The Library Gave Birth to the Tyrant

R.C. Jebb, Richard Bentley (Chp. XII)

At the age of thirty-eight, when explaining his delay to answer Charles Boyle, Bentley spoke of his own ‘natural aversion to all quarrels and broils.’ This has often, perhaps, been read with a smile by those who thought of his later feuds. I believe that it was quite true. Bentley was a born student. He was not, by innate impulse, a writer, still less an aspirant to prizes of the kind for which men chiefly wrangle. But his self-confidence had been exalted by the number of instances in which he had been able to explode fallacies, or to detect errors which had escaped the greatest of previous scholars. He became a dogmatic believer in the truth of his own instinctive perceptions. At last, opposition to his decrees struck him as a proof of deficient capacity, or else of moral obliquity.

This habit of mind insensibly extended itself from verbal criticism into other fields of judgment. He grew less and less fit to deal with men on a basis of equal rights, because he too often carried into official or social intercourse the temper formed in his library by intellectual despotism over the blunders of the absent or the dead. He was rather too apt to treat those who differed from him as if they were various readings that had cropped up from ‘scrub manuscripts,’ or ‘ scoundrel copies,’ as he has it in his reply to Middleton. He liked to efface such persons as he would expunge false concords, or to correct them as he would remedy flagrant instances of hiatus. This was what made him so specially unlit for the peaceable administration of a College. It was hard for him to be primus inter pares – first among peers, but harder still to be primus intra parietes, to live within the same walls with those peers.

The frequent personal association which the circumstances of his office involved was precisely calculated to show him constantly on his worst side. He would probably have made a better bishop, — though not, perhaps, a very good one, — just because his contact would have been less close and continual with those over whom he was placed. Bentley had many of the qualities of a beneficent ruler, but hardly of a constitutional ruler. If he had been the sole heir of Peisistratus, he would have bestowed the best gifts of paternal government on those Athenian blacksmiths to whom he compared Joshua Barnes, and no swords would have been wreathed with myrtle in honour of a tyrannicide.

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