These types in one sense are intertwined but are essentially separate in basic claims. First, the psychological egoism is an ethic of 'must'. In its simplest terms, "psychological egoism asserts that people always acts in their own self interests." (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1) In this, no sort of pure, selfless charity exists because man always acts from a self-centered frame of reference. People cannot, by definition, act contrary to their own interests because there is no choice for them but to act egoistically. The problem inherent with psychological egoism is in attempting to prove its validity one must analyze the motives of other

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people, "turning to inward motivation."(Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1) However, one cannot successfully prove another's motive to always be egoistical, so the ethic becomes subjective losing any credibility as an impartial ethic.

Ethical egoism, in contrast, is a philosophy of 'ought.' It is not...