The Enlightment and Fanaticism: James Hogg
James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is set in the Eighteenth Century, when the Enlightenment was in full swing.
Even though novel came out in 1824, when Romanticism was waning, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is set in the Eighteenth Century, when the Enlightenment was in full swing.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant has gone down in history for describing the Enlightenment as that moment when mankind finally becomes aware of its potential.
Does the same thing happen in Hogg’s story?
Instead of fighting superstition and fanaticism, we are plunged into a heartrending and horrible account of psychological derangement, caused by a distorted interpretation of Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination.
Reverend Robert Wringhim maintains God’s elect can do whatever they want on earth, because they cannot be deprived of the free gift of salvation – through faith alone in Christ.
Nonetheless, this tenet contradicts all Calvinist confessions of faith, which emphasize the observance of moral law.
No doubt his son Robert (who, uncannily, bears his father’s name) is brought up in this fanatical environment and, on the day of his eighteenth birthday, Reverend Wringhim tells his son he is one of the elect.
Young Robert’s joy is great, but it soon turns into a nightmare. Whilst taking a stroll he chances on a young man, named Gil-Martin, who says to Robert he believes in the same modes of redemption as he does and is willing to exterminate sin from the world.
Who is Gil-Martin? We actually do not know anything about him, but two conclusions can be drawn: either he is Robert’s conscience, showing him how deceitful and unchristian his doctrine is, or a diabolical figure, compelling him to murder and rape.
A conclusive and personal note: the Enlightenment was supposed to be a secular age, free from dogmas, but cases of religious fanaticism uncannily upset Europe (as it is the case with Voltaire and his painstaking account of the Calas affair in his Treatise of Tolerance (1763).
Secularism is again under threat in our time, when religious fanatics kill people, those very fanatics whose doctrines are so similar to those of Reverend Wringhim and Gil-Martin, causing a young man to die in the name of God.
Author: James Hogg
(originally published in 1824)