Ben Jonson's Skeptical Friend: Gorgias in the English Renaissance

This essay, written in 2004, has not previously been published.


On its first appearance in print, in the quarto of 1605, Ben Jonson’s tragedy Sejanus His Fall was prefaced by commendatory verses from the pens of George Chapman, Hugh Holland, Th. R. (most likely Thomas Roe), John Marston, William Strachey, and three unidentified writers who sign themselves, respectively, “Cygnus,” “Ev. [probably Everard] B,”1 and “Philo.” My aim in this essay is to identify the source drawn upon by Ben Jonson’s “Friend,” and to speculate on this friend’s identity—some important clues to which may be provided by links between the poem’s source and skeptical tendencies in late-Elizabethan and Jacobean England. With all due respect for the tenuousness of the evidence—and also, one must add, for the skeptical discourses that form a large part of this evidence—I want to suggest that this friend may have been Sir Walter Ralegh.

The commendatory poem, a sonnet that might have been designed to illustrate the paradoxical wit of the emergent ‘metaphysical’ lyrical style, reads as follows:

Thy Poeme (pardon mee) is meere deceat. 
     Yet such deceate, as thou that dost beguile, 
     Art juster farre then they who use no wile: 
And they who are deceaved by this feat, 
More wise, then such who can eschewe thy cheat. 
     For thou hast given each parte so just a stile, 
     That Men suppose the Action now on file; 
(And Men suppose, who are of best conceat.) 
     Yet some there be, that are not moov’d hereby, 
     And others are so quick, that they will spy
Where later Times are in some speech enweav’d; 
     Those wary Simples, and these simple Elfes: 
They are so dull, they cannot be deceav’d, 
     These so unjust, they will decêave themselues. 
                                           Philo.     (Jonson 1925-1952: xi.316-17)2

This poem resonates with Jonson’s obsessive concern in Sejanus with what we might call (in a new-historicist chiasmus) the deceptions of power and the power of deception; at the same time, it acerbically alludes to what Annabel Patterson has called “the hermeneutics of censorship”—a practice of reading in which political authorities and literary authors played games of cat and mouse around the questions of whether, where and how literary texts might be making allegorical reference to issues of contemporary political moment (see Patterson 52-66). But the sonnet’s first five lines are also a direct translation of the ancient sophist Gorgias’s definition of tragedy as “a deception in which the deceiver is more justly esteemed [or ‘nearer to reality,’ ‘truer’] than the nondeceiver and the deceived is wiser than the undeceived” (Sprague 65).3



Gorgias of Leontini, a contemporary of Socrates, is best known for the dialogue which Plato named after him, in which he is represented as a dignified but dialectically inept old man whose rhetorical theories and practices have led his disciples into disquieting ethical aberrations. But Gorgias may have represented a more significant threat to Plato and to his philosophical-political program than this dialogue would suggest: as I have argued elsewhere, Socrates’s real interlocutor in the anxious arguments against the deceptive and transformative powers of poetic mimesis that Plato develops in Books II and III of the Republic is not Adeimantus or Glaucon, but the absent Gorgias (Keefer 165-71).4

The most substantial of Gorgias’s surviving works is a treatise, known under the title On the Nonexistent or On Nature, in which he argues “first and foremost, that nothing exists; second, that even if it exists it is inapprehensible to man; third, that even if it is apprehensible, still it is without doubt incapable of being expressed or explained to the next man” (Sprague 42). This appears to be a response to the teaching of Parmenides that Being is indivisible and continuous, like a well-rounded sphere, with no temporal beginning, no motion, and no end (Kirk and Raven 271, Freeman 43)—and to the famous paradoxes with which his disciple Zeno had defended this doctrine by refuting the very notions of plurality and of motion. Although Gorgias’s deployment of the new logic of the Eleatics rivals Zeno in its oddity, and although there may be some question as to whether he is refuting or clarifying Parmenides,5 his text is not frivolous—or, if frivolous in form, it is not so in intention. (According to Aristotle, Gorgias declared that “the opponent’s seriousness is to be demolished by laughter, and laughter by seriousness” [Sprague 63].)

The third section of Gorgias’s argument rests upon the view that logos or the order of words is wholly separate from the rest of existence, so that in communicating with our neighbour “we do not reveal existing things … but logos, which is something other than substances” (Sprague 46).6 If this sense of a radical disjunction of logos, externally subsisting objects, and our perceptions of them carries tragic implications, another Gorgian text, the Encomium of Helen, leads us directly into the domain of tragedy, at the same time offering an understanding of poetry as a supremely manipulative art in which, paradoxically, wisdom emerges out of sorcery and deception. The chorus in Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon had called Helen of Troy helenas, helandros, heleptolis, “the ruin of ships, men, and the city” (Aeschylus ii. 34, ll. 689-90); in his Encomium Gorgias sets out to prove that she can in no way be blamed for leaving her husband and going with another man to Troy. For if she did so by the will of fate and of the gods, they are at fault, and if she was carried off by violence she is to be pitied rather than blamed.

But if it was logos which persuaded her and deceived her heart, not even to this is it difficult to make an answer and to banish blame as follows. Logos is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works: it can stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity. (Sprague 52)7

Poetry provides a proof of this: “Fearful shuddering and tearful pity and grievous longing come upon its hearers….” And other kinds of ordered speech reinforce the argument:

Sacred incantations sung with words are bearers of pleasure and banishers of pain, for merging with opinion in the soul, the power of the incantation is wont to beguile it and persuade it and alter it by sorcery. There have been discovered two arts of sorcery and magic: one consists of errors of soul and the other of deceptions of opinion. All who have and do persuade people of things do so by molding a false argument…. What cause then prevents the conclusion that Helen, similarly, against her will, might have come under the influence of logos, just as if ravished by the force of the mighty? (Sprague 52)

Gorgias’s definition of tragedy (which was separately transmitted by Plutarch) can thus be recognized as belonging to a carefully elaborated skeptical metaphysic which legitimizes the study and practice of rhetoric. Since knowledge (that is to say, any certain apprehension of reality) is both unattainable and incommunicable, humans are confined to persuasions which are unavoidably false, composed as they must be either of errors or of deceptions. Paradoxically, however, these deceptions can bring wisdom to those who submit to them. It is noteworthy that although Gorgias’s Encomium transfers blame from Helen to the power of logos, his instances of that power seem to imply that it is not ethically neutral, and at the same time to anticipate Aristotle’s account of tragic katharsis: ordered or incantatory speech evokes fear and pity and “grievous longing,” but also puts an end to fear, banishes pain and grief, brings joy, and nurtures pity.

When in Book II of the Republic Socrates condemns the poets’ habit of representing the gods as taking on different shapes, or as deceiving us into thinking that they do, he is also attacking the Gorgian view that poetry, the exemplary form of ordered speech, is rightly and intrinsically both magical and deceptive. In Socrates’ view, it is not possible that a god could ever be “false in speech, or false in deed by putting forth a phantom of himself.” This is the case because “true falsehood”—a distinctly Gorgian paradox which Socrates unfolds as meaning a willing deception of one’s “truest and highest part” about the “truest and highest matters”—is “hated of all gods and men.” For, he says (in what sounds very much like a rejoinder to Gorgias’s definition of tragedy), “deceiving, or being deceived and uninformed, about realities in his very soul, and in that part to have and embrace falsehood, is what every man will least tolerate” (Plato 381e, 382a-b, p. 147).



But was anything resembling the understanding of Gorgias outlined here accessible in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England? Gorgias’s two surviving orations, the Encomium of Helen and the Defense of Palamedes, had been printed early in the sixteenth century by Aldus Manutius.8 Gentian Hervet’s Latin translation of the Pyrrhonist skeptic Sextus Empiricus’s Adversus mathematicos (and therefore also of Gorgias’s On the Nonexistent, a version of which is preserved in Adversus mathematicos VII. 65-86) was printed in Paris in 1569, along with a reprint of Henri Estienne’s 1562 Latin version of Sextus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Schmitt 237). Gorgias’s fragment on tragedy, which is quoted in Plutarch’s essay “On the Fame of the Athenians,” was available through the editions of Plutarch’s Moralia printed by Aldus (1509) and Estienne (1572-73), as well as in Philemon Holland’s English translation, printed in 1603. However, since these texts remained dispersed, it is questionable to what extent “Gorgias,” the skeptical rhetorician reassembled for us by the classical scholarship of the past century, can be said to have existed in Ben Jonson’s lifetime. There are, nonetheless, tantalizing traces of a current of interest in Pyrrhonist skepticism, and in the earlier skepticism of Gorgias—a current in which the sonnet of Ben Jonson’s “Friend” appears to have participated.

I would not include within this Gorgian-Pyrrhonist current—although it may be a related phenomenon—that highly artificial prose, laden with parallelisms, antitheses, assonances, alliterations and rhymes, which enjoyed a brief vogue in such works as George Pettie’s Petite Palace of Pettie his Pleasures (1576) and John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578). This fashion did arise out of a rediscovery, however indirect, of the stylistic mannerisms with which Gorgias had so impressed late-fifth-century B.C.E. Athenians: as C. S. Lewis gloomily observed, “those who inquire most learnedly” into the sources of the euphuistic style “find themselves driven back and back until they reach Gorgias” (Lewis 312). But what seems to have caught the attention of Pettie and Lyly was the Gorgias of the orations—or rather, one part only of that Gorgias: the practitioner whose highly figured prose appropriated all the artifices of poetry, but not the thinker who also theorized the persuasive power of verbal incantation.

The dramatic rhetoric of Christopher Marlowe is another matter altogether: Stephen Greenblatt has described as thoroughly Gorgian Marlowe’s fascination with “the magic violence of speech” (Greenblatt 215, quoting Untersteiner 106). Greenblatt brilliantly articulates the uncanny resonance between the predicaments of Gorgian humankind and of Marlowe’s protagonists, who are alike “forever cut off from the knowledge of being, forever locked in the partial, the contradictory, and the irrational,” and hence obliged “through the power of language [to] construct deceptions in which and for which they live” (Greenblatt 215). Significantly, although Greenblatt does not remark on the fact, there is positive evidence that Marlowe was familiar with Gorgias’s skeptical formulation of a tragic epistemological distance between human discourse and its referents.

In the opening lines of his first speech, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus dismisses Aristotle’s Analytics, and with it the art of logic, on the grounds that he has already attained its end of disputing well:

A greater subject fitteth Faustus wit, 
Bid Oncaymaeon farewell, Galen come, 
Seeing, ubi desinit philosophus, ibi incipit medicus
          (Marlowe 1950: 164 [A text: 41-3])

As has been recognized for some decades, the italicized word in the second of these lines is a transliteration of the Greek words on kai me on—and a direct quotation from one of the first sentences of Gorgias’s On the Nonexistent or On Nature: “oute de to on estin … oute to me on … oute to on kai me on …” (“[N]either does the existent exist nor the nonexistent … nor the existent and nonexistent…” [Diels ii. 243, Sprague 43]).9 It seems fitting, given the patterns of deception, self-deception and misreading which Marlowe constructs in this play, that Faustus should dismiss Aristotelian logic with a tag, not from “Aristotles workes” (A text: 35), which he purports to be reading, but from a thinker who was radically opposed to any such constructive project. (Only when Faustus moves on to medicine, with two Latin quotations which one might think would be from Galen, does he actually quote Aristotle [Marlowe 1991: 6].)

The fact that Marlowe quotes Gorgias in Greek is puzzling, since the Greek text of Sextus Empiricus’s Adversus mathematicos, in which Gorgias’s On the Nonexistent is preserved, was not printed until 1621 (Popkin 253 n.9). Marlowe may have encountered the Gorgian tag in some now untraceable manuscript commonplace book. Or he might possibly be back-translating from Hervet’s Latin text of Sextus—in a manner analogous to what he does twenty-seven lines later in the same speech, when Faustus picks up “Jerome’s Bible,” the Latin Vulgate, and reads two verses from it in a Latin differing from the Vulgate text, which appears to be Marlowe’s own back-translation from an English version, probably the Geneva Bible of 1560 (Marlowe 1991: 7). It seems more likely, however, that Marlowe had access to a manuscript of the Greek text of Sextus Empiricus, probably the one owned by Henry Savile, of Merton College, Oxford.10

Greenblatt’s intuition of a parallel between Marlowe’s dramatic rhetoric and a Gorgian understanding of poetry as a form of power at once magical and deceptive raises the possibility that Marlowe knew the Encomium of Helen. We are on somewhat firmer ground if we speculate that, since the poet was apparently familiar (whether through the Greek text of Sextus Empiricus’s Adversus mathematicos or through Hervet’s Latin version) with Gorgias’s view of language as divorced from substantial reality, he may have had some association with the dissemination of Pyrrhonist skepticism in late sixteenth-century England. This dissemination included the circulation of an English translation of Sextus Empiricus, to whom Thomas Nashe referred in 1591 as a thinker “whose works [had been] latelie translated into English, for the benefit of unlearned writers” (Nashe iii. 332).

R. B. McKerrow, though he believed this English translation to have been lost, was able to show that Nashe, despite his proud display of learning, made extended use of it in his more than two dozen borrowings from Sextus, as did Samuel Rowlands in a catch-penny tract entitled Greene’s Ghost Haunting Conycatchers (1602) (Nashe iv. 428-31). However, the fact that Nashe and Rowlands fed their anecdotal mills with material drawn only from Book I of the Outlines of Pyrrhonism may suggest that the translation was quite limited in scope, and that Nashe’s plural reference to “works” must have been either careless or misleading. This view is confirmed by William H. Hamlin’s recent demonstration that the translation in question has actually survived, both in four divergent manuscript versions, and also as Sir Walter Raleigh’s Sceptick, the lead text in a volume of Ralegh’s literary remains that was printed by John Milton in 1651 (Hamlin 35-40). The different versions of The Sceptick, none of which is much more than three thousand words in length, offer a slightly abbreviated translation of I. 40-98 and I. 129-30 of Sextus’s Outlines. According to Hamlin, the version used by Nashe was “in all likelihood simply an earlier manuscript copy of The Sceptick than any of those now extant” (Hamlin 36)—earlier, that is also to say, than the version from which the text ascribed to Ralegh was printed.

Hamlin follows Pierre Lefranc in doubting that Ralegh himself translated The Sceptick (see Hamlin 35 n.5, and Lefranc 48-49, 66-67, 427). One may suspect that it was ascribed to him only because of the manuscript’s presence among his posthumous papers—though in the absence of detailed comparative analysis of the surviving manuscripts and the 1651 text, it remains possible that Ralegh could have done the translation, or could have commissioned it from one or another of the writers whom he patronized.11 Whether The Sceptick was Ralegh’s through his own labour, through an appropriation of commissioned work, or through the simple possession of a manuscript, it can in any case be read as material that he made his own.

But by what means did this sample of Pyrrhonist skepticism reach him? Marlowe and Nashe both knew of Sextus Empiricus; since they appear to have been not just acquaintances, but literary collaborators, one can speculate that whichever one first made such a find would have alerted the other.12 There exists more substantial evidence that Marlowe communicated his own particular understanding of skepticism to Ralegh.

Their association, and the fact that the courtier-poet’s circle included several of the playwright’s friends or acquaintances, is well known. Ralegh answered Marlowe’s lyric “Come live with me and be my love” with his own “If all the world and love were young”; moreover, their connection was attested to in the spring of 1593 by the claim of a former government agent (as reported by an informer to the Privy Council) “that one Marlowe is able to shewe more sounde reasons for Atheisme then any devine in Englande is able to geve to prove devinitie & that Marloe tolde him that hee hath read the Atheist lecture to Sr Walter Raliegh & others” (Boas 255).13

“Atheist” or not,14 Ralegh was of a skeptical turn of mind. One small sign of this—and an indication that he was not above the labour of translation when it pleased him—may be his rendering of the second line of a sonnet from Philippe Desportes’ Diane, in which “l’erreur de mes yeux pleins de temerité” becomes “my daies of endles doubt” (Ralegh 1962: 11, 107). More significantly, the Cerne Abbas commission of inquiry into suspicions of atheism and apostasy in Ralegh’s household, which convened in March 1593/4, heard evidence that in conversation he had voiced doubt as to the nature of God and the soul: “heitherunto in this pointe (to witt what the reasonable soule of man is) have I not by anye benne resolved…. Neither coulde I lerne heitherunto what god is” (Bakeless i. 133).

This report of Ralegh’s table-talk is at least partially confirmed—if one can speak in this manner of a text published two decades later—by his Preface to The History of the World (1614). Here, after quoting from Pierre Charron’s La Sagesse (1601, revised edition 1604) a central statement of his and his master Michel de Montaigne’s Pyrrhonist skepticism (“Tout[e] proposition humaine a autant d’authorit[é] que l’autre, si la raison n’[e]n fait la difference; Euery humane proposition hath equall authoritie, if reason makes not the difference” [Ralegh 1614: sig. D2v]), Ralegh challenges the dogmatic assertiveness of Aristotle and his followers:

But for my selfe, I shall never bee perswaded, that GOD hath shut up all light of Learning within the lanthorne of Aristotles braines…. That these and these bee the causes of these and these effects, Time hath taught us; and not reason: and so hath experience, without Art. The Cheese-wife knoweth it as well as the Philosopher, that sowre Rennet doth coagulate her milke into a curde. (sig. D2v)

He then proceeds to bring down the pride of a creature who is capable of understanding neither nature nor himself:

But man, to cover his ignorance in the least things, who cannot give a true reason for the Grasse under his feete, why it shoulde bee greene rather than red, or of any other colour; that could never yet discover the way and reason of Natures working …; that hath in his memory but borrowed knowledge; in his understanding, nothing trulie; that is ignorant of the Essence of his owne soule, and which the wisest of the Naturalists (if Aristotle bee hee) could never so much as define, but by the Action and effect, telling us what it workes (which all men know as well as hee) but not what it is, which neither hee, nor any else, doth know, but GOD that created it…. (Ralegh 1614: sig. D2v-D3)

The sequence of the argument is derived from Charron—and, through him, from Montaigne, in whose “Apologie of Raymond Sebond” a critique of the inability of Aristotle and many others to understand either the world, or the human soul by which its truths are purportedly known (“for [Aristotle] neither speaketh of the essence, nor of the beginning, nor of the soules nature, but onely noteth the effects of it” [Montaigne 1904-06: ii. 284]), follows directly upon Montaigne’s enunciation of the same principle that Ralegh quotes:

Those that argue by presupposition, we must presuppose against them the very same axiome which is disputed of. For, each humane presupposition, and every invention, unlesse reason make a difference of it, hath as much authority as another. So must they all be equally balanced, and first the generall and those that tyrannize us. (Montaigne 1904-06: ii. 281)

If questioning of this kind is “atheism”—an offense of which Montaigne himself was posthumously accused (Popkin 63)—one may wonder whether Marlowe’s “atheist lecture” perhaps amounted to little more than a sharing of skeptical resources. According to the opening sentence of the Sextus Empiricus translation attributed to Ralegh, “The Sceptick doth neither affirm nor deny any position, but doubteth of it, and opposeth his reasons against that which is affirmed or denied to justify his not consenting” (Hamlin 42).15 The skeptic’s discursive strategy, then, is to subvert dogmatism through an oppositional deployment of “contrarieties”—a term which, as William Hamlin acutely observes, occurs in this translation, in Montaigne’s “Apologie of Raymond Sebond,” in Ralegh’s Preface to The History of the World, and also in Richard Baines’ 1593 denunciation of Marlowe to the Privy Council (Hamlin 49 n. 48). It may be helpful to compare these occurences of the term.

Montaigne wrote that “the Pyrrhonians,” should you side with their opinion, will promptly “undertake to maintaine the contrarie” (Montaigne 1904-06: ii. 229)—a procedure which he subsequently describes as a Socratic “science … of opposing” (ii. 237).16 Protagoras, he says, “told us pretty tales, when hee makes a man the measure of all things,” but was “so contrary in himselfe, and one judgement so uncessantly subverting another,” that we cannot but “conclude the nullity of the Compasse and Compasser” (ii. 304).17 The fact that we do not experience incitements “to contrarie and resist” supposedly universal natural laws as a forceful violation, is one sign for Montaigne that such laws do not exist (ii. 335).18 In human law, on the other hand, he proposes that “any case admitting contrarietie” can be resolved only by an arbitrary judgment (ii. 338).19 The Sceptick informs us, in similar terms, that “To believe what all men say of one and the same thing is not possible, for then we shall believe contrarieties…” (Hamlin 49); and Ralegh in his Preface declares that “there [is] nothing wherein Nature so much triumpheth, as in dissimilitudes. From whence it commeth, that there is found so great diversity of opinions; so strong a contrariety of inclinations … in Mortall Men” (Ralegh 1614: sig. Av). Richard Baines, finally, claimed of Marlowe that

almost into every Company he Cometh he perswades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both god and his ministers…. he saith likewise that he hath quoted a number of Contrarieties out of the Scripture which he hath given to some great men who in Convenient time shalbe named. (MacLure 36)

But Baines has already hinted at the identity of one of these “great men”: earlier in the document he declares that Marlowe “affirmeth that Moyses was but a Jugler & that one Heriots being Sir W Raleighs man Can do more than he” (MacLure 36-37).

However reluctant one may be to trust in any way the word of an informer, it seems plausible that the author of Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and The Massacre at Paris should have given an anti-Christian twist to the tropes of skepticism (a twist that Montaigne, Charron, and the other “nouveaux Pyrrhoniens” were usually very careful to avoid). And although Ralegh, who read Charron’s French in the early 1600s, could just as easily have read Montaigne’s French ten or fifteen years previously, the surviving evidence suggests that he encountered skepticism in a distinctively Marlovian form in the early 1590s—that is to say, in a form which remembered the sophist Gorgias as an important precursor of the contrarian tropes of Sextus Empiricus, and which also took the risk of deploying these corrosive skeptical tropes against powerfully entrenched orthodoxies.

Let us ask, then, whether there existed a context within which, if Ralegh encountered the Gorgian fragment on tragedy in the course of a reading of Plutarch, he could have placed this witticism. Or, to be less indirect, could Ralegh himself have been Jonson’s unidentified Philo, and author of the commendatory sonnet published with Sejanus? I am not aware of solid grounds for a positive ascription.20 I would like to conclude, nonetheless, by raising the teasing possibility of Ralegh’s authorship.



Ralegh had good reason to be amicably disposed towards the author of Sejanus. The play’s first performances followed by a few weeks his conviction on a charge of treason; and as Philip Ayres has shown, there are close parallels between Ralegh’s trial, one of the most scandalously unjust in English legal history, and the trial of Caius Silius in Act III of Sejanus (Jonson 1990: 16-22). Henry Lord Howard (created Earl of Northampton by James I in 1603) had conducted from 1601 to 1603 a secret—and formally treasonous—correspondence with the future king of England, in the course of which he amply prejudiced him against Ralegh. In 1603 Northampton organized the treason charges against his enemies Ralegh and Lord Cobham, and, with what his Dictionary of National Biography entry calls “a stupendous want of principle,” served as a commissioner for their trial (Jonson 1990: 18). Recognizing, no doubt, the similarities between Ralegh’s ably conducted defense and Silius’s scornful dismissal of his prosecutors’ “unkind handling, / Furious enforcing, most unjust presuming, / Malicious, and manifold applying, / Foule wresting, and impossible constructions” (Sejanus III. 226-29; Jonson 1925-52: iv. 400), Northampton summoned Jonson before the Privy Council to face an accusation “both of popperie and treason” (Jonson 1925-52: i. 141). On that occasion Jonson presumably defended his “integrity in the Story” by the same means as in the 1605 quarto he was able to repel, with elaborate identifications of his appropriations from Tacitus, Suetonius, Seneca and others, “those common Torturers, that bring all wit to the Rack” (Jonson 1925-52: iv. 350).

Nine years later, in the preface to his anonymously published History of the World, Ralegh in analogous fashion challenged from his place in the Tower of London the interpretations of hostile readers:

It is enough for me (being in that state I am) to write of the eldest times: wherein also why may it not be said, that in speaking of the past, I point at the present, and taxe the vices of those that are yet lyving, in their persons that are long since dead; and have it laid to my charge. But this I cannot helpe, though innocent. And certainely if there be any, that finding themselves spotted like the Tigers of old time, shall finde fault with me for painting them over a new; they shall therein accuse themselves justly, and me falsly. (Ralegh 1614: sig. E4; cf. Patterson 138)

The commendatory sonnet written in 1605 by Jonson’s Friend participates in the same discourse, though perhaps with greater complexity.

The first five lines of the sonnet, which translate the Gorgian paradox, enunciate a doubled binary division: the “juster” poet who deceives is contrasted to those “who use no wile,” and the wiser readers who submit to this deceit are contrasted to “such who can eschewe thy cheat.” The poem then modifies this Gorgian scheme by bifurcating the latter category: the dullards (“wary Simples”), who cannot be deceived or moved by poetry, are distinguished from those “simple Elfes” who are so purely malicious “that they will spy / Where later Times are in some speech enweav’d.” The readers of Jonson’s play are thus divided into three categories—an act of division into contrarieties which instantly undoes itself, since the newly introduced category of the malicious spy-reader, upsetting the Gorgian symmetry, also overlaps with the category of the wiser reader to which it is being opposed.

The poem’s overt message is that malicious, spying readers are intruding into the domain of poetic creation, where justice is properly correlated with deception; their injustice makes them bad poets, whose deceptions will be credited only by themselves. But there is nothing in the wording to suggest that they are actually mistaken in noticing the weaving of current issues (“later Times”) into a drama supposedly set in the past—even though wiser readers, those “who are of best conceat,” are apparently weaving past and present together in a different fashion when they “suppose the Action now on file.”

This metaphor may make us pause: what precisely is meant by “now on file”? Philip Ayres hesitantly glosses “on file” as “perhaps ‘in process’—a sense not given in O.E.D.” (Jonson 1990: 68). Ayres’ guess is astute in a way the near-synonymous “under way” would not have been, though he may be wrong in thinking that he cannot draw support from the O.E.D. “Now on file” does, I believe, mean something like “in process”—more particularly so if we hear punning overtones of a legal trial in the expression. The O.E.D. defines “file,” in a now-obsolete sense, as “a string or wire, on which papers and documents are strung for preservation and reference,” and especially “one in a court of law to hold proceedings or documents in a cause” (sense 3.b.) The figurative meaning of “file” as “the thread, course or tenor” of a narrative sequence is illustrated by several citations: “We hang uppe this accusation also upon the file of your other slaunderous lyes” (1581); “the file and dependance of the text” (1560-1); “the File of my doleful Narration” (1612).

The action of Jonson’s play is thus “suppose[d]” by those of “best conceat” to be locating itself within a coherent discursive sequence, as a document of relevance both to current proceedings and to the formation of judgments about them. The difference between good readers and malicious readers is therefore not so much one of understanding as of ethical (and political) orientation. In Sejanus, the loyal Germanicans and the spies and sycophants who accuse them and bring them down share a common understanding of the power structure they inhabit, but act within it in diametrically opposed ways. Similarly, the two categories of Jonson’s interpretatively active readers recognize that current issues are woven into Sejanus His Fall, and understand the play itself to be “on file” within the discourses that inform these issues. For one group, this recognition enables an informed judgment; for the other, it provides material for accusations of sedition.

The sonnet, like the play which it praises, might thus be said to rehearse the same dynamic of contrariety and aporia that is outlined by Montaigne in a passage from which I have already quoted:

I have heard it reported of a Judge who, when he met with any sharp conflict betweene Bartolus and Baldus [two celebrated fourteenth-century legal authorities], or with any case admitting contrarietie, was wont to write in the margin of his book, ‘A question for a friend,’ which is to say, that the truth was so entangled and disputable that in such a case he might favour which party he should thinke good. (Montaigne 1904-06: ii. 338-39)

But there is also a clear difference. Montaigne puts this aporetic conclusion under some pressure when he adds, in passing, that “The Advocates and Judges of our time find in all cases byases too-too-many to fit them where they think good” (ii. 339). But the commendatory sonnet, like Jonson’s play, superimposes upon the skeptical aporia a reminder of the structures of political power that shape and condition immoral biases and malicious misinterpretations.

It is piquant to think of Ralegh as author, from the Tower of London where he was held under suspended sentence of death, of a commendatory sonnet which simultaneously denies and reasserts the resonances between his own trial and that of Silius in Jonson’s play. In the sonnet which he wrote in praise of Sir Arthur Gorges’s translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia (1614), Ralegh condemns dissimulation: “Had Lucan hid the truth to please the time, / He had beene too unworthy of thy Penne” (Ralegh 1962: 54); in the Sejanus sonnet he would be, not so much dissimulating, as inviting the reader, whether loyal Germanican or malicious spy, to engage with him and with Ben Jonson in a dangerous game of what George Gascoigne (another writer for whom, early in his career, Ralegh had written commendatory verses) had called “supposes.”

Which is, come to think of it, an apt description both of the subject-matter and of the interpretive procedures of this essay—for, in Gascoigne’s words, from the preface to his translation of Ariosto’s I suppositi:

Some percase will suppose we meane to occupie your eares with sophisticall handling of subtle Suppositions. Some other will suppose we go about to decipher unto you some queint conceiptes, which hitherto have bene onely supposed as it were in shadowes…. (Gascoigne B2v)




1  The view that this was Edmund Bolton, who wrote commendatory Latin verses for Volpone, is refuted by Philip Ayres, who notes that the reading “ED. B.” in some copies of the quarto was corrected in press to “Ev. B.” (Jonson 1990: 69).

2  In quoting from this and other old-spelling texts, I have silently modernized i/j, u/v, and vv/w; quotations from Greek texts are transliterated.

3  George Kennedy, the translator of the Gorgias texts in Sprague, renders dikaioteros as “more justly esteemed.” This is appropriate for the comparative form of a word (dikaios) that in Homer means “righteous, observant of custom and law, civilized.” In later usage, however, the word acquires the meanings of “real, genuine, true” (as in Demosthenes, dikaios sungrapheos [“true historian”]). Mario Untersteiner translates dikaioteros as “nearer to reality” or “conform[ing] more justly to reality” (Untersteiner 113-14; see also 127n.48); I have offered his translation and “truer” as parenthetical alternatives to Kennedy’s rendering.

4  Gorgias is otherwise implicated in the Platonic canon: Calogero argued that Plato’s Apology contains echoes both doctrinal and verbal of Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen and Defense of Palamedes.

5  According to the traditional view of Guthrie, Gorgias’s text, taking “the Eleatic bull by the horns,” is a parodic “inversion of Parmenides’s arguments” (Guthrie 193-94). Kerferd, explaining a shift towards an understanding of Parmenides in terms of predication, argues that in response to Parmenides Gorgias is raising “the whole problem of meaning and reference” (Kerferd 99). More recently, Carol Poster has argued that “the Parmenidean ontology is entirely without things, making the Gorgiastic ‘it is not’ not a refutation, but, rather, a clarification of the Parmenidean ‘it is’” (Poster 289). According to Poster, Parmenides’ “Way of Truth” enunciates a “singularly unpopulated” ontology within which “truth cannot be derived from empirical observation”—which amounts, she says, to an “austere and theoretical account of how all discourse is essentially fictive and poetic” (Poster 293, 290). She notes that Parmenides then “proceeds to create a cosmological fiction … in his ‘Way of Seeming’” (Poster 290-91), which he introduces by saying, “Here I end my trustworthy discourse and thought concerning truth; henceforth learn the beliefs of mortal men, listening to the deceitful ordering of my words” (Kirk and Raven 278). She concludes that Gorgias’s work on non-being “carefully mirrors Parmenides’ argument,” and “in its denial of being and knowledge, affirms rather than contradicts Parmenides’ skepticism, and in so doing provides a philosophical substrate for the necessity of rhetoric” (Poster 294).

6  This text is a translation of the report of Gorgias’s treatise preserved by Sextus Empiricus in Adversus mathematicos VII.65-86. Another report, preserved in the pseudo-Aristotelian On Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias, contains interesting elaborations of this argument; see Aristotle ii.1550.

7  In this and the following quotation I have made minor emendations, preserving logos where the translator gives “speech,” and substituting the gender-neutral “sorcery” for “witchcraft” as a translation of goeteia.

8  Diels, while basing his edition of Gorgias’s orations on two independent manuscript sources, makes frequent reference in his apparatus to Aldus’s emendations (see Diels ii. 249, 253-55, 258-63).

9  Diels (ii. 243) supplies the missing particle in the last phrase: “oute to on kai {to} me on” (“nor the existent and {the} nonexistent”). One may suspect that its omission was deliberate, a Gorgian enallage.

10  The Sextus manuscript owned by Henry (subsequently Sir Henry) Savile (1549-1622) is preserved in the Bodleian Library (MS Savile 11), and another Greek manuscript of Sextus, owned by Isaac Casaubon, is held by the British Library (Royal MS 16D XIII); these two were the basis of Thomas Stanley’s 1659 English translation of the Outlines (see Hamlin 38). Marlowe would not have seen Casaubon’s manuscript, since that scholar moved to England only in 1610. Savile’s manuscript, however, may have been among those which he purchased during his travels on the continent in 1578; Marlowe could have been given access to it during (or after) his years at Cambridge.

11  According to Ben Jonson, The History of the World, published by Ralegh in 1614, is a patchwork of commissioned work: Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden that Ralegh “esteemed more of fame than conscience / The best wits of England were Employed for making of his historie. Ben himself had written a piece to him of ye punick warre which he altered and set in his booke” (Jonson 1925-52: i. 138).

12  Nashe’s name appears below Marlowe’s on the title page of Dido Queen of Carthage (1594); see Marlowe 1968: xxi-xxv for suggestions as to possible traces of Nashe’s hand in the text. It is also possible that Nashe may have collaborated with Marlowe on Doctor Faustus, as author of one or more of the comic scenes (see Marlowe 1990: xviii-xix, xxi). As to the possibility that they shared reading enthusiasms and discoveries, it can be noted that in Doctor Faustus Marlowe shows signs of an attentive reading of the German humanist and occult philosopher Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (see Marlowe 1991: viii-ix, xlv-xlvi, 181-99), whom McKerrow identifies as one of Nashe’s favourite authors (Nashe v. 115, 118, 121, 123-24, 126, 134-35). But Agrippa is so obviously relevant to the subject of this play that there is no need to suppose that Nashe put Marlowe on to him.

13  Nicholl has speculated that this and other accusations against Marlowe were part of a campaign to discredit Ralegh conducted by agents of the Earl of Essex (Nicholl 291-301, 308-10, 322-23); this interpretation has been strongly challenged by Hammer.

14  The man who smeared Marlowe and Ralegh as “atheists” was himself accused by the same informer of describing the members of the Privy Council as “all Athiestes and Machiavillians” (Boas 254)—one sign of the freedom with which such terms were deployed in this period. “Atheism” was regularly deduced as the grounds out of which arose any disaffection from the state church, or any critical awareness of the manner in which religion served, in words attributed to Marlowe by another government informer, “to keep men in awe” (MacLure 37). Thus, for example, a doggerel response, attributed to the Earl of Essex, to Ralegh’s poem “The Lie” (in which Ralegh had bitterly denounced the self-deception and hypocrisy of church and state, deflating pretensions of zeal, honour, wisdom, justice, faith, and much else besides) declared it to have a “discent / … over base to tell; / to us it came from Italy, / to them it came from hell” (Ralegh 1962: 135). Ralegh, in other words, is identified as a Machiavellian and atheist.

15  This sentence conflates elements from several statements in the early chapters of Sextus’s Outlines, including most notably the sentence translated by R. G. Bury as follows: “The main basic principle of the Sceptic system is that of opposing to every proposition an equal proposition; for we believe that as a consequence of this we end by ceasing to dogmatize” (Outlines I.12, Sextus Empiricus i. 9).

16  Montaigne’s French: “Si vous prenez la leur, [les Pyrrhoniens] prendront aussi volontiers la contraire à soustenir” (Montaigne 1962: i. 558); he later writes that “Socrate … dict n’avoir autre science que la science de s’opposer” (i. 565).

17  Montaigne’s French: “Vrayement Protagoras nous en contoit de belles, faisant l’homme la mesure de toutes choses, … estant en soy si contraire et l’un jugement en subvertissant l’autre sans cesse, cette favorable proposition n’estoit qu’une risée qui nous menoit à conclurre par necessité la neantise du compas et du compasseur” (Montaigne 1962: i. 625).

18  If universal natural law existed, “non seulement toute nation, mais tout homme particulier, ressentiroit la force et la violence que luy feroit celuy qui le voudroit pousser au contraire de cette loy” (Montaigne 1962: i. 652).

19  The phrase in French is “quelque matiere agitée de plusieurs contrarietez” (Montaigne 1962: i. 655).

20  A much more substantial text would be required for a test of authorship by word frequencies to be meaningful.    




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