The Genesis of Philosophic Prose: Bacon and Hooker
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[ 643 The Genesis of Philosophic Prose: Bacon and Hooker1 The Listener, 1 (26 June 1929) 907-08 In case this title sounds rather forbidding, I must say at once that I do not propose to discuss either the philosophy of Bacon or the theology of Hooker; I wish only to consider the two men as great prose writers, and indicate their contribution to the English language which we use to-day. Think first of what would be left in English prose of the last years of Elizabeth without these two men. There would be the rich and lively prose of the translators, and the skilful popular journalism of the men like Greene, Dekker and Nashe.2 There would be a language well fitted for historical narrative, description, and even biography; a language fitted for splendid pulpitoratory,moregorgeouswithDonne,moreintellectualwithAndrewes. And there is another prose which I have not mentioned and shall not discuss: the great prose of the great dramatists. I do not take it up here, because dramatic prose, being the brief give and take of dialogue, isarather special type: but I would ask you to keep it in mind. It is difficult to discuss by itself: some of it, as in the comedies of Middleton, is related to the prose of the Grub Street writers; there is the heightened style of Jonson – the most intelligent man of his time – and finally there is the unique prose of Shakespeare, who was one of the greatest prose writers of all time. And by the way, we are apt to overlook the great prose of Shakespeare because of the drama and the greater poetry: but try the experiment of reading aloud a passage of his prose, say from the Oxford Book of English Prose, without informing your listeners of the author’s name, and see the effect.3 There is no finer prose than Shakespeare’s. But if you took merely the writers whom I have already mentioned, and those with whom I shall deal later, and ignored Hooker and Bacon, I think that you would find in all of it either a certain boyishness, as in the people we looked over last week, or a certain pedantry and quaint stiffness, as in Donne and Andrewes, or a kind of luxuriance of style, as in Donne and Andrewes and later in Jeremy Taylor, and especially Browne and Burton, all of which are qualities to be enjoyed, but which seem to us antique. Of all of the writers we examine, Bacon and Hooker seem to me among the 1929 644 ] most modern. That they are the fathers of modern philosophy and theology respectively is not the point with which I have to deal: my point here is that they are the fathers of the modern abstract style. We do not all study philosophy, but we must all make use of a kind of writing which these two men made possible; make use of it, I mean, either when we write or in much that we read. Any kind of argument, legal, political, or general; any kind of scientific exposition or explanation, from the theory of relativity to how to clean a typewriter or oil a motor car, owes something to Bacon and Hooker. [I do not want to give the impression that Bacon founded a line of philosophers , and Hooker a line of theologians. That is partly true. But from the literary aspect from which I am looking at them, this distinction does not hold. I dare say that theological writers have learned much from the style of Bacon; and I am quite sure that the atheistical philosopher Thomas Hobbes learned much from the style of the pious divine Richard Hooker.]4 About the personalities of these two men, close contemporaries, I need say little. Francis Bacon, the great Chancellor, is too important an historical figure, and too picturesque and tragic a figure; there is the great essay on him by Macaulay, and the glittering portrait of him by Mr. Lytton Strachey in his recent Elizabeth and Essex.5 About Richard Hooker, you can find out all you need to know from the introduction to the “Everyman” edition of his great work, the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.6 If Bacon were alive to-day, he would be a K.C.,7 earning, as he did in his time, a very large income; he would be a cabinet minister, or a cabinet minister out of office. If Hooker were alive to-day, he might...


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