During my absence, I was tasked with studying British literature from the medieval period to the Renaissance.This proved to be an interesting class as the material spanned the history of Christian influence on literature until the establishment of neo-classicism in the 17th and 18th centuries.  At this time a flood of satirical writings surfaced from authors such as Nicolas Boileau, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and Jonathan Swift.  One poem in particular caught my eye by Rochester entitled, “A Satire against Reason and Mankind.”  Here, Rochester’s speaker seeks to berate theological and philosophical reason as merely “nonsense and impossibilities” while elevating humanistic reason (i.e. a materialistic worldview) as the “right reason” that “distinguishes by sense.”  For anyone interested in reading this short poem (and who doesn’t mind outdated diction), go here.

I want to zoom in on Rochester’s line of reasoning for elevating a materialistic worldview over that of the Christian.  His speaker first states:

“[Christian] Reason, an ignis fatuus of the mind,/ Which leaving light of nature, sense, behind,/ Pathless and dangerous wandering ways it takes,/ Through Error’s fenny bogs and thorny brake:/ Stumbling from thought to thought, falls headlong down/ Into doubt’s boundless sea, where like to drown/” (lines 12-15, 18-19)

In other words, since the theologian’s reasoning defies normal logic, his pursuit of answers can only lead to a deeper “sea” of doubt that will eventually swallow him whole.  The speaker’s assertion, therefore, is rather implied but can be sussed out in these specific terms:  Christianity is false and therefore a waste of time to think about.

The speaker then goes on to say:

“Be judge yourself, I’ll bring it to the test,/ Which is the basest creature, man or beast./ Birds feed on birds, beasts on each other prey,/ But savage man alone does man betray/” (lines 127-130)

So, even though animals and humans kill, humans are worse than animals because their motives are impure.  Whereas animals kill because they are “Pressed by necessity”, humans kill each other for no good reason.  The speaker again appeals to improper conduct, this time directed at religious leaders, when he says:

“Is there a churchman who on God relies,/ Whose life his faith and doctrine justifies?/ Not one blown up with vain prelatic pride,/ Who from his pulpit vents more peevish lies,/ More bitter railings, scandals, calumnies,/ In avarice, pride, sloth and gluttony,/ (lines 191-193, 198-199, 203)

In the speaker’s assessment, there are no good, religious folk that exist anywhere.  As a matter of fact, he ends his monologue with a promise that, should there be a good, religious person somewhere, he will immediately “recant” everything he said and follow their faith.  However, it is understood that, since there is no such person, his argument stands unchallenged.

rochesterSo, allow me to recap the case that is made in this poem.  The assertion is that Christianity is false (and therefore a waste of time) because humans possess impure motives and Christians are fake.  Let me repeat that.  Christianity is false because humans are bad and no truly good Christian exists.  Does anyone else see a problem here?  That’s like saying, “Fires don’t exist because every firefighter I know is a moron.”  Ironically this was Rochester’s most famous poem as critics noted a bursting “intellectual distinctiveness”[1] as well as a sublime wit that was “scarce imitable.”[2]  And yet, not a coherent argument can be found anywhere within.

Unfortunately, some things haven’t changed; for as Rochester concocted his ad hominem 350 years ago, current atheists continue to recycle the same fallacy (see Richard Dawkins).

[1] Stephen Greenblatt, “A Satire against Reason and Mankind,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. C, 9th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 2301.

[2] Ibid.