Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher
by Peter J. Stanlis,
ISI Books (Wilmington, Delaware)
452 pp., $28.00, 2007
Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington
by Matthew Stanley,
University of Chicago Press (Chicago)
313 pp., $37.50 Cloth, 2007
There is a genre of history called the “biographical study.” This form has appeared in two books published in 2007: Peter Stanlis’s Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher and Matthew Stanley’s Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington. Neither of these fascinating books is a comprehensive biography in the traditional sense of chronicling the main events in the life of its subject. Rather, they use the lives and writings of their subjects as windows onto a wider historical context. They also seek to focus and historicize a broader philosophical discussion. Stanlis’s book examines the philosophy of the American poet Robert Frost (1874–1963) and argues that Frost’s “dualism,” his ability to see reality as both matter and spirit, allowed him to work as a poet albeit with strong interests in the sciences. Stanley locates the modern, abstracted debate over “religion” and “science” in the specific life and context of the English Quaker and astronomer A. S. Eddington (1882–1944). The common feature of these biographical studies is that both Frost and Eddington “thought in pairs” about reality. Their dual thinking shaped the way they engaged social and intellectual dilemmas of their time, such as conscription during the Great War, socialism, and evolution.
Peter Stanlis, Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at Rockford College, stands very much within his own tradition of writing the “biographical study.” His classic 1958 book Edmund Burke and the Natural Law wove together biography and philosophy, though without the personal acquaintance with Burke that Stanlis had with Robert Frost from 1939 until the poet’s death in 1963. This personal acquaintance with Frost gives Stanlis’s book great warmth and humanity. Robert Frost is a monumental tour de force of intellectual history, ranging far beyond the life of Frost to engage with some of the most important scientific and philosophical developments of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Stanlis deftly weaves together his themes of poetry, religion, science, education, society, and politics in the life of Frost by drawing from his personal acquaintance with Frost, his intimate understanding of Frost’s writings, and his vast erudition on diverse figures (in no particular order) such as Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, William James, Arthur Lovejoy, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, George Santayana, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Herbert Spencer, and T. S. Eliot. Frost engaged the ideas of all of these figures, and many more, as he sought a coherent world view.
What was that world view? The attempt to answer that question is the central thrust of Stanlis’s book. He has written a major work of revision in an attempt to completely reorient Frost studies away from what Stanlis sees as the errors of Frost’s “official” biographer Lawrence Thompson. Thompson, Stanlis convincingly argues, grievously misunderstood Frost’s dualistic world view (and Frost himself came to regret his choice of Thompson). Stanlis argues that dualism was the basis of Frost’s life as a poet.
For some readers, “dualism” will conjure images of the Gnostic or medieval heresies which pitted the spiritual realm against the material, or that interpretation of Cartesian philosophy as having split these two realms apart. Stanlis, however, uses the word “dualism” to indicate a philosophical position towards reality as consisting of two complementary but distinct realms, spirit and matter. Such a dualism opposes idealistic monism (which reduces reality to spirit) and materialistic monism (which reduces reality to matter). Frost’s dualism meant that he never rested all of his weight on one foot.
Frost’s poems tried to express spiritual and philosophical truths through the medium of matter—to say spirit in terms of matter and matter in terms of spirit. That was the metaphorical method of poetic thinking constitutive of Frost’s dualism. “Metaphor” connects two things for the purpose of illuminating one in terms of another. In Stanlis’s interpretation, Frost thought that poetry is education through metaphors, enabling readers to “leap from sight to insight, from sense to essence, from an awareness of the physical to awareness of the metaphysical dimensions of reality.” Frost’s dualism, his “thinking in pairs,” referred to more than just spirit and matter, but also quality-quantity, woman-man, fire-ice, whole-part, or justice-mercy—as in “The Death of the Hired Man.” If “The Pasture” (North of Boston, 1914) is the invitation to go along on the journey of Frost’s poetry (“You come too”), then—as Stanlis shows—“Kitty Hawk” (In the Clearing, 1962) is the other bookend of Frost’s life and the climax of his dualism as embodied in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. (The index of Stanlis’s book, however, would be improved if it included the titles of Frost’s poems so that the reader could find Stanlis’s interpretations more easily.)
A significant feat of this book is that Stanlis connects Frost’s dualism with the poet’s engagement with science, society, and politics. For example, in Frost’s political analysis, the underlying problem in totalitarian politics of the twentieth century was monism, the fundamentalist “monomania” which, eschewing dualism, valued only material reality. That monism, Frost believed, led to the destructive nature of “progressive” totalitarian politics. Frost was as skeptical of the goals of social scientists to bring human society under rational control as he was of the need for a political messiah to solve economic and social problems. On that basis, despite his life-long loyalty to the Democratic Party, he was highly critical of the tendencies within Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. Frost favored not social revolution but inner revolution within the individual to improve his or her intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and social nature. Throughout his book, Stanlis describes the profound ways of thinking which informed Frost as he refused extremism and drew dualistic tensions into fruitful cooperation during his life. Stanlis helps the reader see how problems arose throughout Frost’s life between the just claims of spirit and the just claims of matter. He demonstrates how Frost’s orientation helped him to navigate those tensions.
Matthew Stanley, assistant professor in the Department of History and the Lyman Briggs School of Science at Michigan State University, utilized Eddington’s papers (Trinity College, Cambridge) and scattered letters (e.g., in the Albert Einstein Archives), records on Eddington held by the Friends Meeting in Cambridge, and a wide literature relevant to major themes connected to Eddington’s life as a religious scientist, including mysticism, internationalism, and pacifism. The book is succinct, well-organized, and includes an intelligent discussion of methodology in the Introduction. While claiming no agenda to either prove reconciliation or contradiction between religion and science in general, Stanley is interested primarily in tracing within Eddington’s life how certain “valence values” or “bridging values” can both “transcend and underpin an individual’s understanding of both science and religion.” For example, Quakers rejected dogmatic certainty in favor of a continual seeking—in wonder—for spiritual truth. Because scientific work is also a continual seeking for truth, Eddington unified a vision of scientific and spiritual methodology. Values, because they are the intentions and principles of an individual, can support and mediate between both religion and science—or clash with society and politics, as when Eddington refused conscription during the Great War because of pacifism and belief in science as an international pursuit.
Eddington (and Frost) absorbed their values and philosophy from the traditions of thought and the people around them—hence the importance of discussing these men in the context of a biographical study. Arthur Stanley Eddington was born in 1882 in Kendal on the east edge of England’s Lake District. His father, a teacher at a Quaker school, died when he was two. Eddington loved cycling, nature hikes, and literary classics (Lewis Carroll’s surreal stories would help him explain the world of relativity later on). While at the University of Manchester, he was deeply influenced by John William Graham, an outspoken leader of the liberal Quaker movement (the “Quaker Renaissance”) which, in its 1895 Manchester Conference, sought ways to relate the Quaker religion to modern science. In 1913, Eddington took the Plumian Professorship in astronomy at Cambridge, where he lived with his mother and sister (he never married). He became a public icon of science because of his leadership in the famous 1919 eclipse expedition that confirmed Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Eddington’s Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh were published as the immensely popular book The Nature of the Physical World in 1928. He was known for his lucid philosophical reflections on the implications of modern physics.
These two books of Stanlis and Stanley, significantly, model a way of writing history that raises it above mere chronicling and stamp-collecting. The authors have written about the contingent details of past human lives, while resurrecting them into larger concerns whose interest transcends one life and one time. They have written outstanding books on the fruitfulness of “thinking in pairs” in the lives of Frost and Eddington. The way that Stanlis and Stanley have done this reflects the very method of their own subjects: they both (authors and subjects) refuse reductionistic (monistic) interpretations of human life. Frost’s dualism and Eddington’s shared values bridged the chasm between religion, the humanities, and science. These two books are an education in the ways of thinking that proved decisive in the lives of Frost and Eddington to help them both avoid extremes and stand firmly by their principles. Stanlis and Stanley model a powerful kind of intellectual history capable of addressing people and ideas of the past that matter to us today.
Joseph T. Stuart finished his Ph.D. in modern intellectual history at the University of Edinburgh in 2009. He is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center.