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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XVI. The Advent of Modern Thought in Popular Literature.

§ 16. The essay.


Now that men had reached this new stage of progress, the Baconian essay began to lose its value. There were still a few followers of the old school who, like Thomas Manley, 80  sought distraction from war and politics by compiling maxims and meditations out of their desultory reading. But the enthusiasm for discovering lessons of self-education in the classics now flagged because the charm of novelty was gone, and the humanists of the protectorate were too full of the work of reconstruction to centre their reflections on themselves. Thus, the essay gradually ceased to be an intellectual diary and showed signs of becoming an organ for propagating ideas. An exiled royalist with the intention “to sport away the tedious houres with the dalliance of my pen” described his experiences abroad in The Character of Spain and The Character of Italy (both in 1660). But the two sketches expand into veritable treatises with their invectives against Jesuits, papistry, alchemy and the gunpowder plot, varied by observations on history and sociology.   34
  Men were dissatisfied with their state of culture, because they had begun to realise its possibilities. The conviction was steadily growing that scholars, as Waterhouse declared in An Humble Apologie for Learning and Learned Men (1653), were “the Horsmen and Chariots of any Nation”; not an academic caste, but civilisers. For this reason, they were willing to criticise that system of half-scholastic education which had nourished the witch controversy and left many other perplexities unsolved. As early as 1646, John Hall, in Horae Vacivae, declared that ancient philosophers should only be studied because they stimulate discussion on modern topics. In 1653, John Webster 81  examined all the established branches of learning and declared that conservatism was keeping knowledge from shedding any light on life and its mysteries. In 1657, a writer on education, who signs himself “J. B. Gent,” superseded Milton’s and Peacham’s treatises with the remarkable Heroick Education. The author gives the death-blow to formalism, by insisting that each pupil has a peculiar individuality and, therefore, requires a special training. The average lad of gentle birth is an obscure maze of cross-tendencies which he has not yet learnt to control, and the tutor’s first duty is to make an intimate study of his character. His pupil is led towards good or evil by some enjoyment incidental to its pursuit, and the teacher, by closely watching his appetites, maladies, dreams and “colour” will be able to find out what particular pleasure appeals to his instincts. Mental training must be equally unfettered by tradition. The students of the renascence had aimed at accumulating vast stores of erudition under the control of a quick memory. But the youth of the restoration must, also, cultivate “commonsense,” that is, wisdom to digest and apply his learning. Nor must his intellectual individuality be fettered by imitating another’s style, “for discourse and writing being images of the soul, every one expresses his thoughts differently according to his own genius.” Now that the age had realised the necessity for mutual respect and forbearance, the student must acquire tact and address no less than knowledge and, above all, the knack of adapting himself to other people’s moods and tastes which is the true art of conversation. 82    35

Note 80Temporis Angustiae, 1649. [ back ]
Note 81Academiarum Examen, or the Examination of Academies, 1653. [ back ]
Note 82. Part II, chap. VII. [ back ]

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  Romances of chivalry Humanists  
 
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