The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XXII. Divines and Moralists, 1783–1860

§ 15. Mark Hopkins

Mark Hopkins, like Beecher, came of tough-minded stock in a tough-minded region. He was the grandson of Mark, one of three younger brothers who were reared by the benevolent Samuel Hopkins. He was born at Stockbridge, graduated in 1824 at Williams College, and spent the next two years there as tutor. In 1829 he took a degree in medicine at the Berkshire Medical College in Pittsfield, but in 1830 returned to Williamstown as Professor of Moral Philosophy and Rhetoric. Though licensed in 1833, he did not accept a pulpit, but in 1836 became President of Williams College, where he did main service until his resignation in 1872. He remained at Williamstown as President Emeritus, and as a general counsellor to the college and to the very wide community of his pupils.

The influence to which they testify is accounted for not only by his strong, gentle, and sympathetic personality, but also by his mastery of those pregnant generalizations which interest growing minds. He was from first to last a man of ideas. It would be too much to expect that among so many ideas even the majority should be original, and in point of fact Hopkins derived nearly all from his Calvinistic tradition and from his reading. His works refer explicitly to an exceedingly large number of authors. But the success with which, as a teacher, he caused his pupils to wheel his ideas into action, is surely originality enough. Those ideas, if not themselves a liberal education, gave to the education of hundreds its coherence, articulation, and aim. The winged word of his pupil James A. Garfield, variously reported, asserts that the essence of a college is a student at one end of a log and Mark Hopkins at the other.

Literary quality was only a by-product of a mind thus primarily engaged in forming character. Hopkins’s prose is exceedingly uneven. Probably nothing in it was obscure when he spoke it aloud with his own significant intonations; but as a text for the eye it abounds in pitfalls. Yet he so reiterated, developed, illustrated, and enforced his ideas as to produce a total effect of lucidity. He has moments, too, of eloquence and charm.

From the Edwardean tradition Hopkins received the concept of universal benevolence, the dogmatic side of which interested him, however, much less than its usefulness as a basis of ethics. From his very early essay on The Connection between Taste and Morals down to his latest volume on The Scriptural Idea of Man, he so used it. In his mind it coincided fruitfully with the Aristotelian notion of a scale of things in which each lower member is the condition of a higher; the State, for instance, in which the best life for the citizen is conditioned upon the existence of slaves. Hopkins combined these or kindred ideas into a scale of forces and beings each member of which had a worth higher than that of the one upon which it was conditioned. Thus he established at once a series of ethical values and a series of physical phenomena, each built upon all the preceding and all leading up to the highest, which took up all the lower, and benevolence toward which was the basis of morals. As early as 1857 Hopkins’s baccalaureate sermon, The Higher and the Lower Good, explained gravity as conditioning cohesion, cohesion as conditioning chemical affinity, and so on up through regularity of form, organic life, sensitive life, rational life, and moral life. Thenceforward this conception reappeared in all his more important works. Essential to its working also was the assumption that each stage was lifted into the next higher stage by the addition of some external force. It will be observed that this gave Hopkins a full-fledged evolutionary process, worked, however, not from within but from without, by means of accessions of matter and force effected by an external artificer. It was this last phase of his theory that gradually drew to itself the chief emphasis and the most important functions of the whole, and became in Hopkins’s hands his great instrument of liberation.

To Hopkins’s thinking, the evolutionary philosophy threatened the destruction of personality, the personality of God and of man, both of whom seemed about to be swallowed up in a mechanistic nature. Hopkins has no illusions on the subject. Charm she never so wisely, Nature cannot persuade him of her virtue. She is not, except in some very early Platonistic effusions of his, the symbol of a divine moral order, but is rather a machine grinding out uniform cycles under mechanical necessity, and making no answer to the human demand for purpose and freedom. These elements must be supplied from without; and it is a detached Deity who supplies them.

The germ of this portion of Hopkins’s system appears in one of his earliest published works, that entitled On the Argument from Nature for the Divine Existence (1833), a review of Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise on Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology. Here Hopkins already discredits the “argument from design” and finds evidence of the existence of God much less in nature than in man. Nature, though full of “contrivance,” is often irrational and neither wise nor good; only in man is there found a glimmering of wisdom and goodness, only there a moral valuation,—which must be the effect of a cause not different in kind, and hence of the Deity. This argument, too, runs throughout Hopkins’s system, parallel with his use of the scale of conditioning and conditioned; so that when he beholds the menace of the evolutionary philosophy, he has his weapons ready.

Tyndall’s Belfast Address (1874), with its assertion of the complete immanence of all the developing forces within matter itself, realized Hopkins’s worst fears; and thenceforth he held evolutionism to this its extreme logic. With a flexibility that was little short of marvellous in one well past his threescore years and ten and confronted by a new and complex hypothesis, he seized at once the fundamental issue between evolutionism and Christianity. This, he saw, was essentially the old issue of immanence against transcendence. Many a younger mind even now fails to grasp this ultimate implication as Hopkins grasped it the moment Tyndall pointed it out; many a Christian even now thinks himself a thorough-going evolutionist when he believes that a detached God created the universe and left it thenceforth to evolve. Hopkins perceived and turned to account with much acumen these same intellectual compromises, futilities, and divisions within the camp of the evolutionists themselves. Spencer, with his utterly detached transcendent Absolute; Fiske, with his old argument from nature to his new unknowable power distinct from matter; and, Hopkins might have added, Wallace, with his several special creations of “higher faculties,” one every little while;—these, clearly enough, not only were divided among themselves, but were not carrying the evolutionary argument “whithersoever it led.” They were only clouding the issue. All such compromises he refused, and with an intellectual honesty and courage even more admirable than his flexibility, pushed the question to its ultimate form and squarely faced it there. About each professor of evolution he asks, in effect: “Does he, or does he not, say that this power is inherent in matter? If he does, he is properly an evolutionist. If he does not, … but says that the results are due to the action of a being … that is separable from matter and uses it, then he is not properly an evolutionist.” So facing the question, Hopkins had no need of the Bishop of Oxford’s weapons. For at least a generation his own mind, as if anticipating the struggle to come, had been forging its sword.

Hopkins, then, uncompromisingly groups together evolutionism, with its mechanistic nature, its continuity, uniformity, necessity, law, monism, immanence, and tendency to pantheism, over against a scale of being that rises into personality, with its freedom, its choice of ends, its discontinuity, its movement per saltum, its realism as to species, its supernatural man, and its transcendent Deity. The sum of God’s attributes, indeed, is that he is a person; and for Hopkins religion is faith in a person. This order of ideas, suggested as early as the Williams College Semicentennial Address of 1843, grows stronger and stronger in the series of his works; with deepening earnestness he declares that, deprived of personality and of the scale of moral values conditioned by it, the world will go forever circling through mechanical revolutions, but that progress is impossible.

It is a matter for serious inquiry whether the future is not with him. The world has of course moved beyond a denial of the facts of evolution; but it may have to admit that from the accepted and undeniable facts it has been drawing the falsest inferences. The romantic “return to Nature” has led man into the suicidal fallacy that he ought to imitate her in the conduct of his own affairs, and that because he has been evolved by natural selection he must continue its wild work. A reaction against these romatic horrors is now in sight. Many are feeling that romanticism, having given us its best, has had its day; and that “as the Nineteenth Century put man into nature, so it will be the business of the Twentieth to take him out.” If man shall indeed acknowledge that he has been following the law for thing rather than the law for man, if he shall understand how it was by following nature’s senseless competitive ways, instead of subjecting his self-assertiveness to man’s ethical scale, that he betrayed his race to mutual slaughter, and how it was a pseudo-scientific philosophy that brought him to this doloroso passo, he will turn from his ghastly naturalism to a controlling humanism such as has never yet been realized.