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Life Arts    H3'ed 9/27/21

Perry Miller on Antebellum America (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) September 27, 2021: My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955).

Ong the lifelong city boy from Kansas City, Missouri, entered the Jesuit novitiate, a farm in Florissant, Missouri, in September 1935. Subsequently, after completing the two-year Jesuit novitiate experience, as next part of his Jesuit formation, he was sent for graduate studies to Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university, founded in 1818, in St. Louis, Missouri (USA). At SLU, in 1941, he completed two degrees: a Licentiate in philosophy and a Master's in English. (The Licentiate degree in philosophy was roughly equivalent to a Master's degree.)

For an account of the American Catholic intellectual milieu in which young Walter Ong's Catholic education developed, see the American Catholic historian Philip Gleason's book Contending with Modernity: [American] Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 1995).

Now, from the young Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980; Ph.D. in English, Cambridge University, 1943) then teaching English at SLU, Ong first heard of Perry Miller's massively researched 1939 book The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Harvard University Press). In it, Perry Miller in English at Harvard University explained, to the best of his ability, then then largely forgotten thought of the French Renaissance logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572). In the 1930s, Ramus was largely a forgotten figure. However, his logic (also known as dialectic) had dominated the curriculum of Harvard College, founded in 1636 in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and of Cambridge University in England.

The English poet and pamphleteer John Milton (1608-1674) studied Ramist logic at Cambridge University. Subsequently, he wrote a textbook in logic based largely on one of Ramus' textbooks. Later in Milton's life, after he had become famous, he published his textbook in logic. Ong and Charles J. Ermatinger translated Milton's Logic for volume eight of Yale's Complete Prose Works of John Milton: 1666-1682, edited by Maurice Kelley (Yale University Press, 1982, pages 139-407). Ong's lengthy "Introduction" in it is reprinted, slightly shortened, as "Introduction to Milton's Logic" in volume four of Ong's Faith and Contexts, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999, pages 111-142).

Perry Miller reports that among the college-educated men in seventeenth-century New England that he studied, he found only one self-described Aristotelian; all the others were self-described Ramists. In medieval universities under Roman Catholic auspices, Roman Catholic educators subscribed to what they thought of as the Aristotelian tradition of logic. Consequently, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant educators tended to embrace Ramist logic as a way to further differentiate themselves from Roman Catholics generally.

For an account of Jesuit educators in the Counter-Reformation, see the American Jesuit church historian John W. O'Malley's book The First Jesuits (Harvard University Press, 1993). Under the auspices of both Protestant educators and Roman Catholic educators, formal education emerged as growth industry, figuratively speaking, after the Gutenberg printing press emerged in the mid-1450s.

However, despite Perry Miller's best efforts in his 1939 book to explain the thought of Peter Ramus in his 1939 book, he in the end called for a more thorough study of this largely forgotten figure in Western cultural history.

Subsequently, after Ong had completed the further steps in his lengthy Jesuit formation, and had been ordained a priest, he stepped for to undertake the more thorough study of Ramus that Perry Miller had called for in his 1939 book. Perry Miller agreed to serve as the director of Ong's doctoral dissertation in English at Harvard. Ong's massively researched doctoral dissertation on Ramus was published, slightly revised, by Harvard University Press in two volumes in 1958.

For further discussion of Ong's philosophical thought in his 1958 books and in the subsequent works of his mature thought from the early 1950s onward, see my lengthy OEN article "Walter J. Ong's Philosophical Thought" (dated September 20, 2020):

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Perry Miller on Nineteenth-Century Antebellum America

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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