Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

Although Dryden acknowledges the limits of reason in religious inquiry, his objective is to persuade the reader by presenting a rational, moderate argument. As he says in his preface, men are to be reasoned into truth. His portrayal of the Church of England and its theological stance reflects the longstanding view of the church as a via media, a middle way between extremes. Dryden is content to uphold general beliefs, such as the authority of Scripture and atonement, and leave other points vague.

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The occasion for the poem is not known, though it is possible that, as poet laureate, Dryden thought it prudent to distance himself from the rising current of Deism, or rational religion, which appealed to his age. Like many Englishmen of the Restoration, he shared the view that extremes in religion brought calamity to society, though unlike the Deists, he was unwilling to distance himself from Christianity.

He disagrees with Deism on two basic assumptions. First, he rejects the view that basic religious truths are innate and articulable through reason. If that were so, Dryden argues cogently, the ancients would have discovered them. Second, he argues that following the fall, man’s reconciliation with God cannot be achieved by man himself. The Deists, rejecting the idea of original sin, logically denied the need for atonement. On the other hand, Dryden agrees with the Deistic view that to condemn those who lived before or outside the Christian tradition seems unjust. Dryden’s answer is to view the matter with tolerance and to suggest that divine mercy, in some manner, may well extend to everyone.

His eloquent defense of Scripture paves the way for rejection of the arguments raised by Simon’s work on the Old Testament. Instead of attacking specifics, Dryden addresses the writer’s motive, believing that the author sought to discredit the Bible in order to persuade men to accept Catholic oral tradition. While acknowledging some errors in biblical accounts, Dryden maintains that the text is adequate on essential beliefs and points out dangers in man’s reliance upon tradition.

The rejection of extreme Protestant belief is brief by comparison. Dryden thinks that extremes of individualism have been the result of too much reliance upon individual interpretation of the Scripture, a condition that leads to sects, dissent, and strife. He suggests that men consult their own church’s views on particulars of belief and ancient tradition.

Dryden is more concerned with defending a middle-of-the-road position in religion than with making any original contributions of his own. From this position, he discredits movements he believes to be socially dangerous, subversive, and disruptive. While attacking what he regards as dangerous extremes, he carefully avoids consideration of any specific doctrines of religion, as if to suggest that the Christian tradition permits many shades of belief and that tolerance of differences represents the best attitude.

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