Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) aspired to write epic poetry worthy of a great empire. At Yale College, he and his fellow “Connecticut Wits” intended, in historian Henry May’s words, “to provide America and New England with a national literature, and in doing so to show the world that republicans were capable of wielding a correct and elevated style.” There was reason for doubt. Proponents in Europe of what became known as the “degeneracy theory” denied that the New World could ever produce an artist or author or academic of the first rank, a prejudice that stung Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and their generation. Europe’s critical reception of the Wits’ most earnest and ambitious attempts at eloquence also gave little hope that much good could come from America’s provincialism and old-fashioned literary taste. Still, Dwight was at the forefront of this work of the imagination. His orations, sermons, and poems in the last third of the eighteenth century—during the critical years of the nation’s founding—reveal a framework of thought that situated America as the endpoint toward which all prior history had been tending. Indeed, Dwight’s presuppositions conform closely to the eighteenth-century philosophy of history that Eric Voegelin mapped out in his book From Enlightenment to Revolution, including especially the new doctrine of grace Voegelin called the “authoritative present.”
Voegelin turned to the eighteenth-century French philosophe D’Alembert to piece together the internal logic of the authoritative present. In the preface to the first volume of the Encyclopedie (1751), D’Alembert constructed a selective genealogy of humanity’s intellectual progress. The weight of factual evidence, as amassed in the Encyclopedie, was supposed to prove that man’s present enlightenment surpassed every prior epoch. D’Alembert arranged this evidence into an intramundane story of linear progress. This thread of progress served as a substitute for an authentic transcendence and for the Classical and Christian anthropology that had once situated man within that transcendent order. Progress’s preoccupation with power over nature and the accumulation of knowledge useful to that end displaced the bios theoretikos and destroyed the practice of contemplative history suited to that larger definition of man’s nature and his place in the universe. Enlightenment utilitarianism placed a premium on Baconian transformation of nature and reduced a now truncated man to his material needs, denying him any telos higher or larger than mastery over nature.
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