A Discourse Concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing (1729)
by Anthony Collins
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William E. Conway, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library George Robert Guffey, University of California, Los Angeles Maximillian E. Novak, University of California, Los Angeles


David S. Rodes, University of California, Los Angeles


Richard C. Boys, University of Michigan James L. Clifford, Columbia University Ralph Cohen, University of Virginia Vinton A. Dearing, University of California, Los Angeles Arthur Friedman, University of Chicago Louis A. Landa, Princeton University Earl Miner, University of California, Los Angeles Samuel H. Monk, University of Minnesota Everett T. Moore, University of California, Los Angeles Lawrence Clark Powell, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library James Sutherland, University College, London H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., University of California, Los Angeles Robert Vosper, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library


Edna C. Davis, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library


Roberta Medford, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library


Between 1710 and 1729 Anthony Collins was lampooned, satirized, and gravely denounced from pulpit and press as England's most insidious defiler of church and state. Yet within a year of his death he became the model of a proper country gentleman,

... he had an opulent Fortune, descended to him from his Ancestors, which he left behind him unimpair'd: He lived on his own Estate in the Country, where his Tenants paid him moderate Rents, which he never enhanced on their making any Improvements; he always oblig'd his Family to a constant attendance on Publick Worship; as he was himself a Man of the strictest Morality, for he never suffer'd any Body about him who was deficient in that Point; he exercised a universal Charity to all Sorts of People, without any Regard either to Sect or Party; being in the Commission of the Peace, he administered Justice with such Impartiality and Incorruptness, that the most distant Part of the County flock'd to his Decisions; but the chief Use he made of his Authority was in accommodating Differences;...[1]

In a comparison which likens him to Sir Roger de Coverley, there is less truth than fiction. What they did share was a love of the countryside and a "universal Charity" towards its inhabitants. For the most part, however, we can approximate Collins's personality by reversing many of Sir Roger's traits. Often at war with his world, as the spectatorial character was not, he managed to maintain an intellectual rapport with it and even with those who sought his humiliation. He never—as an instance—disguised his philosophical distrust of Samuel Clarke; yet during any debate he planned "most certainly [to] outdo him in civility and good manners."[2] This decorum in no way compromised his pursuit of what he considered objective truth or his denunciation of all "methods" or impositions of spiritual tyranny. Thus, during the virulent, uneven battle which followed upon the publication of the Discourse of Free-Thinking, he ignored his own wounds in order to applaud a critic's

suspicions that there is a sophism in what he calls my hypothesis. That is a temper that ought to go thro' all our Inquirys, and especially before we have an opportunity of examining things to the bottom. It is safest at all times, and we are least likely to be mistaken, if we constantly suspect our selves to be under mistakes.... I have no system to defend or that I would seem to defend, and am unconcerned for the consequence that may be drawn from my opinion; and therefore stand clear of all difficultys wch others either by their opinion or caution are involved in.[3]

This is the statement of a man whose intellectual and religious commitment makes him see that his own fallibility is symptomatic of a human tendency to error. For himself, hence, he tries to avoid all manner of hard-voiced enthusiasm. Paradoxically, however, Collins searched with a zealot's avidity for any controversy which would either assert his faith or test his disbelief. When once he found his engagement, he revelled in it, whether as the aggressor or the harassed defendant. For example, in the "Preface" to the Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered he boastfully enumerated all the works—some twenty-nine—which had repudiated his earlier Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion. And in malicious fact he held up the publication of the Scheme for almost a year that he might add a "Postscript to the Preface" in which he identified six more pieces hostile to the Grounds and Reasons.[4]

By May of 1727 and with no visible sign of fatigue he took on a new contender; this time it was John Rogers, canon in ordinary to the Prince of Wales. At the height of their debate, in late summer, Collins made practical enquiries about methods to prolong and intensify its give-and-take. Thus, in a note to his friend Pierre Des Maizeaux, he said: "But I would be particularly informed of the success and sale of the Letter to Dr Rogers; because, if it could be, I would add to a new edition thereof two or three as sheets; which also might be sold separately to those who have already that Letter." For all his militant polemic, he asked only that his "Adversaries" observe with him a single rule of fair play; namely, that they refrain from name-calling and petty sniping. "Personal matters," he asserted, "tho they may some times afford useful remarks, are little regarded by Readers, who are very seldom mistaken in judging that the most impertinent subject a man can talk of is himself," particularly when he inveighs against another.[5]

If Collins had been made to look back over the years 1676-1729, he probably would have summarized the last twenty with a paraphrase of the Popean line, "This long controversy, my life." For several years and in such works as Priestcraft in Perfection (1710) and A Discourse of Free-Thinking (1713), he was a flailing polemicist against the entire Anglican hierarchy. Not until 1724 did he become a polished debater, when he initiated a controversy which for the next five years made a "very great noise" and which ended only with his death. The loudest shot in the persistent barrage was sounded by the Grounds and Reasons, and its last fusillade by the Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing.[6]

During those five years Collins concentrated upon a single opponent in each work and made it a rhetorical practice to change his "Adversary" in successive essays. He created in this way a composite victim whose strength was lessened by deindividualization; in this way too he ran no risk of being labelled a hobbyhorse rider or, more seriously, a persecutor. Throughout the Grounds and Reasons he laughed at, reasoned against, and satirized William Whiston's assumption that messianic prophecies in the Old Testament were literally fulfilled in the figure and mission of Jesus. Within two years and in a new work, he substituted Edward Chandler, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, for the mathematician. It need not have been the Bishop; any one of thirty-four others could have qualified for the role of opponent, among them people like Clarke, and Sykes, and Sherwood, and even the ubiquitous Whiston. Collins rejected them, however, to debate in the Scheme with Bishop Chandler, the author of A Defence of Christianity from the Prophecies of the old Testament, with one who was, in short, the least controversial and yet the most orthodox of his many assailants.

Early in 1727 the Anglican establishment came to the abrupt realization that the subject of the continuing debate—the reliability of the argument from prophecy—was inconclusive, that it could lead only to pedantic wrangling and hair-splitting with each side vainly clutching victory. Certainly the devotion of many clergymen to biblical criticism was secondary to their interest in orthodoxy as a functional adjunct of government, both civil and canonical. It was against this interest, as it was enunciated in Rogers's Eight Sermons concerning the Necessity of Revelation (1727) and particularly in its vindictive preface, that Collins chose to fight.[7] The debate had now taken a happy turn for him. As he saw it, the central issue devolved upon man's natural right to religious liberty. At least he made this the theme of his Letter to Dr. Rogers. In writing to Des Maizeaux about the success of this work, he obviously enjoyed his own profane irony:

I have had particular compliments made me by the BP of Salisbury, and by Dr Clark, who among other things sayd, that the Archbp of Canterbury might have writ all that related to Toleration in it: to say nothing of what I hear from others. Dr Rogers himself has acknowledg[ed] to his Bookseller who sent it to him into the Country, that he has receivd it; but says that he is so engaged in other affairs, that he has no thought at present of answering it; tho he may perhaps in time do so.[8]

In time Rogers did. He counterattacked on 2 February 1728 with a Vindication of the Civil Establishment of Religion.[9] For Collins this work was a dogged repetition of what had gone before, and so it could be ignored except for one of its appendices, A Letter from the Rev. Dr. Marshall jun. To the Rev. Dr. Rogers, upon Occasion of his Preface to his Eight Sermons. Its inclusion seemed an afterthought; yet it altered the dimensions of the debate by narrowing and particularizing the areas of grievance which separated the debaters. Collins, therefore, rebutted it some fourteen months later in A Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing. He had great hopes for this pamphlet, preparing carefully for its reception. He encouraged the republication of his three preceding works, which find their inevitable conclusion, even their exoneration, in this last performance, and he probably persuaded his bookseller to undertake an elaborate promotional campaign. For the new editions were advertised on seven different days between 10 January and 27 February 1729 in the Daily Post. He wanted no one to miss the relationship between the Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony and these earlier pieces or to overlook its presence when it finally appeared in the pamphlet shops on 17 March.

Collins was animated by his many debates. Indeed, "he sought the storms." Otherwise he would not, could not, have participated in these many verbal contests. Throughout them all, his basic strategy—that of provocation—was determined by the very real fact that he had many more enemies than allies, among them, for instance, such formidable antagonists as Swift and Richard Bentley.[10] To survive he had to acquire a tough resilience, a skill in fending off attacks or turning them to his own advantage. Nevertheless, he remained a ready target all his life. Understandably so: his radicalism was stubborn and his opinions predictable. Such firmness may of course indicate his aversion to trimming. Or it may reveal a lack of intellectual growth; what he believed as a young man, he perpetuated as a mature adult. Whether our answer is drawn from either possibility or, more realistically, from both, the fact remains that he never camouflaged the two principles by which he lived and fought:

1. That universal liberty be established in respect to opinions and practises not prejudicial to the peace and welfare of society: by which establishment, truth must needs have the advantages over error and falsehood, the law of God over the will of man, and true Christianity tolerated; private judgment would be really exercised; and men would be allowed to have suffered to follow their consciences, over which God only is supreme:...

2. Secondly, that nothing but the law of nature, (the observance whereof is absolutely necessary to society) and what can be built thereon, should be enforced by the civil sanctions of the magistrate:...[11]


There is very little in this statement to offend modern readers. Yet the orthodox in Collins's own time had reason to be angry with him: his arguments were inflammatory and his rhetoric was devious, cheeky, and effective. Those contesting him underscored his negativism, imaging him as a destroyer of Christianity eager "to proselyte men, from the Christian to no religion at all."[12] Certainly it is true that he aimed to disprove a Christian revelation which he judged fraudulent and conspiratorial. In place of ecclesiastical authority he offered the rule of conscience. For orthodoxy he substituted "a Religion antecedent to Revelation, which is necessary to be known in order to ascertain Revelation; and by that Religion [he meant] Natural Religion, which is presupposed to Revelation, and is a Test by which Reveal'd Religion is to be tried, is a Bottom on which it must stand, and is a Rule to understand it by."[13] Categorical in tone, the statement frustrated the Anglican clergy by its very slipperiness; its generalities left little opportunity for decisive rebuttal. It provided no definition of natural religion beyond the predication of a body of unnamed moral law which is rational and original, the archetype of what is valid in the world's religions.

His dismissal of revelation and his reduction of Christianity to what he called its "natural" and hence incontrovertible basis carried with it a corollary, that of man's absolute right to religious enquiry and profession. Here he became specific, borrowing from Lockean empiricism his conditions of intellectual assent. "Evidence," he said, "ought to be the sole ground of Assent, and Examination is the way to arrive at Evidence; and therefore rather than I wou'd have Examination, Arguing and Objecting laid aside, I wou'd chuse to say, That no Opinions whatever can be dangerous to a Man that impartially examines into the Truth of Things."[14] The church leadership saw in this statement and others like it not an epistemological premise but a deliberate subterfuge, an insidious blind to vindicate his attacks upon an organized priesthood. We can recognize now that his opponents oversimplified his intention, that they blackened it to make his villainy at once definitive and vulnerable. At the same time we must admit that he often equated the ideas of repression and clerical authority, even as he coupled those of freedom and the guide of private conscience.

The Anglican church was infuriated by these correlations, angered as much by their manner of expression as by their substance. For the faithful were frequently thrown off balance by a strategy of ironical indirection. Sometimes this took the form of omission or the presentation of an argument in so fragmentary or slanted a fashion that Collins's "Enemies" could debate neither his implications nor his conclusions. At other times he used this artful circumlocution to create his favorite mask, that of the pious Christian devoted to scripture or of the moralist perplexed by the divisions among the orthodox clergy. Finally, his rhetoric was shaped by deistic predecessors who used sarcasm and satire to mock the gravity of church authority. So much was their wit a trademark that as early as 1702 one commentator had noted, "when you expect an argument, they make a jest."[15] Collins himself resorted to this practice with both instinctive skill and deliberate contrivance.

All these methods, though underhanded, he silently justified on the assumption that he was dealing with a conspiracy of priests: hence, he professed that he had to fight fraud and deception with their like, and that such craftiness, suitable "to his particular genius and temper," was "serviceable to his cause." For these reasons even William Warburton, who had vainly struggled to be judicious, described him as "a Writer, whose dexterity in the arts of Controversy was so remarkably contrasted by his abilities in reasoning and literature, as to be ever putting one in mind of what travellers tell us of the genius of the proper Indians, who, although the veriest bunglers in all the fine arts of manual operation, yet excel everybody in slight of hand and the delusive feats of activity."[16] Whatever may be said of Collins and his achievement, one fact remains constant. He was a brilliant and persistent trickster whose cunning in the techniques of polemic often silenced an opponent with every substantive right to win the debate.

He seized any opportunity to expose the diversity of ethical and theological opinion which set one Anglican divine against another, "to observe"—as Jenkin put it—"how the gladiators in dispute murder the cause between them, while they so fiercely cut and wound one another." For Collins such observation was more than oratorical artifice; it was one of the dogmas of his near-nihilism. He commented once to Des Maizeaux upon the flurry of critics who replied to his statement of necessitarianism in the Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty:

I was extreamly pleasd with BP Hoadley, ... as it was upon the true and only point worth disputing with ye Preists, viz whether we the laity are the Calves and Sheep of the Preist. And I am not less pleasd to see them manage this controversy with ye same vile arts against one another, as they always use towards the laity. It must open the eyes of a few and convince them, that the Preists mean nothing but wealth and power, and have not the least ... of those qualitys for wch the superstitious world admires them.[17]

He applied this principle of divisive attack in A Discourse of Free-Thinking. There in fifty-three pages he transparently ridiculed contradictions which hedged three areas of fundamental religious belief: "The Nature and Attributes of the Eternal Being or God, ... the Authority of Scriptures, and ... the Sense of Scripture." In accordance with one of his favorite tricks—the massing of eminent authority—his exposition rings with hallowed Anglican names: South, Bull, Taylor, Wallis, Carlton, Davenant, Edwards, More, Tillotson, Fowler, Sherlock, Stillingfleet, Sacheverell, Beveridge, Grabe, Hickes, Lesley.[18] What united these men, he insinuated, was not a Christian commitment but a talent to disagree with one another and even to repudiate themselves—as in the case of Stillingfleet. In effect, the entire Discourse bubbles with a carelessly suppressed snicker.

The clergy could not readily reply to this kind of incriminating exposure or deny its reality. They therefore overreacted to other judgments that Collins made, particularly to his attacks upon Christian revelation. These they denigrated as misleading, guileful, sinister, contrived, deceitful, insidious, shuffling, covert, subversive. What they objected to was, first, the way in which he reduced the demonstration of Christian revelation to only the "puzzling and perplexing" argument from prophecy, the casual ease with which he ignored or dismissed those other "clear" proofs derived from the miracles of Jesus and the resurrection itself.[19] But even more the orthodox resented the masked point of view from which Collins presented his disbelief.

For example, the Grounds and Reasons is the deist's first extended attack upon revelation. Ostensibly it is, as we have seen, an answer to Whiston's Essay Towards Restoring the True Text of the Old Testament; and for Vindicating the Citations Made Thence in the New Testament (1722). In it the mathematician argued that the Hebraic prophecies relating to the messiah had been literally fulfilled in Jesus. But this truth, he admitted, had been obscured "in the latter Ages," only because of those "Difficulties" which "have [almost wholly] arisen from the Corruptions, the unbelieving Jews introduc'd into the Hebrew and Greek copies of the Old Testament, [soon after] the Beginning of the Second Century." These conspiratorial corruptions he single-handedly planned to remove, returning the Old Testament to a state of textual purity with emendations drawn from sources as varied as the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Greek Psalms, the Antiquities of Josephus, the Chaldee Paraphrases, the books of Philo. His pragmatic purpose was to nullify the biblical criticism of historical minded scholars as reputable as Grotius, to render useless the allegorical interpretation of messianic prophecies. That is, he saw in the latter a "pernicious" absence of fact, a "weak and enthusiastical" whimsy, unchristian adjustments to the exigencies of the moment.[20]

Collins fought not to destroy Whiston's position, which was all too easily destructible, but to undermine the structure, the very "grounds and reasons" with which orthodoxy supported the mysteries of its faith. To do so, he spun a gigantic web of irony controlled by a persona whose complex purpose was concealed by a mien of hyper-righteousness. Here then was one motivated by a fair-mindedness which allowed him to defend his opponent's right of scriptural exegesis even while disagreeing with its approach and its conclusions. Here too was a conservative Christian different from Whiston "and many other great divines; who seem to pay little deference to the books of the New Testament, the text whereof they are perpetually mending in their sermons, commentaries, and writings, to serve purposes; who pretend we should have more of the true text by being less tenacious of the printed one, and in consequence thereof, presume to correct by critical emendations, serve capital places in the sacred writers; and who ... do virtually set aside the authority of the scripture, and place those compositions in its stead." Finally, here was one who, obedient to the spirit of God's revealed word, rejected the fallacy that messianic prophecy had been fulfilled in Christ in any "literal, obvious and primary sense."[21]

But though the persona could not accept Whiston's program, he was not a mere negativist. With growing excitement he argued for allegorical interpretation. At this point the reader discerns that he has been duped, that nowhere has there been a denial of Whiston's charge that the reading of messianic prophecy in a typical or allegorical or secondary sense is "weak and enthusiastical." On the contrary, the reader finds only the damning innuendo that the two methods—the allegorical and the literal—differ from one another not in kind but in degree of absurdity. After being protected for a long time by all the twists and turns of his creator's irony, the persona finally reveals himself for what he is, a man totally insolent and totally without remorse. Never for one moment did he wish to defend the scheme of allegorical prophecy but to attack it. His argument, stripped of its convolutions and pseudo-piety, moves inexorably to a single, negative conclusion. "Christianity pretends to derive itself from Judaism. JESUS appeals to the religious books of the Jews as prophesying of his Mission. None of these Prophecies can be understood of him but in a typical allegoric sense. Now that sense is absurd, and contrary to all scholastic rules of interpretation. Christianity, therefore, not being really predicted in the Jewish Writings, is consequently false."[22]

Collins continued his attack upon Christian revelation in the Scheme. In the two years which separated this work from the earlier Grounds and Reasons, there occurred no change in the author's argument. What does occur, however, is a perceptive if snide elaboration upon the mask. This is in many ways the same persona who barely suppressed his guffaws in the earlier work. Now he is given an added dimension; he is made more decisively rational than his predecessor and therefore more insightful in his knowledge of rhetorical method. As a disciple of certain Protestant polemicists and particularly of Grotius, whose "integrity," "honor," and biblical criticism he supports, he is the empirical-minded Christian who knows exactly why the literalists have failed to persuade the free-thinkers or even to have damaged their arguments. "For if you begin with Infidels by denying to them, what is evident and agreeable to common sense, I think there can be no reasonable hopes of converting or convincing them."[23] The irony is abrasive simply because it unanswerably singles out the great rhetorical failure of orthodoxy, its inability to argue from a set of principles as acceptable to the deists as to themselves.

Many of the clergy chafed against Collins's manipulation of this tongue-in-cheek persona. They resented his irreverent wit which projected, for example, the image of an Anglican God who "talks to all mankind from corners" and who shows his back parts to Moses. They were irritated by his jesting parables, as in "The Case of Free-Seeing," and by the impertinence of labelling Archbishop Tillotson as the man "whom all English Free-Thinkers own as their Head."[24]

But most of all they gagged upon Collins's use of satire in religious controversy. As we have already seen, there were complex reasons for his choice of technique. He was a naturally witty man who, sometimes out of fear and sometimes out of malice, expressed himself best through circuitous irony. In 1724, when he himself considered his oratorical practice, he argued that his matter determined his style, that the targets of his belittling wit were the "saint-errants." We can only imagine the exasperation of Collins's Anglican enemies when they found their orthodoxy thus slyly lumped with the eccentricities of Samuel Butler's "true blew" Presbyterians. It would be hard to live down the associations of those facetious lines which made the Augustan divines, like their unwelcome forebear Hudibras, members

Of that stubborn Crew Of Errant Saints, whom all men grant To be the true Church Militant.

Those dignified Anglican exteriors were further punctured by Collins's irreverent attack upon their cry of religious uniformity, a cry which was "ridiculous, romantick, and impossible to succeed." He saw himself, in short, as an emancipated Butler or even Cervantes; and like his famous predecessors he too would laugh quite out of countenance the fool and the hypocrite, the pretender and the enthusiast, the knave and the persecuter, all those who would create a god in their own sour and puny image.


By 1727 several of the orthodox felt that they could take no more of Collins's laughter, his sneering invectives against the clergy, or his designs to make religion "a Matter purely personal; and the Knowledge of it to be obtain'd by personal Consideration, independently of any Guides, Teachers, or Authority." In the forefront of this group was John Rogers, whose hostility to the deist was articulate and compulsive. At least it drove him into a position seemingly at odds with the spirit if not the law of English toleration. He urged, for example, that those like Collins be prosecuted in a civil court for a persuasion "which is manifestly subversive of all Order and Polity, and can no more consist with civil, than with religious, Society."[25]

Thereupon followed charge and countercharge. New gladiators, as different from each other as the nonconformist divine Samuel Chandler and the deist Thomas Chubb, entered the arena on behalf of Collins. For all the dogmatic volubility of Rogers, orthodoxy appeared beleaguered. The moderate clergy, who witnessed this exchange, became alarmed; they feared that in the melee the very heart of English toleration would be threatened by the contenders, all of whom spoke as its champion. Representative of such moderation was Nathanael Marshall, who wished if not to end the debate, then at least to contain its ardor. As canon of Windsor, he supported the condition of a state religion protected by the magistrate but he worried over the extent of the latter's prerogative and power. Certainly he was more liberal than Rogers in his willingness to entertain professions of religious diversity. Yet he straitjacketed his liberalism when he denied responsible men the right to attack laws, both civil and canonical, with "ludicrous Insult" or "with Buffoonery and Banter, Ridicule or Sarcastick Irony."[26]

Once again Collins met the challenge. In A Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony he devoted himself to undermining the moral, the intellectual, and practical foundations of that one restraint which Marshall would impose upon the conduct of any religious quarrel. He had little difficulty in achieving his objective. His adversary's stand was visibly vulnerable and for several reasons. It was too conscious of the tug-of-war between the deist and Rogers, too arbitrary in its choice of prohibition. It was, in truth, strained by a choice between offending the establishment and yet rejecting clerical extremism.[27] Moreover, Collins had this time an invisible partner, a superior thinker against whom he could test his own ideas and from whom he could borrow others. For the Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony is largely a particularization, a crude but powerful reworking of Shaftesbury's Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour.

Supported by Shaftesbury's urbane generalization, Collins laughed openly at the egocentricity and blindness of Marshall's timid zealotry. Indeed, he wryly found his orthodox opponent guilty of the very crime with which he, as a subversive, was charged. It seemed to him, he said,

a most prodigious Banter upon [mankind], for Men to talk in general of the Immorality of Ridicule and Irony, and of punishing Men for those Matters, when their own Practice is universal Irony and Ridicule of all those who go not with them, and universal Applause and Encouragement for such Ridicule and Irony, and distinguishing by all the honourable ways imaginable such drolling Authors for their Drollery; and when Punishment for Drollery is never call'd for, but when Drollery is used or employ'd against them!

(p. 29)

Collins's technique continued its ironic ambiguity, reversal, and obliquity. Under a tone of seeming innocence and good will, he credited his adversaries with an enviable capacity for satiric argument. In comradely fashion, he found precedent for his own rhetorical practice through a variety of historical and biblical analogies. But even more important for a contemporary audience, he again resorted to the device of invoking the authority provided by some of the most respected names in the Anglican Establishment. The use of satire in religious topics, hence, was manifest in "the Writings of our most eminent Divines," especially those of Stillingfleet, "our greatest controversial Writer" (pp. 4-5).

With all the outrageous assurance of a self-invited guest, the deist had seated himself at the table of his vainly protesting Christian hosts (whom he insisted on identifying as brethren). "In a word," he said so as to obviate debate, "the Opinions and Practices of Men in all Matters, and especially in Matters of Religion, are generally so absurd and ridiculous that it is impossible for them not to be the Subjects of Ridicule" (p. 19). Thus adopting Juvenal's concept of satiric necessity ("difficile est saturam non scribere"), Collins here set forth the thesis and rationale of his enemy. There was a kind of impudent virtuosity in his "proofs," in his manner of drawing a large, impressive cluster of names into his ironic net and making all of them appear to be credible witnesses in his defense. Even Swift, amusingly compromised as "one of the greatest Droles that ever appear'd upon the Stage of the World" (p. 39), was brought to the witness box as evidence of the privileged status to which satiric writing was entitled. Collins enforced erudition with cool intelligence so that contemptuous amusement is present on every page of his Discourse.

Beneath his jeers and his laughter there was a serious denunciation of any kind of intellectual restraint, however mild-seeming; beneath his verbal pin-pricking there was conversely an exoneration of man's right to inquire, to profess, and to persuade. Beneath his jests and sarcasms there was further a firm philosophical commitment that informed the rhetoric of all his earlier work. Ridicule, he asserted in 1729, "is both a proper and necessary Method of Discourse in many Cases, and especially in the Case of Gravity, when that is attended with Hypocrisy or Imposture, or with Ignorance, or with soureness of Temper and Persecution: all which ought to draw after them the Ridicule and Contempt of the Society, which has no other effectual Remedy against such Methods of Imposition" (p. 22).

For the modern reader the Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony is the most satisfactory of Collins's many pamphlets and books. It lacks the pretentiousness of the Scheme, the snide convolutions of the Grounds and Reasons, the argument by half-truths of the Discourse of Free-Thinking. His last work is free of the curious ambivalence which marked so many of his earlier pieces, a visible uncertainty which made him fear repression and yet court it. On the contrary, his last work is in fact a justification of his rhetorical mode and religious beliefs; it is an apologia pro vita sua written with all the intensity and decisiveness that such a justification demands. To be sure, it takes passing shots at old enemies like Swift, but never with rancor. And while its language is frequently ironical, its thinking makes an earnest defense of wit as a weapon of truth. The essay sets forth its author as an animal ridens, a creature that through laughter and affable cynicism worships a universal God and respects a rational mankind.

Brown University


[1] Universal Spectator, and Weekly Journal, No. 98 (22 August 1730).

[2] To Des Maizeaux (5 May 1717): B. M. Sloane MSS. 4282, ff. 129-130.

[3] To Des Maizeaux (9 February 1716): B. M. Sloane MSS. 4282, f. 123.

[4] The title page of the Scheme is dated 1726. It was not advertised in the newspapers or journals of that year—a strange silence for any of Collins's work. Its first notice appeared in the Monthly Catalogue: Being a General Register of Books, Sermons, Plays, Poetry, Pamphlets, &c. Printed and Publish'd in London, or the Universities, during the Month of May, 1727 (see No. 49). Yet we know that the Scheme had been remarked upon as early as March when on the 10th of that month Samuel Chandler published his Reflections on the Conduct of the Modern Deists in their late Writings against Christianity. (For the dating of Chandler's work, see the Daily Courant [10 March 1727].) We know also that the Scheme went to a second edition late in 1727 and was frequently advertised in the Daily Post between 2 January and 20 January 1728.

[5] For the statement about the Letter to Dr. Rogers, see B. M. Sloane MSS. 4282, f. 220 (15 August 1727). For that on the use of "personal matters" in controversy, see B. M. Sloane MSS. 4282, f. 170 (27 December 1719); cf. The Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered (London, 1726), pp. 422-438.

[6] The Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion was published in London within the first four days of January 1724; see the advertisement in the Daily Post (4 January 1724). A Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing was published on or close to 17 March 1729; see the advertisement in the Daily Journal for that date.

[7] We can generally fix the date of Rogers's Eight Sermons within the first two months of 1727 because it was answered early by Samuel Chandler's Reflections on the Conduct of the Modern Deists. (See note 4.) For the dating of Collins's rebuttal, see the Monthly Catalogue, No. 49 (May 1727).

[8] To Des Maizeaux (24 June 1727): B. M. Sloane MSS. 4282, ff. 218-219.

[9] For the dating of this work, see the Daily Post (31 January 1728).

[10] For Swift's satire, see Mr. C—-ns's Discourse of Free-Thinking, Put into plain English, by way of Abstract, for the Use of the Poor. For Bentley's devastating probe of Collins's scholarly inadequacies, see his Remarks on the Discourse of Free-Thinking. By Phileleutherus Lipsiensis. Both works appeared in 1713.

[11] Scheme, pp. 432-433.

[12] Edward Chandler, A Defence of Christianity from the Prophecies of the Old Testament (London, 1725), p. ii.

[13] A Letter to Dr. Rogers, p. 89.

[14] A Vindication of the Divine Attributes (London, 1710), p. 24.

[15] Robert Jenkin, A Brief Confutation of the Pretences against Natural and Revealed Religion (London, 1702), p. 40.

[16] For Collins on his own rhetorical skills, see Scheme, p. 402; William Warburton, Divine Legation of Moses, Demonstrated (London, 1846), III, 199.

[17] Jenkin, Brief Confutation, p. 51; for the letter (1 July 1717), see B. M. Sloane MSS. 4282, f. 137.

[18] Pp. 46-99.

[19] See, for example, the statement of John Conybeare, Bishop of Bristol, in Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men, ed. James M. Osborn (Oxford, 1966), I, sect. 992.

[20] Essay, pp. 329-333 (for Whiston's statement of sources); pp. 334-335 (for his defense of literal interpretation). The bracketed material indicates Whiston's manuscript emendations of his own printed text; see the British Museum's copy of the Essay (873. 1. 10) which originally belonged to the mathematician. See Collins, Grounds and Reasons, pp. 98-99, for the summary of Whiston's attack upon allegorical interpretation.

[21] Grounds and Reasons, pp. 20, 48-50.

[22] This terse summary of the persona's argument was correctly made by Warburton, III, 232.

[23] Scheme, p. 391.

[24] Discourse of Free-Thinking, pp. 15-17, 38, 171.

[25] Eight Sermons, pp. 1, lxi.

[26] Marshall, pp. 301, 337. For Samuel Chandler's contribution, see his Reflections on the Conduct of the Modern Deists (London, 1727); for Chubb's contribution see Some Short Reflections on the Grounds and Extent of Authority and Liberty, With respect to the Civil Government (London, 1728).

[27] Marshall's reluctance to support Rogers's extremism is seen in the funeral sermon he preached at the latter's death (A Sermon Delivered in the Parish Church of St. Giles Cripplegate, May 18, 1729. Upon Occasion of the Much Lamented Death of the Revd. John Rogers [London, 1729]). He made only the most casual and indifferent reference to Rogers's work. So obvious was this slight that it called for a rebuttal; see Philalethes (A. A. Sykes [?]), Some Remarks Upon the Reverend Dr. Marshall's Sermon on Occasion of the Death of the Revd Dr Rogers (London, 1729).


This facsimile of A Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing (1729) is reproduced from a copy in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library.


———— Ridiculum acri Fortius & melius magnas plerumq; secat res.

———— Ridentem dicere verum Quid vetat?


Printed for J. BROTHERTON in Cornhill and sold by T. WARNER in Pater-noster-Row, and A. DODD without Temple-Bar. 1729.

A DISCOURSE CONCERNING Ridicule and Irony, &c.


In your Letter to Dr. Rogers, which he has publish'd at the End of his Vindication of the Civil Establishment of Religion, I find a Notion advanc'd by you: which as it is a common and plausible Topick for Persecution, and a Topick by which you, and many others, urge the Magistrate to punish [or, as you phrase it, to pinch] [28] Men for controversial Writings, is particularly proper at this time to be fully consider'd; and I hope to treat it in such manner as to make you your self, and every fair Reader, sensible of the Weakness thereof.

You profess to "vindicate [29] a sober, serious, and modest Inquiry into the Reasons of any Establishment."

And you add, that you "have not ordinarily found it judg'd inconsistent with the Duty of a private Subject, to propose his Doubts or his Reasons to the Publick in a modest way, concerning the Repeal of any Law which he may think of ill Consequence by its Continuance. If he be a Man of Ability, and well vers'd in the Argument, he will deserve some Attention; but if he mistakes his Talent, and will be busy with what he very little understands, Contempt and Odium will be his unavoidable and just Allotment." And you say, that "Religion is more a personal Affair, in which every Man has a peculiar Right and Interest, and a Concern that he be not mistaken, than in any other Case or Instance which can fall under the Cognizance of the Magistrate; and that greater Allowances seem due to each private Person for Examination and Inquiry in this, than in any other Example."

And herein I must do you the Justice to acknowledge, that you speak like a Christian, like a Protestant, like an Englishman, and a reasonable Man; like a Man concerned for Truth, like a Man of Conscience; like a Man concern'd for the Consciences of others; like a Man concern'd to have some Sense, Learning, and Virtue in the World; and, in a word, like a Man who is not for abandoning all the valuable Things in Life to the Tyranny, Ambition, and Covetousness of Magistrates and Ecclesiasticks.

But you observe, that "municipal Laws[30], how trivial soever in their intrinsick Value, are never to be insulted; never to be treated with Buffoonery and Banter, Ridicule and Sarcastick Irony. So that Dr. Rogers's grand Adversary will have from you no measure of Encouragement to his manner of Writing." Again, you "never [31] desire to see the Magistrate fencing in the publick Religion with so thick a Hedge as shall exclude all Light, and shall tear out the Eyes of all such as endeavour to see thro' it. Sober arguing you never fear: Mockery and bitter Railing, if you could help it, you would never bear, either for the Truth or against it."

Upon which I offer these following Considerations.

I. First, If what you call Insult, Buffoonery, Banter, Ridicule and Irony, Mockery and bitter Railing, be Crimes in Disputation, you will find none more deeply involv'd in it than our most famous Writers, in their controversial Treatises about serious Matters; as all Notions and Practices in Religion, whether reasonable or absurd, may be equally and justly deem'd: the Notions and Practices of Papists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and all other Sects, being no less serious to their respective Sects than ridiculous to one another. Let any Man read the Writings of our most eminent Divines against the Papists, Puritans, Dissenters, and Hereticks, and against one another, and particularly the Writings of Alexander Cook, Hales, Chillingworth, Patrick, Tillotson, Stillingfleet, Burnet, South, Hickes, Sherlock and Edwards, and he will find them to abound with Banter, Ridicule, and Irony. Stillingfleet in particular, our greatest controversial Writer, who passes for grave and solemn, is so conscious of his use thereof, that he confesses that Charge of the Papists against him, saying[32], "But I forget my Adversary's grave admonition, that I would treat these Matters seriously, and lay aside Drollery." And again, after a Banter of near a Page, he says[33], "But I forget I am so near my Adversary's Conclusion, wherein he so gravely advises me, that I would be pleas'd for once to write Controversy, and not Play-Books." Nor did I ever hear the Divines of the Church condemn the Doctor for his sarcastical Method of writing Controversy. On the contrary, I remember at the University, that he used to be applauded no less for his Wit than for his Learning. And to exalt his Character as a Wit, his Conferences between a Romish Priest, a Fanatick Chaplain, and a Divine of the Church of England, &c. were spoken of as an excellent Comedy, and especially for that Part which the Fanatick Chaplain acts therein, who makes as comical and as ridiculous a Figure as he does in any of the Plays acted on the Stage. And in his Controversy with Dryden about the Royal Papers, and those of the Duchess of York, he was deem'd to have out-done that famous Satirist in tart Repartees and Reflections; and to have attack'd the Character of the Poet with more severity, than that Poet, who was so remarkable for his satirical Reflections on the holy Order, did the Character of the Divine: As for example, he says to Dryden[34], "Could nothing be said by you of Bishop Morley, but that Prelate of rich Memory? Or had you a mind to tell us he was no Poet? Or that he was out of the Temptation of changing his Religion for Bread?" And many Citations us'd to be produc'd out of his Writings, as Specimens of his ironical Talent; among which I particularly remember his Ridicule of his Adversary Mr. Alsop, a famous Presbyterian Wit and Divine; whose Book, which was full of low Raillery and Ridicule, he resembles [35] to the Bird of Athens, as made up of Face and Feathers. And the Doctor himself adds, in Justification of the polite Method of Raillery in Controversy, that there is a pleasantness of Wit, which serves to entertain the Reader in the rough and deep way of Controversy. Nor did Mr. Alsop want Approvers of his Raillery in his own Party. Mr. Gilbert Rule[36], a great Scotch Presbyterian Divine, who defended him against Stillingfleet, contends in behalf of his Raillery, "That the Facetiousness of Mr. Alsop's Strain needed to have bred no Disgust, being as a Condiment to prevent Taedium and Nauseousness." And he adds, "That he knows none that blame the excellent Writings of Mr. Fuller, which have a Pleasantness not unlike that of Mr. Alsop."

And this manner of writing is seldom complain'd of, as unfit to be allow'd, by any but those who feel themselves hurt by it. For the solemn and grave can bear a solemn and grave Attack: That gives them a sort of Credit in the World, and makes them appear considerable to themselves, as worthy of a serious Regard. But Contempt is what they, who commonly are the most contemptible and worthless of Men, cannot bear nor withstand, as setting them in their true Light, and being the most effectual Method to drive Imposture, the sole Foundation of their Credit, out of the World. Hence Stillingfleet's Popish Adversaries, more conscious perhaps of the Ridiculousness of Popery than the common People among Protestants themselves, fall upon him very furiously. One says[37], "That by the Phrases, which are the chief Ornaments that set off the Doctor's Works, we may easily guess in what Books he has spent his Time; and that he is well vers'd in Don Quixot, the Seven Champions, and other Romantick Stories. Sure the Doctor err'd in his Vocation: Had he quitted all serious Matters, and dedicated himself wholly to Drollery and Romance, with two or three Years under Hudibras, he might have been a Master in that Faculty; the Stage might have been a Gainer by it, and the Church of England would have been no Loser."

Another of his Adversaries says, "[38]Peruse the Doctor Page after Page, you will find the Man all along in peevish Humour, when you see his Book brimfull of tart biting Ironies, Drolleries, comical Expressions, impertinent Demands, and idle Stories, &c. as if the discharging a little Gall were enough to disparage the clearest Miracles God ever wrought."

But what are these clearest Miracles God ever wrought? Why, the most extravagant, whimsical, absurd, and ridiculous Legends and Stories imaginable; such as that of St. Dominick[39], who when the Devil came to him in the Shape of a Monkey, made him hold a Candle to him while he wrote, and keep it so long between his Toes, till it burnt them; and his keeping the Devil, who sometimes came to him in the Shape of a Flea, and by skipping on the Leaves of his Book disturb'd his Reading, in that Shape, and using him for a Mark to know where he left off reading: Such as St. Patrick's heating an Oven with Snow, and turning a Pound of Honey into a Pound of Butter: Such as Christ's marrying Nuns, and playing at Cards with them; and Nuns living on the Milk of the blessed Virgin Mary; and that of divers Orders, and especially the Benedictine, being so dear to the blessed Virgin, that in Heaven she lodges them under her Petticoats: Such as making broken Eggs whole; and of People, who had their Heads cut off, walking with their Heads in their Hands, which were sometimes set on again: Such as Failing for a hundred Years; and raising Cows, Calves, and Birds from the Dead, after they had been chopt to Pieces and eaten, and putting on their Heads after they had been pull'd or cut off; and turning a Pound of Butter into a Bell; and making a Bull give Milk; and raising a King's Daughter from the Dead, and turning her into a Son; and the several Translations thro' the Air of the Virgin Mary's House from Palestine to Loretto, and the Miracles wrote there; and more of the like Kind.

Are these, or such as these the clearest Miracles God ever wrought? Do such Miracles deserve a serious Regard? And shall the Gravity with which Mankind is thus banter'd out of their common Sense, excuse these Matters from Ridicule?

It will be difficult to find any Writers who have exceeded the Doctors, South and [40] Edwards, in Banter, Irony, Satire and Sarcasms: The last of whom has written a Discourse in Defence of sharp Reflections on Authors and their Opinions; wherein he enumerates, as Examples for his Purpose, almost all the eminent Divines of the Church of England. And Mr. [41] Collier, speaking of a Letter of the Venerable Bede to Egbert Bishop of York, says, "The Satire and Declamation in this Epistle shews the pious Zeal and Integrity of the Author;" which seems to imply, that Satire and Declamation is the orthodox and most pious Method of writing in behalf of Orthodoxy.

Dr. Rogers, to whom you write, falls into the Method of Buffoonery, Banter, Satire, Drollery, Ridicule, and Irony, even in the Treatise to which your Letter is subjoined, and against that Person whom you would have punish'd for that Method: When he says to him, [42] "Religion then, it seems, must be left to the Scholars and Gentlefolks, and to them 'tis to be of no other use, but as a Subject of Disputation to improve their Parts and Learning; but methinks the Vulgar might be indulged a little of it now and then, upon Sundays and Holidays, instead of Bull-baiting and Foot-ball." And this insipid Piece of Drollery and false Wit [which is design'd to ridicule his Adversary for asserting, that What Men understand nothing of, they have no Concern about; which is a Proposition that will stand the Test of Ridicule, which will be found wholly to lie against the Doctor, for asserting the Reasonableness of imposing Things on the People which they do not understand] is the more remarkable, as it proceeds from one, who is at the same time for using the Sword of the Magistrate against his Adversary. One would think the [43] Inquisitor should banish the Droll, and the Droll the Inquisitor.

One of the greatest and best Authorities for the pleasant and ironical manner of treating serious Matters, is that eminent Divine at the Time of the Reformation, the great Erasmus, who has written two Books in this way with great Applause of Protestants, and without subjecting himself to any Persecution of Papists: which makes it highly proper to propose them to the Consideration of the Reader, that he may regulate his Notions, by what, it may be presum'd, he approves of in that Author. These two Books of Erasmus are his Colloquies, and his Praise of Folly.

His Colloquies were wrote in imitation of Lucian's Dialogues; and I think with equal, if not superior, Success.

Both these Authors had an Aversion to sullen, austere, designing Knaves; and both of them being Men of Wit and Satire, employ'd their Talents against Superstition and Hypocrisy. Lucian liv'd in an Age when Fiction and Fable had usurp'd the Name of Religion, and Morality was corrupted by Men of Beard and Grimace, but scandalously Leud and Ignorant; who yet had the Impudence to preach up Virtue, and style themselves Philosophers, perpetually clashing with one another about the Precedence of their several Founders, the Merits of their different Sects, and if 'tis possible, about Trifles of less Importance: yet all agreeing in a different way to dupe and amuse the poor People, by the fantastick Singularity of their Habits, the unintelligible Jargon of their Schools, and their Pretensions to a severe and mortify'd Life.

These Jugglers and Impostors Lucian in great measure help'd to chase out of the World, by exposing them in their proper Colours, and by representing them as ridiculous as they were. But in a few Generations after him, a new Race of Men sprung up in the World, well known by the Name of Monks and Fryars, different indeed from the former in Religion, Garb, and a few other Circumstances; but in the main, the same sort of Impostors, the same ever-lasting Cobweb-Spinners, as to their nonsensical Controversies, the same abandon'd Wretches, as to their Morals; but as to the mysterious Arts of heaping up Wealth, and picking the People's Pockets, infinitely superior to the Pagan Philosophers and Priests. These were the sanctify'd Cheats, whose Folly and Vices Erasmus has so effectually lash'd, that some Countries have entirely turn'd these Drones out of their Cells; and in other Places, where they are still kept up, they are in some measure become contemptible, and obliged to be always on their Guard.

The Papists say, that these "[44]Colloquies, by turning into Ridicule the Devotion to the holy Virgin and Saints, the Worship of Relicks and Images, religious Vows and Pilgrimages, have made more Hereticks than the Works of Luther and Calvin." And I find the reverend Mr. Trapp [after calling [45] Reliques, FOOLISH] celebrates Erasmus for having abundantly RIDICUL'D them.

His Praise of Folly treats of serious Matters, in such a gay, familiar, ingenious and pleasant manner, as makes it a Work proper to be read by intelligent People, to remove out of their Minds all Bigotry contracted by Ignorance and an evil Education, all Peevishness, Hatred, and Ill-nature towards one another, on account of different Sentiments in Religion; and to form in them the natural Principles of Moderation, Humanity, Affection and Friendship. Our learned and ingenious Bishop Kennet could not do a more signal Piece of Service to our Country, than by translating into English this Book, which the Ladies have now an Opportunity of understanding no less than the Men; and from whence they may see the pleasant, amiable, and just Disposition of Mind of one of the most learned and ingenious Men that ever liv'd, as well as Author of a great Number of religious and devotional Books; nor could the Bishop well give a heartier Stroke at Popery, than by approving of Erasmus's [46] laughing at it, and applauding his numberless Taunts on its Impostures, Cheats, and Delusions.

Our Clergy have ever treated Mr. Hobbes with the greatest Mockery, Ridicule and Raillery: As for example, Ward Bishop of Sarum, Brambal Bishop of Derry, Parker Bishop of Oxford, Dr. Wallis in his several bantering Treatises against him, Lucy Bishop of St. Davids, Shafto, and particularly the Reverend Droll, Dr. Eachard, in two Dialogues, which, it is well known, have been universally well receiv'd by the Clergy, and that for their Treatment of Mr. Hobbes in the ridiculing Way; for which the Author himself makes the following just Apology, in his Dedication of his Second Dialogue to Archbishop Sheldon, "That of all Triflers, 'tis the Set, the Grave, the Philosophical, and the Mathematical Trifler, to which he has the greatest Aversion; whom when he meets, very gravely making out all Men to be rational Beasts both in Nature and Conversation, and every Man, he pleases, a rational Rebel; and upon any Fright or Pinch a rational Atheist and Anti-Christian; and all this perform'd with all DEMURENESS, SOLEMNITY, QUOTATION of SCRIPTURE, APPEALS to CONSCIENCE and CHURCH-HISTORY; he must humbly beg his Grace's Pardon, if then he has endeavour'd to SMILE a little, and to get as much out of his Road and way of Writing as possible." These Dialogues used to be much recommended to the Youth to make them laugh at Mr Hobbes, who was constantly represented as provok'd and put out of all Temper by them, and was said to have vented this strange and impious Expression, upon its being told him, that the Clergy said Eachard had crucify'd Hobbes; "Why then don't they fall down and worship me?"

Mr. Selden has been the constant Subject of Clergy-banter, for his History of Tythes; in the Preface to which, "He reproaches the Clergy with Ignorance and Laziness, and upbraids them with having nothing to keep up their Credit but Beard, Title, and Habit; and their Studies reach'd no farther than the Breviary, the Postils, and Polyanthea." For this Work he was attack'd more particularly by three Divines, Tillesly, Mountagu, and Nettles. And their Success was thus originally represented[47], "That he was so gall'd by Tillesly, so gagg'd by Mountagu, and so stung by Nettles, that he never came off in any of his Undertakings with more loss of Credit." And this Jest has pass'd much upon the World, and been continued down in many Books, where Mr. Selden is mention'd, to his Discredit with ignorant Readers, but not with the Knowing and Learned; who, as Dr. Wotton tells us[48], have, now Party-heats are over, acquiesced in what Mr. Selden advanc'd; who first, OF ALL CHRISTIANS, set the Affair of Tythes in a clear Light.

It is usually said the Comedy called Ignoramus, which is a Clergy-banter upon the Law, was a design'd Return for Mr. Selden's History of Tythes.

The Reverend Dr. Beaumont, late Master of St. Peter's College and King's Professor of Divinity, has given us a Book, entitled, "Some Observations upon the Apology of Dr. Henry More for his Mystery of Godliness;" which endeavours to render the said Doctor ridiculous, and set People a laughing at him, (p. 9. &c. 64.) and used to be applauded as a complete Performance in the way of Raillery and Irony, and was well receiv'd for being directed against a Person esteem'd Heterodox.

Many Clergymen have written Books to banter the Works of Mr. Locke, among whom Dr. Edwards must have the first Place; whose Brief Vindication of the fundamental Articles of the Christian Faith, which has the Imprimatur before it of James, Beaumont, Covel, and Balderston, four Cambridge Heads, was never exceeded by the most licentious Droll.

When Sorbier's Voyage to England, which was a pert and insolent Abuse and Satire on the Nation, and written in the French manner of contemptuously treating all Countries and Men but France and Frenchmen, was publish'd, it was deem'd proper that a drolling and satirical Answer should be given to it, and that the Reverend Dr. Sprat should be the Droll employ'd; who perform'd his Part according to the Expectation of the Drolling Court of King Charles II. and as the ingenious Mr. Addison tells us, [49] Vindicated the Honour of his Country, in a Book full of Satire and Ingenuity.

Bishop Beveridge ever pass'd for a serious and profound Divine; and his Writings have fix'd that Character upon him among the Religious of the High Church, who have receiv'd his Private Thoughts and his Volumes of Sermons, like Manna from Heaven. And yet possibly never Man had two more severe Attacks made upon him than he had; one by Bishop Stillingfleet, who in A Vindication of their Majesties Authority to fill the Sees of the depriv'd Bishops, &c. occasion'd by Dr. Beveridge's Refusal of the Bishoprick of Bath and Wells, satirizes both his Prudence and his Sincerity; and another, by an ingenious Bishop also, who in A short View of Dr. Beveridge's Writings, has in a most refin'd drolling manner represented those Writings as abounding in most absurd and ridiculous Divinity.

But one of the justest and finest Pieces of Irony, and the most timely and seasonably vented, and that deserves perpetual Remembrance, is, Andrews the grave Bishop of Winchester's Irony, on Neal the grave Bishop of Durham; of which we have the following Relation in the Poet Waller's Life, prefix'd before his Works: "On the Day of the Dissolution of the last Parliament of King James the First, Mr. Waller, out of Curiosity or Respect, went to see the King at Dinner; with whom were Dr. Andrews the Bishop of Winchester, and Dr. Neal Bishop of Durham, standing behind his Majesty's Chair. There happen'd something very extraordinary in the Conversation those Prelates had with the King, on which Mr. Waller did often reflect. His Majesty ask'd the Bishops, My Lords, cannot I take my Subjects Money when I want it, without all this Formality in Parliament? The Bishop of Durham readily answer'd, God forbid, Sir, but you should; you are the Breath of our Nostrils. Whereupon the King turn'd and said to the Bishop of Winchester, Well, my Lord, what say you? Sir, replied the Bishop, I have no Skill to judge of Parliamentary Cases. The King answer'd, No Put-offs, my Lord; answer me presently. Then, Sir, said he, I think it is lawful for you to take my Brother Neal's Money, for he offers it. Mr. Waller said the Company was pleas'd with this Answer, and the Wit of it seem'd to affect the King." Which shews the exceeding Aptness and Usefulness of a good Irony; that can convey an Instruction to a vicious, evil, and tyrannical Prince, highly reflecting on his Conduct, without drawing on his Resentment.

To these famous Divines I might add the most eminent and renowned Philosophers of Antiquity, who, either out of a Contempt of Mankind, or to gratify their peculiar Tempers, or to correct the Vices and Follies of Men, and to instil virtuous Maxims in those who would only receive them in some pleasant way, set up for good Humour, Mirth, and Drollery, as their standing Method of Life, and of Conversation with the World; and have left behind them some of their occasional Sayings upon record, which do more Honour to their Memories than the most elaborate Treatises would have done, and more Good to Men; upon whom a Jest, or witty Saying, is more fitted to operate and make Impression than long Deductions and Reasonings, and particularly on Princes and great Men, who will receive no Instruction but in some very artful and short Way: whereof even the rude Diogenes, the Cynick, has given us a most incomparable Example, in his occasional Conference with Alexander the Great, who was put into such Temper by the mere Freedom and Raillery of the Philosopher, as to take every thing in good part he said to him, and consequently be dispos'd to reflect upon it, and to act with Discretion. At the Head of these Philosophers I place SOCRATES, who has very generally in all Ages pass'd for the wisest of Men, and was declared so by an Oracle; which, at least, was therein directed and influenc'd by some considerable human Authority, or by the common Sentiments of Men at that time. His Character I shall give you in the words of the most ingenious Addison, who was himself a Master of Humour and Drollery, and practis'd them in Perfection, and with great Success in almost all his Prose-writings. "Socrates, says he[50], who was the greatest Propagator of Morality in the Heathen World, and a Martyr for the Unity of the Godhead, was so famous for the exercise of the Talent [of Raillery and Humour] among the politest People of Antiquity, that he gain'd the Name of THE DROLE.[51]" A Character that intitled him to the greatest Merit, as it most of all enabled him to promote Virtue.

I might also offer to your Confederation the Affair of Comedies; which all polite Governments have permitted, or establish'd, in their several populous and wealthy Cities, as the necessary and proper means to encounter Vice and recommend Virtue, and to employ innocently and usefully the vacant Hours of many, who know not how to employ their Time, or would employ it amiss, by entering into [52] Factions and Cabals to disturb the State; or by Gaming, or by backbiting Conversations about their Neighbours. And as Comedies, which were originally very gross, grew by Use more polite and refin'd in Satire and Raillery: so the most celebrated Wits and Statesmen, and Persons of the greatest Quality, have engag'd and join'd with others in them, and performed with the greatest Success and Reputation to themselves; and have been valu'd, not only for their Talents of Irony and Drollery, which were essential to the Credit of such Performances; but applauded, as acting the virtuous Part of Droles.

In fine, Books of Satire, Wit, Humour, Ridicule, Drollery, and Irony, are the most read and applauded of all Books, in all Ages, Languages, and Countries. And as those which are exquisite in their kinds, are the standing Entertainment of the Ingenious and Learned; so others, of a lower kind, are to be found among the lower Readers, who sleep under all Works which do not make them merry.

In a word, the Opinions and Practices of Men in all Matters, and especially in Matters of Religion, are generally so absurd and ridiculous that it is impossible for them not to be the Subjects of Ridicule.

For what else can be expected from Men who generally take up their Opinions without any Inquiry into their Reasonableness or Truth, and upon the most incompetent Grounds? I cannot be supposed to injure Mankind, if I consider them under the Character which the very ingenious Sir Richard Steele gives of himself; who acknowledges [53] that (even while he took upon himself the Title of the Censor of Great Britain, and in so many fine Papers corrects his Countrymen, and particularly the Freethinkers, whom he directs the Magistrate to punish with Death) it had been with him, as it is with too many others, that a [53] sort of an implicit Religion seem'd the most easy and most comfortable; and that a blind Veneration for he knew not what, and he knew not whom, stood for every thing important. And he confesses he was not enough aware, that this Implicitness of Conduct is the great Engine of Popery, fram'd for the Destruction of good Nature, as well as good Sense. If so great a Man could take up with such a Method, and act the Part of a Censor and Director of others, in a Matter which he had not at all consider'd, what can be expected else from others, but absurd and ridiculous Opinions and Practices?

And if some Men will fall into absurd and ridiculous Opinions, Habits, Forms, Figures and Grimaces; there will be those who will laugh, nay, cannot help laughing at them. Hence most Parties laugh at one another, without the least Scruple, and with great Applause of their own Parties; and the Leaders of the same Party laugh with one another, when they consider the absurd and ridiculous Opinions they profess, and how they cheat and govern their Followers; agreeably to what Cicero reports of Cato[54], "Vetus autem illud Catonis admodum scitum est, qui mirari se aiebat, quod non rideret haruspex cum haruspicem vidisset."

I think it may be justly suppos'd, that Pope Alexander and Thomas Becket could not but laugh together at the Simplicity and Weakness of their Followers, the Papists, who receiv'd for truth the following Story. It was told as a Fact[55], "that when Thomas Becket, who never drank any thing but Water, sat at Table with Pope Alexander, and that his Holiness would needs taste of his Cup; lest his abstemiousness should be known, God turn'd the Water into Wine: so that the Pope found nothing but Wine in the Cup. But when Becket pledg'd him, it was turn'd into Water again."

Laughing therefore, and Ridicule in serious Matters, go round the World with no inconsiderable Applause, and seem highly proper for this World of Nonsense and Folly. To hinder laughing upon such just Occasions as are given, is almost all one as to hinder breathing. A very witty, drolling, Dramatick Poet, and of the first Rank for Quality, says in a Prologue to his Auditors.

"Suppose now, at this Instant, one of you "Were tickled by a Fool, what would you do? "'Tis ten to one you'd laugh: here's just the Case. "For there are Fools that tickle with their Face. "Your gay Fool tickles with his Dress and Motions; "But your grave Fool of Fools with silly Notions. "Is it not then unjust that Fops should still "Force one to laugh, and then take laughing ill?

II. Secondly, If it be a Fault in those reverend Divines, mention'd in the foregoing Article, to use Irony, Drollery, Ridicule, and Satire, in any Case; or if the Fault lies in an exorbitant Use thereof, or in any particular Species of Drollery; as, for example, such Drollery as is to be found in the polemical Writings and Sermons of Dr. South; it is fit some Remedy should be employ'd for the Cure of this Evil. And the Remedy I would propose, should not be to have the Authors punish'd by the Magistrate, any more than for any other Faults in writing; but either to neglect and despise it, as Rage and Scolding, which drop into Oblivion with the Sound, and would have a Life given it by Resentment: or to allow Men to criticize and ridicule one another for their Ironies and Drollery, and to exercise their Wit and Parts against each other; that being the true Method to bring Things to a Standard, to fix the Decency and Propriety of Writing, to teach Men how to write to the Satisfaction of the ingenious, polite, and sensible Part of Mankind: for Decency and Propriety will stand the Test of Ridicule, and triumph over all the false Pretences to Wit; and Indecency and Impropriety will sink under the Trial of Ridicule, as being capable of being baffled by Reason, and justly ridicul'd. And if any kind or degree of Ridicule be absurd or ridiculous, that will appear so upon Trial, no less than the low and gross Ridicule prevalent among the unpolite Part of the World: But that will never appear. On the contrary, Ridicule of certain kinds, and under reasonable Directions and Rules, and used in proper Time, Place, and Manner, (all which also are only to be found out and fix'd by Trial and Experience) is both a proper and necessary Method of Discourse in many Cases, and especially in the Case of Gravity, when that is attended with Hypocrisy or Imposture, or with Ignorance, or with soureness of Temper and Persecution; all which ought to draw after them the Ridicule and Contempt of the Society, which has no other effectual Remedy against such Methods of Imposition. And to determine in some measure the Nature and Extent of the Irony I contend for, as Just, I profess to approve the noble Sarcasm of Elijah[56]; wherein he thus mocks the Priests of Baal, saying in effect to them, "Cry aloud, for your Baal is a fine God: He is either talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a Journey; or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked." And I concur with the Psalmist[57], who thought it no Indecency to say, that he that sits in Heaven shall laugh them (that is, certain Kings, who were David's Enemies) to scorn; the Lord shall have them in Derision: and must judge, that laughing to scorn, and deriding the greatest Men upon Earth, even Kings and Princes, to be a laudable and divine Method of dealing with them, who are only to be taught or rebuk'd in some artful way. I also approve of the following Sarcasm or Irony, which has a better Authority for it than Elijah or the Psalmist. Moses introduces God speaking thus after the Fall[58], Behold the Man is become like one of us, to know Good and Evil! And I think this Passage shews, that the whole Affair of the Fall, of which we have so very brief an Account, was a very entertaining Scene; and would have appear'd so, if set forth at large; as indeed it does under the Hands of our Divines, who have supplied that short Narration by various Additions, founded on Conjectures, and particularly under the fine Hand of Dr. Tho. Burnet, who has made a most ingenious Dialogue of what he suppos'd pass'd between Eve and the Serpent[59]. To say nothing of Milton's famous Paradise Lost.

In fine, ever since I could read the Bible, I was particularly pleas'd with the History of Jonas, where such a Representation is made of that Prophet's Ignorance, Folly, and Peevishness, as exposes him to the utmost Contempt and Scorn, and fixes a perpetual Ridicule on his Character. And let me here observe, that this History has had ample Justice done it, in an Explication thereof by two [60] very ingenious Authors, who, by most penetrating and happy Criticisms and Reflections, have drawn the Character of Jonas in a more open manner.

III. But, Thirdly, I wave my Remedy, and am ready to come into any Law that shall be made to rectify this suppos'd Fault of Irony, by punishing those who are guilty of it.

The great Concern is and ought to be, that the Liberty of examining into the Truth of Things should be kept up, that Men may have some Sense and Knowledge, and not be the Dupes of Cheats and Impostors, or of those who would keep them in the dark, and let them receive nothing but thro' their Hands. If that be secur'd to us by Authority, I, for my part, am very ready to sacrifice the Privilege of Irony, tho so much in fashion among all Men; being persuaded, that a great Part of the Irony complain'd of, has its rise from the want of Liberty to examine into the Truth of Things; and that if that Liberty was prevalent, it would, without a Law, prevent all that Irony which Men are driven into for want of Liberty to speak plainly, and to protect themselves from the Attacks of those who would take the Advantage to ruin them for direct Assertions; and that such Authors as Rabelais, Saint Aldegonde, Blount, Marvel, Thekeringil, and many others, would never have run into that Excess of Burlesque, for which they are all so famous, had not the Restraint from writing seriously been so great.

"If [61] Men are forbid to speak their Minds seriously on certain Subjects, they will do it ironically. If they are forbid at all upon such Subjects, or if they find it dangerous to do so, they will then redouble their Disguise, involve themselves in mysteriousness, and talk so as hardly to be understood, or at least not plainly interpreted by those who are dispos'd to do them a Mischief. And thus Raillery is brought more in fashion, and runs into an Extreme. 'Tis the persecuting Spirit has rais'd the bantering one: And want of Liberty may account for want of a true Politeness, and for the Corruption or wrong Use of Pleasantry and Humour.

"If in this respect we strain the just Measure of what we call Urbanity, and are apt sometimes to take a buffooning rustick Air, we may thank the ridiculous Solemnity and sour Humour of our Pedagogues: or rather they may thank themselves, if they in particular meet with the heaviest of this kind of Treatment. For it will naturally fall heaviest, where the Constraint has been the severest. The greater the Weight is, the bitterer will be the Satire. The higher the Slavery, the more exquisite the Buffoonery.

"That this is really so, may appear by looking on those Countries where the spiritual Tyranny is highest. For the greatest of Buffoons are the Italians: and in their Writings, in their freer sort of Conversations, on their Theatres, and in their Streets, Buffoonery and Burlesque are in the highest Vogue. 'Tis the only manner in which the poor cramp'd Wretches can discharge a free Thought. We must yield to 'em the Superiority in this sort of Wit. For what wonder is it if we, who have more Liberty, have less Dexterity in that egregious way of Raillery and Ridicule?"

Liberty of grave Examination being fix'd by Law, I am, I say, ready to sacrifice the Privilege of Irony, and yield to have a Law enacted to prevent it. I am, moreover, willing to leave the drawing up such a Law to your self; who honestly and impartially say[62], that all who droll, let them be of any Party, let them droll for the Truth or against it, should be equally punish'd.

Thus this grand Affair of Irony, Banter, and Ridicule; this last persecuting Pretence, upon which you would set the Humours and Passions of People, who are all at quiet, on float, and make a Fermentation, and raise a Persecution against particular People, seems perfectly settled, by yielding to your own Terms.

IV. Let me here add, that I am apt to think, that when you draw up your Law, you will find it so very difficult to settle the Point of Decency in Writing, in respect to all the various kinds of Irony and Ridicule, that you will be ready to lay aside your Project; and that you will be no more able to settle that Point of Decency, than you would be to settle by Law, that Cleanliness in Clothes, and that Politeness in Dress, Behaviour, and Conversation, which become Men of Quality and Fortune in the World, and should be habitual to them: And that, if you are able to do that to your own Satisfaction, you will find it very difficult to engage the Lawmakers in your Project. For I am persuaded, that if our Lawmakers were, out of a rational Principle, disposed to give Liberty by Law to serious Opposition to publickly receiv'd Notions, they would not think it of much Importance to make a Law about a Method of Irony. They will naturally conclude, that if Men may and ought to be allow'd to write seriously in Opposition to publickly receiv'd Doctrines, they should be allow'd to write in their own way; and will be unwilling to be depriv'd of ingenious and witty Discourses, or such as some of them will judge so, about a Subject wherein serious free Discourse is allow'd. Besides, I am apt to think, that you, upon consideration of the Advantages which the Church has receiv'd from the Berkenheads, the Heylins, the Ryves's, the Needhams, the Lestranges, the Nalsons, the Lesleys, the Oldesworths, and others, in their Mercurius Aulicus's, their Mercurius Pragmaticus's, their Mercurius Rusticus's, their Observators[63], their Heraclitus Ridens's, Rehearsals, their Examiners[64], and the three Volumes against the Rights of the Church; from the Butlers in their Hudibras's, and other Burlesque Works upon the Religion and Religious Conduct of the Dissenters; or from the Eachards, the Tom Browns, and Swifts; or from the Parkers[65], Patricks[66], Souths[67], Sherlocks[68], Atterburys[69], and Sacheverels[70]; in their Discourses, and Tracts against the Nonconformists, Whigs, Low-Church-men, and Latitudinarians; and other such ironical, satirical, and polemical Divines; and from such drolling Judges as Howel, Recorder of London, and the Chief Justice Jefferys, who, in all Causes, where Whigs or Dissenters were the Persons accus'd and try'd before them, carried on the Trial by a [71] Train of ridicule on them, their Witnesses and Counsel: I say, I am apt to think, that you would be unwilling to be depriv'd of what has been and may be again so serviceable.

I am dispos'd to think that Dr. Snape, who is notoriously known to have gone into the greatest Lengths of Calumny and Satire against Bishop Hoadley[72], to have fall'n upon the dissenting Clergy in a burlesque and bantering Address to the Peirces, the Calamys, and the Bradburys, and to have written a long ironical Letter in the Name of the Jesuits to Mr. de la Pilloniere[73], will be thought a very improper Object of Censure for such Employment of his Pen. On the contrary, such sort of Attacks upon such Persons are the most meritorious Parts of a Man's Life, recommend him as a Person of true and sincere Religion, much more than the strongest Reasoning, and the most regular Life; and pave the way to all the Riches, and Pleasures and Advantages or Life; not only among those, who, under the Colour of Religion, are carrying on a common Corporation Cause of Wealth, Power, and Authority, but among many well-meaning People, who allow of all Practices, which they suppose help out the Truth! It seems to me a most prodigious Banter upon us, for Men to talk in general of the Immorality of Ridicule and Irony, and of punishing Men for those Matters, when their own Practice is universal Irony and Ridicule of all those who go not with them, and universal Applause and Encouragement for such Ridicule and Irony, and distinguishing by all the honourable ways imaginable such drolling Authors for their Drollery; and when Punishment for Drollery is never call'd for, but when Drollery is used or employ'd against them!

I don't know whether you would be willing, if you consider of it, to limit the Stage it self, which has with great Applause and Success, from Queen Elizabeth's Time downwards, ridicul'd the serious Puritans and Dissenters, and that without any Complaints from good Churchmen, that serious Persons and Things were banter'd and droll'd upon; and has triumph'd over its fanatical Adversaries in the Person of Pryn, who sufficiently suffer'd for his Histrio-Mastix, and has been approv'd of as an innocent Diversion by the religious Dr. Patrick in his Friendly Debate, in the Reign of King Charles II. when the Stage was in a very immoral State. I don't know whether you would be willing even to restrain Bartholomew Fair, where the Sect of the New Prophets was the Subject of a Droll or Puppet-Show, to the great Satisfaction of the Auditors, who, it may be presum'd, were all good Churchmen, Puritans and Dissenters usually declining such Entertainments out of real or pretended Seriousness. ("A certain Clergyman thought fit to remark, that King William could be no good Churchman, because of his not frequenting the Play-House."[74])

V. It will probably be a Motive with you to be against abolishing Drollery, when you reflect that the Men of Irony, the Droles and Satirists, have been and always will be very numerous on your side, where they have been and are so much incourag'd for acting that Part, and that they have always been and always will be very few on the side of Heterodoxy; a Cause wherein an Author by engaging, may hurt his Reputation and Fortune, and can propose nothing to himself but Poverty and Disgrace. I doubt whether you would be for punishing your Friend Dr. Rogers, from whom I just now quoted an Irony on the Author of The Scheme of Literal Prophecy consider'd, or any one else, for laughing at and making sport with him; or whether you would be for punishing the Reverend Mr. Trapp, who implies the Justness and Propriety of ridiculing Popery; when he says[75], that Popery is so foolish and absurd, that every body of common Sense must LAUGH at it; and when he refers to Erasmus for having abundantly RIDICUL'D their Reliques; and himself puts Ridicule in Practice against them, by representing their Doctrines and Practices as ridiculously foolish, as despicably childish, and Matter of mere Scorn; as monstrous; as Spells, juggling Tricks, gross Cheats, Impostures[76], and wretched Shifts; and in fine, in representing by way of Specimen, all their Miracles as Legends; of which he says, These and a thousand more such like unreasonable Lies, which a Child of common Sense would laugh at, are impos'd upon and swallow'd by the ignorant People, and make a VERY GREAT Part of the Popish Religion.

And this, in concurrence with Mr. Trapp, I also take to be the Case of Popery, that it must make Men laugh; and that it is much easier to be gravely disposed in reading a Stage-Comedy or Farce, than in considering and reflecting on the Comedy and Farce of Popery; than which, Wit and Folly, and Madness in conjunction, cannot invent or make a thing more ridiculous, according to that Light in which I see their Doctrines, Ceremonies and Worship, the Histories and Legends of their Saints, and the pretended Miracles wrought in their Church; which has hardly any thing serious in it but its Persecutions, its Murders, its Massacres; all employ'd against the most innocent and virtuous, and the most sensible and learned Men, because they will not be Tools to support Villany and Ignorance.

"Transubstantiation, says Tillotson[77], is not a Controversy of Scripture against Scripture, or of Reason against Reason, but of downright Impudence against the plain meaning of Scripture, and all the Sense and Reason of Mankind." And accordingly he scruples not to say, in a most drolling manner, that "Transubstantiation is one of the chief of the Roman Church's legerdemain and juggling Tricks of Falshood and Imposture; and that in all Probability those common juggling Words of Hocus-pocus, are nothing else but a Corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous Imitation of the Church of Rome in their Trick of Transubstantiation." And as he archly makes the Introduction of this monstrous Piece of grave Nonsense to be owing to its being at first preach'd by its Promoters with convenient Gravity and Solemnity[78], which is the common Method of imposing Absurdities on the World; so I think that Doctrine taught with such convenient Gravity and Solemnity should necessarily produce Levity, Laughter and Ridicule, in all intelligent People to whom it is propos'd, who must smile, if they can with safety, to see such Stuff vented with a grave Face.

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