The Age of Reason
The fall and rise of Rome and the spread of English

by Stephen Colbourn
What non-English-speaking people would have taken the trouble to learn English in 1700? For study and diplomacy, the answer is practically nobody. That had changed by the year 1800: English had become an important language.

Now, two centuries later, the language of the United States is predominant and more people are learning English than the total number of native speakers.

The roots of this expansion are in the Eighteenth Century, and inextricably tied to the literature and history of the period.

First, forget the label. The so-called Age of Reason was neither more reasonable than the Seventeenth Century nor any less than the Twentieth. It may be argued that the pace of technological change over the past two centuries is the consequence of rational enquiry into the natural sciences; but technology does not make men rational creatures.


There is nothing innately rational about a language. English has not expanded by reason, or because of its inherent reasonableness. Languages are no more rational than the men who speak them.

The Seventeenth Century had closed with a triumph of scientific reasoning. Isaac Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. Science, which at that time was called Natural Philosophy, began its ascendancy over traditional philosophy and religion: it concerned itself with publicly observable phenomena and not with the subjective or wishful aspects of the individual human mind.

Newton wrote for an international audience of educated men. He wrote in Latin.

He had arrived at his theory of Gravitation after a study of alchemy; which suggests (to me, at least) that it was not the product of a rational mind at all. The idea probably came to him in the same way that ideas come to creative artists; but what is an hypothesis other than an insight or a guess?

This rationalist got his sums wrong in 1720 and bankrupted himself during the South Sea Bubble fiasco. Not even rational men are consistent, and Newton was getting old.

Why did Newton write in Latin? Because it was still the international academic language of Europe. It was also the language of the Roman Church and possessed the prestige of the ages; and it was a necessary part of any well-to-do child's education. Academies wrote in Latin. Diplomats wrote and spoke French, and French was the language of the courts of Europe.

So, the predominant languages of the Eighteenth Century were associated in the European mind with two enduring institutions - Church and Monarchy. It was these two institutions that came under particular attack during the Enlightenment.

This was nothing new. The Protestants had broken with Rome because of its arrogance in claiming to be the direct successor of the spiritual Roman Empire in the 1500s. The English had overthrown their monarch in the 1600s. In 1700, the idea of Rome persisted as a community - one church catholic and universal - though its geography had little to do with the secular empire of Rome, which had included the whole of North Africa, together with the Middle East; whereas in the Eighteenth Century most points east and south of Vienna were in the hands of the Moslem Ottomans. Indeed, there was a European institution that called itself the Holy Roman Empire up until 1806. Voltaire stated the obvious when he pointed out that it was neither Holy nor Roman - it was German. But the idea of Rome persisted.

There were two aspects of the Roman idea which appealed to two different factions. Rome as Empire attracted the Catholic Church and Absolute Monarchies. Rome as Republic drew the attention of men who wanted to change the existing order of government and society.

The imperial notion had proved extremely durable. It was more than a blend of myths. It had represented peace, order and security to an uncertain medieval world. It was something to hold on to.

The remains of superior technology were visible a millennium after the fall of Rome in the West. No one could build roads like the Romans for fifteen centuries. Clearly the past had been better than the present.

The material conditions of the majority of mankind had remained unchanged for millennia. The lot of nine tenths of mankind had been at the subsistence level -grubbing food from the soil or hunting and fishing - subject to the whims of the powerful to whom were owed labour and tithes. To people who had never known any different, there was little idea that these conditions could improve.

To the rationalists, the underlying consistency of the laws of nature should be reflected in the consistency of natural laws of man. The idea of The Rights of Man gained currency. However, the fundamental difference between the two is that natural laws have automatic consequences, whereas the laws of man require administration.

Were men to constitute and administer fair government, then mankind would be on the road of progress. Men would return to a natural state of harmony with the removal of iniquity and inequity.

What models of government were available in history and in what way did men contract to be part of this government? There was the practical Roman republican model of laws and administration and there was the late Roman ideal of simple Christian community as a House of Peace - a Pax Romana.

Take Roman republican virtues of thrift and hard work. Take noble protestant yeomen. Mix them in a place with a classical name such as Philadelphia (Greek not Latin) and you have an ideal city. New Rome could prefigure New Jerusalem, the Millennium and the Rule of Saints. A virtuous environment is assumed to produce virtuous citizens. The question of who runs the place and keeps everyone in order comes later. New Orders can go hand in hand with Year Zeros.

As a modern aside, the European Union is an attempt to recreate a free-trade Pax Romana. It may not stretch from the Tagus and Severn to the Tigris and Euphrates, but the idea is there. The idea of Rome has never fallen.

The concept of a simpler and purer Rome was current in the Eighteenth Century. However, its realisation was prevented by the mundane institutions of Church and Monarchy which had become moribund: they were no longer holy and roman and so deserved neither respect nor belief among the rationalists. Also, to the Protestants, they represented an arrogant and unaccountable intermediary between men and their God; an unnecessary and luxurious obstacle which ruled by might and not right. Men had been given brains: it was up to men to use them.

The Church and Monarchy had also become entrenched elites. It was hard to get a look in if you were not well-born. They were not institutions of opportunity for those who believed that men could make their own way in the world by reason of their lights and efforts; though churches and monarchies, like political parties, have never been obstacles to the true opportunist.

This was the significance of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed by the 13 American Colonies on 4 July 1776: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

The sentiments of the Communist Manifesto in 1848 were not to be radically different. They differed in the economics of production and distribution with the intention of levelling the bumpy playing field of life.

Consider the obvious: The American Declaration of Independence was written in English. Indeed, the suggestion that it could have been written in anything else might be surprising, even absurd. It was directed at white, protestant English-speaking settlers. It was written in the vernacular, meaning the common or vulgar language, and was thus demotic if not democratic.

Here was a document that would have international interest and implications. It was not a document for the courts and the educated few. It was in English - a mongrel tongue. It also assumed a fair degree of literacy among American settlers. Indeed, the Protestants were very keen on reading and writing so that both men and women could read the Bible. Even Farmer George III the Tyrant (perhaps not in the same league as Vlad the Impaler) had desired all his subjects to read the Word of God for themselves.

At its inception, the United States declared itself to be an English-speaking country. Although, in the next century, Mr Noah Webster might have preferred the revolutionary title Dictionary of the American Language, he decided to call his great work An American Dictionary of the English Language. English it was and English it is.

So, not only did the Declaration of Independence contain revolutionary sentiments, it was written in a revolutionary language - the vernacular. It did not use a language of prestige such as Latin or French. It was not the pronouncement of a mystery which ordinary people should not worry their heads about. It was a statement in plain and simple black and white English.

The rational proposition was made that men are capable of governing themselves, in their own interests, by common consent. And that simple proposition was made in plain language. English was to be the language of the government and the people.. There was no appeal to divine right or revelation, merely to reason. Kings were out. Presidents were to be elected, not gotten by horny gods on nymphs of the Potomac.

Where had this common English come from? It was, by this time, a fairly standardised written language. Printing presses had been in operation for two and a half centuries and spelling had gelled more by custom than by design. Dr Johnson had interfered with some spellings, insisting, for example, that dett be spelt debt for (bad) etymological reasons. Noah Webster would do the same in Massachusetts. There were 26 letters in the English alphabet, j and v having been added. The golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge, and London had established an educated and mercantile form of English. The King James Bible of 1611, appointed to be read in churches, and The Book of Common Prayer, meant that all Protestants heard the same words for the same texts - though, of course, they heard regional variations of pronunciation. Charles I had passed a law on the standardisation of chapbooks by which itinerant hawkers peddled the rudiments of literacy.

The language of Cambridge England passed directly to Cambridge Massachusetts where Stephen Day founded the first press in 1639. Hezekiah Usher of Boston added books to his General Store list of commodities in 1647.

There are no census figures for literacy in the Eighteenth Century, but there are detailed accounts of the number of printing presses in operation. No press could operate without a licence, granted by the Lord Chancellor's office which was also responsible for censorship. So, in the 1760s, the question is not how many people were literate but how many were completely illiterate? Universal literacy was not achieved until the late Nineteenth Century, but it is likely that the majority of English people had at least a basic knowledge of reading and writing a century before - perhaps 80%. (Please disagree with me).

Protestants insisted on literacy, and the United States was largely a Protestant creation. So, literacy among the early American settlers was high.

What did they read? Their texts were religious rather than political. They knew their Bible. There were chapbooks of homiletics. The four editions of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, 1570-1583, were standard fare in Protestant homes and shaped Protestant views of The Inquisition and the reign of Bloody Mary for a century. Also, from its publication in 1678, the other book that ranked next to the Bible was John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.

This is an example of the prose that settlers took with them to the haven of Massachusetts Bay. Christian and Faithful have to pass through Vanity Fair:

Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are; and Beelzebub, Apollyon and Legion, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the Pilgrims made that their way to the Celestial City lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein should be sold of all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long. Therefore at this Fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.

And moreover, at this Fair there is at all times to be seen juggling, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of all sorts.
Here there are to be seen too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false-swearers, and that of a blood-red colour.
And as in other fairs of less moment there are the several rows and streets under their proper names, where such and such wares are vended: so here likewise, you have the proper places, rows, streets (viz. countries and kingdoms), where the wares of the fair are soonest to be found: here is the Britain Row, the French Row, the Italian Row, the Spanish Row, the German Row, where several sorts of vanities are to be sold. But as in other fairs, some one commodity is the chief of all the fair; so the ware of Rome and her merchandise is greatly promoted in this Fair: only our English nation, with some others, have taken a dislike thereat.

The Pilgrim's Progress
The First Part

As an aside, there are a couple of coincidences that may be worth mentioning. The Pilgrim's Progress appeared in the same year as Newton's Principia Mathematica. Vanity Fair was a real place - the Great Fair at Stourbridge just outside Cambridge. John Bunyan knew it and came down to the Fair, by way of a wicket gate, from the Gog-Magog Hills, (above the Valley of Humiliation) where the old gods are cut into the turf of the chalk hills. It is here, on the hills, in Bunyan's dream, that Christian strove with the foul fiend Apollyon who is Lord of Vanity Fair.

Newton, hardly at the same time, came out to it from Cambridge along the old Roman road, that had survived unmended for twelve centuries. At Stourbridge he bought prisms in the Dutch Row with which to unweave the rainbow.

The Pilgrim's Progress was probably the last truly popular work of English fiction, in that it appealed to all sections of society who read or heard it. Parts of the book have passed into the language, so that even those who have never read it may well know The Slough of Despond, Giant Despair and Doubting Castle, Mr Worldy-Wiseman, as well as Vanity Fair (taken by Thackeray as the title of his novel serialised 1847/48).

It is still a very powerful allegory of a pilgrim's passage through this world in hope of achieving the Celestial City. It touches the dark pit of the Protestant mind as well as the rapture of light. Bunyan knew Foxe's book and consigned Faithful to the flames of martyrdom in the best tradition of gloom and uplift.

Faithful is arrested in Vanity Fair and tried at the Court of Pie Powder which condemns him to death. One of the jurors, Mr Cruelty, declares: "Hanging is too good for him."

They therefore brought him out to do with him according to their law; and first they scourged him, then they buffered him, then they lanced his flesh with knives; after that they stoned him with stones, then pricked him with their swords; and last of all they burned him to ashes at the stake. Thus came Faithful to his end. Now, I saw that there stood behind the multitude a chariot and a couple of horses, waiting for Faithful, who (so soon as his adversaries had dispatched him) was taken up into it, and straightway was carried up through the clouds, with sound of trumpet, the nearest way to the Celestial Gate.

American settlers were familiar with this kind of text - homely, entertaining, yet of high moral purpose.

The theatre did not provide an admirable example of English and was largely ignored: notice the mention of plays in Vanity Fair. While King James' scholars were carefully translating out of the original tongues, in the early 1600s, wags like Will Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were busy flitting between playhouse and Court; both of which were dens of harlotry to the Puritans. The stage did not travel readily to the New World. Even Philadelphia, the Athens of America, would not have a theatre until 1809. And, today, the spread of English is due more to the e.Gutenburg work of William Gates than to the plays of William Shakespeare.

As suggested above, The Age of Reason is a misnomer. Perhaps a better title would be The Age of Rationalisation. Science did not drive out religion in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth or Twentieth Centuries but it altered the general perception of the world. Reason was employed in experimental enquiry and traditional beliefs were replaced by later beliefs. Anyone reading this piece may agree with me that Galileo's observation on the earth moving round the sun is unsurprising; yet it got him into deep shit with the church. The Age of Reason encouraged men to think for themselves and not simply accept the wisdom of the ages. Western minds came to think in terms of consistent natural probability rather than supernatural and arbitrary forces. Men wanted their government to reflect natural laws, natural religion, and natural science - in short, for government to be both explicable and accountable. Also the Age of Reason was a time when men began to think of the present as generally better than the past, and that the future was capable of progress and improvement.

Among the vanities of human wishes, there is the view of man as a rational animal. That is the unreasonable idea of The Age of Reason. There are no truths, only operant fictions. They change. If there is such a thing as a rational creature, we ought to be able to observe it and put it into captivity for its own safety.

In the Eighteenth Century, Church and Monarchy ceased to be operant fictions. Saints and Princes had to be replaced by heroes of revolution such as Marat or Revere; and, at the same time, sinners had to be condemned as aristocrats or loyalists. None of this is particularly rational.

Consider modern beliefs: the theories of gravitation and relativity are the products of rational minds? Newton's Principia Mathematica may be brandished like a rational bible; but has anyone, recently, brandished his six books on alchemy? Ask yourself, if invited to deface one of those iconic pictures of grandpa Einstein, with its numinous white hair, would you feel sacrilegious? It's curious that science should be considered boring when populated by such complete fruitcakes.

What has this got to do with reason and literature? Surely literature is essentially irrational because it addresses the non-rational? Tell me a story. That is the root of literature and history.

Literature, in my view, is a rationalisation. It is an attempt to give coherence to events that are inherently chaotic. In this, it does not differ from religion or science: it shows patterns that appear to have meaning, like reading tea leaves.

To return to the spread of English, languages gain prestige, in part, through their literature - and this includes their religious literature. Hebrew and Arabic, for example, can claim to be languages of revelation. That in itself is not enough to ensure the continuance of a language among anyone other than scholars and priests. Religious languages become fixed and dead. Living languages change. Literature is a changing medium. Add the new dimension of technical literature and English is now the nearest language to a Universal Tongue.

Latin was sponsored by a Great Power. The Romans also sponsored Greek, which was the language of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire that continued until 1453. Constantinople, the capital of the East, was called Nova Roma or New Rome. For centuries, these languages of Rome embodied the notions of learning and political power. They also represented constancy and continuity and order.

The British gave Great Power prestige to English in the Nineteenth Century. The United States sponsored English in the Twentieth. The British claimed, for good or ill, the largest Empire in the history of the world. The industrial and military power of the United States in August 1945, compared with the rest of the world, was unprecedented in history. New Rome had grown up in New England.

© Stephen Colbourn, September 2000
Stephen Colbourn studied Russian and English as a Foreign Language. His publications include a number of guided readers for students of English as well as short stories and articles on literature and history.

Stephen Colbourn is a contributor to The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914. Hodder Arnold. 2005

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