“The Death of Adam” by Marilynne Robinson

In the wake of re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, I wanted to check out her non-fiction essays, like The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought collection from 1998. This is a dense, erudite collection of writings that focus mostly on her defense of Puritanism in general and John Calvin (or Jean Cauvin, as she chooses to sometimes refer to him) more specifically. I read it over the course of a few months, consuming one chapter at a time in between other books. Reading it all at once would have been too much, and would not have allowed me sufficient time to ruminate on Calvin and the other topics she covers. I highly recommend this for those who want to read more of Robinson, and for fans of critical scholarship. Those looking for a quick, fun read should look elsewhere, however.

I have never yet been inspired to do a chapbook-type entry till now, but the essays in this book seem to beg it of me, and should give you an idea if her topics and style would be of interest to you.


I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do…I propose that we look at the past again, because it matters, and because it has so often been dealt with badly. (4)

I have encountered an odd sort of social pressure as often as I have mentioned [Calvin.] One does not read Calvin. One does not think of reading him. The prohibition is more absolute than it ever was against Marx, who always had the glamour of the subversive or the forbidden about him. Calvin seems to be neglected on principle. (12)

If history means anything, either as presumed record or as collective act of mind, then it is worth wondering how the exorcism of so potent a spirit might have been accomplished, and how it is that we have conspired in knowing nothing about an influence so profound as his is always said to have been on our institutions, our very lives and souls. (13)


What, precisely, this theory called Darwinism really is, is itself an interesting question. The popular shorthand version of it is “the survival of the fittest.” This is a phrase coined by the so-called Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, in work published before the appearance of the Origin of Species and adopted–with acknowledgment of Spencer as the source–in later editions of Darwin’s book. There is an apparent tautology in the phrase. Since Darwinian (and, of course, Spencerian) fitness is proved by survival, one could as well call the principle at work “the survival of survivors.” (30)

Darwinism is harsh and crude in its practical consequences, in a degree that sets it apart from all other respectable scientific hypotheses; not conicidentally, it had its origins in polemics against the poor, and against the irksome burden of extending charity to them (47)

Facing Reality

Lately Americans have enjoyed pretending they are powerless, disenfranchised individually and deep in decline as a society, perhaps to grant themselves latitude responsible people do not have or desire. (78)


It seems to me that something has passed out of the culture, changing it invisibly and absolutely. Suddenly it seems there are too few uses for words like humor, pleasure, and charm; courage, dignity and graciousness; learnedness, fair-mindedness, openhandedness; loyalty, respect, and good faith. What bargain did we make? What could have appeared for a moment able to compensate us for the loss of these things? (106)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer’s life and his thought inform each other deeply. To say this is to be reminded of the strangeness of the fact that this is not ordinarily true. (110)

McGuffey and the Abolitionists

[McGuffey] is believed to have created or codified a common American culture, and in doing so to have instilled a shirtsleeve values of honesty, and hard work in generations fo children. Moral, cheerful, narrow, and harmless–insofar as such traits are consistent with harmlessness–his texts supposedly expressed and propagated the world view of the American middle class…I read a few of these books, and I came away persuaded that something else was going on with them. (133)

Puritans and Prigs

When we say someone is moral, we mean that she is loayl in her life and behavior to an understanding of what is right and good, and will honor it even at considerable cost to herself. (159)

priggishness…is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig’s formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one’s better nature, if only in order to embarrass dissent. (160)

Marguerite de Navarre, parts I and II

To argue that Marguerite de Navarre, sister of the French king Francois I, was a decisive influence on the literary and religious imagination of Jean Cauvin is to do her no service at all until Calvin is recovered and rehabilitated. (175)


Environmentalism poses stark issue of survival, for humankind and for all those other tribes of creatures over which we have exercised our onerous dominion. Even undiscovered species feel the effects of our stewardship. What a thing is man. (245)

The Tyranny of Petty Coercion

courage is rarely expressed except where there is sufficient consensus to support it. (255)

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