1. Such a famous work as Richard Bentley’s Dissertation upon Phalaris may hardly seem to require an introduction. Nonetheless, I shall say a few words here to give the reader a few references and the necessary bibliography.
2. The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns erupted in the latter decades of the 17th century in the French Academy. Somewhat later, Sir William Temple (a diplomat now known as the young Jonathan Swift’s employer) wrote an essay Of Ancient and Modern Learning, weighing in on the side of the ancients. In that essay (published 1690), Temple including the following fatal paragraph:
It may perhaps be further affirmed, in favour of the ancients, that the oldest books we have are still in their kind the best. The two most ancient that I know of in prose, among those we call profane authors, are Aesop’s Fables and Phalaris’s Epistles, both living near the same time, which was that of Cyrus and Pythagoras. As the first has been agreed by all ages since for the greatest master in his kind, and all others of that sort have been but imitations of his original; so I think the Epistles of Phalaris to have more grace, more spirit, more force of wit and genius, than any others I have ever seen, either ancient or modern. I know several learned men (or that usually pass for such, under the name of critics) have not esteemed them genuine; and Politian, with some others, have attributed them to Lucian: but I think he must have little skill in painting, that cannot find out this to be an original; such diversity of passions, upon such variety of actions and passages of life and government, such freedom of thought, such boldness of expression, such bounty to his friends, such scorn of his enemies, such honour of learned men, such esteem of good, such knowledge of life, such contempt of death, with such fierceness of nature and cruelty of revenge, could never be presented but by him that possessed them; and I esteem Lucian to have been no more capable of writing, than of acting what Phalaris did. In all one writ, you find the scholar or the sophist; and in all the other, the tyrant and the commander.
Habent sua fata libelli, and this innocent paragraph proved pregnant with mighty change. After Temple published his Essays, William Wotton responded with his Reflections on Ancient and Modern Learning (1694). The next year, the Hon. Carles Boyle, the future Earl of Orrery, then a 19 year old student, published an edition of the Phalaris letters for a “B. A. thesis.” Boyle applied to collate a MS in the King's Library, whose Keeper was Richard Bentley, D. D. Though the ineptitude of booksellers, a misunderstanding occured, Boyle spoke sarcastically of Bentley in print, accusing him of withholding the MS out of “his singular humanity” (pro singulari sua humanitate ), and the seeds of a full-dress squabble were sown .
3. Meantime, in 1697 Wotton published as second edition of his Reflections, graced by Bentley’s Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris, Themistocles, Socrates, Euripides; &c. and Aesop’s Fables, which Wotton apparently invited his good friend Bentley to contribute. The rest — one could not apply the commonplace better than here — is history. The wits of the day took sides, and a raucous and amusing pamphlet-war broke out, ending with Swift’s hilarious Battel of the Books.
4. We must not imagine that this, and other, scholarly controversies were (or are) mere shameful parades of spite and hate. As the essayist Nicholson Baker says (in “Lumber” from The Size of Thoughts, Random House, 1996, p.260), discussing Pope’s adversary Lewis Theobald:
[Theobald’s satire] The Cave of Poverty is not dull, it’s almost Dickensian, and Shakespeare Restored isn’t dull either, as Pope knew; the entertaining war between Bentley and Boyle over the authenticity of the letters of Phalaris had shown would-be pamphleteers that few things will get the readerly pulse racing like the spectacle of well-read scholars going after each other in the vernacular. (The Poggio vs. Filelfo and Milton vs. Salmasius bouts were fought in Latin.) There was a market for learned strife in racy English.
Bentley was surely the most consummate academic political in history, and he wrote his expanded Phalaris with an eye on the main chance. Such learning so vigorously and publicly displayed could not but have helped him obtain the Mastership of Trinity.
5. We Classicists esteem Bentley’s Dissertation as the point where our discipline ceased being sentimental and became scientific. Whether this judgment is correct or not is still disputed. I wish to direct the reader to three internet sites which provide background and discussion. 1.) the succinct and informative chapters on Bentley and the Phalaris controversy from the Cambridge History of English Literature. 2.) a recent review, by John Henderson of Cambridge, of a book in German by Vinko Hinz. Mr. Henderson discusses the Phalaris controversy with great intelligence and wit. 3.) Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his review of Thomas Courtney’s Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Sir William Temple, also discusses the Phalaris controversy. Sir Richard Jebb’s biography of Bentley is also pleasant reading, full of astonishing academic tales.
6. My copy-text for this on-line edition was Bentley’s A Dissertation upon Phalaris, with an Answer to the Objections of the Hon. Charles Boyle, 2nd. edition, London, 1699. This volume, overstuffed with notes and wrangling, runs to 500 and more pages. What I have reproduced here is the blocks in large type, which represent the original Dissertation appended to Wotton’s book. I have stayed as close as possible to the typography of my copy-text. All the notes here are Bentley’s own. I had at first some notion of supplementing them; upon reflection, this seemed to me, as S. J. Perelman has it, to “geld the lily”; second, Bentley is perfectly clear with his references, and he expected his readers to be capable of following them up. In typing the Dissertation up I had to match wits with Dr. Bentley, and I learned a thing or two, and I trust that you, reader, will enjoy meeting such a mind without a go-between.
PS: I am much indebted to Mr. Stan Wolfson, who kindly sent me a letter with the correct text of Charles Boyle's sniffy remark (pro singulari sua humanitate), which I had misquoted through the mistake of following a footnote to Swift's Battel rather than trust my memory.
OS, 10 December 2003
5 May 2002