Enthusiastic poetry and rationalized Christianity: the poetic theory of John Dennis.
Dennis's poetic theory thus illuminates the changes in early modern English assumptions about human reason. Understanding the character of such shifts is particularly important for the study of Christianity and imaginative literature. Until there is wider acknowledgement that critical theories, no less than poetic analyses, depend upon presumed historical narratives for their intelligibility, the practice of literary criticism will scarcely move beyond a mere recognition that the deployment of some kind of critical approach is unavoidable. Among the competing master narratives that inform even the least ambitious of postmodern critical theories there is a shared and recurrent two-fold motif regarding Christian faith: the characterization of Christianity as a kind of popular Platonism, and the accompanying reduction of both (Christianity and Platonism) to a species of proto-Enlightenment rationalism in which the use of reason is necessarily a form of coercion. (2) Despite the discrediting of such historical assumptions, they often continue to inform literary analysis and theorizing. (3) The discourse of intersection between Christianity and literature cannot become truly postmodern without the articulation of alternative historical narratives that investigate the rhetorical strategies by which such caricatures came to be presumed. Dennis's writing offers insight into just such an alternative history.
Although the term "enthusiasm" would come to identify, in some respects, the very opposition by which modern Enlightenment reason defined itself, there also appeared very early the accompanying idea that enthusiasm could be the result of such rationalism. (4) The initial pejorative sense of the term derives from the Socratic use of enthousiasmos, most notably in Plato's Ion, to describe the Homeric rhapsode's singular ability to perform poetic texts without really understanding them (from the root entheos, "possession by a god"). Socrates proposes the category of entheoi because Ion, the rhapsode, insists that his ability to perform is not a transferable "art" (tekhne), but a divine gift that is limited to the performance of Homeric texts (Ion 533e-534c). The Platonic use of the term elsewhere suggests a wider lexical range, but in Apology and Ion, the term indicates not a valorized sense of divine inspiration, but specifically a mode of action that is utterly singular and therefore not susceptible to meaningful human discourse, whether philosophical or political (Fenves 117-20). (5) This pejorative use of the term to indicate the merely irrational is the sense which informs much usage in seventeenth-century English religious controversy. The view offered by Henry More, in Enthusiasmus Triumphatus (1656), suggests both the persistence and the transformation of this negative Platonist deployment of "enthusiasm." He first defines the state of being "inspired" as "moved in an extraordinary manner by the power or Spirit of God to act, speak, or think what is holy, just and true." He then defines "enthusiasm" as simply "a misconceit of being inspired": that is, "a full, but false perswasion in a man that he is inspired" (2). Working from just such a definition, the Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote argues that "Enthusiasm is the Confounder, both of reason and religion; therefore nothing is more necessary to the interest of religion than the prevention of enthusiasm" (Whichcote 426-27). Writers like More and Whichcote opposed religious enthusiasm because they viewed it as central to the dogmatic irrationalism that was the source of the bitter political and religious strife that had led to the English Civil War. In opposition to such enthusiasts, who would divide Christians by introducing such strife, the Cambridge Platonists argued for a Christianity based upon a common set of shared moral principles. In the later seventeenth century, we find the inheritors of this strictly negative view of enthusiasm in, for example, John Locke (4.19.3-7) and the King's Chaplain, William Whitfeld (9), as well as Dennis's contemporaries, like the third Earl of Shaftesbury and Joseph Addison (yon Maltzahn, "Whig Milton" 252-53).
The political dimensions of"enthusiasm" in England during the latter half of the seventeenth century are difficult to overemphasize. The term entailed not merely self-deluded belief in a private experience of divine revelation, but evoked the image of Dissenter meetings of all kinds, which allegedly threatened to destabilize the Anglican church-state by subjecting the wider social structure to their subjective imaginings (cf. Pocock, "Burke" 23-26; Achinstein 154-72). (6) Given such political considerations, it is not surprising that Dennis was involved with others who attempted to appropriate and accommodate republican writing from the mid-seventeenth century for new political purposes at the end of the century. His political aims were shaped by his involvement in a discourse of civic virtue and national policy that had developed in the 1690s, due to the perceived loss of Parliamentary autonomy under the court of William III. (7) Those who came to be known as "Country party" Whigs (as opposed to "Court party") included, for example, John Toland, who contributed to reprinting the republican political prose of John Milton (in 1698) and James Harrington (in 1700). The fact that Dennis cites both Milton's political prose and Harrington's Oceana suggests his present indebtedness to Toland's publication efforts, especially when we recall that Milton's prose had been publicly burned as late as 1683. (8) As we shall see, the political discourse of Country Whigs directly influenced Dennis's attempt to recast the meaning of enthusiasm.
Because enthusiasm, "more than any other single word or symbol" recalled "the stubborn memories of class polarization during the English Civil War" the term itself was also a contested and changing cultural site (Hawes 44). This meant, however, that even the basic association between enthusiasm and irrational religion could shift in important ways. Thus, Samuel Parker's Impartial Examination of the Platonick Philosophie (1666) argues that the Platonism of people like Whichcote and More was itself a cause of enthusiasm. Parker contends that Platonist teaching about humanly intelligible essences leads to a kind of occult philosophy of internal illumination that is destructive of correct doctrine and sound morals. But Parker is no less critical of Thomas Hobbes in whose Leviathan he discerns a materialist gnosticism that induces an enthusiastic aversion to the spiritual (Pocock, "Enthusiasm" 15-16). At one level, Parker's attack on Hobbes reveals "that there could be such a thing as a materialist enthusiasm" (16). The fact that Plato and Hobbes could both be perceived as leading to enthusiasm also reveals that "the diatribe against enthusiasm was moving away from its original concern with the excesses of the prophetic and the Pentecostal, to fasten upon heresy and error at the level of the philosophical" (16). (9) As we shall see, this double-edged abusive meaning of "enthusiasm" will help to explain the unique position that Dennis adopts in his attempt to rehabilitate the term. Given such usage, however, we might reasonably ask why Dennis would make the attempt at all. He clearly aims to dissociate his sense of "poetical enthusiasm" from mere fanaticism, religious or otherwise; but why not use a different term altogether? At one level, there is the obvious correlation between the etymology of the term and the central theme of his writing. Because the root of the word connects with the origin of both poetry and prophecy, it seems ideally suited for arguing that religious content makes for the best poetry (cf. Dennis, Grounds 371). A more detailed answer to this question will appear as we consider the logic of Dennis's arguments and specifically his interpretation of Longinus.
Dennis's writing is now beginning to receive its long-deserved consideration, especially in the recent work of Shaun Irlam and John Morillo. Dennis's reception has traditionally been mixed, with respect not only to evaluation but even to categorization. He was initially ridiculed "by those literary figures (Pope, Gay, and Swift) whose tastes have come to define the Augustan Age" (Irlam 60), with the result that the extent of his later influence has been easy to miss. Nevertheless, his direct and profound influence upon the early Romantics is now widely recognized and easily discernible. Beyond the fact that his "theory of the moral effect of poetry" anticipates the idea of "aesthetic education" later developed by Schiller (Barnouw 31), Dennis's writing is exceptional also "for anticipating major changes in the conception of poetry and stating many of the topoi that would dominate mid-eighteenth-century aesthetic theory" (Irlam 61). (10) There is, however, a peculiar character to his arguments that helps explain his initial reception among Augustan writers, and also why twentieth-century treatments of his work alternately identify him as "Neoclassical" or "proto-Romantic." (11) At one level, his explicit attention to Aristotelian "rules" as well as their limits, suggests Neoclassical preoccupations. But Dennis was also a direct influence upon William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, specifically in emphasizing the central place of"passion" in poetry. (12) Thus, when we encounter the now ubiquitous cultural assumption that a life worth living must be one lived "with passion" we meet not only the legacy of the Romantics, but the ghost of John Dennis--a ghost deeply influenced by the ancient Greek rhetorician, Longinus. The difficulty in categorizing Dennis's critical writing hinders even the most recent work by Irlam and Morillo. In their careful attention to the social and political dimensions of his writing, what drops from consideration is how such an alleged proto-Romantic could ever be mistaken for an advocate of Neoclassical poetics in the first place. By considering Dennis's sustained engagement with Aristotle, Horace, and especially Longinus, we can begin to understand the configuration of classical texts that leads Dennis to his peculiarly modern valorization of both passion and reason.
In formulating his arguments, Dennis draws at length upon Longinus but takes as point of departure a set of commonplaces derived from Aristotle and Horace. Even in the adaptation of such commonplaces, however, we glimpse the peculiar logic that also shapes his reading of Longinus. Dennis defines poetry as "an Imitation of Nature, by a pathetick and numerous Speech" (Advancement 215). "Pathetick" here indicates "producing an effect upon the emotions," while "numerous" carries the sense of something "measured, rhythmic, harmonious." (13) Aristotle, whose "rules" Dennis often mentions, defines poetry as a mode of imitation that consists off 1) a representation of action; 2) by means of language, rhythm, and sometimes melody; 3) in the manner of a narrative, or a drama, or a combination of the two forms (Poetics 1447a13-1448a24). The first phrase in Dennis's definition of poetry simply combines part of Aristotle's definition of poetry with the still broader claim that "art imitates nature" (Physics 194a21). Poetry, being an art, therefore imitates nature. The second half of Dennis's definition, "by a pathetick and numerous Speech," also engages, though less directly, Aristotle's treatment of poetry. Although Aristotle's definition makes no explicit mention of pathos, the two agree that "measure" ("numeric" or "rhythmic") is one aspect of poetry. Also in a manner similar to Aristotle, Dennis qualifies his definition by stipulating that writing "in very good numbers" (that is meter) is not essential (Advancement 215; cf. Aristotle, Poetics 1447b10-20). Dennis thereby follows the ancient, and Renaissance, use of the term "poetry" to indicate not primarily writing in verse, but imaginative writing more broadly. The pivotal difference between Aristotle and Dennis is in what they take to be the object of imitation. For Aristotle, the art of poetry is distinguished from other arts by the fact that it offers a discursive imitation of human "action" (14); for Dennis, "PassioN' rather than the imitation of action distinguishes poetry's "very Nature and Character"; "without Passion there can be no Poetry" (Advancement 215). (15)
When Dennis revisits the topic of poetry's definition in The Grounds of Criticism, he adapts Horace:
Poetry then is an Art, by which a Poet excites Passion (and for that very Cause entertains Sense) in order to satisfy and improve, to delight and reform the Mind, and so to make Mankind happier and better: from which it appears that Poetry has two Ends, a subordinate, and final one; the subordinate one is Pleasure, and the final one is Instruction. (336)
What begins, however, as a slight adaptation of Horace's statement regarding the two aims of poetry (to instruct and to delight) quickly develops into something rather different. Having defined the "subordinate end" of Pleasure as the "incite[ment] by some Passion," such Pleasure is reduced to a means of moral instruction. (16) The extent of this subordination becomes evident when Dennis explains that anything "which runs counter to moral Virtue, or to the true Politicks, and to the Liberty of Mankind," is "utterly inconsistent with the true Art of Poetry"; moreover, he argues that "all Instruction whatever depends upon Passion" (336-37). Not only is the purpose of poetic pleasure thus reduced to moral instruction, but instruction itself is made to depend causally upon passion. In making such a claim, however, Dennis inserts a causal connection between these two poetic aims which Horace treats as potentially independent purposes. The tendency to introduce a necessary link between two otherwise separable causes is part of a broader pattern in Dennis's interpretation of theoretical texts.
Having established that Passion is the "chief Thing in Poetry" (216), Dennis proceeds, in Advancement, to demonstrate why religious rather than secular poetic subjects are more conducive to the excitement of passion. In the previous stage of the argument, he had distinguished between two types of passion: "I call that ordinary Passion, whose Cause is clearly comprehended by him who feels it, whether it be Admiration, Terror or Joy; and I call the very same Passions Enthusiasms, when their Cause is not clearly comprehended by him who feels them" (216). The difference then between "ordinary passion" and "enthusiasm" is therefore not concerned primarily, at this point in the argument, with the intensity of the emotions but with the knowledge or ignorance of their causes. Dennis then defines specifically "poetical enthusiasm" as "Passion guided by Judgment, whose Cause is not comprehended by us" (217; emphasis added). Because the ignorance of causes defines "enthusiasm," what apparently distinguishes "poetical" enthusiasm from other kinds is the fact that it is "guided by Judgment." Thus Dennis insists upon the need for "rules" as well as passion in poetry. For without rules to provide criteria for Judgment, "enthusiasm" alone is indistinguishable from "madness" (217). In this respect, Dennis's characteristic emphasis upon poetic rules is part of his rhetorical attempt to distinguish clearly between his use of the term "enthusiasm" and its pejorative sense as merely irrational fanaticism. His position is thus best described, in one sense, as "rational enthusiasm," in that it advocates strong passion directed toward a moral end by means of an intelligible art.
From his definition of poetic enthusiasm Dennis argues that religion makes the best poetic subject. Both the "ordinary" and "enthusiastick" passions of "all reasonable creatures" "proceed from the Thoughts," but the causes of the latter passions are not known because "we are not so us'd to them" and because the "Thoughts" latently "carry Passion along with them." The operation of such enthusiastic passions is normally imperceptible, except upon reflection, but "the stronger they are, the greater the Enthusiasm must be" (Advancement 217). The character of the enthusiastic passion that attaches to a given "Thought" will correspond to the character of the passion normally inspired by the "Thing" that a given idea represents (217-18). In effect, the degree of enthusiasm excited by a given passage of poetry will depend upon the capacity of its "Ideas" to arouse those passions, a capacity which in turn depends upon what those ideas represent. Based on his further claim that "no Subject is so capable of supplying us with Thoughts that necessarily produce these great and strong Enthusiasm, as a Religious Subject," Dennis deduces that Religion offers the best poetic content (218). (Part Two of Advancement, discussed below, takes up the claim that specifically Christian religion is the very best poetic subject.) Dennis's theory effectively treats poetry as no less mimetic than Aristotle's theory, but that function is entirely subsumed within the telos of producing passion (by representing those things which produce passion). The other major difference, of course, is that Aristotle's Poetics is most concerned with the aesthetic relation between poetic forms and their effects, whereas Dennis's explicit purpose of national moral reformation (Grounds 336) sounds more like the view of poetry proposed in Plato's Republic.
There are, of course, several ways in which Dennis is obviously not a Platonist. This is evident in more than his disowning of "philosophers" or his seemingly anti-Platonist privileging of the passions. As we shall later see, there is a deeper sense in which the faculty of psychology that Dennis deploys both is and is not Platonist in character. (17) But as we consider his use of Longinus, it is important to notice how Longinus establishes his own relationship to Plato's texts. In his account of how to produce sublimity in writing, the main topic of Peri Hupsous, the ancient rhetorician consistently presents his own writing as part of a tradition that includes Cicero and Demosthenes, but also extends through Plato to Homer. His "Platonism" is the kind that understands Plato and Homer not as combatants in a war between Philosophy and Poetry but as part of the same literary tradition. Thus "divine Plato" (4.6) is often successful in effecting sublimity by virtue of his imitating Homer (13.1-4). At one point, Longinus makes the oft-repeated argument that the work of a truly great writer will include mistakes but still be superior to flawless writing that is without risk; most striking, however, is the fact that his point of departure for that argument is a defense of Plato's literary greatness (32.8-35.1)--Dennis's preferred example is Milton. (18) Longinus also cites Plato as the most important example of a writer who achieves sublimity through the effects of an idea (noemati) without depending on emotional intensity (12.1-3). Above all, Longinus develops, by way of an allusion to Plato's Republic, the connection between virtue and rhetorical sublimity (44.1-10). (19) Although we shall see that Dennis rejects the specific idea of sublimity without emotional intensity, it should be clear that any simple characterization of his position as merely "anti-Platonist" would have to ignore his direct and substantial debt to the Platonist Longinus.
In fact, Dennis's preoccupation with the specific term "enthusiastic passion" evidently derives from the central place of enthusiastikon pathos in the Longinian account of sublimity. Although Dennis's use of the ancient Greek rhetorician is well known, no one has evaluated how he actually interprets Peri Hupsous. If we consider how Dennis reads Longinus's claims regarding sublimity, we can test the logic upon which he ostensibly bases his own account of poetry. Longinus names "five most productive sources of the sublime in literature" two of which are innate: "the first and most powerful is the power of grand conceptions [to peri tas noeseis hadrepebolon] [...] and the second is the inspiration of vehement emotion [enthousiastikon pathos]." The remaining three include the use of figures [skhemata], elevated diction, and overall arrangement (8.1, Fyfe & Russell trans.). Longinus clearly views the first two sources of sublimity as superior to the latter three that depend on "art" [tekhne]. More important to notice, however, is the fact that Longinus treats both "great conceptions" and "vehement emotions" as independent sources of sublimity. The rhetorical effect of sublimity can be intrinsic to either a great idea or an enthusiastic emotion, but there is no necessary connection between the two.
The most striking element, therefore, in Dennis's own account of sublimity is that he claims there is a central causal connection between "great thoughts" and "enthusiastic passions" (Advancement 218-19), a connection which he then emphasizes throughout his argument. When he defines the sublime as "a great Thought, express'd with the Enthusiasm that belongs to it" (222), Dennis names as the essence of the sublime a causal connection that does not exist in Longinus's account. Moreover, he is so intent upon making this definition of sublimity logically central to his poetic theory that it drives his reading of Longinus. For example, when Longinus distinguishes between "amplification" and "sublimity," he describes the former as an effect from the accumulation of the multiple "topics inherent in the subject," the latter as arising from a "single idea" (12.1). He illustrates "amplificatioN' by citing the quality of "profusion" in Cicero's rhetoric, likening it to a "widespread conflagration" and illustrates "sublimity" by citing the "lightning" in the rhetoric of Demosthenes (12.3-5). The contrast between the mundane fire of amplification and the exceptional lightning of the sublime seems to parallel Dennis's distinction between "commoN' and "enthusiastick" passions. This parallel is reinforced by the connection that Dennis makes between enthusiasm and "great conceptions," which both writers generally locate as sources of sublimity. But if that is so, why does Dennis formulate such an oddly different basis for his distinction between normal "passion" and "enthusiasm"? Instead of contrasting emotional "profusion" with the lightning of sublimity, he distinguishes between "ordinary passion" and "enthusiastic passion" principally on the grounds that the "cause" of the latter is "not clearly comprehended" by the person who experiences it (Advancement 216). If Dennis derives the initial distinction between "ordinary passion" and "enthusiastic passion" from Longinus, whence arises his unusual redefinition of their meanings?
We can begin to answer this question if we consider the central place given to the emotion of amazement, or wonder, in Dennis's poetic theory. Douglas Patey rightly observes that Dennis's account of epic and tragedy involves "studied revisions of Aristotle" (277) and draws upon the discussion of the "wonderful" or "marvelous" (thaumaston) in the Poetics (1460a.11-19). (20) The specific idea that "wonder" arises from ignorance of causes is famously described, however, not in Aristotle's Poetics but in his Metaphysics: he points out that wisdom in any human endeavor consists in the knowledge of causes, whereas the love for wisdom (philosophia) begins in the wonder or amazement (thaumazein) arising from the ignorance of causes (982a4-983a21). It might seem that to attain wisdom, so understood, results in the elimination of ignorance and therefore of wonder. There is, however, one important exception that seems especially relevant to Dennis's argument: according to Aristotle, the highest human intellectual action is the contemplation of God's life and action, a kind of human knowing that, unlike other kinds, "compels our wonder" (thaumaston), even to a superlative degree (1072b1-31). As we shall see, Dennis explicitly rejects the kind of abstract God proposed by "Philosophers" like Aristotle, because he thinks they do not sufficiently allow for the passions (Advancement 265-66). Even if Dennis had not read the Metaphysics directly, his poetic theory incorporates a similar account regarding the ignorance of causes leading to wonder and the contemplation of the divine life and action as the greatest source for such wonder. (21)
Dennis both reads and evaluates Longinus according to his axiomatic definition of enthusiasm (i.e., a passion whose cause is unknown to those experiencing it). We can see this clearly if we consider a passage from Longinus, quoted here at length to give some sense of its logical progression:
A figure [skhema] is at its best when the very fact that it is a figure escapes all attention. Accordingly, sublimity and passion form an antidote and a wonderful help against the mistrust which attends the use of figures. The art which craftily employs them lies hid and escapes all future suspicion, when once it has been associated with beauty and sublimity. A sufficient proof is the passage already adduced [from Demosthenes]. By what means has the orator here concealed the figure? Clearly, by the very excess of light. For just as all dim lights are extinguished in the blaze of the sun, so do the artifices of rhetoric fade from view when bathed in the pervading splendour of sublimity. Something like this also happens in the art of painting [zographias]. For although light and shade, as depicted in colours, lie side by side upon the same surface, light nevertheless meets the vision first, and not only stands out but also seems far nearer. So also with manifestations of passion and the sublime in literature. They lie nearer to our minds through a sort of natural kinship and through their own radiance, and always strike our attention before the figures, whose art they throw into the shade and as it were keep in concealment. (17.1-3, Roberts trans.)
First, sublimity is proposed as a means to conceal the artifice of a rhetorical figure (skhema) of speech; then, the dynamic of that concealment is further explained by describing the function of light and shading in picture painting (zographia); the illustration presumes a more basic analogy between sublimity and blinding light. The two claims are important to keep distinct. In the first case, sublimity conceals the rhetorical figure (skhema); in the second, the painting (zographia) illustrates the way sublimity conceals the use of a skhema. In a vague sense, at both the beginning and end of this passage, Longinus makes a connection between "sublimity" and that which "escapes attention" or is "kept in concealment." The parallel between the two formulations is very close, but if Dennis has read the passage in this way it means that he has conflated the later illustration of the "painting" (zographia) with the earlier point about the concealment of a rhetorical "figure" (skhema). To collapse the meaning of skhema and zographia would, of course, remove the crucial distinction between the thing being concealed and the means by which it is concealed. But such an impressionistic reading of the passage suggests how Dennis could read into Longinus the idea that "enthusiasm" is distinguished from ordinary passion by the obscurity of its causes (Advancement 216).
Elsewhere, Longinus does discuss the emotional power of images (phantasiai) (15.1), but Dennis seems to collapse the terms "figure" (skhema) and "painting" (zographia) into his use of the term "image." We can see this usage in Dennis's account of imagination:
But these Passions that attend upon our Thoughts, are seldom so strong, as they are in those kind of Thought, which we call Images. For they being the very lively Pictures of the Things which they represent, set them, as it were, before our very Eyes [...]. The warmer the Imagination is, the more present the Things are to us of which we draw the Images; and therefore, when once the Imagination is so inflam'd, as to get the better of the Understanding, there is no Difference between the Images, and the Things themselves. (Advancement 218; emphasis added)
If we compare this passage to the Longinus passage quoted above (17.1-30), we can see that Dennis uses the term "image" in the same way that Longinus uses both "figure" (skhema) and "painting" (zographia). Thus, while for Longinus sublimity can conceal the use of rhetorical figures, in some way that is analogous to the use of light to create the illusion of depth in painting, Dennis credits poetic images with the ability to "get the better of understanding" through the use of"lively pictures." Dennis's argument in the rest of the passage cited above will lead, once again, to his account of the psychological process by which the passions are tacitly influenced, thereby expanding his notion of "great ideas" to include powerful vivid poetic images. The key point, however, is that Dennis's tendency toward this kind of reductive misreading arises from his hypostatizing a causal connection between "Great thoughts" and "enthusiastic passions."
In his disappointment over Longinus's apparent "failure" to define sublimity, we can see further indication of the extent to which Dennis's own definition determines his understanding as well as his evaluation of Longinus:
Yet [Longinus] had not so clear a Knowledge of the nature of [the Sublime] as to explain it clearly to others. For if he had done that [...], he would have defin'd it; but he has been so far from defining it, that in one place he has given an account of it that is contrary to the true nature of it. For he tells us in that Chapter which treats of the Fountains of Sublimity, that Loftiness is often without any Passion at all [Longinus 8.2]; which is contrary to the true nature of it [...]. [The Sublime] is never without Enthusiastick Passion: For the Sublime is nothing else but a great Thought, or great Thoughts moving the Soul from its ordinary Situation by the Enthusiasm which naturally attends them. Now Longinus had a notion of Enthusiastick Passion, for he establishes it in that very Chapter for the second Source of Sublimity. Now Longinus, by affirming that the Sublime may be without not only that, but ordinary Passion, says a thing that is not only contrary to the true nature of it, but contradictory to himself. (Grounds 359)
In mentioning the "second source of sublimity," Dennis points to the very passage we quoted earlier from Peri Hupsous, where Longinus lists the five sources of sublimity (i.e., 8.1). By now, it should be apparent that the contradiction Dennis discerns in Longinus follows only from Dennis's definition. Because Longinus makes no necessary connection between "great thoughts" and "vehement emotion," for him to claim that the sublime can exist "quite without emotion" (8.2) entails no contradiction. That Dennis finds this passage to contradict what Longinus seems to say emphasizes the interpretive distortion that Dennis introduces by giving primacy to a causal connection that does not exist in the Longinian account.
Lest there remain any doubt regarding how Dennis reads this particular passage from Longinus [i.e., 8.1], or that such an interpretation is central to his own definition of the sublime, Dennis proceeds, in The Grounds of Criticism, to offer a summary of Peri Hupsous 8.1:
That the foremention'd Definition [of the Sublime] is just and good, I have reason to believe, because it takes in all the Sources of Sublimity which Longinus has establish'd. For, first, Greatness of Thought supposes Elevation, they being synonymous Terms: And, secondly, the Enthusiasm or the Pathetique, as Longinus calls it,follows of course; for if a Man is not strongly mov'd by great Thoughts, he does not sufficiently and effectually conceive them. And, thirdly, the figurative Language is but a Consequence of the Enthusiasm, that being the natural Language of the Passions. (Grounds 359, emphasis added)
This much of the passage is enough to demonstrate that Dennis views these various sources of sublimity as having causal connections with one another in a way foreign to Longinus. Because Dennis here makes explicit his connection between the relevant passage in Longinus and his own formulation of a definition of the sublime, we can also see how the misreading of Longinus leads directly to his perceiving a contradiction in his classical source.
For Longinus, sublimity in writing can arise from any one of five different causes, but especially great ideas or enthusiastic emotions. Sublimity will enable a writer to conceal, or keep unknown, the fact that rhetorical figures are being deployed (rhetorical figures themselves may or may not effect sublimity). For Dennis, sublime poetry is constituted by the union of great ideas and enthusiastic passions, where the latter is understood as a passion whose cause is unknown. Whether engaging Aristotle, Horace, or Longinus, Dennis effectively absorbs and transforms the ancient accounts of poetry within his own. At one level, Dennis's poetic theory embodies a practice that is partially analogous to the mode of appropriation that he recommends for Christian poets. If, however, we consider more closely his view of what makes for sublime Christian poetry, we can discern the central tensions that result from the psychological account underlying his argument.
Having demonstrated in Part One of Advancement that the poetic greatness of the Ancients resulted from their religion, Dennis undertakes in Part Two to prove that "by joining Poetry with the True Religion, the Moderns in the main will have the advantage of the Ancients" (266). He begins by arguing that religion shares with poetry the same purpose as well as the same means for reaching that end: "the Design of every Religion, must be the Happiness of those who embrace it" (252). Although only "True Religion" is effective in making people happy, all religions must claim happiness as, at least, their objective in order to find some adherents (252-53). What follows in Dennis' argument is an abstract and generalized account of something like a primeval "fall" and its consequences (i.e., the claim that all people in all times and places have basically agreed that "Man was miserable" ), after which Dennis summarizes the various failed attempts to rectify that condition. Ultimately, his aim is to distinguish his account of "True Religion" from those solutions for the human condition offered by "Philosophers," whether Stoics, Deists, or "Cyrenaicks" (259). Dennis contends that the teaching of such Philosophers, and false religions generally, either "set up our Passions above our Reason, or our Reason above our Passions" but only the Christian religion "reconciles Passion to Reason" and brings them into balanced harmony (260-61). Dennis rejects Deism on the grounds of its restricted accessibility: only a small minority of humans (one in forty) are, according to Dennis, intellectually capable of following its elaborate logical proofs. In contrast, the universal comprehensibility of the testimony of miracles argues for the superiority of Christian revelation. Moreover, Deist philosophical inquiry cannot offer happiness because it depends on the subjection of passion to reason (259). Because he views the psychological "discord" between reason and the passions as the source of misery, the means of achieving happiness is to restore that harmony (257, 263). By arguing that poetry, like religion, is based on the balanced union of passion and reason, Dennis maintains that poetry also effects "Man's" happiness by "reconciling him to himself" (265). He thus concludes that no writing could be both so reasonable and so passionate as that which combines poetry and Christian religion, thereby contributing to the shared end of maximum human happiness.
The psychological order that constitutes happiness, according to Dennis, is the balance of reason and passion: "exalt the Reason, by exalting the Passions, and so make Happy the whole Man, by making Internal Discord cease" (Advancement 265). He thus rejects the subjection of passion to reason on the grounds that it is unbalanced and thus cannot result in true happiness: "for without Passion [as well as Reason] there can be no Happiness" (256). However, by making the exaltation of passion a necessary component of happiness, Dennis's position is open to the objection that, because such happiness depends upon the mutable conditions of temporal existence, it cannot be true (or lasting) happiness. Dennis makes explicit the temporal orientation of his account when he maintains that "all Happiness consists in Pleasure, and all Pleasure in Passion" (Grounds 366). His use of the term "pleasure" is not restricted, however, to the senses or to the passions but is applied to all "the Human Faculties" in harmony (Advancement 264-65). Moreover, he points out that, although the balanced pleasures provided by poetry are not eternal, those offered by true religion are indeed "lasting"; by then introducing the category of "religious poetry" he can claim to encompass both eternal and temporal pleasure simultaneously.
Because this final stage of Dennis's argument depends upon his account of "True Religion," it is important to be clear about what he means by "Christianity." Although he emphasizes that his position is utterly different from anything like deism or natural religion, his arguments depend upon what must be identified as a species of "rationalised Christianity." (22) He consistently recasts Christian revelation according to his psychological categories and then presents Christianity as the only solution to the problem of imbalance between the human faculties. He distinguishes his position from Deism by insisting upon the necessity for "revelation" that consists of both doctrine and miracles; however, even in his most detailed account of that revelation, Priestcraft Distinguished from Christianity, (23) Dennis never treats the efficacy of that revelation as anything more than an example or instructive model of virtue. Christ's death and resurrection are cited as the best among such miraculous "Lessons of Humility" (1415), but what effectively drops out of Dennis's account is redemption--his Christianity does not include atonement or eschatology. He is able to construe sanctification into the terms of his psychology, insofar as virtue is a balance among faculties, but forgiveness is somehow either not necessary or not susceptible to expression in the terms that he uses. In this way, Dennis's position is best described not as "rational enthusiasm" but as "enthusiastic rationalism." Even his disowning of what he describes as rationalist "philosophy" in the articulation of his alternative account of "balance" depends upon the terms of a quasi-calculative rationality that he aims to transcend.
Yet the very emphasis upon "balance," specifically between reason and passion, keeps Dennis's account of poetry from ever being adequately classified as either Neoclassical or proto-Romantic. Just one passage where he emphasizes the need for rules will distinguish his position from both such views:
Again, if the End of Poetry be to instruct and reform the World, that is, to bring Mankind from Irregularity, Extravagance, and Confusion, to Rule and Order, how this should be done by a thing that is in itself irregular and extravagant, is difficult to be conceiv'd [...]. Reason is Rule and Order, and nothing can be irregular either in our Conceptions or our Actions, any further than it swerves from Rule, that is Reason. (Grounds 335)
The passage goes on to invoke the commonplace analogy between psyche and cosmos, comparing the rules of poetic order with the rational order of the divinely created universe. (24) In the immediately preceding passage, however, Dennis has already pointed out that Milton, the main English poet discussed in his argument, breaks those very rules:
[Milton is] one of the greatest and most daring Genius's [sic] that has appear'd in the World, and who has made his Country a glorious present of the most lofty, but most irregular Poem, that has been produc'd by the Mind of Man. That great Man had a desire to give the World something like an Epick Poem; but he resolv'd at the same time to break thro' the Rules of Aristotle. Not that he was ignorant of them, or contemn'd them. On the contrary, no Man knew them better or esteemed them more, because no Man had an understanding that was more able to comprehend the necessity of them. (333)
In effect, the invocation of Aristotle's "Rules" for epic poetry is substantiated by a moralistic rationale but pre-emptively qualified by a huge exception (Milton) that constitutes the focus of Dennis's study. He explains that Paradise Lost is not so much "against the Rules, as it may be affirmed to be above them all" (333). What enables that transcending of the rules is Milton's sublimity, his expression of the great conceptions of Christian religion with the enthusiastic passions proportionate to such ideas. Moreover, it is through such balance that poetry effects moral education: "the very Violence of the Passions contribute to our Reformation" (337). (25) For Dennis, as long as the enthusiastic passions are balanced by great ideas, they can be effective in contributing to that end. The core of his poetic theory thus not only claims a causal connection between great ideas and enthusiastic passions, but insists upon the need for these two elements to be balanced in order to achieve the sublime poetic effect that enables the highest order of moral education. (26)
Dennis's emphasis upon this particular kind of"balance" has no precedent in the classical accounts of poetry that he cites. (27) I contend that he owes his preoccupation with "balance" to his participation in the political discourse of the "Country party" Whigs mentioned at the outset of this essay. Country Whigs understood themselves to be part of a rearguard action to protect English political and economic institutions, as well as civic virtue, from the corrosive effects of a newly ascendant modernity. Whether opposing the deficit fiscal policy of the Crown, the funding of a standing army, or political corruption generally, they found rhetorical and intellectual resources in republican texts from the mid-seventeenth century. Milton's prose offered seemingly prescient denunciations of the corruption of civic virtue among political leaders (von Maltzahn, "Acts" 249-50), but the political theory of James Harrington proved still more formative intellectually for this group that could be described as "neo-Harringtonian" (Gerrard 5). (28) Harrington's major work, the Commonwealth of Oceana, was appreciated by Country Whigs like John Toland, not so much for its positive political program, but for offering an explanation, at once rational and historical, of the changes in English social and political structures. (29) Harrington's immediate challenge in the 1650s had been to explain the collapse of the English monarchy, but Country Whigs found his political theory no less helpful for explaining the political changes of their own day.
For present purposes, it is sufficient to understand three main elements in Harrington's theory as he presents it in Oceana: 1) the basis of political authority is property, not the sword (contra Hobbes); 2) the particular form of political government among a given people depends on the division of property among the prince, the nobility, and the people; 3) the stability of a given government depends on the balance between the institutional political authority of each class and its real property, relative to the property of other classes (10-15). (30) It is important to understand that Harrington does not propose that property or political power should be proportionately divided among the three classes, as though each should get one third. Rather, he offers a descriptive claim about the relative stability of various governments: either a republic or a principality may be stable as long as the rulers' political authority is proportionate to their real property. (31) There are three further elements that bear on how we understand Dennis's use of Harrington's terminology. First, although he is thoroughly modern in his preoccupation with property, Harrington's three classes of society correspond to the three classes, and accompanying psychological categories, described by Plato, who employs them as part of a psyche-polis analogy (e.g., Republic 434d-436b; 440e-441e). (32) Second, although Harrington deploys a vaguely Platonist analogy between soul and state, his descriptions of the soul typically emphasize a simple reason-passion binary. Third, in keeping with the entire philosophical tradition upon which he depends, Harrrington always describes a well-ordered soul as involving the subjection of passion to reason (Commonwealth 19). Thus, "balance" is a central concept in Harrington's political theory, and he roots his account of politics in a psychology of reason and passion; however, he never suggests that virtue or happiness is constituted by a balance between reason and passion.
Thus, although Dennis owes his preoccupation with "balance" to his engagement with Country Whig discourse, his application of the concept is very different from Harrington's. To understand why, we need to recall the double-edged pejorative use of "enthusiasm" in seventeenth-century England. As suggested by the work of Samuel Parker (who would become a bishop), there developed a critique of enthusiasm among Anglican royalists that applied not only to Dissenting claims regarding prophetic inspiration, but to any range of potentially heterodox rationalisms, from Platonist essentialism to Hobbesian materialism. When Dennis disowns fanaticism, he rejects one kind of enthusiasm, but when he rejects what he calls the "philosophers" (stoics or deists), he rejects another kind of enthusiasm. He thus recasts the Harringtonian idea of"balance" in order to distinguish clearly his poetic enthusiasm from both of these alternatives. By describing poetic enthusiasm as resulting from a quasi-mathematical balance between reason and passion, Dennis defends his position from being dismissed as either Dissenting fanaticism or heterodox rationalism. (33)
Part of the subtlety of Dennis's work is that, in the course of arguing for his major thesis that modern Christian poets should use religious content as the center of their works, he draws upon such broadly held views. Who would reasonably oppose the noble ends of moral and civic virtue? The breadth of Dennis's appeal enables him to imply that his recommendations entail nothing more than that people (poets) should do what is in the self-evidently best interest of the commonwealth. At the same time, his deployment of psychological categories to endorse both extreme passion and rational order sets his position apart from all others. This is how his poetic theory also reveals a shift in publicly available assumptions regarding the relationship between Christianity and modern accounts of reason. At one level Dennis seems to be an exponent of the ancient (and Renaissance) view that "reasoN' is not merely calculative: that it can share in the good and has an intrinsically ethical dimension. Explicitly, he seems to reject the Hobbesian reduction of reason to mere calculation regarding the motion of bodies. However, by locating virtue and happiness in a balance between reason and passion, he actually reduces virtue, and the purpose of Christianity, to a subjective functional relation, resulting ultimately in a form of "enthusiastic rationalism."
Yet to the extent that Dennis succeeds in preserving a tension between the "rational enthusiasm" of artistically ordered passion and the "enthusiastic rationalism" of psychological calculation, his writing reveals the increasingly public character of the transition between ancient and modern conceptions of reason. To identify his writing as transitional is not to attribute to him any particular genius for innovation. (34) Rather, his writing reveals, post facto, that an intellectual threshold has already been crossed in the minds of the reading public that he imagines. Even though Dennis would understand himself as part of a neo-Harringtonian opposition to modern politics, his poetic theory ends up presuming an ultimate appeal to ratiocinative balance. This suggests that in the decades between Hobbes and Dennis, Hobbes's reductive account of reason has, in effect, moved from the periphery to the mainstream of Dennis's imagined literate public. Despite the extent to which Hobbes's ideas might still be deemed subversive by the end of the seventeenth century in England, such a view of reason had begun to shape the assumptions of public debate. At the same time, Dennis's arguments anticipate and model the ways in which postmodern writers continue to project modern assumptions back onto pre-Enlightenment accounts of human reason.
Dennis also teaches us that the claim "poetry is passion" should no longer conjure images of Tintern Abbey or the Lake District; it should instead bring to mind a Country Whig who is reading Longinus and struggling to articulate his account of passionate Christian poetry in a way that transcends the multiple pejorative uses of the term "enthusiasm." in his immediate context, Dennis may have failed in his rehabilitation of the term, but insofar as people today aspire to both order and passion as positive goods, Dennis's vision of balance remains very much alive. By insisting upon both the rational order and the emotional power of truly great poetry, Dennis attempts to show that the traditional philosophic antinomy between reason and passion is properly addressed only through Christian revelation. At the same time, however, his theory prefigures the commodification of Christian theology within the terms of a therapeutic culture: he takes the purpose of Christianity to be not divine glory or eternal human salvation, but the meeting of immediate individual psychological needs. The difficulties internal to his project also prefigure the post-Romantic cultural alternation between rationalist mathesis of the world and passionate subjective egoism. Thus, the questions that Dennis attempts to address, even if we disagree with his answers, remain alive, and the difficulties in his argument persist to be addressed by those who aspire to move genuinely beyond modernity.
I am grateful to Nicholas von Maltzahn for introducing me to the work of John Dennis and for his careful comments on previous drafts of this article. The argument here has also benefitted from critical comments by some of my gracious colleagues at Baylor University: Julia Dyson, Barry Harvey, David Jeffrey, and Robert Miner. I am grateful to Thomas Hibbs for his advice regarding my reading of Aristole's Metaphysics.
(1) The first definition of"enthusiasm" listed in the OED--"possessed by a god"--includes "prophetic or poetic frenzy," and is attested as early as 1579; by the end of the seventeenth century, however, "enthusiasm" had two distinct senses: "ill-regulated or misdirected religious emotion" and "poetical fervor" ("Enthusiasm" 1:876). Both uses of the term obviously follow from the original sense of divine possession, but the secondary sense of the term (Def. 1b)--"poetical fervor, impassioned mood or tone"--has no attestation earlier than John Dryden's 1693 Preface to Juvenal. In some ways, Dennis's use of the term might seem closer to Dryden's, which is to be expected, given their acquaintance as early as 1693 and friendship after 1695 (Hooker 2: xvi). But they were also both influenced by the late-seventeenth-century popularity of Longinus's Peri Hupsous (On the Sublime). Ultimately, however, Dennis's larger argument depends, as we shall see, upon encompassing and transforming both uses. Dryden's Prefatory "Apology" to his opera, The State of Innocence (1677), includes some topics that are similar to Dennis's, including the means by which poets "rais'd the Passions" (420, cf. 417). Elsewhere, however, Dryden uses "enthusiasm" in the pejorative sense to indicate the irrationalism of Dissenting religion ("Epistle" 42). More importantly, Dennis, unlike Dryden, offers a sustained engagement of Longinus and a systematic theoretical defense for specifically poetic enthusiasm. Such differences explain why Wordsworth and Coleridge, nearly a century later, became avid readers of Dennis rather than Dryden.
(2) These elements of the postmodern critical narrative are, of course, based loosely on Martin Heidegger's reading of Friedrich Nietzsche. The story is often simply presumed as a point of departure or a cluster of general assumptions, but it remains powerfully influential. To point out this narrative does not deny the many important differences between such major postmodern thinkers as, for example, Jacques Derrida or Julia Kristeva. Rather, amid those differences, they share this overarching story as a presumed context. This assumed narrative is so ubiquitous that it hardly bears stating, but lest there be any doubt, see Derrida's Dissemination (esp. 6-26, 352-53), or Kristeva's The Powers of Horror (90-112). Derrida explicitly presumes that trinitarian theology is part of a continuous vaguely Platonist "ontotheological" tradition, rather than a challenge to that tradition. In the latter case, Kristeva identifies all of biblical religion with the Aristotelian-Platonist history of so-called metaphysics. Citing a crucial passage from the Aristotelian philosopher, Moses Maimonides, which she takes as representative of Jewish legal tradition (91), Kristeva argues that Judaism "ushers in" the western rationalist preoccupation with "logic" and "abstraction" (111). In effect, for Kristeva, Judaism is Aristotelianism is Kantianism. Similarly, when Jean-Francois Lyotard characterizes postmodernity as an "incredulity toward metanarratives" (xxiii-xxiv), he seems not to notice that the intelligibility of his very claim depends upon an overarching historical narrative, and not simply the explicit story of delegitimation that he tells (cf. Hart 6).
(3) Three very different works that each offers a large-scale critique of the postmodern narrative include John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory, David L. Jeffrey's People of the Book and, more recently, David B. Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite. Milbank discloses the ontology of violence shared in common by modern and postmodern philosophies, and which the latter imputes to Christian theology. Jeffrey interrogates, and then offers an alternative historical account to, the presumed meaning of "logocentric" that enables the self-depictions of modern and postmodern theory to occlude Christian interpretive ethics. Although their arguments are very different in character and ostensible topic, both Milbank and Jeffrey reveal the mistaken characterization of pre enlightenment Christianity upon which postmodern self-understanding depends. Hart's study offers a fully developed theological aesthetic that directly engages "Nietzsche's narrative" and his postmodern epigones regarding the ontological primacy of violence. For treatments of specific postmodern theorists who project a modern account of reason onto ancient writers, see Pickstock (on Derrida and Plato) or Donnelly (on Stanley Fish and St. Augustine).
(4) My use of the singular term, "EnlightenmentS' should not be taken to imply a presumed singular "Enlightenment project," as though it were a "unitary and universal phenomenon with a single history to be either celebrated or condemned"; rather, the larger argument here offers further evidence that early modern "enthusiasm" can be helpful in understanding some of the widely variegated "family" of "Enlightenment discourses" (Pocock, "Enthusiasm" 7).
(5) Even within the Platonic corpus, the pejorative use of the term "enthusiasm" in Apology and Ion is later modified in Phaedrus. In the latter dialogue Socrates distinguishes between several different types of "divine madness" and ranks all of them above "merely human" common sense. The different kinds of enthusiasm include: divination regarding the future (as distinct from human augury); divine affliction leading to repentance and restoration of harmony with the gods (e.g., Orestes); poetic inspiration by the Muses (244b-245c); and finally, the condition of the philosopher in the act of contemplation and recollection, when he "stands apart from the common objects of human ambition and applies himself to the divine" (249c-e). In this respect, the Platonic corpus itself is not univocal in its deployment of "enthusiasm." The early modern use of the term (as one of abuse), however, seems to derive mostly from the Apology (22b-c) and 1on (533e-534c). The most important point to notice here is that in seventeenth-century England the term is used most consistently to indicate self-delusion. In effect, all four types of enthusiasm discussed in Phaedrus would be classified by Henry More, for example, as "inspiration" in so far as they are genuine, and thereby contrasted with the self-delusion of "enthusiasm" (More 2).
(6) The story of enthusiasm, as a crucial intersection between the discourses of religion, politics, and imaginative literature in early modern Britain, has recently been traced with increasing detail and accuracy. See, for example, Shaun Irlam's Elations: The Poetics of Enthusiasm in Eighteen Century Britain and Clement Hawes's Mania and Literary Style: The Rhetoric of Enthusiasm from the Ranters to Christopher Smart. (See also Pocock, "Enthusiasm"; Achinstein 154-81; Morillo).
(7) For an account of Dennis's sharing in the political ambitions of Country party Whigs, see von Maltzahn, "Acts" (233-42). For a broader account of the development of a "Country party" as well as documentation regarding the historical controversy over the use of the very name, see Gerrard (4-6).
(8) Milton's books, most notably his regicide tracts, were publicly burned "by the hand of the common hangman" at the Restoration, and the practice persisted as late as July 12, 1683, when copies were publicly burned in response to an Oxford convocation speech (W.R. Parker 574, 661).
(9) Even this indictment is to some extent anticipated by Plato in Phaedrus, where Socrates suggests that the philosopher, because he dwells in memory and "applies himself to the divine," "is reproached by most men for being out of his wits; they do not realize that he is in fact possessed by a god" (249d).
(10) Due in part to the work of Morillo and Irlam, it is no longer necessary to begin every treatment of Dennis's work by recounting, for example, his being "lampooned" by Alexander Pope and John Gay as "Sir Tremendous Longinus" in their play, Three Hours After Marriage (1717) (Irlam 61). Both Morillo and Irlam focus upon the way in which Dennis's engagement of enthusiasm threatens to destabilize class divisions. Both seem to take his reading of Longinus at face value, however. For a recent treatment of Dennis's imaginative, rather than critical, writing, see von Maltzahn, "Acts of Kind Service" which situates Dennis's play, Liberty Asserted (1704), within the broader appropriation of Milton's writing to support the discourse of English empire in the early eighteenth century.
(11) Irene Simon describes the contrasting interpretations of Dennis's work (663-64). Dennis has also been variously categorized as a Neoplatonist (Murphy 10) or as a quasi-Baconian "anti-rationalist" (Barnouw 29), as well as a Neoclassicist or a proto- Romantic.
(12) For example, Thomas De Quincey describes Wordsworth and Coleridge as going through "an absurd 'craze'" for Dennis's writing (Morillo 17). When Wordsworth annotates his own poetry in Lyrical Ballads by explaining that "Poetry is Passion" (288), he is paraphrasing Dennis (Advancement 215). Likewise, when the Preface to Lyrical Ballads describes the origin of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility" (266) there is a clear similarity to Dennis's explanation of how "Ideas in Contemplation" give rise to the "Enthusiasm" that results in great poetry (Grounds 338-39).
(13) See the respective OED treatments of "pathetic" (Def. 1 a) and "numerous" (Def. 5). In Advancement, Dennis's use of the term "pathetick" suggests the influence of Boileau's 1674 French translation of Longinus's Peri Hupsous (in which the Greek pathos is translated pathetique [e.g., Longinus, Traite du Sublime, 16]). Later, in The Grounds of Criticism, Dennis will, in fact, use the French spelling (359). Although there were earlier Greek editions and Latin translations of Longinus in England, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century English fascination with Longinus is widely acknowledged to follow from Boileau's translation.
(14) "Action" translates the Aristotelian use of the term praxis, which indicates not simply "activity" or "motion" in general, but the specifically purposive and complete activity that distinguishes both mimesis and ethics from mere movement (cf. Nicomachean Ethics 1094a1-14; esp. 1139a18-1139b14 and Poetics 1449b35-1450a7).
(15) Exactly how this shift in emphasis develops is obscure. As we shall see, at one level Longinus is the obvious source for Dennis's preoccupation with the passions. However, as early as the 1674 preface to Samson Agonistes, Milton paraphrases Aristotle's definition of tragedy in terms very similar to Dennis: i.e., as an imitation of passions rather than actions. Milton recommends studying Longinus in Of Education (403), but Radzinowicz cites a tradition of Italian commentary on Aristotle's Poetics as the source for Milton's shift from action to passion as the object of imitation (11-12). Emotion does have a role in Aristotle's account of poetry, as evidenced by the long standing debates over his use of the term katharsis. Although passion has some role in explaining tragedy, the discussion of pathos is not apparently central to Aristotle's broader view of what is essential to poetry.
(16) Horace actually lists three possible aims for the poet: to be useful, to entertain, or to do both--"aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae, / aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere vitae" (lines 333-34). He goes on to explain that the best, most famous, and enduring poetry is the latter kind which aims to do both (lines 337-46), but Horace never goes so far as to identify, as Dennis does, instruction as the final cause of genuine poetic pleasure.
(17) Throughout the argument here, I use the term "psychology" in its ancient sense, to indicate simply an account of the soul, or psukhe and its operations. When he discusses "passions" as a human faculty, Dennis is consistent with the Longinian use of the term pathos. Both writers seem to use pathos (passion or emotion) to indicate what would be the middle term in a vaguely Platonist tripartite psychology. Most famously in the Republic, Socrates identifies a "rational" (logistikos), "spirited" (thumoeides), and "appetitive" (epithumetikos) part of the soul (Rep. 440e-441e), each of which is distinguished by characteristic desires (cf. the three parts of the soul in Phaedrus 246a-b). Despite important differences from this model, both Longinus and Dennis deploy pathos (passion) as a category distinct from reason and from appetites and thereby associate it most clearly with the "spirited" faculty. This point is crucial to understanding that both writers distinguish pathos from mere epithumiai, or sensory appetites (Cf. Longinus 44.6-10; Dennis, Advancement 257, 266). Such a psychology contrasts sharply with, for example, the materialism of Thomas Hobbes whose argument subsumes all emotions and appetites under the species of mechanical movement that he calls "passions" (88 97).
(18) Dennis often cites Milton's Paradise Lost as the consummate modern example of the kind of sublime poetry that England needs in order to reform the poetry and politics of the nation (e.g., Advancement 271-78; Grounds 342-55). Dennis's critical writing actually constitutes the "first extended and particularized criticism" of Paradise Lost (Hooker 1:513). Despite the "ground-breaking" character of his work, Dennis remains "by far the most important--and overlooked--of the early eighteenth-century Miltonists" (Moore 14). We see some aspects of Dennis's influence upon later Milton critics; Dennis himself complained that much of Addison's criticism, for example, copied his own work, though without acknowledgement ("Letters" 221). As noted earlier, the very fact that Dennis could cite Milton's Of Education to support his own use of Longinus and could quote extended passages directly from Milton's Reason of Church Government is likely due to John Toland's publication of Milton's collected prose in 1698 (cf. Dennis, Grounds 333,330).
(19) Compare Longinus 44.7 and Plato, Republic 573b d. Fyfe's edition of Longinus cites this specific passage from Plato, but a general dependence upon Platonic teaching in this passage is also sufficiently obvious. In what follows, all my quotations of Longinus are from the Fyfe and Russell translation, unless I indicate otherwise.
(20) Patey argues that Dennis attempts in Grounds to present "a new theory of the Christian marvellous": "one that is sensory like the Greek machinery, but also true to Christianity" (275, 277).
(21) On this basis, we can also see that Dennis laid the foundation for an account of "the marvellous" in Advancement and that such an account is not, as Patey suggests (277), something specific to Grounds.
(22) Charles Taylor uses this term to designate the likes of John Locke and the Cambridge Platonists, who, although they believed in the centrality of reason and held positions that would later lead to deism, nevertheless were not deists themselves and clearly viewed themselves as Christians (Taylor 234-65).
(23) Harrington's Plan Piano (1657) is the earliest printed use of the term, "Priestcraft" (Goldie 212). Whether or not he thought the coinage of the term was Harrington's, Dennis's use of "Priestcraft" in his title engages the neo-Harringtonian discourse of the Country Whigs, and specifically those who shared Harrington's religious orientation toward a blend of "Erastianism and Independency" (207).
(24) Murphy goes so tar as to maintain that in this particular passage Dennis "establishes the Neoplatonic basis for most of his work" (10). But this would again provide a label that is more misleading than helpful.
(25) Similarly, in Advancement, Dennis uses the intuitively apt illustration of music, which, by virtue of its constitutionally rational order, can stir up intense emotions (263; cf. Longinus 39.1-3).
(26) In Dennis's account, enthusiastic passions that attend sublimity are, in a sense, the highest, but they are clearly not the only means, or even the primary means, of moral transformation through poetry. This is why Dennis suggests that tragedy rather than epic may be more effective in contributing to the moral education of a larger number of people (Grounds 339).
(27) Obviously classical accounts of virtue, rather than poetry, often depend upon the idea of a mean between two extremes (e.g., Aristotle, Ethics 1105b20-1109b25); however such a mid-point of ethical balance is usually between two extremes of action or emotion, as discerned by reason. Virtue in such accounts is never described as a mean or balance between passion and reason, or between corresponding emotions and ideas.
(28) As the label, "neo-Harringtonian" suggests, for the "Patriot" party of Country Whigs, Harrington was not simply one among several political writers that they read and discussed. Dennis himself mentions reading Harrington's major work, Oceana (Advancement 244). Elsewhere, he refers to "the Great Men who have writ of the Art of Government, from Plato down to Harrington" (Essay 382).
(29) In the preface to his edition of Harrington's writing in 1700, Toland emphasizes the originality of Harrington's explanation specifically regarding the basis for changes in political regimes: "that Empire follows the Balance of Property, whether lodg'd in one, in a few, or in many hands, he was the first that ever made out; and it is a noble Discovery. [... It is] the foundation of all Politics" (xviii).
(30) The summary that i offer here is obviously general. For an account of the debates regarding the more precise ways in which Harrington deploys the idea of "balance" see Reeve (esp. 403-7, 421-22).
(31) Harrington thus explains the collapse of the English monarchy by arguing that the crown depended ultimately upon the property of the nobility. When a sufficient degree of national wealth had shifted to the commons, the dissolution of the monarchy was a necessary result, due to the imbalance between the institutional political authority and the real property of the nobility (cf. 55-57, 61). Harrington argues, in effect, that a republican form of government is necessary for political stability when property has become distributed widely among the people.
(32) My point here should not to be taken to imply that Harrington's position is simply or even primarily Platonist in character. However one classifies Harrington's theory as a whole, it is widely recognized to embody a hybrid of classical and modern assumptions regarding politics, drawing most notably from Plato, Polybius, Machiavelli, John Selden, and even Hobbes in making its anti-Hobbesian argument (cf. Goldie 211-15; Cotton 408; Pocock, Introduction xi-xxiv).
(33) There is also the fact that Harrington would be included in the category of "philosophers" that Dennis describes, suggesting a further rhetorical motivation for Dennis's strategy. Eager for his argument not to be dismissed as a Country Whig diatribe, he locates his position as the only reasonable alternative to all other arguments, including Harrington's. Regarding Dennis's politics, Morillo contends that there is an important shift between Advancement (1701) and Grounds (1704). After offering an account of enthusiasm in Advancement that is "strikingly democratic," the argument of Grounds "begins to back away" from the socially and culturally radical implications of such egalitarianism (Morillo 24; 25-39). I contend that the "radical" implications are never really endorsed in the first place. Although Morillo has identified a noticeable shift in rhetorical emphasis between the two works, the core of Dennis's claims remain unchanged. The argument in Advancement, no less than Grounds, draws upon an understanding of contemplation that is limited in practice to a leisure class, while the latter text persists in claiming nothing less than moral education for the whole nation.
(34) Considered in terms of chronology, Dennis is, of course, a relative late-comer. Over half a century earlier, Thomas Hobbes well summarized the modern view in Leviathan (1651), when he claimed that reason is "nothing but reckoning, that is adding and subtracting" (82). Hobbes himself is radicalizing the claims of previous philosophers, by purporting to apply modern "scientific" reasoning to politics. Many ancient philosophers understood human reasoning to include mathematics, as a matter of course, but reason was not normally reduced to mere calculation (e.g., Aristotle, Metaphysics 1073b1-15).
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|Author:||Donnelly, Phillip J.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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