Sunday, January 24, 2010

Death rather than voluntary self-pollution: Joseph Hall on moral matters

Joseph Hall, 1574-1656, is one of those figures who really might feature more than he does in our sense of late 16th and early to middle 17th century literature and culture. Pioneer verse satirist, literary forerunner to Swift’s Gulliver in his Mundus Alter et Idem, writer of Theophrastan characters, and then antagonist of Milton over both the church and divorce, Hall perhaps lived too long, and wrote too much, while undertaking just too many kinds of writing.

I have been looking at his Cases of Conscience (1654), a reprint of his Resolvtions and decisions of divers practicall cases of conscience (1650). It is one of the scores, nearly hundreds of books of casuistry on EEBO, though one of the more readable: it concerns itself with practical examples throughout, rather having the occasional ‘example’ thrown into a long classification of kinds of conscience. Hall is, up to a point, a kind of mid 17th century A. C. Grayling, trying to arrive at what one might best think about real issues. Of course, Hall was a bishop rather than a philosopher, and completely lacks Grayling’s refreshingly brusque skepticism, so his investigations of moral dilemmas tend to halt abruptly when he has can produce what he thinks is the relevant Bible text. Discussion simply ends there; it’s the word of God, you obey it.

The Cases of Conscience therefore tend to come out as a series of ‘No!’ and ‘No, of course you may not’ answers to dilemmas. Of course you may not commit suicide, of course you cannot divorce and remarry if your marriage has broken down, of course you may not procure an abortion. Hall’s more interesting scruples come as he pursues these easy outcomes into their more difficult possibilities. As suicide is so unthinkable, he does seem to suggest that anyone with a proper conscience ought perhaps to resist at the point of execution: “indeede it may as well be disputed, whether a man condemned to dye by the Axe, may quietly lay downe his head upon the Block; and not, but upon force, yeild to that fatall stroke”. On the other hand, Hall was also a regular worshipper of secular authority in that early modern way, so if you have been condemned to death, and have the chance to escape (and inconsistent as it may seem with Hall’s view of suicide), properly you ought to forgo any such chance:

“I cannot but conclude, that whatsoever nature suggests to a man, to work for his owne life or liberty, when it is forfeited to Justice, yet that it is meet and commendable in a true penitent, when he findes the doome of death or perpetuall durance justly passed upon him, humbly to submit to the sentence; and not entertaine the motions and meanes of a projected evasion: but meekly to stoop unto lawfull authority.”

Abortion is an unthinkable, with no circumstances of mortal danger to the pregnant woman allowing it: “And if you tell me that the life of the mother might thus be preserved, whereas otherwise both she and all the possibilities of further conceptions are utterly lost; I must answer you with that sure and universall rule of the Apostle, That wee may not doe evill that good may come thereon, Rom. 3. 8.” Couldn’t another casuist press the case that a failure to intervene that doomed the pregnant woman was equally an evil, a decision that enforced a death? But Hall is so fixed against abortion that he produces rather approvingly a startling example of the sentiments of Monty Python’s ‘Every sperm is sacred’ song maintained as an absolute principle: Michael Verrinus would rather have died, than masturbated – Hall approves, with the message that as this is a commendable (if rather extreme) reverence for life, then the rest of us ought to be far more reverent about the life of a foetus:

“Upon this ground we know that in a further degree of remotenesse, a voluntary selfe pollution hath ever beene held to have so much guilt in it, as that Angelus Politianus reports it as the high praise of Michael Verrinus, that he would rather dye, than yeild to it: how much more when there is a further progresse made towards the perfection of humane life?”

The thinking here is primitive embryology, that of the homunculus being in the sperm. Nor will Hall make any differentiation between what he calls ‘animated’ and ‘inanimate’ fetuses (we would say ‘viable’ and ‘non-viable’), as some casuists tried to do.

Hall had run into Milton before over the ‘Smectymnuus’ controversy, and here he lets fly at one of Milton’s divorce pamphlets. He can see it was well written (Hall names neither writer nor which title, I suppose it was The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce) : he claims that he assumed that it was penned as a defence of an outrageous paradox, then slowly came to the horrified realization that Milton was actually in earnest:

“I have heard too much of, & once saw a licentious Pamphlet thrown abroad in these lawlesse times, in the defence and encouragement of Divorces (not to be sued out, that solemnity needed not, but) to be arbitrarily given by the disliking husband, to his displeasing and unquiet wife; upon this ground principally, that Marriage was instituted for the help and comfort of man; where therefore the match proves such, as that the wife doth but pull downe a side, and by her innate peevishnesse, and either sullen, or pettish and froward disposition brings rather discomfort to her husband, the end of Marriage being hereby frustrate, why should it not, saith he, be in the Husbands power (after some unprevailing means of reclamation attempted) to procure his own peace, by casting off this clog, and to provide for his own peace and contentment in a fitter Match?”

“Woe is me, To what a passe is the world come that a Christian pretending to Reformation, should dare to tender so loose a project to the publique? I must seriously profess when I first did cast my eye upon the front of the book, I supposed some great wit meant to try his skill in the maintenance of this so wild, and improbable a paradox; but ere I could have run over som of those too wel-penned pages, I found the Author was in earnest, and meant seriously to contribute this peece of good councel in way of Reformation to the wise and seasonable care of superiors; I cannot but blush for our age, wherein so bold a motion hath been amongst others, admitted to the light: what will all the Christian Churches through the world, to whose notice those lines shall come, think of our wofull degeneration in these deplored times, that so uncouth a designe should be set on foot amongst us?”

Hall’s opening to this particular discussion shows his typical limitation:

Whether Marriage lawfully made may admit of any cause of divorce, save only for the violation of the marriage bed, by Fornication or Adulterie. Our Saviour hath so punctually decided the case in his Divine Sermon upon the mount, that I cannot but wonder at the boldnesse of any man, who calls himself a Christian, that dares raise a question after so full and clear a determination from the mouth of truth it self…”

The impression so far is of 17th century English casuistry as a general laying down of the law, with what the Bible says balanced as nicely as possible with due reverence for the behaviour of secular authority. Just occasionally Hall might have made uncomfortable reading: he is pretty much firmly against colonialist ventures, though once again his Christianity becomes the weak point, the place where qualification enters. He basically feels that Christians have no right to plantation in any country with a native population (the Bermudas, “which were only peopled with Hogs and Deer, and such like bruite cattle”, would be suitable). Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, so Christians should not look to extend their rule, and to invade would be to disrupt local order and authority: “The barbarous people were lords of their owne; and have their Sagamores (he means ‘chiefs’); and orders, and formes of government under which they peaceably live, without the intermedling with other nations. Infidelity cannot forfeit their inheritance to others.”

Hall holds the line against colonisation as a morally justifiable crusade too: “Their Idolatries, and sins against nature are hainous and abhominable and such as for which God of old condemned the seven nations to an utter extirpation; But what Commission have wee for their punishment?” But in the end, the notion of propagating the gospel is too strong for him: “But an higher and more warrantable title, that we may have to deale with these barbarous Infidels, is, for the propagation of Christian Religion; and the promulgation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ amongst these miserable savages.” Even as Hall tries to expound a gentle winning over of the locals as part of this vague ‘dealing’, he slips into imagining ever stronger sanctions if they resist.

Joseph Hall was not a bad man, but his faith vitiated his morality. Christianity lowers the blade of its moral bulldozer, and everything is resolved. Hall wrote a couple of autobiographical pieces, one of which is OBSERVATIONS Of some Specialties of DIVINE PROVIDENCE In the Life of JOS. HALL, BISHOP of NORWICH, printed in The shaking of the olive-tree (1660). Here’s his ominous account of an early success with an effectual prayer against an ‘atheist’:

Having then fixed my foot at Halsted, I found there a dangerous Opposite to the Success of my Ministry, a witty and bold Atheist, one Mr. Lilly, who by reason of his Travails, and Abilities of Discourse and Behaviour, had so deeply insinuated himself into my Patron, Sir Robert Drury, that there was small hopes (during his entireness) for me to work any good upon that Noble Patron of mine; who by the suggestion of this wicked Detractor was set off from me before he knew me; Hereupon (I confess) finding the obduredness and hopeless condition of that man, I bent my prayers against him, beseeching God daily, that he would be pleased to remove by some means or other, that apparent hindrance of my faithful Labours, who gave me an answer accordingly: For this malicious man going hastily up to London, to exasperate my Patron against me, was then and there swept away by the Pestilence, and never returned to do any farther Mischief; Now the coast was clear before me…"

It would have been interesting to ask Hall whether there was any case of conscience that raised moral difficulty about prayers against one of your fellow humans. If you believed prayer to be effectual, are there any circumstances in which you might pray for the removal, or destruction, of someone who is blocking your progress, and be moral in doing so? Not even at the end of his long life, and after all his labours as casuist, had Hall come to any second thoughts about this episode. Of course he wasn’t being self-seeking: he was saving Sir Robert Drury’s soul!

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