We saw in section 2 that Defoe excluded as members of his projected “society” for the “polishing” and “refining” of the English language all university scholars unless they were specifically elected by those in authority, the first 24 members chosen from the ranks of the nobility and the gentry. The exclusion of scholars from Defoe’s putative society can be explained as follows. Throughout the seventeenth century, from the time of Francis Bacon, conflict had arisen between, on the one hand, those following a purely scholastic, syllogistic mode of argument in “scientific investigation” in which, in the tradition of the Renaissance, the ancients were credited with having already discovered the principal “laws of nature and the universe”, and, on the other hand, those who were interested in questioning nature directly by experimentation, observation and manipulation. The former, the scholastics, were associated with the universities, whereas the latter, the experimenters or the “virtuosi”, were associated with or became members of the Royal Society of London, which was granted its charter by Charles II in 1662.
From the outset the Royal Society, although it did not explicitly set itself up in opposition to the universities, saw itself as the heir to Bacon’s utopian House of Salomon in the New Atlantis, in which he forecast “the Triumph of the new empiricism” (Cope & Jones 1958: xii). Some of the founding members of the Royal Society, like John Wallis and John Wilkins, were associated with the universities, but the majority were private individuals, most of them from the gentry and some from the nobility. Thomas Sprat, in his History of the Royal Society, has the following to say about its composition:
But, though the Society entertains very many men of particular Professions; yet the farr greater Number are Gentlemen, free and unconfin’d. By the help of this there was hopefull Provision made against new corruptions of Learning, which have been long complain’d of, but never remov’d: The one, that Knowledge still degenerates, to consult present profit too soon; the other, that Philosophers have bin always Masters, & Scholars; some imposing, & all the other submitting; and not as equal observers without dependence. (1667: 67)
By “philosophers” Sprat is referring here to academic scholars, and the guarantee against both the degeneration of knowledge and its esoteric isolation in the universities is the preponderance of “gentlemen” in the Royal Society. “Natural philosophy” was therefore the domain of gentlemen scholars, of intelligent, inquisitive and enthusiastic amateurs rather than professional academics, and that is precisely the point of view that Defoe puts forward in his project for a society for the polishing and refining of the English language.
At a later point in the History of the Royal Society Sprat, giving a historical account of the development of learning from the classical period to the seventeenth century, suggests the following reason for learning being “the first thing, that was constantly swept away, in all destructions of Empire, and forein inundations” (118):
It is, because Philosophy had been spun out, to so fine a thread, that it could be known but only to those, who would throw away all their whole Lives upon it. It was made too subtile, for the common, and gross conceptions of men of business, it had before in a measure been banish’d, by the Philosophers themselves, out of the World; and shut up in the shades of their walks. And by this means, it was first look’d upon, as most useless; and so fit, soonest to be neglected. Whereas if at first it had been made to converse more with the senses, and to assist familiarly in all occasions of human life; it would, no doubt, have been thought needful to be preserv’d, in the most Active, and ignorant Time. (118-119)
Writing on behalf of the Royal Society, Sprat perceived a need to make philosophy accessible to those who were not professional scholars, and this meant using a style of language that he defines as a “natural way of speaking”, “preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants, before that, of Wits, or Scholars” (113).
However, with an increasing number of members coming from the ranks of the nobility and the gentry, what Sprat and his fellow members of the Royal Society in its early days must have thought of as a popularisation of philosophy had effectively become a “gentrification” of philosophy by the end of the seventeenth century. This meant taking philosophy out of the scholar’s study and putting it into the “polite” world of the gentleman’s drawing room, making it, in fact, part of what it meant to be “polite”. This is nowhere more obvious than in the works of Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, whose work spans the period from 1699 to 1710 and consists of essays that were collected and published together in 1711 under the title Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times: An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit.
Shaftesbury’s argument is that humans, as individuals, are driven towards their own “self-good”, but that, since they are also social animals, conflict between “private interest” and “public good” leads to what he calls “vicious affection”. As a consequence “a creature cannot really be good and natural in respect of his society or public, without being ill and unnatural towards himself” (Shaftesbury 1711: bk. 1, pt. 2, sec. 2, in Bredvold et al. 1955: 249). In section 3 I put forward four definitions of politeness as defined by the conduct writers. I also argued that the third and fourth of these definitions contradict each other. If politeness is a natural attribute of a good character (definition 3), the “good” can only be adjudged as good in conformity with a set of socially accepted forms of behaviour (definition 4). In other words, politeness may be the natural attribute of a good character, but it can only be termed politeness if it is a socially acquired state of mind. Precisely this contradiction emerges in Shaftesbury’s definition of public good as against private good:
When in general all the affections or passions are suited to the public good, or good of the species, as above mentioned, then is the natural temper entirely good. If, on the contrary, any requisite passion be wanting, or if there be any one supernumerary or weak, or anywise disserviceable or contrary to that main end, then is the natural temper, and consequently the creature himself, in some measure corrupt and ill. (251)
Hence, if all of an individual’s “affections or passions” benefit the public good, then that individual’s “natural temper” (or, to use Descartes’ term, that person’s ame) is good. If anything is missing from a perfect fit with the “public good”, it does not matter whether or not the person’s “affections or passions” benefit his private good, that person is “in some measure corrupt and ill”. In Shaftesbury’s terms, being “corrupt” or being “ill” is a quality that does not fit the “public good”; it is, in other words, not legitimate. “Corrupt” or “ill” language is thus language which does not fit the public good, language which is not legitimate.
But what does this have to do with politeness in Shaftesbury’s philosophy? In book 3 ofCharacteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (Miscellany), Shaftesbury creates a fictive narrator, an alter ego commenting on and supporting Shaftesbury’s philosophy. In chapter 2 of the Miscellany the narrator states that Shaftesbury’s, and his, aim is “to advance philosophy (as harsh a subject as it may appear) on the very foundation of what is called agreeable and polite” (267). On the basis of this credo, he suggests a “joint endeavour”:
Our joint endeavour, therefore, must appear this; to show “that nothing which is found charming or delightful in the polite world, nothing which is adopted as pleasure or entertainment, of whatever kind, can any way be accounted for, supported, or established, without the pre-establishment or supposition of a certain taste”. (267)
Shaftesbury’s philosophy is thus aimed at the “polite world”, and it is also educational and moralistic. Taste is a large part of what it means to be a polished member of society, but that taste is not simply taste in outward appearances and behaviour but also taste in morals:
Let us therefore proceed in this view, addressing ourselves to the grown youth of our polite world. Let the appeal be to those whose relish is retrievable, and whose taste may yet be formed in morals, as it seems to be already in exterior manners and behaviour. (272)
I n addition, decorum and grace in outward appearance, movements and behaviour are all attributes of politeness, as is a love of beauty, symmetry and order. At a number of points in his writings Shaftesbury also explicitly links gentility (i.e. being a member of the social class of the gentry) with politeness. All these elements are present in the following quotation from the Miscellany:
Whoever has any impression of what we call gentility or politeness is already so acquainted with the decorum and grace of things that he will readily confess a pleasure and enjoyment in the very survey and contemplation of this kind. Now if in the way of polite pleasure the study and love of beauty be essential, the study and love of symmetry and order, on which beauty depends, must also be essential in the same respect. (273)
The process of gentrifying philosophy, however, leads to a conception of language use in which decorum, grace, beauty, symmetry and order are now the main features defining polite language, or the language of polite society. Shaftesbury shifts the focus of a “natural way of speaking” to the language behaviour of polite society, which includes all these attributes, and in effect provides a programmatic blueprint for dealing with language and politeness throughout the rest of the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. Precisely what kind of behaviour, including language behaviour, counted as exemplars of “decorum”, “grace”, “beauty”, “symmetry” and “order” could be decided only by members of the social classes of the gentry and the nobility themselves.
Legitimate forms of language were thus socially constructed and reproduced by members of polite society, but at the same time what counted as “politeness” could also be reconstructed. As the eighteenth century progressed, forms of legitimate language usage were conceptualised as prescriptive rules of language behaviour and were transformed into the rules of “standard English”.
To summarise, then, polite language was the language of all those who propagated the values outlined in Shaftesbury’s “Miscellany” and behaved in accordance with them:
a. It was a socially marked language.
b. It was the language of the “best authors”.
c. It should be fluent and easy to understand.
d. It should be without unnecessary syntactic complexity.
e. It should be “easy” and “melodious” on the ear.
f. It must not shock the reader.
g. It should represent the aesthetic and moral values given above.
h. It could not be acquired at the universities.
i. It should not change but should retain the presumed purity of English.
In the course of the eighteenth century, literary critics and grammarians took it upon themselves to “police” polite English, or, in sociolinguistic terminology, to codify polite English, in an effort to standardise it. In case there should be any doubt that this was the case, consider the following statement by Shaftesbury’s alter ego critic:
For this reason we presume not only to defend the cause of critics, but to declare open war against those indolent supine authors, performers, readers, auditors, actors or spectators who, making their humour alone the rule of what is beautiful and agreeable, and having no account to give of such their humour or odd fancy, reject the criticising or examining art, by which alone they are able to discover the true beauty and worth of every object.
For Shaftesbury and his contemporaries politeness was to be freed from courtly society and urbane civilisation and to become a set of moral values associated with the landed gentry. In other words, it became a quality marking out social class distinctions. The stage was set for a distinction between standard and nonstandard English along the lines of social class and wealth.