A Discussion of Reason in John Wilmot’s ‘A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind’

There weren’t many English Literature courses that my university offered that didn’t excite me, but ‘Satire and The Novel’ was definitely one of them. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I chose this course as one of my three choices for the first semester of my second year at university and after the first lecture, I immediately regretted my decision. After learning that the course would take us through writings from the English Restoration and the Eighteenth Century — no, I didn’t read the course summary before signing up — I thought about switching courses, but, although the long, tedious hours of reading Samuel Richardson’s Pamela will always haunt me, I’m glad that I decided to stick with it. One of my favourite things about studying English Literature at university was disliking a text upon first reading it, and coming to love it — or at least appreciate it — after taking the time to really study it; ‘Satire and The Novel’ gave me the chance to experience that feeling plenty of times. I came to enjoy Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and just about tolerate Alexander Pope’s poetry and Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — although I don’t think I’ll ever come close to loving or appreciating Pamela, sorry Sam. Today I want to talk about one of the poems that won me over with its subtlety; John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester’s ‘A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind’, a satirical poem which addresses the question of the proper use of Reason.

Charles A. Knight, in an article titled ‘The Paradox of Reason: Argument in Rochester’s ‘Satyr against Mankind’’ claims that Rochester’s poem suggests, not that Reason is fallacious or base, but that it is inescapable; intrinsic within human nature. Knight argues that the poem moves from the ‘mocking distress of the speaker that he cannot choose to be other than he is’ and a series of playful metaphors, positioning pride as a ‘gamester’ and wit as a ‘common whore’, to a logical counterargument to the ‘formal band and beard’s argument for Reason. In this movement, Knight suggests, Rochester’s speaker slowly becomes more Reasonable, looking to his adversary’s argument to calculate his rebuttal; Reason cannot be avoided for even its most passionate opponent cannot help but use it to argue against its favour; it is deeply embedded in human nature.

Knight’s reading of ‘The Satyr Against Reason and Mankind’ is illuminating, particularly in his argument that the speaker of Rochester’s poem ‘is himself included in [his] denunciation of man, and his denunciation itself exemplifies that which he denounces’. He suggests that Rochester plants a kind of hypocrisy in his speaker, who uses Reason to argue against Reason, making his reader aware that the human being is, in fact, a reasonable creature and almost inevitably so. Rochester structures his poem as a kind of argument and so is in itself, suggestive of Reason, one definition of the word being to ‘think, understand, and form judgements logically’. It’s easy to read the poem simply as an attack on Reason by the poem’s speaker; as, ostensibly, all the poem really does is claim that Reason is foolish and then quickly dismisses the inclusion of the adversary as a fool with a weak counterargument. Knight himself, however, states that we, as readers, should be cautious of such a straightforward reading, seeing the speaker’s words merely as an attack on Reason.

While Knight’s argument is interesting, and seems to hold some truth, for Knight gives textual evidence of the speaker’s seemingly reasonable argument, which I will go on to discuss, I’m not wholly convinced that so much emphasis should be applied to this reading; I don’t think that the poem is about mankind’s inherent Reason. Knight claims that Rochester’s poem begins with unreasonable censure of rational thought but that this silly censure is swiftly put to an end for when the speaker hears the argument of the ‘band and beard’, he begins to argue reasonably. Knight writes that the ‘final section of the poem is dominated […] by syllogistic reasoning and the use of logical fallacies’. Here, Knight points to Rochester’s lines

‘Look to the bottom of his vast design,

Wherein man’s wisdom power, and glory join:

The good he acts, the ill he does endure,

‘Tis all from fear, to make himself secure.

Merely for safety, after fame we thirst,

For all men would be cowards if they durst’.

He claims that the speaker is suggesting that fear is ‘the primary motive of human society’ and that, here, Rochester’s speaker drops his playful inanity and composes, instead, a reasonable comment on human nature. Knight uses this as evidence that the poem is about the way in which even the speaker, who abhors Reason, cannot help but use Reason to create a convincing argument. Knight, I believe, is justified in his understanding that these lines compose a reasonable argument, for they speak of religion and develop a thesis about mankind, but where Knight seems happy to stop there and conclude that this is Rochester’s way of suggesting that it is in our nature to use Reason, and that it cannot be avoided, going on to decide that this is the meaning of the poem, I think that there is much more to say about these particular lines, and that the poem is much more complex than Knight, in this moment, suggests that it is.

Knight seems to overlook one element of the poem that I believe to be essential to the understanding of the poem as a whole. He writes at the beginning of his article that he is cautious of applying too much historical and cultural context to his reading of the poem, and this seems sensible, but it appears that Knight completely neglects to apply any context to his reading of the poem at all, leaving the poem somewhat adrift. ‘A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind’ was written in the late 17th Century, which was deemed the Age of Reason, soon to be followed by the Age of Enlightenment that pervaded much of the 18th Century. During these periods, much thought was applied to ideas of what the human being was capable of achieving; great scientific discoveries were made and rational thought, rather than impulsive desire, began to precede action. This reasonable rationalism conflicted with the Libertinism, also prominent in the late 17th and 18th Century. Libertinism is hedonistic, concerned only with pleasure and almost devoid of rational thought. Rochester’s speaker denounces Reason, but claims that he, himself, owns a different kind of Reason, a kind of Reason that he deems sensible. Rochester writes,

‘I own right reason, which I would obey:

That reason which distinguishes by sense […]

Your reason hinders, mine helps to enjoy,

Renewing appetites yours would destroy […]

Hunger calls out, my reason bids me eat;

Perversely, yours your appetites does mock:

This asks for food, that answers, “what’s a clock?’.

His speakers’ reason allows for pleasure, it reacts to the senses and does not deny itself that which it desires for consideration of things such as time and the needs and wants for others. It is hedonistic and it is conducive to happiness; it is the reason of Libertinism. Knight, when writing of the speaker’s self-indulgent reason, seems to dismiss it, assuming it to be an excuse for the speaker’s hedonistic life that he presumes him to lead but this, it seems to me, is a flaw in Knight’s reading of the poem. For me, the distinction that the speaker draws between his reason and his adversary’s reason seems central to the poem. Looking back to the aforementioned lines, with the speaker’s ideas of this Libertine reason at the forefront of our minds, it seems that they take on a different meaning. Knight seems to believe that these lines are reasonable in the way that Enlightenment thought is reasonable; they are a logical and practical analysis of human nature and they state that fear is at the heart of mankind. But with cultural context in mind here, these lines become much more complex. I believe that these lines are, instead, a powerful comment on the Enlightenment, a suggestion that the nobility that was suggested comes hand in hand with reason and rational thought has made knaves of men who now fear their natural impulses. It is a kind of shield to make oneself ‘secure / merely for safety’, something to make humans believe that we are superior to beasts; we have reason, they do not. Rochester, earlier in the poem, writes,

‘Those creatures are the wisest who attain

By surest means, the ends at which they aim.

If therefore Jowler finds and kills his hares

Better than Meres supplies committee chairs,

Though one’s a statesman, th’other a but a hound,

Jowler in justice would be wiser found’.

Knight, again, skims past these lines, but, to me, they seem crucial to the poem. In these lines, Rochester’s speaker claims that the animal is wiser than the man who follows the reason of the 17th and 18th centuries because the animal acts upon instinct rather than rational thought; the animal is rewarded with the satisfaction of getting what he desires and is, therefore, wiser, for pleasure is what we must aim towards.

Knight’s article is incredibly illuminating and convincing; I agree with his stance that Rochester may have been suggesting that reason is inescapable, intrinsic even, with the human race, but I do not think that this is the main point that Rochester is trying to make in ‘A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind’. Rochester’s speaker never denies that reason is intrinsic or that it is inescapable — perhaps it is — but his speaker seems to be suggesting that it is a certain type of reason which is wrong, unnatural even, perhaps forced by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, the kind of reason that the movements of the 17th and 18th century promoted. Yes, we all have reason, but why must we force rational thought upon everything, until we are denying ourselves pleasure at all? This is where I believe the meaning of Rochester’s poem lies and where Knight’s reading of the poem lapses for he shies away from applying context to his reading, preventing him from seeing the connection between the poem and the cultural moment.

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