“Gut eats all day and lechers all the night, so all his meat he tasteth over twice”: from Ben Jonson to Richard Dawkins.
Today, another of Ben Jonson‘s epigrams, which genre he called, as you’ll see below, “the ripest of his studies.” I begin with the dedicatory note in which that phrase appears. Jonson affixed it to the first edition of his Epigrams (1612):
To the great Example of Honour, and Vertue , the most Noble William, Earl of Pembroke, Lord Chamberlain, &c.
M Y L O R D, While you cannot change your Merit, I dare not change your Title: It [i.e. the Merit] was that made it, and not I. Under which Name, I here offer to your Lordship the ripest of my Studies, my Epigrams; which, though they carry danger in the sound, do not therefore seek your shelter: For, when I made them, I had nothing in my Conscience, to expressing of which I did need a Cypher.
No unseemly modesty infects Jonson’s claim not to seek Pembroke’s shelter by so dedicating his book. Some years earlier he’d known danger; he handled himself well enough. The crown suppressed his 1597 play The Isle of Dogs, co-written with Thomas Nashe. Elizabeth issued warrants for the arrest of both poets. Jonson wound up in Marshalsea Prison, charged with “Leude and mutynous behavior.” His partner in crime, Nashe, managed to escape. Only a year later, Jonson was again imprisoned, this time in Newgate on charges of manslaughter. He’d killed an actor called Gabriel Spenser in a duel that took place on September 22, 1598. Jonson plead guilty. But he was released by benefit of clergy, which granted leniency to the learned in that sense. All it took was the recitation of a verse or two from the Bible in Latin. Still, his property was confiscated, and he was branded on his left thumb in punishment. He knew what came of offending people at court. But by 1612, Elizabeth was nine years dead. Things had changed. Jonson was not out of favor with James I. His conscience was clean. He needed neither power nor the indirections of “cipher” to protect him. The dedication continues:
But, if I be fallen into those Times, wherein, for the likeness of Vice, and Facts, every one thinks another’s ill Deeds objected to [i.e., charged against] him; and that in their ignorant and guilty Mouths, the common Voice [i.e., cry] is (for their security), Beware the Poet, confessing, therein, so much love to their Diseases, as they would rather make a Party for them, than be either rid, or told of them: I must expect, at your Lordship’s hand, the protection of Truth, and Liberty, while you are constant to your own Goodness.
The poet as libertarian truth-teller; the poet as doing good by necessary evil. Something in this savors of the by-this-date defunct role of the Fool, a figure given ambiguous license at court to “speak truth to power” (as the saying now goes) when others might not. Examples abound in Shakespeare, as in this exchange between Lear and his Fool (I.iv.146-8):
KING LEAR: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
FOOL: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.
Jonson’s Epigrams often have this air about them: a cavalier ease with the powerful, Royalist though he was. He calls an ass an ass, a whore a whore, a fool a fool, and is not averse to riddling.† The epigrams “carry danger in their sound.” He plays the Fool in the better sense. And Jonson’s point? That he seeks shelter from Pembroke, if at all, for the common defense of Truth and Liberty, not for the more craven purpose of hiding behind the gown of a Lord. Jonson continues:
In thanks whereof, I return you the Honour of leading forth so many good, and great Names (as my Verses mention on the better part) to their remembrance with Posterity. Amongst whom, if I have praised, unfortunately, any one, that doth not deserve; or, if all answer not, in all Numbers, the Pictures I have made of them: I hope it will be forgiven me, that they are no ill Pieces, though they be not like the Persons.
Not all of the epigrams assault or satirize the powerful, not by any means. Some of the best are eulogies—panegyrics even—but only where merited (more or less). The loveliest among them are the immortal elegies for Jonson’s first daughter and son. King James I comes in for celebration, as does the Union (i.e., of Scotland and England), and poets like John Donne. Jonson accords Pembroke the honor of leading them forth. “But,” Jonson goes on to say:
“I foresee a nearer Fate to my Book than this, That the Vices therein will be own’d before the Vertues, (though, there, I have avoided all Particulars, as I have done Names) and some will be so ready to discredit me, as they will have the impudence to belie themselves. For, if I meant them not, it is so. Nor, can I hope otherwise. For, why should they remit any thing of their Riot, their Pride, their Self-love, and other inherent Graces, to consider Truth or Vertue; but, with the Trade of the World, lend their long Ears against Men they love not: And hold their dear Mountebank, or Jester, in far better Condition than all the Study, or Studiers of Humanity? For such, I would rather know them by their Visards, still, than they should publish their Faces, at their peril, in my Theatre, where CATO, if he liv’d, might enter without scandal. By your Lordship’s most faithfull Honourer, BEN. JOHNSON.” Cato the Elder (234 BC-149BC) is the best-remembered of the Roman censors, whose charge included policing public morality. Jonson merely suggests that should Cato, infamously severe in his judgments, rise from the dead and enter the “theater” of his book Epigrams he’d find nothing to object to, nothing to imprison Jonson for, and nothing to brand him for (as had Elizabeth’s own censors). The wit, of course, lies here: “I foresee a nearer Fate to my Book than this, That the Vices therein will be own’d before the Vertues, (though, there, I have avoided all Particulars, as I have done Names) and some will be so ready to discredit me, as they will have the impudence to belie themselves.”
Right at the get-go, in the dedication, Jonson anticipates anyone who might object to the book. Object, and you confess having found yourself mirrored in its least flattering light. Jonson names no names. But Vice knows itself. And because it is Vice, it cannot hold its tongue—which is of course a vice.
CXVIII. On Gut
GUT eats all day and lechers all the night,
So all his meat he tasteth over twice;
And striving so to double his delight,
He makes himself a thorough-fare of vice.
Thus, in his belly, can he change a sin,
Lust it comes out, that gluttony went in.
This one has all the virtues. Jonson handles his iambic pentameter lines with accustomed facility. He sets three “periods” (independent grammatical units, O.E.D. sense III.16.a) into six lines, which themselves comprise a quatrain (rhyming ABAB) and a terminal couplet. Jonson’s rhymes are largely conjunctive, as I like to say (i.e., they harmonize not merely aurally but conceptually): night/delight (darkness is in “Gut”); twice/vice (he doubles and redoubles his sin); sin/in (or “in sin”).
The title of the epigram works in O.E.D. sense 3.a, current when Jonson wrote: “the seat of appetite or gluttony.” Robert Burton has this sense in mind when he says, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), that “there is not so much harm proceeding from the substance it self of meat, and quality of it, in ill-dressing and preparing, as there is from the quantity, disorder of time and place, unseasonable use of it, intemperance, over-much or over-little taking of it. A true saying it is, Plures crapula quam gladius; this gluttony kills more than the sword; this omnivorantia, et homicida gula, this all devouring, murdering gut.” (I. ii. II. ii). No doubt the language of Jonson’s “On Gut” converges with the passage just quoted. It was commonplace to speak of gluttony in this manner in the early 17th century.
Gluttony and lust are of course two of the so-called “seven deadly sins.” “Meat” as used in this epigram (spelled “meate” in the original text) means, in addition to, say, pork or mutton, what it means in O.E.D sense 6.a. “The human body (esp. a woman’s body) regarded as an instrument of sexual pleasure; a prostitute. Also: the female genitals.” The dictionary cites two instances that bracket Jonson’s poem as to date: “1611 L. BARREY Ram Alley v. sig. H4v, Faith take a maide, and leaue the widdow, Maister. Of all meates I loue not a gaping oyster. 1664 T. KILLIGREW Parson’s Wedding V. ii, in Comedies & Trag. 142 Your bed is big enough for two, and my meat will not cost you much.”
In “On Gut,” something disgusts me about the lust “coming out” of the gluttony that “went in.” It connects the two ends of the alimentary canal(s) too dearly to bear, if you think on it closely. It puts me in mind of—pardon my laying emphasis here, but Jonson summons it all up;—it puts me in mind of the many crude jokes that have passed down through the centuries about the (conceptual/functional) nearness of the mouth to the excretal portals. “On Gut” makes hay out of that. As surely as Swift in some of his moods, he means to disgust us, because men like “Gut” are disgusting.
Notable to me is how Jonson equates lust and gluttony, which are alike abuses of sensuality, and yet maintains the necessary distinction. “Gut” is a kind of machine for transforming the one sin into the other; the second follows on the first as the “night” on the “day” as in the first line of the epigram. Of course the gut is a “thorough-fare” of some kind. But the hyphen of the original printing, now largely lost, allows us to better feel the slight punning on “fare,” as it takes on culinary connotations by proximity to all this talk of eating and meat. “Gut” is very “thorough” in his “fare,” and he pays a high “fare” for it: loss of his soul.
But you needn’t believe in the immortal soul either to understand or to find yourself implicated in the poem. Even us atheists should find some way not to identify our “selves” entirely with “the body,” whose interests, as Richard Dawkins well knows, are not necessarily, or even very often, “ours” as men and women (as against mere members of the species to which we belong). Jonson’s “Gut” is utterly subject, if not merely to sin, then at least in his lechery to the “selfish gene.” This idea offers us, with its ancillary discourse, a new vocabulary to use when we talk about what we used to talk about when we talked about “sins” like gluttony. I entertain no so-called “Literary Darwinism,” here. That’s far too infected, for my tastes, by evolutionary psychology, and too reductive. I have something else in mind, a different kind of literary criticism. It’s informed by the insights of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, but more inclusive as to scope, and more nuanced and “light” as to application, than what the Literary Darwinians do. They depend too heavily on the idea that our having “evolved” out of pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors the likes of early homo sapiens somehow ought to inform our understanding of courtship rituals in Pride and Prejudice. These Literary Darwinians always seem insufficiently to bear in mind that the most complex epiphenomenon of evolution is consciousness, and with it imagination and “ritual” in a sense completely unlike whatever “rituals” some species of early hominids may have engaged in. There are species who engage in “rituals” of courtship, and there are species who write novels about “engaging in rituals of courtship.” A great gulf yawns between them.
A far better kind of Darwinist, Richard Dawkins, has this in mind when he closes the first edition of The Selfish Gene (again, I highlight passage salient for my purposes in red): “I now close the topic of the new replicators, and end the chapter on a note of qualified hope. One unique feature of man, which may or may not have evolved memically, is his capacity for conscious foresight. Selfish genes (and, if you allow the speculation of this [closing] chapter, memes too) have no foresight. They are unconscious, blind, replicators. The fact that they replicate, together with certain further conditions means, willy nilly, that they will tend towards the evolution of qualities which, in the special sense of this book, can be called selfish. A simple replicator, whether gene or meme, cannot be expected to forgo short-term selfish advantage even if it would really pay it, in the long term, to do so. We saw this in the chapter on aggression. Even though a ‘conspiracy of doves’ would be better for every single individual than the evolutionarily stable strategy, natural selection is bound to favour the ESS. It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight—our capacity to simulate the future in imagination—could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves,’ and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.“
I propose a short thought-experiment. Let’s say that Jonson’s “Gut” is given over entirely to the “short-term” interests of his “selfish genes”: he “lechers” all night, after having fortified himself by day to do it. He is, and wants, nothing but “meat.” The poem damns him for it. Jonson employs a vocabulary peculiar to the Church, and perhaps more particularly to the Catholic Church, of which he had been a member, and in which he may have died a member (after a sojourn within the Anglican Church). But “On Gut” remains contemporary because it engages matters we can discuss in newer vocabularies, ready to hand, and to the same purpose. When Dawkins speaks of “turning against” our “creators,” he doesn’t mean a god of any kind, but a molecule: DNA, with its genes. These arose in and out of nature and we can set ourselves against them and the “members” they build us out of and into, rather than identify ourselves with them. We can “discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature” (my emphasis). Again, we need not reduce ourselves to “bodies,” or think that, because we somehow “are” bodies, their interests harmonize with ours. Man is a at once a natural and a historical-cultural creature. Dawkins is always aware of this. If that makes room for a new and more inclusive way to talk about our “souls,” well, I say so much the better. Why can’t I point to my body, my “gut,” and say, on Dawkinsian and atheist grounds, “This is not ‘me,’ or not all there is to me,” just as Jonson could say the same on the Pauline grounds of the book of Romans: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.”
Which is to say: yield your members servants to a conspiracy of doves. Our “gut” may damn us; our poetry about “gut” can redeem us. Jonson knew as much. So does Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, which is a kind of poetry in that it strikes off such novel and dis-orienting/re-orienting metaphors.
So ends my discussion of the epigram. I append below passages in English from the Catholic Catechism that pertain to such sins as lust and gluttony, for what corollary interest they may have. Anyway, I like concluding an entry addressing “On Gut” with an appendix.
†As for example here, where Jonson’s words might find good utterance in the voices of Fools in several of Shakespeare’s plays:
To Pertinax Cob.
Cob, thou nor Souldier, Thief, nor Fencer art,
Yet by thy Weapon liv’st! Th’hast one good Part.
N.B. For a link to a site reprinting Jonson’s epigrams, click here. For the article on “sin” in the Catholic Encyclopedia, click here. For Richard Dawkins’ home-page, click here. For a video lecture by Dawkins on our “queer” universe, delivered at TED, click here. For all entries within The Era of Casual Fridays pertaining to Jonson, click here.
Ben Jonson, as I said, was Catholic. The Cathechism derives its notion of a distinction between venial and mortal sins from, among other sources, 1 John:13-17. I highlight the salient verses in red. “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him. If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes no bones about the matter, even as it makes many bones about the matter. I reprint the treatment given to sin at length in this appendix because it is a matter of some curiosity to me. I’m not accustomed to saying such things as that “venial sin manifests a disordered affection for created goods,” unless these “goods” are such as may be found at Costco, Sam’s Club, Best Buy, or Barneys New York.
III. The Different Kinds of Sins 1852 There are a great many kinds of sins. Scripture provides several lists of them. the Letter to the Galatians contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.”127 1853 Sins can be distinguished according to their objects, as can every human act; or according to the virtues they oppose, by excess or defect; or according to the commandments they violate. They can also be classed according to whether they concern God, neighbor, or oneself; they can be divided into spiritual and carnal sins, or again as sins in thought, word, deed, or omission. the root of sin is in the heart of man, in his free will, according to the teaching of the Lord: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man.”128 But in the heart also resides charity, the source of the good and pure works, which sin wounds. IV. The Gravity of Sin: Mortal and Venial Sin 1854 Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. the distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture,129 became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience. 1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it. 1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us – that is, charity – necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation: When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery…. But when the sinner’s will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.130 1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”131 1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.”132 The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger. 1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart133 do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin. 1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. the promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest. 1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God. 1862 One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent. 1863 Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However venial sin does not set us in direct opposition to the will and friendship of God; it does not break the covenant with God. With God’s grace it is humanly reparable. “Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness.”134 While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call “light”: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession.135 1864 “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”136 There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit.137 Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.”