Republic of Letters

Historian Christopher Dawson, a champion of the Christian humanist idea of the “republic of letters,” once criticized those who attempted to present the “great books” of the past without a cohesive, overall narrative. It was not enough to confront the student with a random assortment of writers. What united our culture was not only a common language (Latin or Greek), but the shared historical, philosophical and artistic experience handed down since ancient times. It was a reference point for anyone who cared to read and ponder. Dawson explained how this literate society must operate. “A culture as I see it is essentially a network of relations, and it is only by studying a number of personalities that you can trace this network.” Even if not everyone can, or will, take advantage of classical learning, the maintenance of our intellectual traditions should not be consigned to a narrow group of specialists. A largely anonymous but devoted body of articulate readers acts as the medium of cultural transmission. It provides great writers not only their first audience but sometimes their first teachers. Though often neglected by posterity, men of letters play their important role as the living link between one generation and the next.

In Dr. Johnson’s “Life of Addison,” one finds further vindication for the “man of letters.” Joseph Addison (1672-1719), along with Richard Steele (1672-1729), was one of the founding fathers of the modern English essay in The Tatler and The Spectator. Such cultured journalism, however, was not aimed at a snob following or coterie of academics. As Johnson explains, Addison’s journals “had a perceptible influence upon the conversation of that time, and taught the frolic and the gay to unite merriment with decency.” In part, the aim of such letters is to “teach the minuter decencies and inferior duties, regulate the practice of daily conversation, to correct those depravities which are rather ridiculous than criminal.” In order to succeed, the “republic of letters” should do more than perpetuate the timeless knowledge of the ages. It must also operate on the practical level of helping people to communicate rationally, clearly and politely.

Addison understood the importance of good writing for civilized men and women: “Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them, that a description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of things themselves.” This is because the gifted writer “discovers to us several parts, that either we did not attend to, or that lay out of our sight when we first beheld it.” Because reading is based on reflection these “secondary views of the imagination” are of a “universal nature.” Without denying the vital importance of visual art, it is true that the greatest cultures are built on the development and preservation of the written word.

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