Rev. Richard Bentley

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1833-37) 4:276-86.

RICHARD BENTLEY, a celebrated critic and theologian, was born January 27th, 1661-62, at Oulton, not far from Wakefield, in the West riding of Yorkshire. His father, Thomas Bentley, possessed an estate at Woodlesford, a township in the same parish with Oulton. His mother's maiden-name was Willie. She is recorded to have been a woman of an excellent understanding, and by her it is said that Bentley was taught the rudiments of the Latin grammar. He was afterwards sent to the grammar-school at Wakefield. On the death of his father, Bentley, then thirteen years of age, was committed to the care of his maternal grandfather, by whom he was sent, in the following year, (1676,) to St. John's college, Cambridge. After the regular period of residence and study, Bentley commenced Bachelor of Arts, and obtained in the list of honours a position corresponding with that of third wrangler, according to the present method of designation. He was precluded from a fellowship by a statute, then and long after in force at St. John's college, which restricted the number of fellows from each county to two. At the age of twenty, however, he was appointed by his college to the head-mastership of the grammar-school of Spalding, in Lincolnshire. This situation he retained for a twelve-month, at the end of which he accepted the office of domestic tutor to the son of Dr. Edward Stillingfleet, then dean of St. Paul's, and afterwards bishop of Worcester. In 1663, Bentley proceeded Master of Arts. During his residence with Dr. Stillingfleet, he seems to have prosecuted his studies with extraordinary vigour and success. He informs us that "before he was twenty-four years of age, he wrote a sort of Hexapla; a thick volume in quarto, in the first column of which he inserted every word of the Hebrew bible alphabetically; and in five other columns, all the various interpretations of those words in the Chaldee, Syriac, Vulgate, Latin, Septuagint, and Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, that occur in the whole bible. This he made for his own use, to know the Hebrew, not from the late Rabbins, but from the ancient versions; when, bating Arabic, Persic, and Ethiopic, he read over the whole Polyglot." In 1689, Dr. Stillingfleet — now become bishop of Worcester — sent his son to the university of Oxford, accompanied by Bentley as his private tutor. Both tutor and pupil entered Wadham college, where shortly after Bentley was incorporated Master of Arts, as holding the same degree in the university of Cambridge. At Oxford, he became acquainted with many scholars of distinguished abilities and erudition; and enjoyed the privilege of unrestricted access to the Bodleian library, the principal manuscripts of which he seems to have examined with indefatigable industry. Among the literary projects which at this early age his gigantic ambition prompted him to form, we find mention of new editions of Greek grammarians and Latin poets; a complete collection of the Fragments of the Greek poets; and a republication of the Greek lexicographers, in four volumes, folio. In 1690, he took deacon's orders, and was soon-after appointed chaplain to his patron the bishop of Worcester. In the following year appeared the earliest publication of Bentley; — his celebrated Epistola ad clarum virum Joannem Millium, appended to the Oxford edition of the Chronicle of Joannes Malelas Antiochenus. This tractate, though of limited extent, established his reputation throughout Europe, as a critic of the very highest order of excellence When we consider the number of topics discussed — of which many were among the most obscure and intricate within the whole range of philological criticism, — the reach and originality of his speculations on questions supposed to have been exhausted by the learning and sagacity of his predecessors, — the prodigious display of erudition, apparently not less extensive and incomparably more accurate than that of Salmasius, Scaliger, or Casaubon, — the close, irresistible logic with which he supports all his discoveries and conclusions, — and the animation of his style, which throws a charm and liveliness over subjects naturally the most devoid of interest, we may safely pronounce the Epistle to Dr. Mill, to be one of the most extraordinary performances in the entire compass of classical literature. Indeed, but for one of the subsequent productions of the same author, it would have remained to this day unrivalled. It was greeted immediately with the loudest commendations by Graevius, and Ezekiel Spanheim; and has ever since been spoken of by the first critics with reverence and wonder. (See in particular, Rulmken's preface to Alberti's Hesychius.) In 1692, Bentley was nominated by the trustees of the honourable Robert Boyle, to preach the first series of lectures in conformity with the testamentary instructions of that eminent philosopher; an honour to which he frequently adverts with evident exultation. His sermons were professedly in confutation of atheism, with a more direct and specific aim at the metaphysical impieties of Hobbes and Spinosa. They display the peculiar talents of Bentley to the greatest advantage. His universal reading had supplied him with exact and copious information on all the numerous topics connected with his "great argument," and the native vigour of his understanding enabled him to reason down his adversaries with a force and clearness which have never been surpassed. In the seventh and eighth sermons he applies the doctrines of the Newtonian physics — which at that time were scarcely heard of beyond the circle of the learned — to the support and illustration of natural theology; and in no part of the work does his acute and powerful intellect appear in a more commanding attitude than in this. Before the publication of these discourses, he entered into a correspondence with Newton, on some of the points adverted to in these two sermons; and the letters which on this occasion passed between the first critic, and the first philosopher of the age, are eminently interesting and instructive. In the same year Bentley received a prebend in Worcester cathedral. Shortly after he was made keeper of the royal library at St James's, and re-appointed Boylean lecturer. In 1695, he was made chaplain in ordinary to the king. In the following year he fulfilled a promise of some standing by transmitting to Graevius his notes and emendations on Callimachus, together with a complete collection of the fragments of that poet. The erudition and critical acumen displayed in these contributions to his friend's edition, were such as fully to sustain his reputation as the first scholar of modern times.

We now proceed to give a succinct account of the memorable controversy respecting the Epistles of Phalaris. The relative merits of ancient and modern writers had furnished a topic of dispute among the French literati. Sir William Temple — an English statesman of high reputation, whose essays, though not remarkable for intellectual vigour and profundity, are written in an agreeable, degage style — interposed on the side of the ancients, and cited the Epistles of Phalaris, and the Fables of Aesop, as conspicuous instances of the superiority of the old literature to the new. He was answered by Wotton, an early friend of Bentley's, whose youthful attainments, prodigious, and almost incredible, had excited expectations which his subsequent performances failed to satisfy. His reply to Sir William Temple, though deficient in vivacity and elegance, is written with ability; and in all the more solid qualities of critical and argumentative disquisition, is immeasurably superior to the more brilliant essay of the statesman. While engaged upon this treatise, he was assured by Bentley that the two instances alleged by Sir William Temple were peculiarly infelicitous; since the pretended Aesopian Fables were not Aesop's, and the Epistles of Phalaris were the forgery of an ignorant sophist of a later age. Upon this, Wotton extracted from his friend a promise to maintain this position in an appendix to the forthcoming dissertation. From a variety of circumstances, however, the first edition of Wotton's book was published without Bentley's promised contribution.

About this time, a new edition of the Letters of Phalaris was preparing at Christ-church college, Oxford, and the honourable Charles Boyle, brother to the earl of Orrery, and one of the most promising students in the college, was selected as the editor. As the library at St. James's contained a manuscript of the Epistles, Mr. Boyle wrote to one Bennett, a London bookseller, "to get this manuscript collated." The bookseller, after much negligence, and many delays on his part, procured the manuscript; but, though admonished by Bentley to lose no time in making the collation, he conducted the business with such inexcusable carelessness, that forty only out of the 148 epistles were finished when the manuscript was returned. To shelter himself, he informed the Oxford editor that he had obtained the use of the manuscript with the utmost difficulty, and that he was not permitted to retain it long enough to make the required collation. As Bentley, in answer to a question from the bookseller, had expressed his opinion of the spuriousness and worthlessness of the Epistles, Bennett took care to represent this to Mr. Boyle as a studied disparagement both of the work and the editor. Hence, when the new edition appeared, the preface was found to contain the following stroke at Bentley: "collatas etiam curavi usque ad Epist. XL cum MSto. in Bibliotheca Regia, cujas mihi copiam ulteriorem Bibliothecarius, pro singulari sua humanitate, negavit." When apprised of this aspersion upon his character, Bentley wrote immediately to Mr. Boyle; and explained the true merits of the whole translation. To this, Mr. Boyle replied, "that what Mr. Bentley had said, might be true, but that the bookseller had represented the matter quite otherwise," and that "Mr. Bentley might seek his redress in any method he pleased." In 1697, a new edition of Wotton's Reply to Sir William Temple was demanded. For this the author required Dr. Bentley to furnish his promised Dissertation on the spuriousness of the Fables of Aesop, and the Epistles of Phalaris; and when the critic would have declined on the ground of his unwillingness to engage in a quarrel with the Oxford editors, Wotton refused to admit the excuse. Accordingly, the second edition of the Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning, was accompanied by a dissertation from the pen of Dr. Bentley, in demonstration of the spuriousness of the Epistles of Phalaris, the Fables of Aesop, and the Letters of Themistocles, of Socrates, and of Euripides. After noticing in a somewhat contemptuous style the judgment which Sir William Temple had pronounced in favour of two of these pretended originals, and giving an account of the manner in which literary forgeries were anciently practised, he proceeds to the Epistles of Phalaris. The four leading arguments from which he concludes against their genuineness are drawn from the chronology, the language, the matter, and the late appearance of the epistles. After assigning the age of Phalaris to the lowest period which authentic history will admit, he collects from the epistles a number of references to events and expressions, all of them considerably posterior to the death of the tyrant. He next attacks the Attic style and dialect of the pretended Phalaris, as manifestly out of character in a Dorian prince, and, besides, inconsistent with the very Atticism of the age of Phalaris. In particular, he insists on the ludicrous confusion of the Attic and Sicilian money. In objecting to the matter of the epistles he directly impugns the decision of Sir William Temple, — adduces several instances in which all taste, sense, and probability are set at defiance, — and affirms, in conclusion, that when reading this pseudo-Phalaris "you feel, by the emptiness and deadness of his production, that you converse with some dreaming pedant, with his elbow on his desk, not with an active, ambitious tyrant, with his hand on his sword, commanding a million of subjects." Finally, he argues against the authenticity of the letters from their late appearance in the world, it being impossible for them to have remained concealed for upwards of a thousand years, during which every species of learning was cultivated with the greatest diligence and success, and the highest rewards were bestowed on those who brought to light any of the hidden treasures of literature. He then proceeds to vindicate himself against the calumny contained in the Oxford preface, and gives a short statement of the transaction with the bookseller. He concludes the dissertation on Phalaris with a severe and contemptuous animadversion upon the mistakes committed in the Oxford edition. He then proceeds to show that the reputed Letters of Themistocles, Socrates, and Euripides, were all of them forgeries, in a strain of argument and raillery similar to that which he had employed against the pseudo-Phalaris. His last attack is made upon the Aesopian Fables. In this section — confessedly the least valuable in the whole dissertation — he has added little to the observations of some of his predecessors; and though his arguments are perfectly conclusive against the genuineness of the fables, yet, contrary to his usual custom, he left the subject far from exhausted.

Considered as a whole, the dissertation must be pronounced a master-piece of learning and ability, to the production of which no other writer of the age was equal. The men of Christ-church were exasperated almost to frenzy by this bold attack upon a work which had issued from their body; and "war to the knife," was declared against the offender. The task of replying to the Bentleian dissertation was committed to a junto of the ablest wits and scholars in the college, consisting of Atterbury, Smalridge, two brothers of the name of Friend, and Anthony Alsop. The principal share of the labour is known to have devolved upon Atterbury. The performance of this doughty confederacy appeared in March, 1698. It was entitled Dr. Bentley's Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris, and the Fables of Aesop, examined by the honourable Charles Boyle, Esq. It is impossible to deny the praise of wit, ingenuity, and adroitness to this production. It exhibits innumerable specimens of every kind of ingenious and powerful satire, from the lightest vein of sportive pleasantry, up to the most unsparing and merciless invective. But it is disfigured throughout with the grossest blunders on every point of philological learning, and lies open to the still heavier charge of resorting to all the artifices of mis-representation, in order to blacken the character of an honourable antagonist. It was received, however, by the literary world, with a "tempest of applause." Wits and witlings, poets, mathematicians, and antiquaries, concurred in celebrating the imaginary triumph of the Oxonians, and persecuting the great critic who was soon to crush them at a blow. The only one of all these virulent attacks which continues to be read, is the Battle of the Books, by Swift; an exquisite specimen of raillery and satire, conceived and executed in the dean's happiest manner. The Boylean corps, however, had reckoned without their host. In the beginning of the year 1699, appeared the unrivalled and immortal Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris, with an Answer to the Objections of the honourable Charles Boyle, By Richard Bentley, D.D. To those who never critically examined this truly stupendous production, it is impossible to convey an adequate conception of its merits. To affirm that it vindicates the character of Bentley in every particular on which it had been assailed, and, with one inconsiderable exception, sustains every position that he had advanced in the original dissertation upon Phalaris, is saying little. It is replete throughout with learning of the finest and rarest quality, The same unequalled force and subtlety of intellect which had distinguished the appendix to the Chronicle of Malelas, is here exhibited to even greater advantage. The style, though wanting in harmony and elegance, is full of energy; and the wit and sarcasm with which the whole piece abound, if inferior to that of his adversaries in the qualities of ease and grace, is equal, perhaps superior, in pungency. This incomparable work was, after an interval of nearly eighty years, translated into Latin by Lennep, a scholar of eminence, and one of the pupils of the illustrious Valckenaer.

In February, 1700, Bentley was installed master of Trinity college, Cambridge; an appointment which sufficiently indicates the height of reputation which he had attained. It is to be regretted, however, that his own subsequent misconduct rendered this preferment the source of incalculable disquietude to others as well as to himself. The following year he married Joanna, daughter of Sir John Bernard of Brampton, in Huntingdonshire. A few months after, he was collated to the arch-deaconry of Ely, vacant by the death of Dr. Saywell. About the same time he commenced his edition of Horace.

We now approach the most unpleasing part of our memoir; — the record of those interminable quarrels and litigations between Dr. Bentley and his college, which reflect so much discredit upon his character. To enter into a minute detail of circumstances almost wholly destitute of interest, and swelling into an incalculable multitude, would extend this memoir greatly too far; we shall, therefore, briefly notice the leading particulars, referring those who wish for ampler information to the quarto volume of Dr. Monk. Against many of the alleged instances of oppressive conduct on the part of the master, nothing more can be reasonably objected than the autocratical manner in which he behaved: the acts and regulations being just and salutary in themselves, and wanting nothing to render them perfectly legal, but the concurrence of the seniors. But there were other proceedings for which no colourable pretext or apology can be devised. Such, on his very entrance into his mastership, was his exaction of the arrears which were unquestionably due to his predecessor; such, his obstinacy in compelling the seniors to consent to the erection of a new and splendid staircase, after having previously involved them much against their will in heavy expenses; his electing a profligate young man as a super-numerary fellow to succeed upon a "presumed vacancy," in contrariety to the spirit of the statutes, and for the mere purpose of gratifying one of his own partizans; his arbitrary discommuning of some of the fellows who opposed his proceedings, &c, &c. When any remonstrance was made against these illegal and oppressive steps, he was accustomed to answer in an insolent and careless tone, as one who was resolved to tolerate no opposition to his will. Amidst all these turmoils, he found time to attend to the studies in which he was so peculiarly formed to excel....

When the regius professorship of divinity fell vacant, in 1717, by the death of Dr. James, the master of Trinity, by a series of the most dexterous manoeuvres, obtained it in spite of obstacles apparently insurmountable. On this occasion he delivered a prelection on the disputed text respecting the heavenly witnesses. It is proved beyond a doubt that he decided against its genuineness. In the same year, the master incurred additional odium, by demanding an extra fee of four guineas from each of the "incepting" doctors of divinity. This demand was undoubtedly illegal, though some specious arguments were alleged in its support. It was resisted by most of the candidates for the degree, and more particularly by Conyers Middleton, a man of great scholarship and powerful talents. They were most of them, however, prevailed upon to pay the sum, on receiving a written promise from the master that he would refund it, should his claim be found untenable. As Bentley refused to listen to expostulation, Dr. Middleton commenced against him a process in the vice-chancellor's court, for the recovery of the exacted fee, and a decree for arresting the master was issued. This decree he contemptuously disobeyed; on which the vice-chancellor, with the concurrence of his assessors, pronounced him "suspended ab omni grada suscepto." On his refusal to make proper reparation, the senate, by a large majority, deprived him of all his degrees. A paper war ensued, in which Mr. Middleton distinguished himself as a controversialist of consummate ability. By a scandalous misappropriation of the college-funds, the master of Trinity succeeded in buying off one of his most formidable opponents, Serjeant Miller. He was guilty, at the same time, of a series of unjust and tyrannical measures, the only object of which was to reward his own partizans, and gratify his resentment against his opponents. In 1720, we find him busily employed upon a great undertaking which he had projected some years before. This was the preparation of an edition of the New Testament, the text of which should be restored to almost primitive correctness. With this view, he had engaged in laborious collations of manuscripts at home, while he despatched one of the fellows of Trinity abroad for a similar purpose. In October, 1720, he published his proposals for printing this new edition. These were attacked with great virulence by Middleton, in a pamphlet in which he accumulates every epithet and topic of reproach against Bentley. The master — who suspected that Middleton had been assisted by Dr. Colbatch, a senior fellow of Trinity, and one of Bentley's most resolute opponents — replied in a strain of incredible scurrility; heaping upon the object of his suspicion abuse of every kind. To this, Dr. Middleton rejoined in a short piece of very powerful writing. In the course of the following four years we find Dr. Bentley engaged in no fewer than six different lawsuits with his enemies, into the details of which we forbear to enter. It is worthy of remark, however, that in every one of these he was successful. On the 26th of March, 1724, he was restored to all his degrees and privileges, by virtue of a "peremptory mandamus" to that effect from the court of King's bench. The following year produced Dr. Bentley's edition of Terence. This author had been recently edited by Dr. Hare, who, though formerly a warm friend and admirer of Bentley, had been gradually alienated from him by a succession of petty misunderstandings and suspicions. To mortify Dr. Hare, and to show his own superior knowledge of the Terentian metres, appear to have been the motives which prompted Bentley to this undertaking. The Bentleian Terence, though not free from the peculiar and besetting sins of his usual style of criticism, is a noble performance. Many of his emendations display a "curiosa felicitas" almost unrivalled in the history of criticism; while his Schediasma of the metres of Terence is a perfect miracle of genius. It is to be regretted that, with characteristic bitterness, he persecutes Dr. Hare through the entire series of his notes, which are one continued strain of cutting and contemptuous irony. The "superbae vices," however, were waiting for the great critic himself. With the malevolent intention of forestalling Hare's projected edition of Phaedrus, Dr. Bentley edited the Roman fabulist himself: with such haste and carelessness, however, as to lay himself open by a thousand incuriae, to say nothing of the numerous unwarrantable alterations of the text, for many of which he did not even attempt to assign any authority or reason. This crude performance, "praecipitatum magis quam editum," to borrow an expression from Erasmus, was reviewed by Dr. Hare in his Epistola Critica, the unmeasured acrimony of which is in some degree extenuated by the provocation he had received.

On the death of Fleetwood, bishop of Ely, who had all along refused to interfere between Bentley and his college, the fellows of Trinity resolved to renew their complaints against the master. After long and vexatious litigation, in which enormous expenses were incurred, the cause was finally referred to the decision of the house of lords. Meanwhile, Dr. Bentley had sent forth that immortal chef-d'oeuvre of absurdity and arrogance, his edition of the Paradise Lost: in which he has extirpated or altered many hundreds of lines, alleging, on the ground of their supposed inferiority, that they had been interpolated or corrupted by the person to whom Milton, by reason of his blindness, had committed the transcription of the poem. As it is impossible to suppose that Bentley himself believes this absurd hypothesis, we can only wonder by what judicial infatuation he should ever have been led to propound it seriously to his readers. To have excepted openly against the passages which he fancied he could improve, would have been infinitely more rational and manly than thinly veiling the audacity of his tasteless criticisms under so jejune and extravagant a fiction. As a specimen of his offered emendations, the following may, perhaps, suffice. In place of the celebrated line, "No light, but rather darkness visible," he proposes to substitute this exquisite improvement: "No light but rather a TRANSPICUOUS GLOOM." We willingly acknowledge, however, that there are some acute remarks, and not infelicitous conjectures to be found in this extraordinary volume; the occasional "flash and outbreak," of that "fiery spirit" which, in its native regions, always blazed out with an effulgence [Greek passage omitted].

After a minute and protracted examination of the articles exhibited by the fellows of Trinity against the master, the lords commissioned Dr. Greene, the bishop of Ely, to try Dr. Bentley upon twenty out of the sixty-four. After a few more delays interposed by the untameable master, the bishop finally sentenced him to be deprived of his mastership. Even this was insufficient to subdue the adamantine resolution of Bentley. Having discovered that the sentence of the visitor could, according to the letter of the statute, be put into execution by none but the vice-master, he introduced into that office his devoted follower, Walker, who was prepared to sacrifice every thing in the master's cause. This "fidus Achates," in spite of rescript, commination, mandamus, &c. &c. obstinately refused to stir a step against his patron. The death of Bishop Greene in 1738, put an end to all the proceedings against the master, and left him in undisputed possession of the victory. Immediately after the termination of this protracted struggle, Dr. Bentley sued his old adversary, Colbatch, for arrears due to the former in his capacity of archdeacon of Ely, and gained his cause. During these unhappy and disgraceful altercations, Dr. Bentley had been engaged with great ardour upon his proposed edition of the New Testament which, however, never saw the light. The Homeric poems seems to have occupied much of his attention, from the year 1726, to the close of his life. By the splendid discovery of the Digamma — a letter which had been lost out of the Greek alphabet for more than two thousand years — he had been guided to many inestimable emendations of the Homeric verses; and in the true Bentleian spirit of enterprise, at the age of seventy, he pledged himself to Lord Carteret to prepare a new edition of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This pledge, however, he did not live to redeem. The great critic was ridiculed with unsparing rancour by Pope and Arbuthnot, to whom, however, he seems to have given no provocation beyond a not uncharitable judgment upon the Homer of the bard of Twickenham. He did not, however, vouchsafe any thing in the shape of a reply. In 1739, Dr. Bentley published his long promised Manilias: a performance, the merits and blemishes of which closely resemble those of all his editions of the Roman poets. A short time before the death of Bentley, appeared the famous satire against him contained in the fourth book of the Dunciad; of which, however, we can scarcely hesitate to say that the wit is less pungent than the malignity is odious. For the last few years of his life, Bentley is said to have been disabled by paralysis. In July, 1742, he was seized with a pleurisy, and expired on the 14th, having exceeded the age of fourscore by nearly seven months....