The Tremendous, Ferocious Bentley

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Richard Bentley, from the book Gallery of Portraits, 1833

Among the literary giants of eighteenth-century England Richard Bentley is less famous today than Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, or Edward Gibbon, but his reputation was huge at the time. Gibbon referred to him as “the tremendous Bentley.” Even before 1700, when he began, at the age of thirty-eight, a stormy tenure as master of Trinity College in Cambridge, he had already won public recognition in both classical studies and theological debate, and his reputation continued to grow until his death in 1742.

In the Dunciad Pope mercilessly mocked Bentley’s achievements as a critic, but Gibbon found in Bentley’s polemical style a model for his own Vindication of the notorious fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the Decline and Fall, on early Christianity. Through his prowess as an editor and critic of texts in Greek and Latin, Bentley not only reached the lofty level of scholars of the previous century, above all Joseph Scaliger, but got there by publishing his most devastating criticism in English rather than Latin, despite his impeccable command of Latin. His critical acumen and ferocious style, in scholarship, sermons, and pamphlets, outlasted his own century and ultimately inspired A.E. Housman in the twentieth to assume Bentley’s formidable mantle when he prepared his magisterial texts of Latin authors.

Bentley, born in 1662, took holy orders in 1690, after seven years as tutor to the son of the Reverend Edward Stillingfleet in London. By then he was already well embarked upon an audacious program of scholarly research on some of the most difficult and obscure texts from classical antiquity—the Greek lexicon of Hesychius, the Latin astronomical poem in five books by Manilius, and the Greek books of Philostratus, including the biography of the wonder-worker Apollonius of Tyana. Once established as a deacon of the Anglican Church, Bentley soon became an eloquent champion of orthodoxy in opposition to a growing chorus of dissidents and radical thinkers, and this led to his installation as the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1717.

In her new biography of Bentley, Kristine Louise Haugen is by no means the first to comment on the apparent incongruity of Bentley’s careers as a churchman and a scholar. For her, “Bentley the churchman and Bentley the scholar were two discernibly different creatures.” She has built her work, as she fully acknowledges, on the magnificent biography of Bentley that James Henry Monk published in 1830, and it is praise enough to say that her thorough and well-documented account supplements his without replacing it.

The greatest strength of Haugen’s book is its close attention to the scholarly achievements of Bentley. But she might have paid more attention to the phenomenal projects that Bentley had under way in the 1680s, when he was still in his twenties, and well before his public debut with the Letter to Mill of 1691, a groundbreaking work of scholarship published as an appendix …

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