Learning to Eat with Addison

When CiRCE attains that state in which we can patronize young and up-and-coming or old-with-unwrit-wisdom writers, I will commision somebody to write a book on the following theme: Addison To Waugh: Manners Aristocratic and Bourgeois from the Spectator to the Death of Brideshead.

In my research into freedom and the ideas that sustain it, I came across an article by Peter Gay on Joseph Addison, that master stylist of the 17th century. Gay argues convincingly that Addison was teaching an unruly age how to behave and think in the new world they were growing into.

 One idea that impressed me was Addison’s “romantic” view of the stock market and how it brings people of every stripe together in one peaceful setting. I thought, “Well, that idea has been around the block  a few times since then, but it’s still an impressive thing.”

Voltaire came to England in 1720 and read Addison’s Spectator and used the same imagery about the stock market in his philosophical letters, which were widely read and influential texts in the France of the 18th century.

Benjamin Franklin, who I have no doubt read Voltaire and was contemporary with Samuel Johnson, turned to Addison and Steele when he determined to learn how to write. Franklin seems to have appreciated the outlook of Addison and Steele as much as their style, and it is likely that both outlook and style helped him when it came time to defend and negotiate terms for American Independence.

His aforementioned contemporary, Samuel Johnson, either encouraged Franklin’s action or followed it himself. In his Life of Addison, Johnson wrote, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”

But he isn’t much read today and isn’t much liked by many who read him. CS Lewis said that “Everything the moderns detest, all that they call smugness, complacency, and bourgeios ideology is brought together in his work and given its most perfect expression.

And yet, says Gay, Johnson admired Addison without embarrassment and without reservations, admired him for his delicacy, his authentic elegance, his wit, admired him above all for his willingness to use his abundant talent in a cause as important as it was just. ” He includes an extensive quotation from Johnson about Addison:

He not only made the proper use of wit himself, but taught it to others; and from his time it has been generally subservient to the cause of reason and of truth. He has dissipated the prejudice that had long connected gaiety with vice, and easiness of manners with laxity of principles. He has restored virtue to its dignity, and taught innocence not to be ashamed. This is an elevation of literary charcer above all Greek, above all Roman fame. No greater felicity can genius attain than that of having purified intellectual pleasure, separated mirth from indecency, and wit from licentiousness; of having taught a succession of writers to bring elegance and gaiety to the aid of goodness; and if I may use expressions yet more awful, of having turned many to righteousness.

Lives of the English Poet

If we could have an Addison today! We are all convinced that the stakes have grown so great in our politics and social life that we cannot afford to be civilized and gracious. But if we are not civilized and gracious, why would we want to live in the world we would create by fighting for our policies?

How different Addison’s genteel grace sounds to the brutish duty-mongering of Kantian philosophy and its spawn (a sentence, I would add, that Addison would never have written). Was it Addison that saved Coleridge from the Prussian excesses?

There is a line from Addison through Franklin to our Declaration of Independence and even our Constitution. Another lines runs from Addison through Johnson to a century of British literary theory.

I want to find the ends of those threads, to rebind them, and to strive to write with civility of manner, graciousness of tone, and humility of expression, all while laughing at the ridiculous and never failing to perceive that the image of God can never be, though it can express, the ridiculous.

I have the feeling our liberties are bound to our civilities. The thing is, we all learn to speak by listening to what people say to us and how they say it. Reading the really great stylists can help us rise above ourselves and the limits of our surroundings. We ought not dismiss such a fact with reckless (think: reck, less) alacrity.

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