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Richard Hooker

Richard HookerBorn: c. 1553
Birthplace: Heavitree, Exeter, Devon, England
Died: 2-Nov-1600
Location of death: Bishopsbourne, Kent, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Mary Churchyard, Bishopsbourne, Kent, England

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Religion

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

English writer, author of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, son of Richard Vowell or Hooker, was born at Heavitree, near the city of Exeter, about the end of 1553 or beginning of 1554. Vowell was the original name of the family, but was gradually dropped, and in the 15th century its members were known as Vowell alias Hooker. At school, not only his facility in mastering his tasks, but his intellectual inquisitiveness and his fine moral qualities, attracted the special notice of his teacher, who strongly recommended his parents to educate him for the church. Though well connected, they were, however, somewhat straitened in their worldly circumstances, and Hooker was indebted for admission to the university to his uncle, John Hooker alias Vowell, chamberlain of Exeter, and in his day a man of some literary repute, who induced Bishop Jewel to become his patron and to bestow on him a clerk's place in Corpus Christi College, Oxford. To this Hooker was admitted in 1568. Bishop Jewel died in September 1571, but Dr. William Cole, president of the college, from the strong interest he felt in the young man, on account at once of his character and his abilities, spontaneously offered to take the bishop's place as his patron; and shortly afterwards Hooker, by his own labors as a tutor, became independent of gratuitous aid. Two of his pupils, and these his favorite ones, were Edwin Sandys, afterwards author of Europae speculum, and George Cranmer, grand-nephew of the archbishop. Hooker's reputation as a tutor soon became very high, for he had employed his five years at the university to such good purpose as not only to have acquired great proficiency in the learned languages, but to have joined to this a wide and varied culture which had delivered him from the bondage of learned pedantry; in addition to which he is said to have possessed a remarkable talent for communicating knowledge in a clear and interesting manner, and to have exercised a special influence over his pupils' intellectual and moral tendencies. In December 1573 he was elected scholar of his college; in July 1577 he proceeded to M.A., and in September of the same year he was admitted a fellow. In 1579 he was appointed by the chancellor of the university to read the public Hebrew lecture, a duty which he continued to discharge until he left Oxford. Not long after his admission into holy orders, about 1581, he was appointed to preach at St. Paul's Cross; and, according to Walton, he was so kindly entertained by Mrs. Churchman, who kept the Shunamite's house where the preachers were boarded, that he permitted her to choose him a wife, "promising upon a fair summons to return to London and accept of her choice." The lady selected by her was her daughter Joan, who, says the same authority, "found him neither beauty nor portion; and for her conditions they were too like that wife's which is by Solomon compared to a dripping house." It is probable that Walton has exaggerated the simplicity and passiveness of Hooker in the matter, but though, as Keble observes with justice, his writings betray uncommon shrewdness and quickness of observation, as well as a vein of keenest humor, it would appear that either gratitude or some other impulse had on this occasion led his judgment astray. After his marriage he was, about the end of 1584, presented to the living of Drayton Beauchamp in Buckinghamshire. In the following year he received a visit from his two pupils, Edwin Sandys and George Cranmer, who found him with the Odes of Horace in his hand, tending the sheep while the servant was at dinner, after which, when they on the return of the servant accompanied him to his house, "Richard was called to rock the cradle." Finding him so engrossed by worldly and domestic cares, they stayed but until the next morning, and, greatly grieved at his narrow circumstances and unhappy domestic condition, "left him to the company of his wife Joan."

The visit had, however, results of the highest moment, not only in regard to the career of Hooker, but in regard to English literature and English philosophical thought. Sandys prevailed on his father, the Archbishop of York, to recommend Hooker for presentation to the mastership of the Temple, and Hooker, though his "wish was rather to gain a better country living", having agreed after some hesitation to become a candidate, the patent conferring upon him the mastership was granted on the 17th of March 1584/5. The rival candidate was Walter Travers, a Presbyterian and evening lecturer in the same church. Being continued in the lectureship after the appointment of Hooker, Travers was in the habit of attempting a refutation in the evening of what Hooker had spoken in the morning, Hooker again replying on the following Sunday; so it was said "the forenoon sermon spake Canterbury, the afternoon Geneva." On account of the keen feeling displayed by the partisans of both, Archbishop Whitgift deemed it prudent to prohibit the preaching of Travers, whereupon he presented a petition to the council to have the prohibition recalled. Hooker published an Answer to the Petition of Mr. Travers, and also printed several sermons bearing on special points of the controversy; but, feeling strongly the unsatisfactory nature of such an isolated and fragmentary discussion of separate points, he resolved to compose an elaborate and exhaustive treatise, exhibiting the fundamental principles by which the question in dispute must be decided. It is probable that the work was begun in the latter half of 1586, and he had made considerable progress with it before, with a view to its completion, he petitioned Whitgift to be removed to a country parsonage, in order that, as he said, "I may keep myself in peace and privacy, and behold God's blessing spring out of my mother earth, and eat my own bread without oppositions." His desire was granted in 1591 by a presentation to the rectory of Boscombe near Salisbury. There he completed the volume containing the first four of the proposed Eight Books of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. It was entered at Stationers' Hall on the 9th of March 1592, but was not published until 1593 or 1594. In July 1595 he was promoted by the crown to the rectory of Bishopsbourne near Canterbury, where he lived to see the completion of the fifth book in 1597. In the passage from London to Gravesend some time in 1600 he caught a severe cold from which he never recovered; but, notwithstanding great weakness and constant suffering, he was "solicitous in his study", his one desire being "to live to finish the three remaining books of Polity." His death took place on the 2nd of November of the same year. A volume professing to contain the sixth and eighth books of the Polity was published at London in 1648, but the bulk of the sixth book, as has been shown by Keble, is an entire deviation from the subject on which Hooker proposed to treat, and doubtless the genuine copy, known to have been completed, has been lost. The seventh book, which was published in a new edition of the work by Gauden in 1662, and the eighth book, may be regarded as in substance the composition of Hooker; but, as, in addition to wanting his final revision, they have been very unskilfully edited, if they have not been manipulated for theological purposes, their statements in regard to doubtful matters must be received with due reserve, and no reliance can be placed on their testimony where their meaning contradicts that of other portions of the Polity.

The conception of Hooker in his later years, which we form from the various accessible sources, is that of a person of low stature and not immediately impressive appearance, much bent by the influence of sedentary and meditative habits, of quiet and retiring manners, and discolored in complexion and worn and marked in feature from the hard mental toil which he had expended on his great work. There seems, however, exaggeration in Walton's statement as to the meanness of his dress; and Walton certainly misreads his character when he portrays him as a kind of ascetic mystic. Though he was unworldly and simple in his desires, and engrossed in the purpose to which he had devoted his life -- the completion of the Polity -- his writings indicate that he possessed a cheerful and healthy disposition, and that he was capable of discovering enjoyment in everyday pleasures, and of appreciating human life and character in a wide variety of aspects. He seems to have had a special delight in outward nature -- as he expressed it, he loved "to see God's blessing spring out of his mother earth"; and he spent much of his spare time in visiting his parishioners, his deference towards them, if excessive, being yet mingled with a grave dignity which rendered unwarrantable liberties impossible. As a preacher, though singularly devoid of the qualities which win the applause of the multitude, he always excited the interest of the more intelligent, the breadth and finely balanced wisdom of his thoughts and the fascination of his composition greatly modifying the impression produced by his weak voice and ineffective manner. Partly, doubtless, on account of his dimsightedness, he never removed his eye from his manuscript, and, according to Fuller, "he may be said to have made good music with his fiddle and stick alone, having neither pronunciation nor gesture to grace his matter."

To accede without explanation to the claim put forth for the Ecclesiastical Polity of Hooker, that it marks an epoch in English prose literature and English thought, would both be to do some injustice to writers previous to him, and, if not to overestimate his influence, to misinterpret its character. By no means can his excursions in English prose be regarded as chiefly those of a pioneer; and not only is his intellectual position inferior to that of Shakespeare, Spenser and Bacon, who alone can be properly reckoned as the master spirits of the age, but in reality what effect he may have had upon the thought of his contemporaries was soon disregarded and swept out of sight in the hand-to-hand struggle with Puritanism, and his influence, so far from being immediate and confined to one particular era, has since the reaction against Puritanism been slowly and imperceptibly permeating and coloring English thought. His work is, however, the earliest in English prose with enough of the preserving salt of excellence to adapt it to the mental palate of modern readers. Attempts more elaborate than those of the old chroniclers had been made two centuries previously to employ English prose both for narrative and for discussion; and, a few years before him, Roger Ascham, Sir Thomas More, Hugh Latimer, Sir Philip Sidney, the compilers of the prayer book, and various translators of the Bible, had in widely different departments of literature brought to light many samples of the rich wealth of expression that was latent in the language; but Hooker's is the first independent work in English prose of notable power and genius, and the vigor and grasp of its thought are not more remarkable than the felicity of its literary style. Its more usual and obvious excellences are clearness of expression, notwithstanding occasionally complicated methods; great aptness and conciseness in the formation of individual clauses, and such a fine sense of proportion and rhythm in their arrangement as almost conceals the difficulties of syntax by which he was hampered; finished simplicity, notwithstanding a stateliness too uniform and unbroken; a nice discrimination in the choice of words and phrases, so as both to portray the exact shade of his meaning, and to express each of his thoughts with that degree of emphasis appropriate to its place in his composition. In regard to qualities more relating to the matter than the manner we may note the subtle and partly hidden humor; the strong enthusiasm underlying that seemingly calm and passionless exposition of principles which continually led him away from the minutiae of temporary disputes, and has earned for him the somewhat misleading epithet of "judicious"; the solidity of learning, not ostentatiously displayed, but indicated in the character and variety of his illustrations and his comprehensive mastery of all that relates to his subject; the breadth of his conceptions, and the sweep and ease of his movements in the highest regions of thought; the fine poetical descriptions occasionally introduced, in which his eloquence attains a grave, rich and massive harmony that compares not unfavourably with the finest prose of John Milton. His manner is, of course, defective in the flexibility and variety characteristic of the best models of English prose literaturc after the language had been enriched and perfected by long use, and his sentences, constructed too much according to Latin usages, are often tautological and too protracted into long concatenations of clauses; but if, when regarded superficially, his style presents in some respects a stiff and antiquated aspect, it yet possesses at original and innate charm that has retained its freshness after the lapse of nearly three centuries.

The direct interest in the Ecclesiastical Polity is now philosophical and political rather than theologcal, for what theological importance it possessed was rather in regard to the spirit and method in which theology should he discussed than in regard to the decision of strictly theological points. Hooker bases his reasoning on principles which he discovered in St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, but the intellectual atmosphere of his age was different from that which surrounded them; he was acted upon by new and more various impulses enabling him to imbibe more thoroughly the spirit of Greek thought which was the source of their inspiration, and thus to reach a higher and freer region than scholasticism, and in a sense to inaugurate modern philosophy in England. It may be admitted that his principles are only partially and in some degree capriciously wrought out -- that if he is not under the dominion of intellectual tendencies leading to opposite results there are occasional blanks and gaps in his argument where he seems sometimes to be groping after a meaning which he cannot fully grasp; but he is often charged with obscurity simply because readers of various theological schools, beholding in his principles what seem the outline and justification of their own ideas, are disappointed when they find that these outlines instead of acquiring as they narrowly examine them the full and definite form of their anticipations, widen out into a region beyond their notions and sympathies, and therefore from their point of view enveloped in mist and shade. It is the exposition of philosophical principles in the first and second books of the Polity, and not the application of these principles in the remaining books that gives the work its standard place in English literature. It was intended to be an answer to the attacks of the Presbyterians on the Episcopalian polity and customs, but no attempt is made directly to oust Presbyterianism from the place it then held in the Church of England. The work must rather be regarded as a remonstrance against the narrow ground chosen by the Presbyterians for their basis of attack, Hooker's exact position being that "a necessity of polity and regiment may be held in all churches without holding any form to be necessary."

The general purpose of his reasoning is to vindicate Episcopacy from objections that had been urged against it, but he attains a result which has other and wider consequences than this. The fundamental principle on which he bases his reasoning is the unity and all-embracing character of law -- law "whose seat", he beautifully says, "is the bosom of God, whose voice the harmony of the world." Law as operative in nature, as regulating each man's individual character and actions, as seen in the formations of societies and governments -- is equally a manifestation and development of the divine order according to which God Himself acts, is the expression in various forms of the divine reason. He makes a distinction between natural and positive laws, the one being eternal and immutable, the other varying according to external necessity and expediency; and he includes all the forms of government under laws that are positive and therefore alterable according to circumstances. Their application is to be determined by reason, reason enlightened and strengthened by every variety of knowledge, discipline and experience. The leading feature in his system is the high place assigned to reason, for, though affirming that certain truths necessary to salvation could be made known only by special divine revelation, he yet elevates reason into the criterion by which these truths are to be judged, and the standard to determine what in revelation is temporal and what eternal. "It is not the word of God itself", he says, "which doth or possibly can assure us that we do well to think it His word." At the same time he saves himself from the dangers of abstract and rash theorizing by a deep and absolute regard for facts, the diligent and accurate study of which he makes of the first importance to the proper use of reason. "The general and perpetual voice of men is", he says, "as the sentence of God Himself. For that which all men have at all times learned, nature herself must needs have taught; and, God being the author of nature, her voice is but His instrument." Applying his principles to man individually, the foundation of morality is, according to Hooker, immutable, and rests "on that law which God from the beginning hath set Himself to do all things by"; this law is to be discovered by reason; and the perfection which reason teaches us to strive after is stated, with characteristic breadth of conception and regard to the facts of human nature, to be "a triple perfection: first a sensual, consisting in those things which very life itself requireth, either as necessary supplements, or as beauties or ornaments thereof; then an intellectual, consisting in those things which none underneath man is either capable of or acquainted with; lastly, a spiritual or divine, consisting in those things whereunto we tend by supernatural means here, but cannot here attain unto them." Applying his principles to man as a member of a community, he assigns practically the same origin and sanctions to ecclesiastical as to civil government. His theory of government forms the basis of the Treatise on Civil Government by John Locke, although Locke developed the theory in a way that Hooker would not have sanctioned. The force and justification of government Hooker derives from public approbation, either given directly by the parties immediately concerned, or indirectly through inheritance from their ancestors. "Sith men", he says, "naturally have no full and perfect power to command whole politic multitudes of men, therefore utterly without our consent we could in such sort be at no man's commandment living. And to be commanded we do consent, when that society whereof we are part hath at any time before consented, without revoking the same after, by the like universal agreement." His theory as he stated it is in various of its aspects and application liable to objection; but taken as a whole it is the first philosophical statement of the principles which, though disregarded in the succeeding age, have since regulated political progress in England and gradually modified its constitution. One of the corollaries of his principles is his theory of the relation of church and state, according to which, with the qualifications implied in his theory of government, he asserts the royal supremacy in matters of religion, and identifies the church and commonwealth as but different aspects of the same government.

Father: Richard Vowell

    University: MA, Corpus Christi College, Oxford University (1577)



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