In early eighteenth-century English coffeehouse culture, no patron was as distinguished a conversationalist or as delightful an essayist as the Oxford-educated Joseph Addison. Born on May 1, 1672, in Milston, Wiltshire, where his father was rector, Addison had a long career in English politics as a committed Whig and in which he held many offices, including Secretary of Ireland and Secretary of State. He died in London at the age of forty-seven.
The aim of Addison’s political thought, which was based on a natural law radiating from the divine will and the political equality of man, was the preservation of limited, consensual, and constitutional government and a free, commercial society. Addison’s religion was high-church Anglican, which gives his theological language a formality and orthodoxy many modern readers have found alien.
But Addison is remembered chiefly for his prose mastery. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the study of Addison.” Most of Addison’s essays were published in The Spectator, a popular periodical he founded with his friend Richard Steele. Addison used these light and often gently satirical essays to educate the merchants and tradesmen of the emerging English middle class–what he termed the “middle condition”–in the manners and morals needful for their stability and legitimacy in English social structure. In C. S. Lewis’s words, Addison’s essays stand firmly “on the common ground of life“ and deal ”with middle things.”
In doing so, he described the virtues required of people in a commercial society. As Addison counseled, such people must possess courage to take the economic risks required for a prosperous business economy. Further, they must be diligent in the practice of their vocations, frugal in the conduct of their lives, and philanthropic in the management of their estates, and in these ways be good stewards of God’s blessings to them. And such people must be absolutely honest; in Addison’s words, “There is no man so improper to be employed in business as he who is in any degree capable of corruption.”
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Godfrey Kneller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-1923