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John Donne, the great English poet, lived in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. He thus lived well before the so-called “Enlightenment,” which is usually associated with the late seventeenth century and especially with the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless, Donne, like many figures of the Enlightenment, had a great respect for reason. Reason, in Donne’s day, was considered one of the greatest gifts given by God to human beings. Reason, in fact, was one of the traits that made human beings resemble God and that helped lift human beings above the level of animals.
In Holy Sonnet IX, for instance (beginning “If poisonous mineralls”), the speaker nonsensically asks why he should be held accountable for sins simply because he possesses reason. Animals, after all, are not considered sinners (he says), and the only explanation for this exemption is that they lack reason. This question, of course, is a splendid (and ironic) example of poor reasoning on the speaker’s part.
In Holy Sonnet XIV, the speaker, addressing God, says,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd , and proves weake or untrue. (7-8)
The idea that reason was God’s deputy, implanted in humanity in order to help defend humanity from sin, was standard Christian doctrine at the time. The speaker here claims that Reason has been captured by Satan and is weak and unreliable. Yet it is the speaker, by failing to adhere to Reason, who has in fact proved weak and unreliable. Nevertheless, the speaker can (and does) appeal to God for assistance: Reason, for Donne and his contemporaries, was not mankind’s only source of assistance in the battle with sin.
This latter idea is emphasized in Holy Sonnet IV (beginning “Oh my blacke Soule!”), which makes clear that human beings are ultimately and utterly dependent on God, entirely, for their salvation. Reason can help, and we have an obligation to use our reason wisely and well, but we are imperfect, sinful creatures and can never rely on reason alone.
The Enlightenment was a period in which an emphasis on reason alone was greater than in Donne’s time, as Donne’s poetry shows.
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