Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
Lord Herbert of Cherbury (15831648)
[Edward Herbert (15831648), Lord Castle-Island (1624), Lord Herbert of Cherbury in the Peerage of England (1629), published his most important work, the treatise De Veritate, in 1624, and continued his philosophical speculations in the Religio Laici (1645), and De Religione Gentilium (published in 1663). His History of King Henry VIII. was printed in 1649. The Autobiography was written about 1643 (my age is now past threescore), and first published by Horace Walpole in 1764. A valuable edition, with an introduction and a full historical commentary by Mr. S. L. Lee, appeared in 1886. The Poems of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, English and Latin, have been edited by Mr. J. Churton Collins (1881).]
THE PHILOSOPHICAL works of Lord Herbert of Cherbury are written in Latin: his English prose works are his History of King Henry VIII. and his own Life. In neither of these latter is it possible to find much excellence of rhetoric. The History was intended to challenge comparison with Bacons Henry VII., but all the labour of its author failed to secure for it anything like the spring and liveliness of Bacons narrative. The Autobiography cannot be called tedious or heavy, but the authors manner is uncertain, and there is a provoking discrepancy between the arrogant valour of the sentiments, and the ill-cut phrases and loose construction of the language. In a mere philosopher this negligence might pass.
The Autobiography was edited by Horace Walpole in a spirit of mischief. I was resolved the world should not think I admired it seriously, though there are really fine passages in it, and good sense too. I drew up an equivocal preface in which you will discover my opinion. This equivocal preface states the contrast which first attracted Walpole, and which still brings readers to the book: the contrast between the philosophical solemnity of the author and his inexpugnable self-confidence in respect of gallantry and the point of honour. This is what preserves his namenot the mere stories of his adventures, though they are good, nor any skill in writing; not his metaphysics nor his religious advice; but the impression of his singular character.
In that character there was no flaw: it was incapable of any suspicion of itself, and being proof against that danger it was proof against all other weakness. His metaphysical system and his moral and religious arguments are the expansion and the evolution of his individual consciousness of rectitude. From the beginning to the end of his life he is anxious to make all the world of the same mind as himself; from the beginning to the end he is vexed rather than surprised at the dulness and unreadiness of all the world in face of this opportunity of enlightenment. He explained to the regent of the English College at Rome his tolerance of errors in religion; on his deathbed he explained to Archbishop Ussher his reasonable, tolerant, and infinitesimal desire for the last rites of the Church, and among his latest thoughts must have been one of forgiveness for Ussher, who refused the request of a gentleman so free from prejudices. More interesting than most passages in his Life of Henry VIII. is the speech introduced by him in the report of the parliament of 1529, where a nameless orator is put up to expound the doctrines of the Religio Laici and De Veritate:
Each nation may be permitted the beliefe of any pious miracle that conduceth to Gods glory; without that on this occasion we need to scandalize or offend each other. The common truths in religion formerly mentioned, being firmer bonds of unity, than that anything emergent out of traditions (whether written or unwritten) should dissolve them. Let us therefore establish and fix these catholike or universall notions. They will not hinder us to believe whatsoever else is faithfully taught upon the authority of the Church. So that whether the Eastern, Western, Northern, or Southern teachers, etc., and particularly whether my Lord of Rochester, Luther, Eccius, Zuinglius, Erasmus, Melancthon, etc., be in the right, wee laiques may so build upon these catholike and infallible grounds of religion, as whatsoever superstructures of faith be raisd, these foundations yet may support them.
The Life of Lord Herbert is full of adventures and of encounters with great personages. The adventures are well told; there is seldom anything very striking in the descriptions of people. King Louis XIII. and the fair maid of an inn are described more particularly than the rest: the writer has little to say of Casaubon or Grotius, of Henry IV. or Queen Margaret. Spinola, though there is not much about him, is represented as a soldier and a gallant gentleman, whom Herbert offered to follow if ever he did lead an army against the infidels. The fortunes and the ideas of Herbert are generally sufficient for him: he is not much interested in other people. The story comes to an end in 1624; the writer did not go on to tell of his difficulty in understanding what the civil war of England was all about, and of the inconvenience which it caused him.