December 02, 2015
On (finally) seeing what’s right in front of you when it’s not what you expected
6 min read
WMQ author Kirsten Fischer reflects on the process that brought her to write her forthcoming essay in the July 2016 issue of the Quarterly.
Ever searched for the glasses that are sitting on your nose? If that can happen when we’re looking for something we expect to find, it can be even harder to spot the unexpected. When I began researching Elihu Palmer (1764-1806), a freethinker in the early Republic, he was known by historians for his attacks on Christianity and his support for deism as a better alternative. Palmer’s book, Principles of Nature (1801), features plenty of descriptions of a benevolent deity who created the orderly universe and never intervenes with miracles or revelations. I had no reason to doubt the historians who, beginning in the 1930s, had written about Palmer as the most outspoken campaigner for deism in the new United States. I joined the conversation by publishing an article of my own on Palmer’s “deist critique” of Christianity as a fear-mongering religion. Meanwhile, his more wildly iconoclastic ideas about the cosmos remained hidden in plain sight.
Still, I kept finding aspects of Palmer’s thinking that did not fit with the deist notion of a transcendent Creator God. Palmer spoke of a vital power within the smallest particles of matter, a divine force immanent and everywhere that causes atoms to move through their endless permutations. And he wrote about matter in motion with passionate eloquence. Instead of the tone of bone-dry rationalism that pervades much deist writing of the age, Palmer’s writing is effusively joyful. He rhapsodizes about the “life principle” in matter and about the social transformation he thought would follow the wide-spread acceptance of this cosmology.
Palmer was onto something I did not recognize and for which I had no label. I tried to meld the various aspects of his writing, with the result that Palmer came across rather incoherently as a materialist pantheist with a romance for pacifist revolution. A clear understanding eluded me, as it did the forbearing colleagues who commented on my conference papers. One person ended an especially creative riff on my paper—might one see Palmer’s legacy in the pantheist movie Avatar?—with: “but I still don’t really get it.” My problem exactly.
Only when I began to read what Palmer had studied, and traced his ideas to their sources, did I see that Palmer was promoting a vitalist cosmology. He invented none of this himself. Since the mid-eighteenth century, natural philosophers in Europe had been peering through microscopes at moving cells, hoping to identify the life force. Poets and philosophes engaged in literary and philosophical discussion of “vitalisme.” European historians have written terrific books about vitalism. By contrast, the American versions of the phenomenon—excepting the kind that viewed an immanent life force as an extension of the power of a Christian God—have gone largely unremarked.
In Palmer I had found a passionate proselytizer of a radical, philosophical, materialist sort of vitalism. Looking through vitalist glasses, figuratively speaking, I could now make sense of Palmer’s thinking. And I found that Palmer advocated some of the most heretical and also egalitarian ideas available in the new republic. Currently, deists like Paine and Jefferson appear to occupy the outermost edges of freethought in the early United States. Vitalism—once we can see it—shifts our perspectives and makes such deism look downright conservative.
It’s not always easy to see familiar objects in a new light. I worked hard to persuade one thoughtful and obviously well-read (anonymous) reviewer for the William and Mary Quarterly that I was onto something real. During the revising process I learned that recognizing the unexpected in Palmer was only the first half of my project. The second part involved helping my future readers engage in a re-vision of Palmer as well. That made the work challenging and exciting. Sometimes seeing what is right in front of us can be most rewarding of all.
Kirsten Fischer’s article, “Vitalism in America: Elihu Palmer’s Radical Religion in the Early Republic,” will appear in the July 2016 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.