Part Representation and the Public



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The concept of politeness is very useful when discussing rules governing discourse or anxieties about sincerity, hypocrisy, lies and dissimulation raised by partisan behaviour. In other words, it can help us understand reactions to partisan political culture. But Klein perhaps overestimates how far politeness was a cultural rather than a political process (the word was, after all, derived from ‘polis’ and hence shared a root with ‘political’161), and how far it consciously distanced itself from political conflict. To be sure, two of the chief proponents of politeness, the Whig journalists and politicians Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, condemned party mentalities for obstructing sociable behaviour.162 Addison noted that a furious party spirit filled the nation with spleen and rancour, extinguished good sense and humanity; and he regretted that ‘a dull scheme of party notions’ or abuse should pass for ‘fine writing’.163 He thus suggested that 'we should not any longer regard our fellow subjects as Whigs or Tories, but should make the man of merit our friend and the villain our enemy'.164 He said he endeavoured 'to extinguish that pernicious spirit of passion and prejudice which rages with the same violence in all parties'.165 Yet in the following chapters it will become clear that the invocation of an ideal of aloofness from, or disdain for, the impolite rage of party could be a partisan move made by Whigs and Tories as much as those who disliked any party. It is worth recalling that Addison and Steele were both Whigs, writing in some sense to draw the sting of passionate high Church Toryism. The language of politeness, at least in the later Stuart period, was not a politically neutral one but itself part of the political game. Controlling the rules of public discourse was an important move.



Associated with politeness is the rise of rational discourse. The degree to which concern for rational judgement affected political behaviour will be an important concern of the second half of this book. The discussion will be informed by the work of two (overlapping) schools of historians: those charting changes in religious attitudes over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and those mapping the rise of ‘scientific’ attitudes. The first of these tend to see a new emphasis on a rational religion espoused by the Great Tew circle before the civil war, but gaining momentum with the Cambridge Platonists in the mid seventeenth century. The Platonists argued that reason was itself divine.166 In the late seventeenth century, their intellectual heirs, John Toland and others, urged a rational religion accessible to all. Frederick Beiser sees Toland's 'criticism in public, for the public and with the intention that it eventually be also done by the public' as 'the beginning of enlightenment in early modern England'.167 Toland' most recent biographer concurs, but stresses that the attack on priestcraft and tyranny still took place through religious discourse.168 Freedom of religion could thus underpin political controversies and the critique of the enthusiastic puritan or overly formal conformist were transmuted into the criticism of zealous and passionate Whigs and Tories. But again it is important to recognise that reason, like politeness, could be a political tool, a way of denying legitimacy to a rival point of view.
C. Public Discourse and Truth-claims.
The critique of enthusiasm and the championing of reason, together with a concern about the effects of rhetoric, overlapped with developments in natural philosophy.169 Since the latter embraced religion, the natural world, language and the nature of truth it is not surprising that work by historians of science overlaps with central themes of this book. Both scientists and politicians (and there is often a fascinating fusion of the two170) worried over the rules governing public discourse and the meaning of words. As is well known, the Royal Society urged the reform of language by promoting a plain style.171 Sprat’s History outlined the rationale and John Wilkins produced a language of signs in an effort to bring words and things closer together.172 Similarly the language of mathematics and science could be appropriated by those engaged in political debate.173 The precise influence of science on rhetorical practices has been the cause of much debate, for many literary scholars reject a simple correlation between the new science and plain language or even that there was a transformation of prose style.174 The controversy nevertheless reminds us that language was a quite overtly contested subject in the later Stuart period on a number of fronts and that politics might help explain why.
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