Thursday, July 31, 2008


I'm in the midst of Sacvan Bercovitch's American Studies classic, "The Puritan Origins of the American Self," and I was struck by one of Bercovitch's ideas. He suggests that the Puritans sense of self was a "self civil war," which he renames "Auto-Machia," because "it evokes both modern autonomy and medieval psychomania" (19). He then reprints a poem wrtten by George Goodwin in the early 17th century:

I sing my SELF; my Civil Warrs within;
The Victories I howrely lose and win;
The dayly Duel, the continuall Stride,
The Warr that ends not, till I end my life.
And yet, not Mine alone, not onely Mine,
But every-One's that under th' honor'd Signe
Of Christ his Standard, shal his Name enroule,
With holy Vowes of Body and of Soul.

What strikes me is the presence of what one might recognize as characteristics of modern angst (daily duel, endless strife) within a Puritan explanatory context: the coming of a final Judgement, the "signe of Christ." It makes one wonder... which comes first? The explanatory context or the state of mind that is described? Of course it's a chicken and egg question, but interesting in the context of the development of the idea of the autonomous self, which Bercovitch credits (partially) to the Humanists.


  1. Hi: Nice post. It is a great quote. My idle response is drawn from the lit on the doctrine of election/assurance in the literary tradition (Shakespeare). There are fine books by Martha Rozett, John S. Wilks, and Robert G. Hunter that focus on the effects that the unintelligibility of God's will/justice has on the interiority of dramatic characters in Shakespeare and other writers. The most sensible scholarly position seems to me to be Hunter's, but even his is too strong: the self-war that you see most clearly in Shakespeare's Richard III (which I am writing about) has divine unintelligibility as a necessary but not a sufficient condition. These books are talking about Calvinism, but you could find the same question repeated in the context of the Hebrew Bible's god. I suppose the fuller or fullest account would have to reference the point of departure of Calvin's Institutes: why does their phenomenological point of departure consist in a feeling of loss/need for God? Here, you may find useful the many accounts of why modernity is the way it is. Michael Gillespie's nominalists, Jerome Schneewind's voluntarists, Blumenberg's modernity as defensible self-assertion, plus specialist accounts (Ralph Hancock's Calvin). Or maybe not! Those accounts suggest but do not close the books on the reason for medieval psychomachia (absence of intellectualism/natural law and its replacement by voluntarism/nominalism). Nor are they probably quite correct on whether this is characteristically "modern," insofar as modernity seems to be founded in scientistic atheism.
    Sorry, but since I am responding to your post so belatedly, I am writing without bothering to provide references, or to structure my reply more clearly.

  2. Bercovich’s is a marvelous book. (I found your post while seeking definitions of psycho- and auto-machia.) It feels as if the foundational Puritanism he labors to describe is simultaneously the American congenital disorder AND a way out of the impasse of our obsession with the care and feeding of the Self. We wish to “express” our selves in all things. Few of us pause over the question of whether or not our own personal particular self is worthy of expression. An unattributed quote from an earlier page: “mankind (is, to the Puritan,) ‘accursed, poisonous, ruinating, dismall, Woefull, Miserable, and forlorn, Execrable beyond the relief of all Created help whatsoever.’” Looking at what whe have placed at the apex of our political order one can only think “ain’t it the truth...ain’t it the truth.”