Saturday, January 26, 2008

Homo (non-) ludens: a 17th century preacher renounces chess.

I find myself with a lecture to refresh on Women beware Women. The famous chess-playing scene, II ii, led me into a scamper round EEBO looking at early books on chess, and so to reading a highly moral broadsheet: A letter from a minister to his friend concerning the game of chesse (1680).

As ever, what I feel in this publication is its poignantly compressed record of a life otherwise disappeared. As point after morally urgent point is made by this recovering chess addict, in its candour and the methodical breadth of its self-criticism, the unknown writer comes alive: the intellectual passion of his life, his self-indulgence, his Christian self-criticism, the thoughts of his acquaintances, his reading, his very physique. I liked especially his confession to thinking about chess problems while in the pulpit (like John Donne’s confession to suffering easy distractions when at prayer):

SIR, I here send you my Reasons for my disusing and declining the Game of Chess …

1. It is a great Time-waster: How many precious hours (which can never be recall’d) have I profusely spent in this Game? O Chesse, I’le be aveng’d of thee for the loss of my Time. 'Tis a true saying, That it is more necessary thriftiness to be sparing and saving of Time than of Money. One offered on his Death-bed a World of Wealth, for an Inch of Time; and another with great earnestness, cryed out, when she lay dying; Call Time again! Call time again! This I heard, says a worthy Minister, and I think the sound of it will be in my ears so long as I live.

2. It hath had with me a fascinating property: I have been bewitched by it; and when I have begun, I have not had the power to give over. Though a thing be never so lawfull yet I ought not to suffer my self to be brought under the power of it. I’le not use it, till I find I can refuse it. Reason and Religion shall order my Recreation.

3. It hath not done with me when I have done with it. It hath followed me into my Study, into my Pulpit; when I have been Praying, or Preaching, I have (in my thoughts) been playing at Chess; then have I had it as were a Chess-board before my eyes; and I have been thinking how I might have obtained the stratagems of my Antagonist, or make such motions to his disadvantage; nay, I have heard of one who was playing at Chess in his thoughts (as appear’d by his words) when he lay a dying.

4. It hath caus’d me to break many solemn Resolutions, nay Vows and promises. Sometimes I have oblig’d my self in the most solemn manner, to play but so many Mates at a time, or with any one person, and anon I have broken these obligations and promises, and after Vows of that kind I have made inquiry how I might evade them; and have sinfully prevaricated in that matter; and that not only once, but often.

5. It hath wounded my Conscience, and broken my peace. I have had sad reflections upon it when I have been most serious. I find if I were now to dye, the remembrance of this Game would greatly trouble me, and stare me in the face. I have read in the life of the famous John Husse, how he was greatly troubled for using this game, a little before his death.

6. My using it hath been scandalous and offensive to others. Some godly friends (as I have understood) have been grieved by it; and others (as I have reason to fear) have been hardned by it. Great inconveniences have arisen from the places where, and the persons with whom I have used this game.

7. My using of it hath occasion’d much sin, as passion, strife, idle (if not lying) words, in my self or my Antagonist, or both. It hath caused the neglect of many duties both to God and Man.

8. My using of it doth evince, I have little self-denial in me. If I can’t deny my self in a foolish Game, how can I think I either do or shall deny my self in greater matters? How shall I forsake all for Christ, when I can’t forsake a Recreation for him.

9. My using it is altogether needless and unnecessary to me. As it hinders my Souls health, so it doth not further my bodily health. Such is my constitution (being corpulent and Phlegmatic) that if I need any exercise, it is that which is stirring and labouring. I can’t propound any end to my self in the use of it, but the pleasing of my flesh.

The poor man even ends with the thought of the money he has wasted on chess, and a then a quotation from “Mr B’s Christian Direct.”: “… when I observe how far the temper and life of Christ and his best servants was from such recreations, I avoid them with the more suspicion. And I see but few but distaste it in Ministers (even Shooting, Bowling, and such more healthfull Games) … That Student that needeth Chess or Cards to please his mind, I doubt hath a Carnal empty mind…”

I pursued ‘Mr B’s Christian Direct’: the reference is that inexhaustible index to the average 17th century English religious mind, Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory. Baxter’s book harasses its reader with unforgiving moral admonitions about every aspect of life, what a Christian may and (more often) may not do. In books like this, Christian recreations are a major topic. Even as I steered (however) towards the page the repentant chess player indicates, p.464, I found myself distracted by Baxter’s general inveighing against ‘inward filthy lusts’, so perhaps the book could have been read to enjoy the denunciation of the sins of others.

Baxter’s book is long enough to ensure its diligent reader many weeks free of sin. My other casting around was rewarded by finding in Thomas Gouge’s much reprinted Christian directions, shewing how to walk with God all the day long (1661) the following succinct thoughts against football matches and blood sports:

Unlawful Sports and Recreations may bee brought to these Heads.

1 All such wherein neither wit of mind, nor exercise of body is used, as Dice-play, and some Games at Cards, for in them is nothing but an expectation of an uncertain event, wherein neither wit of mind, nor exercise of body is used…

2 Such as bring danger to men, as of old was fighting with Beasts, and now Matches at Foot-bal, fighting at Cudgels, especially fighting with sharp Weapons…

3 Such as declare Gods punishment on the Creatures for mans Sin, as Bear-baiting, Cock-fighting, and the like; the enmity that is in one Creature against another, is a punishment on the poor Creatures for mans Sin, and therefore ought not to bee a ground or matter of sport and rejoycing unto us, but rather of sorrow and humiliation.

My image is from one of the editions of Arthur Saul's guide to playing chess, with D's in the corner of the board rather than R's: 'Here's a Duke will make a sure stroke for the game anon', as Livia says.


Adam Roberts said...

A letter from a minister to his friend concerning the game of chesse (1680); not to be confused with the dietary manual from the same period, A letter from a minister to his friend concerning game and cheese.

The recent obituaries of the extraordinary Bobby Fischer lead me to believe that this preacher has missed a reason, viz. "[9] That too greate an immersion in chesse may turn yr braine to lunacy, and cause you to spoute paranoyd anti-Semitic non-sense all the lengthe of your dayes."

mercurius said...

Another great find! You can just imagine the poor minister losing his train of thought mid-sermon as he ponders moving a rook to b4...

DrRoy said...

Ah, but the inducing of paranoid anti-Semitic nonsense would have been a 17th century plus, I'm afraid.
Mercurius: I'd post comments to your blog, which I read, but I seem to have to sign up with Wordpress to do so - is that right?

Erasmus said...

Fascinating. I'm in the middle of re-reading Roger Ascham's Toxophilus, and have just finished the section where he inveighs against cards and dice-playing, common objects of humanist approbation (Elyot also criticizes them in the Governor while praising archery as the single best exercise due to it moderation.)

shoting is not onely the moost holesome exercise for the bodye, the moost honest pastime for the mynde, and that for all sortes of men: But also it is a moost redy medicine, to purge the hole realme of such pestilent gamning, wherwith many tymes it is sore troubled and ill at ease.