Birthplace: Oulton, Yorkshire, England
Location of death: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Trinity Chapel College, Cambridge University, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Reformed classical scholarship
English scholar and critic, born at Oulton near Wakefield, Yorkshire, on the 27th of January 1662. His grandfather had suffered in person and estate in the royalist cause, and the family were in consequence in reduced circumstances. Bentley's mother, the daughter of a stonemason in Oulton, was a woman of excellent understanding and some education, as she was able to give her son his first lessons in Latin. From the grammar school of Wakefield Richard Bentley passed to St. John's College, Cambridge, being admitted subsizar in 1676. He afterwards obtained a scholarship and took the degree of B.A. in 1680 (M.A. 1683). He never succeeded to a fellowship, being appointed by his college, before he was twenty-one, headmaster of Spalding grammar school. In this post he did not remain long, being selected by Dr. Edward Stillingfleet, dean of St. Paul's, to be domestic tutor to his son. This appointment introduced Bentley at once to the society of the most eminent men of the day, threw open to him the best private library in England, and brought him into familiar intercourse with Dean Stillingfleet, a man of sound understanding, who had not shrunk from exploring some of the more solid and abstruse parts of ancient learning. The six years which he passed in Stillingfleet's family were employed, with the restless energy characteristic of the man, in exhausting the remains of the Greek and Latin writers, and laying up those stores of knowledge upon which he afterwards drew as circumstances required.
In 1689 Stillingfleet became bishop of Worcester, and Bentley's pupil went to reside at Oxford in Wadham College, accompanied by his tutor. Bentley's introductions and his own merits placed him at once on a footing of intimacy with the most distinguished scholars in the university, Dr. John Mill, Humphrey Hody, Edward Bernard. Here he revelled in the manuscript treasures of the Bodleian, Corpus and other college libraries. He projected and occupied himself with collections for vast literary schemes. Among these are specially mentioned a corpus of the fragments of the Greek poets and an edition of the Greek lexicographers. But his first publication was in connection with a writer of much inferior note. The Oxford (Sheldonian) press was about to bring out an edition (the editio princeps) from the unique manuscript in the Bodleian of the Greek Chronicle (a universal history down to AD 560) of John of Antioch (date uncertain, between 600 and 1000), called John Malalas or "John the Rhetor"; and the editor, Dr. John Mill, principal of St. Edmund Hall, had requested Bentley to look through the sheets and make any remarks on the text. This originated Bentley's Epistola ad Millium, which occupies less than one hundred pages at the end of the Oxford Malalas (1691). This short tractate at once placed Bentley at the head of all living English scholars. The ease with which, by a stroke of the pen, he restores passages which had been left in hopeless corruption by the editors of the Chronicle, the certainty of the emendation and the command over the relevant material, are in a style totally different from the careful and laborious learning of Hody, Mill or E. Chilmead. To the small circle of classical students (lacking the great critical dictionaries of modern times) it was at once apparent that there had arisen in England a critic whose attainments were not to be measured by the ordinary academical standard, but whom these few pages had sufficed to place by the side of the great Grecians of a former age. Unfortunately this mastery over critical science was accompanied by a tone of self-assertion and presumptuous confidence which not only checked admiration, but was calculated to rouse enmity. Dr. Monk, indeed, Bentley's biographer, charged him (in his first edition, 1830) with an indecorum of which he was not guilty. "In one place", writes Dr. Monk, "he accosts Dr Mill as 'Johnny' [the name given in Greek], an indecorum which neither the familiarity of friendship, nor the licence of a dead language, can justify towards the dignified head of a house." But the object of Bentley's apostrophe was not his correspondent Dr. Mill, but his author John Malalas, whom in another place he playfully appeals to as "Syrisce." From this publication, however, dates the origin of those mixed feelings of admiration and repugnance which Bentley throughout his career continued to excite among his contemporaries.
In 1690 Bentley had taken deacon's orders in the Church. In 1692 he was nominated first Boyle lecturer, a nomination which was repeated in 1694. He was offered the appointment a third time in 1695 but declined it, being by that time involved in too many other undertakings. In the first series of lectures ("A Confutation of Atheism") he endeavors to present the Newtonian physics in a popular form, and to frame them (especially in opposition to Thomas Hobbes) into a proof of the existence of an intelligent Creator. He had some correspondence with Isaac Newton, then living in Trinity College, on the subject. The second series, preached in 1694, has not been published and is believed to be lost. Andrew Kippis, the editor of the Biographia Britannica, mentions manuscript copies of them as in existence. Scarcely was Bentley in priest's orders before he was preferred to a prebendal stall in Worcester cathedral. In 1693 the keepership of the royal library becoming vacant, great efforts were made by his friends to obtain the place for Bentley, but through court interest the post was given to Mr. Thynne. An arrangement, however, was made, by which the new librarian resigned in favor of Bentley, on condition that he received an annuity of £130 for life out of the salary, which only amounted to £200. To these preferments were added in 1695 a royal chaplaincy and the living of Hartlebury. In the same year Bentley was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1696 proceeded to the degree of D.D. The recognition of continental scholars came in the shape of a dedication, by Graevius, prefixed to a dissertation of Albert Rubens, De Vita Flavii Mattii Theodori, published at Utrecht in 1694.
While these distinctions were being accumulated upon Bentley, his energy was making itself felt in many and various directions. He had official apartments in St. James's Palace, and his first care was the royal library. He made great efforts to retrieve this collection from the dilapidated condition into which it had been allowed to fall. He employed the mediation of the earl of Marlborough to beg the grant of some additional rooms in the palace for the books. The rooms were granted, but Marlborough characteristically kept them for himself. Bentley enforced the law against the publishers, and thus added to the library nearly 1000 volumes which they had neglected to deliver. He was commissioned by the university of Cambridge to obtain Greek and Latin founts for their classical books, and accordingly he had cast in Holland those beautiful types which appear in the Cambridge books of that date. He assisted John Evelyn in his Numismata. All Bentley's literary appearances at this time were of this accidental character. We do not find him settling down to the steady execution of any of the great projects with which he had started. He designed, indeed, in 1694 an edition of Philostratus, but readily abandoned it to G. Olearius, (Öhlschläger), "to the joy", says F. A. Wolf, "of Olearius and of no one else." He supplied Graevius with collations of Cicero, and Joshua Barnes with a warning as to the spuriousness of the Epistles of Euripides, which was thrown away upon that blunderer, who printed the epistles and declared that no one could doubt their genuineness but a man perfrictae frontis aut judicii imminuti. Bentley supplied to Graevius's Callimachus a masterly collection of the fragments with notes, published at Utrecht in 1697.
The Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris, the work on which Bentley's fame in great part rests, originated in the same casual way. William Wotton, being about to bring out in 1697 a second edition of his book on Ancient and Modern Learning, claimed of Bentley the fulfilment of an old promise to write a paper exposing the spuriousness of the Epistles of Phalaris. This paper was resented as an insult by the Christ Church editor of Phalaris, Charles Boyle, afterwards earl of Orrery, who in getting the manuscript in the royal library collated for his edition (1695) had had a little quarrel with Bentley. Assisted by his college friends, particularly Atterbury, Boyle wrote a reply, "a tissue", says Dr. Alexander Dyce (in his edition of Bentley's Works, 1836-38), "of superficial learning, ingenious sophistry, dexterous malice and happy raillery." The reply was hailed by the public as crushing and went immediately into a second edition. It was incumbent on Bentley to rejoin. This he did (1699) in what Porson styles "that immortal dissertation", to which no answer was or could be given, although the truth of its conclusions was not immediately recognized.
In the year 1700 Bentley received that main preferment which, says Thomas De Quincey, "was at once his reward and his scourge for the rest of his life." The six commissioners of ecclesiastical patronage unanimously recommended Bentley to the crown for the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge. This college, the most splendid foundation in the university of Cambridge, and in the scientific and literary reputation of its fellows the most eminent society in either university, had in 1700 greatly fallen from its high estate. It was not that it was more degraded than the other colleges, but its former lustre made the abuse of endowments in its case more conspicuous. The eclipse had taken place during the reaction which followed 1660, and was owing to causes which were not peculiar to Trinity, but which influenced the nation at large. The names of John Pearson and Isaac Barrow, and, greater than either, that of Newton, adorn the college annals of this period. But these were quite exceptional men. They had not inspired the rank and file of fellows of Trinity with any of their own love for learning or science. Indolent and easy-going clerics, without duties, without a pursuit or any consciousness of the abligation of endowments, they haunted the college for the pleasant life and the good things they found there, creating sinecure offices in each other's favor, jobbing the scholarships and making the audits mutually pleasant. Any excuse served for a banquet at the cost of "the house", and the celibacy imposed by the statutes was made as tolerable as the decorum of a respectable position permitted. To such a society Bentley came, obnoxious as a St. John's man and an intruder, unwelcome as a man of learning whose interests lay outside the walls of the college. Bentley replied to their concealed dislike with open contempt, and proceeded to ride roughshod over their little arrangements. He inaugurated many beneficial reforms in college usages and discipline, executed extensive improvements in the buildings, and generally used his eminent station for the promotion of the interests of learning both in the college and in the university. But this energy was accompanied by a domineering temper, an overweening contempt for the feelings and even for the rights of others, and an unscrupulous use of means when a good end could be obtained. Bentley, at the summit of classical learning, disdained to associate with mem whom he regarded as illiterate priests. He treated them with contumely, while he was diverting their income to public purposes. The continued drain upon their purses -- on one occasion the whole dividend of the year was absorbed by the rebuilding of the chapel -- was the grievance which at last roused the fellows to make a resolute stand. After ten years of stubborn but ineffectual resistance within the college, they had recourse in 1710 to the last remedy -- an appeal to the visitor, the bishop of Ely (Dr. Moore). Their petition is an ill-drawn invective, full of general complaints and not alleging any special delinquency. Bentley's reply (The Present State of Trinity College, etc., 1710) is in his most crushing style. The fellows amended their petition and put in a fresh charge, in which they articled fifty-four separate breaches of the statutes as having been committed by the master. Bentley, called upon to answer, demurred to the bishop of Ely's jurisdiction, alleging that the crown was visitor. He backed his application by a dedication of his Horace to the lord treasurer (Harley). The crown lawyers decided the point against him; the case was heard (1714) and a sentence of ejection from the mastership ordered to be drawn up, but before it was executed the bishop of Ely died and the process lapsed. The feud, however, still went on in various forms. In 1718 Bentley was deprived by the university of his degrees, as a punishment for failing to appear in the vice-chancellor's court in a civil suit; and it was not until 1724 that the law compelled the university to restore them. In 1733 he was again brought to trial before the bishop of Ely (Dr. Greene) by the fellows of Trinity and was sentenced to deprivation, but the college statutes required the sentence to be exercised by the vice-master (Dr. Walker), who was Bentley's friend and refused to act. In vain were attempts made to compel the execution of the sentence, and though the feud was kept up until 1738 or 1740 (about thirty years in all) Bentley remained undisturbed.
During the period of his mastership, with the exception of the first two years, Bentley pursued his studies uninterruptedly, although the results in the shape of published works seem incommensurable. In 1709 he contributed a critical appendix to John Davies's edition of Cicero's Tusculan Disputations. In the following year he published his emendations on the Plutus and Nubes of Aristophanes, and on the fragments of Menander and Philemon. The last came out under the name of "Phileleutherus Lipsiensis", which he made use of two years later in his Remarks on a late Discourse of Freethinking, a reply to Anthony Collins the deist. For this he received the thanks of the university, in recognition of the service thereby rendered to the church and clergy. His Horace, long contemplated and in the end written in very great haste and brought out to propitiate public opinion at a critical period of the Trinity quarrel, appeared in 1711. In the preface he declared his intention of confining his atttention to criticism and correction of the text, and ignoring exegesis. Some of his 700 or 800 emendations have been accepted, but the majority of them are now rejected as unnecessary and prosaic, although the learning and ingenuity shown in their support are remarkable. In 1716, in a letter to Dr. Wake, Archbishop of Canterbury, he announced his design of preparing a critical edition of the New Testament. During the next four years, assisted by J. J. Wetstein, an eminent biblical critic, who claimed to have been the first to suggest the idea to Bentley, he collected materials for the work, and in 1720 published Proposals for a New Edition of the Greek Testament, with specimens of the manner in which he intended to carry it out. He proposed, by comparing the text of the Vulgate with that of the oldest Greek manuscripts, to restore the Greek text as received by the church at the time of the council of Nice. A large number of subscribers to the work was obtained, but it was never completed. His Terence (1726) is more important than his Horace, and it is upon this, next to the Phalaris, that his reputation mainly rests. Its chief value consists in the novel treatment of the metrical questions and their bearing on the emendation of the text. To the same year belong the Fables of Phaedrus and the Sententiae of Publius Syrus. The Paradise Lost (1732), undertaken at the suggestion of Queen Caroline, is generally regarded as the most unsatisfactory of all his writings. It is marred by the same rashness in emendation and lack of poetical feeling as his Horace; but there is less excuse for him in this case, since the English text could not offer the same field for conjecture. He put forward the idea that Milton employed both an amanuensis and an editor, who were to be held responsible for the clerical errors, alterations and interpolations which Bentley professed to detect. It is uncertain whether this was a device on the part of Bentley to excuse his own numerous corrections, or whether he really believed in the existence of this editor. Of the contemplated edition of Homer nothing was published; all that remains of it consists of some manuscript and marginal notes in the possession of Trinity College. Their chief importance lies in the attempt to restore the metre by the insertion of the lost digamma. Among his minor works may be mentioned: the Astronomica of Manilius (1739), for which he had been collecting materials since 1691; a letter on the Sigean inscription on a marble slab found in the Troad, now in the British Museum; notes on the Theriaca of Nicander and on Lucan, published after his death by Cumberland; emendations of Plautus (in his copies of the editions by Pareus, Camerarius and Gronovius, edited by Schröder, 1880, and Sonnenschein, 1883). Bentleii Critica Sacra (1862), edited by A. A. Ellis, contains the epistle to the Galatians (and excerpts), printed from an interleaved folio copy of the Greek and Latin Vulgate in Trinity College. A collection of his Opuscula Philologica was published at Leipzig in 1781. The edition of his works by Dyce (1836-38) is incomplete.
He had married in 1701 Joanna, daughter of Sir John Bernard of Brampton in Huntingdonshire. Their union lasted forty years. Mrs. Bentley died in 1740, leaving a son, Richard, and two daughters, one of whom married in 1728 Denison Cumberland, grandson of Richard Cumberland, bishop of Peterborough. Their son was Richard Cumberland, the dramatist. Surrounded by his grandchildren, Bentley experienced the joint pressure of age and infirmity as lightly as is consistent with the lot of humanity. He continued to amuse himself with reading; and though nearly confined to his armchair, was able to enjoy the society of his friends and several rising scholars, J. Markland, John Taylor, his nephews Richard and Thomas Bentley, with whom he discussed classical subjects. He was accustomed to say that he should live to be eighty, adding that a life of that duration was long enough to read everything worth reading. He fulfilled his own prediction, dying of pleurisy on the 14th of July 1742. Though accused by his enemies of being grasping, he left not more than £5000 behind him. A few Greek manuscripts, brought from Mount Athos, he left to the college library; his books and papers to his nephew, Richard Bentley. Richard, who was a fellow of Trinity, at his death in 1786 left the papers to the college library. The books, containing in many cases valuable manuscript notes, were purchased by the British Museum.
Of his personal habits some anecdotes are related by his grandson, Richard Cumberland, in volume I of his Memoirs (1807). The hat of formidable dimensions, which he always wore during reading to shade his eyes, and his preference of port to claret (which he said "would be port if it could") are traits embodied in Alexander Pope's caricature in the Dunciad, which bears in other respects little resemblance to the original. He did not take up the habit of smoking until he was seventy. He held the archdeaconry of Ely with two livings, but never obtained higher preference in the church. He was offered the (then poor) bishopric of Bristol but refused it, and being asked what preferment he would consider worth his acceptance, replied, "That which would leave him no reason to wish for a removal."
Bentley was the first, perhaps the only, Englishman who can be ranked with the great heroes of classical learning, although perhaps not a great classical scholar. Before him there were only John Selden, and, in a more restricted field, Thomas Gataker and Pearson. But Selden, a man of stupendous learning, wanted the freshness of original genius and confident mastery over the whole region of his knowledge. "Bentley inaugurated a new era of the art of criticism. He opened a new path. With him criticism attained its majority. Where scholars had hitherto offered suggestions and conjectures, Bentley, with unlimited control over the whole material of learning, gave decisions" (Mähly). The modern German school of philology does ungrudging homage to his genius. Bentley, says Bunsen, "was the founder of historical philology." And Jakob Bernays says of his corrections of the Tristia, "corruptions which had hitherto defied every attempt even of the mightiest, were removed by a touch of the fingers of this British Samson." The English school of Hellenists, by which the 18th century was distinguished, and which contains the names of R. Dawes, J. Markland, J. Taylor, J. Toup, T. Tyrwhitt, Richard Porson, P. P. Dobree, Thomas Kidd and J. H. Monk, was the creation of Bentley. And even the Dutch school of the same period, though the outcome of a native tradition, was in no small degree stimulated and directed by the example of Bentley, whose letters to the young Hemsterhuis on his edition of Julius Pollux produced so powerful an effect on him, that he became one of Bentley's most devoted admirers.
Bentley was a source of inspiration to a following generation of scholars. Himself, he sprang from the earth without forerunners, without antecedents. Self-taught, he created his own science. It was his misfortune that there was no contemporary guild of learning in England by which his power could be measured, and his eccentricities checked. In the Phalaris controversy his academical adversaries had not sufficient knowledge to know how absolute their defeat was. Garth's couplet -- "So diamonds take a lustre from their foil, / And to a Bentley 'tis we owe a Boyle" -- expressed the belief of the wits or literary world of the time. The attacks upon him by Pope, John Arbuthuot and others are evidence of their inability to appreciate his work. To them, textual criticism seemed mere pedantry and useless labor. It was not only that he had to live with inferiors, and to waste his energy in a struggle forced upon him by the necessities of his official position, but the wholesome stimulus of competition and the encouragement of a sympathetic circle were wanting. In a university where the instruction of youth or the religious controversy of the day were the only known occupations, Bentley was an isolated phenomenon, and we can hardly wonder that he should have flagged in his literary exertions after his appointment to the mastership of Trinity. All his vast acquisitions and all his original views seem to have been obtained before 1700. After this period he acquired little and made only spasmodic efforts -- the Horace, the Terence and the Milton. The prolonged mental concentration and mature meditation, which alone can produce a great work, were wanting to him.
Wife: Joanna Bernard (m. 1701, d. 1740, one son, two daughters)
University: BA, St. John's College, Cambridge University (1680)
University: MA, St. John's College, Cambridge University (1683)
Administrator: Master, Trinity College, Cambridge University (1700-42)
Royal Society 1695
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