Saturday, November 30, 2013

Byrd's Lightning

Engraving by Albert Flamen
for Devises et emblemes d'amour (Paris, 1664)
Over the years when he was preparing his History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina for publication--hoping to capture the notice of the London literary marketplace--William Byrd sat in his library and added all sorts of materials he thought would please his readers. Since he was positioning himself as the preeminent expert on Virginia, he made sure his narrative featured information about the topography and natural history of the region. In this sense Byrd was participating in the mission of the Royal Society; he had been a member since 1696. In the early days of the Royal Society Robert Boyle prepared a framework on which roving philosophers could “superstruct” a solid natural history, a set of "heads" or categories of general inquiry for organizing observations. Boyle first enjoined travelers to observe the air (latitude, longitude, the length of the shortest and longest nights, the climate, what stars and constellations may be seen, the temperatures of the air, its clarity and seasonal variation, the duration of the several kinds of weather, “meteors” such as lightning, wind, contagious sickness, and suitability to human temperaments). Then he instructed the observer to consider the water (the depth, tides, and currents of the sea; the course, length and width, flooding, and quality of the water; lakes, ponds, and springs; the fish that stock the various bodies of water). Boyle then directed the observer to consider the configurations of the earth itself, and then its inhabitants and productions. Topographical considerations included plains, valleys, hill, and mountains, the presence of volcanoes, mineral deposits, the quality of soil, and the grains, fruits, and other useful plants that grow there. The products of the earth—grasses, grains, herbs, flowers, fruit and timber trees—all favor certain conditions of soil and climate, which Boyle directed the observer to record. Animals, both wild and domesticated, were also to be studied. Further, the observer must examine “subterraneal” productions of the earth: beds of stone and quarries, clay for the potter, medicinal earths, salt-springs, chemicals, ores and mines. Finally, Boyle turned to the population, who though “above the ignobler Productions of the Earth” must also be studied. Travelers meaning to report their discoveries back to the Royal Society routinely carried and referred to Boyle’s instructions, often in a more detailed version commissioned by Boyle, John Woodward’s Brief Instructions for Making Observations in all Parts of the World. [i]
Byrd's method in observing (and borrowing information about) natural phenomena can be understood as a response to Boyle's recommendations. Throughout the History of the Dividing Line Byrd reported on the air and weather encountered during the 1728 surveying expedition. One interesting phenomenon is worth noting: the relation of weather to the fertility of the soil. Noting that variable seasons were preferable to an unfailingly warm climate, Byrd explained that constant summer would deprive people "of the Variety and Sweet Vicissitude of the Seasons, which is much more delightfull than one dull and constant Succession of Warm Weather, diversify’d only by Rain and Sun-Shine.” Although such a climate would allow cultivation of orange, lemon, and olive trees, there would be distinct disadvantages: “The Soil wou’d also want the Advantages of Frost, and Snow, which by their Nitrous Particles contribute not a little to its Fertility.” Byrd here draws on the natural philosophers’ chemical explanations for meteorological phenomena. That the air contained infusions of certain chemicals was inferred from the likeness of thunder and lightning to chemically-induced explosions. By condensation, potentially explosive mineral substances such as sulphur and nitre—“Etherial Gunpowder”—are borne aloft. As Robert Hooke noted, “The Atmosphere about the Earth doth abound with a spirituous Nitre, or Nitrous Particles, which are every where carried along with it.”[ii] Virginia naturalist Rev. John Clayton observed that the “Nore and Nore-West” winds in Virginia “are very nitrous and piercing, cold and clear.”[iii] The dynamics of this mineral infusion in the air are essential to an understanding of weather, as John Locke explained:
Besides the springy particles of pure air, the Atmosphere is made up of several steams or minute particles of several sorts, rising from the earth and the waters, and floating in the air, which is a fluid body, and though much finer and thinner, may be consider’d in respect of its fluidity to be like water, and so capable, like other liquors, of having heterogenous particles floating in it. . . Clouds do not consist wholly of watry parts: for besides the aqueous vapours that are raised into the air, there are also sulphureous and saline particles, that are raised up, and in the clouds mixed with the aqueous particles, the effects whereof are sometimes very sensible; as particularly in Lightning and Thunder, when the suphureous and nitrous particles firing, break out with that violence of light and noise, which is observable in Thunder, and very much resembles Gunpowder.
Those nitrous particles not burned up in lightning return to the surface of the earth through precipitation:
That there are nitrous particles raised into the air, is evident from the nourishment which rain gives to vegetables more than any other water; and also by the collection of niter or salt-peter in heaps of earth.[iv] 
The wind circulates minerals that have risen through the air, but as Robert Boyle explained in his “Experimental History of Cold,” the pores of the earth’s surface are closed during the winter months, so that the earth does not exhale the minerals deposited by the air.[v] It was widely understood that “nitre”—either sodium carbonate or sodium or potassium nitrate (saltpeter)—was both a component in explosive recipes and a key nutritive ingredient in certain soils.

It is an easy logical step to conclude that a region where nutritive particles are preserved by cold at the same time they continue to accumulate the additional minerals the snow brings will increase in fertility. The Virginia climate, with its “Nore winds,” ensured the soil was particularly well suited to the cultivation of tobacco. Clayton explained,
I conceive Tobacco to be a Plant abounding with Nitro-Sulphurious Particles; for the Planters try the goodness of their Seed, by casting a little thereof into the Fire; if it be good, it will sparkle after the manner of Gunpowder: so will the Stalks of Tobacco-leaves.[vi]
That Byrd subscribed to the notion of a beneficial transference of chemicals from air to earth is clear in a letter he wrote to his friend John Boyle in 1727: “We have had the most delightfull winter here that ever I saw in any country, just frost enough to fertilize our ground, and purify the air.”[vii]

Admirable Curiosities (London, 1702)

The Royal Society also encouraged their correspondents to report unusual phenomena; it is not difficult to find reports of strange lightning strikes in the Philosophical Transactions. Byrd also relates a tale of a remarkable occurrence in Virginia:

This Rain was enliven’d with very loud Thunder which was eccho’d back by the Hills in the Neighbourhood in a frightfull Manner. There is Something in the Woods that makes the Sound of this Meteor more awfull, and the Violence of the Lightening more visible. The Trees are frequently shiver’d quite down to the Root, and sometimes perfectly twisted. But of all the Effects of Lightening that ever I heard of, the most amazing happen’d in this Country in the Year 1736. In the Summer of that year a Surgeon of a Ship whose Name was Davis, came ashoar at York to visit a Patient. He was no sooner got into the House but it began to rain with many terrible claps of Thunder. When it was almost dark there came a dreadfull Flash of Lightening which struck the Surgeon dead as he was walking about the Room, but hurt no other Person, tho’ several were near him. At the same [time] it made a large Hole in the Trunk of Pine Tree, which grew about Ten Feet from the Window. But what was most surprizing in this Disaster, was, that on the Breast of the unfortunate Man that was kill’d, was the Figure of Pine-Tree as exactly delineated, as any Limner in the World cou’d draw it. Nay the Resemblance went so far as to represent the coulour of the Pine, as well as the Figure. The Lightening must probably have past thro’ the Tree first before it struck the Man and by that means have printed the Icon of it on his Breast.
     But whatever may have been the Cause, the Effect was certain, & can be attested by a Cloud of Witnesses who had the Curiosity to go and see this wonderfull Phœnomenon.
News of this wonderful occurrence appeared in Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette (August 12, 1736): "We hear from Virginia that..." The story was reprinted by several colonial newspapers.[viii]

[Promotional message: my new edition of Byrd's Dividing Line histories was published on November 1, 2013. See the UNCP page for the book here:  It is also available in good bookstores everywhere, and through online book merchants.]

[i] “General Heads for a Natural History of a Countrey, Great or Small,” Philosophical Transactions, I (1665-1665), pp. 186-89. An expanded version of the article was published separately as General Heads for the Natural History of a Country Great or Small; Drawn out for the Use of Travellers and Navigators (London, 1692). See also John Woodward, Brief Instructions for Making Observations in all Parts of the World (London, 1696). Ralph Bauer points to Boyle’s “Heads” in his Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures (Cambridge, 2003), Chapter 3 and pp. 186-187. Bauer interprets Boyle as the practitioner of an earlier form of empiricism superseded by “Newtonian” method, though without providing a clear account of his distinction.
   [ii] Robert Hooke, “Of Comets and Gravity,” The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke (London, 1705), p. 169 [Hayes 796].
[iii] “A Letter from Mr. John Clayton Rector of Crofton at Wakefield in Yorkshire to the Royal Society, May 12. 1688. Giving an Account of Several Observables in Virginia, and in his Voyage Thither, More Particularly concerning the Air,” Philosophical Transactions, XVII (1693), p. 784.
[iv] John Locke, “The Elements of Natural Philosophy,” A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr. John Locke (London, 1720), pp. 198-199. The explanation of thunder and lightning as the explosion of volatile sulphur and nitre, dating back to Paracelsus, was taken up by early modern scientists including John Mayow, Robert Boyle, John Woodward, Thomas Robinson, and Edward Barlow. See Vladimir Jankovič, Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650-1820 (Chicago, 2000), pp. 26-28.
[v] Robert Boyle, “The Experimental History of Cold,” Philosophical Works, I, 698.
[vi] “A Continuation of Mr John Clayton’s Account of Virginia,” Philosophical Transactions, XVII (1693), p. 943.
[vii] Byrd to John Boyle, Baron Boyle of Burghill, February 2, 1726/7; Correspondence, p. 361.

[iv]The story appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, August 12, 1736:"We hear from Virginia, that not long since a Flash of Lightning fell on a House there, and struck dead a Man who was standing at the Door. Upon examining the Body they found no Mark of Violence, but on his Breast an exact and perfect (tho’ small) Representation of a Pine Tree which grew before the Door, imprest or printed as it were in Miniature. This surprising Fact is attested by a Gentleman lately come from thence, who was himself an Eye-witness of it; and ’tis added that great Numbers of People came out of Curiosity, to view the Body before it was interr’d." The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven 1960), II, 160. Several colonial newspapers republished the story, all giving it the same dateline, “Philadelphia, August 12.” The York lightning story that appeared in the New-York Weekly Journal, CXLVI (August 23, 1736), repeats Franklin’s story nearly word for word. The story appeared without any substantive changes in the Boston Evening Post, LV (August 30, 1736); Boston Post Boy (August 30, 1736); and the New England Weekly Journal, CMXCI (August 31, 1736). [Thanks to Joel Berson for conversations about this story in colonial newspapers].

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Some of Byrd's words...

William Byrd II of Westover
Borges once observed, "A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.” 
     Sometimes, if dialogues between texts written long ago and 21st-century readers are to succeed, they need editorial assistance. This may mean providing cultural and historical contexts as part of the editorial apparatus, and it may mean paying attention to particular words.  As I transcribed and annotated the extant manuscripts of William Byrd's Dividing Line narratives, I found both of these endeavours challenging and fascinating. But there is not always room in a book for everything that can be said, and I find (as the volume nears the publication date) that I have more to say, especially about a few words Byrd employed.
     William Byrd II, in the History of the Dividing Line (his account
of the 1728 survey to chart the Virginia-North Carolina border), produced a detailed narrative of the expedition, featuring a history of the colonies, descriptions of the flora, fauna, topography, natural resources, indigenous people, and much more. Indeed, he wrote (and rewrote) much of the Dividing Line in his library over the next
Byrd's bookplate
seventeen years, adding more and more layers of interesting material. He was initiating a dialogue (as Borges would say) with his intended readers in the London literary marketplace. Byrd was evidently something of a logophile, choosing his words carefully, and in revision replacing terms with better, more interesting ones. The Oxford English Dictionary cites at least one of Byrd's words as the earliest instance of a particular usage. However, he also introduced a few words whose history is not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. In what follows I discuss a few examples of Byrd's curious vocabulary, encountered as I prepared a new edition of the two Dividing Line histories.


The river is in most Places fifty or sixty Yards wide, without spreading much wider at the Mouth. ’Tis remarkable it was never known to ebb and flow, till the year 1713, when a violent Storm open’d a new Inlet about 5 miles south of the old one; since which convulsion the Old Inlet is almost choak’d up by the Shifting of the Sand, and grows both narrower and shoaller every day. This term appears to be a conflation of the familiar word shoal--"a place where the water is of little depth; a shallow; sand-bank or bar" (OED)--with shallow, common enough in maritime writings. But the comparative shoaller, as Byrd uses it, has escaped the attention of the OED. But other instances do exist, especially in maritime works:Between Buttoness and Abernay, the Passage is narrow, about three quarters of a mile over, as is said before, and 6, 7. Fathom in the midle of the Chanel, but up from that it turns broader, and the Water somewhat shoaler, the length of Tents-muirness.
--John Adair, The Description of the Sea-Coast and Islands of Scotland... (Edinburgh, 1703), p. 15.
Towards Cape Hatteras, are several Shoalings or Banks a great distance off, having 10 or 12 fathom white Sand, and sometimes coarse, and within 18 or 20 fathom more dirtish or oazey blackish Sand, and then again shoaler, with sandy Ground at 10, 9, 8, 7 fathom.
--"Directions for Virginia and Mary-Land," The English Pilot. The Fourth Book, Describing the West-India Navigation, from Hudson's Bay to the River Amazones   (London: Printed for Thomas Page and Milliam Mount, 1729), p. 23.But we had not sailed above a League farther before our Water grew shoaler again, and we anchored in 6 Fathom hard sand.
--A Collection of Voyages. In Four Volumes. Containing I. Captain William Dampier's Voyages Round the World... (3rd ed., London: John and James Knapton, 1729), III, 90.

 Parliament Man

The Curiosity of beholding so new and withal so sweet a Method of Encamping, brought one of the Senators of N. Carolina to make us a Midnight Visit. But he was so very clamorous in his Commendations of it, that the Centinel, not seeing his Quality either thro’ his habit or Behaviour, had like to have treated him roughly. After excusing the Unseasonableness of his Visit, and letting us know he was a Parliament Man, he swore he was so taken with our Lodging, that he would set Fire to his House as soon as he got Home, and teach his Wife and Children to lie, like us in the open Field The phrase originally simply denoted a member of the British Parliament, and later, by extension, a member of any other legislature; the OED actually cites Byrd for this second definition. In context, however, the term is emphatically satirical, referring to this "Senator" as a politician completely devoid of gravitas. The origin of Byrd's usage lies in Tory characterizations of Whigs as unrepentant heirs of the regicidal parliamentary era. For Byrd, the appellation “Parliament Man” was a term of abuse implying the inappropriate rise to power of vulgar, unqualified men, and so it becomes part of his satirical depiction of Carolinian government. 

Mill Swamp

This day the Surveyors proceeded with the Line no more than 1 Mile and 15 Chains, being Interrupted by a Mill Swamp, thro’ which they made no difficulty of wading, in order to make their work more exact.The term mill swamp is not listed among the compound forms of swamp in the OED. It apparently indicates soggy terrain resulting from the overflow from the stream dammed to provide water power for a flour mill; it also appears in colonial surveying documents and place-names.

Pride (of the Beaver)

The certain way to catch these sagacious Animals is thus, squeeze all the Juice out of the large Pride of the Beaver, and 6 Drops out of the small Pride. Powder the inward Bark of Sassafras, and mix it with this Juice, then bait therewith a Steel Trap, and they will eagerly come to it, and be taken.Byrd's term for the testicles, “cods,” or scent sacs, the source of castoreum, is not registered in the OED.

to prime (a game animal)

We only prim’d the Deer, being unwilling to be encumber’d with their whole Carcasses. The rest we consign’d to the Wolves, which in Return serenaded us great Part of the NightThe prime cuts of animals butchered for meat are those “of the best or highest quality.” In context, Byrd’s use of a verbal formation (not recorded in the OED) may be taken to mean selecting only the best cuts of meat and leaving the rest.

Half Jack-Boots a Help to bear Fatigue I us’d to chew a Root of Ginseng as I walk’t along. This kept up my Spirits, and made me trip away as nimbly in my half Jack-Boots as younger men cou’d do in their Shoes.The OED defines a jack-boot as a “large strong boot the top of which came above the knee, serving as defensive armour for the leg, worn by cavalry soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries.” No definition of the half jack boot appears. Presumably it was a stout riding boot the top of which did not reach above the knee.


The Horse Flies are not only a great Grievance for Horses, but likewise to those that ride them; These little Vixons confine themselves chiefly to the Woods, and are most in moist Places..The term vixen originally denoted a female fox, and then an ill-tempered, quarrelsome woman, though the use of the word to indicate peevishness or difficulty of character was not always gendered in the early eighteenth century. However, the OED lists no usage such as Byrd’s, denoting a general nuisance of indeterminate gender, such as the horsefly.


They make their Wives rise out of their [warm] Beds, early in the Morning at the same time that they lye and snore, till the Sun has run one third of his Course, and dispers’t all the unwholesome Damps. Then after Stretching and Yawning for half an Hour, they light their Pipes, and under the Protection of a Cloud of Smoak venture out into the open Air; tho’ if it happen to be never so little cold, they quickly return Shivering into the chimney corner. When the Weather is mild, they stand leaning with both their Arms upon the cornfield fence, and gravely consider whether they and best go – and take a small Heat at the Hough: but generally find reasons to put it off till another time.Reporting the laziness of frontier men, Byrd disparaged their reluctance to do agricultural chores. To "take a small Heat at the Hough" is to undertake a brief effort at weeding with a hoe. Byrd, who was an avid gardener and who had a number of gardening books in his collection, would have been familiar with this spelling of the familiar gardening tool. The OED does not give hough its own entry, merely listing it as an alternate spelling for hoe. Though at first I thought it was an idiosyncratic spelling, it turns out that Byrd was not alone:

Hough or Haugh, is an instrument well known to Gard'ners, and most Country people, as likewise the action of using it. 
--Jean de La Quintine, The Compleat Gard'ner, tr. John Evelyn (London: Matthew Gilliflower and James Partridge, 1693).

--George London, The Retir'd Gard'ner (London, 1706), I, 255.  See also Louis Hennepin, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America...  (London, 1698), p. 212; Antoine-Joseph Dézallier d'Argenville, The Theory and Practice of Gardening (London, 1712), p. 44; John Mortimer, The Art of Husbandry (London, 1712), II, 229; Edward Bysshe, The British Parnassus (London,  1714), I, xxiv [where, in Bysshe's rhyming dictionary, hough is listed as rhyming with ow, bow, crow, &c.]; Richard Bradley, The Gentleman and Gardeners Kalendar (London, 1718), pp. 21, &c.; Richard Bradley, New Improvements of Planting and Gardening, Both Philosophical and Practical (London, 1718), pp, 126 &c.; John Laurence, Gardening Improv'd (London, 1718), p. 179; Richard Bradley, A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening, for the Month of April (London, 1721-22), pp. 100 &c,; John Reid, The Gard'ners Kalendar, Directing What is to be done every Month (Edinburgh, 1721), p. 44; Stephen Switzer, The Practical Fruit-Gardener (London, 1724), pp. 210, 218; Noel Chomel, Dictionaire Oeconomique: Or, The Family Dictionary (London, 1725): "a necessary Instrument for the Gardiner"; Richard Bradley, The Country Gentleman and Farmer's Monthly Director (London, 1726), passim; Richard Bradley, A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening, Containing a New System of Vegetation (London, 1726), passim; Benjamin Townsend, The Complete Seedsman (London, 1726), pp. 7, &c.; and so forth.
P.S. My new edition of The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover, will be published on November 1, 2013, by the University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture. For further details see the UNCP listing. 
And the book is available from Amazon
Quotation from Jorge Luis Borges, "Nota sobre (hacia) Bernard Shaw" (1951).

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Some notes on evidence, biography, and historiography

WOULD LIKE TO OFFER some observations on
the historiographical methods of writers -- past and present -- concerned with writing the lives of eminent characters. That biographical investigations depend on the collection and weighing of historical evidence is hardly a contentious claim. And yet life-writers rarely take the time to explain to the reader what selective criteria govern their choice of what sort of data is significant and what is not. The success of a biography is usually measured by standards of literary or psychological coherence, but I do not believe that we have paid sufficient attention to the manner in which life-writers achieve this sense of coherence through tactical arrangement (manipulation) of historical evidence. Essentially, then, my comments have less to do with the details of any one life than with the methodology of writing history. This is an outgrowth of one of my long-term Big Projects, the one examining the way writers have approached the question of historical evidence in early modern versions of the life of Socrates.

Today we are accustomed to consider biography as a special branch of history; we are particularly interested by the supply of facts discovered and the pattern of meaning into which they are arranged. However, life-writers have not always aligned themselves so scrupulously with the standards of objectivity we have come to assume (perhaps naively) as the basis for history and life-writing.  Early-modern biographers often have a purpose in their work quite separate from the life itself -- some sort of polemical thrust that propels the writing in a specific direction of its own. 

In the process of culling the historical data and presenting it as part of an argument designed to establish a particular interpretive viewpoint, early modern life-writers often force the evidence to serve their purposes.  In so doing, they often commit logical fallacies, as well as several sorts of fallacious arguments peculiar to biography. Let me offer a few examples as an indication of the sort of fallacious argument I wish to uncover and define:

1) Attribution by ostensible appropriateness:  Stories adhere to figures about whom they seem to be appropriate. In the apocryphal biographical tradition, two such stories recur with astonishing frequency. First, probably because in the Apology  Socrates mentioned the way Aristophanes' Clouds affected public opinion, opponents of the stage recruited Socrates to support their cause, claiming that he considered the stage a danger to society. There is no teaching to this effect anywhere in the first-hand accounts of Plato and Xenophon, nor in the earliest layers of commentary, yet it is a staple of the antitheatrical paper wars of the Puritans and later in the Restoration and 18th century.

Another similar construction of biographical tradition centers around Xanthippe. As it happens, Xenophon introduces the subject of Xanthippe's legendary difficulty to foreground Socrates' legendary patience. By shifting the emphasis of the story, misogynistic historians conscripted Socrates to serve as an authority in their struggle to establish female inferiority. Powerful expressions of hatred for women emerged in medieval manuscripts; they comprised a large part of the aphoristic tradition, as in the Dicts and Sayings of the Ancient Philosophers, the first English book published by Caxton, and were distributed through early modern polemical writings on gender. There is in fact little or nothing in the original sources from which this tradition could have emerged. The tacit argument seems to be that such opinions would be likely in one married to a woman like Xanthippe, and that's enough.

2) Denial by ostensible inappropriateness : Conversely, the validity of stories attached to certain figures is questioned because of incongruence with what is known or believed about the character. Thus, Bentley, universally lauded as  the founder of historical criticism, examines the conduct of Xenophon as it is portrayed in the so-called Epistles of Socrates, with the purpose of proving the letters to be not genuine.  Bentley mentions the well-known "fact" that Socrates had two wives, and adduces the epistolary conduct of Xenophon as evidence of the spurious nature of the text:

Xenophon sends a Letter [Ep. xxi.] top full of kindness and commendation to Xanthippe and the Little ones; but it was very uncivil in him, to take no notice of the other; since, according to the story, she brought her Husband the more Children.  Nay, if we allow this Letter of Xenophon’s to be genuine, he play’d a false and dirty trick, and much against his character.  For at the date of this Epistle, if we believe the very next to it [Ep. xxii.], he was writing Socrates’s Memoirs.  So that while he here in his Letter wheedles the poor Woman, and makes her little Presents, and commends her for her love to her Husband, and for many good qualities; in his Book [Xenoph. Conviv. p. 876.] he traduces her to that present Age, and to all Posterity, for the most curst and devilish Shrew, that ever was or ever would be.  Nay, which makes it baser, he was the only Man that said this of her; for neither Plato nor any of the old Socratics writ a word about her Scolding.  Which made Athenæus [Lib. v. p. 219] suspect it was a Calumny: especially since Aristophanes and his Brethren of the Stage, in all their Raillery and Satyr upon Socrates, never once twitted him about his Wife. Well, let that be as it will, but what shall we say to Xenophon's double dealing? For my part, rather than I'll harbour such a thought of that great Man, I'll quit a whole Cart-load of such Letters as these. [A Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris, Themistocles, Socrates, Euripedes, and Others; And the Fables of Aesop (London: Printed by J. Leake, for Peter Buck, 1698), pp. 106-110.] In this account, Bentley argues that in order for these letters to be genuine we must accept a Xenophon far less attractive than we had previously known. It seems urgently important to separate the fact that Bentley was right (to dismiss the letters as spurious) from his method of argument. Simply stated, he appeals to the known ethos of Xenophon and rejects as false anything that differs from the presupposition that Xenophon is great. The argument cannot withstand much scrutiny. Think of it this way -- if historians rooting about in the archives were to discover a reliable document that contradicted what we previously knew about a historical figure, we would ordinarily expect that the fact or text would require us to alter our earlier understanding of the said character.  Yet even today biographers and editors introduce the established understanding as a touchstone to judge the genuineness and merit of a story or a text.

3.)  The portability of anecdote – in ancient biographies one frequently encounters stories told interchangeably about different historical figures. Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, even crossreferences many of these. I have heard this phenonemon called "Joe Pye's Law" – I'd dearly love to find a reference to this principle in the literature – which stipulates that any good story told about a prominent historical character is transferable to any other character of equal status. Thus, some of the sayings of Diogenes show up under the heading of sayings of Socrates, anecdotes about one libertine fit perfectly well when applied to another libertine, stories told about Eleanor Roosevelt show up accruing to Margaret Thatcher, jokes about stupid politicoes migrate from one prominent dummy to another.

4.)  The Argument from Ignorance -- contending that a lack of evidence allows an otherwise unsupported contention to stand because it has not been ruled out.  The eminent Italian historian Mario Montuori has written many articles and books about the trial of Socrates in which he argues that the charges brought against him were justified.  Montuori has collected some interesting 18th-century texts that also make a similar claim – but the main part of his argument relies on the absence of evidence that would rule out his interpretation.

5.)  The Argument from Omission -- contending that the silence of witnesses and earlier historians on a subject is significant in itself, as when early modern historians denied that Socrates could not have been homosexual, since if he had been his enemies would surely have used it against him. Obviously, this argument is combined with an anachronistic, universalizing assumption that all cultures in all times shared the author's own disapprobation of homosexuality. 

6.)  The A Priori rule of thumb: Perhaps the most common biographical fallacy occurs when the life-writer assumes (inherits, premises) the character of the biographical subject, and then claims to be able to deduce whether a story or a putative fact is likely. The biographer dismisses data because it is apparently incongruent with what is known about the subject. Biographers refuse to consider certain stories (or other biographical data) on their own merits because they do not fit the taken-for-granted image of the subject.  This approach is analogous to the argument once proffered to explain away the bawdy comedy in some of Shakespeare's plays -- these scenes must have been written by somebody else, so the argument goes – forsooth, the Bard's world-view was far too lofty for such mean stuff. Ultimately, this argument is a variation of the fallacy known as Begging the Question (assuming as a premise that which one sets out to prove). As I have suggested, this approach as a biographical fallacy could be called the Argument from Ethos; Bentley apparently considers this as strong an argument as any for concluding the Epistles of Socrates are spurious. By carefully comparing implicit and explicit dates within the letters and chronology supplied by other sources, he demonstrates the fraudulence of letters (false dating, internal contradictions, etc). But the capstone of his argument is the simple claim that the "Socrates" the Epistles present cannot be reconciled with what we know of Socrates from other sources.

7.) The fallacy of deductive selectivity – The problem is that one can always discover evidence. No matter what position one wishes to confirm or to promulgate or to deny, evidence can be found -- not always reliable evidence, certainly, and not always persuasively or even coherently arranged. Students of life-writing have occasionally noted that it may be worthwhile to study what a biographer includes or excludes. Let's examine how this works in one interesting instance. Proponents of the doctrine of natural religion were interested in discovering examples among the ancients and among contemporaries outside the reach of Christian revelation who would serve to demonstrate the providential nature of reason. There is not sufficient space here to trace this argument in any detail,so it must suffice to point out that out of select passages in Plato and the frequent occurrence of the word "god" in the singular and the fact of his persecution emerged the image of Socrates as the proto-christian enemy of superstition, the shining figure Addison (among many others) calls "a Martyr for the Unity of the Godhead." The principle of selectivity is apparent in the fact that such readings choose to ignore those times Socrates referred to the gods in plural, when he recommended that individuals should respect the religion and rituals of their country, and when he reminded his disciple not to forget the cock owed to Aesculapius. And of course complementarily partial readings are easy enough to develop: nearly as many early modern writers  -- largely those with an investment in doctrine opposing natural religion -- simply dismiss Socrates as no more than a superstitious pagan among superstitious pagans.  

Curiously, a third position emerges from time to time: the heathen wise-men who discovered for themselves the unity of the godhead did not always proclaim it from the rooftops? Bossuet declares, "What passed even among the Greeks, was a kind of preparation to the knowledge of the truth.  Their philosophers were sensible, that the world was ruled by a God very different from those, whom the vulgar adored, and whom they worshipped themselves with the vulgar" [Universal History, 1681]. This double doctrine could be explained in several ways: it was part of some kind of secret order, like the mysteries; the philosophers kept the dangerous truths away from the general populace because they feared a breakdown of the rule of law, and so they went about teaching indirectly and individually; and finally, the truth was hidden because the philosophers were hypocritical and cowardly, fearing to speak the truth which would bring about their persecution and death.  In retrospect, of course, these arguments appear to be unfair. After one group of writers has constructed an anachronistic interpretation on slim evidence – Socrates as proto-christian – another group of writers has counterattacked also using the same slim evidence to condemn the proto-christian Socrates for not saying enough about the sacred truths he had discovered.

8.)  The Bed of Procrustes:  My comments on this last approach will break no new ground – but I will say a few words anyway. Readers will remember the giant host who stretched short folks to fit his guest bed, and cut extraneous bits from the long folks. Long after Theseus pitched him over the cliff in the golden days, Procrustes lives on in those interpretations based on selective stretching and cutting off bits of evidence, all to conform to the writer's interpretive bias. John Gilbert Cooper's 1749 Life of Socrates presents a philosopher who would bear the official seal of approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury (however, his book attracted the defensive rage of Bishop Warburton, because it disagreed with the mighty bishop's notion that neither the ancient Jews nor the ancient Greeks had ideas about a future state of rewards and punishments). 

Or look at early lives of Swift. Lord Orrery's biographical sketch is based on his theory that Swift's character was warped by frustrated ambition; Orrery manhandles the evidence to confirm his position. Patrick Delany soon answered some of the charges a few years later, though he did not entirely dismiss the charge that spleen drove Swift to mockery and misanthropy – this view, I would contend if there were time, ignore an abundance of evidence that moves in another way. Even the more sympathetic lives written by Deane Swift and Thomas Sheridan cannot completely break away from a priori biases. I could go on and list other biographies that begin with a position and coerce evidence to fit the plan– the Freudian accounts of Swift's excremental vision, Tim Mowl's life of William Beckford (grounded on the premise that Beckford was dishonest in every aspect of his life), I.F. Stone's well-intended but deeply flawed account of the trial of Socrates (based on the notion that Socrates was an enemy of free speech and democracy)... but I have to stop somewhere. These are all coherent accounts, sometimes featuring occasional brilliant insights, yet even when I agree with a biographer's conclusions, when these conclusions emerge out of a thicket of obfuscations, evasions, and denials, I am disturbed and disappointed. The biographers are bullying me: "Look at this! Look at this!" I hear them cry. "Pay no attention to that," they hasten to add. 

Many of us don't respond too well to bullying. So then I tell myself perhaps it's time somebody sat down and anatomized these abuses of evidence.

This discussion springs from notes I compiled some time ago. I have yet to discover a useful guidebook to biographical and historical shortcuts and fallacies, and would welcome suggested readings. I have published on the use of Socrates in various early-modern arguments--see my articles, available on