On why I’m writing this blog, and what I hope to do with it.
A mere politician is but a dull companion, and, if he is always wise, is in great danger of being tiresome and ridiculous
These words, written by Joseph Addison in 1716, encapsulate everything that I find exciting, fascinating and infuriatingly inexplicable about the literature of the early eighteenth-century.
There is a playfulness to the truism that Addison is coining here. Tellingly, the ‘danger’ that his politician is in is that of becoming a ‘dull companion.’ To be dull is to be impolite, politeness being ‘the conventions of good manners, convey[ing] the fundamental rhetorical necessity of making concessions to the knowledge, interests and attention spans of an audience’ (Laurence Klein, Shaftesbury: Characteristics (Cambridge, 1999).
If he becomes tiresome it is because he is not considering the interests and attention of his audience, which is not good manners. Companionship, conversation and good company are the things here at risk. Addison is not only being playful, he is recommending playfulness as a way of avoiding dullness.
By employing the word ‘dull’ to describe the approach of his hypothetical politician Addison is also evoking Alexander Pope’s Dunciad: a Tory satirical epic against dullness. This allusion to Tories in print begins to uncover the further implications of Addison’s observation, which is in fact being made in the 42nd issue of The Free-Holder: a periodical funded by the Whig ministry.
Early eighteenth-century print is often characterised by the political rivalries of the Whig and Tory parties, with literary and political culture becoming almost indistinguishable from each other. Though this means that study of eighteenth-century print demands a high level of political literacy, it also means that the written word of this period is burdened with a pragmatic and quantifiable purpose. Words win wars, and the printed word of this period had a serious impact upon the lived realities of its readers.
Political rivalries often revealed themselves in party print, with papers on each side making ‘truer’ or more ‘reliable’ claims at the expense of their opponent’s credibility. Whilst Addison’s rival papers might fashion themselves as being ‘always wise’, here he implies that this adds nothing to their cause, for in presenting themselves as such they have revealed themselves as dull (something that the Tories themselves despise).
However, the genius of this line is that not only is Addison recommending politeness and criticising the impolite approach of his political rivals, but he is doing this whilst fundamentally committing exactly the same act. The Free-Holder is ostensibly a paper about property, monarchy, partisanship and Whig politics. Addison criticises the Tory press for its obsession with politics within a paper about politics.
His innovation is his application of politeness during the process of writing, ensuring that in lines like this he can sweeten the pill with humour and sustain his audience’s interest and attention. But make no mistake, he isn’t doing this to be friendly. He’s doing this to get his point across: his own political, partisan and polemic point.
And that’s why I think early eighteenth-century print, and its applications of politeness in particular, are inexhaustibly interesting topics. Politeness isn’t nice. Politeness is getting people to do what you want. Politeness is getting away with it.
And this is happening at a historical moment which, when reconsidered now, bears an uncanny resemblance to our own.
If we remain with The Free-Holder for a moment longer, this is a paper written in a Britain suffering the expense of a lengthy and questionable war abroad. This is a Britain on the brink of austerity: the South Sea Bubble of 1721 and associated economic recession just around the corner. This is a Britain forced to consider its relationship with Scotland after the Union of 1707. This is a Britain which, thanks to the rise of print, was dealing collectively with the cultural implications of a new technology which meant that information, ideas and opinions could be disseminated further and faster than ever before.
This is our Britian. It is the purpose of this blog to further explore the parallels between the eighteenth-century and today to see what we can learn about the Twenty-first Century by exploring the literature and lessons of the eighteenth.