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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

§ 5. The Phalaris Controversy: Bentley and his Adversaries

The subject of this controversy was the genuineness of certain letters attributed to Phalaris, the half-legendary ruler of Agrigentum, who roasted his enemies in a brazen bull. An idle comparison between ancient and modern learning, begun in France, had spread to England; and Sir William Temple, then eminent as a man of letters, published an essay, in 1690, in which he gave the preference to ancient literature, in general, and praised the letters of Phalaris, in particular, as superior to anything since written of the same kind. Temple’s essay having turned attention to Phalaris, a new edition of the letters was published in 1695 by Charles Boyle, then an undergraduate at Christ Church, a grandnephew of Robert Boyle, the founder of the lectures. In his preface, the editor made an insulting reference to Bentley and complained of his discourteous conduct in refusing the use of a MS. of Phalaris kept in the royal library. Bentley wrote at once to Boyle, explaining that there had been a mistake, and that he had intended no discourtesy; but Boyle, acting on the advice of others, refused to make any amends. His reply was practically a defiance to Bentley to do his worst. Bentley was the last man to swallow such an insult, and it was not long before he had an opportunity to say something for himself. His friend, William Wotton, had, in 1694, entered the lists against Sir William Temple in defence of modern learning; and, in 1697, a second edition of his book included an appendix in which Bentley briefly stated his proofs that the letters of Phalaris were spurious, and then gave the true version of the affair of the MS. But he went further: in language of decided asperity, he pointed out errors in Boyle’s edition, blaming his teachers for them more than “the young gentleman” himself.

By some of the resident members of Christ Church, this censure was bitterly resented; and it was determined to crush Bentley. The members of this society were numerous and united by an unusually strong corporate feeling, as nearly all of them had been educated at Westminster. Though, in point of learning, they were children compared to Bentley, yet they were formidable antagonists in any controversy at the bar of public opinion. They were wits and men of the world; they had much influence in literary and academic circles; and, though their erudition was meagre, they showed a marvellous dexterity in the use of what they had. The ringleader in the conspiracy against Bentley was Francis Atterbury: of the book, which appeared in 1698 and bore the name of Charles Boyle, he wrote the greater part and revised the whole.

This joint production, to which Boyle seems to have contributed nothing except his name, was read with avidity by a public quite incompetent to judge of the matter in dispute. The book had merits which all could understand: in a polished and pleasant style, it exhausted every art of the controversialist in throwing ridicule on Bentley as a dull pedant without the manners of a gentleman or the taste of a genuine man of letters. Nor was ridicule the only weapon employed: charges of dishonesty, plagiarism and even heterodoxy were scattered up and down its pages. Public opinion, prejudiced in Boyle’s favour by his youth and high birth, soon declared decisively against Bentley. It was at this time that Swift, then residing in Sir William Temple’s family, ridiculed Bentley in his Battle of the Books; and Garth’s poem, The Dispensary, published in 1699, is chiefly remembered by the foolish couplet in which he expressed his agreement with the prevailing sentiment of polite society:

  • So diamonds take a lustre from their foil,
  • And to a Bentley ’t is we owe a Boyle.
  • Atterbury and his friends had good reason to suppose that they had crushed Bentley and destroyed not only his reputation for learning but, also, his character.

    But it was not easy to crush Bentley. It was about this time that he replied to the condolence of a friend: “Indeed, I am in no pain about the matter; for it is a maxim with me that no man was ever written out of reputtion but by himself.” He set to work to revise and enlarge what he had already written about Phalaris, and his full reply appeared early in 1699. The Dissertation did not instantly convert public opinion to Bentley’s side; but competent scholars, not, at that day, a large company, saw at once that Bentley had not only disproved for ever the authenticity of the letters of Phalaris, but had also made large additions to the sum of existing knowledge on every subject which he had occasion to discuss. Nor was it in learning only that Bentley’s immense superiority was shown: he was a far more cogent reasoner than his assailants; his language, if sometimes severe, was nowhere scurrilous; and he even came near to beating the Oxford men with their own weapon of ridicule. If he could not rival the rapier thrust of Atterbury, he made uncommonly pretty play with his quarter-staff and brought it down again and again with astonishing precision on the heads of his antagonists.

    It is needless here to review the different matters illuminated by Bentley in the course of his discussion. It will be more to the purpose to quote two passages which illustrate his view of language and of literature. Discussing the Greek in which the Epistles are written, he says:

  • Even the Attic of the true Phalaris’s age is not there represented, but a more recent idiom and style, that by the whole thread and colour of it betrays itself to be many centuries younger than he. Every living language, like the perspiring bodies of living creatures, is in perpetual motion and alteration; some words go off and become obsolete; others are taken in and by degrees grow into common use; or, the same word is inverted to a new sense and notion, which in tract of time makes as observable a change in the air and features of a language as age makes in the lines and mien of a face. All are sensible of this in their own native tongues, where continual use makes every man a critic. For what Englishman does not think himself able, from the very turn and fashion of the style, to distinguish a fresh English composition from another a hundred years old? Now, there are as real and sensible differences in the several ages of Greek, were there as many that could discern them. But very few are so versed and practised in that language as ever to arrive at that subtilty of taste.
  • The second extract describes the matter of the Epistles and directly contradicts the well-turned sentences in which Temple had expressed his worthless opinion of their unequalled merit:

  • ’T would be endless to prosecute this part and show all the silliness and impertinency in the matter of the Epistles. For, take them in the whole bulk, they are a fardle of commonplaces, without any life or spirit from action and circumstance. Do but cast your eye upon Cicero’s letters, or any statesman’s, as Phalaris was: what lively characters of men there! what descriptions of place! what notifications of time! what peculiarity of circumstances! what multiplicity of designs and events! When you return to these again, you feel, by the emptiness and deadness of them, that you converse with some dreaming pedant with his elbow on his desk; not with an active, ambitious tyrant, with his hand on his sword, commanding a million of subjects.