Ridicule, Religion and the Politics of Wit in Augustan England.
One might expect a book on the politics of wit and the significance of ridicule in public discourse to begin with the third Earl of Shaftesbury on "ridicule as the test of truth." However, not only does the author of this study reveal that Shaftesbury never used that phrase himself, but we have to wait until chapter 4 for a discussion of Shaftesbury's claims that subjecting even the most sacred subjects to wit and ridicule was both a mark of gentility and an important philosophical tool. Instead, obscure writers, such as the Irish cleric Philip Skelton, and unfamiliar texts, such as Mary Astell's Bart'lemy Fair rather than her Serious Proposal to the Ladies, emerge as the real exemplars of eighteenth-century attitudes towards wit, irony, innuendo, and ridicule. In this study, the fruit of many years of work on heterodox thinkers from Hobbes to Paine, Roger Lund significantly revises what had become an accepted view of eighteenth-century culture: the notion that all subjects could be freely discussed in an atmosphere of politeness within the secularized public sphere.
In his markedly lucid final chapter on "The Hermeneutics of Censorship and the Crime of Wit," Lund demonstrates through detailed readings of the trials of Thomas Woolston in 1729; William Rayner, the printer of The Craftsman in 1731; and Thomas Paine in 1792 and 1797 that, despite the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, the state continued to exert powerful control over heterodox writings through accusations of either seditious or blasphemous libel. Crucial to those trials was an understanding of wit that had evolved over the eighteenth century from the Restoration onwards.
What is wit and why does it matter? Hobbes calling it "celerity of imagining" made it sound like a condition to which one ought to aspire, but the New Foundling Hospital for Wit dubbed it "profaneness, indecency, immorality, scurrility, mimickry, buffoonery; abuse of all good men, and especially of the clergy" (15). Both the users of and the uses to which wit was put rendered it at best suspect and at worst seditious. Its employment by Restoration libertines and punning playwrights gave it such bad associations, argues Lund, that, "[a]s if describing some rhetorical version of reefer madness, Hobbes's critics insist that even the most casual contact with his wit leads inevitably to the harder substances of infidelity and atheism" (34). In an era in which an attack on the established Church was tantamount to an attack on the state, even playful mockery of clergymen could be read as seditious libel and a threat to law and order.
Moreover, heterodox writers protected themselves by camouflaging their meaning with irony and ambiguity, leading Bishop William Warburton to fulminate against '"illimited, UND1STINGUISHABLE IRONY, which affords no insight into the author's meaning, or so much room as to guess what he would be at'" (119). Accordingly, defenders of church and state had to acquire the skills of literary criticism to penetrate the ambiguities and innuendos of the "Titans of Wit." Lund clearly demonstrates that style is substantial; literary form is political. Lawyers, philosophers, and historians all need to be adept at stylistic analysis.
Royal Holloway, University of London
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2016|
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