The Holy State and the Profane State Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas Fuller

Critical Evaluation

Clergyman and moralist, Thomas Fuller was one of the most popular preachers of his age, even though he sided against the Puritans during the Commonwealth and died shortly after the Restoration. He was, in other words, popular despite his opposition to the emotionally charged Puritan overthrow of the monarchy. Such popularity was difficult to obtain, but as Thomas Fuller knew, it was even more difficult to keep. He was a prolific writer, and in his many books he always simplified his presentation of even the weightiest matter so that his books would have profitable sales. The result of this simplification is a style that is at once cogent and austere, instructive and entertaining.

But style is only one cause of his popularity. Fuller’s agile mind, quick to penetrate into the core of whatever problem was at hand and slow to embrace any tenet that did not withstand scrutiny, was one that would be rare in any age. Not only did he have discrimination of mind; he was also witty, and he was able to captivate his congregations by his balance of the profound and the humorous. In his writings he preserved this ability, so that THE HOLY STATE AND THE PROFANE STATE, his first book, is never weighty in spite of its didacticism or trite in spite of the detailed moral rules.

The four books of THE HOLY STATE and the one of THE PROFANE STATE are composed of three major types of prose. First, Fuller lists the traits that best illustrate a certain character. These maxims are pithy, easily remembered statements such as (for an advocate) “He is more careful to deserve, than greedy to take, fees,” or (for a statesman) “He refuseth all underhand pensions from foreign princes.” But Fuller knew that maxims alone are seldom read and even less frequently obeyed. When he gives a maxim, he immediately explains it with a clever anecdote or epigram. Second, after he has listed several of these maxims, he illustrates proper behavior in a “character” or a brief sketch exemplifying ideal types. In these “characters” lie the summations of character-types that were familiar to the Elizabethan theatergoer such as the favorite, the good schoolmaster, or the good servant. In terms of literary history, these “characters” were more than summations of the popular theatrical figures of an earlier age; as the prototypes of the descriptions later to be found in novels, they were influential in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as statements of ideal types for the novelist’s pen. Third, at times when a historical character will adequately illustrate one of the moral principles, Fuller inserts a terse, greatly stylized biography. In an age when the art of biography was still in its infancy, these biographical sketches helped to form the eulogy into a literary genre that would mature through Walton and Boswell into the psychologically probing biography of the twentieth century. The biographies in this book include such a broad selection of biblical and historical figures that few types of people are neglected.

In Book One of THE HOLY STATE, Fuller describes domestic relationships. The nine characters are conceived in their widest seventeenth century application so that the twentieth century reader can get a fairly good idea of what the people of that time thought constituted a harmonious home life. The good wife, for example, is properly obedient to her husband, and the good husband is cautioned not to tell secrets to her because she is too frail to sustain the strenuous responsibility of keeping secrets. The good parent is a combination of love and authority, and through his parents’ examples the good child can learn to honor and obey them. But Fuller is realistic and cynically adds, “If preserved from the gallows, they are reserved for the rack, to be tortured by their own prosperity.” Widening his view to other domestic relationships, Fuller proceeds to describe the good master and the good servant; the first should be stern but just, while the second should be quick to obey. The good widow and the constant virgin are special cases, each demands special consideration, even though Fuller believes that all women should marry and raise large families. The final two relationships, the elder brother and the younger brother, lead Fuller from the immediate family because they concern...

(The entire section is 1773 words.)