Suspending Judgment: Hooker the Anti-Tweeter

While reading an essay by Georges Edelen this week, “Hooker’s Style,” I came across a more prosaic explanation of my instinctive antipathy to Twitter and its ilk (expounded in recent posts here and here); perhaps Hooker is just rubbing off on me.  Hooker, of course, is notoriously the Anti-Tweeter, occasionally indulging in sentences than can run up to a page in length, and which might take a week to diagram.  His Puritan opponents accused him of “cunningly framed sentences, to blind and entangle the simple”; Thomas Fuller famously described it as “long and pithy, drawing on a whole flock of several clauses before he came to the close of a sentence.”  Indeed, Edelen’s survey of Book I reveals that half his sentences are longer than 40 words, and fully a tenth are longer than 80 words.  However, Edelen suggests that there may be a method to his madness—that in his sentence style we see the key to his thinking as a whole.   

For Hooker’s sentences are not merely remarkable for their length, but quite often for their suspension.  That is to say, rather than stringing together a number of independent clauses, or stating a thesis and then elaborating on it, Hooker often prefers to hold the main clause for many lines, introducing a whole labyrinthine series of dependent clauses first.  Tension builds throughout, as elements of thought are assembled but the meaning of the whole is withheld, until finally, with a triumphant click, the decisive clause snaps into place, concluding the thought.  “The suspension,” says Edelen, “forces the reader ahead into the distinctions and concessions that are necessary to an understanding of the proposition.  The structure of the sentence demands, as in the previous case, that all relevant information be absorbed before a grammatical or logical stopping-place is reached.”  Hooker, in short, does not want you to understand the main point he wishes to convey until you have understood the basis for it and the relevant qualifications, for premature or inadequate understanding can be worse than no understanding at all.  This sort of writing, says Edelen, “is a natural vehicle for the mind that insists that no conclusions can be validly reached prior to a discursive and open-minded examination of all the relevant premises, causes, evidence, arguments, distinctions, or effects. . . . Extended suspensions reflect the methodological tentativeness of a rational process whose conclusions are finally validated by their position in a logical pattern.”

A sample of one of Hooker’s suspended sentences (a comparatively brief one) may be a helpful illustration (divided out into clauses by Edelen; spelling modernized for ease of reading):

1     “Now whether it be that through an earnest longing desire

2     to see things brought to a peaceable end,

3     I do but imagine the matters, whereof we contend,

4     to be fewer then indeed they are,

5     or else for that in truth they are fewer

6     when they come to be discussed by reason,

7     then otherwise they seem, when by heat of contention

8     they are divided into many slips,

9     and of every branch a heap is made:

10   surely, as now we have drawn them together,

11   choosing out those things which are requisite

12   to be severally all discussed,

13   and omitting such mean specialties as are likely

14   (without any great labour)

15   to fall afterwards of themselves;

16   I know no cause why either the number or the length of these controversies should diminish our hope

17   of seeing them end with concord and love on all sides;

18   which of his infinite love and goodness the father of all peace and unity grant.”

 

Of course, once one draws attention to this tendency to hold in logical unity all the relevant premises and qualifications before a conclusion is reached, it is obvious that this is simply Hooker’s whole method in the Lawes in microcosm.  Hooker insists on patiently working through first principles in Books I-IV before attempting to form any conclusions about the particular matters of dispute in V-VIII, and even in these books, he repeatedly draws us back from a narrow focus on the particular to understand the wider context of what is at stake before offering his answers.  The suspension of a conclusion in individual sentences reflects Hooker’s repeated call to his opponents to “suspend” their judgments until they had grasped everything that bears upon the question.  Edelen again:

“Periodicity is, therefore, not simply a favorite grammatical construction for Hooker, but a cast of mind which is reflected everywhere in the Laws.  Not only the syntax of individual sentences but the plan of the entire word is periodic. . . . [quoting Hooker:] ‘So that if the judgments of men do but hold themselves in suspense as touching these first more general meditations, till in order they have perused the rest that ensue: what may seem dark at the first will afterwards be found more plain, even as the later particular decisions will appear, I doubt not more strong, when the other have been read before.’ . . . Suspension is thus to be understood not simply as a syntactical or organizational principle in the Laws but as an expressive embodiment of Hooker’s understanding of the rational processes by which men must seek truth.  The entire force of his attack upon the Puritans lies in his conviction that they have failed to suspending their judgments, that they have leapt to conclusions that are not rationally tenable, precisely because they have failed to take into previous account all of the relevant considerations.”

 

Later in the article, Edelen looks also at the teleological orientation of Hooker’s sentences, in which it is the final few clauses they contain and orient the meaning of the whole, drawing us inexorably forward.  This too, suggests Edelen, reflects deeper philosophical commitments.  

“The concept of final cause dominates the Laws: ‘the nature of every law must be judged of by the end for which it was made, and by the aptness of things therein prescribed unto the same end.’ . . . The flux of the world is, in reality, an orderly pattern of movement toward divinely known and appointed ends, a pattern hierarchically arranged in a chain of causality reaching ultimately to the Final Cause, God Himself. . . . The periodic sentence is itself a syntactical embodiment of this same teleological pattern.  The ‘final cause’ of the grammatical structure is the terminal resolution which exerts an attractive force on the preceding elements, rationally ordering and justifying them as means to a preconceived end.”

 

Although Edelen acknowledges that modern English usage can no longer sustain sentences like Hooker’s, we may still honor the principle that lay behind it—the conviction that there is a complex but coherent rational order to the world, from which no truth, if it is to be rightly understood as truth, can be wantonly snatched out on its own and flung about willy-nilly.

One thought on “Suspending Judgment: Hooker the Anti-Tweeter

  1. Is part of the problem, though, not so much that modern English can't sustain complex sentences anymore as that modern English speakers are generally speaking lazy thinkers and so lazy talkers? I've been noticing, teaching rhetoric, that even some of the manuals we used at NSA in rhetoric continually recommend making sentences as short, sweet, and simple as possible – even going so far as to say one should NEVER use an "unnecessary" word. We know our culture is dominated by soundbites anyway, and discourse by means of the word seems to be ever more rapidly following the sham discourse by means of blinky-flashy emotion-driven images. I am not sure that "most people" (a shameless generalization) these days really care to think hard about anything. It's so much easier to encapsulate some complex issue in a pithy slogan and then use that slogan to do the intellectual heavy-lifting of argument. Plus, "most" Evangelicals live in a state of barely-acknowledged epistemological anxiety about their grasp of "Truth," and can't take the time or energy (or charity) necessary to try to comprehend why some other rational being dares to disagree with them. Just mark em "Gnostic" or "embarrassed by the Bible" and move on. It's all so "obvious," you see.

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