Religio Laici: by John Dryden - Summary & Analysis

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Power of Reason Questioned

      Religio Laid begins with the power of reason being questioned. Reason as a faculty stands no comparison with the soul. Reason is fallible and incapable of knowing the essence of God. It is a "glimmering ray," easily eclipsed by the "supernatural light" of religion. Dryden admits that a few men, with a higher capacity for reasoning than others, have been able to formulate philosophical theories explaining God. They have said that God is the "universal He" the prime mover who is Himself unmoved. But nobody has been able to prove or confirm the exact essence of God, not even the "Stagarite," or Aristotle. No one has been able to discover what is the chief good for which man should work for:

But least of all could their Endeavors find
What most concerned the good of Humane kind;

      Dryden then asks how the "less" can comprehend the "greater"; how can a finite faculty like reason comprehend the Infinite? Anything that could fathom God would have to be greater than God. This is impossible.

Attack on the Nationalism of the Deists

      Dryden attacks the Deists for their contention that they have reasoned out the essence of God. He questions their idea that all good men are to be admitted into Heaven while the bad were denied entrance. In such a situation there would be no need for a god. He charges that what the Deists take to be the result of their reason, is, in fact, only divine revelation:

These truths are not the product of the Mind.
But do opt from Heaven, and of a Nobler' kind:

      In Dryden's opinion, one cannot know any more through the faculty of reason alone than what any of the ancient philosophers like Plutarch and Cicero knew. They did not worship one god alone.

      Dryden discusses the system of the heathens who, to expiate their sins, offered cattle in sacrifice. Such practices would make it easy for a rich man to expiate his sins. He accuses the Deists of not feeling real remorse for their sins: and for this reason, they are lost. Dryden says that all religions, compared to Christianity, are inadequate.

The Bible: The Best Record of God's Will

      Dryden says that the will of God is best recorded in the Bible. He defends the validity of the Bible, for it records the truth as perceived by divinely inspired men. Dryden felt that these men had no cause to deceive us. The Deists argued that the Bible could not contain universal truths as the truth of God's law must apply to those who do not even acknowledge him; the Bible could not claim this. Moreover, the Bible cannot have any use for those who were not present at the Revelation and never saw the light. Dryden is prepared to admit that even the heathens can see their Maker's face, but the exact essence of God can be perceived only through the mystery of Incarnation and Revelation.

      Dryden refers specifically to Father Simon's charges against the Bible, made in his Critical History of the Old Testament, which had recently been translated by a young friend of Dryden. The Bible, says Dryden, is less infallible than the spoken tradition or the Catholic tradition. Just as Simon had attacked the validity of the Bible by demonstrating the change in it through the ages. Dryden attacks the validity of the oral tradition by showing its changes. Dryden agrees that it would be good to have an idea and uncorrupted church. But since there is no such church, the scriptures are more satisfactory than tradition.

Dryden does not Minimise Tradition

      After asserting that the Scriptures are important, Dryden goes on to deal with the significance of tradition. Some tradition is needed. There are many vague points in the Bible which can be elucidated by tradition. It would be an act of ignorance to discard tradition altogether. Dryden, a typical representative of the Church of England, works towards a compromise. He defends both the Scriptures and tradition. Dryden reiterates that even the illiterate man can gain access to heaven just like an educated Christian - some must study the Scriptures and others must be taught. Tradition has some authority. But because it is undergoing constant modifications, it represents probability rather than truth.

Attack on Papists

      Dryden argues that the Catholic church cannot validly claim supreme authority because it represents only a part and not the whole of Christianity. It may be allowed to hand down tradition, but that does not mean that it can interpret the Bible more judiciously. The Bible was designed for use of all sects, not only by the Catholics. Dryden talks of the age when everyone interpreted the scriptures as he chose.

Individual Interpretation of the Scriptures

      Different sects began to be formed when the Scriptures were interpreted by separate individuals. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholics alone had the right of interpreting and considered themselves infallible. Then the Puritans started their individual interpretations. Dryden points out the deficiencies of both sects. If the Roman Catholics were marked by "pride", the Puritans showed "ignorance."

Dryden's Compromise

      Dryden offers a compromise; important matters of religion do not lie in small, scholarly details. Both Church and Scriptures agree on the larger and vitally essential points of religion. If reason makes us disagree with the opinion of the Church, we must sacrifice individual judgment for the greater good or peace of the community. It is better to keep dissent to oneself than to create a public controversy. Minute disagreements should not be allowed to stir unjudicial disturbance. Fine points of interpretation might seem contradictory or obscure but there should be an agreement on having general peace and harmony on earth:

For points obscure are of small use of learn:
But common quiet is Mankind's concern.



      Dryden wrote Religio Laid, which means A Laymans Religion, in 1683. The occasion for it was the publication of a translation by Dryden's young friend, Henry Dickinson, of Father Simon's Histore Critique Vieux Testament or Critical History of the Old Testament. Father Simon had argued that the Old Testament was a literary work and that no religious principles could be inferred from it, for a lot of "corruption" could have marred it in the process of its transmission through the ages. In such circumstances, ecclesiastical authority alone could make religious stability prevail.

      Dryden wrote Religio Laid, an argumentative poem, as an answer to father Simon's arguments. He defends the Anglican Church. He exposes the roman Catholic claim of infallibility as a basis of faith. He also takes the opportunity to reject the proposition of the Deists, who said that reason and universality of truth, operating outside any church, could be the source of religious principles. He is equally opposed to non-conformists, who individually seek scriptural support for their prejudices. Though Dryden longed for an infallible church, in this poem he is a spokesman for the Church of England. He assumes the middle-of-the-road position and seeks a compromise - that Christians must hold as valuable both the Scriptural doctrine (the Bible) and the doctrines laid down by the fathers of the old undivided church. Such a view, Dryden felt, would appeal to the layman. Three years later, in 1686, Dryden turned Catholic and wrote his most famous religious poem, The Hind and the Panther, which is purely pro-Catholic.

Skeptical Attitude Towards "Philosophy":

      In Religio Lacici, Dryden presents a skeptical attitude towards philosophy and natural religion, as propounded by the Deists. He does not advocate rationalism in the matter of faith and religion.

Inadequacy of Reason

      Dryden attacks reason as being incapable of providing answers to questions on religion. He compares reason to the moons and stars, while faith is compared to the Sun. Reason may have its role, but dissolves into the greater spiritual light of faith, just as the light of the moon fades into the brightness of the sun. Dryden attacks the abuses of reason in the poem.

      Dryden first talks of the inadequacy of the great philosophic systems, which cannot account for the origin of the world and life. These philosophic system also failed to define a way to happiness. The philosophical systems of Aristotle the Epicurus were mostly guesswork.

      The Deists presented another abuse of reason. Dryden devotes much of the first half of the poem to an attack on the Deist mode of thinking. He objects to the contention that reason alone can make man deduce the existence of God and a future state. He opposes the Deist assumption that there is nothing of value in tradition or history. Indeed, the truth of Deism is simply borrowed from the Christian revelation.

      Another abuse of reason is discussed by Dryden. It involves an excessive reliance on tradition. It works under the assumption that under certain circumstances, reason may determine infallibly those elements in tradition which are valid. The error involves a stubborn certainty in a sphere in which certainty is not admissible.

      Dryden then talks of the fourth abuse of reason - the operation of the "private spirit." The error grows out of the assumption that individual reason can reach conclusions which are held to be precious discoveries. It also involves the wrong belief that in areas where precise certainty is not to be expected, there is no real knowledge and therefore, one man’s conviction is as valid as anyone else's.

Dryden's Sound Theological Knowledge

      The poem shows Dryden's sound theological beliefs and knowledge. His approach is positive. He rejects the Catholic claim of infallibility as a basis for faith. He also discards the principle of all-knowing reason. He also challenges the Puritan concept of Individual interpretation of the Scripture. There is a moment when Dryden seems close to despair. He cannot, in fact, deny that there are corruptions in the scripture which have crept in through the ages. He despairs of finding the infallible church, or the unerring guide in religion, which he sought, but not for long.

Commonsense Solution: Compromise

      Dryden offers an argument based on common sense though it is also an ingenious one. He says that corruptions in the Bible exist, but it is perfect enough on the main issues. He seems to say that the parts of the Bible which are corrupt, are not important. There is a tendency to side-step controversy - Dryden does not enter into polemics. He says that obscure saints were most probably minor and unimportant. The ordinary Christian need not bother about them.

      Dryden propounds a compromise. Neither the Catholic claim in infallibility nor the Puritan claim of the individual right of interpretation is acceptable. The middle of the path attitude of the Anglican Church is upheld. Among the errors and mistaken concepts of the extremists, whether they be Deists, Papists or Puritans, there must be a golden mean. Dryden says that there is such a simple way for the layman:

Fatih is not built on disquisition vain,
The things we must believe are few and plain,

      The ordinary man is best served if he accepts both the truths of tradition and scripture.

Political Overtone to a Religious Question: Stress on Stability and Peace

      Dryden’s compromise in religious problems has political overtones. Though the poem is ostensibly about religious questions, it is also concerned with secular matters. If individual judgment comes to clash with the teachings of the church, it should be stifled and sacrificed for the sake of public peace and harmony, says Dryden. The compromise implies that spiritual concerns are related to the secular world. Religious controversy should not be allowed to disturb order and peace of the community.

"But common quiet is mankind's concern"

      That is Dryden's governing principle. He pleads for moderation arid unity. But if he seems to bring political overtones to a religious poem, it must be kept in mind that the England of Dryden's time was torn between all sorts of controversies, and in dire need of order and stability. Dryden's compromising attitude is typical of his conservative political feeling: an orderly society is an ideal goal.

Form and Style

      Religio Laid is for the most part simple in style. Its language flows smoothly and Dryden eschews ornate devices of style. As he says in his preface to the poem, Dryden follows the simplicity of Horace's style. It is epistolary in tone, as it is addressed to the translator of Father Simon's work. The argument is mostly straight-forward.

      There are passages, however, which are marked by "shopkeeping metaphors and breezy colloquialism" quite at variance with the plain yet majestic style, promised by Dryden in the preface. The lines which discuss the Papists' claims and ridicules them:

In those dark times they learned their knack so well,
That by long use they grew infallible...

      We have farcical detail and witty verbal devices once again in the passage describing the claim of "private spirit" and "inner light." But, basically, the style of the poem adheres to the "plain yet majestic."


      Laid is an example of Dryden's ability to reason and argue in verse. He conducts his argument in a masterly manner and excites admiration for "the ease with which dry and difficult propositions melt and glide in harmonious verse," as Richard Gannett says, A simple, rugged verse ensures clarity of argument.

      Religio Laid may be read in two basic ways. One can either glace emphasis on the theological debate or on the poetry. It is an attempt to answer the Deists, and Father Simon, and to evolve a compromise between conflicting Scripture and Church tradition. Thus it can be read as an elaborate statement on behalf of the Church of England. At the same time, it offers nothing new or interesting the way of theological arguments which are rather outworn and boring. It presents problems but gives no new solution. Its value, to a large extent, lies in its poetic harmony, its rhythmical lines, and its clear summaries of arguments and counter-arguments. Religio Laid can thus be read either for its religious subject or for its poetry. Generally; critics have agreed that the poem presents a successful blend of controversy with poetic statement; of politics With polemics; and of rhetoric with deduction. Its style is simple yet dignified, and a perfect vehicle for verse argumentation.

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