Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by W. Macneile Dixon
William Warburton (1698–1779)
 
[William Warburton, the son of the town-clerk of Newark, was born Dec. 24, 1698. He was educated at the Grammar-schools of Oakham and Newark, but did not proceed to the University, and at sixteen entered an attorney’s office. In private however he studied with great diligence, and at twenty-five was admitted to orders in the Church of England. His first work, An Alliance between Church and State (1736), attracted considerable attention, but it was not until the publication of his great book, The Divine Legation of Moses (Books i.–iii., 1738; iv.–vi., 1740) that his native powers and the extensive learning he had acquired were accorded full recognition. This is a very remarkable, and in many respects a very able work, but without any real or enduring value, and aptly described by Gibbon as “a monument already crumbling in the dust of the vigour and weakness of the human mind.” One of the excursions, with which it abounds, into all manner of side issues, afterwards drew forth an early work of Gibbon, Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Æneid (1770). In 1739 Warburton replied to an attack made upon Pope’s Essay on Man as irreligious by Crousaz, a Swiss divine, and the defence won for him the gratitude and life-long friendship of the poet, who introduced him to many of his own powerful friends, and at death left him his literary executor—a bequest valued by Johnson at £4000. Warburton married Gertrude Tucker, a niece of Ralph Allen, in 1745, and his preferment was rapid—Preacher at Lincoln’s Inn, 1746; Prebendary of Gloucester, 1753; King’s Chaplain, 1754; Dean of Bristol, 1757; and on the nomination of Pitt, Allen’s strong friend, Bishop of Gloucester, 1759. His life was a series of fierce debates, not only with his natural enemies, the Deists and Freethinkers, but also with theologians whose tenets at all differed from his own. Hume, Lowth, Voltaire, Jortin, Wesley were each in turn the object of his controversial fury. Beside the works above mentioned the most noticeable of Warburton’s writings are Julian (1750), The Principles of Natural and Revealed Religion (3 vols. 1753–67), and The Doctrine of Grace (1762), an attack upon Wesley. Warburton deviated from polemics into literary criticism only to produce the worst Shakespeare commentary ever published. He died in 1779.]  1
 
TO take by storm the Temple of Fame seems to have been the valiant resolve of the once-renowned author of The Divine Legation of Moses. He flung its warders a loud defiant summons to surrender, and thundered at its doors. Had violence sufficed for the achievement, so fierce and arrogant a knight of the pen would assuredly have added enduring reputation to his worldly success; but though he proved himself an effective soldier in the controversial campaigns of his own day, it was inevitable that the judgment of time should go in his disfavour. The sword and lance of Warburton’s mental equipment, however fitted to put an adversary to silence, were powerless to overawe “the incorruptible Areopagus of posterity.” Churchman as he was, and in the end prelate, the weapons of his warfare were not spiritual, nor the virtues of his character and temper the distinctive Christian graces. But Warburton was not all churlish priest,—“He praised me, sir,” said Dr. Johnson, “when praise was of value to me”—and an estimate of the man cannot be separated from an estimate of his age. It was an age in which men proved their doctrines sound by apostolic blows and knocks, identified opinions with the individuals who professed them, and regarded truth as a kind of entity with a sharply outlined objective existence, a species of personal property, the rights to whose sole possessorship ought properly to be preferred and argued by claimants, after the procedure of a court of law. Two camps divided the thinking England into which Warburton was born. The fruitless struggle between theologian and deist, which threatened to absorb the entire mental life of the eighteenth century, and enlisted, only to squander in barren logomachies, the powers of so many of the best minds, offered a field of exercise thoroughly congenial to his nature, and he entered upon it with zeal indefatigable, and matchless insolence of temper. It must be admitted that Warburton had reasons for his assurance. Among the debaters, his contemporaries, he takes, if not the first place, at least a place in the very first rank. But no writings have so swift a foot on the road to oblivion as books of controversy, and notwithstanding the fact that his works occupy noble room in the catalogues of our great libraries, and that no reader can fail to recognise the immense strength of the personality that lay behind them, they can scarcely be said to belong to literature proper; and only the curious student of the outworn methods of theological debate will care to clear away the dust from bulky volumes, at once so exclusively polemical and so recklessly unscientific. In defence of his opinions, Warburton was an opponent to be reckoned with, and his enthusiasm for them was such as passes easily for a love of truth. But truth is differently conceived of nowadays, and rather than as a searcher after truth, we must think of him as a doughty disputant, with the qualities moral and intellectual that go to make one. Intolerable in point of fairness or of taste as Warburton’s philippics are, his confident alert attitude and eye, the gusto with which he administers a coup de grâce, the inexhaustible fertility of his invention for paradoxes, even the monstrous character of many of his arguments, aid in dissolving our resentment. To pass now and then into the zone of his stormy polemics may be found a change of moral atmosphere not altogether unhealthy for us who breathe the air of weak convictions and superfine controversial courtesies.  2
  It is not needful to criticise Warburton’s works in detail, the outline of the Scheme of the Divine Legation will be sufficiently illustrative of his mental habit. This book, though running to four volumes, is really a long-drawn-out controversial pamphlet, whose main reasoning, diversified by numerous subsidiary discussions, rests on a paradox—a device for which, and especially as a point of departure in an argument, Warburton had a cherished fondness. The absence from the Mosaic books of any reference to a future life had, it appears, been pressed by the deists as sufficient proof that the expectation of a life to come formed no part of the Jewish belief, and the theologians were hard put to it in the effort to frame a satisfactory reply. Warburton admits the absence of any such reference, but draws a very unexpected conclusion. His syllogism runs thus: the Jew was taught by Moses to look to no future charged with punishment or reward; but by universal consent the moral law demands these sanctions for its support, and they have been found indispensable by all other lawgivers since the beginnings of society. It follows therefore that, for the Jew, in this present life divine reward and retribution attended virtue and vice—in a word, God was the actual civil governor of the Jewish community. Upon such frail support does the whole structure of this extraordinary book rest; “his syllogism,” as De Quincey says, “is so divinely poised, that if you shake the keystone of his great arch, you will become aware of a vibration, a nervous tremor running through the entire dome of the Divine Legation.” A strange feeling accompanies the modern reader on his way through the book; the mere count of years that have passed since it was written is no measure of the mental interval that separates us from the author; the whole problem has altered beyond recognition, the whole horizon of thought is changed. His curious multifarious learning, his subtile lawyer-like method in speculative matters, his almost incredible confidence in the torch of logic to light the way to truth, these are now subjects of antiquarian rather than of living interest.  3
  Since Warburton belongs more properly to the history of intellectual method than to the history of literature, there is little for the critic to say of his style. He aimed at effectiveness, and attained not an effectiveness due to any unity, but of a fragmentary kind, as of well-placed blows. The mass of his work is amorphous. It is not surprising that he did not care to pay court to the graces of expression. Purple patches or poetic imagery would have been sadly incongruous in books that are best described as pillories for the author’s adversaries. But if it lack beauty, his style possesses many of the elements of strength—directness, precision, and that high quality, freedom from all affectations and conceits.  4
  Before the eye that contemplates the intellectual past Warburton looms out a lofty but receding figure, for he was in no sense a man of ideas, of thought that outlives or serves to keep alive in the world’s memory the social or intellectual conditions that gave it birth, such thought as makes Berkeley and Burke, or their peers of an elder day, stationary and inviolate influences that win upon us like those of living friends. He may stand for us as a perfect representative of that class of writers whose work, without root in any soil of permanent human interest, makes no claim upon the gratitude of following generations. Warburton served himself better than his party, and his party better than mankind.  5
 
 
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