Richard Hooker on Law, the Ancient, and the Good

Richard Hooker was a sixteenth-century Anglican churchman whose Of the LawsRIchard Hooker of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594-1597) is both a masterpiece of Anglican theology and a work of extraordinary stylistic elegance and force.  It was written primarily as a defense of the Church of England against the Puritan challenge, but Hooker ranges over many subjects of more general interest related to law, authority, custom, change, and tradition.  Over the last couple of days, on the recommendation of a friend, I’ve been reading fragments of the Laws here and there (you can access the whole thing for free at the link above).  I cannot recommend it more highly.

Here is my favorite passage (so far!) — from Book V, Chapter 7.  It relates closely to some of the things we think about on CLR Forum, from time to time.  Merry Christmas to those of our readers who are celebrating the holiday.

VII. Neither may we in this case lightly esteem what hath been allowed as fit in the judgment of antiquity, and by the long continued practice of the whole Church; from which unnecessarily to swerve, experience hath never as yet found it safe. For wisdom’s sake we reverence them no less that are young, or not much less, than if they were stricken in years. And therefore of such it is rightly said that their ripeness of understanding is “grey hair,” and their virtues “old age.” But because wisdom and youth are seldom joined in one, and the ordinary course of the world is more according to Job’s observation, who giveth men advice to seek “wisdom amongst the ancient, and in the length of days, understanding;” therefore if the comparison do stand between man and man, which shall hearken unto other; sith the aged for the most part are best experienced, least subject to rash and unadvised passions, it hath been ever judged reasonable that their sentence in matter of counsel should be better trusted, and more relied upon than other men’s. The goodness of God having furnished man with two chief instruments both necessary for this life, hands to execute and a mind to devise great things; the one is not profitable longer than the vigour of youth doth strengthen it, nor the other greatly till age and experience have brought it to perfection. In whom therefore time hath not perfected knowledge, such must be contented to follow them in whom it hath. For this cause none is more attentively heard than they whose speeches are as David’s were, “I have been young and now am old,” much I have seen and observed in the world. Sharp and subtile discourses of wit procure many times very great applause, but being laid in the balance with that which the habit of sound experience plainly delivereth, they are overweighed. God may endue men extraordinarily with understanding as it pleaseth him. But let no man presuming thereupon neglect the instructions, or despise the ordinances of his elders, sith He whose gift wisdom is hath said, “Ask thy father and he will shew thee; thine ancients and they shall tell thee.”

[2.]It is therefore the voice both of God and nature, not of learning only, that especially in matters of action and policy, “The sentences and judgments of men experienced, aged and wise, yea though they speak without any proof or demonstration, are no less to be hearkened unto, than as being demonstrations in themselves; because such men’s long observation is as an eye, wherewith they presently and plainly behold those principles which sway over all actions.” Whereby we are taught both the cause wherefore wise men’s judgments should be credited, and the mean how to use their judgments to the increase of our own wisdom. That which sheweth them to be wise, is the gathering of principles out of their own particular experiments. And the framing of our particular experiments according to the rule of their principles shall make us such as they are.

[3.]If therefore even at the first so great account should be made of wise men’s counsels touching things that are publicly done, as time shall add thereunto continuance and approbation of succeeding ages, their credit and authority must needs be greater. They which do nothing but that which men of account did before them, are, although they do amiss, yet the less faulty, because they are not the authors of harm. And doing well, their actions are freed from prejudice of novelty. To the best and wisest , while they live, the world is continually a froward opposite, a curious observer of their defects and imperfections; their virtues it afterwards as much admireth. And for this cause many times that which most deserveth approbation would hardly be able to find favour, if they which propose it were not content to profess themselves therein scholars and followers of the ancient. For the world will not endure to hear that we are wiser than any have been which went before. In which consideration there is cause why we should be slow and unwilling to change, without very urgent necessity, the ancient ordinances, rites, and long approved customs, of our venerable predecessors. The love of things ancient doth argue stayedness, but levity and want of experience maketh apt unto innovations. That which wisdom did first begin, and hath been with good men long continued, challengeth allowance of them that succeed, although it plead for itself nothing. That which is new, if it promise not much, doth fear condemnation before trial; till trial, no man doth acquit or trust it, what good soever it pretend and promise. So that in this kind there are few things known to be good, till such time as they grow to be ancient. The vain pretence of those glorious names, where they could not be with any truth, neither in reason ought to have been so much alleged, hath wrought such a prejudice against them in the minds of the common sort, as if they had utterly no force at all; whereas (especially for these observances which concern our present question) antiquity, custom, and consent in the Church of God, making with that which law doth establish, are themselves most sufficient reasons to uphold the same, unless some notable public inconvenience enforce the contrary. For a small thing in the eye of law is as nothing.

[4.]We are therefore bold to make our second petition this, That in things the fitness whereof is not of itself apparent, nor easy to be made sufficiently manifest unto all, yet the judgment of antiquity concurring with that which is received may induce them to think it not unfit, who are not able to allege any known weighty inconvenience which it hath, or to take any strong exception against it.

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