The Unreasonable Satyr
John Wilmot’s poetic argument “A Satyr against Reason and Mankind” attempts to define an anti-philosophy of “sense” or unreason as opposed to classical notions of rational thought. Reflecting the varieties of human nature, the poem is replete with paradoxes–the most prominent of which is the speaker’s condemnation of reason through classical rational argument. Similarly, although the speaker scorns human thought, his point of view is an assemblage of varying philosophies; of these, the libertine pursuit of pleasure and Hobbes’ theories on mankind are primary. Although the reliance on sense and rational philosophy might appear to contradict each other, ultimately the two points of view coalesce in a conclusion that condemns all of mankind, including the speaker himself.
The point of contention is the notion that man is the measure of all things and is superior to the beasts that rely on natural instincts–especially that towards pleasure–which are based in sense experience. This ties into the libertine philosophy, which relied on sense experience for meaning rather than reason, and which valorized individuality (Nussbaum 15). This emphasis on the senses is not restricted to the libertines; Thomas Hobbes defined sense as ‘original thought,’ the authentic experience in which other ideas are rooted: “there is no conception of a man’s mind, which hath not at first , totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense. The rest are derived from that original” (61). Consequently, the further an idea strays from the original, the less true it may be. The speaker argues that mankind is only elevated because of artificially placed rules and regulations that deny sense, and which men use to destroy each other in pursuit of their individual desires.
The speaker’s case is made immediately upon the poem’s opening lines, wherein he laments that he was born one of “that vain animal / Who is so proud of being rational.” He contrasts human reason, or the pomposity thereof, with bestial reliance on sense or instinct to survive. The speaker elaborates his argument in “lines organized around large, extended, rich comparisons” (Knight 256). These metaphors, of physical phenomenon and landscapes, are contrasted with philosophical abstractions, or, that which is real and that which is acquired. The poem’s speaker claims that reason was invented to controvert natural instinct. This perspective falls in line with Hobbes’ view that “reason is not, as sense and memory, born with us, nor gotten by experience only, as prudence is; but attained by industry” (85) Reason is not innate–it is “contrived,” and is therefore imaginary and prone to error. Rather than providing enlightenment, reason is a flickering will o’ the wisp, an “ignis fatuus of the mind” (12) that misguides humans in their behavior. Ironically, the light of the ignis fatuus is created from decaying matter; it follows that, in this case, the flickering light of reason is derived from the decaying mind–the result is a cannibalistic image of reason consuming itself.
The geographic imagery Rochester uses paints the thinker as one who struggles to journey through life’s “fenny bogs” and “mountains of whimseys.” Armed only with reason, the thinker finds himself
stumbling from thought to thought, falls headlong down
Into doubt’s boundless sea where, like to drown,
Books bear him up a while, and make him try
To swim with bladders of philosophy (18-21)
Reason cannot function as a path, much less provide enough light to reveal one, through life. The natural path is set by instinct and is felt through sense. Rather than following this natural path, humans are led astray by introspection; a suspicion of instinct, “in hopes still to o’ertake th’ escaping light” (22) that feeds on itself. Ironically, experience, whether controlled by reason or not, leads one to death. The believer in reason only realizes too late that it was all a lie: reason fails to stave off death, and doesn’t necessarily contribute to happiness. The pursuit of reason is the result of humanity’s “fear of death and the desire for self-aggrandizement” (Reik qtd. in Russell 247). Neither is achieved, and those virtues gained through wisdom are less substantial in the long run than a life dedicated to direct experience.
The speaker qualifies the reasonable virtues–pride, wisdom and wit–as self-defeating qualities. Pride attracts a man to reason, while seeking wisdom destroys him. It renders the physical world a text that must be studied rather than enjoyed. Experience is encountered vicariously. Likewise, the wit uses reason for others’ pleasure (rather than his own); it serves him little experiential purpose, and it may well backfire upon him. The poet’s attack on wits may well be self-referential; he is a man who demeans himself, via reason, for others’ enjoyment:
For wits are treated just like common whores:
First they’re enjoyed, and then kicked out of doors.
The pleasure past, a threatening doubt remains
That frights th’ enjoyer with succeeding pains. (37-40)
The wit’s audience may enjoy the show, but that is no sign of affection; Rochester might well have had his own experience in mind, “inasmuch as he [Rochester] was a public performer caressed by the undiscerning, [he] was no better than [a whore] and could expect a similar fate” (Greer 44). While a wit provides momentary pleasure, once that pleasure has subsided, what remains is hatred. The wit is no nearer pleasure than one who exists by relying on reason. This, then, is the poet’s assertion: reason is flighty and unreliable. It is a false sense created to overrule the less delicate five senses; it is a sense created out of–and to serve–pride. The wise man and the wit are exemplars of vacuous exercises in reason, as well as wasted lives. The denial or negation of experience in itself is self-defeating, for it will win in death.
Having staked his position, the speaker imagines a counter-argument from a clergyman–indicated by a “formal band”–who scoffs at the speaker’s claims. A common theory among Anglican clergymen was that “moral certainty could be reached with the aid of reason. It would seem, then, that Rochester’s ‘Band and Beard’ ultimately represents post-Restoration Anglicanism with its consistent emphasis on reason'” (Thormählen 171). However, the views expressed very likely could have applied to post-Restoration Christianity in general. As Combe points out, these are perspectives that the average clergyman may have had during the era (74). The poem’s speaker has questioned the very fabric of contemporary Christianity with its emphasis on the man of reason who is blessed by God. Outraged, the poem’s clergyman asks “‘What rage ferments in your degenerate mind / To make you rail at reason and mankind ?'” (58-9). The word “degenerate” refers, of course, to a debased mind, one “having lost the proper qualities to the race or kind” (OED 1:674). On the contrary, the poet seems not to have shed any of his human qualities–reason included, although his desire for experience would be seen as debased. Interestingly, a now-obsolete definition of “degenerate” is “to revolt.” Truly, the speaker does seem to ask for a “falling away” of, rather than an inherited, but an acquired quality.
The poet’s adversary calls the poet to remember that man was made in God’s image, was given an eternal soul, and “this fair frame in shining reason dressed /To dignify his nature above beast” (64-5). Reason lifts humans above the beast as it makes enlightenment possible; the clergyman believes it is “a means by which man can achieve the transcendent; but in fact the speaker implies such reason is fallacious in the first place, and in the second, more binding on human nature than that which it wishes to transcend” (Knight 257). The opponent’s argument is based entirely on faith in God and faith in reason (and, subsequently, man), whereas the speaker doesn’t believe that such faith or transcendence is possible. There are no mysteries to penetrate–there is only the present, the physically knowable; this is agreeable to Hobbes’ perspective, for whom “only the present existed in nature” (Goldsworthy 2). Again, there is an emphasis on what can be known through the senses. As spiritual or philosophical enlightenment relies on chasing mysteries, to pursue enlightenment moves you further away from what is real and, therefore, what is human.
The speaker’s rebuttal is built upon small paradoxes that, while they don’t prove his case, “exemplify his position, making it more concrete and convincing.” Pointing out such oxymorons as “thinking fools” (82), “ a mite [who thinks] he’s an image of the infinite” (76-7) and “heavy sots” who soar to “the limits of the boundless universe” (84-5), the speaker reveals the man of reason’s incongruities and apparent pointlessness. He begins by critiquing contemporary religious works written by a “pathetic pen” (73). “Pathetic” refers to emotional, rather than rational, states. These tracts that endorse man’s reason are–in the speaker’s opinion–the products of emotion masked as rational thought. As such, they provide no basis for sound conclusions. The speaker discredits the tracts because they are irrational, and therefore hypocritical in themselves. Faith- and emotionally- based theology offers an excuse, one from outside of nature and direct experience, for mankind’s pride in itself. This pride is so extreme that humanity finds itself comparable to God. To justify this comparison, humans busily create mysteries and problems in order to discover and define them. The speaker compares these to witches’ flying ointments: they are just as superstitious and just as unlikely.
Because of reason, people withdraw from the world to “think ’cause they have nought to do” (93). Be they philosophers as Diogenes or Christian monks, these people cloister themselves to do nothing because there is nothing for them–as reasoned thinkers rather than experiencers–for them to do. In the speaker’s view, thought is to be used for action, if you don’t act, you shouldn’t require thought. This is a curious paradox that begs the question: if one is relying on instinct, doesn’t action occur without thought? Also, by admitting that thoughts rule action, isn’t the speaker countering his own assertion? The answer to each of these is an admission that some thought, some reason, is required for the avoidance of pain and the acquisition of pleasure. This, “right reason” is the application of just enough thought to achieve “life’s happiness” in the world of sense. In this, reason modifies rather than overrules sense–it governs rather than dictates the regulation “of desire, with a reforming will / To keep them more in vigour, not to kill” (102-3). Right reason, then, limits pleasure in order to maintain it: “the act of repression turns into an act of excitation. The result is a delayed urgency” (Kramnick 285). Rather than permit overindulgence and the loss of taste for a certain desire, right reason restrains the impulse to excess in order to prolong and heighten, not restrict, desire. The speaker defines the opposition’s reason as ascetic and impotent–it suppresses pleasure, whereas his encourages it.
In his definition of “right reason,” the speaker considers himself vindicated: he has made up with reason, as his definition makes it reliant on the senses (Parfitt 150). The speaker’s brand of reason is natural: it embraces sense and permits the achievement of pleasure. As such, the speaker moves on to condemn human behavior, which, he maintains, is unnatural and more bestial than that of beasts. As a contrast to human behavior, he offers Jowler, who “finds and kills the hares” (119), and who “most closely conforms to the standards which the speaker has established. Jowler doesn’t think, he acts on instinct to the satisfaction of his appetite (Park 1008). The dog’s actions are truer to nature than those of a politician assigning roles. The dog’s task is quickly and directly accomplished, whereas the politician’s relies on rhetoric, and with it the attendant Machiavellian deceit. While Jowler hunts and kills by instinct and for a purpose, the politician–and people in general–do so for sport. There is no immediate end for their pursuits. At this point the speaker widens his invective to include all of human nature; in this, he mirrors Hobbes’ ideas about mankind:
Birds feed on birds, beasts on each other prey,
But savage man alone does man betray.
Pressed by necessity, they kill for food;
Man undoes man to do himself no good. (129-32).
The only possible “good” achieved in destroying each other is self-serving, be it for fame, reputation, or dominance. We act, the speaker claims, out of fear, a Hobbesian belief that “all human behavior [is] driven by fear towards pleasure or mere self-preservation” (Goldsworthy 2). To achieve their ends, men feign kindness and affability. They are, underneath it all, hypocrites of the first order: “Look to the bottom of his vast design / [. . .] ‘Tis all from fear, to make himself secure” (153-56). Fear, then “neither leads to immobilizing dread nor to a paralyzing awareness of death, but rather takes on a life of its own” (Russell 247). Terror is motivation; there is no nobility at play, for reason is used only to harm others in order to maintain personal safety. To the world, men who aren’t enslaved by rational pursuits, and who rely instead on sense, are “cowards.” In reality, all men, says the speaker, “would be cowards if they durst” (158). Rather than masking his fears, the man of sense meets them directly, and is, therefore, braver than the man of reason. The qualities that humans cultivate out of fear are superficial ones that do no service. They do not supply pleasure, they don’t maintain desire, and, ultimately, they do not survive much longer than we do.
Continuing his theme of human incivility, the speaker attacks honesty, for honesty goes against “common sense” which accepts that “man undoes man.” If you enter the world (especially the public world) thinking men honest, you’ll quickly be abused. Even if you remain honest, the men around you won’t be, and they will soon join together to lie and ruin you–motivated by fear–unless you submit to the same deceits “Wronged shall he live, insulted o’er, oppressed, / Who dares be less a villain than the rest” (166-7). In order to coexist peacefully, we are all forced into villainy. This as well is an Hobbesian opinion: “For he who should be modest, and tractable, and perform all he promises, in such a time and place, where no man else should do so, should make himself a prey to others, and procure his own certain ruin [. . . .]” (166). If we remain upright, we’ll be knocked down and made to suffer. In order to get along, we must destroy each other.
In summing up his argument, the speaker declares that humanity is all the same and that all are enslaved to a vain and deceitful nature; generally, all men are “pretending,” and the only difference between men is the “degree” of pretense. The guiltiest, however, are those hypocrites use their ill-gained power to dominate while they maintain their own sordid affairs. Politicians and the clergy are the primary targets: while politicians ought to use their power to “raise their country,” (188), they use it instead to raise their family’s status. Likewise, clergymen are beset by greed and love of rank: they pursue those very things they rail against as immoral. Having presented these two particular generalities, the speaker challenges the reader to present one honest man:
Who preaching peace, does practice continence;
Whose pious life’s a proof he does believe
Mysterious truths, which no man can conceive.
If upon Earth there dwell such God-like men,
I’ll here recant my paradox to them,
Adore those shrines of virtue, homage pay,
And with the rabble world, their laws obey. (213-19)
If evidence is procured that proves the speaker wrong, and which reaffirms that mankind deserves the question of a doubt, then he’ll retract his judgment and concede to the laws of the virtuous. However, according to the speaker, even if such a man exists, it remains true at heart that “Man differs more from man, than man to beast” (221). Despite individual particularities, humans are all alike in destructive and self-serving natures. Therefore, mankind is not only more bestial than beasts are, but they’re also further removed from nature than beasts. This conclusion, in which none of the speaker’s paradoxes are resolved, fails to offer any propositions for improvement. Human nature being what it is, there are no solutions to be had.
Ultimately, the speaker doesn’t approve of the Hobbesian social agenda. He would agree that humans long not to enlighten themselves, but to achieve their individual desires. He would also agree that this natural inclination easily results in social disaster; here, however, he and the philosopher part ways. Thomas Hobbes thought that, in order to live together, “men had to give up the right to injure others in return for the right not to be injured by them” (Goldsworthy 2). In a civil society, humans voluntarily surrender (or at least limit) the pursuit of natural instinct–which can potentially harm others–in order to maintain peace and security. Yet the poem’s speaker notes that it isn’t in mankind’s disposition to forgo harming others in exchange for not being harmed; to the speaker, “meanness and selfishness are elemental to human nature, and therefore the prospect of orderly living must be remote” (Cousins 433). We are bound to compete using every malicious weapon at our disposal. Those who would lay claim to a higher stance are quickly trod upon. There is, after all, no real society of man: “Rochester’s satire holds out to us no prospect of a superstate [as Hobbes’ Leviathan] into which to trust, perforce, our care. Just the opposite, by means of the nonsensical fabrication of truth–namely, the statesman and the clergyman–are chiefly responsible for our predicament and misery (Combe 79). Those who humans hold in high esteem enforce limits on instinct and caution the use of sense through civic laws and false morality. These social authorities curtail mankind’s happiness. Brotherly love–altruism–doesn’t exist, for the only sense of duty is to oneself.
The poem’s perspective is not clearly consistent. The speaker moves from criticizing reason to criticizing human nature in general. It may be that the imagined counter-argument has spurred the speaker into enlarging his critical scope; however, the poem is unified. There are similarities between the discussion of human reason and that of human nature, as both aspects are noted for “indirectness, doubleness, and circularity” (Gill 569). At his most libertine, the speaker condemns only those who consider themselves superior beings due to reason; after the clergyman’s interjection, the speaker’s targets become more general, and his refutation gradually grows more Hobbesian. It gains momentum until all mankind is held suspect, not simply those who pretend to reason. Ultimately, the speaker undoes himself, just as all thinking fools undo themselves, as he “is included in his denunciation of man, and his denunciation itself exemplifies that which he denounces” (Wright 260). The speaker’s paradoxes are irresolvable, and his argument, through its conclusion, condemns the speaker along with the rest of humanity. He has caught himself in a tangle of malice, cynicism, and reason that is all too bestial–and all too human.
 “Pathetic” only came to mean sympathetic or sentimental fairly late in the eighteenth century. According to the OED, in Rochester’s time the word denoted “producing an effect on the emotions”; similarly, something that arose from or expressed “passion or strong emotion” was deemed pathetic.
Combe, Kirk. A Martyr for Sin: Rochester’s Critique of Polity, Sexuality, and Society. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1998.
Cousins, A. D. “The Context, Design, and Argument of Rochester’s ‘A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind.'” SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. 24.3 (1984): 429-39
“Degenerate” (def. 4) The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. 1971.
Goldsworthy, Cephas. The Satyr: An Account of the Life and Works, Death and Salvation of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2001.
Greer, Germaine. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Horndon: Northcote, 2000.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Cleveland: Meridian, 1963.
Knight, Charles. “The Paradox of Reason: Argument in Rochester’s ‘Satyr against Reason and Mankind.'” Modern Language Review. 65 (1970): 254-60.
Kramnick, Jonathan Brody. “Rochester and the History of Sexuality.” ELH 69.2 (2002): 277-301
Nussbaum, Felicity. The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women 1660-1750. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1984.
Parfitt, George. English Poetry of the Seventeenth Century. NY: Longman, 1985.
Park, Jusik. “’The Estate of Hostility’: Hobbesian Philosophy in Rochester’s ‘A Satyr against Reason and Mankind’” Journal of English Language and Literature. 47.4 (2001): 997-1015.
“Pathetic.” (def 2) The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. 1971.
Russell, Ford. “Satiric Perspective on Rochester’s “A Satyr against Reason and Mankind.” Papers in Language and Literature. 22.3 (1986): 245-53.
Thormählen, Marianne. Rochester: The Poems in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.
Wilmot, John, Earl of Rochester. “Satyr Against Reason and Mankind.” The Works of the Earl of Rochester. Ed. David M. Vieth. 1968. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995. 94-101.
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