Paul Fussell, The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism: Ethics and Imagery from Swift to Burke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).
In pursuance of my project of reading the works of Dr. Johnson (see the immediately preceding post), I decided I would prepare myself for the task by re-reading another of my favourite books. Paul Fussell is a well-known literary critic who is perhaps most famous for his minor classic, The Great War and Modern Memory. Though much of his work consists of insightful meditations on the subjects of war and social class, his earlier academic career was devoted to the study of eighteenth-century English literature. It is to this earlier phase of his career that The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism belongs.
First, some terminology. For those not familiar with it, the adjective “Augustan” refers to the English literature of roughly the first half of the eighteenth century. It is derived from the name of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, whose reign (33 BC – AD 14) was perceived to have been a golden age for Latin literature, in which the great names of Virgil, Horace, and Livy had their flowering. The eighteenth century was perceived to have been an age in which English writing reached its zenith of elegance and “correctness”.
The Augustan age also happens to coincide with the era popularly known as the Enlightenment, a period in which great advances were made in philosophy, and the natural and social sciences. However, Fussell contends that all was not light and triumphalist optimism. There was a strand running through the century’s literary legacy which was not so sanguine about the new intellectual horizons opening up. This camp saw degeneration instead of progress, and in the ongoing “Battle of the Books” between the Ancients and Moderns it firmly sided with the former. This camp — it was really more of an attitude than an organized movement — Fussell calls "Augustan humanism".
According to Fussell, Augustan humanism was represented in the main by an unbroken line of writers beginning with Jonathan Swift, and running through Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Edward Gibbon, to Edmund Burke. Later we shall have reason have reason to quibble with the representativeness of this selection of writers, but first we must get a handle on what were the characteristics of the humanism in Augustan humanism. Fussell lists a dozen, although there is some overlap. I suppose the thing I find most compelling about the book is that these characteristics sketch an attitude towards art and life that is recognizably my own.
Characteristics of Augustan Humanism
1. “The humanist either possesses or affects such broad and historical awareness of actual human nature as to justify grave doubts about the probability of any moral or qualitative ‘progress’” (p. 4)
2. “The humanist believes that most human ‘problems’ cannot be solved” (p. 5)
3. The humanist believes that “the mind and the imagination — what perhaps can be called the symbol-making power — are the quintessential human attributes. This is to insist that man becomes fully human, or properly realized, only when he uses his mind in a uniquely human way” (p. 5)
4. “The humanist betrays so habitual and profound a concern with the act of evaluation that it often grows into what can be described as ‘the evaluative obsession’. This ‘vertical’ cast of mind seems impelled to order everything in rank…. This libido aestmandi is naturally accompanied by hierarchical rather than egalitarian expectations about society and politics” (p. 6)
5. “The humanist is pleased to experience a veneration, which often approaches the elegiac, for the past, a feeling accompanied by a deep instinct for the tested and the proven in the history of human experience” (pp. 6-7)
6. “The humanist assumes that ethics and expression are closely allied. It is this assumption that that makes possible Johnson’s unique fusion of biographical, ethical, and aesthetic criticism in The Lives of the Poets” (p. 7)
7. “The humanist is convinced that man’s primary obligation is the strenuous determination of moral questions; he thus believes that inquiries into the technical operation of the external world (‘science’) constitute not only not distinctly secondary but even irrelevant and perhaps dangerous activities” (p. 7)
8. “The humanist is convinced that human nature, for all its potential dignity, is irremediably flawed and corrupt at the core” (p. 8)
9. “The humanist tends to assume that the world of physical nature is morally neutral and thus largely irrelevant to man’s actual — that is, his moral — existence” (p. 8)
10. “The humanist tends to be suspicious of theories of government or human nature which appear to scant the experienced facts of man’s mysterious complexity. To the humanist, man’s most dangerous temptation is his lust to conceive of his nature as simpler than it is” (p. 9)
11. “The humanist assumes that, because of man’s flaw and his consequent need of redemptive assistance, man’s relation to literature and art is primarily moral and only secondarily aesthetic” (p. 9)
12. “Finally, the humanist believes that man is absolutely unique as a species” (p. 9). He tends to avoid analogies between humans and other animals.
After outlining and explaining what Augustan humanism is, Fussell proceeds to explore how this moral attitude makes itself manifest in the works of his chosen group of writers, particularly through certain recurrent types of imagery. These types are (i) warfare and sieges, (ii) cities and architecture, (iii) clothing and fashion, (iv) insects and other vermin, and (v) roads and journeys. This latter part of the book is interesting to the literary critic, but other readers may wish to skip it.
Fussell’s Literary Representatives
The writer on Fussell’s list who most aptly reflects the Augustan humanist attitude is Samuel Johnson. Fussell admits as much, which is why he lingers most commonly on Johnson’s works. Burke too is an obvious choice. And I can have little quibble with adding Swift to the list, if for no other reason than the rage and moral indignation always shadowed forth in his satire.
The rationale for including certain other writers eludes me. The optimistic Pope of the Essay on Man seems an ill fit with the underlying pessimism of the humanist attitude. I suppose that a selective culling of his work could provide passages that might indicate positions compatible with the humanist attitude, but overall he is in my opinion a strange exemplar.
One would think that Gibbon’s religious heterodoxy should exclude him outright, and perhaps this is why of all the writers Fussell gives him the least space (and while mostly making use of the same few chapters of The Decline and Fall).
I could make a case for adding at least two other authors to Fussell’s team. One is Bishop Berkeley, particularly the Berkeley of Alciphron and Passive Obedience, as well as his contributions to The Guardian.
The other author, I imagine, will sound a strange addition to those only familiar with the popular image of him. That author is Lord Shaftesbury. To those who — like Fussell — have not read him but have read of him, Shaftesbury is the philosopher par excellence of optimism and Deism. When one reads his letters and private journals one quickly understands that his supposed optimism (which has been much exaggerated) is largely a public persona he adopted to encourage his readers to moral virtue. In reality, few moralists of the age had more awareness of the frailty of human nature than Shaftesbury. As for his Deism, it is true that he was suspicious of organized religion and the clergy, believing them to be parasitic on some of the worst aspects of our nature. But this is an attitude perfectly in keeping with Augustan humanism. Furthermore, he did affirm the social usefulness of religion, adhering to Locke’s dictum that only the few can understand; the majority must believe.
And most importantly, Shaftesbury better exemplifies characteristics 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, and 12 than almost any of the authors Fussell considers. There is good reason why contemporary readers could not tell Shaftesbury and Swift apart. On the few occasions that Fussell does mention him, Shaftesbury is dismissed with a contempt that can only come from not having actually read him.
Nonetheless, despite my criticisms, the book is beautifully written and restores a much-deserved dignity to a group of writers, many of whom (e.g. Johnson and Burke) have been unjustly characterized as conservative and reactionary cranks.