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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVIII. “Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity”

§ 8. Hooker’s literary power

The literary power of Hooker is admirably displayed in his eloquent treatment of the subject of the angels, which played a far more important part in theological speculation then than it does in our time. It is related that, when on his death-bed, Hooker was asked by his friend Saravia the subject of his meditations, and replied, “that he was meditating the number and nature of angels, and their blessed obedience and order, without which peace could not be in heaven; and oh that it might be so on earth.” After speaking of the natural laws, which, so to speak, work automatically, he says:

  • God which moveth mere natural agents as an efficient only, doth otherwise move intellectual creatures, and especially his holy angels: for, beholding the face of God, in admiration of so great excellency they all adore him; and being wrapt with the love of his beauty, they cleave inseparably for ever unto him. Desire to resemble him in goodness maketh them unweariable and even unsatiable in their longing to do by all means all manner of good unto all the creatures of God, but especially unto the children of men: in the countenance of whose nature, looking downward, they behold themselves beneath themselves; even as upward, in God, beneath whom themselves are, they see that character which is nowhere but in themselves and us resembled. Thus far even the paynims have approached; thus far they have seen into the doings of the angels of God: Orpheus confessing that “the fiery throne of God is attended on by those most industrious angels, careful how all things are performed among men”; and the mirror of human wisdom plainly teaching that God moveth angels, even as that thing doth stir man’s heart, which is thereunto presented amiable.
  • Here we have an excellent example of Hooker’s literary style: language suitable to the subject, the very construction of the somewhat involved sentences enhancing its dignity, evidences of wide, even if somewhat uncritical, reading as shown by the quotation from the Orphic hymn preserved in the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria, and poetic feeling perhaps echoing the words of Spenser’s almost contemporary Faerie Queene. The high place assigned to reason in this book strikes almost the keynote of the entire work, since the consensus of human opinion is, to Hooker, an evidence of revelation. “The general and perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God himself.” Yet, true to his principles, he declines to bind himself to any single theory of government by drawing a sharp distinction between the law of nature common to all men and “laws positive” which do not bind mankind universally. Reason depends on freedom of the will, and nature, whilst prescribing government as necessary to all societies, “leaveth the choice as a thing arbitrary.” It is this broad generalisation, this determination to lay down the principles on which he proposes to treat the subject, which renders the first book of great importance. We are tempted to forget that the author is engaged in one of the fiercest controversies of a controversial age when we peruse a book in which the philosophy is detached from the immediate present. Like other great Elizabethans, Hooker had the power of writing for all time. He enters the lists of controversy resolved to contend not with the weapons of dexterous argument but with those of a more solid character, drawn from the arsenal of philosophy. “Is there,” he asks at the conclusion of the book, “anything which can either be thoroughly understood or soundly judged of, till the very first causes and principles from whence it springeth be made manifest?”

    In the second book, Hooker is still preparing the way for his argument with his opponents and, though dealing with one of their main axioms, he does not so much join issue with them as deal with general principles. The puritans maintained that Holy Scripture must be the sole guide of every action of a Christian’s life. Hooker has little difficulty in showing that the passages of Scripture quoted are irrelevant, and that the opinions of the Fathers cited in support of the thesis are not really applicable to it. The chief interest of this short book, however, lies in the way in which it reverts to those divisions of law made in the first, and shows that, though revealed Scripture is an infallible guide, it is not the only one by which our actions must be determined. There is the same underlying appeal to common-sense that we find in the first book, the same dislike of mere hard logical theory as opposed to practice and experience, which makes Hooker a pre-eminently English theologian. It is worth observing how he sums up the results of accepting the puritan position:

  • But admit this, and mark, I beseech you, what would follow. God in delivering Scripture to his Church should clean have abrogated amongst them the law of nature; which is an infallible knowledge imprinted in the minds of all the children of men, whereby both general principles for directing of human actions are comprehended, and conclusions derived from them; upon which conclusions groweth in particularity the choice of good and evil in the daily affairs of this life. Admit this, and what shall the Scripture be but a snare and a torment to weak consciences, filling them with infinite perplexities, scrupulosities, doubts insoluble, and extreme despairs.… For in every action of common life to find out some sentence clearly and infallibly setting before our eyes what we ought to do (seem we in Scripture never so expert) would trouble us more than we are aware. In weak and tender minds we little know what misery this strict opinion would breed, besides the stops it would make in the whole course of all men’s lives and actions.