Rather than pressing on with other tasks, I have been reading John Sheffield’s Antapologia, or, A discourse of excuses setting forth the variety and vanity of them, the sin and misery brought in by them, as being the greatest bar in the way to heaven, and the ready high way to hell: being the common snare wherein most of the children of men are intangled and ruined (1672). Who wouldn’t?
The subject did call (I’m afraid in vain) for the tolerance of Montaigne; as a disquisition on a pervasive human foible it does sometimes recollect Robert Burton, but Sheffield managed to keep things pious throughout, and gave his subject an unexpectedly rigorous treatment:
‘Nothing but Excuses, Excuses, none so young, so ignorant, but is skilled in them; none so poor, but is stored with them; none so good, but one time or other hath had one; none so bad but hath many of them’ (p.220).
He deplores it all, and I have made a composite image of his beguiling charts of the excuses we inveterately make, forgetting every time we do so that ‘Christ is our great, and only Excuse-maker’ (p.266).
Reading the whole thing made me realise afresh how the Bible was the ‘sea of stories’ for the 17th century mind: Sheffield does sometimes mention a profane author (Juvenal pops up), but he ranges across the Bible with unflagging application, he can exemplify every vice, and every virtue from it.
Occasionally, an anecdote from contemporary life comes in – Mistress Honeywood, despairing of her election, throwing a Venetian glass to the floor, saying that she is as certain of damnation as the glass is to break (and it rebounds unscathed off the ground – where have I read this cited before?).
He is anti-theatrical: his Samson pulls down ‘the Play-house’ on the Philistines (p.26). And here, in a passing comment betraying that attitude, a fabulous story I’d love to know more about: ‘Keep to thy Calling, and ways, and so keep thee off the Devils ground, (as he said once of a Maid that he took possession of, finding her at a Stage-play)’ (p.28). A case of diabolic possession, its inception sinful attendance at a theatre! Oh, Mr John Sheffield, when, where, who, seeing what play?!
He takes time off (p.143) to praise George Herbert: ‘And will not any one that hath any savour of piety, or fancy, confess our Herbert to have as good a vain in Poetry, and to have as lofty strains as any of our frothy and wanton Poets?’
It struck me that a denunciation of excuse-making these days would retail many, many more excuses based on the failure of objects: where would we be without our cars and computers to blame for our failings? But
The best excuse I ever heard was my friend Rod, explaining away a poor performance in a cycling time trial: honeydew, excreted by aphids on the trees that canopied the road, had (he alleged) made the road surface sticky, and retarded his progress, which would otherwise have been most puissant. Hearing this, one instantly thought: ‘That’s an excuse which has never ever been made before! Delayed by aphid action! When can I use it?’
All very well, but it still doesn't excuse posting lascivious images, does it?