1902 Encyclopedia > Richard Bentley

Richard Bentley
English theologian, classical scholar and critic
(1662-1742)




RICHARD BENTLEY (born, 1662; died, 1742), was born at Oulton, a township in the parish of Rothwell, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His grandfather had suffered in person and estate in the royal cause, and the family were in consequence in reduced circumstances. Bentley's mother, the daughter of a stonemason in Oulton, was a woman of excellent understanding and some educa-tion, as she was able to give her son his first lessons in Latin. From the grammar school of Wakefield Richard Bentley passed to St John's College, Cambridge, being admitted subsizar in 1676. He afterwards obtained a scholarship, but never succeeded to a fellowship, being appointed by his college, before he was twenty-one, head-master of Spalding grammar school. In this post he did not remain long, being selected by Dr Stillingfleet, Dean of St Paul's, to be domestic tutor to his son. This appoint-ment introduced Bentley at once to the society of the most eminent men of the day, threw open to him the best private library in England, and brought him into familiar intercourse with Dean Stillingfleet, a man of sound under-standing, who had not shrunk from exploring some of the more solid and abstruse parts of ancient learning. The example of such a patron seconding his natural inclinations drew Bentley into a course of thorough reading, which, however, took a philological rather than a philosophical direction. The six years which he passed in Stillingfleet's family were employed, with the restless energy character-istic of the man, in exhausting the remains of the Greek and Latin writers, and laying up those stores of knowledge upon which he afterwards drew for his various occasions.

In 1689 Stillingfleet became bishop of Worcester, and Bentley's pupil went to reside at Oxford in Wadham College, accompanied by his tutor. Bentley's introductions, and his own merits, placed him at once on a footing of intimacy with the most distinguished scholars in the university—Mill, Hody, Edward Bernard. Here he revelled in the MS. treasures of the Bodleian, Corpus, and other college libraries. He projected, and occupied himself with collections for, vast literary schemes. Among these are specially mentioned a corpus of the fragments of the Greek poets, and an edition of the Greek lexicographers. But his first publication was in connection with a writer of much inferior note. The Oxford press was about bring-ing out an edition (the editio princeps) of the Chronicle of John Malalas, from the unique MS. in the Bodleian ; and the editor, Dr Mill, had requested Bentley to look through the sheets, and make any remarks on the text. This originated Bentley's Epistola ad Millium, which occupies less than one hundred pages at the end of the Oxford Malalas (e Theatro Sheldoniano, 1691, 8vo). This short tractate at once placed Bentley at the head of all living English scholars. The ease with which, by a stroke of the pen, he restores passages which had been left in hope-less corruption by the editors of the Chronicle, the certainty of the emendation, and the command over the relevant material, are in a style totally different from the careful and laborious learning of Hody, Mill, or Chilmead. To the small circle of classical students it was at once apparent that there had arisen in England a critic, whose attainments were not to be measured by the ordinary academical standard, but whom these few pages had sufficed to place by the side of the great Grecians of a former age. Unfortunately this mastery over critical science was accompanied by a tone of self-assertion and presumptuous confidence, which not only checked admiration, but was calculated to rouse enmity. Dr Monk, indeed, Bentley's biographer, has charged him with an indecorum of which he was not guilty. " In one place," writes Dr Monk, " he accosts Dr Mill as & 'lawiSlov, an indecorum which neither the familiarity of friendship, nor the licence of a dead language, can justify towards the dignified head of a house." But the object of Bentley's apostrophe is not his correspondent Dr Mill, but his author John Malalas, whom in another place he playfully appeals to as "Syrisce." From this publication, however, dates the origin of those mixed feelings of admiration and repugnance which Bentley through his whole career continued to excite among his contemporaries.

In 1690 Bentley had taken deacon's orders in the Established Church. In 1692 he was nominated first Boyle lecturer, a nomination which was repeated in 1694. He was offered the appointment a third time in 1695, but declined it, being by that time involved in too many other undertakings. In these first series of lectures he endeavours to present the Newtonian physics in a popular form, and to frame them into a proof of the existence of an intelligent Creator. The second series, preached in 1694, has not been published, and is believed to be lost. Scarcely was Bentley in priest's orders before he was preferred to a prebendal stall in Worcester cathedral And, in 1693, the keepership of the royal library becoming vacant by the death of Henri de Justel, great efforts were made by his friends to obtain the place for Bentley. But, though there was a High Church candidate (Edmund Gibson) backed by the archbishops, the court interest prevailed, and the place was given to Mr Thynne. Mr Thynne, however, wanted only the salary and not the office, and was prevailed on to cede the place to Bentley for an annuity of £130 for life, the whole emoluments being but £200 and apartments in St James's Palace. To these preferments were added, in 1695, a royal chaplaincy, and the living of Hartlebury. He was also about the same time elected a fellow of the Royal Society. And the recognition of Continental scholars came in the shape of a dedication, by Grsevius (John George), prefixed to a dissertation of Albert Rubens, De vita Th. Mallii, published at Utrecht in 1694.

While these distinctions were being accumulated upon Bentley, his energy was making itself felt in many and various directions. His first care was the royal library, the queen's library, as it was commonly called. He made great efforts to retrieve this collection from the dilapidated condition into which it had been allowed to fall. He employed the mediation of the earl of Marlborough to beg the grant of some additional rooms in the palace for the books. The rooms were granted, but Marlborough characteristically kept them for himself. Bentley enforced the law against the publishers, and thus added to the library nearly 1000 volumes which had been neglected to be delivered. He was commissioned by the University of Cambridge to obtain Greek and Latin founts for their classical books, and he had accordingly cast, in Holland, those beautiful types which appear in the Cambridge books of that date. He assisted Evelyn in his Numismata. All Bentley's literary appearances at this time were of this accidental character. We do not find him settling down to the steady execution of any of the great projects with which he had started. He designed, indeed, in 1694, an edition of Philostratus, but easily abandoned it to Olearius, " to the joy," says F. A. Wolf, "of Olearius and of no one else." He supplied Graevius with collations of Cicero, and Joshua Barnes with a warning as to the spuriousness of the Epistles of Euripides, which was thrown away upon that blunderer, who printed the epistles and declared that no one could doubt their genuineness but a man "perfrict frontis aut judicii imminuti." Bentley supplied to Gra> vius's Callimachus a masterly collection of the fragments.

The Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris, the work on which Bentley's fame in great part rests, originated in the same casual way. Wotton being about to bring out a second edition of his book on Ancient and Modern Learning, claimed of Bentley the fulfilment of an old promise to write a paper exposing the spuriousness of the Epistles of Phalaris. This paper was resented as an insult by the Christchurch editor of Phalaris, Hon. Charles Boyle, afterwards earl of Orrery. Assisted by his college friends, Boyle wrote a reply, " a tissue," says Mr Dyce, " of superficial learning, ingenious sophistry, dexterous malice, and happy raillery." The reply was hailed by the public as crushing, and went immediately into a second edition. It was incumbent on Bentley to rejoin. This he did, in what Porson styles " that immortal dissertation," to which no answer was, or could be, given.





In the year 1700, Bentley, then in his 38th year, received that main preferment which, says De Quincey, " was at once his reward and his scourge for the rest of his life." The six commissioners of ecclesiastical patronage unanimously recommended Bentley to the Crown for the headship of Trinity College.

Trinity College, the most splendid foundation in the University of Cambridge, and in the scientific and literary reputation of its fellows the most eminent society in either university, had, in 1700, greatly fallen from its high estate. It was not that it was more degraded than the other colleges, but its former lustre made the abuse of endow-ments in its case more conspicuous. The eclipse had taken place during the reaction which followed 1660, and was owing to causes which were not peculiar to Trinity, but which influenced the nation at large. The names of Pearson and Barrow, and, greater than either, that of Newton, adorn the college annals of this period. But these were quite exceptional men. They had not inspired the rank and file of fellows of Trinity with any of their own love for learning or science. Indolent and easy-going clerics, without duties, without a pursuit, or any conscious-ness of the obligation of endowments, they haunted the college for the pleasant life and the good things they found there, creating sinecure offices in each other's favour, jobbing the scholarships, and making the audits mutually pleasant. Any excuse served for a banquet at the cost of " the house," and the celibate imposed by the statutes was made as tolerable as the decorum of a respectable position permitted. To such a society Bentley came, obnoxious as a Johnian and an intruder, unwelcome as a man of learning, whose interests lay outside the walls of the college. Bentley replied to their concealed dislike with open contempt, and proceeded to ride roughshod over their little arrangements. He inaugurated many beneficial reforms in college usages and discipline, executed extensive improvements in the buildings, and generally used his eminent station for the promotion of the interests of learning, both in the college and in the university. But this noble energy was attended by a domineering temper, an overweening contempt for the feelings, and even for the rights, of others, and an unscrupulous use of means when a good end could be obtained. Bentley, at the summit of classical learning, disdained to associate with men whom he regarded as illiterate priests. He treated them with contumely, while he was diverting their income to public purposes. The continued drain upon their purses—on one occasion the whole dividend of the year was absorbed by the rebuilding of the chapel—was the grievance which at last roused the fellows to make a resolute stand. After ten years of stubborn, but ineffectual resistance within the college, they had recourse, in 1710, to the last remedy—an appeal to the visitor. Their petition is an ill-drawn invective, full of general complaints, and not alleging any special delinquency. Bentley's reply (The Present State of Trinity College, &c, 8vo, Lond. 1710) is in his most crushing style. The fellows amended their position, and put in a fresh charge, in which they articled fifty-four separate breaches of the statutes as having been committed by the master. Bentley, called upon to answer, demurred to the bishop of Ely's jurisdiction, alleging that the Crown was visitor. He backed his application by a dedication of his Horace to the lord treasurer (Harley). The Crown lawyers decided the point against him; the case was heard, and a sentence of ejection from the mastership ordered to be drawn up, but before it was executed the bishop of Ely died, and the process lapsed.

This process, though it had lasted nearly five years, was only a prologue to the great feud, the whole duration of which was twenty-nine years. Space will not allow of its vicissitudes being here followed. It must suffice to say that Bentley was sentenced by the bishop of Ely (Greene) to be ejected from the mastership, and by Convocation to be stripped of his degrees, and that he foiled both the visitor and the university.

Bentley survived the extinction of this thirty years' war, two years. Surrounded by his grandchildren, he experienced the joint pressure of age and infirmity as lightly as is consistent with the lot of humanity. He continued to amuse himself with reading; and though nearly confined to his arm-chair, was able to enjoy the society of his friends, and several rising scholars, Maitland, John Taylor, his nephews Richard and Thomas Bentley, with whom he discussed classical subjects. He was accustomed to say that he should live to be 80, adding that a life of that duration was long enough to read everything worth reading. He fulfilled his own prediction, dying, of a pleurisy, 14th July 1742, when he was a few months over 80. Though accused by his enemies of being grasping, he left not more than ¿£5000 behind him. A few Greek MSS., brought from Mount Athos, he left to the college library; his books and papers to his nephew, Richard Bentley. Richard, who was a fellow of Trinity, at his death in 1786, left the papers to the college library. The books were acquired, by purchase, by the British Museum.

Of his personal habits some anecdotes are related by his grandson, Richard Cumberland, in vol i. of his Memoirs (Lond. 1807). The hat of formidable dimensions, which he always wore during reading to shade his eyes, and his preference of port to claret, are traits embodied in Pope's caricature (Dunciad, b. 4), which bears in other respects little resemblance to the original. He did not take up the habit of smoking till he was 70. He held the archdeaconry of Ely with two livings, but never obtained higher preference in the church. He was offered the (then poor) bishopric of Bristol, but refused it, and being asked what preferment he would consider worth his acceptance, replied, " That which would leave him no reason to wish for a removal."





Dr Bentley married, in 1701, Joanna, daughter of Sir John Bernard of Brompton. Their union lasted forty years. Mrs Bentley died in 1740, leaving a son, Richard, and two daughters, one of whom married, in 1728, Mr Denison Cumberland, grandson of Richard Cumberland, bishop of Peterborough, and father of Richard Cumber-land the dramatic author.

The Life of Richard Bentley, by Bishop Monk (4to, Lond. 1830; 2d ed., 2 vols. 8vo, 1833), gives in full de-tail an interesting account of the Trinity College feud, and the other incidents of his hero's life. But, though himself a Greek scholar of celebrity and an editor of Euripides, Dr Monk appears to have had but an imperfect comprehension of the consummate genius and vast acquirements of the subject of his biography. He regrets that Bentley wasted his time upon conjectural criticism, instead of applying himself to the deistical controversy. The Remarks upon a late Discourse of Freethinking, by Phileleutherus Lipsiensis, 8vo, 1713, to which Dr Monk alludes, is indeed a very characteristic piece of writing; but it gives no more idea of what Bentley was as a master of ancient learn-ing than does his pamphlet, The Present State of Trinity College, quoted before. Indeed, of all Bentley's publications there is not one which can be taken as an adequate sample of the critic, as a work at once monumental and characteristic. Bentley is most imperfectly represented by any one of his books. They have all the same occa-sional stamp. This is the case not only with the most popular of these, the Dissertation on Phalaris. The Hora-tius of 1712 was brought out to propitiate public opinion at a critical period of the struggle with the fellows of Trinity; the proposals for a recension of the New Testa-ment text, 1720, had a similar origin; the Terentius of 1725 was occasioned by his resentment of Hare's conduct. The Milton was undertaken at the request of Queen Caro-line, but also at an anxious conjuncture of the great quarrel. Nearly all his lesser performances were called forth by friends invoking his aid for their own schemes. What he wrote, he wrote with rapidity, rather with precipitation. If we try to form our idea of the man, not from this or that extempore effusion, but from all that he did or was, we shall find that Bentley was the first, perhaps the only Englishman who can be ranked with the great heroes of classical learning. Before him we have only Selden to name, or, in a more restricted field, Gataker and Pearson. But Selden, with stupendous learning, wanted that which Bentley shared with Scaliger or Wolf, the freshness of original genius and confident mastery over the whole region of his knowledge. " Bentley is not," says Mahly, " one among the great classical scholars, but he inaugurates a new era of the art of criticism. He opened a new path. With him criticism attained its majority. When scholars had iitherto offered suggestions and conjectures, Bentley, with unlimited control over the whole material of learning, gave decisions." The modern German school of philology, usually so unjust to foreigners, yet does ungrudging homage to the genius of this one Englishman. Bentley, says Bunsen, " was the founder of historical philology." And Bernays says of his corrections of the Tristia, " corrup-tions which had hitherto defied every attempt even of the mightiest, were removed by a touch of the fingers of this British Samson." The English school of Hellenists, by which the 18th century was distinguished, and which contains the names of Dawes, Markland, Taylor, Toup, Tyrwhitt, Porson, Dobree, Kidd, and Monk, was the creation of Bentley. And even the Dutch school of the same period, though the outcome of a native tradition, was in no small degree stimulated and directed by Bentley's example. Ruhnken has recorded the powerful effect produced upon the young Hemsterhuys by Bentley's letter to him on the occasion of his Pollux; at first humiliated to despair by the revelation to him of his own ignorance; then stimu-lated to higher effort by the consideration that commenda-tion from such a man was not words of mere compliment.

Bentley was a source of inspiration to a following genera-tion of scholars. Himself, he sprang from the earth without forerunners, without antecedents. Self-taught, he created his own science. It was his misfortune that there was no contemporary guild of learning in England by which his power could be measured, and his eccentricities checked. In the Phalaris controversy his academical adversaries had not sufficient knowledge to know how absolute their defeat was. Garth's couplet—

"So diamonds take a lustre from their foil, And to a Bentley 'tis we owe a Boyle "—

expressed the belief of the wits, or literary world, of the time. It was not only that he had to live with inferiors, and to waste his energy in a struggle forced upon him by the necessities of his official position, but the wholesome stimulus of competition and the encouragement of a sympathetic circle were wanting. In a university where the instruction of youth, or the religious controversy of the day, were the only known occupations, Bentley was an isolated phenomenon, and we can hardly wonder that he should have flagged in his literary exertions after his appointment to the mastership of Trinity. All his vast acquisitions and all his original views seem to have been obtained before 1700. After this period he acquired little, and made only spasmodic efforts—the Horace, the Terence, and the Milton. The prolonged mental concentration, and mature meditation, of which alone a great work can be born, were wanting to him.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.-—1. Epistola ad Millium, at end of Malala Ohronicon, Oxon. 1691 ; 2d ed., 1713. 2. The Folly and Unrea-sonableness of Atheism, 4to, Lond. 1693 (1st Boyle Lecture). 3. Dissertation, on Phalaris, &c, at end of Wotton's Reflections, 4c., 8vo, Lond. 1697; 2d ed., much enlarged, 1699 ; 3d ed., Lond. 1777 ; reprinted, 12mo, Berlin, 1875 ; Latin translation by Len-nep, 4to, Groningen, 1777. 4. Eoratius, 4to, Cantab. 1711. fi. Remarks on a late Discourse of Freethinking, by Phileleutherus Lipsiensis, 8vo, Lond. 1713 ; 8th ed., Camb. 1743 ; translated into French by Armand de la Chapelle, Amst. 1738. 6. Emendaiiones in Menandri et Philemonis Reliquias, 8vo, Cantab. 1713. 7. Pro-posals for a new edition of the Greek Testament, 4to, Lond. 1721. 8. Terentius, 4to, Cantab. 1726. 9. Milton's Paradise Lost, 4to, Lond. 1732. 10. Manilius Astronomicon, 4to, Lond. 1739. 11. Oritica Sacra ; Notes on the Greek and' Latin Text of the .New Tes-tament, ed. by A. A. Ellis, 8vo, Camb. 1862.
The Works of Richard Bentley, D.D., collected and edited by the Kev. Alexander Dyce, 3 vols. 8vo, Lond. 1836. These volumes contain the Dissertation on Phalaris, in its enlarged and in its original form as it was appended to Wotton's Reflections, 1696 ; the Boyle Lectures of 1692 ; Remarks upon a Discourse of Freethinking, 1713 ; Proposals for printing a new edition of the Greek Testament, 1721; Epistola ad Millium, 1691; and some smaller pieces. Bentlei et Doctorurm Virorum ad eum Epistolat, 4to, Lond. 1807 ; 2d ed., enlarged, 8vo, Lips. 1825. Correspondence, 2 vols. 8vo, Lond. 1842. Monk s Life of Bentley, 4to, Lond. 1830 ; 2d ed., 2 vols. 8vo., Lond. 1833. Richard Bentley, Eine Biographie, von Jacob Mahly, 8vo, Leips. 1868. (M. P.)




Search the Encyclopedia:



About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Sitemaps
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us



© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries