Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The vanity of thoughts discovered, 1638

“Wee shall finde our minds, like the peggs of an Instrument, slip betweene our fingers, as we are a winding them up, and to fall downe suddenly againe, ere we are aware of it…”

I have been edified today by Thomas Goodwin’s The vanity of thoughts discovered with their danger and cure (1638): “by thoughts, I mean those talkings of our minds with the things we know, as the Scripture calls it, Prov. 6. 22. those same parleys, interviews, chattings, the mind hath with the things let into it, with the things we fear, with the things we love.”

Goodwin was, with John Owen, one of the leading Cromwellian divines, installed as president of Magdalen College by parliament, and advising Cromwell on a settlement for the church (one that steered cautiously between established church and the new independent congregations). I suppose that he was one of Milton’s famous hireling wolves, in that he defended tithes. This little treatise is well organized, succinct, and humane. He wants, of course, our thoughts to focus on God, and in a vivid figure, he expresses his certainty that this is not the case in fallen mankind:

“But I appeal to all your experiences, if your thoughts of him be not most unsteady, and are, (that I may so compare it) as when we look upon a Star through an Optic glass, held with a palsy shaking hand: It is long ere we can bring our minds to have ken of him, to place our eyes upon him, and when we have, how do our hands shake, and so lose sight ever and anon?… In Adam and Christ no thought was misplaced, but though they were as many as the Stars, yet they marched in their courses, and kept their ranks. But ours as Meteors, dance up and down in us. And this disorder is a vanity and sin…

Goodwin has an acute sense of what our interior life really involves, and so he imagines what a transcript of our stream of consciousness or interior self-dialogue would really be like:

“as wanton Boys, when they take pens in their hands, scribble broken words that have no dependence. Thus doe our thoughts: and if you would but look over the copies thereof, which you write continually, you would find as much non-sense in your thoughts, as you find in mad men’s speeches. This madness and distemper is in the mind since the fall (though it appears not in our words, because we are wiser) that if notes were taken of our thoughts, we should find thoughts so vagrant, that we know not how they come in, nor whence they came, nor whither they would.”

He finally gets round to talking about our dreams and, worse, our day dreams, the indecent inner stagings and play-actings directed by the id:

“Fifthly, the fifth is the representing or acting over sins, in our thoughts and imaginations, personating those pleasures by imagination, which at present we enjoy not really, feigning and imagining ourselves to act those sinful practises we have not opportunity outwardly to perform: speculative wickedness Divines do call it, which to be in the power of imagination to doe; is evident to you by your dreams; when fancy plays its part most…

But corrupt and distempered affections doe cast men into such dreams in the day, and when they are awake, there are then (to borrow the Apostles expression) filthy dreams, Jude 8. that defile the flesh, even when awake: when, their lusts wanting work, their fancy erects to them a stage, and they set their imaginations and thoughts a work to entertain their filthy and impure desires, with shows and plays of their own making, and so reason and the intention of their minds, sit as spectators all the while to view with pleasure, till their thoughts inwardly act over their own unclean desires, ambitious projects, or what ever else they have a mind unto."

Pre-Freudian, and a man of his time, Goodwin does not give any particular priority to sexual fantasizing, which takes its place with other mental digressions. He does, however, compare, rather dramatically, this ‘speculative wickedness’, which we ought to be able to control with some mental self-discipline, with incest: “But this is Incest, when we defile our souls and spirits with these imaginations and likenesses which are begotten in our own fancies, being the children of our own hearts.”

Goodwin mentions scholars frequently in this context of culpable day-dreaming, for their vain speculations, and self-conceit: “Take an experiment of this in Scholars (whose chief work lies in this shop) how many precious thoughts are spent this way? … So an unclean person can study and view over every circumstance passed in such an act, with such a person committed; so a vainglorious Scholar doth repeat in his thoughts an eminent performance of his, and all such passages therein as were most elegant.” I like the way in which a lecher’s retrospective enjoyment of a carnal act is put in parallel here with a scholar stroking himself on a ‘past performance’ of an intellectual kind.

Here, Goodwin talks about the ways in which the literate stray from the word of God:

“Take another instance also in others, who have leisure and parts to read much, they should ballast their hearts with the Word, … but now what do their curious fancies carry them unto, to be versed in, but Play-books, jeering Pasquils, Romances, fained stayes (sic. – a misprint for ‘tayles’, or ‘storyes’?), which are the curious needle-work of idle brains, so as they load their heads with Apes and Peacocks feathers, in stead of pearls and precious stones.”

And here, very much a new phenomenon, the over-avid reader of news letters, especially the over-politicised preacher:

“How doe some men long all the week, till they hear events and issues, and make it a great part of the happiness of their lives, to study the state more than their own hearts, and affaires of their callings: who take actions of State as their text to study the meaning of, and to preach on wherever they come.”

Finally, Goodwin points out, again with a vivid figure of the mint continuously stamping out low denomination coins, that these small inner lapses mount up, and that God is counting up the whole heap of them:

“And if their heinousness will nothing move you, consider their number, for they are continually thus: which makes our sins to be in number more than the sands: the thoughts of Solomon’s heart were as the Sand, and so ours; not a minute, but as many thoughts pass from us, as in a minute sands doe in an Hour-glass. So that suppose, that taken severally, they be the smallest and least of your sins, yet their multitude makes them more and heavier than all your other. Nothing smaller than a grain of Sand, but if there be a heap of them, there is nothing heavier, Job 6. 3. My grief is heavier than the Sand. Suppose they be in themselves, but as Farthing-tokens, in comparison of gross defilements: yet because the Mint never lies still, sleeping nor waking, therefore they make up the greatest part of that treasure of wrath which we are a laying up: and know that God will reckon every Farthing, and in thy punishment bate thee not one vain thought.”

My two images are the final page of the EEBO text, the ‘Imprimatur’ for the book, with its hand annotation, ‘the goodly groan to come to God’, which struck my eye after I finally got round to reading the blog ‘Wynken de Worde’, and Durer’s ‘Dream of the Doctor’. It’s not a quotation from the book, or from anything a full text search can find in the EEBO database, but shows a reader who understands the continuous self-discipline Goodwin has recommended.

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