- A Good Life in a World Made Good: Albert Eustace Haydon, 1880-1975
According to pragmatists, facts are not compelling on their own. In context, we select which facts are important to us, constructing from them an interesting reality. This is why it is disappointing to read Peden's work in intellectual biography and not become especially interested in the life and work of its subject. It is not that Haydon is uninteresting, and the author of his biography does an admirably diligent job in presenting him. It is just that the author, despite his diligent research, does little to try to sell the reader on Haydon's significance. Peden presents a thorough summary of Haydon's life and work, but does so without critical engagement, and without a compelling argument for why this particular good life is worthy of our extended appreciation.
There are things to appreciate in Haydon. He was a noteworthy advocate of humanistic religion, a man who worked to free us from the restrictions of dead, traditional theology. For Haydon, religion was at heart an expression of social hope, not an elaboration of an abstract scheme of the universe. His fascination with world religions led to the development of a thesis that religion is the integration of values into workable group ideals, and that "each religion has been utterly optimistic by reading the quest for perfect happiness as the goal of history" (111). As he puts it, religion is "the shared quest for the good life" (xii), a "heroic quest . . . to accept nothing less than the perfect life" (124). And it appears that Haydon lived close to the perfect life, one of health, happiness, manageable fame, resolvable conflict, and home-life stability.
This is part of the problem, though. Philosophical heroes are often those who negotiate lives of significant adversity—or at least that is the way we choose to interpret their lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson lost a son and yet lived life with a nearly obnoxious passion; Charles Sanders Peirce was a cantankerous man prone to addictions and contentious relationships; Henry James Senior was a tender-minded soul trying to posture his way through a tough-minded, anti-establishment philosophy. William [End Page 225] James dealt with anxiety and depression throughout his life, which seemed often to be on the point of shipwreck and emotional death. Margaret Fuller's challenging life was ended by literal shipwreck—and we are engaged in the story.
On the other hand, A. Eustace Haydon was just a really nice guy who worked hard, lived cleanly, and believed the universe was basically friendly to us. So should he have no biography? No, it is just that any biography needs to be presented compellingly and selectively, even if the subject is not particularly dramatic. Those already interested in Haydon, or who work specifically in the field of pragmatic religious thought, might find this work to be a useful compendium. Those for whom Haydon is obscure, however, will not, based on this work, necessarily be drawn to him.
Jerome A. Stone's foreword tells us that Peden chose to write this biography in the "historical present," a technique which allows readers to avoid the "'fallacy of hindsight'" by inviting the reader to place herself as a participant in Haydon's emergence from a conservative Baptist setting to become a Humanist Pioneer" (xiii). This technique works well in biographies involving Nazi Germany or the American Civil War, where decisions are momentous and need to be appreciated in their full moral context. And it could work here, in the biography of a radical humanist working within an environment of theological conservatism, where desires for human flourishing clash with traditional concerns about human arrogance and amorality. But other than just noticing the courses that Haydon took in graduate school—the author lists many of these on page 34—readers are not able to see how it is that Haydon was converted. A man's conversion is perhaps the most interesting thing about him, and yet...