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Ridicule, Religion and the Politics of Wit in Augustan England by Roger D. Lund (review)
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Pope’s dictum that “true wit” is “Nature to Advantage drest | What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d” has been so oft repeated and adapted that, by its own definition, its wit has been attenuated. When Lund considers the couplet, however, his focus is not drawn to the freshness, the verbal dexterity so often associated with wit, but to its relationship to “Nature.” Exponents of wit, Pope included, were called into defending it as “a mental faculty” against the Lockean charge that it was “little more than an engine of misprision” (18). That wit occludes true nature, that it is subversive is hugely problematic to those in Augustan England and, as a consequence, its propriety as an argumentative posture (or indeed, as a canon of rhetorical conceits) within certain discourses – serious philosophy, biblical exegesis – becomes, as Lund shows, a source of enduring debate throughout the eighteenth century. This is not a new revelation. The comprehensive survey of scholarship on the nature and function of Augustan wit that serves as Lund’s introduction attests to this. But the way in which Lund pursues the use of wit far beyond its literary manifestations, to its simultaneous and contested deployment as a mechanism of social and discursive regulation and its provision of a means of subverting political and ecclesiastical orthodoxies, casts new light on why wit was so “complex” and “troublesome” (3). Tracing the coeval developments of literary wit as a “definitive rhetorical mode” (3) (the offshoots of which include raillery and deadpan ironic reversal) and the emergence of the public sphere, through a series of debates cohering around the appropriateness of wit in writings concerning religion, Lund provides an important revision of the Habermasian model as well as a significant addendum to Annabel Patterson’s analysis of the “hermeneutics of censorship.”

In the first chapter, “The Bite of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes and Philosophic Drollery”, Lund argues for a reception of Hobbes, not merely as the “last in a line of Renaissance humanists,” but as “the first in a line of Restoration and Augustan ‘wits’” (31). Though the wits who follow Hobbes largely reject his philosophical arguments, they embrace the technique by which they were deployed, what Lund terms “philosophic drollery” (31). Positioning Hobbes in this way allows Lund to demonstrate the pervasive influence of his heterodox mode, mapping out in the subsequent chapters how the collapsing distinction between serious argument and a rhetoric characterized by ridicule and irony, that marks Hobbes’s work, finds inheritors in Defoe, Swift, and even Thomas Paine, becoming, as it were, the “model for heterodox polemic” well into the next century (58). Unfortunately Lund places too much weight on the uniqueness of Hobbes’s drollery. His argument could have benefited from a more thorough examination of how wit was deployed the rhetoric of other Renaissance humanists, including Erasmus, More and Rabelais (Skinner 13).

Arguments by wit were not just indecorous for Restoration and Augustan readers, but by subjecting to derision previously sacrosanct subjects like religion, they displayed a dangerous irreverence that had the potential to undermine the validity of scripture and, by extension, unravel the principal source for social and moral regulation. Just how subversive the wit of Hobbes and his successors was to those encountering their texts in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries is overlooked by modern readers, and so punctuating Lund’s book is a series of cleverly-chosen accounts drawn from polemic and pamphlet literature that furnish a reception context defined by controversy. Most notably, in the second chapter, Lund reads Jeremy Collier’s pronouncements against the libertinism of the Restoration stage as a reflex of a wider social anxiety surrounding wit. Collier is concerned with the way drama deviates from its regulatory function, becoming instead a forum for the extension of the coffee-house and coterie wit (dangerous to both Church and State) to a public liable to corruption by this impious mode of discourse and the behaviors it both represents and promotes. Viewing Collier’s criticism as an effort to “reform,” or failing that, “police the discourse” of the nascent public sphere (73), speaks to a broader trend in which literary criticism takes on the function...



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