Wednesday, April 6, 2011
My Dear Mr. Avenger,
Since we are become familiar, you must by now have recogniz’d that my Admiration for my Lord SHAFTESBURY knows no bounds; it borders upon Idolatry. His is a Muse at once both elegant in Expression and profound in Philosophy. This is a rare mixture indeed, for with the exception of the Clergy, there is perhaps no Tribe of Writers less polite than your profound Philosophers, while your witty and elegant Authors too often do little more than frolick in the Shallows of useful Knowledge. And there are always, of course, your mere Grub Street Scribblers, who manage to excell in both these Faults; these are literary Mercenaries, who make a nasty Meal of what their betters sh―t.
(I pray thee, excuse me my coarse Mode of Expression, but as I said, we are now become familiar.)
And yet, I have ever been uncomfortable with my Lord Shaftesbury’s Doctrine of Ridicule as a Test of Truth. Methinks his uncommon dislike of Hypocrisy, and of grave Church-Writers, has led his noble Genius down an errant Path. The best way, thought he, to pull the Mask from off such Hypocrisy was to cause it to be laugh’d at. Where we cannot demonstrate the Error or Knavishness of such Divines through Argument, we ought to do it through Raillery. I find myself unable to comprehend why there shou’d be a necessary or even reliable Connexion between that which is humourous, and that which is true. Not being myself competent to argue against this View, but knowing it in my Heart to be mistaken, I have chosen instead to assume that my Lord intends such Raillery to combat not the Arguments but merely the Ill-Humour of his Adversaries. I flatter him thus, rather than entertain the Notion that my beloved Shaftesbury might be mistaken in his Opinion.
It is therefore with a paradoxical mixture of Satisfaction and Disappointment that I find my Reservations about this Doctrine of Ridicule express’d plainly and judiciously in a late Book by the Reverend Mr. BROWN, entituled Essays on the Characteristicks, which has but just come into my Hands [John Brown, Essays on the Characteristics of the Earl of Shaftesbury (London: C. Davis, 1751) ― Ed.].
I find myself in compleat Concurrence with the Observation of Mr. Brown, that to make Laughter the Test of what may be rightly laugh’d at, wou’d be as if we were “to make Fear the Test of Danger, or Anger the Test of Injury” (p. 94). In all these things, the Passions may mislead us. I may be afear’d where no Danger lurks, and I may be angry at a Trifle. In all such Matters, ‘tis Reason which must tell us if we laugh with Propriety.
“’Tis the Province of Reason alone, to correct the Passions,” quoth Mr. Brown (p. 14). To this the Author of a Treatise of Human Nature, who styles himself an Experimental Moralist, might well reply, that a Passion, much like the Force or Impetus of a Body in Motion, is best oppos’d by another, stronger, Passion. However, this Opinion of Mr. HUME’s tells us nothing concerning Truth. After all, witty Jack may make a pleasing Jest upon angry Tom, thereby diverting or damp’ning the latter’s ill-Humour, while for all that, both Jack and Tom may wallow in equal Ignorance upon whatever is the Matter in Contention, like two Clowns or Rusticks pitted ‘gainst each other in a School-Disputation. ‘Tis plain Logick that, where two Parties are oppos’d upon some Point, altho’ at least one Party must needs be wrong, neither need be right.
Even those Works of the Muses which purport to affect the Imagination, must bear the Stamp of Probability ― that is, must wear the Aspect of Truth ― if they are to impart their wonted Effect upon the Passions, for, quoth Mr. Brown, “every Representation of Poetry or Eloquence, which only apply to the Fancy and Affections, must finally be examined and decided upon, must be try’d, rejected, or receiv’d as the reasoning Faculty shall determine. And thus, REASON alone is the Detector of Falsehood, and the TEST OF TRUTH” (pp. 40-41). Poets must make their Addresses to old Father Reason if they wish to gain an Entrance to the Chamber of Lady Imagination.
My Lord Shaftesbury approves of ARISTOTLE’s advice to “oppose your Opponent’s serious Arguments by Raillery, and his Raillery by serious Argument” [Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1.3.18 ― Ed.]. But if your Opponent’s serious Argument also be nevertheless true, what good can Raillery do, except to detract from the Virtues of his Argument? What is needful is an examination of the Argument in a cool Hour, using ― what else? ― Reason. To give all over to Jest and Raillery, were not only to Fail to deliver Light unto the Eyes of others, but to succeed in putting out our own Eyes at the same Time.
Even our noble Author admits as much. Tho’ I have no Reason to suspect him of being anything other than a faithful Adherent of our most holy Protestant Religion, yet my Lord wou’d have it that:
“Happy it was for us, that when Popery had got possession, Smithfield was us’d in a more tragical way. Many of our first Reformers, ’tis fear’d, were little better than Enthusiasts: and God knows whether a Warmth of this kind did not considerably help us in throwing off that spiritual Tyranny. So that had not the Priests, as is usual, prefer’d the love of Blood to all other Passions, they might in a merrier way, perhaps, have evaded the greatest Force of our reforming Spirit. I never heard that the antient Heathens were so well advis’d in their ill Purpose of suppressing the Christian Religion in its first Rise, as to make use, at any time, of this Bart’lemy-Fair Method. But this I am persuaded of, that had the Truth of the Gospel been any way surmountable, they wou’d have bid much fairer for the silencing it, if they had chosen to bring our primitive Founders upon the Stage in a pleasanter way than that of Bear-Skins and Pitch-Barrels.” [Characteristicks, Vol. I, pp. 28-29 ― Ed.]
In other words, had the Popish Persecutors of our English Protestants followed a different Course, and employ’d Raillery instead of Fire and Sword on their Enemys, perhaps this Realm had remain’d Catholick still. In which case, as Mr. Brown rightly notes (p. 75 ff.), Raillery wou’d have caused Falsehood to prevail over Truth, the opposite of the Doctrine’s intended Effect.
Methinks this Doctrine of Ridicule as a Test of Truth relies too much upon the Presumption that he who ridicules is also he who is already in Possession of the Truth. But where this is not the Case, where the Railleur happens to be in the Wrong, may not Raillery do more Harm than Good to the noble Cause of Truth? The same must needs be the Case where, as so often happens, it is not known with certainty which of the contending Parties is in Possession of the Truth, tho’ each believes himself so. Each may employ his satyrick Darts upon his Adversary, while we who look on are no more the wiser for their Trouble, once the Dust of Disputation has settl’d.
I am inclin’d to agree with the elegant Author of Fitzosborne’s Letters, who writes that “it is not every Arm, however, that is qualified to manage this formidable Bow. The Arrows of Satyr, when they are not pointed by Virtue, as well as Wit, recoil upon the Hand that directs them, and wound none but him from whom they proceed…. There is nothing to be dreaded,” says he, “from a Satyrist of known Dishonesty, but his Applause” [William Melmoth, The Letters of Sir Thomas Fitzosborne, on Several Subjects (1742), “Letter XLVIII” (5th edition, London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1758), pp. 237-238 ― Ed.]. Tho’ Satyr may occasionally render good Service unto Truth, yet ‘tis a prickly Weapon, to be wielded only by Characters of Superior Merit, who are more interested in filling the Minds of Men with useful Knowledge, than in winning the vain and unmeaning Applause of a shallow Mob.
I am, Sir, your servant, etc.
Jos. Darlington, Esq.