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Nigel Mapp (Westminster, London)

Dead Life: George Herbert versus Modern Self-Surrender

Dead Life: George Herbert versus Modern Self-Surrender

This reading of George Herbert holds off some received norms of early-modern poetry criticism. These include the discursivizing historicism that tends to obscure the view of the longer historical processes in which both the poetry and the contemporary reader are entangled as well as those 'demystifying' readings that relativize the metaphysical or theological purposes of the poems to their social or psychological functions. Herbert's devotional poems are instead here taken seriously for their truth-content; for their salutary resistance to the kinds of (usually tacit, pervasive) concepts brought to them. By measuring itself against false ideas of gain and loss, Herbert's poetry has in its sights some central features of reason, features reproduced in the criticism of his poems and in modern experience generally. Herbert's alleged ascetic is the nerve of this genealogical approach. The separation of motivation from justification and truth that critics find in Herbert is actually the poet's target. His rejection of asceticism takes many forms, including any acquisitiveness or self-assertion that blocks off the highest pleasures and purposes of life. The verse defends a paradoxical reconciliation of interests and reasons, prudence and morality, by expanding the idea of self-interest into ethical relationships, re-functioning economic figures as it does so. The knowing, suffering self is ethically composed from structures of giving and receiving, while what is given and exchanged determines ethical relations (and vice versa). Thus the social and devotional are mutually deciphering and domains often taken to be independent are brought into communication. The poems figure complex contexts of donation and a variety of poetic self-subtractions need therefore to be considered, not as outlay for selfish reward, but as opening up to this context and truer interests. So Herbert sounds out prototypes of modern, disenchanted subjectivity, authorizing affective values threatened by asceticism and scepticism. "The Holdfast" shows how self-unfixing identifies these satisfactions, rather than eliminating or emptying the self. Pain is not undergone in blind faith that a reward will come; the verse is not, despite one interpretative line, a celebration of an ineffable pay-off but a complex reasoning out, often through syntactical compression and manipulation, of the nature of such human satisfactions. For Herbert, overall, divine grace is the surplus animating all benefits; but it is always humanly recognizable, and accessible. Its opposite is death. The essay finally considers Herbert's apparent embrace of mortality, and rejects the critics' suspicion that he affirms life only through a death-denying 'ideology'. Indeed, his critique of restricted interests and of any rapprochement with death or depletion can be seen to reverse such suspicions, and is an intriguing resource for the secular critique of contemporary modernity.

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The early modern period sees the elaboration and near-perfection of a series of conceptual detachments that now supply some core machinery for rationality and common sense alike.1 The concepts that are separating out – facts from values, truths from feelings, interest from disinterest, giving from exchanging – are not in this period explanatory reflexes but still newfangled, rarefied, provoking. Indeed, they feature centrally in the most vehemently contested commitments. One crisis surrounds, of course, the status of human purposes and actions in the scheme of salvation. Another, connected one, concerns the moral impact of new kinds of economic activity. It is such controversies about the relationship of worldly behaviours and their satisfactions to humanity's highest values that lie at the origin of modern conceptual frameworks. This essay sets out its slender line of genealogical speculation partly with the hope of reawakening a sense of the crisis entailed by familiar commitments. But it does not hazard any total description of modern secularization and its gains and losses, although it is inspired partly by some such accounts (Blumenberg 1985; Gillespie 2008; Gregory 2012; Taylor 2007). Instead, the argument focuses on the tension between self-interest and self-sacrifice in a devotional poet, George Herbert. Some fragmentary genealogy illuminates this tension by indicating something outside predictable and restrictive interpretative options – options that feature, too, in the critical reception of this verse. The essay strives thereby to be truer to the works and to credit them with perceiving and resisting identifiably modern experiential deficits. To do so requires that some consequences lying beyond the poems be sketched in. There are implications for current formations of rationality as well as for some positions taken in recent 'culture wars' over the role of religion (although comments in this particular line will be mainly kept to the notes). In short, and to anticipate, the essay remarks and questions what have become experience's – and criticism's – fundamentally sceptical determinations.

A biographical anecdote about Herbert will set parameters for reflection on early modern senses of ethical life. That the instance could be filed under 'hagiography' is taken as a clue. By provoking, and addressing in itself, a sort of defensive distancing, the anecdote opens towards a reading of the poems, one that asks just how critical its own sceptical apparatus is. The reading does not entail a defence of religion. It requires a rescue of what these poems sense and know in virtue of their religious commitments from the most familiar manners of demolishing them.

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Izaak Walton's Life of George Herbert (1670, 1675) puts together some impressive anecdotes profiling the vicar-poet's moral character. This example, which modulates into Herbert's own voice, features a fall-guy:

In another walk to Salisbury he saw a poor man with a poorer horse that was fallen under his load; they were both in distress and needed present help; which, Mr Herbert perceiving, put off his canonical coat and helped the poor man to unload, and after to load his horse. The poor man blest him for it, and he blest the poor man; and was so like the good Samaritan that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse; and told him, "That if he loved himself, he should be merciful to his beast." – Thus he left the poor man, and at his coming to his musical friends at Salisbury, they began to wonder that Mr George Herbert which used to be so trim and clean came into that company so soiled and discomposed; but he told them the occasion; and when one of the company told him he had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment, his answer was, "That the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight; and that the omission of it would have upbraided and made discord in his conscience, whensoever he should pass by that place; for, if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound so far as it is in my power to practise what I pray for. And though I do not wish for the like occasion every day, yet let me tell you, I would not willingly let pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul or showing mercy; and I praise God for this occasion: and now let's tune our instruments." (Walton 2004 [1675]: 303–4)

Walton reports that Herbert thought his age was one in which "examples", not "precepts", were needed (Walton 2004: 291). That primacy of particular over law, in fact a problem concerning the authority of law, is an important element of the poet's Christianity. But the kindly act does not here speak for itself, and the exemplariness of the passage surely consists in the thorough-going rationalization that corrects Herbert's challenger. It makes music out of materials that are usually taken to clash: self-interest and regard for others, self-sacrifice and pleasure, work and pastime – what we are bound by and what we would willingly do. The force of the example is the harmonization of moral justification and human satisfactoriness. The selflessness is neither provisional nor obviously prudential; it does not count on goods coming back to him in the same coin. Herbert's reward is his recognition of the good he has done somebody else. His explanation compels because he makes sense of why we might wish to be moral agents at all, what is morally in it for us.

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The anecdote is an ethical theory in miniature. It explodes a narrow model of social interests along with the idea of a transcendent moral law to oppose to them. It emphasizes not only larger human ends but the concrete satisfactions they represent. Theologically speaking, an Augustinian argument about the convergence of virtue and pleasure is engaged and re-inflected. For Augustine, the fallen will is impeded by its selfish wants, so it is an agency pitted against itself.2 Only when grace re-directs the will's pleasure-seeking to a higher joy in God – not joylessness, for only what is wanted can be willed – can the will, command and desire, be united. Herbert acknowledges an analogous tension in willing, knowing that willing needs education, not reprimand. And behind this attitude lies a characterization of love. In love, my interests become identified with someone else's, while the needs and happiness of the beloved are my most pressing, and rewarding, concern. The young Hegel will later attempt an overcoming of the morality of law itself by rewriting Christianity as an ethics of love – as a unity of law and inclination, the internal relation between the self and its others.3 And that thought illuminates Herbert's emphases. But can such thinking really locate the heart of a substantive modern ethics?

Herbert's perception of the forces arrayed against such an understanding is acute. His rejuvenation of the ancient and patristic love of the good reacts against, and is shaped by, particular contemporary pressures and obstacles. His litany of reasons feels heroic because such accounts and, in tendency, the actions they justify, are falling under a ban. Their modern fate is quaintness. The norms of reasoning, whether scientific, social, or commercial, have eroded or deformed any sense that rational interests are expressed in ethical action. Alasdair MacIntyre, one among many thinkers who have traced the ethical penalties of rationalizing processes, shows just how damaging has been the loss of Aristotelian reflection on humanity's purposes (MacIntyre 2003). Herbert refuses such damage, obviously. He does not think that helping somebody out of trouble must be no more than a predilection, a non-rational, even irrational, act. Morality's power to criticize would then be confiscated. That is why he also disputes the notion that it is disreputable not to keep such behaviour private.4 Yet Herbert is on the defensive against exactly these kinds of expectation. Recognizably secular reasoning is beginning to urge its justificatory claims.

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This is seen in the open argumentation that Herbert's good deed provokes. The snobbish challenger voices a newly buoyant mode of Christian thought, one that stipulates a keen respect for social mores and status.5 He or she perceives a depletion of self in helping out, even dishonour or loss of rank.6 The activity is itself "dirty", and the state of one's clothes trumps the needs of others. In reply, Herbert does not directly admonish in the name of an abstract thou shalt. Instead, he corrects in what look to be immanent terms. His justifications are notably secular and the main criterion of appeal is self-interest. But, as noted, it is a self-interest that is transformed and socialized. True, Herbert says: "if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound so far as it is in my power to practise what I pray for", and this, of all Herbert's reasons, literally infers his practice from his duty. But is it not a rationalization of something more spontaneous? (The syntax of "I am bound so far as it is in my power to practise" momentarily allows the binding to sound like his own doing, or like an alignment of agency with constraint, as much as the tuning of demands to abilities. Walton's phrasing may not, of course, be Herbert's. But it reflects the moral quality being explored.) Whatever the order of dependency, however, Herbert is insisting that prayer is not a ritual in which pious wishes are delegated to God, and so not truly wished at all. The test of the prayer, as of sincerity, is whether Herbert helps fulfil it. The rewards are experiential and direct and it is the challenger who is the ascetic. So Herbert does not appeal to commands and counter-propose self-destructive behaviour but rescues a truer self-interest he hears buried in the dignity of his opponent. Rather than berating secular values, he critically transforms them, concentrating on pain avoided and pleasure gained: "discord" in his conscience has been averted; music is anticipated for the watches of the night. Ethical action is satisfying, not sheer duty. It is also rational, as it is enjoined in terms of the highest interests of the agent.

Herbert expands the space of reasons to reveal and include many interests, his own and those of others – to show that his thriving depends on theirs. He implies that his questioner's sense of dignity is ascetic and short-sighted. And the advice to the poor man says it quickly: looking after his horse is looking after himself. This is not kindness trimmed down to hard-headedness, an induction to means-ends rationality. In their extension, those ends are changed, just as the Christian terms intend: to show "mercy" is to be more worthy of love, and the man's self-love depends on meeting such demands.7 The re-directing of motivation does not, then, subjoin the ethical to the selfish or to some pre-established order of mundane duties.

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The argument quite possibly dramatizes one within Herbert himself, too. Walton reports on the young Herbert's pride in his high birth, as well as his love of clothes (Walton 2004: 276). The poet outgrew those foibles. But T. S. Eliot is right to notice that Herbert's striking insistence on cleanliness underlines the exemplarity of the anecdote (Eliot 1994: 19). Herbert strongly recommends cleanliness in his parson's handbook (Herbert 2004: 204) and in the poem "The Church-porch" (Wilcox 2007: lines 367–72).8 So no wonder his friends take his dirtiness as cause for comment. Worldly dignity and ethical action may make for harmonious tension in this instance, but the former is re-thought, re-positioned as partial, unprofitable, rather than neatly defeated once and for all. Herbert still does not want "the like occasion every day". That wanting remains in consideration. It is not a sinful recalcitrance to be humbled or borne in sufferance. The satisfactions of ethical action are real but do not make such action easy. So if worldly values must answer to higher ones, these in turn validate themselves in recognizably human satisfactions. Even in this idealized example, Herbert's challenger is not only trounced but also, just a little, appeased.


Do Herbert's poems, likewise, express or stage critical encounters with inadequate or damaging ideas of value, dignity, and satisfaction? Consider, first, the affinity of 'prudential' verse to the more devotional or inward kind. The distinction is real and is reflected in the structure of The Temple (1633) as a whole. It is nevertheless one that runs within as well as between these different species of poem, just as it animates the tale of the poor man and his horse. Prudential values are important for thinking moral and theological commitments, and vice versa. These components are often bound into a sort of circulation by particular poetic mechanics.

A key matrix for this reflection is an economic one. Many of the proverbs that Herbert collected, for example, have an economic structure and theme (Herbert 1640). Their advice is presented in terms of accountancy, or a paradox of accountancy. Such proverbs need not all represent truths believed in by Herbert, but they do appear to show a pervasive and important ethical and rhetorical concern. The maxims can urge basic economic wisdom: spend, invest.9 Sometimes this figures other sorts of gain more important than the economic; sometimes economics is part of a larger set of purposes and values for which the balance sheet can remain a figure. Compare:

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47. A Marchant that gaines not, looseth.
191. Giving much to the poore, doth inrich a mans store.
192. It takes much from the account, to which his sin doth amount.
193. It adds to the glory both of soule and body.
224. Sometimes the best gaine is to lose. (Herbert 1640)

Obviously, determining what is literal and what metaphorical in this accountancy is difficult unless we assume what is refused – that economic and moral categories are at radical variance with each other.10 Even in "The Church-porch", a poem that reads as a versified catalogue of social tips and pointers, there is a striking emphasis on the larger purposes of profit: "Surely use alone / Makes money not a contemptible stone" (155–6). Here "use" seems not to mean the need to re-invest, let alone to exact interest, but rather to use up, spend on oneself or others – although those other justifications seem both borrowed and undermined. Money's nature is changed in the way it is handled. Such accountancy may not be a loss of ethical truth so much as an effort to make accountancy moral, or to reveal its moral embeddedness; to get the two realms or sets of interests thought together. This is a Christianity refusing its long slide into the beyond. And if that is a source of paradox in Herbert's verse, the paradox is perhaps deeper, less starkly contradictory, than it is for those of an 'economistic' mind-set – that is, the post-eighteenth-century reader, to whom economics and its notion of value is a dominating, autonomous domain (Dumont 1977; Force 2003).

In the "The Church-porch", Herbert sees the penalty of reductively economic aspiration in economic terms and resists it explicitly:

Yet in thy thriving still misdoubt some evil;
Lest gaining gain on thee, and make thee dim
To all things else […]
Gold thou mayst safely touch; but if it stick
Unto thy hands, it woundeth to the quick (163–5, 166–7)

We are permitted profitable, monetary activity, even while suspecting its dangers. Acquisition for its own sake is deadly. The relation to the traditional condemnation of avarice is delicate: spending and giving aim at further gains, but these are understood broadly. Another of the proverbs is revealing: "695. If a good man thrive, all thrive with him."

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The question lies in the "good", and how it affects the "thriving". Is thriving here a function of profit alone? Certainly, if profit is to indicate the good man, one of the blessed, others must benefit. Unlike the later Mandevillean thought of a providential, universal selfishness, here perhaps the successful, to be such, must look beyond their "literal" balance sheets. The appeal is both to self-interest and to this-worldly benefit to others.

Unsystematic and sententious this may be, but it lays bare a central religious impulse in Herbert. When self-scrutiny is understood as accountancy, we may feel that the entry into the world of prices means compromise. But Herbert is not only thinking about social credit when he talks of inner accounting in "The Church-porch" (343–6). It is also a moral assessment. Your full accounts must reflect that you think like a Christian:

Sum up at night, what thou hast done by day;
And in the morning, what thou hast to do.
Dress and undress thy soul: mark the decay
And growth of it: if with thy watch, that too
Be down, then wind up both; since we shall be
Most surely judged, make thy accounts agree. (451–6)

"What thou hast to do" is broadly normative, but its balancing against the auxiliary usage in the previous line ("what thou hast done") makes it also more plainly the description of worldly activities before you. Here is the watch-spring of the moral life, the pull of demand and approval, prescription and description understood in each other's terms – as routine as getting dressed and undressed, part of the same order of activities.

Yet critics sometimes want to stress the separation of prudential and devotional. Richard Strier, for example, argues that "The Church-porch" is "very wary" in its "worldliness", socially calculating and strategic: "Aside from a few moments […] that call for introspection, itself put in prudential terms," he writes, "Herbert's poem is not concerned with the service or the love of God at all" (Strier 2011: 203, 201). The idea is that religious demands have retreated inward, and that even there they are processed in terms of debit and credit. And indeed, this poem is mainly a catalogue of social advice in which Herbert accommodates his beliefs and his pleasures to social imperatives.

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This is a squeeze and a bit of a sell-out. The poem does stress temperance, as if there must be an uneasy and continually policed truce between desire and dignity; wantonness is an important target (215–16).11 And Strier also notes, correctly, that this negotiation of the social reefs is not characteristic of the main body of The Temple (Strier 2011: 203, note). But it must be added that all the verse wants to include and transcend secular norms in a theologically, socially, and somatically satisfying manner. The prudential rhetoric or direction is evident, and at stake, throughout his poems – it is not abruptly replaced with ascetic or spiritual imperatives, but developed in their terms. This does not mean that his religious writings are here 'demystified' or 'historicized' as codes for social interests. The historical import will be found only through reading how theology and social norms inform and transform each other.

The poem "Charms and Knots" offers a series of two-line maxims that bear out, formally, this sense of a holistic value, one under threat or difficult to perceive. Several offer a kind of arithmetical enticement to Christian activity:

Who shuts his hand, has lost his gold:
Who opens it, hath it twice told. (5–6)

This exhorts charity in the language of investment. It is both an appeal to and a critique of the speculator. Wealth is to be invested, but not, apparently, in order to recoup values of the same genus: the lines definitely oblige the giving of money, probably waving it goodbye. To have what is really gold, really valuable, involves giving up gold. The gold that comes back seems metaphorical. Or at least a gold differently understood.12 To keep 'literal' gold or cash is not to keep or realize what is real gold, its value or the value of giving it; it is to lose it. Meanwhile, to give gold away is to produce or attract twice as much of it to you. (The "twice" is tricky: there is no value of one visible here. Perhaps someone else now has the value, while the giver enjoys its equivalent in different guise – while both are fully enjoyed by her, are objects of a new kind of having. Transactions that are not dead are often synergetic in Herbert.)13 Actual gold is nothing, then, until it realizes its value, and this is doubled in charity. Herbert therefore adapts familiar condemnations of covetousness as self-denial.14 But is that because the values are allergic to each other?

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Not quite. The giving has value only because gold actually buys something for those in need, and this compressed verse is attempting a critical connecting of domains. It is not promoting the surrender of trash in hopes of celestial return. Values of one sort are secured in giving up those of another, yet the argument computes the values as part of a commensurable system. It thus appeals to and corrects our acquisitiveness and selflessness at the same time. The paradox is that gold is to be the measure and enactor of values that transcend anything that gold can be when isolated from circulation. (Herbert recruits a paradox that inhabits abstract value generally.) The differing values are on the same stage in order to indicate how we are still doing banking, but of a truer sort. This is not magic, though it looks like sleight of hand. Here there is little explanation. If gold is indeed re-thought in terms of the relationships on which its value depends, and thus the actual worldly benefits of giving surmised, we need to explore further into the oeuvre to fill out the picture. The critique of individualist senses of having and keeping also features in theologically intense poems in The Temple, and it is there that the widest benefits of giving, extensively conceived, are explored in detail. There are further clues even in the present poem.

A later maxim in "Charms and Knots" asks whether various types of good are commensurable:

Take one from ten, and what remains?
Ten still, if sermons go for gains. (15–16)

The reference is to the giving of tithes.15 The lines cater to material self-interest in order to construct a case for spiritual gain. The "if" is both strongly rhetorical – sermons are gains, in the fullest sense! – and intriguingly concessive, a speculative pitch. Tenant farmers may or may not be impressed by the reckoning. Yet the parson has his own reasons for sermons not appearing in the same column as cash or produce, and again the thought resists accounting but needs to think itself accessible to it, inclusive of it. Is one unit of wealth restored to the tithe-payer, or a completely different type of benefit secured? Neither; or both. The "if" is resistant to reduction. It resists the need to identify types of gains or value, as well as to separate them.

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This zero-sum example has an air of pagan propitiation: sacrifice, and maintain the yields. "The Church-porch" puts the idea more strongly: "Restore to God his due in tithe and time: / A tithe purloined cankers the whole estate" (385–6). Overall, there is once again the sense that the value discussed depends on something that transcends it and in which it participates: the world involved in creating it and that benefits from it. This includes the life of natural growth, which is a divine gift for Herbert. The paradox does not flout reason in favour of wishing, or just enlist a disposable metaphor from everyday credits and debits. Trade and charity are not strictly separated.16 In Herbert's paradoxes we are granted something better and more valuable than we put in, while our giving, and the quality of that giving, is partly what establishes the value of what was given. Both giving and exchanging must involve the movement of something of value, more extensively understood – the quality of the relationships in which this occurs and which affects, even effects, all such values, gifts and exchanges.

This verse is therefore both moral and prudential discourse. The prudential is expanded, and corrected, as is the moral. Moral discourse is not generally for Herbert about the unbending law and the demand to rein in desires. In these examples there is both an effort to justify moral norms in non-ascetic terms, along with critical undoing of the narrow logic of gain, a logic to which Herbert seems under pressure to adapt. And the appeal to expanded ideas of gain is not just a sweetener for sterner lessons in self-sacrifice, avarice's bad opposite and secret twin, which is why this verse can be properly critical of the reductive moral economy being drawn upon – not only naked acquisitiveness but the free spending and investing that economism misidentifies as rational freedom, purposeful gain, itself. Herbert does not celebrate the blind atomizing of such desire. All is tested by the standards of a passionate, thinking life. Enlivenment, not the opposite, is sought. This reading is supported by an implicit theory of meaning, in which literal senses of "having" and "gold" are shown to depend on figural or metaphorical meanings that turn out to be the proper sense of the words, or the opening of their sense to larger currents of normative meaningfulness.

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Hoarding cash is a false fetishizing and localization of its value, the destructive misperception of what its value consists in, and not because money must move, command both labour and profits modelled in its image, but because exactly that stencilling of human relations by abstract values is to be diagnosed and resisted. Poetic figuration fashions a perception of circulation in non-dualistic, part-whole, terms, a logic in which the whole corrects the part while the part helps make explicit the whole. So the ascetic note in Herbert can be roughly understood as a kind of sacrifice speculating on other returns. But when one gives, one gives up a simplistic interest in gain along with any straightforward idea of divestment. Sacrifice is not an economistic exchange. What you get back is transformed, as is the quality of getting, or having.17

There is nevertheless a strong censorious note to some of the verse. "Businesse", for example, just co-opts the language of commerce to drum in another sense of priorities. We are to forget our playful or grasping selves and attend to the death of Christ that has made good our real losses. Maybe that feels like the truth of it for modern secularists, too: the alienation of morality and interest. The poems discussed so far can after all look like little models of naiveté. Their certainty and neatness, as if designed for the edification of others, add to their pious or superstitious air. That Herbert calls them "charms" may indicate some agreement with, or teasing of, that view. Nevertheless, although many of Herbert's thoughts and emphases here are familiar and traditional, the poet's strong interest in these sacrificial forms bears underlining. That repeated attention makes it harder to dismiss these as mere figures in which one type of value erases another, or in which allergic values are hopefully and haphazardly combined. Reading the forms in that way repeats the early modern intensification of the prejudice that opposes interests to legalistic moralism, a prejudice Herbert dissects. More important, such an approach also blurs distinctive movements in more major poems, many of which are critically engaged with this issue. The above figures, which link and re-think types of gain as matters pertaining to, but outstripping and condemning, what only later comes to be called economics, will help interpret varied structures of giving and giving up elsewhere in The Temple.

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The theological innovations of the reformations have a significant part in the long history behind modern economic conceptuality. Indeed, the present reading of Herbert can already be seen as confirming and complicating the infamous hypothesis of Max Weber's 1905 work The Protestant Ethic and the "Spirit" of Capitalism (Weber 2002).18 "Worldly asceticism" [innerweltliche Askese], the reformed religionists' systematized working for profits irrespective of pleasure, is an ascesis levelled against the inner world in virtue of its imperative attention to intra-worldly activity and as such, for Weber, it is a vital component in modern secularity. When God's decrees become unnegotiable and unfathomable, worldly activity is released, or coordinated, into demonstrating success in its own terms.19 Economic success becomes its own end, separated out from other aims and values which it then comes to displace or re-structure.20 The legitimate hope of secularism is that dogmatism will yield to human interests; but instead the ascetic social process supplants those rational satisfactions and ends.21 So affects lose authority just as reason authorizes itself through rigorous asceticism. It is these fateful separations that Herbert often traces out and resists through his particular inflections of reformed theology. Admittedly, Herbert's handbook for the parson, A Priest to the Temple, discusses the idea of mercenary vocation, at points, in exemplary ascetic manner. Riches, it is conceded there, are a genuine "blessing of God", although they are no more than an "instrument" (Herbert 2004: 248). "All are to procure them honestly and seasonably", says Herbert, adding a further rider: "when they are not better employed." And the point of the procurement, suspiciously circumscribed in this way, is to maximize the giving, which must be a giving of everything. But then giving – in turn – seems justified only by the demands of labour: "since they that have nothing are fittest to work." So we are not only condemned to endless work but also ordered to give up any proceeds – for the sake of work. This is one way of blending vocational and devotional imperatives. But without further explanation of how life's enjoyments or larger purposes can be realized in and alongside such activity, it is doubly ascetic. The only motive is perpetual indigence. This logic, however, looks more like wit than much of the poetry, which feels for the tensions and relations of these activities in more sophisticated manner, configuring them more subtly. Their emphases on asceticism and the giving up of self and worldly goods, on chastisement and mortification, are not the exclusive or last word.22

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The ascetic collusion of reformed religion with economistic logic is in fact challenged and re-shaped in Herbert's poetry. The examples offered so far imply that Herbert senses and protests against any emaciated idea of virtue and interest.23 Indeed, the sundering from each other of a determining series of categories and phenomena – worldly and spiritual goods, interest and disinterest, sensate pleasure and rational cogency, satisfaction and justification, fact and value, law and inclination, meaningfulness and truth – provokes in this poet a tenacious ethical resistance. The resultant patterns can be deciphered from various motifs recurring across the verse, and not only the plainly 'economic' ones. The following section relates this critique of acquisitiveness (as in fact ascetic) to a critique of self-assertion and self-denial (both of which misidentify the self's true worth). Charity is not gratuitous self-surrender; material giving and self-relinquishment are recommended in terms of love and self-love. Herbert investigates a range of gestures of sacrifice in order to re-discover and clarify this living medium and connection.


In John Milton's A Masque (1645), the Lady refuses Comus's cordial because she can infer its virtues from his character: "none / But such as are good men can give good things" (Milton 2011: lines 702–3).24 The link between the quality of the donor or of giving and the quality of what is given is an important feature in early modern moral economies. "A wicked man's gift hath a touch of his master", says one of the proverbs Herbert collated (Herbert 1640: no. 162). "Gifts speake the giver", he claims in the poem to Bacon ("To My Lord Chancellour Sir Francis Bacon": 3). Here physical quality does not altogether disappear into the ethical context of donation (something of value must be given in order to indicate and enact it), or the reverse (for ethical purposes and connections are the fibre of all value). Substance and value are inter-involved. No obvious division of physical and moral qualities appears to be made, as there is a refusal to map the one onto the domain of 'objects' and the other onto that of modes of giving and receiving. This reluctance to construe value as independent of the spirit in which it is offered and taken up, or simply as determining or determined by those relations, is a clue to some of Herbert's characteristic dramas and perplexities. Of course, such paradoxes can tempt the critic (who wants to know who owns this, who has alienated that, what belongs where) into disenchanting manoeuvres against possible reification or fetishization.25

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Those idolatrous confusions are a routine target for early modern castigation, too. But they are not always confusions. They can escape a deeper reification – disconnected subjects and objects, characters and values. Giver and receiver remain beholden to the gift's character – and vice versa. They partake of the deeper relations and qualities that giving represents, sustains.

The poet knows this topic and difficulty to be one of his work's supportive stresses. The first lines of the "Dedication" to The Temple have already made that difficulty clear:

Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee;
Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came,
And must return. Accept of them and me,
And make us strive, who shall sing best thy name. (1–4)

Such self-correcting is typical of the volume. The poet cannot take credit for either the fruits or the presenting. But should we conclude that the lines destroy themselves as they unwind, as if claims for ownership and agency must be individualistic, exclusive – and surrendered (compare Nuttall 1980: 32)? The correction, clearly, is not deletion of the initial assertion; there it is. So perhaps he records the breakdown of the claim to the fruits in order to secure a different prize (one for self-abnegation)? Then we detect a tactic of validation. But there is something more involved happening. By acknowledging the true source, the poet becomes one of its fruits, and more himself – just like the poetic fruits do. That is because fruits are not only themselves but also, as fruits, relational. They are fruits of something. (Like gifts, they speak the giver.) They "present themselves", they not only offer themselves but also self-manifest as fruit of their true source. Compare the first line, which anticipates the double perspective extended through the following ones: "my first fruits present themselves." They are not the fruits of a poetic self into which they have been transplanted, but just are those, and his, fruits insofar as they body forth the greater generative domain. The complexity of the image lies at the heart of the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563), no. 12, where fruit is the figure conveying church doctrine concerning "good works":

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Albeit that good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God's judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith; insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit. (Cressy and Ferrell 2005: 72)26

These "fruits of faith" are both inefficacious and vitally expressive of the gift of faith; both from God and to be judged by him. Herbert's dedication is following out and clarifying this problem. The poet asks that his fruits be accepted with him, because he is of their self-presenting number, participating in the divine by being what he truly is. His relation to the fruits is not severed. He is deprived of nothing except an exclusive claim and a misperception rooted in that claim. The line between what is the poet's and what is God's, and (entirely consistently, given that this poem is another fruit) between the poet's initial thoughts about that relationship and the actual truth of it, is not drawn in an easy way.

The involvement of donor, gift, and recipient in a substantive, ethical context takes various paradoxical forms in Herbert's verse. It helps interpret its ascetic notes. Herbert does not commend or exemplify virtuoso self-denial, as if superstitiously to win more than is surrendered. When Herbert thinks of giving, or helping, he is considering a sort of sacrifice that can secure, enact, or restore real, recognizable goods. And this involves reasoning out their nature, not some blind hope that self-punishment will pay off. The subtractive process is one in which human worth is re-identifying, rather than eliminating, itself, and it does this by uncovering a medium of donation, a source and surplus that overflow disenchanting logical machinery.

The distinctness-in-connectedness of world and God receives another subtle treatment in "The Pulley". There God is presented reasoning out a limit to the real, not illusory, goods of this world. "Man", he says, shall have all benefits (strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure [6–7]) with the exception of rest (10), which will only be found in the source – that is, himself. This is the last item in his "glasse of blessings" (2) – what remains of these blessings (the "rest") as well as the peaceful repose that will not now be found in this world. Why withhold this benison and not make the world one of secular satisfaction? Because, if rest were given:

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He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be. (13–15)

Earthly satisfactions would deprive "man" and God of a higher satisfaction, idolizing nature instead of entering into a life of love. So the natural goods are left incomplete in their own terms. It would still be possible for "goodnesse" (19) to lead man to God, but now there is the extra motivation of "restlessnesse" (17) and "wearinesse" (19), of both an unsatisfiable appetite for the world and its failing, which will turn eyes upward (the pulley of the title). Herbert does not contemplate a self-sufficient field of secular gains with which he can juxtapose the transcendent deity. He re-frames fading motivation as providential arrangement. He rewrites the value of endless restlessness in a vocation but not by writing off the world. The world needs its enlivening supplement, and vice versa. Here the play on "rest" says that love of God gives you everything, a remedial addition, not an exclusive alternative. Similarly, the "both" of the last line may include "Nature", the enjoyment of which comes into its own when it is understood in its relationship with its origin (Strier 1980: 51). Satisfaction occurs between two worlds, but ones comprehensible to each other's terms. The world leads beyond itself as well as to more of itself. And misperceiving this could be fatal. God's holding back the rest, the missing component of all the individual blessings and therefore any reposeful satisfaction, is an act of mercy: to find "rest" in nature is not only to be a "loser", but dead. The insight is an assessment of the life that would be lived in absence of relation to its giver, its nutritive ground. This relation affects what is given, enlivens or deadens it, just as what is given informs the vitality of those relations.

John L. Klause cogently characterizes the dilemma concerning the status of human value and agency that Herbert's poetry repeatedly confronts.

Herbert could not explain how it is possible that "nothing is our own" ("The Holdfast") – existence, ability, virtue are all God's gifts – and yet much is genuinely "ours." This was as great a mystery as Christ's presence in the Eucharist, which one must believe without understanding […]. But whatever the conceptual difficulties it was important for Herbert not to let these truths go: that "Obedience" is meaningless if the obedient self is only a cipher or fiction; that "Praise" and "Prayer" are vain if they are only God's breath returning through an empty vessel to its origin; that redemption and punishment cannot without absurdity be given to marionettes. Kenosis is not self-annihilation. (Klause 1981: 216–17)

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The Pauline notion of kenosis denotes Christ's self-emptying, his casting off divinity and becoming the humblest of men (Phil. 2.7). By emptying ourselves, we are also able to live in God, be filled by him (compare Herbert's "Faith", 21ff.). Such erasure of self-assertion, perhaps of any substantial subject, receives many inflections in Herbert's poetry. Klause claims that a fissure between human and divine worth opens up and that any subsequent bridging can only be opaquely asserted, if it is not entirely chimerical. But Herbert's poetry does not grind to a halt before this mystery, or collapse around a fundamental contradiction. Kenosis is indeed not self-annihilation but this verse is also figuring out why. When it unfixes self-worth and all its passionate, bodily ingredients, the effort is to preserve them, release them from congealed and self-stultifying form. It is not quite the case that all is God's, and that anything of the poet's own is worthless. Rather, again, the poet gives up his claim to such goods insofar as he mistakes their nature. Likewise, it is not the case that any addition to what God has supplied is worthless: when one is urged to copy, as in "Jordan (II)", and thus, quasi-prudentially, to "save expense" (18), one is to copy Christ's love. To return that love is also, like him, to offer it freely to others. Love unites my interests with someone else's. It is a figure of realization and creative transformation, rather than obliteration or sterile iteration – or some ruse of self-service.27 And Christ's sacrificial example is an expression of such love.

"The Holdfast", Klause's clinching exhibit, is nevertheless a severe test for such an interpretation. "Nothing is our own" (7): human participation in God's virtues is barred. If we accept that the poem allows for plain assertions, this one looks plain enough: it de-authorizes experience and empties the subject. It identifies a truth for which we can take no credit and with which we can have no involvement or communication. But are we therefore alienated from all goods and virtues, from ourselves? No: the poem's last speaker asserts that this utter expropriation in fact makes the qualities that have been denied all the "more ours" (12). An exhaustive ritual of auto-deletion is meant once again to be restorative, even profitable – just as giving up gold brought in twice the outlay. But how? Can the crowning thought of participation ("more ours by being his" [12]) be understood, or is it the fantasy pay-off for consummate self-denial?

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The speaker of the poem has "threat[e]ned" (1) to observe God's law, as if he could do so without Christ's aid, and has been gently put right, perhaps by himself, musing inwardly. He says he will therefore trust God. Wrong again: trust is not ours either. The poem ends with the "I" being further schooled, and finally flummoxed:

We must confesse, that nothing is our own.
Then I confesse that he my succour is:
But to have nought is ours, not to confesse
That we have nought. I stood amaz'd at this,
Much troubled, till I heard a friend expresse,
That all things were more ours by being his.
What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall. (7–14)

By eliminating any claim to anything whatsoever, even the acknowledgement that we have nothing, we are to enjoy possession more fully. After the deactivation of the acts of threatening and confessing, and of the assertion of trust, the poet or persona is silenced, and this seems to make the turnabout ineffable. "One by one all human statements are invalidated by a mysterious Other who overturns the logic of the human discourse", writes Elizabeth Clarke in her valuably complex exposition of Herbert's theology of verse-writing (Clarke 1997: 237). This makes it "hard to understand", she adds, what the final restitution can mean in regard to discourse, unless (following Herbert's inspiration and guide, Juan de Valdés) God's voice just replaces the silenced poet's (237–8). We learn how the bewilderment of the "I" shows that the truth proposed by the "friend" cannot be coherently formulated or avowed, indeed that any avowal is defeated. The speaker all but disappears. Yet, next, everything is pronounced his, or ours, again – or ours all along. It seems that only by having nothing that is our own, we shall have everything, including speaking. If this 'mysterious' account is correct, we are left with profoundly disenchanted thinking, a separation of our truth from our felt life, of transcendent worth from the wilful, self-centred, untrustworthy dross we can only hope to purge, forever – and to which we can oppose only empty wishing. The stripping-down in fact, then, leaves us as we are; it merely de-authorizes everything we think and feel, alienating us from ourselves. Christ is not only accountant, and the secure depositing bank; his are also the valuables deposited. All this, in short, rehearses the handover to alienated ascetic secularism traced by Weber. Dissatisfaction with it, with its authority, seems built in – indeed, the sceptical, ascetic process is legitimated through its very unsatisfactoriness.

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These penalties of the reductive manner, however, are expounded in the poem. It reduces that manner itself to silence, barring reflection on or appeal to our inner nothingness. The poem draws attention to what is contradictory in the notion that the subject is a projector of illusions, and in which any knowing that betrays subjective input must be demystified down to alienable 'data'. The modern subject is presented and anatomized here in its theological blueprint – the subject rooted in its power of suspending or liquidating everything that goes to make it up. The model is current. It is familiar in culturalist and naturalistic, scientific and humanistic, formats. Such a subject has a passionate body, if at all, as its 'content', but it is no such thing, not one with any authoritative claim.28 The apathetic, empty modern subject is a surprisingly important topic of Herbert's poetry and "The Holdfast" can be witnessed tracing the limits of any notion of having in which the subject, moral and epistemological, has sense-objects and passions as questionable givens, data to purge, bracket, price, or analyze. This eviscerated structure is a template, ultimately, for the late twentieth-century theory that just identifies 'the subject' with 'ideology'.29 Despite the too-familiar Christian paraphernalia that seems bluntly ascetic, Herbert here confronts the prototype of a fateful cognitive machinery.

The theological kernel here is the concept of grace. Herbert's poem "Grace" offers pointers for the speculative reading of "The Holdfast", presenting and complicating as it does a reformed angle on this crucial concept or phenomenon. The poem speaks of an almost natural force, that is, a force indifferent to our wishes or actions, to our deserving it or not. It is opaque to meaning or calculation, as it is a pure gift and cannot be earned, elicited, or resisted in any way. Herbert is unable to raise himself to life. Beseeching is called for, and entirely hopeless:

My stock lies dead, and no increase
Doth my dull husbandrie improve:
O let thy graces without cease
Drop from above! ("Grace", 1–4)

Lack of natural growth and profit ("stock") indicates a lack of grace, which is lack of life. This worldly life is part of a greater one, albeit one the persona feels shut out of. "Increase" is most obviously the grammatical subject, the missing agent that would otherwise "improve" his labours; it may also be the object denied to his husbandry. His actions cannot supply "increase" because they lack the improvement represented by that increase.30

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The doubling of words of magnification intensifies the sense of deprivation, of flat impotence, while also promoting the idea that grace is a synergetic relation, the providential surplus that means more can be extracted and enjoyed than was first invested. Grace is the principle of ongoing increase in which the poet can have a part to play. So it is thought both as a sheer extra, what unilaterally keeps all profitable practices alive from beyond, but also what is visible, or (as here) missed, in them. Dead stock is not only a sign of missing grace, it also suffers the lack of its own efficacious enlivenment that grace is (but to which it cannot be reduced). Grace is not simply the pure transcendence that hands over the realm of work or trade to its own devices, but the context, free and excessive, of all flourishing.

The idea of the pure gift, of the inefficacy of free-standing human merit, commands the attention of "The Holdfast" as well. The belief that even faith comes from God is certainly in play.31 But here as well the transcendent gift is a lure to deeper participation, an expansion of possibilities. The general form of the paradox is: pure transcendence radicalizes the sense of human possibility, while remaining recognizably human, desirable and rational. So how, in this poem, does divestment win everything back in higher form? Again, participation, not dualism, is the poem's principal thought. The gift of love originates in God but, as love, belongs to both parties. Herbert has been prompted to trust, then to confess, and this is not a trick to catch him out time after time, nor is it a methodical regress towards exemplary vacuity. Instead, layers of illusorily autarchic selfhood are peeled away. Each time it is the assertion of "I", the taking on of the trusting and confession as its own, that which is distinctly his and his alone, in clean separation from God and his virtues, which has to be corrected.32 The persona is told that "I might trust in God to be my light" (4) – and the tentative modality, the trust in something offered and to be taken up in the ongoing engagements of his life (just as the indirect speech relies on his interlocutor, is not fully internal or external, which is an effect equally noticeable in the last lines, too), is more subtle and involved than the claim he turns it into: "Then will I trust, said I, in him alone" (5). The correction is of this asserted "I" and the disconnection that is asserted in it, the "I" that relates to God as "him alone". Trust is something not to be achieved or evidenced in assertion; it is tacit and inter-subjective. When it next seems to be pointed out that trust is God's and not the poet's, in fact, more precisely, it is "to trust in him" that is said to be "also his" (6).

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The separation is not quite reasserted, pronoun to pronoun, as if in competition of ownership, this time in God's favour. (The "also" is perhaps fleetingly ambiguous, as if to say, "not only". The phrase schematically distances itself from the "him alone" in the corrected proposition.) The syntax emphasizes a kind of detour, the internal relationship that trust and trusted share: trust's dependence on trustworthiness. God is the subject of trusting and is shared out within the relation of trusting. God's virtues are relational, whereas the assertive self is threatening to relation, and what sustains it. Its assertions will lose these goods, just as the miser's gold evaporates. It is what gets in the way of trusting-in and confession-to that is broken up, because it is the poet’s priority to keep them, not to armour himself through assertion, or self-denial.

The observation, "We must confesse, that nothing is our own", is once more betrayed by what the speaker takes from it: "Then I confesse that he my succour is" (8). The correction, "But to have nought is ours, not to confesse / That we have nought" (9–10) reiterates and underlines the "nothing is our own" message of line 7 – suggesting also that achieving confession is more than a matter of formal declarations, which scarcely express or embody any profound condition, this predicament or blessing. What "I" or even "we" credit ourselves with admitting gets in the way of how things stand. "Nothing is our own" and "to have nought is ours" state the situation without the assertion of subjective pronouns. But the believer is not entirely passive; he is not an object. Herbert is trying to explicate that God is the source, and that therefore the structure is participatory. The phrase "to have nought is ours", which makes an infinitive condition the subject, seems to intensify the expropriation but actually moves toward the lesson to follow: things are more ours when they are Christ's too. This phrase refines on the earlier "nothing is our own" – as if the poet has this time helped his helper to sharpen his formulation. It is not that we now have a curious item called "nought", but that monadic, self-assertive having, which is what Adam represents, is what loses our values and virtue. "Ours" is not a condition of exclusive having. Finally, then, the poem is not a spell in which a wish is realized through total, superstitious surrender, the silencing of any claim. It is a careful clarification and preservation of what is most preciously our own disentangled from what we merely possess, lay claim to, or perform – and from some of the grammatical paradigms that pit us against our truest interests. We find ourselves whole, not dismantled, participating in relations of trust and love. The poem dramatizes and admits the difficulty of the lesson.

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Herbert's peculiar manipulations of syntax feel out this fuller, socialized ideal of moral agency. He is everywhere making sense of relinquishment. He does not enforce it for its own sake, nor in the blind belief that it will win something in return. Herbert's obsessive suspicion and re-jigging of economic models is not only a model: the recommendation to give up money is justified in terms of grace, because giving partakes of grace.33 We gain, not lose, in freeing a jealous grip on our values and virtues. Indeed, this properly identifies their and our source and nature – enacts their substantial worth, as we participate in divine love. Charity discovers the reward that releases us from proud possessiveness or virtuousness, and what is given up is asceticism itself. Giving is gaining, not the sheer alienation of goods. Several facets of agape, love and charity, have therefore presented themselves in these anti-ascetic analyses.34 The verse speaks through paradox, more than solutions or serene reconciliation, and has intimate, yet broad, lessons for those disenchanted reasoners, known as critics, who think they recognize religious illusion when they see it.

The exchanges of "mine" and "thine" receive more intercalated expression in poems like "Clasping of hands". The 'humanism' of Herbert's view unsurprisingly centres on the humanity of Christ, and this poem investigates the need for Christ in order for there to be any "mine". But the poet participates in Christ, whose restoration of humanity is also his own: "And thou with me dost thee restore" (8), as his most recent editor notices (Wilcox 2007: 541, note). The second stanza does not erase that thought, but works through the asymmetries from which the poet has benefited in order to identify the most significant bond of humanity to God:

Lord, I am thine, and thou art mine:
So mine thou art, that something more
I may presume thee mine, then thine.
For thou didst suffer to restore
Not thee, but me, and to be mine:
And with advantage mine the more,
Since thou in death wast none of thine,
Yet then as mine didst me restore. (11–18)

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The poet's passivity emphasizes his windfall. He gets something for free, while Christ's death seems to do nothing for the deceased. Christ gives everything so that others will escape the same penalty. Yet this death is the test of love and expresses it, the very highest motivation. It is not embraced for its own sake or in order to exemplify a denigration or assault on life, or even to appease a law; it is endured so that the beloved may flourish. So the last lines quoted add something, a thought about an extra thus enjoyed by the poet. He has been restored to himself because Christ has loved him unilaterally and given him the pattern of what a loving human can do. There is an explanatory logic (the "Since" of line 17), in which Christ's ultimate self-surrender maximizes the poet's gain, and a "Yet" (18) that interrupts or surprises it. That word possibly marks a tone of astonishment at this undeserved rescue (and undeserved suffering). The since/yet tension thinks both that the poet is redeemed because of Christ's death, and despite it; despite his becoming human, and precisely for that reason. That is the astonishment, that humanity can be so valued, so valuable. Christ redeems as a human, dying to his divinity, and restores a faith in what human love can be and do. The poet now sees the possibility of sharing in Christ's virtues. Our life, it can therefore be argued, is more ours by being Christ's, for the impressive reason that he sets ours above his own – and higher than we were able.35

Herbert's poetry is a various and paradoxical subversion or critique of asceticism, especially that asceticism animating individualistic ideas of gain or ownership. Whether carried by economic tropes, figurations of divine and human gifts, or representations of a subject that mistakes self-emptying, and finally death itself, for life, these poems mortify those repressions and privations that present themselves as their opposites.36 They promote and explore self-divestments that are, in truth, fulfilments – the discovery of passions, interests, and connections whose authority needs excavating and affirming.


J. M. Bernstein offers, as a context for his reconstruction of the ethical import of Theodor Adorno's thinking, an incisive formulation of the modern crisis of affective authority, the putting asunder of justification and motivation.37 Here, what matters most is ousted from the spaces of justification – compromised and replaced by rationalizing procedures, moral, economic, or scientific.

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Value-free, mathematized, science purges its concepts of sensate and affective interest; social and economic activity is taken up only as something with internal, systematic, aims and logic (Weber's "vocation" or calling, "Beruf"). At best, ideas about the good are left to individuals to colour in as they see fit. The result Bernstein dubs "affective scepticism".38 Motivations have no authority, while, symmetrically, interest in the authoritative (scientific, economic) norms of justification and the activities that they model and deform is depleted. Bernstein capsules Adorno's guiding insight in this manner:

Adorno believes that both justifying reasons and motivating reasons as now conceived are deformed; it is because both rationalized universality and particularity are deformed that Adorno believes that modernity suffers not only from a deficit of meaning, but equally from a deficit of rationality. […] [A]s yet we have nothing approaching a normative account explaining how a wholly secular form of life can be rationally compelling and intrinsically motivating. (Bernstein 2001: 18; original emphasis)

It is this double deficit that is important. More reason, not less, is required, and thus more motivation and satisfaction. A deficit of felt meaning does not entail that what is felt strongly is on that basis to be credited as true. The banishment of affect from truth distorts both parties. One sorry tendency is for what is ultimately indifferent to become a paradigm of truth (and of the knower): lack of life, even an unflinching attitude to death, is then the sign of a rational outlook. This ascetic stance is invented in the religious systems. It is intensified by disenchanted secular 'realism'. This problem has been diagnosed and resisted by thinkers as different as Nietzsche, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Michel Henry.39 But it is also rehearsed and opposed in Herbert's heterodox devotions.

The problem of affective ethical authority is no longer principally a religious matter. But Bernstein's last thought about secularity prompts some queries about the back-story to this predicament. Religion's role as disenchanter of the world, in de-animating idolatrous nature, denigrating our embodiment, and privatizing moral justifications as it lifts spiritual life beyond the public world, are key bequests to secular reason.40 Secularity lives out some aberrations of its theological origins. So if religious efforts to re-authorize higher purposes, and criticize lower ones, are no longer rationally compelling, this is partly religion's own work. Secular reason – on the other hand – has not successfully re-homed important parts of what some religious belief continues at least to promise, and which its own deficits keep requiring: meaning that is truthful, justification that is satisfying. Theists routinely accuse atheists of relativistic morality, for example.

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That is not a serious point, more a refusal to accept that morality needs to be thought about. It is however the case that a rational morality involves thinking about reason. The relativism charge survives not only because of all the professing relativists in academic existence, but because it senses a real complaint: that modern reason is, very deeply, sceptical as to value. This is a key solidarity with the dogmatic religions whose existence a truncated reason still happens to promote, and from which it sought to emerge in the modern period: it at best leaves morality in the fact- and body-free space of logical universality (law), where it threatens to wither to dogmatic command. And thus the entanglement of rationalization with experiences it can neither legitimate nor quell, and with the utterly irrational rationalizations of some of those experiences, as in current fundamentalisms and à la carte private spiritualities.41 These debates continuously re-open in various guises, whether scholarly, polemical, personal, or public (indeed, they necessarily leak across all these zones). And they are the unavoidably messy context required for testing a poetic oeuvre whose truth claims may otherwise appear transparently – if charmingly – defunct.

In Herbert's poetry, any relinquishment must justify itself as a meaningful recovery or reinforcement of real and greater goods. He neither surrenders the most vital hopes and fears, nor shields them from critical elaboration and testing. Human beings are implicated in giving and givenness because intersubjective and ethical bonds, in all their affective richness, are the substance of the subject, a substantive subjectivity. This essay has underlined how ascetic denials of this richness (of kindness, charity, trust, love) are enemies of life. But what of the Christian belief that death is the gateway to the life to come? Is that another version of divestments that are merely apparent because they discover greater gains? If so – because survival can be seen as the paradigm irrational belief – all those other sacrifices may fall under the suspicion that they too are losses after all, and that life has been mixed up with death. Any reconciliation with death must be the deepest and most damaging asceticism.

Herbert, this essay has argued, rarely thinks in terms of heavenly rewards being keyed to surrender in the here and now, as if pure pain were value – a process that would indeed make of death a symptomatic desire. To approach the topic, compare the bad, shrill ascetic tone in the sonnets Herbert wrote as a teenager as a gift for his mother.

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There he bemoans the lack of holy fire in the venereal poetry of his contemporaries. In the second sonnet, women are dismissed as poor topics for verse, while natural beauties such as roses and lilies are salvaged for expressing the bounty of God. The final tercet, however, hits a different note:

Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth, when Lord, in thee
The beauty lies, in the discovery. (12–14)

The poetic image of the beloved is literally mortified in this gleeful assault. The doubly alliterative, monosyllabic collocation of "best face" with "but filth" is a stunning, and appalling, effect. "Face" implies that the dead body is still what it was when alive, and capable of feeling this chastisement. "Filth" carries its full denunciatory force. Living humanity is said, jubilantly, to be dead. The idea is that death demystifies, just as it does for the disenchanting critic: here's the truth about female beauty. (Real beauty is the God seen beneath everything: "in thee" and "in the discovery" place beauty both beyond its appearance and in our encounter with it – perhaps post-mortem, then, or mediated by the face of human decay.) But we are meant to be repulsed, too. The effect trades on disgust, physical and moral. This is also the truth about death. It is an outrage but its power is warded off only by the aping of its power, in the violent undoing of life: seeing life as already dead, acting as if one were already indifferent; as if death were the whole truth. It is propitiated by unlimited acknowledging, and so the sonnet champions the ruination of life. Such a manipulation of the feeling of protest into praise of dying, a superstition which runs through traditional memento mori schemes, is worked against in much of Herbert's mature poetry, in which attacking life is no survival strategy. For the poet who could write "The growth of flesh is but a blister" ("H. Baptisme (II)": 14), for example, the traditional mortifying apparatus looks near second nature. But the readjustment of vision that such later 'metaphysical' jolts seek is the discovery of life, even here. For this is no figure fetched up to meet the spirit's need for a somatic analogue, and in which the only healthy body would be no kind of worldly body at all. Here flesh is not filth, nor dead, but understood as a diseased version of itself, puffed up with sins. The lines think about types of flesh, and about experiences, activities, growing and ageing. Health, it is said, is sanctified flesh, not a soul; a child, or its state of innocence (or humility): "Childhood is health" (15).

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Nevertheless, Robert N. Watson has placed Herbert's verse among early modern works that help "to disguise the conflict between the psychological necessity known as narcissism and the physical necessity known as mortality" (Watson 1994: 1). The implication is that the poet steps out to greet self-destruction. And Watson amply catalogues the strategies of poetic closure by which Herbert secures himself by rehearsing the final erasure, over and over, as the profoundest comfort. This checking of the safety-net actually betrays the anxiety that everything might really be lost, so the poetry is interpreted as a defence, or disguise, holding out against mere termination. The Christian consolations tip us off to the upsetting natural facts they are denying (Watson 1994: 304, for example). Perhaps it is fairer to say that Watson, one of Herbert's most sophisticated readers, uses the fact of mortality to precipitate out the aesthetic and psychological richness of the poetry. Either way, mortality is the lens through which the critic demystifies the texts, because it is a charm against all wishfulness. The test set for the Christian is equanimity in the face of death, an equanimity benchmarked against the disenchanter. That ascetic desideratum, an offshoot of the religion it opposes, is, however, destructive. Agreed, death is an enemy, not a friend – but is it honoured or resisted when ideas of eternal life are chased off, or symptomatized?

In a 1964 discussion with Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno makes some penetrating remarks about modern attitudes to death. He goads us to rethink something that seems to have decayed into false consolation. This is "die Frage nach der Abschaffung des Todes" (Bloch 1978: 357), "the question about the elimination of death" (Bloch and Adorno 1988:8), which for him is "der neuralgische Punkt" or the crucial sore spot of the political utopianism he is arguing for:

Man kann das sehr einfach feststellen; man braucht nur irgendwann einmal bei sogenannten »wohlgesinnten« Menschen […] von der Möglichkeit der Abschaffung des Todes zu sprechen. Da wird man also, wie mann in ein Polizeirevier einen Stein wirft und dann zur Tür heraus ein Schutzmann kommt, sofort der Reaktion begegnen: Ja, wenn der Tod abgeschafft würde, wenn die Menschen nicht mehr sterben würden, das wäre das Allerschlimmste und das Allerentsetzlichste. Ich würde sagen, genau diese Reaktionsform ist das, was eigentlich dem utopischen Bewuβtsein am allermeisten entgegensteht. Das, was noch über die Identifikation der Menschen mit bestehenden gesellschaftlichen Verhältnissen hinausgeht, worin sich die verlängern, ist die Identifikation mit dem Tod. (Bloch 1978: 357–8)

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It can be ascertained very easily; you only have to speak about the elimination of death some time with a so-called well-disposed person [...] Then you will get an immediate reaction, in the same way that a policeman would come right after you if you threw a stone at a police station. Yes, if death were eliminated, if people would no longer die, that would be the most terrible and horrible thing. I would say that it is precisely this form of reaction that actually opposes the utopian consciousness most of the time. The identification with death is that which goes beyond the identification of people with the existing social conditions and in which they are extended. (Bloch and Adorno 1988: 8)

Unblinking acknowledgement of death is a mystification all its own, especially when we leap in to disabuse the believer. Appeals to 'brute facts' become norms. So the "well-disposed person" skewered here is the promoter of death, and therefore of the life from which death is considered a deliverance. Any belief in survival is condemned for what it most valuably is: a protest against the prevailing order, a deepening of the possibilities of life. The wish for the elimination of death may not be asking for more of this life, but for life worthy of the name; as if we have not lived. The realist's slap-down of the hope does not care one way or the other. By de-transcendentalizing death into a specific institutional building, a police station, Adorno is trying to radicalize our sense of possibilities, to reject death as this fetish of expectations management. Accordingly, we are to conceive of a life of which we would want more, and to dismantle the thinking that absolutizes current arrangements by making them as impervious to desire as what is taken to be natural necessity. "Utopisches Bewuβtsein meint ein Bewuβtsein, für das also die Möglichkeit, daβ die Menschen nicht mehr sterben müssen, nicht etwas Schreckliches hat, sondern im Gegenteil das ist, was man eigentlich will" (Bloch 1978: 358). "Utopian consciousness means a consciousness for which the possibility that people no longer have to die does not have anything horrible about it, but is, on the contrary, that which one actually wants" (Bloch and Adorno 1988: 8).

The emergence of secular reasoning is not generally regrettable and no return to proto-Enlightenment thinking is possible or desirable. But Adorno's perception convicts a type of secularism of the same irrational rapprochement with death typically decrypted from religious belief by its rationalist opponents. This kind of providential meaninglessness reveals the more general pervasion of life by its opposite. The criticism informs recent, and less recent, accounts of commercial reasoning. Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy, for example, analyzes, through many contemporary cases, just what goes missing, or is fatally undermined, when social and ethical goods enter the cash nexus (Sandel 2012).

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The book includes a chapter on the financial speculation on death (131–62). When the dealer buys up strangers' life insurance policies, for instance, she seeks to make death an earner. She gains an interest in someone's dying, and soon. As Sandel makes clear, a death is not here feared, insured against, and in some measure ameliorated for those it hits worst. It is just the speculator's pay-day. The erosion of interest in others' living well or at all epitomizes the mock-theodicy of the market: meaninglessness and death are courted for profit.

This vein inherits something from early modern mortifications. Herbert sees exactly this economized dying and protests. In "The Forerunners" – for a contrast with a traditional mortifying emphasis sampled above – he offers parallels between different subtractive processes: ageing, dying, declining poetic powers, simplification of expression. The stripping down is handled in complex manner. Is dying like a critique of poetic ornament, a salutary clarification? Is life, like style, or poetry itself, lost in favour of spiritual survival? This poem in fact puts the brakes on the process of annulment, and contains notes of regret, resistance, and bargaining. So, pace Watson, Herbert does not only betray his fears; he articulates them.

After a complex consideration of poetic beauty, the poet reconciles himself to his waning powers as long as he can say the important thing directly:

For, thou art still my God, is all that ye
Perhaps with more embellishment can say. (32–3)

But the "perhaps" is not convinced that beautiful language is only gilding. Such an entente with declining inspiration does not ignore the privations. This same hesitancy persists in the thoughts of death. Fear is indeed to be dissolved in hope:

Let a bleak palenesse chalk the doore,
So all within be livelier then before. (35–6)

The lines refer back to the grey hairs of line 2, and the theme is mortification of the outer for the sake of inner life, or the hope that these mortal signs index reduction to "my best room, / Ev'n all my heart, and what is lodged there" (7–8). The marks on his head also prompt a focusing in on what is now important, even if the losses are real. The best thing is now more easily isolated and attended to.

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In this way, the "So" of the final line can mean, first, a causal relation within what is wished for or invoked: let death announce itself, or arrive, in order that the higher life of the heart, or the life temporarily there lodged, comes to live more fully. Death and depletion allow for full affirmation of, and passage to, another life. Death means life, and brings it about. Yet the welcoming of winter and the end of life could, instead, have a condition. The line can also have a limiting sense: allow, or do not protest about, the signs or reality of finitude, as long as all is more vital within. Accept the inevitable, only as long as you are living or passing to more or a higher life.42 Here death is just an enemy from which we must be rescued, or for which we must demand compensation. Whether we are to think of a livelier earthly existence or the afterlife is less important in these lines than the assessment of the threat of death, and the suspicion of a life modelled on it. One reading makes death part of an economy of flourishing, gives it a positive meaning in a process of divestment for gain. The other sees the threat and a need for reparation.

Herbert does not here enjoin the dismissal or repression of our natures, to love death rather than ourselves and one another, in order to win a spurious mastery over natural necessity. The disenchanting perspective needs to be reversed. The treatments of death emphasize its enmity and the expanded sense of enjoyment and value that this poet always seeks. Herbert implacably unpicks death's work in life. His poems are not a crypto-nihilism. He is not denying the effects of mortality, but thinking what kind of life could be lived out of its shadow. An afterlife may be incredible, but that is no reason to allow mortality to envelop life.

Death, its threat and meaning, and the manner in which we may deny, abet, or dissipate its powers, are fundamental concerns of Herbert's poetry. The faith in salvation, which is also an evident anxiety, indexes resistance to mortality and adumbrates real life, not its nihilistic dismissal. Thus his subtle affirmations of what is anti-ascetic, but not thereby anti-rational, in the verse. The various forms of giving up are varieties of freeing performed in the name of a life both passionate and ethically satisfying. This involves motivating joys and griefs ("Affliction [V]", 13, 23) – for both pain and pleasure have currency, just as "one good grone" (and not any old groan, mind) is a vital sign, and finds its way to a sympathetic God.43 The bodily subject is not to be discounted, nor repressed and evacuated. These reflections and enactments of expansive life, and the restrictions of self-interested, economized life, depend only on belief in another life. These are at least Herbert's problems and his standards of judgment. The death he wants to overcome is that threatened in and by features of a life that confuses straitened self-interest and radical asceticism with real satisfactions.

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Herbert's attitudes attest to experiences that the optic of modern reason is designed to see right through. Yet they are not delusional acquiescence in insignificance or economies in which death is investment. The Temple repeatedly queries any suicidal trade-off in which mortification, somehow, wins post-mortem flourishing. These compositions resist expressions of life not worthy of the name. Living must as such manifest a truer life. If one form of ideology is mystification of the fact of our mortality, another, and more important, is the premature reconciliation with it. The ideas are solidary: ultimately, both numb us to the myriad deaths that are truly avoidable. No doubt some lives are barely worth living, a fact that can make death a mercy; deathly imitations of life are what must in the end be fought against. But the emphatic distinction of life from death is what convicts the barest, unhappiest, most unfree existence. It does not console itself by thinking that at least this is, after all, a life.44 (The torturer's alibi.) Herbert's poems on death resist life as it is as well as the death that delivers us from it. These are the parameters for any assessment of the struggle against deathly life, political or religious. Believers may source many of their affirmations of life on the wrong side of the grave. But that should not blind us to all that they are thinking in those affirmations. Insisting on mortality can obscure the nature of the lives and hopes we know, quite as much as any extravagant religiosity does.

The difficulty and necessity of seeing affirmation of life as absolutely distinct from affirmation of death may be what Herbert's poetry is about. Any relinquishment must be about being better able to find a way to vital worldly and spiritual goods. Herbert indeed repeatedly tests the idea of whether death really can be such a relinquishment. His literal belief in post-mortem life is obvious, or obviously represented. But its work is not in fact to mix up life and death, dying and flourishing, loss and gain, but to tease out what real life must consist in. His scrutiny of death is, despite or because of his beliefs, more critical than some secularist thoughts that affirm the fixity of death and extend its power. It is that critical refusal to allow the norms of this world to embed themselves that has been identified in the verse. If death, in life and at its end, is a real enemy, Herbert may be right about the condition to be set on reconciliation with it: passage to another life. Whether we believe in death as a punishment, or in the afterlife, does not change the condition. Herbert's rejections of death as fate and of a life modelled on it are not 'ideology', but a significant resource for fighting its virulent, mortified variants.

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1 This article is developed from a research project (on early modern disenchantments) initially supported by the Academy of Finland. I gratefully acknowledge this support and that of the University of Tampere. The University of Westminster has generously awarded research time for completion of this article. A version of the argument had outings at Royal Holloway, University of London and the Universities of Edinburgh and Westminster. I am grateful for those opportunities and for the valuable questions and advice they provided me. Special thanks go to David Cunningham and James Loxley. Emma McEvoy and Timo Uotinen commented helpfully on a later draft, while Iain Macdonald offered useful pointers with aspects of Adorno.

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2 "The mind orders the mind to will. The recipient of the order is itself, yet it does not perform it. What causes this monstrosity and why does this happen? Mind commands, I say, that it should will, and would not give the command if it did not will, yet does not perform what it commands. The willing is not wholehearted, so the command is not wholehearted. The strength of the command lies in the strength of will, and the degree to which the command is not performed lies in the degree to which the will is not engaged. For it is the will that commands the will to exist, and it commands not another will but itself. So the will that commands is incomplete, and therefore what it commands does not happen. If it were complete, it would not need to command the will to exist, since it would exist already. Therefore there is no monstrous split between willing and not willing. We are dealing with a morbid condition of the mind which, when it is lifted up by the truth, does not unreservedly rise to it but is weighed down by habit. So there are two wills. Neither of them is complete, and what is present in the one is lacking to the other" (Augustine 1992: 147–8). For a cogent overview of Augustine's ethical reflection, see Kent 2001. Compare on this matter of desire’s internal resistances, rather than domination from without, the highly ambitious argument of Harpham 1987.

3 See Hegel's early essay "The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate" (1798–1800), where the Sermon on the Mount (for example) is a lesson not in the disappearance of law but in law's observance and completion through a "righteousness [Gerechtigkeit] of a new kind": "This expanded content we may call an inclination [Geneigtheit] so to act as the laws may command, i.e., a unification of inclination with the law [Einigkeit der Neigung mit dem Gesetze] whereby the latter loses its form as law. […] The correspondence [Übereinstimmung] of inclination with law is such that law and inclination are no longer different; and the expression "correspondence of inclination with the law" is therefore wholly unsatisfactory because it implies that law and inclination are still particulars, still opposites. Moreover, the expression might easily be understood to mean that a support of the moral disposition, of reverence for the law, of the will's determinacy by the law, was forthcoming from the inclination which was other than the law, and since the things in correspondence with one another would on this view be different, their correspondence would be only fortuitous, only the unity of strangers, a unity in thought only. In the "fulfilment" [Komplement] of both the laws and duty, their concomitant, however, the moral disposition, etc., ceases to be the universal, opposed to inclination, and inclination ceases to be particular, opposed to the law, and therefore this correspondence of law and inclination is life and, as the relation of differents to one another, love" (Hegel 1971a: 214–15; for the German, see Hegel 1971b: 324–5). "Fulfilment", "Komplement", "Ausfüllung", unpack the New Testament's "pleroma" (Matt. 5.17). Compare the discussion of kenosis, emptying, below. Hegel is thinking around the universal moral concepts of Kantian philosophy as well as the unsatisfactory general form of moral commands. For Hegel, to have your master within you, as a sense of duty, is still to be enslaved (1971a: 211; 1971b: 323).

4 Simon Jarvis has reminded me how resourcefully the work of Gillian Rose develops a critique of the imperfectible modern efforts to sunder the private and public spheres – the "broken middles" of ethics and law, soul and city, and, finally, church and state. See, for example, Rose 1996.

5 Richard Strier addresses some Catholic forms of such "devout humanism". François de Sales, for example, argues for a far-reaching accommodation of Christian humility to elite sociability; Strier sees this kind of thinking in some of Herbert's prudential writing (Strier 2011: 187–203).

6 See OED: "disparage", v. 2, 4.

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7 On the relation of demand and approval as basic to moral grammar, see Bernstein 2001: 23ff., developing the work of Dieter Henrich.

8 All references to the verse are to Wilcox 2007. Titles and line numbers are given in the text.

9 A stipulation in A Priest to the Temple (first published 1652) clarifies the idea of vocation: "every gift or ability is a talent to be accounted for, and to be improved to our Master's advantage" (Herbert 2004: 248). The "talents" seem not primarily monetary for Herbert, so the thought is worth bearing in mind when Herbert considers his particular poetic fruits; but as the context is a discussion of the "necessity of a vocation" it seems that monetizing these talents is under discussion. Compare, of course, the parable of the talents (Matt. 25.14–30, Luke 19.12–28), which commends investment.

10 On early modern treatments of self-interest, and specifically the manner in which communal and individual interests reinforce each other in terms of credit and trust, see Ingram 2006. Similarly, Herbert does not wish to separate ethical and commercial domains, despite his theological interests. But he pushes ideas of commercial sociability into paradox in order to express how the domains tend to incompatibility, or are becoming dead to each other.

11 Strier stresses the passionate basis of other lyrics of Herbert's, and inducts him as a surprising member in his gallery of life- and body-affirming Renaissance individualists (Strier 2011: 53–8).

12 Compare one Biblical source, Proverbs 19.17. And this proverb: "To a good Spender God is the Treasurer" (Herbert 1640: no. 530). For the idea that God is a creditor who thinks he is owed nothing when the believer has that same faith in the payment made for him, see the poem "Faith", 13–16.

13 Compare the parson's "double aim" in charitable giving in Herbert 2004: 220.

14 Compare the emblematic use of Tantalus to make the point about Avaritia by Geffrey Whitney: "Hee dothe abounde, yet sterues [starves] and nothing spendes, / But keepes his goulde, as if it weare not his" (Whitney 1586: 74). This studied eschewal of indulgence becomes, from the seventeenth century, a central recommendation of the 'rational' passion for acquisition (as shown by Hirschman 1977). For Herbert's detailed attention to practical manifestations of covetousness, see Herbert 2004: 239–40.

15 Compare: "He that preacheth giveth almes" (Herbert 1640: no. 788). On the symmetrical case of how charity can be a sermon, see Herbert 2004: 220.

16 I am borrowing one of the guiding insights of Simon Jarvis's study of Wordsworth's relation to economism: that the division of interested exchange and disinterested giving is a historically specific formation, albeit a fateful and pervasive one (Jarvis 2006). This is not the division attempted, let alone perfected, by Herbert's verse.

17 The classic analysis of how the gift is tied into exchanges is Mauss 1990. Derrida 1992 offers an influential "quasi-transcendental" account of the strict impossibility both of the gift – it is annulled even in its identification – and of remainderless exchanges.

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18 Weber knows that the initial "spirit" [Geist] of (especially Calvinistic) reformed religion had its overriding motivation [Antriebe] of testing faith (Weber 2002: 83) – not of achieving salvation but creating "the certainty [Gewiβheit] of salvation" (79: emphasis Weber's; for the German, see Lichtblau and Weiss 1993). But that this motivation tends to disappear into the intra-worldly justification, and has now been largely lost while the rationalizing processes and imperatives survive, is central to his argument. On the historians' challenge to the idea of Protestantism, in particular, as disenchanter of nature, see Scribner 1993 and Walsham 2008.

19 The demands and dangers of vocation are thoroughly examined in religious polemics of the early seventeenth century. For a detailed account in relation to Herbert's milieu, see Malcolmson 1999.

20 Hirschman 1977 is the classic account of how the interest for gain, passionate cupidity itself, is slowly autonomized and reworked as a virtue, taking the place of religious command as the tamer of baser passions.

21 In recent, and not so recent, apologetics for the benefits of free markets, ethical goals are to be realized through – adapted to – social relations conceived in terms of a maximally free circulation of goods and services. In those accounts, the optimally efficient production and distribution of all human values, freedom and justice included, means putting them in the hands of those who need them most – that is, of those who will pay (most) for them. For a vigorous critique of the social destructiveness of such 'rationality' today, see Sandel 2012.

22 Nor is the compromise, the ideal of temperance, insofar as such an ideal aims at minimizing the claims of all embodied living. An influential reading of Herbert's poetry in terms of theories and figurations of digestive processes – and of the poet's insistence on the meticulous regulation of these processes – is Schoenfeldt 1999: 96–130. Schoenfeldt lays out a compelling anti-dualist reading, while emphasizing the disciplinary and constructivist interests of the verse, Herbert's "cultivation of inhibition" (Schoenfeldt 1999: 109). My reading locates a criticism of any understanding of a self as having freely manipulable, or, conversely, merely given, ingredients, in an effort to elucidate the tension, reported by Schoenfeldt (111ff.), between Stoic constancy and anti-Stoic passion in Herbert.

23 Wilcox (2003–2004) has offered an effective account both of Herbert's suspicion of rhetoric and his sanctification of oratory in the service of holiness and sincerity. That account, which complicates the relationship between virtue and pleasure in useful manner, turns on lines from Herbert's "The Church-porch": "A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies, / And turn delight into a sacrifice" (lines 5–6; quoted by Wilcox [2003–2004]: 60). Verse is an instrument for a higher purpose, but a uniquely valuable one: it can set up an interested connection that would not otherwise exist. But does it do that by making "delight" a mere sweetener? Or is "delight" now a vital part of verse and of the joyful circuit of heavenly benefits? To sacrifice is not to erase but to offer something of value in order to achieve some effect or return.

24 The masque was performed in 1634.

25 Hammons 2005 offers a reading of Robert Herrick's poetic treatments of the gift in terms of the anxieties (and fantasies) of reification that gift-giving brings on in the male donor, who becomes identified with his fetish-offerings.

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26 Compare Matt. 7.16–20.

27 This is one reason for love's privileged role in some contemporary political-philosophical corpora. For critical remarks on the sceptical traditions that seek to "demystify" love as mere desire. See Badiou (with Truong) 2012: 34ff. Badiou of course rejects the way religion "re-focuses" the universal claims of love in a "transcendent power" (65).

28 See, for example, Jarvis 2002. The moral is not quite that we should find reasons for indulging a given passion ("one of the rootes of all mischiefes", as Thomas Wright underlined in The Passions of the Minde [Wright 1601: 96–7]), but to work with the idea of its potential truth or falsity; to identify the contradictions and passions speaking through the effort to deny that potential. The normative concept of sentimentality is a widespread, indicative case in point: its accusatory force is ambivalently ascetic, hovering between a criticism of emotion as simulated (not felt at all) and as false (an emotion that wrongly identifies a state of affairs – an inappropriate evaluative reaction). It thus preserves, negatively, a sense of emotion's cognitive saliency.

29 There is a familiar culturalist line that all feelings, emotions, moods, wishes, hopes, ideas (etc.) are 'constructed'. Although we are reassured that this situation does not mean that we do not 'have' all these somatic and cognitive phenomena, somatic life as thus handed back is deactivated, stripped of authority; and therefore fixed. More recently, there is also wide interest in the notion of 'affect' as 'intensity', one which re-asserts the claims of the material body but which again tends to characterize them as non-cognitive data given to a purely discursive cognitive or meaning-making agency. A counter-argument to these developments is outlined effectively in Leys 2011. This disenchanted set-up continues as a symptom of, not a solution to, the impoverishment of experience in modernity. It is this rationalized agent of knowing and valuing that is examined in "The Holdfast". Indeed, to profile the poem's allegory of the modern subject, it might usefully be likened even to Samuel Beckett's Endgame, in which repeated examples of immediate adaptation to and endorsement of obstructive circumstance figure a dreadful alienation and servility rather than, say, cheery resourcefulness or flexibility. For instance: "CLOV: Then I'll leave you. HAMM: You can't leave us. CLOV: Then I shan't leave you" (Beckett 1986: 110).

30 There is perhaps also the implication: "However hard I try, my husbandry is no better." The sense that there is increase, but it does not improve the condition of the speaker's soul (by adding morally to his "dull husbandrie", for example) is not primary.

31 Phil. 3.8–9: "I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ. And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith[.]"

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32 Lapidus 1976: 168 also reads the poem as a correction of the persona's presuppositions of separateness, as evidenced in the contrast between the grammar of his assertions – performative acts of confessing and trusting and threatening – and the "amazed" silence of the close. Like Stanley Fish, Lapidus sees a "drama of relinquishment" in Herbert (169), one in which language adverts to itself as obstacle. The verse has to "lift us out of itself" (178) by a determined unpicking of its necessary, divisive, determinations. I resist the apophatic emphasis, seeing Herbert's sense in terms of a positive construction, out of criticism and correction of false constructions, rather than as a painstaking disengagement from any or all language. I am nevertheless indebted to this article, and the editor's note in Wilcox 2007: 498 that led me to it. Compare also Cummings 2002: 319–27, who attends to Herbert's experimental syntax as a means of addressing the paradoxes of grace.

33 Compare "An Offering": "Seek out this All-heal, and seek no repose, / Untill thou finde and use it to thy good: / Then bring thy gift;" (22–4). When we have learned how to receive, we can offer something healthy; something genuinely ours and valuable.

34 The classic treatment of charity in Herbert is Tuve 1959.

35 For another version of the substitutive idea as participation, see "Artillerie", 29–30: "Yet if thou shunnest, I am thine: / I must be so, if I am mine."

36 These are not all specifically early modern emphases, evidently. But the anatomizing of economistic thinking, for example, is pervasive, which indicates the crisis it wishes to meet: quantity becomes quality, as Hegel might say.

37 See Bernstein 2001: chapter 1. Bernstein develops Weber's analysis, which itself takes up Nietzsche's critique of ascetic values.

38 Seeing the broad contemporary problem of disenchantment (Weber's "Entzauberung") does not rely on accepting the Weber hypothesis about the Protestant ethic. Many prominent contemporary thinkers, despite the strong differences in the inferences being drawn, see the modern predicament in cognate terms. For example, Simon Critchley's The Faith of the Faithless (Critchley 2012) attempts to think a non-religious, poetic faith-commitment as the basis of a politics that can meet a contemporary crisis in which what we authorize for ourselves seems, for that reason, to have no authority (4, 46ff.). John Gray criticizes modernizing and Enlightenment processes and discourse for enlisting, then eroding and replacing, higher concepts of human progress: for him, "faith in political action is practically dead" and has been replaced by a faith that "technical fixes" will deliver all the world requires in terms of food and freedoms (Gray 2004: 50–1). Despite the diagnoses, Critchley's concessions to theology, rather than its critical accounting, and Gray's anti-rational pessimism are versions of the problem, not a solution. Defenders of religion in recent debates perceive, similarly and correctly, a nineteenth-century "parascientific" faith in rational progress speaking through the celebrity atheists they seek to challenge (and equally rightly condemn it: see Robinson 2010).

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39 Specifically, for figures in which the penalty or reward for knowing the lifeless, abstract truth of 'objects' is the deathliness or de-animation of the knower into a 'subject', see Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, in which the living mimetic affinity of and porousness between subject and object becomes mutual deathliness when that affinity is disavowed (44–5). Peter Sloterdijk – to instance an eminent contemporary Nietzschean – offers an arresting emblem for intellectual ascesis: Giordano Bruno's neo-Platonic reading of the Actaeon myth (in which the hunter spying on the goddess Diana is torn apart by his own hounds) as representing an enthusiast's ascent from worldly into intellectual life: see Sloterdijk 2012: 69–70.

40 A rich and revealing account of this ruse of disenchanting reason is Gregory 2012.

41 On the connection of reductive rationality to a weakened sphere of political argumentation and the consequent flourishing of self-sacralizing irrationalities, see Eagleton 2009: chapter 4.

42 OED, "so", 26.

43 Herbert, "Sion", 18. Strier, who discusses this example, has a splendid analysis of the privileged status of passionate, religious need in Herbert (Strier 2011: 53–8).

44 Of course, I have in mind Giorgio Agamben's reflections on bare life and its inclusion in any political structure that acts to exclude it (Agamben 1998). It is this fixing and administering of what constitutes the minimum for life as a de-authorized biological remnant, and the a priori determination of what death can take away, that I wish to question.