A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Of the Benevolence of the Deity

December 4, 1754

My Dear Mr. Avenger,

‘Tis out of the great Respect I have for your Wisdom and Learning that I write to solicit your Opinion of an Argument I have come across in my Lord SHAFTESBURY’s Works. I shou’d very much like to have your Reflections on this ingenious bit of Reasoning of his Lordship, who was attempting to prove the benevolence of the Deity. I find myself in Disagreement with him, and since, as you know, I idolize this great Man, I must therefore suspect it is me who is mistaken. For this Reason, I seek your Judgment in this little Matter.

The Divine Mind, says my Lord, must really be benevolent, because Malice can only come from an Opposition of particular Interests, and since the Deity cannot be sayd to have any such particular Interests (His Mind being in every respect universal, and He being powerful enough to overcome any Opposition to His Interest in an Instant), it follows that He cannot be said to bear any Malice towards his Creatures. To avoyd Misrepresentation, I provide here his Lordship’s very Words:

“There is an odd way of reasoning, but in certain Distempers of Mind very sovereign to those who can apply it; and it is this: ‘There can be no Malice but where Interests are oppos’d. A universal Being can have no Interest opposite; and therefore can have no Malice.’ If there be a general Mind, it can have no particular Interest: But the general Good, or Good of the Whole, and its own private Good, must of necessity be one and the same. It can intend nothing besides, nor aim at any thing beyond, nor be provok’d to any thing contrary. So that we have only to consider, whether there be really such a thing as a Mind which has relation to the Whole, or not. For if unhappily there be no Mind, we may comfort our selves, however, that Nature has no Malice: If there be really a Mind, we may rest satisfy’d, that it is the best-natur’d one in the World” [Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Vol. I, pp. 39-40 — Ed.].

‘Tis a pretty Argument indeed. And tho’ asserting the Benevolence of the supreme Maker is certainly sound Divinity, with which I wou’d not quibble, yet ‘tis not sound Philosophy. For his Lordship’s first Premise, that all Malice must spring from the Opposition of particular Interests, stands it self in need of Demonstration. Indeed, we might imagine for a Moment, for the mere sake of idle Speculation, that which ‘tis Heresy to believe in good earnest, that the Deity, far from being benevolent, is indeed purely malicious. Let us, I say, imagine this, whilst still allowing that He has no particular Interests; such a Deity might still be said to possess disinterested Malice. Disinterested Malice, tho’ thankfully rare, yet we must admit that there are those few moral Monsters among us who, implanted with the Seed of pure Evil, may possess it in some considerable degree. Indeed, if we take an honest Accounting of our inward Souls, of those secret Springs of our Actions, we must admit that we are at Times our selves moved from a Maliciousness that is best describ’d as disinterested. We thus differ from the moral Monsters of our Species more in Degree than in Kind. Such is the Patrimony of that original Sin of our first Parents.

The Spectacles presented in the Bear-Garden for our dubious Edification, in which we revel in watching such a noble Beast torn apart by Dogs, attest to this disinterested Malice, for in the absence of a Wager, we cannot be said to have a particular Interest in whether Bear or Dog is destroy’d; we simply wish to take joy in the suffering of another Creature whose Existence bears no other Relation to our own. Now, one supposes this might be characterized as an interested Malice, our real Interest being the supposed Profit gotten by being entertain’d rather than in the more monetary Profit to be had by wagering.

Yet in Truth, it is still a disinterested Malice. For first, there can be no Doubt that taking any kind of Pleasure in the Misfortune or Suffering of a Fellow-Creature is an Example of what we call Malice. Second, where that Fellow-Creature (as I said) bears no Relation to me, nor to my Interests, then this Malice must needs be disinterested. At bottom, it is Suffering as such that I take Pleasure in, whether it be the Suffering of the Bear or of one of his canine Tormentors. The Bear-Garden represents simply the Occasion to satisfy this perverse Lust. This is what makes a Taste for such Spectacles vicious in the utmost degree. If the Bear were attacking me, and if in fending it off, I caused it much Hurt, tho’ my taking Pleasure in its Hurt wou’d still be vicious, it wou’d be less so than where I take Pleasure in hurting it unprovok’d.

(The seeming inability of my Neighbours to comprehend this has made me the Laughing-Stock of this Neighbourhood, for I cannot take any Joy in the Hunt and abhor its Cruelty; what they see as mere effeminacy in me, I flatter myself in thinking is a Mark of no little Vertue.)

Rising from the Bear-Garden and the Prize-Fight to the bloody Productions of our English tragick Stage, this same disinterested Malice is evident among audiences of the better Sort. The Portrayal of the gruesome Death of a tragick Hero, perhaps with all his Friends, Servants and Kin piled up in a bloody Heap of Dead around him, is the preferr’d Occasion for People of Quality to Vent this same sort of Malice. The Taste for such refin’d Atrocity is a Vice barely mitigated by the Fact that the Suffering and Death portray’d is fictional only. Perhaps, if the Play be well-writ, it will contain some Instructive Moral, but any such Edification is wholly undone by this peculiar Habit of our English Authors of catering to the baser Elements of our Nature whilst they presume to instruct. Why cannot the Violence happen off-Stage? Why must the Audience be made to watch a Man disembowel himself before them, that they might believe they have got their Shilling’s worth from the Entertainment?

It may be that amongst all the earthly Creation, it is only Mankind that may be motivated by this pure, disinterested Malice. But if Man is made in God’s Image, and if a Man might be radically evil in this Way, why may not the Deity be so too? I must admit to you, dear Friend, that in my darker Hours, I cannot look upon this Theatre of Pain without being led to reflect that its Manager must be perverse.

Such a kind of unmotivated Malice as I have been describing is near as evil a Thing as can be imagin’d. It shou’d lead us to consider the possibility that disinterestedness, however virtuous it may be in a Judge or a publick Minister, yet on other Occasions is perhaps not always that Vertue or Good it is imagin’d to be by some, including my Lord Shaftesbury. I am here reminded of an Observation of the late Lord Bishop of DURHAM, who said that “Disinterestedness is so far from being in it self commendable, that the utmost possible Depravity which we can in Imagination conceive is that of disinterested Cruelty” [Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726), Preface, para. 39  ̶  Ed.].

Thus, Lord Shaftesbury’s Demonstration leaves us only with the uncomfortable Contemplation that either the Deity is wholly benevolent or else He is possess’d of the worst Kind of Maliciousness imaginable, the disinterested Kind. If this were the Case (which I hope it is not), it wou’d seem, then, that like other Characters stamp’d with the Impress of Greatness, the Almighty does nothing by half Measures.

Such are my unorthodox thoughts on the Matter. Pray, show this to no one, but rather burn it, and send me your Reply by the next Post.

As always, I am, Sir,
           Your humble Servant, etc.

                   Jos. Darlington, Esq.
                           Darlington Close
                           Horton-Cum-Studley, Oxon.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Importance of "Hudibras"

Samuel Butler (1612-1680)
On 26 December 1662 Samuel Pepys, upon being told of a “new book of Drollery in verse called Hudebras, I would needs go find it out; and met with it at the Temple, cost me 2s-6d”. However, when he got it home and began to read it, he found it “so silly an abuse of the Presbyter-Knight going to the wars, that I am ashamed of it; and by and by meeting at Mr. Townsends at dinner, I sold it to him for 18d.”

Nevertheless, by 6 February 1663 Pepys had a change of heart, “and so to a bookseller’s in the Strand and there bought Hudibras again, it being certainly some ill humour to be so set against that which all the world cries up to be the example of wit – for which I am resolved once again to read him and see whether I can find it or no.” In other words, by February, the book was so popular that the usually self-assured Pepys had begun to doubt his own judgment in not liking it.

Later in 1663, a second part was published and Pepys, ever the man of fashion, duly went to his bookseller to seek it out, “which I buy not but borrow to read, to see if it be as good as the first, which the world cries so mightily up; though it hath not a good liking in me, though I had tried by twice or three times reading to bring myself to think it witty.” The man was nothing if not persistent (as many a London tavern-keeper’s wife could no doubt have attested). This attempt at tackling Hudibras went no better than the previous ones; Pepys finally judged that “I cannot, I confess, see enough where the wit lies”.

So what was this book that the intelligentsia in Restoration England cried up so mightily for its wit? It was a mock heroic poem published in three parts between 1662 and 1677, which satirized (mostly) the parliamentary side during the Civil War. Its central character was the hapless fictional Puritan gentleman soldier, Sir Hudibras. To be honest, the story is not very compelling, especially to the modern reader, and Pepys had a fair point in finding the language a little low. But there is no denying that its author, Samuel Butler (1612-1680), had a lively sense of humour.

I will not attempt to give a plot summary here. If you want to know the plot, I suggest that you go and read it yourself. Or look it up on Wikipedia. However, long-time readers of this blog will have noted by now that quotations from Hudibras appear sprinkled here and there with some frequency. Here are some examples with which I’ve previously bespattered my posts, which may give you some sense of Butler’s wit.

“‘Mong these there was a Politician,
With more heads than a Beast in Vision,
And more Intrigues in ev’ry one,
Than all the Whores of Babylon:
So politick, as if one eye
Upon the other were a Spy;
*        *        *
And when he chanc’d t’escape, mistook
For Art, and Subtlety, His Luck,
So right his Judgment was cut fit,
And made a Tally to his wit,
And both together most Profound
At Deeds of Darkness under ground:
As th’Earth is easiest undermin’d
By vermine Impotent and Blind.”
(Part III, Canto II, 351-356 and 393-400)

(The above lines appeared in a post as part of a description of Stephen Harper)

“He knew what’s what, and that’s as high
As Metaphysick wit can flie.”

And as a sample of the mock heroic style, that curious mixture of the lofty and the sinking, one cannot do much better than the “Argument” to Part I, Canto I, which opens Butler’s work:

Sir Hudibras his passing worth,
The manner how he sally’d forth:
His Arms and Equipage are shown;
His Horse’s Vertues, and his own.
Th’ Adventure of the Bear and Fiddle
Is sung, but breaks off in the middle.

Now, if Hudibras is so great, why does nobody read it anymore? The main reason probably has to do with the specificity of the subject matter. The work is full of “inside jokes”, and if you don’t have a pretty deep knowledge of the history of the Civil War years and the persons and events alluded to, much of the humour will be lost on you. It also doesn’t help that Butler was a well-educated man who made frequent references to obscure seventeenth-century – and earlier – works of philosophy, astrology, and divinity. It didn’t take long before this caused problems for readers. I have a 1739 edition of the work (with illustrations by Hogarth that became popular in their own right), which the editor has found it necessary to generously lard with explanatory footnotes. An 1811 edition, also in my possession, wisely converts these into endnotes, thereby freeing up the pages for actual verse. Clearly the printed page was getting too cluttered. The current scholarly edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967, John Wilders, ed.), a virtuoso performance in the editorial arts, besides incorporating those early footnotes, devotes about a quarter of the total volume length to detailed explanatory endnote commentary. In other words, for even the most academic modern reader Hudibras has become a text to grapple with rather than to read for pleasure.

No, I can’t blame people for no longer being interested in reading Hudibras. Well, with one qualification: I would blame scholars of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English literature and history for not reading it, since Hudibras was so well-known to literate people of those times as to have been quoted almost as much as Shakespeare or the Bible. I would go so far as to say, a student of the period must have at least a working familiarity with the work in order to be regarded as trustworthy or competent from a scholarly point of view. This judgment seems harsh, but not in light of Hudibras’ influence on the culture of that time. I shall give two examples where an otherwise very good scholar has undermined their own authority by demonstrating ignorance of Butler’s work.

The first example comes from James Leheny’s otherwise quite good edition of Joseph Addison’s Freeholder (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979). In Freeholder No. 3 (30 December 1715), Addison offers a satirical character sketch of a Jacobite rebel. The rebel says “I must needs say I gained my Commission by my Horse’s Vertues, not my own”. Now, anyone familiar with Hudibras would have immediately recognized this as an obvious allusion to that opening  “Argument” to Part I, Canto I, quoted above (“His Arms and Equipage are shown; / His Horse’s Vertues, and his own”). Unfortunately, Leheny misses this. Instead, he takes this opportunity to offer a lengthy footnote on the English rebels who joined the Scots, and how they consisted mostly of horse, and their horses being hunting horses not fit for battle. This gloss is, speaking charitably, only marginally relevant to Addison’s text. It is possible that Leheny thought the allusion to Butler too obvious to require comment, but if so, why descant on the unfitness of rebel horses at such length? Better an obvious gloss than a meandering and irrelevant one. And given how unfamiliar Hudibras is to modern readers, I doubt that the allusion is so obvious as to require no comment. The fact is, Hudibras has become so obscure a text, that an otherwise competent scholar of the period can get away with being blissfully ignorant of it. But the Spectacled Avenger shall not let such ignorance pass.

The second example comes from Peter Laslett’s magisterial edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690), which has for decades now been the last word on that text. In his “Preface” to the Two Treatises, Locke complains of the doctrine of passive obedience to monarchy being spread from the pulpit by high-flying churchmen of the time. He writes that “There cannot be done a greater Mischief to Prince and People, than the Propagating wrong Notions concerning Government, that so at last all times might not have reason to complain of the Drum Ecclesiastick.” Now that last phrase of Locke’s is clearly a reference to Hudibras, Part I, Canto I, lines 9-12:

“When Gospel-trumpeter, surrounded
With long-ear’d rout, to Battel sounded,
And Pulpit, Drum Ecclesiastick,
Was beat with fist, instead of a stick”

To this Laslett inserts a footnote, in which he unhelpfully glosses “Drum Ecclesiastick” as “pulpit”, and then proceeds to an irrelevant quotation from James Tyrrell’s Patriarcha non Monarcha (1681) about “wind blown theologues”. Now, we know that Locke read Tyrrell and knew him personally, but there is absolutely nothing in his words here to justify the inference that he had Tyrrell in mind. Laslett has overlooked Locke’s obvious allusion to Butler, instead going much further afield to find an allusion that is neither obvious nor warranted. I can only surmise that this is because Laslett was not familiar with Hudibras.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Chandler's Debates

I recently acquired, at a quite reasonable price, volumes 4, 6, 7, 9, and 12 of The History and Proceedings of the House of Commons, compiled and published by Richard Chandler in fourteen volumes in 1742 (I have since also acquired volumes 6, 7, and 8 of Ebenezer Timberland’s companion History and Proceedings of the House of Lords, also published in 1742). Chandler’s Debates, as they are more commonly known, were what passed for Hansard before the latter began official publication in 1803. They were mostly compiled from newspaper reports, supplemented by notes of proceedings kept by members, along with speeches submitted to the journals for publication by the writers themselves. Chandler’s Debates were neither thorough nor entirely accurate, but it was largely the only game in town if you wanted to know what went in in the House of Commons.

Now, even for someone like me, who is sunk quite deep in the history and literature of 18th-century Britain, Chandler’s Debates can make for some rather dry reading. I have just finished volume 4, and I can tell you, there is a sort of tedious “tick-tock” quality to the work: the Queen’s gracious address to the Commons (tick), followed by the address of thanks from the Commons to Her Majesty on her late gracious address (tock); list of Bills given royal assent that session (tick), followed by prorogation (tock), etc. Because it is the history of procedure, it has a mechanical quality, as all procedure does.

This monotonous rhythm is typically only broken up by a notable speech here, or a rumour of a French invasion there. And always there are excruciatingly detailed statements of revenue (“the Produce of the Fines arising in the Alienation-Office, including the necessary Expences of the Court of Chancery, and other Charges borne thereout, is by a Medium, 4,804 l.”) and expense (“to discharge Malt Tickets, issued 8 W[illiam III]., besides 254,557 l. for 6 years Interest, the principal Sum of 579,000 l.”).

Gripping stuff, no? And yet, there are little treasures to be gleaned from these volumes.

Parliamentary Eloquence

For instance, one comes across speeches that have undeservedly fallen into obscurity. Political speeches are unfortunately like the flies of a summer; they have their day, hatching in the heat of a political occasion, nourished by the warm excrement of politicking, and dying off along with the season. There are of course exceptions to this general rule.

In our day, eloquent and moving political oratory has almost ceased to exist. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: the only reason Barack Obama has a reputation for oratory is because there really are no orators left. As the proverb says, “in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” I remember how shortly after the September 11 attacks, Tony Blair was described by a CBC reporter as having given a speech “of Ciceronian eloquence” on the subject. I heard that speech, and I don’t know which I found more surprising, the fact that such a bloodless and lacklustre performance could be described in such glowing terms, or the fact that a CBC reporter might actually have had a vague inkling of who Cicero was.

Many of the scattered speeches in Chandler’s Debates have the power to remind one that there was a time, unfortunately before living memory, when not every politician was a rhetorical dullard. As an example, I submit to you Lord Belhaven’s 1706 “Mother Caledonia” speech to the Scottish Parliament on the Act of Union, which opens volume 4 of Chandler’s Debates. Technically, it doesn’t belong there at all, since it was not delivered at Westminster, but Chandler included it anyway, because it “deserves to be forever remember’d.”

Belhaven was against the union with England. Now, a modern politician would probably have made it a “bread and butter” issue, offering arguments showing how the union would destroy national autonomy, increase taxes, or be detrimental to trade and the economy, with appropriate statistics cherry-picked to back up his case. If he were particularly clever, he might throw in a cheap and clumsy ad hominem against his opponents too.

Belhaven avoids ad hominem attacks. He doesn’t weary the listener with statistics on national revenue and trade. He rather appeals to the heart, which is really the only way to sway an assembly, since appeals to rationality rarely move the party spirit from its fixed purposes. Belhaven begins by framing his argument in the form of a vision, of a future Scotland, after the nation and its trade and economy have been dismantled:

“I think I see a free and independent Kingdom delivering up that, which all the world hath been fighting for since the Days of Nimrod; yea, that for which most of all the Empires, Kingdoms, States, Principalities, and Dukedoms of Europe, are at this time engaged in the most bloody and cruel Wars that ever were, to wit, a Power to manage their own Affairs by themselves, without the Assistance and Counsel of any other.”

He then describes his vision of the various classes of Scotland from the highest peers to the lowest day-labourer, emasculated, corrupted, hungry, cheated:

“I think I see the honest industrious Tradesman loaded with new Taxes and Impositions, disappointed of the Equivalents, drinking Water in place of Ale, eating his saltless Pottage, petitioning for Encouragement to his Manufactures, and answered by Counter-Petitions…. In short, I think I see the laborious Ploughman, with his Corn spoiling upon his Hands, for want of Sale, cursing the Day of his Birth, dreading the Expence of his Burial, and uncertain whether to marry or do worse. I think I see the incurable Difficulties of the Landed-Men, fettered under the Golden Chain of Equivalents, their pretty Daughters petitioning for want of Husbands, and their Sons for want of Employment.”

He goes on like this, in a slow burn, steadily building to that crescendo which gave the speech its name:

“But above all, my Lord, I think I see our ancient Mother CALEDONIA, like C├Žsar, sitting in the midst of our Senate, ruefully looking round about her, covering herself with her royal Garment, attending the fatal Blow, and breathing out her last with an et tu quoque mi fili.”

And lest his hearers should forget the urgency and import of the question they are to decide, Belhaven brings it home, into the very room where they sit:

“Hannibal, my Lord, is at our Gates, Hannibal is come within our Gates, Hannibal is come the length of this Table, he is at the Foot of this Throne, he will demolish this Throne; if we take not notice, he’ll seize upon these Regalia, he’ll take them as our spolia opima, and whip us out of this House, never to return again.”

All through the speech, there is a running simile, wherein voting in favour of the Act of Union is characterized as a particularly loathsome kind of murder. The Romans, says Belhaven, reserved the most severe form of punishment for he who was guilty of parricide, of killing his father. Such an abomination was sewn up into a sack with a snake, a cock, and an ape, and thrown into the Tiber. How much worse punishment, Belhaven asks, do those merit who are guilty of patricide, of murdering their fatherland? Patricide, he says, is what the house is essentially contemplating, and those who vote in favour of union make themselves guilty of it.

I can’t remember ever hearing anything close to this kind of eloquence in the Canadian House of Commons in my lifetime.

The Ancient Fiscal Constitution

There are also lessons to be learned from Chandler’s Debates on how to manage the national finances.

When a government today wishes to enact a spending measure, what does it do? Well, generally speaking, and assuming it has decided for whatever reasons that the measure is a good idea, it simply estimates the cost and adds it as an item to the budget of the department concerned (this is of course somewhat oversimplified, but pretty accurate in the main).

And when a modern government adds all these items of expenditure up and finds that this column totals more than the other column in the budget (you know, the one containing estimated revenue), what does it do? Well, it depends. If, as in the United States, the expenditure in question won’t come due for several years yet (as is the case with social security and other similar unfunded entitlements), then it does nothing; it simply ignores it until it becomes some other future government’s problem.

If time does not allow for the American-style “kick-the-can-down-the-road” approach to public finance, then the new expenditure can be financed by:

1. Borrowing the money.

2. Making the new expenditure self-financing. Examples would be instituting a postal service by charging customers for delivery, or instituting a customs service whose agents are paid from the proceeds of confiscated goods.

3. Introducing a new source of revenue to pay for it. This needn’t be a tax — government lotteries were increasingly popular in the 18th century.

The first way seems to be the most common today, but it was not always thus. In Chandler’s Debates one realizes that 2 and 3 were far more common. If old churches needed to be repaired or new ones built, then perhaps a dedicated excise tax might be placed on all spirituous liquors. Sometimes the introduction of such a new tax betrays a fairly sophisticated understanding of policy analysis, as when war with France is partly financed by a punitive 25% duty on all goods imported from France. Here, any comparative success France enjoys in trade will contribute to Britain’s comparative military success, which is fairly clever when you think that today Britain would be more likely to simply impose a complete embargo on all enemy goods.

And in the 18th century, when the government had recourse to 3, there are a couple of ways in which it was done that differed from the way it is often done today. First, the new revenue stream was dedicated: if an excise was raised or a lottery set up to pay for road repairs, then that money went into a fund to pay for road repairs, not to wage war with France. It did not go into general revenues. As a matter of fact, the very idea of a “general revenue” was not very prominent in 18th century public finance.

(Indeed, I suspect that our propensity to think in general revenue terms is partly a product of the development of the income tax as the primary source of revenue: when the lion’s share of the treasury is made up from one source, then that source tends to be thought of as the de facto “general revenue”. I leave it to empirical research to discover whether this way of thinking is a cause or consequence also of the decreasing reliance on dedicated revenue streams.)

There is wisdom in this way of doing things. The ideal of having each item of expenditure financed by a corresponding dedicated revenue stream meant that there was a close relationship between the revenue and expenditure columns of the public accounts. The totals at the bottom of the two columns may not have always balanced exactly, but they would typically be a lot closer, especially over the long run. The modern custom tends to treat the two columns as conceptually unrelated. Viewing the expenditure side as being indefinitely expandable through borrowing, creates a situation in which revenue and expense have become uncoupled.

Furthermore, when a proposed expenditure is required to be met by a dedicated revenue stream, it is as if the public is simultaneously receiving a good or service and the bill for it. Do I like having well-maintained roads enough to cheerfully pay the 10% excise tax on my wine and beer? It enables citizens to be better informed of the value of publicly-provided goods and services and it (hopefully) enables politicians to make better choices about how to spend money. Under the modern finance regime, you are offered spending proposals by entrepreneurial politicians without being given a clear indication of what your share of the bill will be (or your children’s share, as the case may be). Price signals under the modern fiscal regime are hopelessly opaque. This distorts decision-making.

The second way in which the 18th-century method of raising revenue differed from the modern is that the new tax was typically closed- rather than open-ended: if the proposed road repairs were estimated to take two years, then the excise financing them would run for only two years (or however long it had to run to make good the cost of repairs). This time limit was expressly included in the legislation instituting the tax. This had the effect of curbing the “ratchet effect”, whereby new taxes are piled on top of old ones, with taxation eating up a growing share of national GDP (see Addendum 1, below). Taxation today tends to be open-ended; an incidental tax here and there may be repealed, but the overall level of taxation tends ever upward.

I have spoke at some length of revenue generation. However, I do not wish to give the impression that the British government in the 18th century never borrowed to pay for its activities. Deficit financing is not new. Then as now there were occasionally large contingencies that simply could not be paid for by the immediate imposition of taxes without doing more harm than good. Such was the case with the growing cost of the War of the Spanish Succession against France and her allies. This was essentially a Europe-wide war that dragged on for over a dozen years and took a severe toll on national finances. Despite generally prudent fiscal practices, 18th-century British governments were forced to borrow large sums.

Nevertheless, even in their borrowing, 18th-century governments seemed to possess a prudence lacking in modern public finance. When was the last time you heard the word “sinking fund” uttered by a minister of finance? In the past, it sometimes so happened that a dedicated stream of revenue would produce greater funds than expected or required to pay for its mandated expenditure. Typically, this money would be put into a sinking fund, the purpose of which was to redeem government bonds and retire debt. Often, where there was a plan to borrow money to finance an endeavor, such a sinking fund would also be mandated to pay down that debt according to a fixed schedule at the very same time the debt was incurred. Today, whenever there is a budget surplus (an admittedly rare occurrence under the modern fiscal constitution), great pressure is exerted by entrepreneurial politicians to apply the windfall to an expansion of spending. In the 18th century there would often be legislation that already earmarked it for debt retirement ahead of time, foreclosing the schemes of such entrepreneurial politicians.

(Of course, in practice it was not always that smooth: then as now, the temptation to raid a pot of surplus funds to pay for current exigencies was often too much for governments to resist. The difference is that in the past surpluses were spoken for before they even accrued, whereas today they become a political prize for politicians to fight over. And in theory at least, having clear sinking fund provisions should reduce the perceived credit risk of accepting government debt in the first place, thereby lowering the government’s cost of borrowing. At least, that is the theory; I leave it to abler minds than mine to prove or disprove it.)

All of these characteristics of 18th-century public finance make up what, paraphrasing James M. Buchanan, we might call the “ancient fiscal constitution” (see Buchanan’s Democracy in Deficit: The Legacy of Lord Keynes). To reiterate, these characteristics are:

  1. A preference for financing through dedicated revenue streams
  2. A systematic relationship between revenue and expense columns
  3. Revenue streams that are closed-ended
  4. Debt retirement through a sinking fund
It is worth noting that these characteristics were more a matter of custom and habit, a sort of generally accepted public-sphere morality. Sometimes there were deviations from this morality, and it was not enforced by some supreme lawgiver. Like all moralities, it was necessarily fragile, and contingencies gradually broke it down.

Addendum 1: Clarendon and the Excise

I recently came across the following little gem towards the end of Book VII of Lord Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. It is an early illustration of that “ratchet effect” spoken of earlier. When you read it, you might want to reflect upon how the income tax, introduced during World War One, was intended to be a temporary measure only.

Clarendon writes that in 1643 Parliament “laid an imposition, which they called an excise, upon wine, beer, ale, and many other commodities… for carrying on the war. This was the first time that ever the name of payment of excise was heard of or practiced in England.” The King’s side followed their lead, and “in Oxford, Bristol, and other garrisons, it did yield a reasonable supply for the provision of arms and ammunition; which, for the most part, it was assigned to; both sides making ample declarations, with bitter reproaches upon the necessity which drew on this imposition, ‘that it should be continued no longer than to the end of the war, and then laid down, and utterly abolished;’ which few wise men believed it would ever be.”

Addendum 2: “The Norfolk Steward”

Lest you think that I look upon the 18th-century as a Golden Age of public finance, I offer the following little gem to illustrate that even then, enterprising and unscrupulous politicians were quite capable of cooking the public books. It is extracted from “The History of the Norfolk Steward”, appearing as an Appendix to volume 3 of the collected Craftsman papers (London: R. Francklin, 1731).

The story is this: Mr. Lyn is steward to kindly Sir George English. It seems that the estate is being grossly mismanaged and run into debt, and the rack-rented tenants are grumbling. They are pressing Sir George to replace his incompetent steward. They repeatedly ask Lyn for a full accounting of Sir George’s affairs. Lyn avoids submitting his accounts for as long as he can, all the while claiming that as great as the debt may seem, it is greatly reduced from what it had been the decade previous. Thus, you see, all is not as bad as it may seem on paper.

Undeterred, the tenants continue to press him for full disclosure, in which demands Sir George concurs. Finally, being able to put it off no longer, the steward — too clever by half — submits his accounts, but with an explanation of the rather unorthodox method he has used to arrive at them.

The tale of the Norfolk Steward is allegorical. Mr. Lyn represents Prime Minister Robert Walpole, since Lyn is a town in Norfolk, and the “Norfolk mortgage” represents Walpole’s own constituency, since he was a Norfolk man and commonly stood accused of enriching himself and his cronies at the expense of the nation. Sir George English represents the King, and of course, the grumbling tenants represent the people of Great Britain. I leave you to reflect on whether Mr. Lyn’s accounting is not a piece of political cant as poetically sublime as Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”:

“There is not, perhaps, so great a Master in Europe of the grand Art of Bambouzle as Mr. Lyn. Though, said He, there are new Debts incurr’d, the old Debt is not increas’d. There are real Debts and nominal Debts. There are real nominal Debts, and nominal real Debts. There are family Debts and personal Debts; which, though the Family must pay, ought not to be brought to the Family Account. There are Debts never stated, tho’ incurred; and Debts which, tho’ incurred and stated, might never be paid; so that, upon the whole, you see, Gentleman, I have paid off a considerable Part of the Mortgage upon Sir George’s Estate. But when he was told, that tho’ it was true that Part of the Norfolk Mortgage was paid off, yet Sir George was really now as much in debt as before; because Mr. Lyn, to perform this mighty Deed, had borrow’d just as much upon Sir George’s Estate in Leicestershire, as he had paid off in Norfolk, so that the Ballance continued as before; he broke into a loud Laugh, and told the Tenants they knew nothing of Accounts, nor the difference between a Debt incurred and a Debt increased…. Nay, what is still more extraordinary, he stated his Account of Debts contracted to Christmas last only; whereas he calculated the Sum of Debts discharged to Lady-day next; a Method of stating and ballancing Accounts, which was never before practiced or heard of in these Parts!”

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Spenser’s Art of Sinking

My three favourite English poets, in rank order are Milton, Pope, and Spenser.

(I would add James Thomson, except for the fact that he was technically a Scot. I would also add Rochester, except that he is too uneven; when he is good he is great, but when he’s bad he’s wretched).

My love for Milton is based almost solely on Paradise Lost and the odd sonnet or two (though I should mention that much of his prose is also well worth the reading). Paradise Lost is always grand, and I never read it without coming away from it feeling ennobled somehow. No poet is perfect, though each may be imperfect in his own way. With Milton, his imperfections lie in his coinages and his Latinate vocabulary, which are not always elegant or felicitous, sounding a little too much of the learned chit-chat at the college High Table.

In Pope, I admire his wit. He is at his best when he is being funny, which is why it was a shame that my college professors had us spend so much time studying An Essay on Man rather than The Dunciad. Pope was no philosopher, and the Essay on Man reads like a cheap verse bowdlerization of Shaftesbury or Bolingbroke. He was a master of comedic irony and a vicious and brutal satirist (I mean this in a good way). If he has one major drawback, for me, it would be his tiresome heroic couplets, which were unfortunately the characteristic vice of the age and by no means peculiar to Pope. They are often clever, but over long stretches they are tiresome. Still, to blame him for this is about as useful as blaming your parents for the platform shoes or velour tracksuits they wore in those old family photographs; one must look past them.

And then we come to Spenser. His language is earthy, his vocabulary is English (except where he focuses on the minutiae of chivalric deeds and accoutrement, wherein he has recourse to a bastard French lexicon). Whether he is describing shepherds or battle wounds, his images are striking — someone should do a count of how often he uses the word “grisly” in The Faerie Queene. He loves to use archaisms, and although this could seem rather contrived and intrusive in a poet of lesser skill, in Spenser it is more often charming.

As for faults, Spenser has two that are, to my mind, only excusable by the fact that he wrote in an age when English criticism was still in its infancy. On the other hand, he was a Cambridge man and had a decent classical education, so he would have had ample opportunity to know about the poetic sins he was committing from such authorities as Horace, Quintilian, and perhaps Longinus. He cannot, I think, plead ignorance.

Spenser’s “Sinking”

In 1727, Pope published his humourous essay “Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry”. Its subject was the ways in which writers of his time commonly failed to hit at the level of sublimity or loftiness they were aiming at in their work, instead sinking into the commonplace, the bombastic, or the anticlimactic.

Sometimes a poet, whilst singing of great themes, goes on too long, until the reader is simply wearied. Or else, although not exactly wearied, the reader’s expectations are built up to such a height that the tension created is out of all proportion to the actual issue. Here I think of the Earl of Roscommon’s line in An Essay on Translated Verse (1685), echoing Horace:

“The Mountains Labour’d and a Mouse was Born” (p. 6)

When Spenser sinks, he more often does so by cramming his verse with commonplaces unworthy of his skill. Perhaps the best example of this is the following stanza from The Faerie Queene, in which Florimell is chased by the Foster:

“So as they gazed after her a while,
    Lo where a griesly Foster forth did rush,
    Breathing out beastly lust her to defile:
    His tyreling iade he fiercely forth did push,
    Through thicke and thin, both ouer banke and bush
    In hope her to attaine by hooke or crooke,
    That from his gorie sides the bloud did gush:
    Large were his limbes, and terrible his looke,
And in his clownish hand a sharp bore speare he shooke.”
[Bk. III, Canto I, stanza xvii]

This is ugly stuff, no? If the only way one can fill out a stanza is by stuffing it with such peasantries as “through thick and thin”, “over bank and bush”, and “by hook or crook”, then it were better never writ.

In fairness, we might excuse Spenser on this occasion, since perhaps it was done intentionally, in keeping with the Foster’s bestiality and rustic clownishness. It may also be a feeble attempt at archaism, a monstrous facsimile of what Spenser thought was traditional Middle English alliterative verse. But still, there are other instances of such sinking in the book where no reason can be plausibly offered other than sheer laziness on the poet’s part. What it most commonly achieves is a combination of the serious with the frivolous, to the detriment of the former.

Spenser’s “Ten-Monosyllable Heroicks”

In his Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Lord Shaftesbury described his impression of the effect that too many consecutive monosyllables will have on the ear:

“I see no reason why… an un-interrupted Succession of these well-strung Monosyllables might not be allow’d to clatter after one another, like the Hammers of a Paper-Mill, without any breach of Musick, or prejudice to the Harmony of our Language. But if Persons who have gone no farther than a Smith’s Anvil to gain an Ear, are yet likely, on fair trial, to find a plain defect in these Ten-Monosyllable Heroicks; it wou’d follow, methinks, that even a Prose-Author, who attempts to write politely, shou’d endeavour to confine himself within those Bounds, which can never, without breach of Harmony, be exceeded in any just Metre, or agreeable Pronunciation.” (III.265-266)

Technically speaking, the basis of heroic verse — the “Heroicks” to which Shaftesbury refers — was the rhyming couplet composed of ten-syllable lines in iambic pentameter, as in the opening lines of Pope’s Iliad:

“Achilles’ Wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heav’nly Goddess sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unbury’d on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.”

Whether arranged in rhyming couplets or not, the ten-syllable iambic pentameter line is common in English verse. Spenser’s stanzas are typically composed of ten-syllable pentameter, with a final twelve-syllable alexandrine. Having ten syllables to a line is no sin. Having ten monosyllables only to a line is.

Shaftesbury’s nephew, James Harris, noted in his Philological Inquiries (1780) that “It has been called a fault in our Language, that it abounds in MONOSYLLABLES. As these, in too lengthened a suite, disgrace a Composition; Lord Shaftesbury, (who studied purity of Stile with great attention) limited their number to nine, and was careful, in his Characteristics, to conform to his own Law” (Works, vol. II, p. 340).

In prose, the auditory effect of ten or more consecutive monosyllables is rather akin to the clattering hammers of a paper mill. Indeed, as his nephew notes, Shaftesbury took pains to excise examples of it from his own prose for the second edition of Characteristicks (compare, for example, volume I, page 66 of the first and second editions). It has a somewhat different effect in poetry, but just as jarring. In his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712), Jonathan Swift also remarked on “how much our Language was already overstocked with Monosyllables” (p. 21). The bad effects of this on poetry was, he claimed, exacerbated by the Restoration poets’ habit of contracting words to make them fit the measure, effectively rendering polysyllabic words monosyllabic.

Let us look at an example of a ten-monosyllable line in one of these Restoration poets. I mentioned earlier that when Lord Rochester is good he is great, but when he’s bad, he’s wretched. At line 109 of Rochester’s “Letter from Artemisia in the Town to Chloe in the Country,” we come across the following literary atrocity:

“They still find out why what may, should not please”

True, the line does not contain one of the contractions of which Swift complained. But in other respects it serves to illustrate the effect of the ten-monosyllable string on a line of verse. In this case, if we imagine the line to move along, like a horse, at a trot, the horse seems to stumble somewhere around the “what may”, a little before or a little after it, depending on how you scan it. (Notice that I have violated the nine-monosyllable rule myself in the foregoing sentence, to what effect I’ll leave you to judge). The same distance is travelled, but with confused steps, making the journey seem longer than it should.

Rather than clattering or hammering, for Pope the ten-monosyllable heroic was a creeping thing. Again, we are given the image of something at the same time ungraceful, ignoble, and unduly slow:

“Tho’ oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary’d Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.”
[An Essay on Criticism (1711), p. 21, ll. 345-349]

More than nine consecutive monosyllables make a line seem longer than it is, and more than one such line in a stanza outright kills it. Spenser is more than once guilty of this kind of murder. Stanza xix of Bk. III, Canto V of The Faerie Queene is disfigured by two lines of ten consecutive monosyllables. Actually, there are three such lines if you believe, as I do, that Spenser intended “powre” to be pronounced as one syllable rather than two, as indicated by the altered spelling, allowing it to be crammed into a ten-syllable line. Thus, I end with this supreme example of Spenser’s art of sinking in poetry:

With that at him a quiu'ring dart he threw,
    With so fell force and villeinous despighte,
    That through his haberieon the forkehead flew,
    And through the linked mayles empierced quite,
    But had no powre in his soft flesh to bite:
    That stroke the hardy Squire did sore displease,
    But more that him he could not come to smite;
    For by no meanes the high banke he could sease,

But labour'd long in that deepe ford with vaine disease.
(Bk. III, Canto V, stanza 19)


HARRIS, James. Philological Inquiries (1780). In The Works of James Harris, Esq. (2 vols.). London: F. Wingrave, 1801.

POPE, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. London: W. Lewis, 1711 (facsimile, Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1970).

—— Poetical Works. Herbert Davis (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

ROCHESTER, John Wilmot, Earl of. The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. David M. Vieth (ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

ROSCOMMON, Wentworth Dillon, Earl of. An Essay on Translated Verse. London: Jacob Tonson, 1685 (facsimile, Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1970).

SHAFTESBURY, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of. Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (3 vols.). Birmingham: John Baskerville, 1773.

SPENSER, Edmund. The Faerie Queene (2 vols.). J. C. Smith (ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909.

SWIFT, Jonathan. A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue. London: Benjamin Tooke, 1712 (facsimile, Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1969).