Satan's Trouble With Eve

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

17th Century: Literature of Rhetoric & Ideas

In seminar this week I put in graphical form the main elements of our course and their inter-relationship.
  1. Our overarching purpose is to gain a comprehensive understanding of literature as it was formed and operated in the Seventeenth Century.
  2. We have three primary authors, supplemented by selections of poetry from the Metaphysicals: John Milton and Paradise Lost; Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan; and His Majesty Charles I and Eikon Basilike.
  3. These three major authors represent three primary forms of literature in the Seventeenth Century: Milton, the poetic; Hobbes the dialectic; Charles the pamphleteering. (The dialectical mode continues the immensely popular tradition of, among others, Boethius' Consolatio Philosophiæ and Thomas à Kempis' De Imitatio Christi. Nb: I include for present purpose the devotional under the dialectical mode.)
  4. Though different in form, all three writers are united by their use of, and supreme excellence in, the genus rhetoric, and by their intense engagement with ideas.
  5. Furthermore, all three writers use the same rhetorical species, that being polemic. Seventeenth Century literature, is, in this view, a Battle of the Books (to use Jonathan Swift's title.)
  6. By way of understanding, if the relationship between these three writers is looked at from the perspective of Paradise Lost, Milton is seen to be fighting a two-front war. Accordingly, to the degree which he attacks one side, he supports the other -- in the way that Third Reich Germany was effectively supporting England's war aims against it by diverting resources and attention from the Western to the Eastern front.
  7. In Milton's case, the aspects of Paradise Lost aimed at countering Eikon Basilike's appeal to (a.) tradition & (b.) institution are de facto support for the Leviathan's basis in atomism and egalitarianism. And, of course, vice versa.
  8. Note that, although the vulgar understanding has Leviathan as an argument for absolute rule and the supremacy of established authority, deeper attention shows that Hobbes founded his work of literature on a story of perfectly equal human beings each with absolute self-authority and individually-valid claim to absolutely everything. The Leviathan does indeed have infinite (in two senses of that word) power: but that only as a consequence of Hobbes' basic story of ethernally warring monads. By contrast, in the story that Eikon Basilike tells, the institution of Monarchy is founded in the nature of things, the Person of the Monarch is elevated by nature, and tradition is an independent, living, active proof.
  9. In order to fight this two front polemic, this battle of the books, this biblio-war, Milton wrote Paradise Lost with epic literary design around two foundational principles: Free Will and Natural Kind, both detailed in lecture.
  10. The unfashionable sound of these two principles to modern ears suggests that, on the historical view and in the social & political dimensions, Leviathan was the victor and Eikon Basilike & Paradise Lost the losers.
  11. On the literary view, however, one may argue that it is Paradise Lost which claims the laurels ....

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