Front Page Titles (by Subject) Addison the Essayist - Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays
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Addison the Essayist - Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays 
Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays, ed. by Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin, with a Foreword by Forrest McDonald (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).
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Addison the Essayist
The eighteenth century saw the rise of a new literary form—the essay—whose growth can be attributed to several causes. With the lapse of government monopoly control of publishing licenses in 1695, there was a proliferation in all sorts of literature, including periodicals, which relied upon brief pieces of writing. This same period also witnessed greater commercial activity and the rise of a new merchant class with opportunities that had not previously existed for leisure and for conversation. Men and women of this new bourgeoisie frequently gathered for conversation in coffeehouses, which functioned as slightly more democratic versions of the salon, and there they discussed political, moral, literary, and aesthetic matters. Periodicals provided the coffeehouse patrons with topics of light conversation as well as gentle guidance in sensibilities, manners, and other matters of taste. Describing the periodical essay, Samuel Johnson said, “For this purpose nothing is so proper as the frequent publication of short papers, which we read not as study but amusement. If the subject be slight, the treatise likewise is short. The busy may find time, and the idle may find patience.”2 Addison and Steele’s Spectator was among the most prominent of contemporary periodicals. Typically, three to four thousand copies of each edition of the Spectator were printed, and some accounts claim that sales exceeded fifteen thousand at times. Even these approximate figures are misleading, though, for each copy would be passed from one reader to the next, and Addison himself estimated that at least twenty people read any single purchased copy.
Situating the Spectator in the tradition of influential Renaissance texts such as Giovanni della Casa’s The Book of Manners and Baldesar Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, Johnson described the purpose of Addison’s essays in the following manner: “To teach the minuter decencies and inferior duties, to regulate the practice of daily conversation, to correct those depravities which are rather ridiculous than criminal, and remove those grievances which, if they produce no lasting calamities, impress hourly vexation. . . . ”3 In Spectator 10, Addison described his own ambition somewhat differently. He writes, “It was said of Socrates that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought philosophy out the Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in the Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and Coffee-Houses.” Citing Seneca and Montaigne as his models, Addison sought not only to educate his audience, but also to regulate their passions and to promote self-discipline, moderation, and pursuit of the public interest. Addison was by no means alone in his desire to influence and shape his readers’ tastes and sensibilities. To name but a single example, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, also sought to mold his readers’ intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities through his 1711 Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Shaftesbury’s primary audience, however, seems to have been the gentlemanly class, whereas Addison focused his attention on a decidedly more middle-class audience.
Addison’s essays were instrumental in spreading the culture of politeness, learning, and sensibility throughout the middling classes, and also in restoring order to a Britain still reeling from the tumultuous events of the seventeenth century, which had called into question the legitimacy of traditional forms and institutions of authority. Through his work as an essayist, Addison attempted to refine his readers’ sociability and to instill in them a sensibility about what was pleasing and likely to be approved by worthy others. These themes recur throughout Cato’s dramatic action, with Cato’s judgment emerging as the objective standard by which others measure their actions and judgments. To cite but two examples, Syphax draws attention to Cato’s “piercing eyes,” capable of seeing to the essence of things and “discerning our frauds” (I.iii). Cato also offers his own standards as a type of universalizable rule, proclaiming that “in Cato’s judgment, / A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty / Is worth a whole eternity in bondage” (II.i). The play’s themes of theatricality, imagination, and idealized spectators are echoed in Spectator 231’s “in our solitudes, we should fancy that Cato stands before us, and sees every thing that we do” and in Addison’s Spectator 10 assertion that his work is addressed to “everyone who considers the world as theatre, and who desires to form a right judgment of those who act in it.” The dozen or so Spectator papers beginning with number 411 are particularly significant in this context, for they discuss the pleasures of the imagination in a manner deeply influential upon the rest of the eighteenth century.
The breadth of topics to which Addison turned his attention as an essayist is remarkable. In the essays selected for this volume, besides the essays that are included for their explicit discussion of Cato, issues such as patriotism, virtue, fame, liberty, prudence, fortune, integrity, the nature of government, honor, faction, and education are raised. Other Addison essays explore a wide range of topics, including literary criticism, satire, religion, and the role of women in society. Addison likened the essay form to a woods “with many great and noble objects” in which one “may ramble . . . and every Moment discover something or other which is new to you” (Spectator 476). In the advertisement to a 1776 edition of the Spectator, Johnson encapsulated the breadth, character, and influence of Addison’s essays in the following manner: “The Book thus offered to the Public is too well known to be praised: It comprizes [sic] precepts of criticism, sallies of invention, descriptions of life, and lectures of virtue. It employs wit in the cause of truth, and makes elegance subservient to piety: It has now for more than half a century supplied the English nation, in great measure, with principles of speculation, and rules of practice; and given Addison a claim to be numbered among the benefactors of mankind.”
[2. ]Johnson, Lives, 873.
[3. ]Johnson, Lives, 872.