Philosophical Strain in the Works of Joseph Addison

Topics: Philosophy, Meaning of life, Life Pages: 5 (1542 words) Published: May 13, 2012
Seminar Paper
Course Code: BHE 402
Course Title: Prose Down the Ages


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ENROLL. NO. A0706110041

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Joseph Addison is considered to be among the most impactful essayists of all time. His essays mainly appeared in the two famous periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator. He has brought out a number of essays during his lifetime (274 for the The Spectator alone) and has touched upon a wide range of topics and themes through the medium of these essays. In this paper, the philosophical strains in his work will be explored by examining two of his works: Reflections in Westminster Abbey and The Vision of Mirza. In the former, the main theme seems to be that of death and Addison deliberates freely upon his ideas and reflections regarding the same. In the latter, we find many layers of philosophical meaning and allegory embedded within the work which is basically a translation of a Persian manuscript which philosophizes upon the very purpose of human existence.

In Reflections in Westminster Abbey, Addison talks about his visit to the church and his contemplations upon passing through the church cemetery. Addison pens down the ideas that such a visit evokes in his mind. In the opening paragraph itself, Addison marks that the tombstone of many people only mentions the dates of their birth and death. Here, he says that such a practice acts as a kind of satire to the entire existence of that person. Addison talks mocks the so-called heroic poems by saying that the heroes are glorified and given sounding names so that they may eventually get killed and people brand their deaths heroic. Here, we see find a reference to the philosophy that the act of war is meaningless and that there is nothing great or heroic at all that can be associated with it. It only brings death and destruction and no real glory to boast about.

In the brief second paragraph, Addison compares the lives of the deceased to “the path of an arrow which is immediately closed up and lost”[1] as philosophized in Wisdom of Solomon, verses 12-13. Like the path of an arrow leaves no apparent impact on the air surrounding the arrow, the deceased at Westminster Abbey seem to have done nothing noteworthy during their lifetimes considering what is recorded on their tombstones.

Addison also mentions that while witnessing the digging up of a grave, remnants of other bodies occasionally come up mixed with the soil and this makes him ponder how diverse people lay together “undistinguished in the same promiscuous heap of matter.”[2] This makes him envision death as an agent of fraternity and common humanity. Addison also mocks the practice of having elaborate epitaphs written for the dead since he believes that a person’s novel deeds should be the cause of posthumous praise for a person and not such elaborately written praise. We find Addison further stressing upon the philosophy that war breeds no good by he pointing out that there were only tombstones for the soldiers who died during the Battle of Blenheim of 1704. The English army was on the winning side but the soldiers did not even get a proper burial and they were either buried somewhere in the plains of Blenheim or in the bosom of the ocean. This makes the reader wonder whether there is any practical good that war brings and whether death while at war is really something great or not.

Towards the end, Addison implies that one need not become gloomy after reading the essay. Rather, the reader can choose to put the observations to good use by employing them for his personal growth and improvement. Addison is astonished by the “little competitions” of mankind and yearns for a day when all people would “at last make an appearance together”[3]. Again, Addison implies...

Bibliography: Hudson, W. H. An Outline History of English Literature. 2009. A.I.T.B.S. Publishers. New Delhi
Chamber R
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