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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

The English author and critic Thomas Babington Macaulay did not like the poet Southey at all, as his scathing review of his book on the industrial revolution and the condition of the working class in England demonstrates. He did, however, like very much this biography Southey wrote about the life of John Bunyan. The sophisticated and urbane Macaulay had little time for Bunyan’s extreme dissenting religious views but he did think that many of his critics, mostly Anglicans, had treated Bunyan very poorly and that therefore Southey’s biography was a useful corrective. This quotation caught my eye because of the reference to playing hockey on Sundays, something we were able to experience yesterday with the men’s hockey final on the last day of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

1 March, 2010

Macaulay250

Macaulay and Bunyan on the evils of swearing and playing hockey on Sunday (1830)

Read the full quote in context here.

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) wrote an essay on the 17th century English religious writer John Bunyan (1628-1688) wittily defending him from the unfair attacks of his critics, one of whom called him a “depraved tinker”. In Macaulay’s view the worst one could say about him was that he swore a bit and played hockey on Sundays:

He does not appear to have been a drunkard. He owns, indeed, that, when a boy, he never spoke without an oath. But a single admonition cured him of this bad habit for life; and the cure must have been wrought early; for at eighteen he was in the army of the Parliament; and, if he had carried the vice of profaneness into that service, he would doubtless have received something more than an admonition from Serjeant Bind-their-kings-in-chains, or Captain Hew-Agag-in-pieces-before-the-Lord. Bell-ringing and playing at hockey on Sundays seem to have been the worst vices of this depraved tinker. They would have passed for virtues with Archbishop Laud.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

It is very amusing and very instructive to compare the Pilgrim’s Progress with the Grace Abounding. The latter work is indeed one of the most remarkable pieces of autobiography in the world. It is a full and open confession of the fancies which passed through the mind of an illiterate man, whose affections were warm, whose nerves were irritable, whose imagination was ungovernable, and who was under the influence of the strongest religious excitement. In whatever age Bunyan had lived, the history of his feelings would, in all probability, have been very curious. But the time in which his lot was cast was the time of a great stirring of the human mind. A tremendous burst of public feeling, produced by the tyranny of the hierarchy, menaced the old ecclesiastical institutions with destruction. To the gloomy regularity of one intolerant Church had succeeded the license of innumerable sects, drunk with the sweet and heady must of their new liberty. Fanaticism, engendered by persecution, and destined to engender persecution in turn, spread rapidly through society. Even the strongest and most commanding minds were not proof against this strange taint. Any time might have produced George Fox and James Naylor. But to one time alone belong the frantic delusions of such a statesman as Vane, and the hysterical tears of such a soldier as Cromwell.

The history of Bunyan is the history of a most excitable mind in an age of excitement. By most of his biographers he has been treated with gross injustice. They have understood in a popular sense all those strong terms of self-condemnation which he employed in a theological sense. They have, therefore, represented him as an abandoned wretch, reclaimed by means almost miraculous, or, to use their favourite metaphor, “as a brand plucked from the burning.” Mr. Ivimey calls him the depraved Bunyan and the wicked tinker of Elstow. Surely Mr. Ivimey ought to have been too familiar with the bitter accusations which the most pious people are in the habit of bringing against themselves, to understand literally all the strong expressions which are to be found in the Grace Abounding. It is quite clear, as Mr. Southey most justly remarks, that Bunyan never was a vicious man. He married very early; and he solemnly declares that he was strictly faithful to his wife. He does not appear to have been a drunkard. He owns, indeed, that, when a boy, he never spoke without an oath. But a single admonition cured him of this bad habit for life; and the cure must have been wrought early; for at eighteen he was in the army of the Parliament; and, if he had carried the vice of profaneness into that service, he would doubtless have received something more than an admonition from Serjeant Bind-their-kings-in-chains, or Captain Hew-Agag-in-pieces-before-the-Lord. Bell-ringing and playing at hockey on Sundays seem to have been the worst vices of this depraved tinker. They would have passed for virtues with Archbishop Laud. It is quite clear that, from a very early age, Bunyan was a man of a strict life and of a tender conscience. “He had been,” says Mr. Southey, “a blackguard.” Even this we think too hard a censure. Bunyan was not, we admit, so fine a gentleman as Lord Digby; but he was a blackguard no otherwise than as every labouring man that ever lived has been a blackguard. Indeed Mr. Southey acknowledges this. “Such he might have been expected to be by his birth, breeding, and vocation. Scarcely indeed, by possibility, could he have been otherwise.” A man whose manners and sentiments are decidedly below those of his class deserves to be called a blackguard. But it is surely unfair to apply so strong a word of reproach to one who is only what the great mass of every community must inevitably be.

[More works by Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800 – 1859) and on The English Revolution]