Excerpt from “Richard Hooker: The Myth”

The following is an excerpt from chapter 1 (“Richard Hooker: The Myth”) of my new book, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work.  You can buy the book from Cascade or Amazon.

“Hooker,” it has been aptly said, “is the name of a book rather than the name of a man.”[1] And it is true that there are few authors in the Western tradition who disappeared so completely into their writings, who encapsulated so perfectly the type of the quiet and unassuming scholar, shunning the public eye and content to throw his weight upon the wheel of history from the shelter of a candle-lit study. Among the great names of his own era, many were known for their extraordinary learning, but are remembered so well in part for the very active role they took in the tumultuous affairs of the age. When we think of Luther and Calvin, Knox and Cranmer, these were men who, like the great prophets of Israel from whom they drew inspiration, preached before princes or corresponded with kings, and felt called “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10).

Not so Hooker. We are not sure that he ever even found himself in the presence of the monarch whom he so revered, Queen Elizabeth, nor did he even dare to formally dedicate any of his books to her with an appropriately flattering introductory letter (a common practice in those days). Nor was he much interested in plucking up or breaking down; quite the contrary, nothing filled him so much with dismay as the seemingly contagious fashion for such “plucking up” that he saw in the Puritan reformers of this era. He wrote, in fact, quite expressly to preserve the church he knew and loved—if possible in being, if not, at least in memory, as the haunting first lines of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity express: “Though for no other cause, yet for this: that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream, there shall be for men’s information extant thus much concerning the present state of the Church of God established amongst us, and their careful endeavor who would have upheld the same” (I.1.1).

In saying that Hooker is the name of a book, not of a man, we also highlight the towering shadow of this magnum opus, the Laws, which has loomed so large as to often obscure his worthy and profound sermons and tractates (though these total just a few hundred pages). Calvin may be known by his Institutes, and Aquinas by his Summa Theologiae, but good Calvinists will turn also to the Commentaries, and good Thomists to the Summa Contra Gentiles. For Hooker, it is only the Laws, a volume that is a world unto itself. In it we find theology in abundance, in most of its various branches, liturgics, law, political theory, sociology, hermeneutics, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, polemics and irenics, and more, all in a prose style that, as C.S. Lewis observed, “is, for its purpose, perhaps the most perfect in English.”[2]

Hooker wrote in the 1590s, that high tide of Elizabethan intellectual and literary culture which defined the shape of our language and culture right down to the present. While Hooker was in London drafting his Laws, Shakespeare was just on the opposite bank of the Thames writing The Taming of the Shrew (which has some interesting thematic parallels with the Laws, actually),[3] and Spenser had just returned to Ireland after coming to London to publish and promote his Faerie Queene. Francis Bacon was a leading advisor at court, just beginning his literary career. Like these other men, the scale of Hooker’s achievement looms up out of the relative mediocrity of his predecessors with a suddenness that can baffle the historian. Stanley Archer observes, “It is no more possible to account for Hooker’s achievement than for those of Shakespeare and Milton, Spenser and Bacon.”[4]

[1] Christopher Morris, “Introduction” to Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: in Two Volumes, I:v.

[2] English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 462.

[3] See Ken Jacobsen, “Law of a Commonweal.”

[4] Richard Hooker, 1.

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