The Tortoise and the Haretics

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By Guest Contributor Elizabeth Buckheit

One of my favorite hypothetical games is to categorize all humanity in the vein of the adage “there are two types of people in the world.” To give a very silly example, I can say there are responsible people who read the assembly instructions of IKEA furniture before beginning and there are exciting people who consult them only when they have already erred, if at all. However, I read an excerpt from the sixteenth-century theologian Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) for a doctoral course which led me to think about more serious uses for my bifurcations. Perhaps subconsciously cribbing Daniel Kahenman, I began to think about fast and slow writers. I had previously written my undergraduate and masters dissertations on aspects of Hooker’s thought and had been struck by how deliberately and reflectively he crafted his argument over almost a thousand pages. I enjoyed reading him because he thought slowly. Though well aware of the limitations of reading for a seminar, I still found reading from an abridged edition of the Laws jarring. There are many fast writers: pithy polemicists, lively narrators, or fervent debaters. It is rarer to find writers who follow the roads of their arguments to the very end, exploring byways and reflecting on alternate modes of transit along the way. Upon returning to Hooker in what felt like a flavorless, low-calorie format, I began to reflect on how Hooker is valuable because he is a good slow thinker and he cannot be made to think fast.

The abridged copy of Hooker’s Laws I returned to is a small book dressed in an aggressive shade of blue only found on “Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought” and mid-2000s PC error screens. Edited by Arthur Stephen McGrade, the Cambridge edition was my first introduction to Hooker as an undergraduate; I had quickly discarded it for the Folger edition of Hooker’s works and had not thought of the Cambridge edition since. The petite figure of McGrade’s blue book is striking to me now as the Polity consists of eight zaftig volumes defending the crown-established English Church as it stood in the 1590s. After outlining an abstract theory of law and human reason against the history of the Reformed Church in England (Preface and Volume I), Hooker discusses to what extent humans can use their own intellect rather than divine decree in establishing polities (Vols. II-III), what forms ecclesiastical polity should take (IV-VII), and how ecclesiastical and civil polity should relate to each other (VIII). However, McGrade’s edition contains only Hooker’s preface and Books I and VIII.

There are clear reasons why McGrade abridges Hooker – the most obvious being that he is publishing in the “Cambridge History of Political Thought” series and thus Hooker’s books on law and the authority of secular states are the more purely ‘political’ parts of the Polity. McGrade, as he tells us in his introduction (p. xiv), also has a larger historiographical project to further situate Hooker in the world of Elizabethan religious polemic. Hooker was born in 1554, four years before the Act of Supremacy would install Elizabeth as head of the English Church and five years before the Acts of Uniformity would require subscription to the Book of Common Prayer. Hooker was an academic theologian all his life: he attained his Doctor of Divinity from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he remained as a fellow and a Professor of Hebrew until 1580; he then served as Master of the Temple at the Inns of Court before retiring to the countryside in 1591 to work on the Polity until his death in 1600. During his lifespan, the fledgling Church of England began working to conform the religious landscape to its Articles of Religion. This project met with considerable resistance from nonconformists, particularly those ‘Puritans’ who believed that the established Church was not Reformed to the Genevan standard. Hooker’s early biographers and editors, Izaak Walton in the seventeenth century and John Keble’s explicit upholding of Walton in the nineteenth, painted him as an irenic theologian and legal scholar who refused to engage in petty polemic and instead came to a perfect Anglican conclusion by reason alone. Though Walton’s core narrative has held surprisingly stable, there has been a trend to include Hooker as an active participant in Elizabethan crises of conformism (beginning and most notably with the work of Peter Lake). As a chief concern of nonconformists was that the Crown was overstepping its authority by making laws to order the Church which went against the dictates of Scripture, McGrade’s paring down of Hooker to Books I and VIII allows him to highlight Hooker’s role as an Anglican apologist against Reformed rebels.

I am by no means suggesting that Hooker is not polemically engaged in the crisis of the Elizabethan Church. In the Preface, Hooker explicitly claims his aim is to “rip up to the verie bottom” the views of his nonconformist opponents in pursuit of truth. Yet how he engages with them is remarkable. The Polity is not Marprelatean satire, a sermon or admonition, an enraged academic disputation, a legal document, catechism, or systematic theology. It is certainly not the polemical tract with ecclesiastical filler that McGrade’s editing suggests. Instead, Hooker produces a complete theory of how man should act according to divine will: as a rational and faithful individual, as a believer in common with others, and as a member of civil society.

However, the structure of Hooker’s theory is not evident from the outset and subtle contours are missed through speedy reading. A good example of this is Hooker’s view of human reason. If we look only at Books I and VIII, reason provides a simple mechanism to allow humans to order themselves. ‘Rational law’ first appears as that aspect of natural law which mankind uses to achieve their ends of survival and salvation. After the Fall, human reason is no longer soteriologically sufficient without the supernatural donative of Scripture. Humans can, however, use their reason to survive and flourish on earth by creating their own civil laws and politic societies. The Church, while holding an additional supernatural end of salvation, exists as an outwardly visible, human-ordered polity. Thus, a civil sovereign can order a national church so long as he and his subjects share the same religious ends (see 1.3.2-4, 1.5.2, 1.10.1-4, 1.11.4-5, 1.12,3, 1.15.2, 8.3.3-5, 8.6.4-7).

If we include Books II and III, human interpretive faculties gain more weight in ordering earthly action. Unlike his more Reformed peers, Hooker does not believe that all ecclesiastical or civil law must be rooted in Scripture. God made man with reason and, despite its corruption though original sin, He still delights in man’s use of his natural faculties. As long as we are not directly contradicting God’s express soteriological dictates as found in Scripture, we are free to act. In matters adiaphora, those affairs indifferent to salvation, Hooker recommends that we use our faculties to find what is most beneficial and expedient for human society. It is not against faith to do so because natural law requires that we act rationally in order to survive. We can also use our reason to aid in our supernatural ends, helping us to interpret Scripture appropriately and persuade others to do so as well. Just as imperfect “reason hath need of grace,” Hooker hopes that grace also has some need of reason. How we think is crucial; it is therefore critical that we work to hone our faculties and avoid vain, speedy, or heretical philosophy (see 2.1.4, 2.2.2, 2.5.4-7, 3.8.6-11). From this we learn about the intellectual responsibility of an individual which has significant consequences for Hooker’s account of sovereign power in Book VIII. Given the fragmentary and heavily edited nature of the eighth book, Hooker’s argument in Books II and III also helps us clarify doubts provided by the publication history. To add another layer, Hooker’s concern for correctly used reason and his concerns about misinterpretation also give us some insight into the intellectual standards of an academic divine in a period when institutional culture and curricula of education were dramatically changing.

It should be said that just because a book is large and slow does not mean it is good. Hooker’s contemporary John Bridges produced the fourteen-hundred-page Defence of the Government Establish’d which Patrick Collinson has called “smothering” and which I call “the literary equivalent of a humpback whale trying to run a marathon.” In the same vein, some fast thought is cleverly crafted, exceptionally illuminating, and worth slow scholarship. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly is an excellent example of this. In a 1968 article which holds true to this day, McGrade himself notes that Hooker is ‘largely unread’ due to his heft.  We may find slower thinkers to be bad or fast thinkers to be good, but we have to read them at all to make that judgement and do so with an awareness of their identities as writers. For me, Hooker’s layered argument provides a unique and interesting way to consider thinking in the Elizabethan church and the society around it precisely because of the way which it unfolds. I worry – whether through oversimplification, hurriedness, cavalier editing, or plain laziness – we risk making Hooker and other slow thinkers do intellectual work they did not do.

Elizabeth Buckheit is a first-year PhD student in history at Yale University.

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