Addison, Joseph

Assigned: Addison, Joseph. The Spectator, No. 62 “True and False Wit” (360-64); from The Spectator, No 412 “On the Sublime” (365-67). Also read the editors’ introduction (358-60).

The Spectator, No. 62. “True and False Wit” (1711)

1. On 360-61 (“Mr. Locke has an admirable reflection…”), how does the philosopher whom Joseph Addison quotes, John Locke, sum up the distinction between “wit” and “judgment”? In what, principally, does “wit” consist? What does Addison himself add to the definition provided by Locke, and what examples does he provide?

2. On 361 (“As true wit generally consists…”), how does Addison characterize “false wit”? In what sense would a pun, according to Addison, amount to false wit? He seems to allude to George Herbert’s poem “The Altar” (find it online) as well, presumably because the pattern of the words is made to look like the thing named in the title. Does that mean he would consider Herbert’s poem a bad one? What do you think of the poem?

3. On 361-63 (“As true wit consists…”), how does Addison define “mixed wit”? How is it a combination of true wit and false wit? What seems to be Addison’s attitude towards it—why might it be the mark of lesser artists rather than great ones? Consider, too, that mixed wit seems to involve a certain imprecision or ambiguous quality. Why might that be troubling to a neoclassical author like Addison?

4. On 363 (“It may be expected, since…”), what criticism does Addison make of John Dryden’s definition of wit? In his view, why is Dryden’s treatment too broad to serve the purpose of fully articulating how we should understand “wit”?

5. On 363-64 (“Bouhours, whom I look upon…”), what criticisms does Addison level through the filter of French neoclassical critics Dominique Bouhours and Nicholas Boileau? How does anything but “true” wit amount to a falling-away from the “beautiful simplicity” (363 middle) praised by these French authors and by Addison himself? Why does Addison refer to poets who seek out wit too eagerly as “Goths”?

6. On 364 (“Were not I supported by…”), how does Addison, following John Dryden (who in turn follows Jean Regnauld de Segrais), classify the lowest type of readers and their engagement with poetry? How does Addison’s emphasis here show a certain political and class-based quality?

7. General question: Make a brief study of the etymology and nuances of meaning for the key term “wit.” The Oxford English Dictionary would be a good place to look for the term’s etymology and basic meaning. Moreover, what does the term appear to mean around Shakespeare’s time, and what has changed as evidenced by Addison’s treatment in The Spectator during the early neoclassical period? How do we generally use the word today? How do you use it yourself?

From The Spectator, No 412. “On the Sublime” (1712)

1. On 365 (“I shall first consider those pleasures…”), what role, according to Addison as he reflects upon “those pleasures of the imagination which arise from the actual view and survey of outward objects,” does the quality of “greatness” play in the experience of sublimity? Why does it appeal to a person’s imagination?

2. On 365-66 (“Everything that is new or uncommon…”), what role, according to Addison, do things that are “new or uncommon” (365) in a scene or object play in the experience of sublimity? What do they add to a viewer’s perception of beauty or of “greatness” as Addison defines that term (365-66)? What is the special power of “beauty” by comparison to the other qualities Addison discusses? (366)

3. On 366-67 (“There is a second kind of beauty…”), how does Addison account for the significance of observers’ reaction to “colour” chiefly among several other qualities deemed beautiful, such as pattern or structure, “symmetry” (366), and so forth? What do those other qualities add?

4. General question: If you are familiar with Immanuel Kant’s ideas in Critique of Judgment, “Analytic of the Sublime” (445-63), how does Joseph Addison’s argument in Spectator 412 [“On the Sublime”] compare to what Kant posits? Is Addison’s conception of the sublime more general, and intermingled with the experience of the beautiful? Explain.

5. General question: In The Spectator, as our Norton editors point out, Joseph Addison functions as a “public intellectual” (359 bottom). How do you understand the meaning of that term, and what do you consider the value of such intellectuals? Who do you consider deserving of the title of “public intellectual” in our own culture today (or in the recent past), and why?

6. General question: Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele of The Spectator and The Tatler fame, like Samuel Johnson with The Rambler, were instrumental in the development of modern, cultured journalism that aims to inform large numbers of people. How do you assess the health (or otherwise) of such journalism today, as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century? Is the sort of production that Addison & Steele, Dr. Johnson, and others offered their eighteenth-century public still something that our contemporaries want? What kind of culture-writing prevails today, and, more broadly, how do you assess the state of contemporary journalism, including “the news”? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake