Thomas Sprat: from The History of the Royal Society (1667)
DUE: Weekly Post #2 for groups 1 & 2
See excerpt below. (Demaria, first edition p. 401)
John Locke: from An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government (1690)
Demaria, p. 389
Greene, The Age of Exuberance: Chapters 1 & 2
While we will spend some time finishing up Dryden's Macflecknoe
(in particular addressing the issue of anonymity and scatology in the poem),
I also hope to address the historical and philosophical contexts of the late seventeenth century through the writings of
Sprat and Locke.
The readings from The Age of Exuberance provide a short and entertaining history
of the eighteenth century in Britain. Because the literature of this course
is so indebted to the age in which it was produced, it will be highly beneficial
for you to become
familiar with some of the key personages, as well as the systems of social
organization which may appear foreign to you. At times the author may assume
your familiarity with certain things; if at any time you are not sure what
his references mean, make a
note and we can discuss it in class.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
Thomas Sprat: from The History of the Royal Society
This excerpt focuses on the importance of what has become known as the "plain style" of writing. Sprat expresses great disdain for -- even fear of -- the rhetorical arts of speech and writing: "eloquence ought to be banished out of all civil Societies,
as a thing fatal to Peace and good Manners" (402).
What can he mean by this? What does he see as the dangers of rhetoric? And what remedy does he suggest?
From The History of the Royal Society (1667)
Part Two, Section XX
Their Manner of Discourse
Thus they have directed, judged, conjectured upon and improved Experiments. But lastly, in these, and all other businesses, that have come under their care; there is one thing more, about which the Society has been most solicitous; and that is, the manner of their Discourse: which unless they had been very watchful to keep in due temper, the whole spirit and vigour of their Design, had been soon eaten out, by the luxury and redundance of Speech. The ill effects of this superfluity of talking, have already overwhelmed most other Arts and Professions; insomuch, that when I consider the means of happy living, and the causes of their corruption, I can hardly forbear recanting what I said before; and concluding that eloquence ought to be banished out of all civil Societies, as a thing fatal to Peace and good Manners. To this opinion I should wholly incline; if I did not find, that it is a Weapon, which may be as easily procured by bad men, as good; and that, if these should only cast it away, and those retain it; the naked Innocence of virtue, would be upon all occasions exposed to the armed Malice of the wicked. This is the chief reason, that should now keep up the Ornaments of speaking, in any request; since they are so much degenerated from their original usefulness. They were at first, no doubt, an admirable Instrument in the hands of Wise Men when they were only employed to describe Goodness, Honesty, Obedience; in larger, fairer and more moving Images: to represent Truth, clothed with Bodies; and to bring Knowledge back again to our very senses, from whence it was at first derived to our understandings. But now they are generally changed to worse uses. They make the Fancy disgust the best things, if they come sound, and unadorned: they are in open defiance against Reason; professing, not to hold much correspondence with that; but with its Slaves, the Passions: they give the mind a motion too changeable, and bewitching, to consist with right practice. Who can behold, without Indignation, how many mists and uncertainties these specious Tropes and Figures have brought on our Knowledge? How many rewards which are due to more profitable, and difficult Arts, have been still snatched away by the easy vanity of fine speaking: For now I am warmed with this just Anger, I cannot with-hold my self from betraying the shallowness of all these seeming Mysteries; upon which, we Writers, and Speakers, look so big. And, in few words, I dare say; that of all the Studies of men, nothing may be sooner obtained, than this vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue, which makes so great a noise in the World. But I spend words in vain; for the evil is now so inveterate, that it is hard to know whom to blame, or where to begin to reform. We all value one another so much, upon this beautiful deceit; and labour so long after it, in the years of our education: that we cannot but ever after think kinder of it, that it deserves. And indeed, in most other parts of Learning, I look on it to be a thing almost utterly desperate in its cure: and I think, it may be placed amongst those general mischiefs; such, as the dissension of Christian Princes, the want of practice in Religion, and the like; which have been so long spoken against, that men are become insensible about them; every one shifting off the fault from himself to others; and so they are only made bare commonplaces of complaint. It will suffice my present purpose, to point out, what has been done by the Royal Society, towards the correcting of its excesses in Natural Philosophy; to which it is, of all others, a most professed enemy.
They have therefore been most rigorous in putting in execution, the only Remedy, that can be found for this extravagance: and that has been, a constant Resolution, to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered so many things, almost in an equal number of words. They have extracted from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions, clear senses; a native easiness: bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness, as they can: and preferring the language of Artisans, Countrymen, and Merchants, before that, of Wits or Scholars.
And here, there is one thing, not to be passed by; which will render this established custom of the Society, well nigh everlasting: and that is, the general constitution of the minds of the English. I have already often insisted on some of the prerogatives of England; whereby it may justly lay claim, to be the Head of a Philosophical league, above all other Countries in Europe: I have urged its situation, its present Genius, and the disposition of its Merchants; and many more such arguments to encourage us, still remain to be used: But of all others, this, which I am now alleging, is of the most weighty, and important consideration. If there can be a true character even of the Universal Temper of any Nation under Heaven: then certainly thus must be ascribed to our Countrymen: that they have commonly an unaffected sincerity; that they love to deliver their minds with a sound simplicity; that they have the middle qualities between the reserved subtle southern, and the rough unhewn Northern people: that they are not extremely prone to speak: that they are most concerned, what others will think of the strength, than of the fineness of what they say: and that a universal modesty possesses them. These Qualities are so conspicuous, and proper to our Soil; that we often hear them objected to us, by some of our neighbour Satirists, in more disgraceful expressions. For they are wont to revile the English, with a want of familiarity; with a melancholy dumpishness; with slowness, silence, and with the unrefined sullenness of their behaviour. But these are only the reproaches of partiality, or ignorance: for they ought rather to be commended for an honourable integrity; for a neglect of circumstances, and flourishes; for regarding things of greater moment, more than less; for a scorn to deceive as well as to be deceived: which are all the best endowments, that can enter into a Philosophical Mind. So that even the position of our climate, the air, the influence of the heavens, the composition of the English blood; as well as the embraces of the Ocean, seem to join with the labours of the Royal Society, to render our Country, a Land of Experimental knowledge. And it is a good sign, that Nature will reveal more of its secrets to the English, than to others; because it has already furnished them with a Genius so well proportioned, for the receiving, and retaining its mysteries.
Transcribed from the first edition of Demaria’s British Literature 1640-1789
Compare Pope's lines from An Essay on Criticism:
"False Eloquence, like the prismatic glass,
Its gaudy colours spreads on ev'ry place;
The face of Nature we no more survey,
All glares alike, without distinction gay:
But true expression, like th'unchanging sun,
Clears, and improves whate'er it shines upon,
It gilds all Objects, but it alters none" (311-317).
John Locke: from An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government
Note how Locke distinguishes his explanation of political power from the
previously accepted notions of Robert Filmer (see page 9), particularly in chapter one (page 214-5). Questions of proper authority plagued the Restoration, especially authors like Milton and Dryden. Dryden's poe
m "Mac Flecknoe" takes up the problem of succession, albeit satirically. How do these excerpts from Locke shed light on the issues of political power?
According to Locke, what are the viable conditions of slavery? If all men (what about women?) are equal, then how can slavery be possible?
Locke offers a definition of property as the part of material that God made common to all men which a man (again, why not women?) appropriates to himself by mixing his own labor with nature. How might this be problematic? Whose property does the servant
mix his or her labor with?
The Age of Exuberance
One of Britain's central historical narratives of the eighteenth century is the quest for empire; one of the central conflicts -- according to Green -- is the conservative, Tory resistance to commercial growth and expansion versus the urban, monied Whiggi
sh excitement about national power and wealth.
Since Greene wrote this book (published in 1970) historians have sounded less celebratory about England's control of Canada and India -- not to mention Scotland and Ireland -- because they have turned their attention to the subjugated people of those nati
ons. Greene alludes to Britain's role as a colonial power but does little to raise questions about the impact that Britain had on its colonial subjects. Keep in mind that for every victory claimed over a country, the people of that country were incorpor
ated with less than full citizenship.
Of the countries subjected to England's rule in the eighteenth century, Scotland and Ireland provide the most influential writers. We will be reading some of these figures, like Swift, Cheyne and Burke. Watch how the issues of nationhood and identity ar
e represented in some of the literature. What effect does it have?
Note the Toleration Act of 1689. Why is this significant? How does this compare with the
practice of religion in our own country? Examine throughout your reading how principles
of toleration and its opposite (the expectation for universal Protestant christianity) shape the literature.
P.32 -- Note the distinctions of peerage; it will help you in comprehending the
social implications of the literature. While you will not be expected to know
the ranks and titles of nobility, the note that Greene provides will make a useful
you throughout the semester.
Consider the changes in agriculture mentioned by Greene on p. 41. What side effects
might enclosures have on the working poor who depended upon the common ground to till?
One section of our class is devoted to working class poets for which this informat
ion will be relevant.
Note Greene's categories for Britain's people. It is useful to know of the distinctions
among royalty, peers, churchmen, country gentlemen and the business community. But who
makes up "The Rest"? And whose profiles are missing? Examine the syllabus for
When you read chapter 2,do not be concerned about remembering all the details.
Simply try to get a grasp of the major figure and events. Also know that you can
return to these convenient chronologies whenever a question arises from the literature.
Again in this section the conflict between isolationism and expansion plays
a central role, but consider these positions as more than political perspectives.
Each reflects positions of virtue and morality -- major themes of the course --
philosophy and wealth.