Macaulay wittily denounces a tyrannical priest as being an intermediate grub between sycophant and oppressor (1837)

Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay

In a review of a biography about the 17th century philosopher of science Lord Bacon (1561-1626) Lord Macaulay (1800-1859) has some sharp words to say about the tyrannical master of Bacon’s college at Cambridge:

In the thirteenth year of his age he (Francis Bacon) was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge. That celebrated school of learning enjoyed the peculiar favour of the Lord Treasurer and the Lord Keeper, and acknowledged the advantages which it derived from their patronage in a public letter which bears date just a month after the admission of Francis Bacon. The master was Whitgift, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, a narrow-minded, mean, and tyrannical priest, who gained power by servility and adulation, and employed it in persecuting both those who agreed with Calvin about Church Government, and those who differed from Calvin touching the doctrine of Reprobation. He was now in a chrysalis state, putting off the worm and putting on the dragon-fly, a kind of intermediate grub between sycophant and oppressor. He was indemnifying himself for the court which he found it expedient to pay to the Ministers by exercising much petty tyranny within his own college.

This quotation by the great 19th century English classical liberal Thomas Babbington (Lord Macaulay) is an excellent example of what might be called “the rhetoric of liberty”, that is the clever and witty use of language in order to defend the principles of liberty and to expose and criticise those who exercise oppressive power over others. In this example Macaulay is reviewing a biography of the Francis Bacon, in particular his time as a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. Bacon came to hate his three years there because of the tyrannical behaviour of the master of the college who was trying to ingratiate himself with powerful political and religious figures by clamping down on critical thinking at the college. Macaulay says Bacon came to view the system of education in Britain at that time as “radically vicious” in its contempt for the emerging discipline of modern science of which Bacon was later to become a leading figure. The wit of Macaulay was to describe the college master as being like a grub who was emerging from its chrysalis on its way to becoming a fully formed dragon-fly and to politicise that metaphor so cleverly: “he was now in a chrysalis state, putting off the worm and putting on the dragon-fly, a kind of intermediate grub between sycophant and oppressor.”