The Holy State and the Profane State by Thomas Fuller

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,773 words.)