Richard Bentley

English critic and philologist


January 27, 1662
July 14, 1742
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Controversial literature, Atheism, Christianity and atheism, Bentley, Richard,--1662-1742, Biography,


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Generally considered the greatest of English classical scholars, he was largely responsible for raising standards of textual criticism in the work of his many followers. His Dissertation upon The Epistles of Phalaris (1699), an exposure of a 14th century forgery, was his most celebrated work. He was pilloried by Jonathan Swift in the Battle of the Books.

Richard Bentley (27 January 1662 – 14 July 1742) was an English classical scholar, critic, and theologian. He was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Bentley was the first Englishman to be ranked with the great heroes of classical learning and was known for his literary and textual criticism. Called the "founder of historical philology", Bentley is credited with the creation of the English school of Hellenism. He inspired generations of subsequent scholars.

Bentley was born at Oulton near Rothwell, Leeds, West Yorkshire, northern England. His grandfather had suffered for the Royalist cause following the English Civil War, leaving the family in reduced circumstances. Bentley's mother, the daughter of a stonemason, had some education, and was able to give her son his first lessons in Latin.

After attending grammar school in Wakefield, Bentley was an undergraduate at St John's College, Cambridge in 1676. He afterward obtained a scholarship and took the degree of B.A. in 1680 (M.A. 1683).

Bentley wrote the Epistola ad Johannem Millium, which is about 100 pages included at the end of the Oxford Malalas (1691). This short treatise placed Bentley ahead of all living English scholars. The ease with which he restored corrupted passages, the certainty of his emendation and command over the relevant material, are in a style totally different from the careful and laborious learning of Hody, Mill or Edmund Chilmead. To the small circle of classical students (lacking the great critical dictionaries of modern times), it was obvious that he was a critic beyond the ordinary. A bust of Bentley now stands in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge.

In 1690, Bentley had taken deacon's orders. In 1692 he was nominated first Boyle lecturer, a nomination repeated in 1694. He was offered the appointment a third time in 1695 but declined it, as he was involved in too many other activities. In the first series of lectures ("A Confutation of Atheism"), he endeavours to present Newtonian physics in a popular form, and to frame them (especially in opposition to Hobbes) into proof of the existence of an intelligent Creator. He had some correspondence with Newton, then living in Trinity College, Cambridge, on the subject. The second series, preached in 1694, has not been published and is believed to be lost.

After being ordained, Bentley was promoted to a prebendal stall in Worcester Cathedral. In 1693 the curator of the royal library became vacant, and his friends tried to obtain the position for Bentley, but did not have enough influence. The new librarian, a Mr Thynne, resigned in favour of Bentley, on condition that he receive an annuity of £130 for life out of the £200 salary. In 1695 Bentley received a royal chaplaincy and the living of Hartlebury.

That same year, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1696 earned the degree of D.D. (Doctor of Divinity). The scholar Johann Georg Graevius of Utrecht made a dedication to him, prefixed to a dissertation on Albert Rubens, De Vita Flavii Mattii Theodori (1694), which showed Bentley's work had been recognized on the Continent.

In 1700, the commissioners of ecclesiastical patronage recommended Bentley to the Crown for the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge. He arrived an outsider and proceeded to reform the college administration. He started a program of renovations to the buildings, and used his position to promote learning. At the same time, he antagonized the fellows, and the capital programme caused reductions in their incomes, which they resented.

After ten years of stubborn but ineffectual resistance, the fellows appealed to the Visitor, the bishop of Ely (John Moore). Their petition was full of general complaints. Bentley's reply (The Present State of Trinity College, etc., 1710) is in his most crushing style. The fellows amended their petition and added a charge of Bentley's having committed 54 breaches of the statutes. Bentley appealed directly to the Crown, and backed his application with a dedication of his Horace to the lord treasurer (Harley).

The Crown lawyers decided against him; the case was heard (1714) and a sentence of expulsion from the mastership was drawn up. Before it was executed, the bishop of Ely died and the process lapsed. The feud continued in various forms at lower levels. In 1718 Cambridge rescinded Bentley's degrees, as punishment for failing to appear in the vice-chancellor's court in a civil suit. It was not until 1724 that he had them restored under the law.

In 1733 the fellows of Trinity again brought Bentley to trial before the bishop of Ely (then Thomas Greene), and he was sentenced to deprivation. The college statutes required the sentence to be exercised by the vice-master Richard Walker, who was a friend of Bentley and refused to act. Although the feud continued until 1738 or 1740 (about thirty years in all), Bentley remained in his post.

During his mastership, except for the first two years, Bentley continuously pursued his studies, although he did not publish much. In 1709 he contributed a critical appendix to John Davies's edition of Cicero's Tusculan Disputations. In the following year, he published his emendations on the Plutus and Nubes of Aristophanes, and on the fragments of Menander and Philemon. He published the last work under the pen name of "Phileutherus Lipsiensis." He used it again two years later in his Remarks on a late Discourse of Freethinking, a reply to Anthony Collins the deist. The university thanked him for this work and its support of the Anglican Church and clergy.

Although he had long studied Horace, Bentley wrote his version quickly in the end, publishing it in 1711 to gain public support at a critical period of the Trinity quarrel. In the preface, he declared his intention of confining his attention to criticism and correction of the text. Some of his 700 or 800 emendation have been accepted, but the majority were rejected by the early 20th century as unnecessary, although scholars acknowledged they showed his wide learning.

In 1716, in a letter to William Wake, Archbishop of Canterbury, Bentley announced his plan to prepare a critical edition of the New Testament. During the next four years, assisted by J. J. Wetstein, an eminent biblical critic, he collected materials for the work. In 1720 he published Proposals for a New Edition of the Greek Testament, with examples of how he intended to proceed. By comparing the text of the Vulgate with that of the oldest Greek manuscripts, Bentley proposed to restore the Greek text as received by the church at the time of the Council of Nicaea. Bentley's lead manuscript was Codex Alexandrinus, which he described as "the oldest and best in the world." Bentley used also manuscripts: 51, 54, 60, 113, 440, 507, and 508. John Walker worked over many manuscripts for the project, particularly in Paris with the help of the Maurists. Numerous subscribers were obtained to support publication of the work, but he never completed it.

Bentley was self-assertive and presumptuous, which alienated some people. But, James Henry Monk, Bentley's biographer, charged him (in his first edition, 1830) with an indecorum of which he was not guilty. Bentley seemed to inspire mixed feelings of admiration and repugnance.

In 1701, Bentley married Joanna Bernard, daughter of Sir John Bernard, 2nd Baronet of Brampton, Huntingdonshire.[8] They had three children together: Richard (1708–1782), an eccentric, playwright and artist whose engravings for Thomas Gray’s ‘A Long Story’ were published in 1753,[9][10] and two daughters, one named Johanna. His wife died in 1740.

Johanna Bentley married Denison Cumberland in 1728, a grandson of Richard Cumberland the bishop of Peterborough, and himself later a bishop of the Church of Ireland. Their son Richard Cumberland developed as a prolific dramatist, while earning his living as a civil servant.

In old age, Bentley continued to read; and enjoyed the society of his friends and several rising scholars, J Markland, John Taylor, and his nephews Richard and Thomas Bentley, with whom he discussed classical subjects. He died at 80 of pleurisy.

Bentley left about £5000 in his estate (which would have the buying power of nearly £500,000 in 2010). He bequeathed a few Greek manuscripts, brought from Mount Athos, to the Trinity College library. He bequeathed his books and papers to his nephew Richard Bentley, a fellow of Trinity. At his own death in 1786, the younger Bentley left the papers to the Trinity College library. The British Museum eventually purchased the books, which in many cases had valuable manuscript notes, and holds them in its collection.

Bentley was the first Englishman to be ranked with the great heroes of classical learning. Before him there were only John Selden, and, in a more restricted field, Thomas Gataker and Pearson. "Bentley inaugurated a new era of the art of criticism. He opened a new path. With him criticism attained its majority. Where scholars had hitherto offered suggestions and conjectures, Bentley, with unlimited control over the whole material of learning, gave decisions".

The modern German school of philology recognised his genius. Bunsen wrote that Bentley "was the founder of historical philology." Jakob Bernays says of his corrections of the Tristia, "corruptions which had hitherto defied every attempt even of the mightiest, were removed by a touch of the fingers of this British Samson."

Bentley was credited with creating the English school of Hellenists, by which the 18th century was distinguished, including scholars such as R Dawes, J Markland, John Taylor, Jonathan Toup, T Tyrwhitt, Richard Porson, Peter Paul Dobree, Thomas Kidd and James Henry Monk. Although the Dutch school of the period had its own tradition, it was also influenced by Bentley. His letters to Tiberius Hemsterhuis on his edition of Julius Pollux made the latter one of Bentley's most devoted admirers.

Bentley inspired a following generation of scholars. Self-taught, he created his own discipline; but no contemporary English guild of learning could measure his power or check his eccentricities. He defeated his academic adversaries in the Phalaris controversy. The attacks by Alexander Pope (he was assigned a niche in The Dunciad), John Arbuthnot and others demonstrated their inability to appreciate his work, as they considered textual criticism as pedantry. His classical controversies also called forth Jonathan Swift's Battle of the Books.

In a university where the instruction of youth or the religious controversy of the day was the chief occupation, Bentley was unique. His learning and original views seem to have been developed before 1700. After this period, he acquired little and made only spasmodic efforts to publish. But the critic A.E. Housman believed that the edition of Manilius (1739) was Bentley's greatest work.

--Excerpts from Wikipedia

Influence of Richard Bentley

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Works published about Richard Bentley

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