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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

II. Samuel Butler

§ 15. Main Purpose of the Satire

It remains to offer a few considerations on the main purpose of Butler’s satire—a frontal attack on puritanism. He probably was unaware that a change was in progress from a personal to a constitutional monarchy, disguised by a religious upheaval which might be regarded as the groundswell after the storm of the reformation. He was a fervent royalist, but kept mainly to the religious side of the question.

The publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611 had set men thinking of the treasure that had fallen into their hands, and very many now read persistently the one book upon which they looked as the guide to salvation. This dwelling on one authority upset the balance of mind of many whose reading was thus limited; and men learned to identify themselves with the conquering, exterminating children of Israel, and to look upon all who opposed them in politics or church doctrine as men of Belial, Moabites, Amalekites and other adversaries of Israel and of God, and as their own personal enemies, to be overthrown at any cost and by any means of force or fraud. But, as Dante says finely of another sect,

  • Their meditations reach not Nazareth.
  • Examples may readily be found of similar perversions of Scripture; but an instance which stands out, by reason of the beauty of its language and the terrible nature of its denunciation, occurs in Milton’s tract, Of Reformation touching Church-Discipline in England, where the reward assured to his own partisans and the punishment to be meted out to his adversaries are enunciated in startling contrast.

    The mental exaltation arrived at by such homines unius libri was extraordinary, and rendered them capable of efforts in their enthusiasm which upset all calculation. So long as they were sincere in their beliefs, their conduct may have been commendable; but it is the fate of human nature, when men have attained success by these means, to become dazzled by the height of the pinnacle they have reached, and, when enthusiasm flags, to become subject to deplorable lapses. And, when the spoils of the vanquished lie at the mercy of the victors, cupidity and the baser feelings of human nature often gain the mastery over former high resolves. This was frequently the case in the period of the civil war and the commonwealth.

    As an unswerving royalist, a native of a county that was conspicuous for its loyalty, Butler could admit the divine right of kings and allow that the king could do no wrong; but he could not allow that the opposing party could do right, especially after the confiscations and oppressions of which they had been guilty towards the royalists and the episcopalian clergy. Moreover, the Long parliament, which had included many high-minded patriots, had degenerated and dwindled into the miserable, place-loving Rump, a fit object of scorn and contempt.