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The Progress of the Nation page 7


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Prose Writers

At the head of the prose writers of this period as of the poets, we must place Milton. Though his writings are for the most part on controversial subjects, they were subjects of that immense importance that they acquired a lasting value. They bear a certain relation to his poetry. That in its highest exhibition celebrated the triumph of the Deity over the powers of evil; his prose writings again were employed to support the struggle of liberty against the advocates of all political evil - absolutism. Poetry seemed to have become the habitual expression of his mind, and, therefore, there is in his prose style a certain awkwardness and stiffness. He moves like David in armour that he had not well proved; and his utterance, solemn and full of deep thought and erudition, is, as it were, forced and formal. But when lie warms up with the greatness of his subject, he runs into a strain of grave eloquence which has scarcely an equal in the language. As a specimen, we may take this passage from his celebrated "Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing." It includes the principle of all religious freedom: - "There be who perpetually complain of schisms and sects, and make it such a calamity that any man dissents from their maxims. 'Tis their own pride and ignorance which causes the disturbing, who neither will hear with meekness, nor can convince; yet all must be suppressed which is not found in their Syntagma. They are the troublers, they are the dividers of unity, who neglect and permit not others to unite those dissevered pieces which are yet wanting to the body of truth. To be still searching what we know not by what we know, still closing up truth to truth, as we find it - for all the body is homogeneal and proportionate; this is the golden rule of theology as well as in arithmetic, and makes up the best harmony in a church; not the forced and outward union of cold, and neutral, and inwardly-divided minds."

He continues: some good men too are alarmed at it. "They fret, and out of their own weakness are in agony; but these divisions and sub-divisions will undo us. The adversary again applauds and waits the hour; 'When they have branched themselves out,' saith he, 'small enough into parties and partitions, then will be our time.' Fool! he sees not the firm root out of which we all grow, though into branches; nor will he wait until he sees our small divided maniples cutting through at every angle of his ill-united and unwieldly brigade. And that we are to hope better of all those supposed sects and schisms: and that we shall not need that solicitude - honest, perhaps, though over timorous - of them that rise in their behalf, but shall laugh in the end at those malicious applauders of our differences, I have these reasons to persuade me: first, when a city shall be, as it were, besieged and blocked about, her navigable river infested, inroads and incursions round, defiance and battle oft rumoured to be marching up even to her walls and suburb trenches, that then the people, or the greater part, more than at other times, wholly taken up with the study of highest and most important matters to be reformed, should be disputing, reasoning, reading, inventing, discoursing, even to a rarity and admiration, things not before discoursed or written of, argues singular good-will, contentedness, and confidence in your prudent foresight and safe government of lords and commons, and from thence decides itself to a gallant bravery and well-grounded contempt of their enemies; as if there were no small number of as great spirits among us as his was who, when Rome was nigh besieged by Hannibal, being in the city, bought that piece of ground at no cheap rate whereon Hannibal himself encamped his own regiment. Next, it is a lively and cheerful presage of a happy success and. victory; for, as in a body, when the blood is fresh, the spirits pure and vigorous - not only to vital but to rational faculties, and those in the correctest and the pertest operations of wit and subtlety - it argues in what good plight and constitution the body is; so, when the cheerfulness of the people is so sprightly up, as that it hath not only wherewith to bestow upon the solidest and the sublimest parts of controversy and new invention, it betokens as not degenerated, nor drooping to a fatal decay, but casting off the old and wrinkled skin of corruption to outlive these pangs and wax young again, entering the glorious ways of truth and prosperous virtue, destined to become great and honourable in these latter ages. Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks; methinks I see her as an eagle, renewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full mid-day beam, purging and unsealing her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms."

Never did prophet at the distance of two centuries foresee more precisely the object of his vaticination than Milton saw in this passage the relative positions of England freed and the continent enslaved, and wondering at our doings at this moment.

The great prose works of Milton comprise his "History of England" from the earliest times to the Norman Conquest, including all the old legends of the chroniclers, the arrival of Brute from Rome, the story of king Lear, and all those fine old fables which have been the grand storehouses of poets and dramatists. His "Tractate of Education;" his "Areopagitica" - just quoted; his "Tenure of Kings and Magistrates;" the "Eikonoklastes;" the "Defensio Populi" and "Defensio Secunda" - vindicating the conduct of England in deposing impracticable kings; his "Treatise on the Best Manner of Removing Hirelings out of the Church;" his essay on "Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Cases;" his "State Letters," written at the command of Cromwell; an "Art of Logic;" a "Treaty of True Religion, Heresy, Schism, Toleration, and what Best Means may be used against the Growth of Popery;" and his "Familiar Letters," in Latin: besides these he left in manuscript a "Brief History of Muscovy," and a "System of Theology," - both since published. It may be safely said that scarcely any other writer has left such a sound and profound body of knowledge of all that is necessary for the maintenance of freedom, civil and religious, in the state.

Dryden is also a vigorous prose writer: but nothing can be more characteristic of the two men than the prose of Milton and Dryden. The one is grave, solemn, independent, upholding the sacred interests of religion and liberty; the other, that of Dryden - besides short lives of Polybius, Lucian, and Plutarch, and an "Essay on Dramatic Literature" - consists chiefly of a mass of his dramatic writings, couched in the most extravagant and unmanly terms of flattery. It is in vain to say that this was the spirit of the time; we have only to turn to Milton and behold that a great soul despised such creeping and licking the shoes of the aristocracy as much then as now.

Clarendon's "History of the Rebellion" and memoirs of his own life assume a permanent importance from the position which he occupied in the struggles of those times; but as literary compositions they are very defective in style, and as historical authority, the very circumstances of the writer as a partisan and a deserter of the side of freedom, make it necessary to read them with caution. Hobbes, the celebrated philosopher of Malmesbury, was one of the most powerful minds of the age, but at the same time one of the most mischievous. By his works, called the "Leviathan," his treatise on "Human Nature," on "Liberty," and "Necessity," and his "Decameron Physiologicum," with others of the like kind, he became the head of the school of deistical if not atheistical writers, which has found such wide acceptance in France, Germany, and even in our own country. The admirers of Hobbes are very zealous in defending him from the charge of being the apostle of infidelity, and accuse the advocates of Christianity and man's spiritual nature of maligning him; but the best proof is that the Encyclopedists of France, the Uluminati and Strausians of Germany, claim him as their great Goliath, and draw their strongest shafts out of his quiver and those of his disciples, Tindal and Hume. They are the English sceptics, who are, in fact, the fathers of French and German scepticism with all its consequences. Mr. Mill says - "Hobbes is a great name in philosophy, on account both of what he taught, and the extraordinary impulse which he communicated to the spirit of free inquiry in Europe." It is this very influence which is to be deplored, for Hobbes's inquiries had a decided bias to ignore the very highest faculties and qualities of human nature, and his greatest discoveries were to discover nothing. Hobbes is no longer read, but his principles are distilled through a thousand atheistical alembics all over the world. It has been well observed by a modern writer that, " as for what is properly to be called his system of philosophy - and it is to be observed that in his own writings his views in metaphysics, in morals, in politics, are all bound and built up together into one consistent whole - the question of the truth or falsehood of that seems to be completely settled. Nobody now professes more than a partial Hobbism. If so much of the creed of the philosopher of Malmesbury as affirms the non-existence of any essential distinction between right and wrong, the non-existence of conscience or the moral sense, the non-existence of anything beyond mere sensation in either emotion or Intelligence, and other similar negatives of his moral and metaphysical doctrine, has still its satisfied disciples, who is now a Hobbist either in politics or mathematics? Yet certainly it is in these latter departments that we must look for the greater part of what is absolutely original in the notions of this teacher. Hobbes's philosophy of human nature is not amiss as a philosophy of Hobbes's own human nature. Without passions or imagination himself, and steering his own course through life by the mere calculations of an enlightened selfishness, one half of the broad mass of humanity was to him nothing better than a blank."

That is precisely the secret of the whole of his philosophy - the evidence of an intense selfishness and pride of intellect, and the absence of the finer faculties of the soul. As if Providence would give a proof of it, Hobbes set himself to a labour which required all these faculties. He translated Homer, both "Iliad" and "Odyssey;" and a more meagre, soulless, miserable failure never appeared. As a far greater psychologist than Hobbes has said, "The natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."

Hobbes was as thorough an advocate of political despotism as of spiritual negation, as is testified by his "De Corpore Politico," his "Leviathan," and "Behemoth," which last is an absurd name for a history of the civil wars from 1640 to, 1660. Hobbes lived to a great age, praised by his admirers as a specimen of independence, yet living the greater part of his fife in a state of dependence in other men's houses, and at other men's cost. In fact, he appears to have been of a crabbed and overbearing temper. His arguments were ably answered by Cudworth, by Clarendon, bishops Cumberland, Bramhall, and Tenison, by Dr. Henry More - just mentioned - in his "History of Philosophy;" by Eachard, and others; yet the late Sir William Molesworth thought it worthwhile to rake up Hobbes's forgotten putrefactions, and to publish an expensive edition of his works.

A writer whose works have had a far different and more salutary influence was Richard Baxter. Baxter held the same position in the religious world as Halifax in the political one. Halifax gloried in the name of a "Trimmer." He was constantly occupying the middle post in the world of party. Sometimes one party congratulated itself that it had him, but anon it found him defending measures of the opposite one. In fact, he was an independent thinker, and extending one hand to either party as he thought it right at the moment, he turned the balance of conflicting opinions. Exactly so with Richard Baxter; a clergyman of the church of England, he was yet a decided nonconformist. He was a monarchist in theory, but was so disgusted with the royalists for their licentiousness and notions of absolutism, that he went over to the camp of Cromwell and preached in it. But when Cromwell assumed the supreme power, again Baxter was on the other side, condemning to his face his usurpation. Baxter's mediating views led him to hope, on the return of Charles II., that nonconformity and the church might shake hands. He believed in Charles's "Healing Declaration," and drew an accommodating liturgy, but found himself deceived; the hierarchy rejected all such amalgamations. He became a sufferer from nonconformity, and yet remained an advocate of conformity to a certain extent. Just the same in his theological views, with one hand he embraced Calvin, with the other Arminius. He rejected Calvin's doctrine of reprobation, yet accepted his theory of election - that is, that certain persons are pre-ordained from all eternity as instruments for certain work by God; but yet agreed with Arminius's assertion that all men whatever are capable of salvation, for that Christ distinctly declared that he died for all, and that whoever believed should be saved. The views of Baxter were adopted by large numbers, who became a sect under the name of "Baxterians;" but they gradually became absorbed into the different denominations of the independents, baptists, &c., who may now be considered as generally holding Baxter's mild and amiable opinions. Drs. Watts and Doddridge were eminent professors of Baxter's creed. The chief works of Baxter are his "Methodus Theologise," his "Catholic Theology," and his "Saints' Everlasting Rest." The last is by far the most popular. It has been circulated by tens of thousands into all quarters where the English language reaches, and, like the "Pilgrim" of Bunyan, is to be found on the shelves of the cottage and the farm in the remotest nooks. Perhaps no book ever gave so much consolation to the spirits of so many simple and earnest seekers after religious rest as this work of the venerable Richard Baxter.

Bunyan was a cotemporary of Baxter, but a man of a more robust and sturdy temper. Lying twelve years in Bedford gaol for his religious faith, he there produced his immortal "Pilgrim's Progress," a work which, as the production of an illiterate tinker, was contemptuously ignored by the critics and the learned of the time, till it had spread like a flood over the whole land, was become the delight of the whole nation, except their erudite selves, and at last forced even them to wonder and admire. Yet even now, whilst praising, they qualify the praise by its being "a wonderful work for a tinker," and place Bunyan amid the minor lights of the time. The "Pilgrim" is a wonderful work for any man, and Bunyan was undoubtedly a genius of the very first class. As an allegorist there is not another fit to carry his shoes after him - not even Spenser or Mrs. Tyghe.

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Pictures for The Progress of the Nation page 7

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