Albert Baker: His Philosophy

By
  • Anne Holliday Webb
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Albert Baker’s essay titled “The power of the mind brought into exercise by the study of language.”

Albert Baker’s most complete statement of his philosophy is set forth in an address delivered by him at Dartmouth College in 1836 before the United Fraternity of which he was a member and past president. The address was given at a Literary Festival celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Fraternity in 1786. He chose as his subject “The Perfectibility of Human Nature,” a topic widely disputed in religious circles at that time.

Albert Baker had graduated from Dartmouth College just two years earlier, but through his indefatigable application to learning and the fruitful teaching of his liberal professors at College, he had emerged with an ordered philosophy of life. The original manuscript of this address is in the Baker Collection at Longyear Foundation, and is one of thirty-seven original essays of varying lengths in Albert Baker’s handwriting which were preserved by his brother George after Albert’s passing in 1841. Following George’s death in 1867, the manuscripts were cared for by George’s widow, Martha Rand Baker, who lived until 1909. A few years later, Mary Beecher Longyear acquired these papers by purchase, together with many Baker family letters and other documents. From these records in Longyear Foundation, much that is known of the family of Mary Baker Eddy, youngest sister of Albert Baker, has been gleaned.

Dartmouth College, founded in 1769, emerged from Eleazar Wheelock’s earlier Indian Charity School. This had come into being in Connecticut under the influence of the “Great Awakening,” a large-scale religious revival movement in America which began about 1720. Its teachings favored direct religious experience and practical results, over the theological formalities of the earlier centuries. The movement reached the common man. “By giving him a self-authenticating religious experience, it made him independent of professional ministers and church synods.”1 By 1820, a more democratic, more truly American religious feeling had largely replaced the theocratic patterns of Colonial churches. Indirectly, the “Great Awakening” and revivals led to more liberal ideas in many fields.

Albert Baker’s brilliant and receptive mind responded to the advancing thought of the time which had also received a great impetus from the diffusion of philosophical and scientific ideas, emanating largely from England. Locke and Newton were familiar names to all divinity and philosophy students. On that commemorative day at Dartmouth in 1836, Albert Baker summarized his philosophy for fellow members of the United Fraternity, which had been founded half a century earlier for the “promotion of knowledge and virtue.”

He spoke first of two views of the world. An enthusiast, who takes but a partial view of things, “is accustomed to measure the wisdom and goodness of the Deity by his own foolish desires when he spreads before him the page of history … and marks the ignorance and vice which bear down to the earth a vast majority of our race …. He is terrified, and disheartened … and while viewing the accumulated evils to which humanity is subject, is led to distrust that a Providence rules in the affairs of men.

“But to him … who has learned to judge of events, not by their appearance, but by the principle that regulates them, the picture of human life … presents nothing which excites in him either horror, or disgust. He views it as the result of necessary laws established in mercy, and with a firm reliance on that Power which formed a universe from chaos, and out of darkness called up light, he looks forward to that day when confusion shall be reduced to order, and man, disenthralled from his passions, shall rise to the destiny that awaits him.” Within the bosom of this heterogeneous, unformed mass, said Baker, “there were causes in operation which were destined to mould and fashion it to all the forms of life with which it now teems, and to that beauty and perfection which mark its every feature.”

Albert Baker’s philosophical outlook on religion was close to that of the Christian Deists of his time, who believed that divine wisdom and divine decree are revealed in nature and that map’s contact with God came through the channels of natural law. He might well have agreed with Cotton Mather, clergyman and scientific enthusiast of the seventeenth century, who was so moved by the intricate mechanism of a spider’s eye as to exclaim: “O infinite Great God, I am astonished! I am astonished!”2

Albert Baker rejected the ancient belief of a twofold power of good and evil, and acknowledged a single benevolent Deity. “When we reflect … that the whole universe is governed by a Primitive Intelligence, that the events of human life have their laws, as well as the phenomena of matter, and that it is the nature of error, like that of confusion, to destroy itself in the end, we feel the same assurance in the one case, that truth will prevail over error, as in the other, that order has, and will prevail, over confusion. This is the tendency of things, and no power on earth can resist it.”

That the world is governed by invariable general laws was a premise of Baker’s philosophy. These laws, he held, operate through inert matter; and in the lower animals, through instinct. “The beaver builds his cabin after the same manner as it did 3000 years ago,” he pointed out. But, “man was organized to freedom of action. Sovereign of the world, he is formed for reason, for humanity, for religion …. He is endowed with a will, is capable of weighing and balancing motives, and is left to determine his actions by choice, according to the consequences foreseen.

“The more thoroughly we are acquainted with the laws of nature, the more forcibly are we convinced that the Creator designed the happiness of his creatures. Brutes are governed by instinct, and enjoy all of which they are capable. It is otherwise with man. He was destined to be guided, not by instinct, but by experience, and to derive his enjoyment from a proper exercise of all his faculties. With this view he was placed in a situation in which he has everything to learn, and his happiness was made to consist in disciplining himself to virtue.”

Virtue, as used by Baker, implies value and merit. As a classical scholar, he identified himself with Socrates’ definition of virtue as wisdom; and with Plato’s as wisdom and prudence; and probably with Aristotle’s theory of “eudaemonics,” that happiness is obtained through a life of activity in accordance with reason, as discussed in a recent issue of The Christian Science Monitor.3

“Yet in all our efforts and all our strivings to reach the desired goal, our actions, though voluntary, are subject to laws as immutable as those which regulate the instinctive acts of the lower animals, or the motion of falling bodies; and the events of life, when these laws shall be understood, will be capable of as much science, and as accurate calculation, as the phenomena of matter.”

That the laws of God are fixed, and inherent in the nature of things, he held, and that obedience to these laws brings happiness, disobedience, misery. Penalties are the flaming swords which “the Deity has placed around the citadel of virtue to guard its safety, and to teach us to obey his commands, and enjoy the happiness he has provided for us.”

The miseries of the world have come about in this way, he explains; “All objects that affect us are agreeable or disagreeable; and the pain or pleasure, thus occasioned to the mind, begets in us a desire for one, and aversion to the other … The prospect of attaining some agreeable end, or avoiding one that is disagreeable, determines the desire. The desire determines the will; and will determines the external act …. Human actions are nothing but a regular series of causes and effects, within the pale of divine Government.

“Why, then, do men continue to pursue a course which so directly and inevitably leads to ruin?” he asks. His answer is direct: “Ignorance.” This it was, he said, that introduced fraud and injustice, violence and cruelty, tyranny and oppression; and that scourge of the human race, war. These have “tied man to the earth, when he was destined to soar to heaven.” In the manifest ignorance of the world, Baker was firm in his conviction that there is no obliquity of mind, “which leads us astray, that we prefer wrong to right, or that we pursue evil for evil’s sake …. Ignorance is the bane of life, and knowledge, the remedy.” Albert Baker was quick to point out that academic teaching, though needed, is not the sum of knowledge. “A smattering of Latin and Greek, or of any abstract science, will never effectually restrain men from vice. Until made sensible that virtue is to their interest they will never pursue it …. So long, then, as the intellect is obscured in ignorance man will remain blind to his interest, the dupe of folly and crime. Enlighten him, and the self-love common to every creature will prompt to the pursuit of virtue …. If a man were acquainted with all the natural sciences … master of all the languages of Babel, but were ignorant of that single truth in morals, that honesty is the best policy, there is an even chance, that he will be a knave.

“Is it possible to suppose that men would so long have groaned under the galling yoke of slavery had they known and appreciated their rights? Surely not …. The spirit of rebellion that has manifested itself in every instance where science [knowledge] has gained a footing, abundantly proves to the contrary.

“Knowledge kindled the flame of liberty; it armed the people of France in a righteous war against tyranny … but it never taught them an indiscriminate butchery of the friends and enemies of human freedom. It never taught them to destroy for the sake of destruction …. Knowing their rights, they asserted them; ignorant of the means of securing these rights, they suffered them to be betrayed. It was ignorance that warmed into being a Robespierre …. All the crimes and vices of men have arisen from an ignorance of the truth.

“What then is necessary to the universal emancipation of man but the universal dissemination of knowledge?” Baker asked in his essay on “Ignorance, the Mother of Vice.”

That all men were at the outset equal, with the same moral and intellectual faculties, was a strong conviction of his. He said, “whatever differences may now exist between them, must have been occasioned by causes within the reach of the agency of man. When these causes shall have been ascertained, and human institutions regulated accordingly, this inequality will cease to exist.”

Of differences in races he said: “to judge the capabilities of a race we must take as an example, the most perfect individual of that race. However high he may have gone, all may go. Intellectual superiority is not conferred by a miracle; it is the result of natural , causes which operate according to the laws of our being.” He recognized environment as a prime influence in determining differences among men, and next in importance, the choice of occupation, which largely molds the character of the man.

“The world is yet in its infancy,” he declared, “and if such already have been the improvements in science, and in the great economy of life, what may we not anticipate for the human race in ages to come? … By appropriating the natural agents, and applying the discoveries of science to the purposes of life, when labour shall have been properly distributed among all classes, it will not require more time for each man to earn a subsistence, than is necessary for the preservation of his health. This consummation of art will leave every man leisure to cultivate his mind, and extend the boundaries of philosophy. When such a state of things shall exist, when a whole world shall be engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, each striving to outstrip the other, who can tell the height and depth, the length and breadth, to which human reason may carry itself? … Let no one despair of the progress of the human race. It is as certain as that God rules in the armies of heaven. It is proclaimed by nature, it is proclaimed in all that we see. A day will yet come when reason shall triumph over error, when tyranny and oppression shall cease, and liberty, truth, and righteousness shall reign universal.”

Albert Baker’s philosophy was built on a concept of God’s perfect universe with self-regulating divine laws to be fulfilled through reason and obedience. Although he rejected for himself as useless the ritual and creeds of organized religion, he was a church attendant and was conscious of the place religion filled in human life. ”The world needs the expansive power of science and the restraining force of religion to give the body politic a vigorous and healthful existence. Destroy this equilibrium and you remove the pillar upon which national and individual happiness is founded …. Religion cannot destroy a people, so long as they are virtuous; nor can it save them, when they have destroyed themselves.”4

Albert Baker passed on in 1841 at the age of thirty-one, just at the beginning of a promising political career.5 His youngest sister, Mary, better known to the world as Mary Baker Eddy, Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, was twenty years of age at the time. But in the clear, logical, and compassionate mind of Albert, she had found a kinship which was to strengthen her through trying years as she sought and found God’s way to an understanding of the immanent universe of good, which Albert had but intellectually discerned.6

Notes


  1. Smith-Handy-Loetacher, American Christianity, v. 1, p. 315.
  2. Ibid., p. 376.
  3. The Christian Science Monitor, September 9, 1968, p. 8.
  4. Albert Baker papers, “The Mahometan Religion,” Longyear Museum collection.
  5. Longyear Quarterly News, Summer 1968.
  6. See Mary Baker Eddy, Miscellaneous Writings, p. 259: 23-29.

This article was originally published in the Autumn 1968 Longyear Quarterly News.

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