History of Literature

English literature



The Old English period

The early Middle English period

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The Renaissance period: 1550–1660

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Effect of religion and science on early Stuart prose

The Restoration

The 18th century

The 18th century. The novel

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Late Victorian literature

The 20th century. The Modernist revolution

The literature of World War I and the interwar period

Literature after 1945. Fiction. Poetry


English literature


The 18th century


Richard Steele
Joseph Addison
Alexander Pope 
PART I. "The Rape of the Lock"  Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, PART II. "An Essay on Man"
James Thomson
Matthew Prior

John Gay 
"The Beggar's Opera"

John Arbuthnot  "History of John Bull", Caricatures of John Bull
Jonathan Swift  I. "Gulliver's Travels" , II. "A VOYAGE TO LILLIPUT", III. "A VOYAGE TO BROBDINGNAG"
IV. "

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd earl of Shaftesbury
Bernard de Mandeville
William Law
John Dennis
Francis Hutcheson
Joseph Butler
Edmund Burke

Adam Smith

William Robertson
Adam Ferguson



Publication of political literature

The expiry of the Licensing Act in 1695 halted state censorship of the press. During the next 20 years there were to be 10 general elections. These two factors combined to produce an enormous growth in the publication of political literature. Senior politicians, especially Robert Harley, saw the potential importance of the pamphleteer in wooing the support of a wavering electorate, and numberless hack writers produced copy for the presses. Richer talents also played their part. Harley, for instance, instigated Daniel Defoe’s industrious work on the Review (1704–13), which consisted, in essence, of a regular political essay defending, if often by indirection, current governmental policy. He also secured Jonathan Swift’s polemical skills for contributions to The Examiner (1710–11). Swift’s most ambitious intervention in the paper war, again overseen by Harley, was The Conduct of the Allies (1711), a devastatingly lucid argument against any further prolongation of the War of the Spanish Succession. Writers such as Defoe and Swift did not confine themselves to straightforward discursive techniques in their pamphleteering but experimented deftly with mock forms and invented personae to carry the attack home. In doing so, both writers made sometimes mischievous use of the anonymity that was conventional at the time. According to contemporary testimony, one of Defoe’s anonymous works, The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters (1702), so brilliantly sustained its impersonation of a High Church extremist, its supposed narrator, that it was at first mistaken for the real thing. Anonymity was to be an important creative resource for Defoe in his novels and for Swift in his prose satires.


The avalanche of political writing whetted the contemporary appetite for reading matter generally and, in the increasing sophistication of its ironic and fictional maneuvers, assisted in preparing the way for the astonishing growth in popularity of narrative fiction during the subsequent decades. It also helped fuel the other great new genre of the 18th century: periodical journalism. After Defoe’s Review the great innovation in this field came with the achievements of Richard Steele and Joseph Addison in The Tatler (1709–11) and then The Spectator (1711–12). In a familiar, urbane style they tackled a great range of topics, from politics to fashion, from aesthetics to the development of commerce. They aligned themselves with those who wished to see a purification of manners after the laxity of the Restoration and wrote extensively, with descriptive and reformative intent, about social and family relations. Their political allegiances were Whig, and in their creation of Sir Roger de Coverley they painted a wry portrait of the landed Tory squire as likable, possessed of good qualities, but feckless and anachronistic. Contrariwise, they spoke admiringly of the positive and honourable virtues bred by a healthy, and expansionist, mercantile community. Addison, the more original of the two, was an adventurous literary critic who encouraged esteem for the ballad through his enthusiastic account of Chevy Chase and hymned the pleasures of the imagination in a series of papers deeply influential on 18th-century thought. His long, thoughtful, and probing examen of Milton’s Paradise Lost played a major role in establishing the poem as the great epic of English literature and as a source of religious wisdom. The success with which Addison and Steele established the periodical essay as a prestigious form can be judged by the fact that they were to have more than 300 imitators before the end of the century. The awareness of their society and curiosity about the way it was developing, which they encouraged in their eager and diverse readership, left its mark on much subsequent writing.

Later in the century other periodical forms developed. Edward Cave invented the idea of the “magazine,” founding the hugely successful Gentleman’s Magazine in 1731. One of its most prolific early contributors was the young Samuel Johnson. Periodical writing was a major part of Johnson’s career, as it was for writers such as Fielding and Goldsmith. The practice and the status of criticism were transformed in mid-century by the Monthly Review (founded 1749) and the Critical Review (founded 1756). The latter was edited by Tobias Smollett. From this period the influence of reviews began to shape literary output, and writers began to acknowledge their importance.

Richard Steele

born 1672, Dublin, Ire.
died Sept. 1, 1729, Carmarthen, Carmarthenshire, Wales

English essayist, dramatist, journalist, and politician, best known as principal author (with Joseph Addison) of the periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator.

Early life and works.
Steele’s father, an ailing and somewhat ineffectual attorney, died when the son was about five, and the boy was taken under the protection of his uncle Henry Gascoigne, confidential secretary to the Duke of Ormonde, to whose bounty, as Steele later wrote, he owed “a liberal education.” He was sent to study in England at Charterhouse in 1684 and to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1689. At Charterhouse he met Joseph Addison, and thus began one of the most famous and fruitful of all literary friendships, which lasted until disagreements (mainly political) brought about a cooling and a final estrangement shortly before Addison’s death in 1719. Steele moved to Merton College in 1691 but, caught up with the excitement of King William’s campaigns against the French, left in 1692 without taking a degree to join the army. He was commissioned in 1697 and promoted to captain in 1699, but, lacking the money and connections necessary for substantial advancement, he left the army in 1705.

Meanwhile, he had embarked on a second career, as a writer. Perhaps partly because he gravely wounded a fellow officer in a duel in 1700 (an incident that inspired a lifelong detestation of dueling), partly because of sincere feelings of disgust at the “irregularity” of army life and his own dissipated existence, he published in 1701 a moralistic tract, “The Christian Hero,” of which 10 editions were sold in his lifetime. This tract led to Steele’s being accused of hypocrisy and mocked for the contrast between his austere precepts and his genially convivial practice. For many of his contemporaries, however, its polite tone served as evidence of a significant cultural change from the Restoration (most notably, it advocated respectful behaviour toward women). The tract’s moralistic tenor would be echoed in Steele’s plays. In the same year (1701) Steele wrote his first comedy, The Funeral. Performed at Drury Lane “with more than expected success,” this play made his reputation and helped to bring him to the notice of King William and the Whig leaders. Late in 1703 he followed this with his only stage failure, The Lying Lover, which ran for only six nights, being, as Steele said, “damned for its piety.” Sententious and ill-constructed, with much moralizing, it is nevertheless of some historical importance as one of the first sentimental comedies.

A third play, The Tender Husband, with which Addison helped him (1705), had some success, but Steele continued to search for advancement and for money. In the next few years he secured various minor appointments, and in 1705, apparently actuated by mercenary motives, he married a widow, Margaret Stretch, who owned considerable property in Barbados. Almost immediately the estate was entangled in his debts (he lost two actions for debt, with damages, in 1706), but, when, late in 1706, Margaret conveniently died, she left her husband with a substantial income. Steele’s second marriage, contracted within a year of Margaret’s death, was to Mary Scurlock, who was completely adored by Steele, however much he might at times neglect her. His hundreds of letters and notes to her (she is often addressed as “Dear Prue”) provide a vivid revelation of his personality during the 11 years of their marriage. Having borne him four children (of whom only the eldest, Elizabeth, long survived Richard), she died, during pregnancy, in 1718.

Mature life and works.
Steele’s most important appointment in the early part of Queen Anne’s reign was that of gazetteer—writer of The London Gazette, the official government journal. Although this reinforced his connection with the Whig leaders, it gave little scope for his artistic talents, and, on April 12, 1709, he secured his place in literary history by launching the thrice-weekly essay periodical The Tatler. Writing under the name (already made famous by the satirist Jonathan Swift) of Isaac Bickerstaff, Steele created the mixture of entertainment and instruction in manners and morals that was to be perfected in The Spectator. “The general purpose of the whole,” wrote Steele, “has been to recommend truth, innocence, honour, and virtue, as the chief ornaments of life”; and here, as in the later periodical, can be seen his strong ethical bent, his attachment to the simple virtues of friendship, frankness, and benevolence, his seriousness of approach tempered by the colloquial ease and lightness of his style. Addison contributed some 46 papers and collaborated in several others, but the great bulk of the 271 issues were by Steele himself, and, apart from bringing him fame, it brought a measure of prosperity. The exact cause of The Tatler’s demise is uncertain, but probably the reasons were mainly political: in 1710 power had shifted to the Tories and Steele, a Whig, had lost his gazetteership and had come near to losing his post of commissioner of stamps. The Tatler had contained a good deal of political innuendo, some of it aimed at Robert Harley, the Tory leader, himself, and Harley may well have put pressure on Steele to discontinue the paper.

The Tatler’s greater successor, first appearing on March 1, 1711, was avowedly nonpolitical and was enormously successful. The Spectator was a joint venture; Steele’s was probably the more original journalistic flair, and he evolved many of the most celebrated ideas and characters (such as Sir Roger de Coverley), although later Addison tended to develop them in his own way. Steele’s attractive, often casual style formed a perfect foil for Addison’s more measured, polished, and erudite writing. Of the 555 daily numbers, Steele contributed 251 (though about two-thirds made up from correspondents’ letters).

Of Steele’s many later ventures into periodical journalism, some, such as The Englishman, were mainly politically partisan. The Guardian (to which Addison contributed substantially) contains some of his most distinguished work, and The Lover comprises 40 of his most attractive essays. Other, short-lived, periodicals, such as The Reader, Town-Talk, and The Plebeian, contain matter of considerable political importance. Steele became, indeed, the chief journalist of the Whigs in opposition (1710–14), his writings being marked by an unusual degree of principle and integrity. His last extended literary work was The Theatre, a biweekly periodical.

Steele’s political writings had stirred up enough storms to make his career far from smooth. He resigned as commissioner of stamps in 1713 and was elected to Parliament, but, as a consequence of his anti-Tory pamphlets “The Importance of Dunkirk Consider’d” and “The Crisis” (advocating the Hanoverian succession), he was expelled from the House of Commons for “seditious writings.” Calmer weather, however, and rewards followed on George I’s accession: Steele was appointed to the congenial and fairly lucrative post of governor of Drury Lane Theatre in 1714, knighted in 1715, and reelected to Parliament in the same year.

Steele’s health was gradually undermined by his cheerful intemperance, and he was long plagued by gout. Nevertheless, he busied himself conscientiously with parliamentary duties and, more erratically, with his part in the management of Drury Lane. One of his main contributions to that theatre’s prosperity was his last and most successful comedy, The Conscious Lovers (1722)—one of the most popular plays of the century and perhaps the best example of English sentimental comedy.

In 1724 Steele retired to his late wife’s estate in Wales and began to settle his debts. His closing years were quiet, but his health continued to deteriorate.

Both as man and writer Steele is one of the most attractive figures of his time, much of his writing—easy, rapid, slipshod, but deeply sincere—reflecting his personality. “There appears in his natural temper,” wrote his contemporary, the philosopher George Berkeley, “something very generous and a great benevolence to mankind.” An emotional, impetuous, good-natured, and idealistic man, he always found it easier to get money than to keep it, and his career can be seen as in part shaped by the constant need to keep his head above the waters of debt.

Reginald P.C. Mutter



Joseph Addison

born May 1, 1672, Milston, Wiltshire, England
died June 17, 1719, London

English essayist, poet, and dramatist, who, with Richard Steele, was a leading contributor to and guiding spirit of the periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator. His writing skill led to his holding important posts in government while the Whigs were in power.

Early life
Addison was the eldest son of the Reverend Lancelot Addison, later archdeacon of Coventry and dean of Lichfield. After schooling in Amesbury and Salisbury and at Lichfield Grammar School, he was enrolled at age 14 in the Charterhouse in London. Here began his lifelong friendship with Richard Steele, who later became his literary collaborator. Both went on to the University of Oxford, where Addison matriculated at Queen’s College in May 1687. Through distinction in Latin verse he won election as Demy (scholar) to Magdalen College in 1689 and took the degree of M.A. in 1693. He was a fellow from 1697 to 1711. At Magdalen he spent 10 years as tutor in preparation for a career as a scholar and man of letters. In 1695 A Poem to his Majesty (William III), with a dedication to Lord Keeper Somers, the influential Whig statesman, brought favourable notice not only from Somers but also Charles Montague (later earl of Halifax), who saw in Addison a writer whose services were of potential use to the crown. A treasury grant offered him opportunity for travel and preparation for government service. He also attained distinction by contributing the preface to Virgil’s Georgics, in John Dryden’s great translation of 1697.

The European tour (1699–1704) enabled Addison not only to become acquainted with English diplomats abroad but also to meet contemporary European men of letters. After time in France, he spent the year 1701 in leisurely travel in Italy, during which he wrote the prose Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705; rev. ed. 1718) and the poetic epistle A Letter from Italy (1704). From Italy Addison crossed into Switzerland, where, in Geneva, he learned in March 1702 of the death of William III and the consequent loss of power of his two chief patrons, Somers and Halifax. He then toured through Austria, the German states, and the Netherlands before returning to England in 1704.

Government service
In London Addison renewed his friendship with Somers and Halifax and other members of the Kit-Cat Club, which was an association of prominent Whig leaders and literary figures of the day—among them Steele, William Congreve, and Sir John Vanbrugh. In August 1704 London was electrified by the news of the duke of Marlborough’s sweeping victory over the French at Blenheim, and Addison was approached by government leaders to write a poem worthy of the great occasion. Addison was meanwhile appointed commissioner of appeals in excise, a sinecure left vacant by the death of John Locke. The Campaign, addressed to Marlborough, was published on December 14 (though dated 1705). By its rejection of conventional classical imagery and its effective portrayal of Marlborough’s military genius, it was an immediate success that perfectly expressed the nation’s great hour of victory.

The Whig success in the election of May 1705, which saw the return of Somers and Halifax to the Privy Council, brought Addison increased financial security in an appointment as undersecretary to the secretary of state, a busy and lucrative post. Addison’s retention in a new, more powerful Whig administration in the autumn of 1706 reflected his further rise in government service. At this time he began to see much of Steele, helping him write the play The Tender Husband (1705). In practical ways Addison also assisted Steele with substantial loans and the appointment as editor of the official London Gazette. In 1708 Addison was elected to Parliament for Lostwithiel in Cornwall, and later in the same year he was made secretary to the earl of Wharton, the new lord lieutenant of Ireland. Addison’s post was in effect that of secretary of state for Irish affairs, with a revenue of some £2,000 a year. He served as Irish secretary until August 1710.

The Tatler and The Spectator
It was during Addison’s term in Ireland that his friend Steele began publishing The Tatler, which appeared three times a week under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff. Though at first issued as a newspaper presenting accounts of London’s political, social, and cultural news, this periodical soon began investigating English manners and society, establishing principles of ideal behaviour and genteel conduct, and proposing standards of good taste for the general public. The first number of The Tatler appeared on April 12, 1709, while Addison was still in England; but while still in Ireland he began contributing to the new periodical. Back in London in September 1709, he supplied most of the essays during the winter of 1709–10 before returning to Ireland in May.

The year 1710 was marked by the overturn of the Whigs from power and a substantial Tory victory at the polls. Although Addison easily retained his seat in the Commons, his old and powerful patrons were again out of favour, and, for the first time since his appointment as undersecretary in 1705, Addison found himself without employment. He was thus able to devote even more time to literary activity and to cultivation of personal friendships not only with Steele and other Kit-Cats but, for a short period, with Jonathan Swift—until Swift’s shift of allegiance to the rising Tory leaders resulted in estrangement. Addison continued contributing to the final numbers of The Tatler, which Steele finally brought to a close on January 2, 1711. Addison had written more than 40 of The Tatler’s total of 271 numbers and had collaborated with Steele on another 36 of them.

Thanks to Addison’s help The Tatler was an undoubted success. By the end of 1710 Steele had enough material for a collected edition of The Tatler. Thereupon, he and Addison decided to make a fresh start with a new periodical. The Spectator, which appeared six days a week, from March 1, 1711, to December 6, 1712, offered a wide range of material to its readers, from discussion of the latest fashions to serious disquisitions on criticism and morality, including Addison’s weekly papers on John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the series on the “pleasures of the imagination.” From the start, Addison was the leading spirit in The Spectator’s publication, contributing 274 numbers in all. In bringing learning “out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and in coffee-houses,” The Spectator was eminently successful. One feature of The Spectator that deserves particular mention is its critical essays, in which Addison sought to elevate public taste. He devoted a considerable proportion of his essays to literary criticism, which was to prove influential in the subsequent development of the English novel. His own gift for drawing realistic human characters found brilliant literary expression in the members of the Spectator Club, in which such figures as Roger de Coverley, Captain Sentry, Sir Andrew Freeport, and the Spectator himself represent important sections of contemporary society. More than 3,000 copies of The Spectator were published daily, and the 555 numbers were then collected into seven volumes. Two years later (from June 18 to December 20, 1714), Addison published 80 additional numbers, with the help of two assistants, and these were later reprinted as volume eight.

Addison’s other notable literary production during this period was his tragedy Cato. Performed at Drury Lane on April 14, 1713, the play was a resounding success—largely, no doubt, because of the political overtones that both parties read into the play. To the Whigs Cato seemed the resolute defender of liberty against French tyranny, while the Tories were able to interpret the domineering Caesar as a kind of Roman Marlborough whose military victories were a threat to English liberties. The play enjoyed an unusual run of 20 performances in April and May 1713 and continued to be performed throughout the century.

Later years
With the death of Queen Anne on August 1, 1714, and the accession of George I, Addison’s political fortunes rose. He was appointed secretary to the regents (who governed until the arrival of the new monarch from Hanover) and in April 1717 was made secretary of state. Ill health, however, forced him to resign the following year. Meanwhile, he had married the dowager countess of Warwick and spent the remaining years of his life in comparative affluence at Holland House in Kensington. A series of political essays, The Free-Holder, or Political Essays, was published from December 23, 1715, to June 29, 1716, and his comedy The Drummer was produced at Drury Lane on March 10, 1716.

Meanwhile, Addison had a quarrel with the most gifted satirist of the age, Alexander Pope, who after Addison’s death would make him the subject of one of the most celebrated satiric “characters” in the English language. In 1715 Pope had been angered by Addison’s support of a rival translation of the Iliad by Thomas Tickell, and in 1735 Pope published “An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” in which there appears a notable portrait of Addison as a narcissistic and envious man of letters. A second quarrel further embittered Addison; the dispute over a bill for restricting the peerage, in which he and Steele took opposing sides, estranged the two friends during the last year of Addison’s life. Addison was buried in Westminster Abbey, near the grave of his old patron and friend Lord Halifax.

Addison’s poem on the Battle of Blenheim brought him to the attention of Whig leaders and paved the way to government employment and literary fame. He became an influential supporter of the Whigs (who sought to further the constitutional principles established by the Glorious Revolution) in a number of government posts. As a writer, Addison produced one of the great tragedies of the 18th century in Cato, but his principal achievement was to bring to perfection the periodical essay in his journal, The Spectator. Dr. Samuel Johnson’s praise of The Spectator as a model of prose style established Addison as one of the most admired and influential masters of prose in the language.

Donald F. Bond

Major political writers


Alexander Pope contributed to The Spectator and moved for a time in Addisonian circles; but from about 1711 onward, his more-influential friendships were with Tory intellectuals. His early verse shows a dazzling precocity, his An Essay on Criticism (1711) combining ambition of argument with great stylistic assurance and Windsor Forest (1713) achieving an ingenious, late-Stuart variation on the 17th-century mode of topographical poetry. The mock-heroic The Rape of the Lock (final version published in 1714) is an astonishing feat, marrying a rich range of literary allusiveness and a delicately ironic commentary upon the contemporary social world with a potent sense of suppressed energies threatening to break through the civilized veneer. It explores with great virtuosity the powers of the heroic couplet (a pair of five-stress rhyming lines). Much of the wit of Pope’s verse derives from its resources of incongruity, disproportion, and antithesis. That he could also write successfully in a more plaintive mode is shown by Eloisa to Abelard (1717), which, modeled on Ovid’s heroic epistles, enacts with moving force Eloisa’s struggle to reconcile grace with nature, virtue with passion. But the prime focus of his labours between 1713 and 1720 was his energetically sustained and scrupulous translation of Homer’s Iliad (to be followed by the Odyssey in the mid-1720s). His Iliad secured his reputation and made him a considerable sum of money.

From the 1720s on, Pope’s view of the transformations wrought in Robert Walpole’s England by economic individualism and opportunism grew increasingly embittered and despairing. In this he was following a common Tory trend, epitomized most trenchantly by the writings of his friend, the politician Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke. Pope’s Essay on Man (1733–34) was a grand systematic attempt to buttress the notion of a God-ordained, perfectly ordered, all-inclusive hierarchy of created things. But his most probing and startling writing of these years comes in the four Moral Essays (1731–35), the series of Horatian imitations, and the final four-book version of The Dunciad (1743), in which he turns to anatomize with outstanding imaginative resource the moral anarchy and perversion of once-hallowed ideals he sees as typical of the commercial society in which he must perforce live.


Alexander Pope 

"The Rape of the Lock"  Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

"An Essay on Man"

born May 21, 1688, London, England
died May 30, 1744, Twickenham, near London

poet and satirist of the English Augustan period, best known for his poems An Essay on Criticism (1711), The Rape of the Lock (1712–14), The Dunciad (1728), and An Essay on Man (1733–34). He is one of the most epigrammatic of all English authors.

Pope’s father, a wholesale linen merchant, retired from business in the year of his son’s birth and in 1700 went to live at Binfield in Windsor Forest. The Popes were Roman Catholics, and at Binfield they came to know several neighbouring Catholic families who were to play an important part in the poet’s life. Pope’s religion procured him some lifelong friends, notably the wealthy squire John Caryll (who persuaded him to write The Rape of the Lock, on an incident involving Caryll’s relatives) and Martha Blount, to whom Pope addressed some of the most memorable of his poems and to whom he bequeathed most of his property. But his religion also precluded him from a formal course of education, since Catholics were not admitted to the universities. He was trained at home by Catholic priests for a short time and attended Catholic schools at Twyford, near Winchester, and at Hyde Park Corner, London, but he was mainly self-educated. He was a precocious boy, eagerly reading Latin, Greek, French, and Italian, which he managed to teach himself, and an incessant scribbler, turning out verse upon verse in imitation of the poets he read. The best of these early writings are the Ode on Solitude and a paraphrase of St. Thomas ą Kempis, both of which he claimed to have written at age 12.

Early works
Windsor Forest was near enough to London to permit Pope’s frequent visits there. He early grew acquainted with former members of John Dryden’s circle, notably William Wycherley, William Walsh, and Henry Cromwell. By 1705 his Pastorals were in draft and were circulating among the best literary judges of the day. In 1706 Jacob Tonson, the leading publisher of poetry, had solicited their publication, and they took the place of honour in his Poetical Miscellanies in 1709.

This early emergence of a man of letters may have been assisted by Pope’s poor physique. As a result of too much study, so he thought, he acquired a curvature of the spine and some tubercular infection, probably Pott’s disease, that limited his growth and seriously impaired his health. His full-grown height was 4 feet 6 inches (1.4 metres), but the grace of his profile and fullness of his eye gave him an attractive appearance. He was a lifelong sufferer from headaches, and his deformity made him abnormally sensitive to physical and mental pain. Though he was able to ride a horse and delighted in travel, he was inevitably precluded from much normal physical activity, and his energetic, fastidious mind was largely directed to reading and writing.

When the Pastorals were published, Pope was already at work on a poem on the art of writing. This was An Essay on Criticism, published in 1711. Its brilliantly polished epigrams (e.g., “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” and “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread”), which have become part of the proverbial heritage of the language, are readily traced to their sources in Horace, Quintilian, Boileau, and other critics, ancient and modern, in verse and prose; but the charge that the poem is derivative, so often made in the past, takes insufficient account of Pope’s success in harmonizing a century of conflict in critical thinking and in showing how nature may best be mirrored in art.

The well-deserved success of An Essay on Criticism brought Pope a wider circle of friends, notably Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, who were then collaborating on The Spectator. To this journal Pope contributed the most original of his pastorals, The Messiah (1712), and perhaps other papers in prose. He was clearly influenced by The Spectator’s policy of correcting public morals by witty admonishment, and in this vein he wrote the first version of his mock epic, The Rape of the Lock (two cantos, 1712; five cantos, 1714), to reconcile two Catholic families. A young man in one family had stolen a lock of hair from a young lady in the other. Pope treated the dispute that followed as though it were comparable to the mighty quarrel between Greeks and Trojans, which had been Homer’s theme. Telling the story with all the pomp and circumstance of epic made not only the participants in the quarrel but also the society in which they lived seem ridiculous. Though it was a society where

…Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of foreign tyrants, and of nymphs at home;

as if one occupation concerned them as much as the other, and though in such a society a young lady might do equally ill to

…Stain her honour, or her new brocade;
Forget her pray’rs, or miss a masquerade;

Pope managed also to suggest what genuine attractions existed amid the foppery. It is a glittering poem about a glittering world. He acknowledged how false the sense of values was that paid so much attention to external appearance, but ridicule and rebuke slide imperceptibly into admiration and tender affection as the heroine, Belinda, is conveyed along the Thames to Hampton Court, the scene of the “rape”:

But now secure the painted vessel glides,
The sunbeams trembling on the floating tides:
While melting music steals upon the sky,
And soften’d sounds along the waters die;
Smooth flow the waves, the zephyrs gently play,
Belinda smil’d, and all the world was gay.

A comparable blend of seemingly incompatible responses—love and hate, bawdiness and decorum, admiration and ridicule—is to be found in all Pope’s later satires. The poem is thick with witty allusions to classical verse and, notably, to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The art of allusion is an element of much of Pope’s poetry.

Pope had also been at work for several years on Windsor-Forest. In this poem, completed and published in 1713, he proceeded, as Virgil had done, from the pastoral vein to the georgic and celebrated the rule of Queen Anne as the Latin poet had celebrated the rule of Augustus. In another early poem,Eloisa to Abelard, Pope borrowed the form of Ovid’s “heroic epistle” (in which an abandoned lady addresses her lover) and showed imaginative skill in conveying the struggle between sexual passion and dedication to a life of celibacy.

Homer and The Dunciad
These poems and other works were collected in the first volume of Pope’s Works in 1717. When it was published, he was already far advanced with the greatest labour of his life, his verse translation of Homer. He had announced his intentions in October 1713 and had published the first volume, containing the Iliad, Books I–IV, in 1715. The Iliad was completed in six volumes in 1720. The work of translating the Odyssey (vol. i–iii, 1725; vol. iv and v, 1726) was shared with William Broome, who had contributed notes to the Iliad, and Elijah Fenton. The labour had been great, but so were the rewards. By the two translations Pope cleared about £10,000 and was able to claim that, thanks to Homer, he could “…live and thrive / Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive.”

The merits of Pope’s Homer lie less in the accuracy of translation and in correct representation of the spirit of the original than in the achievement of a heroic poem as his contemporaries understood it: a poem Virgilian in its dignity, moral purpose, and pictorial splendour, yet one that consistently kept Homer in view and alluded to him throughout. Pope offered his readers the Iliad and the Odyssey as he felt sure Homer would have written them had he lived in early 18th-century England.

Political considerations had affected the success of the translation. As a Roman Catholic, he had Tory affiliations rather than Whig; and though he retained the friendship of such Whigs as William Congreve, Nicholas Rowe, and the painter Charles Jervas, his ties with Steele and Addison grew strained as a result of the political animosity that occurred at the end of Queen Anne’s reign. He found new and lasting friends in Tory circles—Jonathan Swift, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell, the earl of Oxford, and Viscount Bolingbroke. He was associated with the first five in the Scriblerus Club (1713–14), which met to write joint satires on pedantry, later to mature as Peri Bathouse; or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry (1728) and the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741); and these were the men who encouraged his translation of Homer. The Whigs, who associated with Addison at Button’s Coffee-House, put up a rival translator in Thomas Tickell, who published his version of the Iliad, Book I, two days after Pope’s. Addison preferred Tickell’s manifestly inferior version; his praise increased the resentment Pope already felt because of a series of slights and misunderstandings; and when Pope heard gossip of further malice on Addison’s part, he sent him a satiric view of his character, published later as the character of Atticus, the insincere arbiter of literary taste in An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735).

Even before the Homer quarrel, Pope had found that the life of a wit was one of perpetual warfare. There were few years when either his person or his poems were not objects of attacks from the critic John Dennis, the bookseller Edmund Curll, the historian John Oldmixon, and other writers of lesser fame. The climax was reached over his edition of Shakespeare. He had emended the plays, in the spirit of a literary editor, to accord with contemporary taste (1725), but his practice was exposed by the scholar Lewis Theobald in Shakespeare Restored (1726). Though Pope had ignored some of these attacks, he had replied to others with squibs in prose and verse. But he now attempted to make an end of the opposition and to defend his standards, which he aligned with the standards of civilized society, in the mock epic The Dunciad (1728). Theobald was represented in it as the Goddess of Dullness’s favourite son, a suitable hero for those leaden times, and others who had given offense were preserved like flies in amber. Pope dispatches his victims with such sensuousness of verse and imagery that the reader is forced to admit that if there is petulance here, as has often been claimed, it is, to parody Wordsworth, petulance recollected in tranquillity. Pope reissued the poem in 1729 with an elaborate mock commentary of prefaces, notes, appendixes, indexes, and errata; this burlesque of pedantry whimsically suggested that The Dunciad had fallen a victim to the spirit of the times and been edited by a dunce.

Life at Twickenham
Pope and his parents had moved from Binfield to Chiswick in 1716. There his father died (1717), and two years later he and his mother rented a villa on the Thames at Twickenham, then a small country town where several Londoners had retired to live in rustic seclusion. This was to be Pope’s home for the remainder of his life. There he entertained such friends as Swift, Bolingbroke, Oxford, and the painter Jonathan Richardson. These friends were all enthusiastic gardeners, and it was Pope’s pleasure to advise and superintend their landscaping according to the best contemporary principles, formulated in his Epistle to the Right Honourable Richard Earl of Burlington (1731). This poem, one of the most characteristic works of his maturity, is a rambling discussion in the manner of Horace on false taste in architecture and design, with some suggestions for the worthier employment of a nobleman’s wealth.

Pope now began to contemplate a new work on the relations of man, nature, and society that would be a grand organization of human experience and intuition, but he was destined never to complete it. An Essay on Man (1733–34) was intended as an introductory book discussing the overall design of this work. The poem has often been charged with shallowness and philosophical inconsistency, and there is indeed little that is original in its thought, almost all of which can be traced in the work of the great thinkers of Western civilization. Subordinate themes were treated in greater detail in Of the Use of Riches, an Epistle to Bathurst (1732), An Epistle to Cobham, of the Knowledge and Characters of Men (1733), and Of the Characters of Women: An Epistle to a Lady (1735).

Pope was deflected from this “system of ethics in the Horatian way” by the renewed need for self-defense. Critical attacks drove him to consider his position as satirist. He chose to adapt for his own defense the first satire of Horace’s second book, where the ethics of satire are propounded, and, after discussing the question in correspondence with Dr. John Arbuthnot, he addressed to him an epistle in verse (1735), one of the finest of his later poems, in which were incorporated fragments written over several years. His case in An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot was a traditional one: that depravity in public morals had roused him to stigmatize outstanding offenders beyond the reach of the law, concealing the names of some and representing others as types, and that he was innocent of personal rancour and habitually forbearing under attack.

The success of his First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, Imitated (1733) led to the publication (1734–38) of 10 more of these paraphrases of Horatian themes adapted to the contemporary social and political scene. Pope’s poems followed Horace’s satires and epistles sufficiently closely for him to print the Latin on facing pages with the English, but whoever chose to make the comparison would notice a continuous enrichment of the original by parenthetic thrusts and compliments, as well as by the freshness of the imagery. The series was concluded with two dialogues in verse, republished as the Epilogue to the Satires (1738), where, as in An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, Pope ingeniously combined a defense of his own career and character with a restatement of the satirist’s traditional apology. In these imitations and dialogues, Pope directed his attack upon the materialistic standards of the commercially minded Whigs in power and upon the corrupting effect of money, while restating and illustrating the old Horatian standards of serene and temperate living. His anxiety about prevailing standards was shown once more in his last completed work, The New Dunciad (1742), reprinted as the fourth book of a revised Dunciad (1743), in which Theobald was replaced as hero by Colley Cibber, the poet laureate and actor-manager, who not only had given more recent cause of offense but seemed a more appropriate representative of the degenerate standards of the age. In Dunciad, Book IV, the Philistine culture of the city of London was seen to overtake the court and seat of government at Westminster, and the poem ends in a magnificent but baleful prophecy of anarchy. Pope had begun work on Brutus, an epic poem in blank verse, and on a revision of his poems for a new edition, but neither was complete at his death.

The death of Alexander Pope from Museus, a threnody by William Mason. Diana holds the dying Pope, and John Milton,
Edmund Spenser, and Geoffrey Chaucer prepare to welcome him to heaven.


Pope’s favourite metre was the 10-syllable iambic pentameter rhyming (heroic) couplet. He handled it with increasing skill and adapted it to such varied purposes as the epigrammatic summary of An Essay on Criticism, the pathos of Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, the mock heroic of The Rape of the Lock, the discursive tones of An Essay on Man, the rapid narrative of the Homer translation, and the Miltonic sublimity of the conclusion of The Dunciad. But his greatest triumphs of versification are found in the Epilogue to the Satires, where he moves easily from witty, spirited dialogue to noble and elevated declamation, and in An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, which opens with a scene of domestic irritation suitably conveyed in broken rhythm:

Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu’d, I said:
Tie up the knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead.
The Dog-star rages! nay ’tis past a doubt,
All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out:
Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
They rave, recite, and madden round the land;

and closes with a deliberately chosen contrast of domestic calm, which the poet may be said to have deserved and won during the course of the poem:

Me, let the tender office long engage
To rock the cradle of reposing age,
With lenient arts extend a mother’s breath,
Make languor smile, and smooth the bed of death,
Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,
And keep a while one parent from the sky!

Pope’s command of diction is no less happily adapted to his theme and to the type of poem, and the range of his imagery is remarkably wide. He has been thought defective in imaginative power, but this opinion cannot be sustained in view of the invention and organizing ability shown notably in The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad. He was the first English poet to enjoy contemporary fame in France and Italy and throughout the European continent and to see translations of his poems into modern as well as ancient languages.

John Everett Butt


Thomson, Prior, and Gay

James Thomson also sided with the opposition to Walpole, but his poetry sustained a much more optimistic vision. In The Seasons (first published as a complete entity in 1730 but then massively revised and expanded until 1746), Thomson meditated upon and described with fascinated precision the phenomena of nature. He brought to the task a vast array of erudition and a delighted absorption in the discoveries of post-Civil War science (especially Newtonian science), from whose vocabulary he borrowed freely. The image he developed of man’s relationship to, and cultivation of, nature provided a buoyant portrait of the achieved civilization and wealth that ultimately derive from them and that, in his judgment, contemporary England enjoyed. The diction of The Seasons, which is written in blank verse, has many Miltonian echoes. In The Castle of Indolence (1748) Thomson’s model is Spenserian, and its wryly developed allegory lauds the virtues of industriousness and mercantile achievement.

A poet who wrote less ambitiously but with a special urbanity is Matthew Prior, a diplomat and politician of some distinction, who essayed graver themes in Solomon on the Vanity of the World (1718), a disquisition on the vanity of human knowledge, but who also wrote some of the most direct and coolly elegant love poetry of the period. Prior’s principal competitor as a writer of light verse was
John Gay
, whose Trivia; or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716) catalogues the dizzying diversity of urban life through a dexterous burlesque of Virgil’s Georgics. His Fables, particularly those in the 1738 collection, contain sharp, subtle writing, and his work for the stage, especially in The What D’Ye Call It (1715), Three Hours After Marriage (1717; written with John Arbuthnot and Pope), and The Beggar’s Opera (1728), shows a sustained ability to breed original and vital effects from witty generic cross-fertilization.


James Thomson

(11 September 1700 – 27 August 1748)

JAMES THOMSON, English poet, author of The Seasons, was born at Ednam, in Roxburghshire, on the 11th of September 1700 - the third son and fourth child of Thomas Thomson, minister of that place. His mother, Beatrix, was the daughter of Mr Trotter of Fogo, whose wife, Margaret, was one of the Homes of Bassenden. About 1701 Thomas Thomson removed to Southdean near Jedburgh. Here James was educated at first by Robert Riccaltoun, to whose verses on Winter he owed the suggestion of his own poem. In 1712 he attended a school at Jedburgh, held in the aisle of the parish church. He learnt there some Latin, but with difficulty, and the earliest recorded utterance of the future poet was "Confound the building of Babel." He began very soon to write verses, and we are told that every January he destroyed almost all the productions of the preceding year. And this was just as well, for the little that has escaped the fire contains no promise of his future powers.

In 1715 he went to the university of Edinburgh. It is said that as soon as the servant who brought him thither had quitted him, he returned full speed to his father's house, declaring that he could read just as well at home; he went back, however. He made friends at the university with David Mallock, who afterwards called himself Mallet, and with Patrick Murdoch, his Suture biographer. In 1719 he became a divinity student, and one of his exercises so enchanted a certain Auditor Benson, that he urged Thomson to go to London and there make himself a reputation as a preacher. It was partly with this object that Thomson left Edinburgh without a degree in March 1725. His mother saw him embark, and they never met again; she died on the 10th of May of that year.

There is sufficient evidence that on his arrival in London he was not in the extreme destitution which Dr Johnson attributes to him; and in July 1725 we find him engaged, as a make-shift, in teaching "Lord Binning's son to read." This son was the grandson of Lady Grizel Baillie, a somewhat distant connexion of Thomson's mother. She was the daughter of Sir Patrick Home, whom, after the defeat of Argyll, she fed in his concealment near his own castle; she was also, like other Scottish ladies, a writer of pretty ballads. This heroine and poetess is supposed to have encouraged Thomson to come to England, and it is certain that she procured him a temporary home. But he had other friends, especially Duncan Forbes of Culloden, by whom he was recommended to the duke of Argyll, the earl of Burlington, Sir Robert Walpole, Arbuthnot, Pope and Gay. Some introductions to the literary world he may have owed to Mallet, then tutor in the family of the duke of Montrose.

Thomson's Winter appeared in March 1726. It was warmly praised by Aaron Hill, a man of various interests and projects, and in his day a sort of literary oracle. It was dedicated to Sir Spencer Compton, the Speaker, who rewarded the poet, to his great disgust, with a bare twenty guineas. By the 11th of June 1727 a second edition was called for. Meanwhile Thomson was residing at Mr Watts's academy in Tower Street as tutor to Lord George Graham, second son of the duke of Montrose, and previously a pupil of Mallet.

Summer appeared in 1727. It was dedicated in prose, a compliment afterwards versified, to Bubb Dodington. In the same year Thomson published his Poem to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton, with a fulsome dedication to Sir Robert Walpole, which was afterwards omitted, and the verses themselves remodelled when the poet began to inveigh against the ministry as he did in Britannia, published in 1729.

Spring appeared in 1728, published by Andrew Millar, a man who, according to Johnson, dealt handsomely by authors and "raised the price of literature." It was dedicated to the countess of Hertford, afterwards duchess of Somerset, a lady devoted to letters and the patroness of the unhappy Savage. In 1729 Thomson produced Sophonisba, a tragedy now only remembered by the line "O Sophonisba, Sophonisba, O," and the parody "O Jemmy Thomson, Jemmy Thomson, O," which caused him to remodel the unhappy verse in the form, "O Sophonisba, I am wholly thine." A poem, anonymous but unquestionably Thomson's, to the memory of Congreve who had died in January 1729, appeared in that year.

In 1730 Autumn was first published in a collected edition of The Seasons. It was dedicated to the Speaker, Onslow. In this year, at the suggestion of Rundle, bishop of Derry, one of his patrons, he accompanied the son of Sir Charles Talbot, solicitor-general, upon his travels. In the course of these he projected his Liberty as "a poetical landscape of countries, mixed with moral observations on their government and people." In December 1731 he returned with his pupil to London. He probably lived with his patrons the Talbots, leisurely meditating his new poem, the first part of which did not appear until the close of 1734 or the beginning of 1735. But meanwhile his pupil died, and in the opening lines of Liberty, Thomson pays a tribute to his memory. Two months after his son's death Sir Charles Talbot became chancellor and gave Thomson a sinecure in the court of chancery. About this time the poet worked for the relief of Dennis, now old and in extreme poverty, and induced even Pope to give a half-contemptuous support to the bitter critic of the Rape of the Lock.

Liberty was completed in five parts in 1736. The poem was a failure; its execution did not correspond with its design; in a sense indeed it is a survey of countries and might have anticipated Goldsmith's Traveller. It was not, however, the poem which readers were expecting from the author of The Seasons, who had taken them from the town to the country, and from social and political satire to the world of nature. It is in the main a set of wearisome declamations put in the mouth of the goddess, and Johnson rightly enough remarks that "an enumeration of examples to prove a position which nobody denied as it was from the beginning superfluous, must quickly grow disgusting." The truth is that Thomson's poetical gift was for many years perverted by the zeal of partisanship.

He was established in May 1736 in a small house at Richmond, but his patron died in February 1737 and he lost his sinecure; he then "whips and spurs" to finish his tragedy Agamemnon, which appeared in April 1738, not before he had been arrested for a debt of £70, from which, according to a story which has been discredited on quite insufficient grounds, Quin relieved him in the most generous and tactful manner. Quin, it is said, visited him in the sponging-house and "balanced accounts with him" by insisting on his accepting a hundred pounds as a return for the pleasure which the actor had received from the poet's works. The incident took place probably a little before the production of Agamemnon, in which Quin played the leading part. The play is of course modelled upon Aeschylus and owes whatever of dignity it possesses to that fact; the part of Cassandra, for instance, retains something of its original force, pathos and terror. But most of the other characters exist only for the purpose of political innuendo. Agamemnon is too long absent at Troy, as George is too long absent in Germany; the arts of Aegisthus are the arts of Walpole; the declamations of Arcus are the declamations of Wyndham or Pulteney; Melisander, consoling himself with the muses on his island in Cyclades, is Bolingbroke in exile.

Thomson about this time was introduced to Lyttelton, and by him to the prince of Wales, and to one or the other of these, when he was questioned as to the state of his affairs, he made answer that they were "in a more poetical posture than formerly." Agamemnon was put upon the stage soon after the passing of Walpole's bill for licensing plays, and its obvious bias fixed the attention of the censorship and caused Thomson's next venture, Edward and Eleanora, which has the same covert aim, to be proscribed. The fact has very generally escaped notice that, like its predecessor, it follows a Greek original, the Alcestis of Euripides. It has also, what Agamemnon has not, some little place in the history of literature, for it suggested something to Lessing for Nathan der Weise, and to Scott for the Talisman. The rejection of the play was defended by one of the ministry on the ground that Thomson had taken a Liberty which was not agreeable to Britannia in any Season. These circumstances sufficiently account for the poet's next experiment, a preface to Milton's Areopagitica.

He joined Mallet in composing the masque of Alfred, represented at Clieveden on the Thames before the prince of Wales, on the 1st of August 1740. There can be little question that "Rule Britannia," a song in this drama, was the production of Thomson. The music of the song, as of the whole masque, was composed by Arne. In 1744 Thomson was appointed surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands by Lyttelton with an income of £500 a year; but his patron fell into disfavour with the prince of Wales, and in consequence Thomson lost, at the close of 1747, the pension he received from that quarter. For a while, however, he was in flourishing circumstances, and whilst completing at his leisure The Castle of Indolence produced Tancred and Sigismunda at Drury Lane in 1745. The story is found in Gil Blas, and is ultimately to be traced to The Decameron. It owes much to Le Sage in language, plot and sentiment, and the conflict of emotion, in depicting which Thomson had some little skill, is here effectively exhibited. He was assisted herein by his own experience. The "Amanda" of The Seasons is a Miss Elizabeth Young, a lady of Scottish parentage, whose mother was ambitious for her and forbade her to marry the poet, anticipating that she would be reduced to singing his ballads in the streets. The last years of his life were saddened by this disappointment.

The Castle of Indolence, after a gestation of fifteen years, appeared in May 1748. It is in the Spenserian stanza with the Spenserian archaism, and is the first and last long effort of Thomson in rhyme. It is not impossible that his general choice of blank verse was partly due to the fact that he had not the southron's ear and took many years to acquire it. The great and varied interest of the poem might well rescue it from the neglect into which even The Seasons has fallen. It was worthy of an age which was fertile in character-sketches, and like Gay's Welcome to Pope anticipates Goldsmith's Retaliation in the lifelike presentation of a noteworthy circle. There is in it the same strain of gentle burlesque which appears in Shenstone's Schoolmistress, whilst the tone and diction of the poem harmonize with the hazy landscape, the pleasant land of drowsyhead, in which it is set. It is the last work by Thomson which appeared in his lifetime.

In walking from London to his house at Richmond he became heated and took a boat at Hammersmith; he thus caught a chill with fatal consequences and died on the 27th of August 1748. He was buried in Richmond churchyard. His tragedy Coriolanus was acted for the first time in January 1749. In itself a feeble performance, it is noteworthy for the prologue which his friend Lyttelton wrote for it, two lines of which "He loved his friends - forgive the gushing tear! Alas! I feel I am no actor here" were recited by Quin with no simulated emotion.

It may be questioned whether Thomson himself ever quite realized the distinctive significance of his own achievement in The Seasons, or the place which criticism assigns him as the pioneer of a special literary movement and the precursor of Cowper and Wordsworth. His avowed preference was for great and worthy themes of which the world of nature was but one. Both the choice and the treatment of his next great subject, Liberty, indicate that he was imperfectly conscious of the gift that was in him, and might have neglected it but that his readers were wiser than himself. He has many audacities and many felicities of expression, and enriched the vocabulary even of the poets who have disparaged him. Yet it is difficult to believe that he was not the better for that training in refinement of style which he partly owed to Pope, who almost unquestionably contributed some passages to The Seasons. And, except in The Castle of Indolence, there is much that is conventional, much that is even vicious or vulgar in taste when Thomson's muse deals with that human life which must be the background of descriptive as of all other poetry; for example, his bumpkin who chases the rainbow is as unreal a being as Akenside's more sentimental rustic who has "the form of beauty smiling at his heart."

But if Thomson sometimes lacks the true vision for things human, he retains it always for things mute and material, and whilst the critical estimate of his powers and influence will vary from age to age, all who have read him will concur in the colloquial judgment which only candour could have extorted from the prejudice of Dr Johnson- "Thomson had as much of the poet about him as most writers. Everything appeared to him through the medium of his favourite pursuit. He could not have viewed those two candles burning but with a poetical eye."

D. C. Tovey



Matthew Prior

Matthew Prior (21 July 1664 – 18 September 1721) was an English poet and diplomat.

Prior was the son of a Nonconformist joiner at Wimborne Minster, East Dorset. His father moved to London, and sent him to Westminster School, under Dr. Busby. On his father's death, he left school, and was cared for by his uncle, a vintner in Channel Row. Here Lord Dorset found him reading Horace, and set him to translate an ode. He did so well that the earl offered to contribute to the continuation of his education at Westminster. One of his schoolfellows and friends was Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax. It was to avoid being separated from Montagu and his brother James that Prior accepted, against his patron's wish, a scholarship recently founded at St John's College, Cambridge. He took his B.A. degree in 1686, and two years later became a fellow. In collaboration with Montagu he wrote in 1687 the City Mouse and Country Mouse, in ridicule of John Dryden's The Hind and the Panther.

It was an age when satirists could be sure of patronage and promotion. Montagu was promoted at once, and Prior, three years later, became secretary to the embassy at the Hague. After four years of this, he was appointed a gentleman of the King's bedchamber. Apparently he acted as one of the King's secretaries, and in 1697 he was secretary to the plenipotentiaries who concluded the Peace of Ryswick. Prior's talent for affairs was doubted by Pope, who had no special means of judging, but it is not likely that King William would have employed in this important business a man who had not given proof of diplomatic skill and grasp of details.

The poet's knowledge of French is specially mentioned among his qualifications, and this was recognized by his being sent in the following year to Paris in attendance on the English ambassador. At this period Prior could say with good reason that "he had commonly business enough upon his hands, and was only a poet by accident." To verse, however, which had laid the foundation of his fortunes, he still occasionally trusted as a means of maintaining his position. His occasional poems during this period include an elegy on Queen Mary in 1695; a satirical version of Boileau's Ode sur le prise de Namur (1695); some lines on William's escape from assassination in 1696; and a brief piece called The Secretary.

After his return from France Prior became under-secretary of state and succeeded John Locke as a commissioner of trade. In 1701 he sat in Parliament for East Grinstead. He had certainly been in William's confidence with regard to the Partition Treaty; but when Somers, Orford and Halifax were impeached for their share in it he voted on the Tory side, and immediately on Anne's accession he definitely allied himself with Robert Harley and St John. Perhaps in consequence of this for nine years there is no mention of his name in connection with any public transaction. But when the Tories came into power in 1710 Prior's diplomatic abilities were again called into action, and until the death of Anne he held a prominent place in all negotiations with the French court, sometimes as secret agent, sometimes in an equivocal position as ambassador's companion, sometimes as fully accredited but very unpunctually paid ambassador. His share in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht, of which he is said to have disapproved personally, led to its popular nickname of "Matt's Peace."

When the Queen died and the Whigs regained power, he was impeached by Robert Walpole and kept in close custody for two years (1715–1717). In 1709, he had already published a collection of verse. During this imprisonment, maintaining his cheerful philosophy, he wrote his longest humorous poem, Alma; or, The Progress of the Mind. This, along with his most ambitious work, Solomon, and other Poems on several Occasions, was published by subscription in 1718. The sum received for this volume (4000 guineas), with a present of £4000 from Lord Harley, enabled him to live in comfort; but he did not long survive his enforced retirement from public life, although he bore his ups and downs with rare equanimity. He died at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, a seat of the earl of Oxford, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his monument may be seen in Poets' Corner. A History of his Own Time was issued by J Bancks in 1740. The book pretended to be derived from Prior's papers, but it is doubtful how far it should be regarded as authentic.

Prior's poems show considerable variety, a pleasant scholarship and great executive skill. The most ambitious, i.e. Solomon, and the paraphrase of The Nut-Brown Maid, are the least successful. But Alma, an admitted imitation of Samuel Butler, is a delightful piece of wayward easy humour, full of witty turns and well-remembered allusions, and Prior's mastery of the octo-syllabic couplet is greater than that of Jonathan Swift or Pope. His tales in rhyme, though often objectionable in their themes, are excellent specimens of narrative skill; and as an epigrammatist he is unrivalled in English. The majority of his love songs are frigid and academic, mere wax-flowers of Parnassus; but in familiar or playful efforts, of which the type are the admirable lines To a Child of Quality, he has still no rival. "Prior's"—says Thackeray, himself no mean proficient in this kind—"seem to me amongst the easiest, the richest, the most charmingly humorous of English lyrical poems. Horace is always in his mind, and his song and his philosophy, his good sense, his happy easy turns and melody, his loves and his Epicureanism, bear a great resemblance to that most delightful and accomplished master."

Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire is said to be where Prior wrote Henry and Emma, and this is now commemorated by a plaque. Prior has been commemorated by other poets as well; Everett James Ellis named Prior as a significant influence and source of inspiration.


William Hogarth A Scene from the "Beggar's Opera"

John Gay

"The Beggar's Opera"

born , June 30, 1685, Barnstaple, Devon, Eng.
died Dec. 4, 1732, London

English poet and dramatist, chiefly remembered as the author of The Beggar’s Opera, a work distinguished by good-humoured satire and technical assurance.

A member of an ancient but impoverished Devonshire family, Gay was educated at the free grammar school in Barnstaple. He was apprenticed to a silk mercer in London but was released early from his indentures and, after a further short period in Devonshire, returned to London, where he lived most of his life. Among his early literary friends were Aaron Hill and Eustace Budgell, whom he helped in the production of The British Apollo, a question-and-answer journal of the day. Gay’s journalistic interests are clearly seen in a pamphlet, The Present State of Wit (1711), a survey of contemporary periodical publications.

From 1712 to 1714 he was steward in the household of the Duchess of Monmouth, which gave him leisure and security to write. He had produced a burlesque of the Miltonic style, Wine, in 1708, and in 1713 his first important poem, Rural Sports, appeared. This is a descriptive and didactic work in two short books dealing with hunting and fishing but containing also descriptions of the countryside and meditations on the Horatian theme of retirement. In it he strikes a characteristic note of delicately absurd artificiality, while a deliberate disproportion between language and subject pays comic dividends and sets a good-humoured and sympathetic tone. His finest poem, Trivia: or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716), displays an assured and precise craftsmanship in which rhythm and diction underline whatever facet of experience he is describing. A sophisticated lady crossing the street, for example:

Her shoe disdains the street: the lady fair

With narrow step affects a limping air.

The couplet does not aim to startle the reader, yet the experience is perfectly conveyed. Another couplet, on the presence of spring felt throughout the whole of creation, states:

The seasons operate on every breast:

’Tis hence that fawns are brisk,

and ladies drest.

Here the effect is at once satirical, sympathetic, and—in its correlation of the animal and human kingdoms—philosophical. It is in such delicate probing of the surface of social life that Gay excels. The Shepherd’s Week (1714) is a series of mock classical poems in pastoral setting; the Fables (two series, 1727 and 1738) are brief, octosyllabic illustrations of moral themes, often satirical in tone.

Gay’s poetry was much influenced by that of Alexander Pope, who was a contemporary and close friend. Gay was a member, together with Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Arbuthnot, of the Scriblerus Club, a literary group that aimed to ridicule pedantry. These friends contributed to two of Gay’s satirical plays: The What D’ye Call It (1715) and Three Hours After Marriage (1717).

His most successful play was The Beggar’s Opera, produced in London on Jan. 29, 1728, by the theatre manager John Rich at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre. It ran for 62 performances (not consecutive, but the longest run then known). A story of thieves and highwaymen, it was intended to mirror the moral degradation of society and, more particularly, to caricature the prime minister Sir Robert Walpole and his Whig administration. It also made fun of the prevailing fashion for Italian opera. The play was stageworthy, however, not so much because of its pungent satire but because of its effective situations and “singable” songs. The production of its sequel, Polly, was forbidden by the lord chamberlain (doubtless on Walpole’s instructions); but the ban was an excellent advertisement for the piece, and subscriptions for copies of the printed edition made more than £1,000 profit for the author. (It was eventually produced in 1777, when it had a moderate success.) His Beggar’s Opera was successfully transmitted into the 20th century by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill as Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera).

“Honest” John Gay lost most of his money through disastrous investment in South Sea stock, but he nonetheless left £6,000 when he died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, next to the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and his epitaph was written by Alexander Pope.




John Arbuthnot

"History of John Bull"

Caricatures of John Bull

born April 1667, Inverbervie, Kincardine, Scot.
died Feb. 27, 1735, London, Eng.

Scottish mathematician, physician, and occasional writer, remembered as the close friend of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Gay and as a founding member of their famous Scriblerus Club, which aimed to ridicule bad literature and false learning.

After taking a medical degree in 1696 at the University of St. Andrews, Arbuthnot became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1704 and was one of Queen Anne’s physicians from 1705 until her death. Though he published mathematical and other scientific works, his fame rests on his reputation as a wit and on his satirical writings. The most important of the latter fall into two groups. The first consists of a political allegory dealing with the political jockeying of the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch that led up to the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). Published in five pamphlets, the earliest appearing in 1712, it was collected in 1727 under the composite title Law is a Bottom-less Pit; or, The History of John Bull, and it established and popularized for the first time the character who was to become the permanent symbol of England in cartoon and literature. An edition by A.W. Bower and R.A. Erickson was published in 1976.

The other satire in which Arbuthnot had an important share was the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, a mocking exposure of pedantry, first published in the 1741 edition of Pope’s works but largely written as early as 1713–14 by the members of the Scriblerus Club. The other members of the club acknowledged Arbuthnot as the chief contributor and guiding spirit of the work. Arbuthnot was indifferent to literary fame, and many of his witticisms and ideas for satires were later developed by and credited to his more famous literary friends.

John Bull

in literature and political caricature, a conventional personification of England or of English character. Bull was invented by the Scottish mathematician and physician John Arbuthnot as a character in an extended allegory that appeared in a series of five pamphlets in 1712 and later in the same year published collectively as The History of John Bull; he appeared as an honest clothier, bringing action with his linen-draper friend Nicholas Frog (Holland) against Lewis Baboon (Louis XIV) for interfering with trade. The wide circulation of the satire fixed Bull as a popular personification in 18th-century political writings.

Subsequently, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars brought John Bull’s first great period in caricature, when such satirists as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson conventionalized a gross, rather stupid figure, weighed down with debt or taxation or oppression, according to the artists’ political allegiance; but, less than 50 years later, “HB” (John Doyle) raised John Bull in the social scale, and he became the portly, prosperous citizen. This was the typical native representation, however; hostile foreign caricature identified him with “perfidious Albion.”

John Bull’s widest recognition came in the middle and late 19th century, especially through the influential cartoons portraying him in the periodical Punch. The most familiar and frequent representation was that developed by Punch cartoonists John Leech and Sir John Tenniel: the jovial and honest farmer figure, solid and foursquare, sometimes in Union Jack waistcoat and with bulldog at heel. John Bull had by now become so universally familiar that the name frequently appeared in book, play, and periodical titles and pictorially as a brand name or trademark for manufactured goods.


Jonathan Swift
, who also wrote verse of high quality throughout his career, like Gay favoured octosyllabic couplets and a close mimicry of the movement of colloquial speech. His technical virtuosity allowed him to switch assuredly from poetry of great destructive force to the intricately textured humour of Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift (completed in 1732; published 1739) and to the delicate humanity of his poems to Stella. But his prime distinction is, of course, as the greatest prose satirist in the English language. His period as secretary to the distinguished man of letters Sir William Temple gave him the chance to extend and consolidate his reading, and his first major work, A Tale of a Tub (1704), deploys its author’s learning to chart the anarchic lunacy of its supposed creator, a Grub Street hack, whose solipsistic “modern” consciousness possesses no respect for objectivity, coherence of argument, or inherited wisdom from Christian or Classical tradition. Techniques of impersonation were central to Swift’s art thereafter. The Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1708), for instance, offers brilliant ironic annotations on the “Church in Danger” controversy through the carefully assumed voice of a “nominal” Christian. That similar techniques could be adapted to serve specific political goals is demonstrated by The Drapier’s Letters (1724–25), part of a successful campaign to prevent the imposition of a new, and debased, coinage on Ireland. Swift had hoped for preferment in the English church, but his destiny lay in Ireland, and the ambivalent nature of his relationship to that country and its inhabitants provoked some of his most demanding and exhilarating writing—above all, A Modest Proposal (1729), in which the ironic use of an invented persona achieves perhaps its most extraordinary and mordant development. His most wide-ranging satiric work, however, is also his most famous: Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Swift grouped himself with Pope and Gay in hostility to the Walpole regime and the Hanoverian court, and that preoccupation leaves its mark on this work. But Gulliver’s Travels also hunts larger prey. At its heart is a radical critique of human nature in which subtle ironic techniques work to part the reader from any comfortable preconceptions and challenge him to rethink from first principles his notions of man. Its narrator, who begins as a prideful modern man and ends as a maddened misanthrope, is also, disturbingly, the final object of its satire.


Jonathan Swift

I. "Gulliver's Travels"



IV. "


Irish author and clergyman
pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff

born Nov. 30, 1667, Dublin, Ire.
died Oct. 19, 1745, Dublin

Anglo-Irish author, who was the foremost prose satirist in the English language. Besides the celebrated novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726), he wrote such shorter works as A Tale of a Tub (1704) and A Modest Proposal (1729).

Early life and education
Swift’s father, Jonathan Swift the elder, was an Englishman who had settled in Ireland after the Stuart Restoration (1660) and become steward of the King’s Inns, Dublin. In 1664 he married Abigail Erick, who was the daughter of an English clergyman. In the spring of 1667 Jonathan the elder died suddenly, leaving his wife, baby daughter, and an unborn son to the care of his brothers. The younger Jonathan Swift thus grew up fatherless and dependent on the generosity of his uncles. His education was not neglected, however, and at the age of six he was sent to Kilkenny School, then the best in Ireland. In 1682 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he was granted his bachelor of arts degree in February 1686 speciali gratia (“by special favour”), his degree being a device often used when a student’s record failed, in some minor respect, to conform to the regulations.

Swift continued in residence at Trinity College as a candidate for his master of arts degree until February 1689. But the Roman Catholic disorders that had begun to spread through Dublin after the Glorious Revolution (1688–89) in Protestant England caused Swift to seek security in England, and he soon became a member of the household of a distant relative of his mother named Sir William Temple, at Moor Park, Surrey. Swift was to remain at Moor Park intermittently until Temple’s death in 1699.

Years at Moor Park
Temple was engaged in writing his memoirs and preparing some of his essays for publication, and he had Swift act as a kind of secretary. During his residence at Moor Park, Swift twice returned to Ireland, and during the second of these visits, he took orders in the Anglican church, being ordained priest in January 1695. At the end of the same month he was appointed vicar of Kilroot, near Belfast. Swift came to intellectual maturity at Moor Park, with Temple’s rich library at his disposal. Here, too, he met Esther Johnson (the future Stella), the daughter of Temple’s widowed housekeeper. In 1692, through Temple’s good offices, Swift received the degree of M.A. at the University of Oxford.

Between 1691 and 1694 Swift wrote a number of poems, notably six odes. But his true genius did not find expression until he turned from verse to prose satire and composed, mostly at Moor Park between 1696 and 1699, A Tale of a Tub, one of his major works. Published anonymously in 1704, this work was made up of three associated pieces: the Tale itself, a satire against “the numerous and gross corruptions in religion and learning”; the mock-heroic Battle of the Books; and the Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, which ridiculed the manner of worship and preaching of religious enthusiasts at that period. In the Battle of the Books, Swift supports the ancients in the longstanding dispute about the relative merits of ancient versus modern literature and culture. But A Tale of a Tub is the most impressive of the three compositions. This work is outstanding for its exuberance of satiric wit and energy and is marked by an incomparable command of stylistic effects, largely in the nature of parody. Swift saw the realm of culture and literature threatened by zealous pedantry, while religion—which for him meant rational Anglicanism—suffered attack from both Roman Catholicism and the Nonconformist (Dissenting) churches. In the Tale he proceeded to trace all these dangers to a single source: the irrationalities that disturb man’s highest faculties—reason and common sense.

Career as satirist, political journalist, and churchman
After Temple’s death in 1699, Swift returned to Dublin as chaplain and secretary to the earl of Berkeley, who was then going to Ireland as a lord justice. During the ensuing years he was in England on some four occasions—in 1701, 1702, 1703, and 1707 to 1709—and won wide recognition in London for his intelligence and his wit as a writer. He had resigned his position as vicar of Kilroot, but early in 1700 he was preferred to several posts in the Irish church. His public writings of this period show that he kept in close touch with affairs in both Ireland and England. Among them is the essay Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome, in which Swift defended the English constitutional balance of power between the monarchy and the two houses of Parliament as a bulwark against tyranny. In London he became increasingly well known through several works: his religious and political essays; A Tale of a Tub; and certain impish works, including the “Bickerstaff” pamphlets of 1708–09, which put an end to the career of John Partridge, a popular astrologer, by first prophesying his death and then describing it in circumstantial detail. Like all Swift’s satirical works, these pamphlets were published anonymously and were exercises in impersonation. Their supposed author was “Isaac Bickerstaff.” For many of the first readers, the very authorship of the satires was a matter for puzzle and speculation. Swift’s works brought him to the attention of a circle of Whig writers led by Joseph Addison, but Swift was uneasy about many policies of the Whig administration. He was a Whig by birth, education, and political principle, but he was also passionately loyal to the Anglican church, and he came to view with apprehension the Whigs’ growing determination to yield ground to the Nonconformists. He also frequently mimicked and mocked the proponents of “free thinking”: intellectual skeptics who questioned Anglican orthodoxy. A brilliant and still-perplexing example of this is Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1708).

A momentous period began for Swift when in 1710 he once again found himself in London. A Tory ministry headed by Robert Harley (later earl of Oxford) and Henry St. John (later Viscount Bolingbroke) was replacing that of the Whigs. The new administration, bent on bringing hostilities with France to a conclusion, was also assuming a more protective attitude toward the Church of England. Swift’s reactions to such a rapidly changing world are vividly recorded in his Journal to Stella, a series of letters written between his arrival in England in 1710 and 1713, which he addressed to Esther Johnson and her companion, Rebecca Dingley, who were now living in Dublin. The astute Harley made overtures to Swift and won him over to the Tories. But Swift did not thereby renounce his essentially Whiggish convictions regarding the nature of government. The old Tory theory of the divine right of kings had no claim upon him. The ultimate power, he insisted, derived from the people as a whole and, in the English constitution, had come to be exercised jointly by king, lords, and commons.

Swift quickly became the Tories’ chief pamphleteer and political writer and, by the end of October 1710, had taken over the Tory journal, The Examiner, which he continued to edit until June 14, 1711. He then began preparing a pamphlet in support of the Tory drive for peace with France. This, The Conduct of the Allies, appeared on Nov. 27, 1711, some weeks before the motion in favour of a peace was finally carried in Parliament. Swift was rewarded for his services in April 1713 with his appointment as dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Withdrawal to Ireland
With the death of Queen Anne in August 1714 and the accession of George I, the Tories were a ruined party, and Swift’s career in England was at an end. He withdrew to Ireland, where he was to pass most of the remainder of his life. After a period of seclusion in his deanery, Swift gradually regained his energy. He turned again to verse, which he continued to write throughout the 1720s and early ’30s, producing the impressive poem Verses on the Death of Doctor Swift, among others. By 1720 he was also showing a renewed interest in public affairs. In his Irish pamphlets of this period he came to grips with many of the problems, social and economic, then confronting Ireland. His tone and manner varied from direct factual presentation to exhortation, humour, and bitter irony. Swift blamed Ireland’s backward state chiefly on the blindness of the English government; but he also insistently called attention to the things that the Irish themselves might do in order to better their lot. Of his Irish writings, the Drapier’s Letters (1724–25) and A Modest Proposal are the best known. The first is a series of letters attacking the English government for its scheme to supply Ireland with copper halfpence and farthings. A Modest Proposal is a grimly ironic letter of advice in which a public-spirited citizen suggests that Ireland’s overpopulation and dire economic conditions could be alleviated if the babies of poor Irish parents were sold as edible delicacies to be eaten by the rich. Both were published anonymously.

Certain events in Swift’s private life must also be mentioned. Stella (Esther Johnson) had continued to live with Rebecca Dingley after moving to Ireland in 1700 or 1701. It has sometimes been asserted that Stella and Swift were secretly married in 1716, but they did not live together, and there is no evidence to support this story. It was friendship that Swift always expressed in speaking of Stella, not romantic love. In addition to the letters that make up his Journal to Stella, he wrote verses to her, including a series of wry and touching poems titled On Stella’s Birthday. The question may be asked, was this friendship strained as a result of the appearance in his life of another woman, Esther Vanhomrigh, whom he named Vanessa (and who also appeared in his poetry)? He had met Vanessa during his London visit of 1707–09, and in 1714 she had, despite all his admonitions, insisted on following him to Ireland. Her letters to Swift reveal her passion for him, though at the time of her death in 1723 she had apparently turned against him because he insisted on maintaining a distant attitude toward her. Stella herself died in 1728. Scholars are still much in the dark concerning the precise relationships between these three people, and the various melodramatic theories that have been suggested rest upon no solid ground.

Swift’s greatest satire, Gulliver’s Travels, was published in 1726. It is uncertain when he began this work, but it appears from his correspondence that he was writing in earnest by 1721 and had finished the whole by August 1725. Its success was immediate. Then, and since, it has succeeded in entertaining (and intriguing) all classes of readers. It was completed at a time when he was close to the poet Alexander Pope and the poet and dramatist John Gay. He had been a fellow member of their Scriblerus Club since 1713, and through their correspondence, Pope continued to be one of his most important connections to England.

Last years
The closing years of Swift’s life have been the subject of some misrepresentation, and stories have been told of his ungovernable temper and lack of self-control. It has been suggested that he was insane. From youth he had suffered from what is now known to have been Ménière’s disease, an affliction of the semicircular canals of the ears, causing periods of dizziness and nausea. But his mental powers were in no way affected, and he remained active throughout most of the 1730s—Dublin’s foremost citizen and Ireland’s great patriot dean. In the autumn of 1739 a great celebration was held in his honour. He had, however, begun to fail physically and later suffered a paralytic stroke, with subsequent aphasia. In 1742 he was declared incapable of caring for himself, and guardians were appointed. After his death in 1745, he was buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. On his memorial tablet is an epitaph of his own composition, which says that he lies “where savage indignation can no longer tear his heart.”

Gulliver’s Travels
Swift’s masterpiece was originally published without its author’s name under the title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. This work, which is told in Gulliver’s “own words,” is the most brilliant as well as the most bitter and controversial of his satires. In each of its four books the hero, Lemuel Gulliver, embarks on a voyage; but shipwreck or some other hazard usually casts him up on a strange land. Book I takes him to Lilliput, where he wakes to find himself the giant prisoner of the six-inch-high Lilliputians. Man-Mountain, as Gulliver is called, ingratiates himself with the arrogant, self-important Lilliputians when he wades into the sea and captures an invasion fleet from neighbouring Blefescu; but he falls into disfavour when he puts out a fire in the empress’ palace by urinating on it. Learning of a plot to charge him with treason, he escapes from the island.

Book II takes Gulliver to Brobdingnag, where the inhabitants are giants. He is cared for kindly by a nine-year-old girl, Glumdalclitch, but his tiny size exposes him to dangers and indignities, such as getting his head caught in a squalling baby’s mouth. Also, the giants’ small physical imperfections (such as large pores) are highly visible and disturbing to him. Picked up by an eagle and dropped into the sea, he manages to return home.

In Book III Gulliver visits the floating island of Laputa, whose absent-minded inhabitants are so preoccupied with higher speculations that they are in constant danger of accidental collisions. He visits the Academy of Lagado (a travesty of England’s Royal Society), where he finds its lunatic savants engaged in such impractical studies as reducing human excrement to the original food. In Luggnagg he meets the Struldbruggs, a race of immortals, whose eternal senility is brutally described.

Book IV takes Gulliver to the Utopian land of the Houyhnhnms—grave, rational, and virtuous horses. There is also another race on the island, uneasily tolerated and used for menial services by the Houyhnhnms. These are the vicious and physically disgusting Yahoos. Although Gulliver pretends at first not to recognize them, he is forced at last to admit the Yahoos are human beings. He finds perfect happiness with the Houyhnhnms, but as he is only a more advanced Yahoo, he is rejected by them in general assembly and is returned to England, where he finds himself no longer able to tolerate the society of his fellow human beings.

Gulliver’s Travels’s matter-of-fact style and its air of sober reality confer on it an ironic depth that defeats oversimple explanations. Is it essentially comic, or is it a misanthropic depreciation of mankind? Swift certainly seems to use the various races and societies Gulliver encounters in his travels to satirize many of the errors, follies, and frailties that human beings are prone to. The warlike, disputatious, but essentially trivial Lilliputians in Book I and the deranged, impractical pedants and intellectuals in Book III are shown as imbalanced beings lacking common sense and even decency. The Houyhnhnms, by contrast, are the epitome of reason and virtuous simplicity, but Gulliver’s own proud identification with these horses and his subsequent disdain for his fellow humans indicates that he too has become imbalanced, and that human beings are simply incapable of aspiring to the virtuous rationality that Gulliver has glimpsed.

Swift’s intellectual roots lay in the rationalism that was characteristic of late 17th-century England. This rationalism, with its strong moral sense, its emphasis on common sense, and its distrust of emotionalism, gave him the standards by which he appraised human conduct. At the same time, however, he provided a unique description of reason’s weakness and of its use by men and women to delude themselves. His moral principles are scarcely original; his originality lies rather in the quality of his satiric imagination and his literary art. Swift’s literary tone varies from the humorous to the savage, but each of his satiric compositions is marked by concentrated power and directness of impact. His command of a great variety of prose styles is unfailing, as is his power of inventing imaginary episodes and all their accompanying details. Swift rarely speaks in his own person; almost always he states his views by ironic indiscretion through some imagined character like Lemuel Gulliver or the morally obtuse citizen of A Modest Proposal. Thus Swift’s descriptive passages reflect the minds that are describing just as much as the things described. Pulling in different directions, this irony creates the tensions that are characteristic of Swift’s best work, and reflects his vision of humanity’s ambiguous position between bestiality and reasonableness.

Ricardo Quintana



Shaftesbury and others

More-consoling doctrine was available in the popular writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd earl of Shaftesbury, which were gathered in his Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711). Although Shaftesbury had been tutored by Locke, he dissented from the latter’s rejection of innate ideas and posited that man is born with a moral sense that is closely associated with his sense of aesthetic form. The tone of Shaftesbury’s essays is characteristically idealistic, benevolent, gently reasonable, and unmistakably aristocratic. Yet they were more controversial than now seems likely: such religion as is present there is Deistic, and the philosopher seems warmer toward pagan than Christian wisdom.


Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd earl of Shaftesbury

born Feb. 26, 1671, London, Eng.
died Feb. 15, 1713, Naples [Italy]

English politician and philosopher, grandson of the famous 1st earl and one of the principal English Deists.

His early education was directed by John Locke, and he attended Winchester College. He entered Parliament in 1695 and, succeeding as 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury in 1699, attended Parliament regularly in the House of Lords for the remainder of William III’s reign. He pursued an independent policy in the House of Lords as well as in the House of Commons. In July 1702 he retired from public life.

Shaftesbury’s philosophy owed something to the Cambridge Platonists, who had stressed the existence in man of a natural moral sense. Shaftesbury advanced this concept against both the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Fall and against the premise that the state of nature was a state of unavoidable warfare.

Shaftesbury’s Neoplatonism, his contention that what man sees of beauty or truth is only a shadow of absolute beauty or truth, dominated his attitude to religion and to the arts. During his lifetime his fame as a writer was comparatively slight, for he published little before 1711; in that year appeared his Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, in which his chief works were assembled. The effect of this book was immediate and was felt on the European continent as well as in England; indeed, English Deism was transmitted to Germany almost entirely through translations of his writings. Alexander Pope, Joseph Butler, Francis Hutcheson, Mark Akenside, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Immanuel Kant were among those who were to some degree affected by Shaftesbury.

His optimism was buffeted by Bernard de Mandeville, whose Fable of the Bees (1714–29), which includes The Grumbling Hive; or, Knaves Turn’d Honest (1705), takes a closer look at early capitalist society than Shaftesbury was prepared to do. Mandeville stressed the indispensable role played by the ruthless pursuit of self-interest in securing society’s prosperous functioning. He thus favoured an altogether harsher view of man’s natural instincts than Shaftesbury did and used his formidable gifts as a controversialist to oppose the various contemporary hypocrisies, philosophical and theological, that sought to deny the truth as he saw it. Indeed, he is less a philosopher than a satirist of the philosophies of others, ruthlessly skewering unevidenced optimism and merely theoretical schemes of virtue.

He was, in his turn, the target of acerbic rebukes by, among others, William Law, John Dennis, and Francis Hutcheson. George Berkeley, who criticized both Mandeville and Shaftesbury, set himself against what he took to be the age’s irreligious tendencies and the obscurantist defiance by some of his philosophical forbears of the truths of common sense. His Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713) continued the 17th-century debates about the nature of human perception, to which René Descartes and John Locke had contributed. The extreme lucidity and elegance of his style contrast markedly with the more-effortful but intensely earnest prose of Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion (1736), which also seeks to confront contemporary skepticism and ponders scrupulously the bases of man’s knowledge of his creator.

In a series of works beginning with A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), David Hume identified himself as a key spokesman for ironic skepticism and probed uncompromisingly the human mind’s propensity to work by sequences of association and juxtaposition rather than by reason. He uniquely merged intellectual rigour with stylistic elegance, writing many beautifully turned essays, including the lengthy, highly successful History of Great Britain (1754–62) and his piercingly skeptical Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published posthumously in 1779. Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) merged psychological and aesthetic questioning by hypothesizing that the spectator’s or reader’s delight in the sublime depended upon a sensation of pleasurable pain. An equally bold assumption about human psychology—in this case, that man is an ambitious, socially oriented, product-valuing creature—lies at the heart of Adam Smith’s masterpiece of laissez-faire economic theory, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith was a friend of Hume’s, and both were, with others such as Hutcheson, William Robertson, and Adam Ferguson, part of the Scottish Enlightenment—a flowering of intellectual life centred in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the second half of the 18th century.


Bernard de Mandeville


born November 1670, Rotterdam, Neth.
died Jan. 21, 1733, Hackney, London, Eng.

Dutch prose writer and philosopher who won European fame with The Fable of the Bees.

Mandeville graduated in medicine from the University of Leiden in March 1691 and started to practice but very soon went abroad. Arriving in England to learn the language, he “found the Country and the Manners of it agreeable” and settled in London. In 1699 he married an Englishwoman, with whom he had two children. His professional reputation in London was soon established, and he attracted the friendship and patronage of important persons.

Mandeville’s first works in English were burlesque paraphrases from the 17th-century French poet Jean de La Fontaine and the 17th-century French writer Paul Scarron.

The 1714 edition of Mandeville’s most important work, The Fable of the Bees, was subtitled Private Vices, Publick Benefits and consisted of a preface, the text of The Grumbling Hive, an “Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue,” and “Remarks” on the poem. The 1723 edition included an examination of “The Nature of Society” and provoked a long controversy. The 1729 edition remodeled the entire argument to suit Mandeville’s philosophical commitment but nevertheless retained something of the original purpose of diverting readers.

Mandeville’s argument in The Fable, a paradoxical defense of the usefulness of “vices,” is based on his definition of all actions as equally vicious in that they are all motivated by self-interest. Yet while the motives must be vicious, the results of action are often socially beneficial, since they produce the wealth and comforts of civilization.



William Law

born 1686, King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire, Eng.
died April 9, 1761, King’s Cliffe

English author of influential works on Christian ethics and mysticism.

He entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1705 and in 1711 was elected a fellow there and was ordained. Upon the accession of George I in 1714, however, he was dismissed from Cambridge as a nonjuror (refusing to take an oath of allegiance). By 1727 he was serving as tutor to Edward Gibbon, father of the historian. From 1740 Law lived in retirement at his birthplace.

His chief contribution lies in his delineation of the Christian ethical ideal for human life and its actualization through the disciplined practices of private mysticism. His Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection (1726) and his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), considered his best work, both espouse a mild mysticism within the bounds of the normative Christian tradition. His stress upon the union between the Creator and the creature, however, as expressed in The Way to Divine Knowledge (1752), The Spirit of Prayer (1749), and The Spirit of Love (1752), has seldom found acceptance among Christian moral theologians. Each of these works was strongly criticized by such contemporaries as John Wesley. Nevertheless John and Charles Wesley both expressed an indebtedness to Law’s work.



John Dennis

born , 1657, London, Eng.
died Jan. 6, 1734, London

English critic and dramatist whose insistence upon the importance of passion in poetry led to a long quarrel with Alexander Pope.

Educated at Harrow School and the University of Cambridge, Dennis traveled in Europe before settling in London, where he met leading literary figures. At first he wrote odes and plays, but, although a prolific dramatist, he was never very successful.

The most important of Dennis’ critical works are The Usefulness of the Stage (1698), The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701), The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704), and An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespear (1712). His basic contention was that literature, and especially drama, is comparable to religion in that its effect is to move men’s minds by means of the emotions. What Dennis looked for primarily in a work of art was passion and elevation rather than decorum and polish. His idol among English poets was John Milton, and he had an enthusiasm for the sublime, a concept that was newly fashionable in England and France. This bias may explain Dennis’ antipathy toward Pope and probably accounts for the hostility between them. Pope, who thought Dennis’ work bombastic, included an adverse allusion to Dennis in his “Essay on Criticism.” Dennis replied with Reflections Critical and Satyrical (1711), which mixed criticism of Pope’s poem with a vicious personal attack upon Pope as “a hunch-back’d toad” whose deformed body mirrored a deformed mind. Despite a temporary reconciliation, the quarrel continued sporadically until Dennis’ death. Dennis figures a good deal in Pope’s mock epic The Dunciad (1728), especially in its sarcastic footnotes. Dennis also defended the drama against the English bishop Jeremy Collier’s condemnation of it in 1698. Dennis argued that plays discouraged disaffection by spreading pleasure and providing exercise for the passions.



Francis Hutcheson

born Aug. 8, 1694, Drumalig, County Down, Ire.
died 1746, Glasgow

Scots-Irish philosopher and major exponent of the theory of the existence of a moral sense through which man can achieve right action.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Hutcheson studied philosophy, classics, and theology at the University of Glasgow (1710–16) and then founded a private academy in Dublin in 1719. In 1729 he returned to Glasgow as professor of moral philosophy, a position he held until his death.

Hutcheson was licensed as a preacher in 1719 by Irish Presbyterians in Ulster, but in 1738 the Glasgow presbytery challenged his belief that people can have a knowledge of good and evil without, and prior to, a knowledge of God. His standing as a popular preacher was undiminished, however, and the celebrated Scottish philosopher David Hume sought his opinion of the rough draft of the section “Of Human Morals” in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.

Hutcheson’s ethical theory was propounded in his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), in An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations upon the Moral Sense (1728), and in the posthumous System of Moral Philosophy, 2 vol. (1755). In his view, besides his five external senses, man has a variety of internal senses, including a sense of beauty, of morality, of honour, and of the ridiculous. Of these, Hutcheson considered the moral sense to be the most important. He believed that it is implanted in man and pronounces instinctively and immediately on the character of actions and affections, approving those that are virtuous and disapproving those that are vicious. Hutcheson’s moral criterion was whether or not an act tends to promote the general welfare of mankind. He thus anticipated the Utilitarianism of the English thinker Jeremy Bentham, even to his use of the phrase “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Hutcheson was also influential as a logician and theorist of human knowledge.



Joseph Butler

born May 18, 1692, Wantage, Berkshire, England
died June 16, 1752, Bath, Somerset

Church of England bishop, moral philosopher, preacher to the royal court, and influential author who defended revealed religion against the rationalists of his time.

Ordained in 1718, Butler became preacher at the Rolls Chapel in London, where he delivered his famous “Sermons on Human Nature” (1726), addressed to the practical side of Christian living. After several years as a parish priest, he was appointed in 1736 head chaplain to Caroline, wife of King George II. In the same year, he published his most celebrated work, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, attacking Deist writers whose approach to God consisted in arguing rationally from nature rather than from faith in the doctrine of revelation. Butler sought to demonstrate that nature and natural religion were encumbered with the same kind of uncertainties as revealed religion. The book, together with the Wesleyan revival, silenced the importance of Christian Deism in England. His Of the Nature of Virtue, appended to the Analogy, presented a refutation of hedonism and of the notion that self-interest is the ultimate principle of good conduct; for this work Butler has been considered by some critics to be one of the foremost British moral philosophers.

After the queen died in 1737, Butler went in 1738 to Bristol as bishop. His abilities as chaplain, however, had impressed the king, and in 1746 Butler was recalled to the royal household. A year later Butler declined an offer to become primate (archbishop of Canterbury), but in 1750 he accepted the bishopric of Durham. Among the many thinkers subsequently influenced by his arguments in favour of traditional theology was the Roman Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–90).



David Hume




Scottish philosopher

born May 7 [April 26, Old Style], 1711, Edinburgh, Scot.
died Aug. 25, 1776, Edinburgh

Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism.

Hume conceived of philosophy as the inductive, experimental science of human nature. Taking the scientific method of the English physicist Sir Isaac Newton as his model and building on the epistemology of the English philosopher John Locke, Hume tried to describe how the mind works in acquiring what is called knowledge. He concluded that no theory of reality is possible; there can be no knowledge of anything beyond experience. Despite the enduring impact of his theory of knowledge, Hume seems to have considered himself chiefly as a moralist.

Early life and works
Hume was the younger son of Joseph Hume, the modestly circumstanced laird, or lord, of Ninewells, a small estate adjoining the village of Chirnside, about nine miles distant from Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish side of the border. David’s mother, Catherine, a daughter of Sir David Falconer, president of the Scottish court of session, was in Edinburgh when he was born. In his third year his father died. He entered Edinburgh University when he was about 12 years old and left it at 14 or 15, as was then usual. Pressed a little later to study law (in the family tradition on both sides), he found it distasteful and instead read voraciously in the wider sphere of letters. Because of the intensity and excitement of his intellectual discovery, he had a nervous breakdown in 1729, from which it took him a few years to recover.

In 1734, after trying his hand in a merchant’s office in Bristol, he came to the turning point of his life and retired to France for three years. Most of this time he spent at La Flèche on the Loire, in the old Anjou, studying and writing A Treatise of Human Nature. The Treatise was Hume’s attempt to formulate a full-fledged philosophical system. It is divided into three books: book I, on understanding, aims at explaining man’s process of knowing, describing in order the origin of ideas, the ideas of space and time, causality, and the testimony of the senses; book II, on the “passions” of man, gives an elaborate psychological machinery to explain the affective, or emotional, order in man and assigns a subordinate role to reason in this mechanism; book III, on morals, describes moral goodness in terms of “feelings” of approval or disapproval that a person has when he considers human behaviour in the light of the agreeable or disagreeable consequences either to himself or to others. Although the Treatise is Hume’s most thorough exposition of his thought, at the end of his life he vehemently repudiated it as juvenile, avowing that only his later writings presented his considered views. The Treatise is not well constructed, in parts oversubtle, confusing because of ambiguity in important terms (especially “reason”), and marred by willful extravagance of statement and rather theatrical personal avowals. For these reasons his mature condemnation of it was perhaps not entirely misplaced. Book I, nevertheless, has been more read in academic circles than any other of his writings.

Returning to England in 1737, he set about publishing the Treatise. Books I and II were published in two volumes in 1739; book III appeared the following year. The poor reception of this, his first and very ambitious work, depressed him; but his next venture, Essays, Moral and Political (1741–42), won some success. Perhaps encouraged by this, he became a candidate for the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh in 1744. Objectors alleged heresy and even atheism, pointing to the Treatise as evidence. Unsuccessful, Hume left the city, where he had been living since 1740, and began a period of wandering: a sorry year near St. Albans as tutor to the mad marquess of Annandale (1745–46); a few months as secretary to Gen. James St. Clair (a member of a prominent Scottish family), with whom he saw military action during an abortive expedition to Brittany (1746); a little tarrying in London and at Ninewells; and then some further months with General St. Clair on an embassy to the courts of Vienna and Turin (1748–49).

Mature works
During his years of wandering Hume was earning the money that he needed to gain leisure for his studies. Some fruits of these studies had already appeared before the end of his travels, viz., a further Three Essays, Moral and Political (1748) and Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748). The latter is a rewriting of book I of the Treatise (with the addition of his essay “On Miracles,” which became notorious for its denial that a miracle can be proved by any amount or kind of evidence); it is better known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the title Hume gave to it in a revision of 1758. The Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) was a rewriting of book III of the Treatise. It was in these works that Hume expressed his mature thought.

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is an attempt to define the principles of human knowledge. It poses in logical form significant questions about the nature of reasoning in regard to matters of fact and experience, and it answers them by recourse to the principle of association. The basis of his exposition is a twofold classification of objects of awareness. In the first place, all such objects are either “impressions,” data of sensation or of internal consciousness, or “ideas,” derived from such data by compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing. That is to say, the mind does not create any ideas but derives them from impressions. From this Hume develops a theory of meaning. A word that does not stand directly for an impression has meaning only if it brings before the mind an object that can be gathered from an impression by one of the mental processes mentioned. In the second place, there are two approaches to construing meaning, an analytical one, which concentrates on the “relations of ideas,” and an empirical one, which focuses on “matters of fact.” Ideas can be held before the mind simply as meanings, and their logical relations to one another can then be detected by rational inspection. The idea of a plane triangle, for example, entails the equality of its internal angles to two right angles, and the idea of motion entails the ideas of space and time, irrespective of whether there really are such things as triangles and motion. Only on this level of mere meanings, Hume asserts, is there room for demonstrative knowledge. Matters of fact, on the other hand, come before the mind merely as they are, revealing no logical relations; their properties and connections must be accepted as they are given. That primroses are yellow, that lead is heavy, and that fire burns things are facts, each shut up in itself, logically barren. Each, so far as reason is concerned, could be different: the contradictory of every matter of fact is conceivable. Therefore, any demonstrative science of fact is impossible.

From this basis Hume develops his doctrine about causality. The idea of causality is alleged to assert a necessary connection among matters of fact. From what impression, then, is it derived? Hume states that no causal relation among the data of the senses can be observed, for, when a person regards any events as causally connected, all that he does and can observe is that they frequently and uniformly go together. In this sort of togetherness it is a fact that the impression or idea of the one event brings with it the idea of the other. A habitual association is set up in the mind; and, as in other forms of habit, so in this one, the working of the association is felt as compulsion. This feeling, Hume concludes, is the only discoverable impressional source of the idea of causality.

Mature works » Belief
Hume then considers the process of causal inference, and in so doing he introduces the concept of belief. When a person sees a glass fall, he not only thinks of its breaking but expects and believes that it will break; or, starting from an effect, when he sees the ground to be generally wet, he not only thinks of rain but believes that there has been rain. Thus belief is a significant component in the process of causal inference. Hume then proceeds to investigate the nature of belief, claiming that he was the first to do so. He uses this term in the narrow sense of belief regarding matters of fact. He defines belief as a sort of liveliness or vividness that accompanies the perception of an idea. A belief is more than an idea; it is a vivid or lively idea. This vividness is originally possessed by some of the objects of awareness, by impressions and the simple memory images of them. By association it comes to belong to certain ideas as well. In the process of causal inference, then, an observer passes from an impression to an idea regularly associated with it. In the process the aspect of liveliness proper to the impression infects the idea, Hume asserts. And it is this aspect of liveliness that Hume defines as the essence of belief.

Hume does not claim to prove that the propositions, (1) that events themselves are causally related and (2) that they will be related in the future in the same ways as they were in the past, are false. He firmly believed both of these propositions and insisted that everybody else believed them, will continue to believe them, and must continue to believe them in order to survive. They are natural beliefs, inextinguishable propensities of human nature, madness apart. What Hume claims to prove is that natural beliefs are not obtained and cannot be demonstrated either by empirical observation or by reason, whether intuitive or inferential. Reflection shows that there is no evidence for them and shows also both that we are bound to believe them and that it is sensible or sane to do so. This is Hume’s skepticism: it is an affirmation of that tension, a denial not of belief but of certainty.

Mature works » Morals and historical writing
The Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals is a refinement of Hume’s thinking on morality, in which he views sympathy as the fact of human nature lying at the basis of all social life and personal happiness. Defining morality as those qualities that are approved (1) in whomsoever they happen to be and (2) by virtually everybody, he sets himself to discover the broadest grounds of the approvals. He finds them, as he found the grounds of belief, in “feelings,” not in “knowings.” Moral decisions are grounded in moral sentiment. Qualities are valued either for their utility or for their agreeableness, in each case either to their owners or to others. Hume’s moral system aims at the happiness of others (without any such formula as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”) and at the happiness of self. But regard for others accounts for the greater part of morality. His emphasis is on altruism: the moral sentiments that he claims to find in human beings, he traces, for the most part, to a sentiment for and a sympathy with one’s fellows. It is human nature, he holds, to laugh with the laughing and to grieve with the grieved and to seek the good of others as well as one’s own. Two years after the Enquiry was published, Hume confessed, “I have a partiality for that work”; and at the end of his life he judged it “of all my writings incomparably the best.” Such statements, along with other indications in his later writings, make it possible to suspect that he regarded his moral doctrine as his major work. He here writes as a man having the same commitment to duty as his fellows. The traditional view that he was a detached scoffer is deeply wrong: he was skeptical not of morality but of much theorizing about it.

Following the publication of these works, Hume spent several years (1751–63) in Edinburgh, with two breaks in London. An attempt was made to get him appointed as successor to Adam Smith, the Scottish economist (later to be his close friend), in the chair of logic at Glasgow, but the rumour of atheism prevailed again. In 1752, however, Hume was made keeper of the Advocates’ Library at Edinburgh. There, “master of 30,000 volumes,” he could indulge a desire of some years to turn to historical writing. His History of England, extending from Caesar’s invasion to 1688, came out in six quarto volumes between 1754 and 1762, preceded by Political Discourses (1752). His recent writings had begun to make him known, but these two brought him fame, abroad as well as at home. He also wrote Four Dissertations (1757), which he regarded as a trifle, although it included a rewriting of book II of the Treatise (completing his purged restatement of this work) and a brilliant study of “the natural history of religion.” In 1762 James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, called Hume “the greatest writer in Britain,” and the Roman Catholic Church, in 1761, paid him the attention of putting all his writings on the Index, its list of forbidden books.

The most colourful episode of his life ensued: in 1763 he left England to become secretary to the British embassy in Paris under the Earl of Hertford. The society of Paris accepted him, despite his ungainly figure and gauche manner. He was honoured as eminent in breadth of learning, in acuteness of thought, and in elegance of pen and was taken to heart for his simple goodness and cheerfulness. The salons threw open their doors to him, and he was warmly welcomed by all. For four months in 1765 he acted as chargé d’affaires at the embassy. When he returned to London at the beginning of 1766 (to become, a year later, undersecretary of state), he brought Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher connected with the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, with him and found him a refuge from persecution in a country house at Wootton in Staffordshire. This tormented genius suspected a plot, took secret flight back to France, and spread a report of Hume’s bad faith. Hume was partly stung and partly persuaded into publishing the relevant correspondence between them with a connecting narrative (A Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute Between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau, 1766).

In 1769, somewhat tired of public life and of England too, he again established a residence in his beloved Edinburgh, deeply enjoying the company—at once intellectual and convivial—of friends old and new (he never married), as well as revising the text of his writings. He issued five further editions of his History between 1762 and 1773 as well as eight editions of his collected writings (omitting the Treatise, History, and ephemera) under the title Essays and Treatises between 1753 and 1772, besides preparing the final edition of this collection, which appeared posthumously (1777), and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, held back under pressure from friends and not published until 1779. His curiously detached autobiography, The Life of David Hume, Esquire, Written by Himself (1777; the title is his own), is dated April 18, 1776. He died in his Edinburgh house after a long illness and was buried on Calton Hill.

Adam Smith, his literary executor, added to the Life a letter that concludes with his judgment on his friend as “approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” His distinguished friends, with ministers of religion among them, certainly admired and loved him, and there were younger men indebted either to his influence or to his pocket. The mob had heard only that he was an atheist and simply wondered how such an ogre would manage his dying. Yet Boswell has recounted, in a passage in his Private Papers, that, when he visited Hume in his last illness, the philosopher put up a lively, cheerful defense of his disbelief in immortality.

Significance and influence
That Hume was one of the major figures of his century can hardly be doubted. So his contemporaries thought, and his achievement, as seen in historical perspective, confirms that judgment, though with a shift of emphasis. Some of the reasons for the assessment may be given under four heads:

Significance and influence » As a writer
Hume’s style was praised in his lifetime and has often been praised since. It exemplifies the classical standards of his day. It lacks individuality and colour, for he was always proudly on guard against his emotions. The touch is light, except on slight subjects, where it is rather heavy. Yet in his philosophical works he gives an unsought pleasure. Here his detachment, levelness (all on one plane), smoothness, and daylight clearness are proper merits. It is as one of the best writers of scientific prose in English that he stands in the history of style.

Significance and influence » As a historian
Library catalogs still list Hume as “Hume, David, the Historian.” Between his death and 1894, there were at least 50 editions of his History; and an abridgment, The Student’s Hume (1859; often reprinted), remained in common use for 50 years. Though now outdated, Hume’s History must be regarded as an event of cultural importance. In its own day, moreover, it was an innovation, soaring high above its very few predecessors. It was fuller and set a higher standard of impartiality. His History of England not only traced the deeds of kings and statesmen but also displayed the intellectual interests of the educated citizens, as may be seen, for instance, in the pages on literature and science under the Commonwealth at the end of chapter 3 and under James II at the end of chapter 2. It was unprecedentedly readable, in structure as well as in phrasing. Persons and events were woven into causal patterns that furnished a narrative with the goals and resting points of recurrent climaxes. That was to be the plan of future history books for the general reader.

Significance and influence » As an economist
Hume steps forward as an economist in the Political Discourses incorporated in Essays and Treatises as part 2 of Essays Moral and Political. How far he influenced his friend Adam Smith, 12 years his junior, remains uncertain: they had broadly similar principles, and both had the excellent habit of illustrating and supporting these from history. He did not formulate a complete system of economic theory, as did Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations, but Hume introduced several of the new ideas around which the “classical economics” of the 18th century was built. His level of insight can be gathered from his main contentions: that wealth consists not of money but of commodities; that the amount of money in circulation should be kept related to the amount of goods in the market (two points made by Berkeley); that a low rate of interest is a symptom not of superabundance of money but of booming trade; that no nation can go on exporting only for bullion; that each nation has special advantages of raw materials, climate, and skill, so that a free interchange of products (with some exceptions) is mutually beneficial; and that poor nations impoverish the rest just because they do not produce enough to be able to take much part in that exchange. He welcomed advance beyond an agricultural to an industrial economy as a precondition of any but the barer forms of civilization.

Significance and influence » As a philosopher
Hume conceived of philosophy as the inductive science of human nature, and he concluded that man is more a creature of sensitive and practical sentiment than of reason. On the Continent he is seen as one of the few British classical philosophers. For some Germans his importance lies in the fact that Immanuel Kant conceived his critical philosophy in direct reaction to Hume. Hume was one of the influences that led Auguste Comte, the 19th-century French mathematician and sociologist, to positivism. In Britain his positive influence is seen in Jeremy Bentham, the early 19th-century jurist and philosopher, who was moved to utilitarianism (the moral theory that right conduct should be determined by the usefulness of its consequences) by book III of the Treatise, and more extensively in John Stuart Mill, the philosopher and economist who lived later in the 19th century.

In throwing doubt on the assumption of a necessary link between cause and effect, Hume was the first philosopher of the postmedieval world to reformulate the skepticism of the ancients. His reformulation, moreover, was carried out in a new and compelling way. Although Hume admired Newton, Hume’s subtle undermining of causality called in question the philosophical basis of Newton’s science as a way of looking at the world, inasmuch as this rested on the identification of a few fundamental causal laws that govern the universe. As a result the positivists of the 19th century were obliged to wrestle with Hume’s questioning of causality if they were to succeed in their aim of making science the central framework of human thought. In the 20th century it was Hume’s naturalism rather than his skepticism that attracted attention, chiefly among analytic philosophers. Hume’s naturalism lies in his belief that philosophical justification could only be rooted in regularities of the natural world. The attraction of this for analytic philosophers was that it seemed to provide a solution to the problems arising from the skeptical tradition that Hume himself, in his other philosophical role, had done so much to reinvigorate.

Thomas Edmund Jessop
Maurice Cranston




Edmund Burke

born January 12?, [January 1, Old Style], 1729, Dublin, Ire.
died July 9, 1797, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, Eng.

British statesman, parliamentary orator, philosopher, and political thinker prominent in public life from 1765 to about 1795 and important in the history of political theory. He championed conservatism in opposition to Jacobinism in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Early life
Burke, the son of a solicitor, entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1744 and moved to London in 1750 to begin his studies at the Middle Temple. There follows an obscure period in which Burke lost interest in his legal studies, was estranged from his father, and spent some time wandering about England and France. In 1756 he published anonymously A Vindication of Natural Society…, a satirical imitation of the style of Viscount Bolingbroke that was aimed at both the destructive criticism of revealed religion and the contemporary vogue for a “return to Nature.” A contribution to aesthetic theory, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which appeared in 1757, gave him some reputation in England and was noticed abroad, among others by Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant, and G.E. Lessing. In agreement with the publisher Robert Dodsley, Burke initiated The Annual Register as a yearly survey of world affairs; the first volume appeared in 1758 under his (unacknowledged) editorship, and he retained this connection for about 30 years.

In 1757 Burke married Jane Nugent. From this period also date his numerous literary and artistic friendships, including those with Dr. Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and David Garrick.

Political life
After an unsuccessful first venture into politics, Burke was appointed secretary in 1765 to the Marquess of Rockingham, leader of one of the Whig groups, the largely liberal faction in Parliament, and he entered the House of Commons that year. Burke remained Rockingham’s secretary until the latter’s death in 1782. Burke worked to unify the group of Whigs that had formed around Rockingham; this faction was to be the vehicle of Burke’s parliamentary career.

Burke soon took an active part in the domestic constitutional controversy of George III’s reign. The main problem during the 18th century was whether king or Parliament controlled the executive. The king was seeking to reassert a more active role for the crown—which had lost some influence in the reigns of the first two Georges—without infringing on the limitations of the royal prerogative set by the revolution settlement of 1689. Burke’s chief comment on this issue is his pamphlet “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents” (1770). He argued that George’s actions were against not the letter but the spirit of the constitution. The choice of ministers purely on personal grounds was favouritism; public approbation by the people through Parliament should determine their selection. This pamphlet includes Burke’s famous, and new, justification of party, defined as a body of men united on public principle, which could act as a constitutional link between king and Parliament, providing consistency and strength in administration, or principled criticism in opposition.

In 1774 Burke was elected a member of Parliament for Bristol, then the second city of the kingdom and an open constituency requiring a genuine election contest. He held this seat for six years but failed to retain the confidence of his constituents. For the rest of his parliamentary career he was member for Malton, a pocket borough of Lord Rockingham’s. It was at Bristol that Burke made the well-known statement on the role of the member of Parliament. The elected member should be a representative, not a mere delegate pledged to obey undeviatingly the wishes of his constituents. The electors are capable of judging his integrity, and he should attend to their local interests; but, more importantly, he must address himself to the general good of the entire nation, acting according to his own judgment and conscience, unfettered by mandates or prior instructions from those he represents.

Burke gave only qualified support to movements for parliamentary reform; though he accepted the possibility of widening political participation, he rejected any doctrine of mere rule of numbers. Burke’s main concern, rather, was the curtailment of the crown’s powers. He made a practical attempt to reduce this influence as one of the leaders of the movement that pressed for parliamentary control of royal patronage and expenditure. When the Rockingham Whigs took office in 1782, bills were passed reducing pensions and emoluments of offices. Burke was specifically connected with an act regulating the civil list, the amount voted by Parliament for the personal and household expenses of the sovereign.

A second great issue that confronted Burke in 1765 was the quarrel with the American colonies. Britain’s imposition of the Stamp Act there in 1765, along with other measures, provoked unrest and opposition, which soon swelled into disobedience, conflict, and secession. British policy was vacillating; determination to maintain imperial control ended in coercion, repression, and unsuccessful war. Opposed to the tactics of coercion, the Rockingham group in their short administration of 1765–66 repealed the Stamp Act but asserted the imperial right to impose taxation by the Declaratory Act.

Burke’s best-known statements on this issue are two parliamentary speeches, “On American Taxation” (1774) and “On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies” (1775), and “A Letter to…the Sheriffs of Bristol, on the Affairs of America” (1777). British policy, he argued, had been both imprudent and inconsistent, but above all legalistic and intransigent, in the assertion of imperial rights. Authority must be exercised with respect for the temper of those subject to it, if there was not to be collision of power and opinion. This truth was being ignored in the imperial quarrel; it was absurd to treat universal disobedience as criminal: the revolt of a whole people argued serious misgovernment. Burke made a wide historical survey of the growth of the colonies and of their present economic problems. In the place of narrow legalism he called for a more pragmatic policy on Britain’s part that would admit the claims of circumstance, utility, and moral principle in addition to those of precedent. Burke suggested that a conciliatory attitude be shown by Britain’s Parliament, along with a readiness to meet American complaints and to undertake measures that would restore the colonies’ confidence in imperial authority.

In view of the magnitude of the problem, the adequacy of Burke’s specific remedies is questionable, but the principles on which he was basing his argument were the same as those underlying his “Present Discontents”: government should ideally be a cooperative, mutually restraining relation of rulers and subjects; there must be attachment to tradition and the ways of the past, wherever possible, but, equally, recognition of the fact of change and the need to respond to it, reaffirming the values embodied in tradition under new circumstances.

Ireland was a special problem in imperial regulation. It was in strict political dependency on England and internally subject to the ascendancy of an Anglo-Irish Protestant minority that owned the bulk of the agricultural land. Roman Catholics were excluded by a penal code from political participation and public office. To these oppressions were added widespread rural poverty and a backward economic life aggravated by commercial restrictions resulting from English commercial jealousy. Burke was always concerned to ease the burdens of his native country. He consistently advocated relaxation of the economic and penal regulations, and steps toward legislative independence, at the cost of alienating his Bristol constituents and of incurring suspicions of Roman Catholicism and charges of partiality.

The remaining imperial issue, to which he devoted many years, and which he ranked as the most worthy of his labours, was that of India. The commercial activities of a chartered trading concern, the British East India Company, had created an extensive empire there. Burke in the 1760s and ’70s opposed interference by the English government in the company’s affairs as a violation of chartered rights. However, he learned a great deal about the state of the company’s government as the most active member of a select committee that was appointed in 1781 to investigate the administration of justice in India but which soon widened its field to that of a general inquiry. Burke concluded that the corrupt state of Indian government could be remedied only if the vast patronage it was bound to dispose of was in the hands neither of a company nor of the crown. He drafted the East India Bill of 1783 (of which the Whig statesman Charles James Fox was the nominal author), which proposed that India be governed by a board of independent commissioners in London. After the defeat of the bill, Burke’s indignation came to centre on Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal from 1772 to 1785. It was at Burke’s instigation that Hastings was impeached in 1787, and he challenged Hastings’ claim that it was impossible to apply Western standards of authority and legality to government in the East. He appealed to the concept of the Law of Nature, the moral principles rooted in the universal order of things, to which all conditions and races of men were subject.

The impeachment, which is now generally regarded as an injustice to Hastings (who was ultimately acquitted), is the most conspicuous illustration of the failings to which Burke was liable throughout his public life, including his brief periods in office as paymaster general of the forces in 1782 and 1783. His political positions were sometimes marred by gross distortions and errors of judgment. His Indian speeches fell at times into violent emotion and abuse, lacking restraint and proportion, and his parliamentary activities were at times irresponsible or factious.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 was initially greeted in England with much enthusiasm. Burke, after a brief suspension of judgment, was both hostile to it and alarmed by this favourable English reaction. He was provoked into writing his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) by a sermon of the Protestant dissenter Richard Price welcoming the Revolution. Burke’s deeply felt antagonism to the new movement propelled him to the plane of general political thought; it provoked a host of English replies, of which the best known is Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791–92).

In the first instance Burke discussed the actual course of the Revolution, examining the personalities, motives, and policies of its leaders. More profoundly, he attempted to analyze the fundamental ideas animating the movement and, fastening on the Revolutionary concepts of “the rights of man” and popular sovereignty, emphasized the dangers of democracy in the abstract and the mere rule of numbers when unrestrained and unguided by the responsible leadership of a hereditary aristocracy. Further, he challenged the whole rationalist and idealist temper of the movement. It was not merely that the old social order was being pulled down. He argued, further, that the moral fervour of the Revolution, and its vast speculative schemes of political reconstruction, were causing a devaluation of tradition and inherited values and a thoughtless destruction of the painfully acquired material and spiritual resources of society. Against all this, he appealed to the example and the virtues of the English constitution: its concern for continuity and unorganized growth; its respect for traditional wisdom and usage rather than speculative innovation, for prescriptive, rather than abstract, rights; its acceptance of a hierarchy of rank and property; its religious consecration of secular authority and recognition of the radical imperfection of all human contrivances.

As an analysis and prediction of the course of the Revolution, Burke’s French writings, though frequently intemperate and uncontrolled, were in some ways strikingly acute; but his lack of sympathy with its positive ideals concealed from him its more fruitful and permanent potentialities. It is for the criticism and affirmation of fundamental political attitudes that the Reflections and An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) retain their freshness, relevance, and force.

Burke opposed the French Revolution to the end of his life, demanding war against the new state and gaining a European reputation and influence. But his hostility to the Revolution went beyond that of most of his party and in particular was challenged by Fox. Burke’s long friendship with Fox came to a dramatic end in a parliamentary debate (May 1791). Ultimately the majority of the party passed with Burke into support of William Pitt’s government. In 1794, at the conclusion of Hastings’ impeachment, Burke retired from Parliament. His last years were clouded by the death of his only son, on whom his political ambitions had come to centre. He continued to write, defending himself from his critics, deploring the condition of Ireland, and opposing any recognition of the French government (notably in “Three Letters Addressed to a Member of the Present Parliament on the Proposals for Peace, with the Regicide Directory of France” [1796–97]).

Burke’s thought and influence
Burke’s writings on France, though the most profound of his works, cannot be read as a complete statement of his views on politics. Burke, in fact, never gave a systematic exposition of his fundamental beliefs but appealed to them always in relation to specific issues. But it is possible to regard his writings as an integrated whole in terms of the constant principles underlying his practical positions.

These principles are, in essence, an exploration of the concept of “nature,” or “natural law.” Burke conceives the emotional and spiritual life of man as a harmony within the larger order of the universe. Natural impulse, that is, contains within itself self-restraint and self-criticism; the moral and spiritual life is continuous with it, generated from it and essentially sympathetic to it. It follows that society and state make possible the full realization of human potentiality, embody a common good, and represent a tacit or explicit agreement on norms and ends. The political community acts ideally as a unity.

This interpretation of nature and the natural order implies deep respect for the historical process and the usages and social achievements built up over time. Therefore, social change is not merely possible but also inevitable and desirable. But the scope and the role of thought operating as a reforming instrument on society as a whole is limited. It should act under the promptings of specific tensions or specific possibilities, in close union with the detailed process of change, rather than in large speculative schemes involving extensive interference with the stable, habitual life of society. Also, it ought not to place excessive emphasis on some ends at the expense of others; in particular, it should not give rein to a moral idealism (as in the French Revolution) that sets itself in radical opposition to the existing order. Such attempts cut across the natural processes of social development, initiating uncontrollable forces or provoking a dialectical reaction of excluded factors. Burke’s hope, in effect, is not a realization of particular ends, such as the “liberty” and “equality” of the French Revolution, but an intensification and reconciliation of the multifarious elements of the good life that community exists to forward.

In his own day, Burke’s writings on France were an important inspiration to German and French counterrevolutionary thought. His influence in England has been more diffuse, more balanced, and more durable. He stands as the original exponent of long-lived constitutional conventions, the idea of party, and the role of the member of Parliament as free representative, not delegate. More generally, his remains the most persuasive statement of certain inarticulate political and social principles long and widely held in England: the validity of status and hierarchy and the limited role of politics in the life of society.

Charles William Parkin



Adam Smith

Scottish philosopher

baptized June 5, 1723, Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scot.
died July 17, 1790, Edinburgh

Scottish social philosopher and political economist. After two centuries, Adam Smith remains a towering figure in the history of economic thought. Known primarily for a single work—An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), the first comprehensive system of political economy—Smith is more properly regarded as a social philosopher whose economic writings constitute only the capstone to an overarching view of political and social evolution. If his masterwork is viewed in relation to his earlier lectures on moral philosophy and government, as well as to allusions in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to a work he hoped to write on “the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society,” then The Wealth of Nations may be seen not merely as a treatise on economics but also as a partial exposition of a much larger scheme of historical evolution.

Early life
Much more is known about Adam Smith’s thought than about his life. He was the son by second marriage of Adam Smith, comptroller of customs at Kirkcaldy, a small (population 1,500) but thriving fishing village near Edinburgh, and Margaret Douglas, daughter of a substantial landowner. Of Smith’s childhood nothing is known other than that he received his elementary schooling in Kirkcaldy and that at the age of four years he was said to have been carried off by gypsies. Pursuit was mounted, and young Adam was abandoned by his captors. “He would have made, I fear, a poor gypsy,” commented his principal biographer.

At the age of 14, in 1737, Smith entered the University of Glasgow, already remarkable as a centre of what was to become known as the Scottish Enlightenment. There he was deeply influenced by Francis Hutcheson, a famous professor of moral philosophy from whose economic and philosophical views he was later to diverge but whose magnetic character seems to have been a main shaping force in Smith’s development. Graduating in 1740, Smith won a scholarship (the Snell Exhibition) and traveled on horseback to Oxford, where he stayed at Balliol College. Compared with the stimulating atmosphere of Glasgow, Oxford was an educational desert. His years there were spent largely in self-education, from which Smith obtained a firm grasp of both classical and contemporary philosophy.

Returning to his home after an absence of six years, Smith cast about for suitable employment. The connections of his mother’s family, together with the support of the jurist and philosopher Lord Henry Kames, resulted in an opportunity to give a series of public lectures in Edinburgh—a form of education then much in vogue in the prevailing spirit of “improvement.” The lectures, which ranged over a wide variety of subjects from rhetoric to history and economics, made a deep impression on some of Smith’s notable contemporaries. They also had a marked influence on Smith’s own career, for in 1751, at the age of 27, he was appointed professor of logic at Glasgow, from which post he transferred in 1752 to the more remunerative professorship of moral philosophy, a subject that embraced the related fields of natural theology, ethics, jurisprudence, and political economy.

Smith then entered upon a period of extraordinary creativity, combined with a social and intellectual life that he afterward described as “by far the happiest, and most honourable period of my life.” During the week he lectured daily from 7:30 to 8:30 am and again thrice weekly from 11 am to noon, to classes of up to 90 students, aged 14 to 16. (Although his lectures were presented in English rather than in Latin, following the precedent of Hutcheson, the level of sophistication for so young an audience strikes one today as extraordinarily demanding.) Afternoons were occupied with university affairs in which Smith played an active role, being elected dean of faculty in 1758; his evenings were spent in the stimulating company of Glasgow society.

Among his wide circle of acquaintances were not only members of the aristocracy, many connected with the government, but also a range of intellectual and scientific figures that included Joseph Black, a pioneer in the field of chemistry; James Watt, later of steam-engine fame; Robert Foulis, a distinguished printer and publisher and subsequent founder of the first British Academy of Design; and, not least, the philosopher David Hume, a lifelong friend whom Smith had met in Edinburgh. Smith was also introduced during these years to the company of the great merchants who were carrying on the colonial trade that had opened to Scotland following its union with England in 1707. One of them, Andrew Cochrane, had been a provost of Glasgow and had founded the famous Political Economy Club. From Cochrane and his fellow merchants Smith undoubtedly acquired the detailed information concerning trade and business that was to give such a sense of the real world to The Wealth of Nations.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments
In 1759 Smith published his first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Didactic, exhortative, and analytic by turns, it lays the psychological foundation on which The Wealth of Nations was later to be built. In it Smith described the principles of “human nature,” which, together with Hume and the other leading philosophers of his time, he took as a universal and unchanging datum from which social institutions, as well as social behaviour, could be deduced.

One question in particular interested Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This was a problem that had attracted Smith’s teacher Hutcheson and a number of Scottish philosophers before him. The question was the source of the ability to form moral judgments, including judgments on one’s own behaviour, in the face of the seemingly overriding passions for self-preservation and self-interest. Smith’s answer, at considerable length, is the presence within each of us of an “inner man” who plays the role of the “impartial spectator,” approving or condemning our own and others’ actions with a voice impossible to disregard. (The theory may sound less naive if the question is reformulated to ask how instinctual drives are socialized through the superego.)

The thesis of the impartial spectator, however, conceals a more important aspect of the book. Smith saw humans as creatures driven by passions and at the same time self-regulated by their ability to reason and—no less important—by their capacity for sympathy. This duality serves both to pit individuals against one another and to provide them with the rational and moral faculties to create institutions by which the internecine struggle can be mitigated and even turned to the common good. He wrote in his Moral Sentiments the famous observation that he was to repeat later in The Wealth of Nations: that self-seeking men are often “led by an invisible hand…without knowing it, without intending it, [to] advance the interest of the society.”

It should be noted that scholars have long debated whether Moral Sentiments complemented or was in conflict with The Wealth of Nations. At one level there is a seeming clash between the theme of social morality contained in the first and the largely amoral explication of the economic system in the second. On the other hand, the first book can also be seen as an explanation of the manner in which individuals are socialized to become the market-oriented and class-bound actors that set the economic system into motion.

Travels on the Continent
The Theory quickly brought Smith wide esteem and in particular attracted the attention of Charles Townshend, himself something of an amateur economist, a considerable wit, and somewhat less of a statesman, whose fate it was to be the chancellor of the Exchequer responsible for the measures of taxation that ultimately provoked the American Revolution. Townshend had recently married and was searching for a tutor for his stepson and ward, the young duke of Buccleuch. Influenced by the strong recommendations of Hume and his own admiration for The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he approached Smith to take the charge.

The terms of employment were lucrative (an annual salary of £300 plus traveling expenses and a pension of £300 a year thereafter), considerably more than Smith had earned as a professor. Accordingly, Smith resigned his Glasgow post in 1763 and set off for France the next year as the tutor of the young duke. They stayed mainly in Toulouse, where Smith began working on a book (eventually to be The Wealth of Nations) as an antidote to the excruciating boredom of the provinces. After 18 months of ennui he was rewarded with a two-month sojourn in Geneva, where he met Voltaire, for whom he had the profoundest respect, thence to Paris, where Hume, then secretary to the British embassy, introduced Smith to the great literary salons of the French Enlightenment. There he met a group of social reformers and theorists headed by François Quesnay, who called themselves les économistes but are known in history as the physiocrats. There is some controversy as to the precise degree of influence the physiocrats exerted on Smith, but it is known that he thought sufficiently well of Quesnay to have considered dedicating The Wealth of Nations to him, had not the French economist died before publication.

The stay in Paris was cut short by a shocking event. The younger brother of the duke of Buccleuch, who had joined them in Toulouse, took ill and perished despite Smith’s frantic ministrations. Smith and his charge immediately returned to London. Smith worked in London until the spring of 1767 with Lord Townshend, a period during which he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and broadened still further his intellectual circle to include Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, and perhaps Benjamin Franklin. Late that year he returned to Kirkcaldy, where the next six years were spent dictating and reworking The Wealth of Nations, followed by another stay of three years in London, where the work was finally completed and published in 1776.

The Wealth of Nations
Despite its renown as the first great work in political economy, The Wealth of Nations is in fact a continuation of the philosophical theme begun in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The ultimate problem to which Smith addresses himself is how the inner struggle between the passions and the “impartial spectator”—explicated in Moral Sentiments in terms of the single individual—works its effects in the larger arena of history itself, both in the long-run evolution of society and in terms of the immediate characteristics of the stage of history typical of Smith’s own day.

The answer to this problem enters in Book V, in which Smith outlines the four main stages of organization through which society is impelled, unless blocked by wars, deficiencies of resources, or bad policies of government: the original “rude” state of hunters, a second stage of nomadic agriculture, a third stage of feudal, or manorial, “farming,” and a fourth and final stage of commercial interdependence.

It should be noted that each of these stages is accompanied by institutions suited to its needs. For example, in the age of the huntsman, “there is scarce any property…; so there is seldom any established magistrate or any regular administration of justice.” With the advent of flocks there emerges a more complex form of social organization, comprising not only “formidable” armies but the central institution of private property with its indispensable buttress of law and order as well. It is the very essence of Smith’s thought that he recognized this institution, whose social usefulness he never doubted, as an instrument for the protection of privilege, rather than one to be justified in terms of natural law: “Civil government,” he wrote, “so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” Finally, Smith describes the evolution through feudalism into a stage of society requiring new institutions, such as market-determined rather than guild-determined wages and free rather than government-constrained enterprise. This later became known as laissez-faire capitalism; Smith called it the system of perfect liberty.

There is an obvious resemblance between this succession of changes in the material basis of production, each bringing its requisite alterations in the superstructure of laws and civil institutions, and the Marxian conception of history. Though the resemblance is indeed remarkable, there is also a crucial difference: in the Marxian scheme the engine of evolution is ultimately the struggle between contending classes, whereas in Smith’s philosophical history the primal moving agency is “human nature” driven by the desire for self-betterment and guided (or misguided) by the faculties of reason.

Society and the “invisible hand”
The theory of historical evolution, although it is perhaps the binding conception of The Wealth of Nations, is subordinated within the work itself to a detailed description of how the “invisible hand” actually operates within the commercial, or final, stage of society. This becomes the focus of Books I and II, in which Smith undertakes to elucidate two questions. The first is how a system of perfect liberty, operating under the drives and constraints of human nature and intelligently designed institutions, will give rise to an orderly society. The question, which had already been considerably elucidated by earlier writers, required both an explanation of the underlying orderliness in the pricing of individual commodities and an explanation of the “laws” that regulated the division of the entire “wealth” of the nation (which Smith saw as its annual production of goods and services) among the three great claimant classes—labourers, landlords, and manufacturers.

This orderliness, as would be expected, was produced by the interaction of the two aspects of human nature, its response to its passions and its susceptibility to reason and sympathy. But whereas The Theory of Moral Sentiments had relied mainly on the presence of the “inner man” to provide the necessary restraints to private action, in The Wealth of Nations one finds an institutional mechanism that acts to reconcile the disruptive possibilities inherent in a blind obedience to the passions alone. This protective mechanism is competition, an arrangement by which the passionate desire for bettering one’s condition—“a desire that comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us until we go into the grave”—is turned into a socially beneficial agency by pitting one person’s drive for self-betterment against another’s.

It is in the unintended outcome of this competitive struggle for self-betterment that the invisible hand regulating the economy shows itself, for Smith explains how mutual vying forces the prices of commodities down to their “natural” levels, which correspond to their costs of production. Moreover, by inducing labour and capital to move from less to more profitable occupations or areas, the competitive mechanism constantly restores prices to these “natural” levels despite short-run aberrations. Finally, by explaining that wages and rents and profits (the constituent parts of the costs of production) are themselves subject to this same discipline of self-interest and competition, Smith not only provided an ultimate rationale for these “natural” prices but also revealed an underlying orderliness in the distribution of income itself among workers, whose recompense was their wages; landlords, whose income was their rents; and manufacturers, whose reward was their profits.

Economic growth
Smith’s analysis of the market as a self-correcting mechanism was impressive. But his purpose was more ambitious than to demonstrate the self-adjusting properties of the system. Rather, it was to show that, under the impetus of the acquisitive drive, the annual flow of national wealth could be seen to grow steadily.

Smith’s explanation of economic growth, although not neatly assembled in one part of The Wealth of Nations, is quite clear. The core of it lies in his emphasis on the division of labour (itself an outgrowth of the “natural” propensity to trade) as the source of society’s capacity to increase its productivity. The Wealth of Nations opens with a famous passage describing a pin factory in which 10 persons, by specializing in various tasks, turn out 48,000 pins a day, compared with the few pins, perhaps only 1, that each could have produced alone. But this all-important division of labour does not take place unaided. It can occur only after the prior accumulation of capital (or stock, as Smith calls it), which is used to pay the additional workers and to buy tools and machines.

The drive for accumulation, however, brings problems. The manufacturer who accumulates stock needs more labourers (since labour-saving technology has no place in Smith’s scheme), and, in attempting to hire them, he bids up their wages above their “natural” price. Consequently, his profits begin to fall, and the process of accumulation is in danger of ceasing. But now there enters an ingenious mechanism for continuing the advance: in bidding up the price of labour, the manufacturer inadvertently sets into motion a process that increases the supply of labour, for “the demand for men, like that for any other commodity, necessarily regulates the production of men.” Specifically, Smith had in mind the effect of higher wages in lessening child mortality. Under the influence of a larger labour supply, the wage rise is moderated and profits are maintained; the new supply of labourers offers a continuing opportunity for the manufacturer to introduce a further division of labour and thereby add to the system’s growth.

Here then was a “machine” for growth—a machine that operated with all the reliability of the Newtonian system with which Smith was quite familiar. Unlike the Newtonian system, however, Smith’s growth machine did not depend for its operation on the laws of nature alone. Human nature drove it, and human nature was a complex rather than a simple force. Thus, the wealth of nations would grow only if individuals, through their governments, did not inhibit this growth by catering to the pleas for special privilege that would prevent the competitive system from exerting its benign effect. Consequently, much of The Wealth of Nations, especially Book IV, is a polemic against the restrictive measures of the “mercantile system” that favoured monopolies at home and abroad. Smith’s system of “natural liberty,” he is careful to point out, accords with the best interests of all but will not be put into practice if government is entrusted to, or heeds, “the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are, nor ought to be, the rulers of mankind.”

The Wealth of Nations is therefore far from the ideological tract it is often supposed to be. Although Smith preached laissez-faire (with important exceptions), his argument was directed as much against monopoly as against government; and although he extolled the social results of the acquisitive process, he almost invariably treated the manners and maneuvers of businessmen with contempt. Nor did he see the commercial system itself as wholly admirable. He wrote with discernment about the intellectual degradation of the worker in a society in which the division of labour has proceeded very far; by comparison with the alert intelligence of the husbandman, the specialized worker “generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to become.”

In all of this, it is notable that Smith was writing in an age of preindustrial capitalism. He seems to have had no real presentiment of the gathering Industrial Revolution, harbingers of which were visible in the great ironworks only a few miles from Edinburgh. He had nothing to say about large-scale industrial enterprise, and the few remarks in The Wealth of Nations concerning the future of joint-stock companies (corporations) are disparaging. Finally, one should bear in mind that, if growth is the great theme of The Wealth of Nations, it is not unending growth. Here and there in the treatise are glimpses of a secularly declining rate of profit; and Smith mentions as well the prospect that when the system eventually accumulates its “full complement of riches”—all the pin factories, so to speak, whose output could be absorbed—economic decline would begin, ending in an impoverished stagnation.

The Wealth of Nations was received with admiration by Smith’s wide circle of friends and admirers, although it was by no means an immediate popular success. The work finished, Smith went into semiretirement. The year following its publication he was appointed commissioner both of customs and of salt duties for Scotland, posts that brought him £600 a year. He thereupon informed his former charge that he no longer required his pension, to which Buccleuch replied that his sense of honour would never allow him to stop paying it. Smith was therefore quite well off in the final years of his life, which were spent mainly in Edinburgh with occasional trips to London or Glasgow (which appointed him a rector of the university). The years passed quietly, with several revisions of both major books but with no further publications. He died at the age of 67, full of honours and recognition, and was buried in the churchyard at Canongate with a simple monument stating that Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, lay there.

Beyond the few facts of his life, which can be embroidered only in detail, exasperatingly little is known about the man. Smith never married, and almost nothing is known of his personal side. Moreover, it was the custom of his time to destroy rather than to preserve the private files of illustrious men, with the unhappy result that much of Smith’s unfinished work, as well as his personal papers, was destroyed (some as late as 1942). Only one portrait of Smith survives, a profile medallion by James Tassie; it gives a glimpse of the older man with his somewhat heavy-lidded eyes, aquiline nose, and a hint of a protrusive lower lip. “I am a beau in nothing but my books,” Smith once told a friend to whom he was showing his library of some 3,000 volumes.

From various accounts, he was also a man of many peculiarities, which included a stumbling manner of speech (until he had warmed to his subject), a gait described as “vermicular,” and above all an extraordinary and even comic absence of mind. On the other hand, contemporaries wrote of a smile of “inexpressible benignity” and of his political tact and dispatch in managing the sometimes acerbic business of the Glasgow faculty.

Certainly, he enjoyed a high measure of contemporary fame; even in his early days at Glasgow his reputation attracted students from nations as distant as Russia, and his later years were crowned not only with expressions of admiration from many European thinkers but by a growing recognition among British governing circles that his work provided a rationale of inestimable importance for practical economic policy.

Over the years, Smith’s lustre as a social philosopher has escaped much of the weathering that has affected the reputations of other first-rate political economists. Although he was writing for his generation, the breadth of his knowledge, the cutting edge of his generalizations, and the boldness of his vision have never ceased to attract the admiration of all social scientists, economists in particular. Couched in the spacious, cadenced prose of his period, rich in imagery and crowded with life, The Wealth of Nations projects a sanguine but never sentimental image of society. Never so finely analytic as David Ricardo nor so stern and profound as Karl Marx, Smith is the very epitome of the Enlightenment: hopeful but realistic, speculative but practical, always respectful of the classical past but ultimately dedicated to the great discovery of his age—progress.

Robert L. Heilbroner




William Robertson

born Sept. 19, 1721, Borthwick, Midlothian, Scot.
died June 11, 1793, Edinburgh

Scottish historian and Presbyterian minister. He is regarded, along with David Hume and Edward Gibbon, as one of the most important British historians of the 18th century.

Robertson was educated at the University of Edinburgh, completing his studies in 1741. He was ordained a minister in the Church of Scotland, and in 1743 he received the living of Gladsmuir, near Edinburgh. He became a member of the church’s General Assembly in 1746 and for many years held a leading position in that assembly’s Moderate party.

Robertson’s first major work, The History of Scotland, During the Reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI (1759), established his reputation as a historian; within the next few years he was appointed principal of the University of Edinburgh and historiographer royal for Scotland. His next major work was The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769), which saw several editions and was translated into all of the major European languages; it was followed by The History of America (1777).

Robertson’s histories reflect his interest in social theory; they stress the importance of material and environmental factors in determining the course of civilization. His writings were influential in the 19th century but received little critical attention during the 20th century.



Adam Ferguson

born June 20, 1723, Logierait, Perthshire, Scot.
died Feb. 22, 1816, St. Andrews, Fife

historian and philosopher of the Scottish “common sense” school of philosophy who is remembered as a forerunner of modern sociology for his emphasis on social interactions. Ferguson’s article on history appeared in the second edition of the Encyclopędia Britannica (see Britannica Classic: history).

Educated at the University of St. Andrews, Ferguson was appointed deputy chaplain to Scotland’s Black Watch Regiment in 1745 and engaged in combat in Flanders. In 1757 he abandoned the clerical profession to succeed his friend David Hume as keeper of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh. He became professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in 1759 and professor of mental and moral philosophy there in 1764. Before resigning his chair in 1785, he had written his major works, which include The Morality of Stage Plays Seriously Considered (1757); Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767); Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1769); and Remarks (1776), in which Ferguson proposed peace terms for the North Americans fighting in the American Revolution.

In 1778 Ferguson traveled to Philadelphia with a British commission sent to negotiate with American revolutionaries. He spent his later years in retirement at St. Andrews. Sir Walter Scott composed his epitaph.

Ferguson is chiefly remembered for the Essay on the History of Civil Society, an intellectual history that traces humanity’s progression from barbarism to social and political refinement. In his philosophy Ferguson emphasized society as the wellspring of human morals and actions and, indeed, of the human condition itself.

Among his other works are The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, 3 vol. (1783), and Principles of Moral and Political Science, 2 vol. (1792).

Ferguson wrote the article on history for the second edition of Encyclopędia Britannica (1780), which included the first timeline presented in the encyclopaedia.




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