Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 2. Steele’s Christian Hero

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

II. Steele and Addison

§ 2. Steele’s Christian Hero

He committed to paper the thoughts which passed through his mind in these moments of reflection and published them in 1701 for the edification of others under the title The Christian Hero.

This booklet is an attempt to persuade educated men into accepting the Bible as a moral counsellor. Steele describes how Cato, Caesar, Brutus and Cassius died, and argues that heathen philosophy failed each in the great crisis of his life. He then tells over again the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, and how, after their fall, men became corrupt and so a prey to ambition and the love of ostentation. This dependence on the applause of the world is, to Steele, the root of all evil; even the tales which young fellows tell of debauches and seductions are prompted by “fame”; even “heathen virtues, which were little else but disguised or artificial passions (since the good was in fame) must rise or fall with disappointment or success.” Christ, and then St. Paul, by their labours and death, first brought men help, teaching them that the true guide in conduct is conscience. Man sins or suffers through dependence on the world; he is saved by the inwardness and self-effacement of Christianity. In the spiritual distress which drove Steele to write this pamphlet, he had learnt to think for himself. The description of Eve’s creation shows that he had studied Milton, then an unfashionable author; the passage on chivalrous respect for women’s virtue was a defiance to the conventionality which regarded immorality as a sign of high spirits; the advice that a man should do a kindness as if he would “rather have his generosity appear an enlarged self-love than a diffusive bounty” was a new ideal for good taste; in his contention that the false ideals of society led men to err, he touched the true weakness of his times.

Thus, The Christian Hero is important because it foreshadows Steele’s message to his age. But, though the book passed through a second edition within the same year and continued to be popular with readers of a certain religious temperament, it was not otherwise a success. The prosperous middle class, busy with the peaceful round of city life, did not need to be warned against choosing Caesar or Brutus for their model or Seneca for their spiritual pastor. Nor, again, if they ever opened this little manual of meditations, would they find it clearly explained how the self-sacrifice of St. Paul and the divinity of Christ could guide them amid the thousand little perplexities of their growing social system. Steele sermonised on heroism to readers who were interested in manners, and deserved the fate “that from being thought no undelightful companion, he was soon reckoned a disagreeable fellow.”