An excerpt from Chapter Two—”Richard Hooker: The Man”—of my new book Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work.
In itself, the life of Richard Hooker is perhaps remarkable above all for its unremarkableness. As mentioned already, his was much more the contemplative than the active life, unlike the thunderous movers and shakers of the first decades of the Reformation, and equally unlike some of his more hot-headed Puritan opponents in England. His famous controversy with presbyterian leader Walter Travers at the Temple (about which more below), is perhaps so well-known and frequently-discussed chiefly because it was Hooker’s only notable moment of public conflict during a time and place when public conflict seemed more the norm than the exception for many churchmen.
Nor did Hooker ever hold any particularly high office, neither bishopric nor deanery, nor a mastership at one of the great colleges of Cambridge or Oxford. In this he was virtually unique among the leading English theological writers of his time, especially those who took up their pen on behalf of the established church, who could generally expect swift promotion into and perhaps within the ranks of the twenty-seven bishops of Elizabeth’s church. This lack of promotion may owe something to Hooker’s relatively early death at 46, though younger consecrations were not uncommon. But it also seems that Hooker had no strong desire for high ecclesiastical office, requesting to be transferred from his influential post at the Temple to a rural parish in 1591. Indeed, whatever criticisms his opponents then and now have had for him, none have ever been able to accuse him of using theological polemic as a tool for personal ambition.
On account of this relatively quiet life, we have for Hooker even less biographical information than for many in this era (and as Shakespeare scholars well know, that isn’t much even for the most well-known figures). Our chief resource is the 1665 biography by Izaak Walton, often mocked for its dubious anecdotes and unabashedly hagiographical tone. However, in Walton’s defense, subsequent biographical research, and the study of Hooker’s texts, has uncovered little to contradict Walton’s flattering portrait of a man characterized chiefly by humility, piety, charity, and extraordinary learning. Indeed, one of Hooker’s friends, John Spenser, wrote shortly after Hooker’s death,
What admirable height of learning and depth of judgment dwelled in the lowly mind of this true humble man, great in all wise men’s eyes, except his own; with what gravity and majesty of speech, his tongue and pen uttered heavenly mysteries, whose eyes in the humility of his heart were always cast down to the ground; how all things that proceeded from him were breathed, as from the spirit of love, as if he like the bird of the Holy Ghost, the dove, had wanted gall; let those who knew him not in person judge by . . . his writings.
Modern scholars have been inclined to raise an eyebrow or two at this halo-tinged description, not least because they have taken Spenser’s advice and looked more closely at Hooker’s writings. In particular, we now have access to his handwritten marginal notes in response to the one published criticism of his writings to appear in his lifetime, A Christian Letter of Certain English Protestants (1599). They range from the mildly snarky “A doctine which would have pleased Caligula, Nero, and other such monsters to hear,” to the obviously ill-tempered “Ignorant ass!” to the frankly hilarious, “Your godfathers and godmothers have much to answer unto God for not seeing you better catechised.” Many modern scholars have taken these as evidence that Hooker was only mild-mannered and charitable until poked; then he could react with as much ire as anyone. However, C.S. Lewis has observed that in fact what these marginal notes tell us is how hard Hooker worked to discipline his personal emotions (which were not always saintlike) to keep them from distorting his public discourse. For we also have access to the incomplete manuscript of Hooker’s response to the Christian Letter which he intended for publication, and in this there is no trace of the rancour or personal insults which come through in the private notes. This stands in notable contrast to the typical conventions of 16th-century theological polemic, even (perhaps especially) among such Protestant heroes as Luther or Calvin.
Of course, this does not at all mean that Hooker could not be moved to strong passions at what he saw to be in error, nor that the grand prose of the Laws is free from passages of fairly sharp polemic or cutting backhanded compliments. But all this shows is that Hooker cared deeply about the truths at stake. Although a number of recent scholars have sought to accuse him of deliberate and slanderous misrepresentation of his opponents, thus far they have failed to substantiate their charges with much evidence.