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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

VIRTUE AND KNOWLEDGE -- LIMITS OF REASON

Reading Assignment:

    Thomas Hobbes, from The Leviathan (1651)
    Demaria, p. 6

    John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, "Satire Against Reason and Mankind" (1680?)
    Demaria, p. 281

DUE: Weekly Post #12 for England and Wales



The readings for this week continue to test the human capacity for REASON. The brief excerpt from Hobbes addresses his famous position on the state of nature as "nasty, brutish and short" and consequently in need of government and law. Rochester's poem is a scathing satire on the prized Reason of humanity, and should resonate well with our discussion of Swift's Houyhnhnms.



Notes and Discussion Questions:

Hobbes

1.
Though brief, this excerpt contains many important Hobbesian ideas that come to influence eighteenth-century literature. Read and annotate carefully.

Hobbes claims that men are by nature equal -- in what ways are they equal? And why does equality produce a common mistrust among humanity?

From common mistrust arises a continual state of war, because each person is entitled to fight for his preservation.

Comment on Hobbes' point that "Men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all" (7).

What are the three natural causes of quarrel and their respective purposes?

What does Hobbes mean by "war" in the statement: when men live "without common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War" (7).

Why does such continual warfare prohibit the industry necessary to produce commodities, knowledge, culture, arts and letters, and instead yield "continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" (7).

How does this analysis justify the need for monarchy or government?

What are the passions that incline men to Peace and what role does Reason play?


Rochester:

2.

Please read the headnote on Rochester in Demaria for some background information on the author.

In the opening stanza, Rochester expresses the desire to be any other creature than a man, "who is so Proud of being Rational." Note in what ways this statement sets the tone for the poem. How does the speaker feel toward humanity? How does he feel about the distinction of rationality?

In the second stanza Rochester creates an elaborate metaphor between reason and an ignuis fatuus of the mind, and between sense and the light of nature. What are the implications of the comparisons? What does it mean for Rochester to put reason at odds with the senses? What does the final image of the "Reasoning engine" lying huddled in the dirt signify?

In lines 46-47, the speaker imagines an interlocutor who will argue with him in favor of Reason. The following stanza represents this speaker's fatuous embrace of REASON. Initially this cleric/teacher agrees with the original speaker on the criticism of wit, and "wit" here represents an abuse of reason at the expense of others, ridicule. Based on these lines, why might reason be the pride of humankind?

On line 72 the original speaker bursts in and cries down the former praise of reason. What problems does he cite? In the stanza following he distinguishes between right reason and the reason of the cleric/teacher. How are they different?

Explain the logic behind Rochester's claim that "Beasts are, in their Degree, / As wise at least" as man.

Lines 123-138 include images comparing animal behavior with human behavior. How are humans less reasonable than the animals?

The following stanza includes a severe criticism of human cowardice.

For fear he arms, and is of Arms afraid,
By Fear to Fear successively betrayed;
Base Fear, the Source whence his best Passions came,
His boasted Honour, and his dear-bought Fame;
That Lust of Pow'r, to which he's such a Slave,
And for the which alone he dares be brave" (141-146).

How does this stanza resonate with Hobbesian ideas? Especially view the lines "'Tis all from fear, to make himself Secure./ Merely for Saftey, after Fame we Thirst, / For all Men would be Cowards, if they durst" (156-158).

What argument does the poem make in favor of dishonesty? To what extent is this valid?

The speaker categorically condemns human beings in the following two stanzas: "Most Men are Cowards, all Men should be Knaves" (169). To what extent is the speaker a confirmed misanthropist? What are his reasons?

Next he ironically suggests that there might be a proper courtier, a proper clergyman and a decent Bishop in the following three stanzas. What are the implicit criticisms of each of these types?

The speaker ends by envisioning the only type of virtuous man who would make him prefer to be human than beast. What qualities must this man possess? What is the significance of these traits? In the end, how much hope does the Speaker have for meeting such a man?

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