A number of my friends remember various critical childhood summers or winters during which they discovered a private library belonging to family or a friend. In my version of this common tale, the setting was my ninth grade winter, and the protagonist was Tom Jones. Fielding’s experimental novel stood out as one of the few works of fiction among the dark-mustard, hardbound Great Books my mother subscribed to.
I loved the book’s language. The plot was easy enough to follow (I’ve read that it’s considered predictable), and the characters were amusing, but the style and structure carried me on. I loved the tone of the clever essays that amounted to the first chapter in each of the novel’s books. I don’t think I understood a lot of what the narrator was saying in them, though. I was a child yet, still listening to and lulled by merely the patter and pattern of adult conversation my parents brought into our home.
So Fielding’s omniscient narrator was my favorite character – a friend, a comfort, a father figure and a worldview: hopeful and forgiving, not too serious and not too frivolous, either. Moderate, essentially. I stowed the narrator’s viewpoint away somewhere for safe keeping during my subsequent years of religious and political idealism.
This time through Tom Jones, I was almost immediately struck by Fielding’s religious and political moderation. I just discovered that the philosophical content I missed during my teenage reading – the content of that adult conversation – matches the moderate tone I perceived back then.
Calvin and Hobbes
For the first third of the novel, Tom Jones, an active fellow, can’t do much of anything good or bad without his actions being debated and dismissed by Thwackum and Square, rhetorical combatants who freeload on Allworthy’s estate. At first appearance, Thwackum and Square have little in common: the former is a Christian enthusiast and member of the Church of England while the latter is a Deist philosopher. They are each correct about the failings of the other’s belief system, however.
The failings had little to do with high-church Christianity or Deism per se, however, and more to do with the narrow viewpoints Thwackum and Square draw from those traditions. Fielding himself was a Christian and an Augustinian, and his stated purpose in writing Tom Jones was to encourage readers in the pursuit of virtue (7). Thwackum’s and Square’s actions don’t live up to their words, and upon closer scrutiny, their words are partly to blame. Thwackum is essentially a Calvinist, and Square is essentially a Hobbesian philosopher. Fielding had the same objection to Calvin and to Hobbes: neither philosopher attributed enough goodness in human nature to consider a person responsible enough to govern himself.
While the narrator in Book VI’s introductory essay addresses what he perceives as the shortcomings of Hobbesian philosophy, the latter half of his statement is one he applies to Calvinism as well:
Whether these Philosophers be the same with that surprizing Sect, who are honourably mentioned by the late Dr. Swift; as having, by the mere Force of Genius alone, without the least Assistance of any Kind of Learning, or even Reading, discovered that profound and invaluable Secret, That there is no G–: or since, very much alarmed the World, by shewing that there were no such things as Virtue or Goodness really existing in Human Nature, and who deducted our best Actions from Pride, I will not here presume to determine. (268 – 269)
Last summer, I thought I was the first to link Calvin and Hobbes (though the longstanding comic strip by that name should have given me pause). I put together the gist of three books, one on John Locke’s liberalism and his struggle to assert human nature’s frail but essential goodness as a basis for his claim to self-government, the second on Richard Hooker’s struggle to reestablish a theological and philosophical foundation for a limited monarchy against Calvinist claims to a theocracy, and the third Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. I concluded:
The sixteenth century argument for a Calvinist theocracy and the seventeenth century argument for an absolute monarchy were opposite extremes that rejected at least three medieval notions: the existence of a natural law by which a community may judge positive law and the rulers who propagate or enforce them, the existence of a civil society that predates a political one, and the proposition that all men are created equal.
But Fielding, and possibly the entire eighteenth-century portion of the Augustan Age, was ahead of me in linking Calvin and Hobbes. Martin C. Battestin’s introduction to Tom Jones’s Modern Library edition points out Fielding’s Latitudinarianism: “Stressing the importance of works over faith, the Latitudinarians in effect revived the old quarrel between Pelagius and Augustine: man, they maintained against Hobbes and Calvin, was by nature capable of much goodness, and was free to choose between virtue and vice” (xx).
Tom Jones’s plot is chiefly concerned with examining this struggle on an individual basis, but Fielding, heavily involved in Whig politics, was also concerned with it on a national basis. He interrupted writing Tom Jones to write political tracts against the Jacobite uprising that threatened to undo the gains England had made in self-government. He wanted to see England continue to move toward an understanding of itself – a self-identity – consistent with self-government.
The philosophical arguments explicitly advanced by Tom Jones’s narrator and characters have societal as well as individual applications within the novel. This is evident not so much from the plot but from the characters’ and narrator’s explicit application of the issues and arguments to society in general. (One of the reasons I like the novel is that it sometimes reads like a series of polemics held together by a thin string of a plot.)
Identity and self-government
Tom Jones himself was a perfect test case for the arguments surrounding this debate since he “is possessed of every private and social virtue but one: he is honest, brave, and generous, but he is imprudent, and therefore imperfect as a moral agent” (xxviii). The frequent exhibitions of Jones’s imprudence are enough for the agents of Calvin and Hobbes to express their beliefs in human nature’s lack of virtue, but Jones’s latent goodness belies their categorical statements in the reader’s eyes.
Jones, however, lacks the one virtue that prevents him from governing himself: prudence. In Tom Jones, a struggle for prudence is also a struggle for one’s true identity. Tom Jones is an ontological work – emphatically so, since its title indicates its main character’s lack of self-identity: The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. Only at the end, only after reaching rock bottom does Jones acquire prudence and discover his true identity.
Such is the struggle for self-government, both at an individual level and at a community or national level: it’s a God-given right, but it’s the most difficult struggle a person or a generation can undertake. And along the way, those who, from a religious or philosophical viewpoint, doubt a person’s or a nation’s eventual ability to self-govern will, Square- and Thwackum-like, be finding lots of evidence to support those viewpoints.
Comedy and hope
Despite his weaknesses, Jones has charity, which, as Fielding and the Bible would agree, covers a multitude of sins. Allworthy thought charity “an indispensable Duty, enjoined both by the Christina Law, and by the Law of Nature itself; so was it withal so pleasant, that if any Duty could be said to be its own Reward, or to pay us while we are discharging it, it was this” (95).
Allworthy and Jones’s charity permits the novel’s comic tone, a smile in the heavens reflecting back the goodness of the protagonists’ hearts. Battestin points out that the narrator is “a kind of surrogate Providence” who looks over Jones’s character development:
The happy accidents and surprising reversals in Fielding’s noel remind us of the manipulating intelligence of the author who conducts the story, as those in real life are signs of the Deity’s providential care. (xxiv)
The novel’s form complements the providential narrator:
The form of Tom Jones – its omniscient narrator and symmetrical design, its progression through probabilities and improbabilities to a fortunate conclusion – is the embodiment of its author’s Christian vision: the vision of a world ordered and benign, and therefore “comic” in the profoundest sense. (xxv)
Tom Jones’s political moderation, then, rejects the religious and putatively atheistic extremism of Calvin and Hobbes. Its moderation is founded on man’s fragile but innate goodness essential to his capacity for self-government, and on an ultimately comic (i.e., purposeful and forgiving), even ironic and absurd, universe. Despite the rejection of Calvinist and Hobbesian viewpoints, this moderation welcomes both the religious man and the agnostic, the Christian God and Nature’s God. This brand of moderation would reach beyond eighteenth century Great Britain to sects outside the Christian community and to atheism as well. It was essential to our nation’s founding and would be essential to any genuine project of reclaiming something of the Founders’ values.
I’ve heard people question how William Faulkner, whose characters and communities seem so depraved and judgmental, respectively, could state in his Nobel acceptance speech, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” Faulkner wrote in a tragicomic tradition similar to Fielding’s comic enterprise: it examines a person’s spirit in the crucible of life. Faulkner’s characters often don’t make it. But they’re tragic enough to demonstrate that they can make it, and Faulkner is just enough of a comedian to help them along sometimes.