“aiming to save mankind through a radiant display of exemplary living that would cure the world of its ills”

The opening paragraphs of Christopher Bollas’ “Meaning and Melancholia: Life in The Age of Bewilderment””:

In Of Plymouth Plantation Governor Bradford (who arrived on the
Mayflower) confronted the aftermath of a disturbing court case in which the plaintiff, Thomas Granger, was indicted for serial bestiality. At the trial various animals were brought into the room and he had to identify those who with whom he had committed acts “of a foul nature” and those that were innocent..
Granger was found guilty and executed in September 1642. “A very sad
spectacle it was” writes Bradford because “for first the mare and then the cow and
the rest of the lesser cattle were killed before his face, according to the law, Leviticus
xx.15; and then he himself was executed.” The animals were buried in a large pit, Granger in a grave

In a chapter entitled “Wickedness breaks forth”, Bradford tries to understand why men of faith could commit such acts. He considers that “profane people” might have been mixed in with the migrants, and he suggests a few other possible reasons, but he also turns to a psychological analysis of why God-fearing people might break down and commit crimes.

He writes:

Another reason may be, that it may be in this case
as it is with waters when their streams are stopped
or dammed up. When they get passage they flow with
more violence and make more noise and disturbance
than when they are suffered to run quietly in their own
channels; so wickedness being here more stopped by strict
laws (352)
He concludes that when people are forbidden to “run in a common road of liberty” evil “searches everywhere and at last breaks out where it gets vent.” (352)

Bradford was clearly shaken by this outbreak of abberant behaviour among his fellow Puritans. Evil belonged in Europe; it was meant to have been left behind. How could it have followed them here?

Strikingly, he does not put human failure entirely down to Satan. He could have blamed the Europeans, pointed a finger at the Native American Indians or cited environmental hardships (the voyage, the winter weather) But he did not. Instead he followed the Puritan tradition of looking into the self, He searched his soul and emerged with a dawning recognition that there was something endemic to human psychology that would make the idealism of an extreme, faith-driven government impossible to fulfill.

In other words, he did something to which his “fellow Americans” of the twenty-first century seem averse: he wondered what was wrong with human nature.

Puritan mentality was predicated on an idealized self, aiming to save mankind through a radiant display of exemplary living that would cure the world of its ills. The combination of grandiosity and self-idealization in turn fostered a violent innocence; in order to hold its position as the beacon of hope, the community itself had to be pure – the exemplary life was the fundamental weapon against the forces of evil. The zealousness of the believers derived from this position, and no doubt many movements begin with a similar spirit of self-anointed grandiosity . It is, however, an impossible burden and it comes with a price – there is nowhere to go but down.

Bollas goes on to discuss how the Puritan axiom of sanctimonious rectitude “was transmitted through time without individuals being, personally, necessarily given to sanctimony” A ethos reminiscent of the Donatist heresy – the idea that the function of the clergy was inextricable from their personal virtue – which proves sturdily influential today.

A while back I read Dylan Evans’ The Utopia Experiment, recounting his farcical attempts to create a survivalist commune (untouched by a religious / New Age type stuff), motivated by fear of global environmental collapse, in Scotland. Weekly shopping trips to Tesco somewhat undermined the survivalist ethos. Evans is thought provoking on the near-delight he began to take in contemplating environmental catastrophe, and the relish of the unjust being punished and the just elevating themselves via a “radiant display of exemplary living.” Online shamers are even more radiant. Governor Bradford, thou shoudst be living at this hour.

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