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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XIII. Scholars and Antiquaries

§ 10. Remarks upon a late Discourse of Free-Thinking

Bentley’s next book was published under his old pseudonym Phileleutherus Lipsiensis; but, this time, the language was English and very racy English too. A Discourse of Free-thinking, an anonymous work by Anthony Collins, appeared in 1713, and was instantly followed by a swarm of refutations. But all these were eclipsed by Bentley’s Remarks. Collins had appealed to antiquity in support of his opinions; but he did not know Greek or Latin well enough to draw the true conclusions from his authors. Here, Bentley was in his element: he lays about him with rare zest and had no difficulty in showing that Collins had undertaken “to interpret the Prophets and Solomon without Hebrew, Plutarch and Zosimus without Greek, and Cicero and Lucan without Latin.” He treats the anonymous author unceremoniously enough; but his language does not go beyond what was then thought permissible and even praiseworthy in the mouth of a champion of orthodoxy. To the scholar, the chief interest of this book is to watch Bentley for once interpreting the thought, rather than the language, of the ancients. The mastery with which he extracts the whole meaning and nothing but the meaning from a difficult passage of Lucan (IX, 546–568) shows what he could have done, had he chosen, in this part of a scholar’s business.