Your RDA of Irony

The Joys of Misery (and the embarrassment of evolution)

July 10, 1509:  John Calvin Begins Denouncing the World

This is an awkward day in Heaven.  God help the Angel so tactless as to wish John Calvin a Happy Birthday.  The Protestant Reformer does not  mind being over 500 years old; on the contrary, decrepitude becomes him.  No, he just finds that the adjective “happy” is an accusation, the insinuation of a human pleasure. However, Reverend Calvin might appreciate a cake with 500 lit candles because that would remind him of the fires of Hell that only God’s arbitrary mercy spared him.

You have to wonder:  this curmudgeon was preferable to syphilitic Popes?  Certainly not at a dinner party or as a friend on Facebook, but something in the Manic-Repressive did have a certain appeal.  He could be considered the gentile Ayn Rand.  When you are miserable, you are holy; and you are doing God’s Will by making everyone else miserable, too.  Furthermore, Calvin could also be regarded as the gentile Milton Friedman; if you are making money, it must be God’s Will.  So, if you regard bad manners and greed as sacraments, then Calvin has a theology for you.

The Dutch adhered to the greed,  the Presbyterians of Scotland worshipped the misery, and the Puritans of England embraced both.  Unfortunately, this leaves us with an ironic fact of evolution.  The dour, repressive John Calvin is the Godfather of Liberals. 

Liberals were not always the kindly if patronizing, ineffectual, open-minded to the point of chaotic, “secular humanists” that you know and love. No, in the beginning, liberals were grim, ruthless bigots. In the 17th century, Fox News actually would have been right: these liberals really did have a war against Christmas. 

Yes, just as Creationists deny the family resemblance to Neanderthals, liberals seem loathe to admit their descent from the Calvinists.  The Puritans are the antithesis of modern liberal values. They were miserable, dogmatic misanthropes, regarding all but themselves as the appetizers of Satan.  When they were in power, under Cromwell, they suppressed cards, dance, theater, even the celebration of Christmas. Any hint of color was suspiciously Catholic. (The Puritans did permit beer, cider and ale, but those beverages were more sanitary than 17th century water.).

However, their misanthropism had an egalitarian character; they hated everyone equally. The monarchy was not beyond their censure; indeed, they deeply resented that their taxes should subsidize the royal pleasures. They would have restricted Elizabeth I to one good dress (plain black silk) and two or three frocks. Yet, these dour curmudgeons were the first to realize that Parliament offered them a weekday pulpit to denounce the vices and faults of England. Their numbers in Parliament grew over time, reflecting the middle class alienation from the monarchy. They were a handful of cantankerous pennypinchers in the reign of Elizabeth. They were the vociferous minority that attacked the incompetence of James I. They were the militant core of the majority that resisted the intimidation of Charles I. And they were the vanguard of the triumphant army that established the supremacy of Parliament over the monarchy.

Once in power, the Puritans succeeded in making England miserable, but England was neither sanctified nor grateful for the experience. Indeed, after a decade of Cromwell, Puritanism had lost its Calvinist charisma for the middle class. England longed for pageantry and syphilis; and Charles II would offer both. If, however, the Puritans now receded from political domination, they had left one legacy that the Restoration could never undo. Parliament was the supreme institution of the land; and the monarch served at its sufferance.

As for the Puritans, power–however shortlived–had proved both corrupting and enlightening. They had liked dominance and, in hope of regaining it, they realized that politics was more useful than dogma. They did not immediately or completely forsake their cherished prejudices; they still hated Catholics and distrusted the Stuarts. However, they shed their repressive theocratic personality, and reinvented Calvinism into a self-improvement, assertiveness training. They became the champions of a rising–secular–middle class struggling against the hereditary rule of upper-class twits. The new and improved faction needed a more appealing name than Puritan. In hindsight, Whig wasn’t a great choice but it did escape that dour Calvinist stigma.

New name, new image. True, over the next two hundred years, there was an occasional lapse from those lurking, recessive genes: William Gladstone was creepy enough to be a Puritan. Nonetheless, the modern liberal would gladly claim his Whig descent from John Locke, Robert Walpole, William Pitt and their American kinsmen (Franklin, Jefferson and the rest). But one cannot claim that the modern liberal sprang forth fully developed from the mind of John Locke. Whether we like it or not, the family tree includes John Calvin.

Of course, the fact would make Calvin miserable, but isn’t that what he would want?

  1. Eugene Finerman says:

    p.s. From the archives, more on the endearing John Calvin:


  2. Michele says:

    Reminds me of a favorite quote:

    “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
    — H.L. Mencken

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