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Living Best in the Pursuit of Truth

Res Publica

July 2003

by Fred Bills

"Resolved, to live so at all times as I think is best in my devout frames, and when I have clearest notions of things of the gospel and another world." (Resolution 18; Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions)

At the age of nineteen, Jonathan Edwards wrote a series of resolutions that would not only affect his life, but also affect the lives of thousands of people throughout the world. Before starting out on his own, Edwards reflected on life and his devotion to Christ. He realized that he would be confronted with many situations that would challenge his beliefs, so he wrote seventy resolutions as a guide towards living a devoted, Christian life. Resolutions offers a series of profound statements that give the reader a window into the human soul and its relationship with Christ. Each one of Edwards’ resolutions has a specific meaning for a specific aspect of life. Today, a person looking for advice can still find counsel in Edwards’ statements, but the interpretation and installation can only be done on an individual basis. The eighteenth resolution stands apart from the rest due to its deep personal importance. I was forced to consider its meaning upon reading it, and later attempted to implement it as a cornerstone of my own philosophy. In this way, Edwards’ Resolutions live on to this very day, acting, as it did for him, as a guide to maintaining the Christian life.

Prior to a person using his resolves as a personal guide, it is important to have a good understanding of their meaning to Edwards. Edwards writes, "Resolved, to live so at all times as I think is best in my devout frames, and when I have clearest notions of things of the gospel and another world". The meaning of this statement can best be determined if it is separated into three parts. When he says, "Resolved," he means that he has decided this would be a constant aspect of his life. When he says, "to live so at all times as I think is best in my devout frames," he is saying that he would live according to the clear principles of Christianity established by way of argument. The important phrase in this section is, "to live as I think is best,". This statement implies that Edwards knows he is a finite being with limited knowledge, and that he can only assume that the ideas supported by the strongest argument are those that are right. When he says, "in my devout frames", it appears that he is saying clarity and reverence of mind is a necessary condition for being able to determine what the ’best’ is. When he says, "and when I have clearest notions of things of the gospel and another world," he is again talking about the importance of having Christianity as the groundwork of his philosophy. "Another world," refers to a world outside of this life, such as heaven, and "gospel" is an obvious reference to the teachings of Jesus. In summation, when Edwards wrote the eighteenth resolution, it apparently meant that he was determined to live according to the principles he had a clear understanding of and that had been established as best by way of argument using Christianity as the foundation of his philosophy.

Edwards’ meaning is very important and can be applied to many people’s lives because it provides a strong basis for following one’s own principles. It taught me a different lesson though; one that is similar to Edwards’, but not the same. Having Christianity as the basis of one’s philosophy is good in and of itself. But in today’s "politically correct" society, uttering religion and philosophy in the same sentence would probably result in being labeled a fanatic. This spurred my thinking, and caused me to try and interpret Edward’s resolution in a manner that would make it more "universally" accepted.

The lesson I discovered is not nearly as in-depth as is Edwards’, but it is still very important. The eighteenth resolution put into words an idea that should be at the heart of everyone’s philosophy; that man should do what he thinks is best according to his convictions. While this may seem like an argument for social or moral relativism, or even for the ’equality of all ideas’, it is not. There is an important part to Edwards’ statement that shows this. The idea of needing a clear understanding of something before a person is able to decide what is ’best’ is essential because many times people are easily persuaded by a faulty argument, be it a result of their emotions or whims, and blindly accept an idea before using reason to decide if it is an argument worth accepting. Having a clear understanding of a thing implies that one’s ’convictions’ cannot be something that has not been dissected and analyzed. One’s reason must be utilized in determining whether or not a thing can be accepted as true. This defeats the idea of social or moral relativism as well as the ’equality of all ideas’ argument because using reason to determine whether or not an idea is true implies that there is a truth. Whenever two arguments exist that contradict one another, they can either both be wrong or one can be right and the other wrong. But they can never both be right according to the law of contradiction.

The idea expressed when Edwards’ says, "to live as I think is best," is very important because it means that the stronger argument should be accepted as true (no reasonable man would say he thinks a weaker argument is right as opposed to a stronger argument if he clearly understood both of them). It promotes the idea of man using reason and debate as his main resources in the pursuit of truth, and that truth is what is best.

Today, true individuality is dying. At schools children are taught to be unique individuals, but are also being told that everyone and everything is equal and that to decide that something is wrong is bigotry. The ideas of ’right and wrong’ and ’truth and falsehood’ are getting thrown out the window in the process of perpetuating the idea of ’all things equal’. This teaching creates children who, although they might look different from one another, all hail to the same motto. Somewhere along the line the historical definition of equality (all men are equal as men in nature and in the eyes of God; no man has any right over another man and his life) has been replaced by the belief that all ideas have identical value. This is deeply flawed. It is killing true individuality because it is calling people from the youngest age to accept a notion uncritically. No man should be led like a dog on a leash. Instead, each person should be taught that truth does exist and can be pursued by way of reason and debate. The goal of education should be to develop people who can think for themselves and have the faculty and skill to determine what is good and right. It is a virtue which the modern world severely lacks.

While the lesson I learned from the eighteenth resolution is different from the original idea expressed by Edwards, I think he would agree that an important lesson about the pursuit of truth exists within the statement. The pursuit of truth causes one to do what one finds best. Edwards understood this and instituted it into his Christian way of life. This virtue exists throughout all of the world’s great philosophical works, and the fact that it is present in Resolutions should be no surprise. Edwards wrote Resolutions as a guide to maintaining the Christian life, and, in doing so, reflected upon an essential principle that taught himself, and continues to teach the rest of us an important lesson about life.

Fred Bills is a sophomore from Zanesville, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and minoring in History.

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