*Temple, Sir William

Sir William Temple

Sir William Temple



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Temple, Sir William

English, 1628–1699
Sir William Temple’s career as an essayist began in his early twenties while he was on the continent after leaving Cambridge without completing his degree. During his years as a political figure and as a retired diplomat at his magnificent estates at Sheen and Moor Park, Temple continued to work in the essay form, producing works on a wide variety of topics.
The early essays, written and left untitled before 1652, were printed for the first time in 1930 by G.C.Moore Smith (The Early Essays and Romances) and were given titles in 1940 by Homer Woodbridge (Sir William Temple: The Man and His Work). Their titles are indicative of their content: “Of the Inconstancy and Variety of Our Judgements,” “Of Reverie and Idle Fancy,” “Of Fortune and Content,” “Of Envy and Jealousy,” “Of Stained Honor,” and “That Virtue Is Not the Mean of Vices.”
For the next 20 years or so, while he was occupied with political affairs such as the negotiation of the Triple Alliance and the marriage of William of Orange to Mary Stuart, he seems to have neglected the essay. But in 1673 he began publishing essays, some of which ran to book length, starting with Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands. In 1680 appeared the first part of his Miscellanea, which contained “A Survey of the Constitutions and Interests of the Empire, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Holland, France, and Flanders,” “Upon the Original and Nature of Government,” “Upon the Advancement of Trade in Ireland,” “Upon the Conjuncture of Affairs in October 1673,” “Upon the Excesses of Grief,” and “Upon the Cure of the Gout by Moxa.” The second part of the Miscellanea (published in 1690 and augmented in 1692) contained “Upon the Gardens of Epicurus,” “Of Poetry,” “Of Heroic Virtue,” and “An Essay upon the Ancient and Modern Learning.” The remainder of his essays appeared in Miscellanea, The Third Part, edited by Jonathan Swift (who served as Temple’s secretary for the last ten years of his life) and published in 1701 after Temple’s death in 1699; it included “Of Popular Discontents,” “Of Health and Long Life,” and “Some Thoughts upon Reviewing the Essay of Ancient and Modern Learning.”
Several scholars have noted the influence of Montaigne on both the style and content of the early essays in their openness, ardor, and personal tone. The essays also anticipate political, literary, and philosophical ideas found in his more mature works, as well as his distrust of modern learning, later manifested in the famous essay on ancient and modern learning. The ideas found in the early essays were to be refined and polished by Temple’s travel, reading, and experience over the next several decades.
In his essays on politics Temple demonstrates his belief that people are more or less the same in all times and places except for those differences brought about by climate. In the major essay “Upon the Original and Nature of Government,” he holds to the idea that the origin of government is to be found in the family; thus he subscribes to the patriarchal theory of government’s beginnings as it emerged in the Old Testament, Plato, Aristotle, Jean Bodin, and Sir Robert Filmer. In the essay on the Netherlands Temple reveals his deep respect for the Dutch and their civilization. The “Survey” reflects his interest in diverse European cultures and his analysis of the dangers posed to peace by Louis XVI.
In essays on Ireland Temple discusses the difficult relationship between England and Ireland and proposes remedies that might ease the deplorable conditions in the latter nation. In “Of Popular Discontents” Temple identifies and analyzes the causes of political unrest, believing that these will never disappear until “all Men are wise, good, and easily contented.”
His essays on culture are better known. “Upon the Gardens of Epicurus” discusses Epicureanism and its appeal to the philosophical mind, traces the history of gardens from Eden to Rome and northern Europe, and shows how they enable people to “enjoy the Ease and Freedom of a private Scene, where a Man may go his own Way and his own Pace, in the common Paths or Circles of Life.” The essays “Of Health and Long Life” and “Upon the Cure of the Gout by Moxa” illustrate Temple’s distrust of science and his belief that good health is essential to “Tranquility of Mind, and Indolence of Body.” “Of Poetry” deals with the origin and history of poetry, the nature of poetic inspiration, style, versification, folklore, and the relationship of poetry to prose, romance, and satire. It is one of the more important critical documents of 17th-century England.
Temple’s most famous essay is “An Essay upon the Ancient and Modern Learning,” which embroiled him in the AncientsModerns controversy that had originated on the continent. Basically Temple took the side of the Ancients, dismissing the accomplishments of the Moderns in almost all areas. “Some Thoughts upon Reviewing the Essay of Ancient and Modern Learning” amplifies some of the points made in the earlier essay.
Temple’s overriding philosophy in the essays seems to be embodied in two famous quotations: “When all is done, Human Life is, at the greatest, and the best but like a froward Child, that must be play’d with and humour’d a little to keep it quiet till it falls asleep, and then the Care is over” (“Of Poetry”); and that everything that people pursue for happiness “are baubles, besides old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to converse with, and old books to read” (“An Essay upon the Ancient and Modern Learning”).
Temple’s influence and reputation as a stylist emerged in the early 18th century when Swift, Pope, John Hughes, and Leonard Welsted held him in high esteem. Swift, for example, said that Temple “has advanced our English Tongue, to as great a perfection as it can well bear.” Later, Samuel Johnson was to praise Temple as “the first writer who gave cadence to English prose.”


Born 25 April 1628 in Blackfriars, London. Studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, left 1648. Traveled on the continent for four years. Married Dorothy Osborne 1654 (died, 1695): nine children (only two survived childhood, and they died before their father).
Member of the Irish Parliament for Carlow, 1661; moved to England, 1663; served the Crown on various diplomatic missions in Europe, including effecting the Triple Alliance between England, Holland, and Sweden, 1668; awarded a baronetcy, 1666. Retired to his estate at Sheen, 1668–74. Visited The Hague: formalized peace between England and the Netherlands, 1674, and arranged the marriage between William of Orange and Mary Stuart, 1677. Retired again to his estate at Moor Park, near Farnham, Surrey, 1680. Died at Moor Park, 27 January 1699.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands, 1673; edited by George N.Clark, 1932, reprinted 1972
Miscellanea, 2 vols., 1680–90; vol. 3 edited by Jonathan Swift, 1701
Essays, edited by J.A.Nicklin, 1903
Upon the Garden of Epicurus, with Other 17th-century Garden Essays, edited by A.F.Sieveking, 1908
Essays on Ancient and Modern Learning and on Poetry, edited by J.E.Spingarn, 1909, and Martin Kämper (in English and German), 1995
The Early Essays and Romances, edited by G.C.Moore Smith, 1930
Three Essays, edited by F.J.Fielden, 1939
Five Miscellaneous Essays, edited by Samuel Holt Monk, 1963

Other writings: poetry, romances, An Introduction to the History of England (1695), and correspondence.
Collected works edition: The Works, 2 vols., 1720.

Further Reading
Allen, R.J., “Swift’s Earliest Political Tract and Temple’s Essays,” Harvard Studies 19 (1937)
Kirk, Clara Marburg, Sir William Tetnple: A Seventeenth-century “Libertin”, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, and London: Oxford University Press, 1932
Steensma, Robert C., Sir William Temple, New York: Twayne, 1970
Woodbridge, Homer E., Sir William Temple: The Man and His Work, New York: Modern Language Association, and London: Oxford University Press, 1940

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