Joseph Addison as A Critic and Social Reformer

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The Age: Polarised Society and its Tensions

      In order to fully appreciate the achievement of Addison and Steele as social reformers, one has to keep in mind the conflicts and tensions of the society which they wrote in. There was tension between the rural and the urban societies. There was the tension between the Puritan element of society and the courtly upper strata of society which followed the Restoration tradition of looseness of thinking and living. Besides these, there were the political and civil tensions.

      The Puritans were opposed to all kinds of amusement and considered refinement and culture synonymous with vice. The Restoration tradition used its wit and keen sense of humor against morality and virtue. There was, as Macaulay remarks, a disastrous separation between wit and virtue. Wit had been led astray by profligacy and mortality was associated with dullness. One section of society was licentious and the other fanatical. It was against this atmosphere that Steele and Addison set out to write and the aim of the Spectator was a courageous one.

Wit Tempered with Morality and Morality Enlivened by Wit

      Addison bravely set out to temper wit with morality and enliven morality with wit. This combination of wit and virtue was being done for the first time. He managed to achieve the success which speaks of his ability and his role as the conciliator and negotiator. He is justly called “a great conciliator” and a “a mediator between town and country, between landed gentry and prosperous citizen”. He set out to restore sanity, to reconcile hostile elements of the society, organize and mold public opinion and inculcate in the public a good sense of judgment and taste. He advocated moderation in all fields and tried to bring out the best from the opposing factors of Restoration, looseness and refinement on one hand, and the Puritan morality, on the other. He combined the refinement of the former and its gaiety and polish with the virtue and moral sense of the latter. He left out the looseness of the former and the gloom of the latter. He dissipated the prejudices that had associated vice with gaiety, and easy mantises with laxity. He restored virtue to dignity, as Johnson remarks.

Social Reform

      Addison claimed to be a spectator, an onlooker and observer who merely saw life being lived without taking part in it. But his actual role is not too difficult to understand. He was an avowed social reformer. He aimed to be a censor, though a mild one, of the morals and manners of the contemporary society. His essays deal with a variety of subjects and we notice that most of them deal with topical matters i.e. fashions, foibles of dress, gambling, swearing, manners, indecency in conversation, practical jokes, cruelty, etc. He set out to point out the trivial vices and follies of society, those vices which in his own words, “are too trivial for the chastisement of the law, and too fantastical for the cognizance of the pulpit.” In another essay, he says that the “great and only end of these speculations is to banish vice and ignorance out of the territories of Great Britain.” But all the while he would combine this moral and instructive aim with the aim of giving pleasure and entertainment.

Archbishop of Good Taste

      Addison himself said that he brought philosophy out of the closets and colleges to the coffee-houses and clubs and the tea tables. In other words, he wanted to improve the tastes of the society; he wanted to improve the standards of the society’s thinking power. He wanted the “blanks of society” to know something that would enable them to converse originally and intelligently. He aimed at the inculcating of good taste in all fields by recommending a general simplicity in dress, in discourse and behavior. He was indeed an “Archbishop of good taste” who put his finger unerringly, but always gently, on the foibles of society and cajoles them and argues them out of their propensities.

Moralist and Satirist

      There are both positive and negative sides to the purpose of Addison. In the essay, The Scope of Satire, he remarks that it is his business to attack vice and folly wherever it was to be found, and that he would attack extravagance in every field, social, literary or political:

“In short, if I meet with anything in the city, court and country, that shocks modesty or good manners I shall use my utmost endeavors to make an example of it.”

      Then the positive element is set forth in The Aim of the Spectator:

“I shall spare no pains to make their instruction agreeable and their diversion useful. For which reason I shall endeavor to enliven morality with wit and to temper wit with morality.”

      He would also bring the wisdom of the ages and the important development of thought in the contemporary intellectual circles out to the common man in a manner that would be understood by him. Thus as a reformer of society, Addison combined the roles of teacher and moralist on one hand and critic and satirist, on the other. As a moralist and a teacher, he would acquaint the common man with truths of philosophy in elegant and simple language and also amuse the reader with interesting literary devices such as allegory and allusions and anecdotes.

      As a satirist, he would hold up the follies and foibles and ridicule them so that the readers, seeing their absurdities, would leave off indulging in them.

Picture of Eighteenth-Century England

      Spectator that he was, with a desire to reform the society, he has presented in his essays a vivid picture of the society of the times. He intended to reform the people by holding up a picture of that society and by ridiculing its follies and vices. They are “the best pictures we possess of the new social life of England, with its many new interests.” Johnson remarks: “Addison copied life with so much fidelity that he can hardly be said to invent.” This picture of society that is offered by the Spectator is closely linked with the intention of the authors. Addison desired to effect a social reform by showing a general picture of existing follies and foibles in various aspects of life and society and ridiculing these. The most important fact about Addison as a painter and a critic of contemporary society is that he makes all vice and folly equally ridiculous.

Weapons of the Social Reformer

      The social reformer who intends to change society through the medium of writing, has the weapons of satire and irony at his disposal. A look at the essays of Addison shows how effectively he used these weapons but always according to his own dictum of the nature of true satire, the dictum being that true satire should be general and never hurt the person but only attack the vice or folly. Thus we find all his essays attacking some folly or vice in a general fashion; the folly or vice of a class of society as a whole. It never aims at being personal and offensive. Nor is Addison ever coarse or disgustingly satiric (like Swift could be and was). The upholder of good manners himself, he never erred by making his satire and humor uncivilized or savage in tone. He attacks the follies in a mild manner and holds them up to ridicule—in keeping with his intention of using wit to laugh mankind out of folly and vice.

Examples of his Reformative Satire

      He attacks the narrowness of mind and conceit over one’s self in the essays, Pedants and On Egotism. In the essay On Stage, he ridicules the tastes of the public as well as the conversations which held sway at the time, on the stage. He meant to reform the taste of the public in these matters. In The Trunk Maker, he ridicules the Jack of discriminating taste in the audience which has to be prompted by this mysterious figure to clap at different places in a play. He describes ironically the various devices of realism used on stage in, those days in the essay, Stage Realism. He ridicules “false critics” who are unable to judge a literary work on its true merits in Periodical Essays. He aimed here at improving the literary taste of the people.

      It is noticeable that in none of these essays has Addison attacked any particular person. He ridicules general follies and this he does with the innate desire to reform. This “attacking the vice without hurting the person” is all the more apparent in the de Coverley papers where none of the characters are spared from ridicule but yet none of them become contemptible. Moreover, they are all, in spite of the realistic characterization, meant to be social types, representatives of different classes of society. Through them, Addison ridicules the follies common to their classes as a whole.

Essays on the Female Sex: Typical Examples of Reformative Satire

      Many of the essays in the Spectator are concerned with the foibles and follies of the female world. The women of the age were indeed in a sad state. Empty heads and shallow hearts were matched by their interest in trivialities and frivolities of dress and behavior. The artificial “gallantry” of the Restoration courts had in truth brought down the status of women in a big way. They were considered mere toys, merely to be kept in humor with a few flirtatious words of meaningless gallantry. The women were not considered as having a brain and thinking power of their own. What is more, the women acquiesced in this attitude towards them.

      Addison sought to improve the status of women and inculcate in them a desire to improve their education. We notice how Addison uses irony to expose and ridicule the empty occupations and foibles of women. This irony can be quite sustained and sharp—note the essays Fans and Female Orators for the delectable and pointed irony, but we also note that the irony and satire is general. It is not meant to, and does not, hurt any individual. It is clear case of irony being made gentle, because it is general and humorous. He and Steele describe the dresses, head-dresses, fans and their patches and other vanities, their garrulity and malice, with an ironic air of gravity so that they would read and note the absurdities of their own behavior and fashions and reform themselves.

      His own ideal of womanhood was a mixture of virtue, modesty and wit and refinement and intelligence—one who had the beauty of the mind as well as the sense of dress. This he puts before the female readers to be followed by them to reject all the departures from the norms of rationality in behavior and dress. In his advice to the female sex, he reconciled wit and virtue—the female should be the embodiment of the right mixture of both.

Conciliator of Tensions

      Addison is seen as a conciliator between town and country. There were tensions between the two areas in their ideas and their outlook of life. This was mainly due to gap in communication between the two. This tension was mainly due to the prevalence of the feudal setup in the countryside and the emergence of the newly rich trading middle class in the towns. Each section of the society, the vanishing aristocracy and landed gentry and the fast-rising middle classes were competing for the position of power and influence. In his de Coverley papers, Addison tried to bridge this gap between the country and town.

      Sir Roger de Coyerley represented the feudal set up of the countryside and Sir Andrew Freeport, the moneyed trading interests of the town. It is significant that Addison makes them always hostile to each other’s views in a humorous manner. Addison brings a rationality to the approach. He ridicules the follies and drawbacks of both country and town, and holds up as examples to be followed, the good points of both. If he ridicules the taste in fashion of the town, he ridicules the superstition of the country. The character of Sir Roger embodies all that is good in the feudal system. So far the literature had always reserved position of sheer ridicule for the country squire. Addison, however, was insistent on bringing out the good points of the system as well as ridiculing the bad points. Thus we have in the characterization of Sir Roger a subtle mixture of respect and ridicule.

      Sir Andrew Freeport similarly is not just ridiculed but his good points are also brought out. Addison thus effected a reconciliation between the attitudes of the country and town towards each other. Sir Roger exemplifies the goodness and simplicity of country nature. But he is not spared of the ridicule for his weaknesses and little vanities. Addison tries to build up a better understanding between town and country through organizing those exchanges of visits to town and country by Sir Roger and Spectator.

      The Spectator tried to bring together various types of society in order to form a new set of values through the form of discussion between these various types. Addison showed that cooperation between these conflicting points of view would be possible, but possible only if everyone was ready to adopt good sense, tolerance and reason and discarded petty rivalries and sectarian passions, and prejudices.

Voice of Moderation

      Addison advocated moderation in all aspects of life. Even in the area of political affairs, he ridiculed excessive passion. He ridicules the tendency of party supporters to become fierce and violent in their party spirit. He asks each party to exert itself towards moderation and humane behavior. As Courthope puts it, Addison tried to help to form a reasonable public opinion.

      Addison set himself up as a moralist to break down two opposed influences “that of the profligate Restoration tradition, of loose living and loose thinking on the one hand; and that of Puritan fanaticism and bigotry on the other.” He holds up the claims of decency and sound sense.


      The role of Addison as a social reformer, is undoubtedly important. He affected this reform through the means of criticizing the follies and foibles and vices of the contemporary society. He mobilized public opinion and advocated the norms of decency and rationality in everyday behavior. It is true that he concerned himself with the trivial vices — those that were too much below the notice of law and religion. He does not concern himself with deep and serious moral questions and thus does not deal with the underworld of London that he otherwise portrays so well. But his achievement as a critic and a reformer of society can not be minimized. In this context, it is relevant to quote Dr. Johnson:

“It is justly observed by Ticket! that he employed wit on the side of virtue and religion. He not only made a proper use of wit, himself, but taught it to others......He has restored virtue to its dignity and. taught innocence not to be ashamed. No greater felicity can genius attain than that of having purified intellectual pleasure, separated mirth from indecency and wit from licentiousness...”

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