Joseph Addison as a Social Critic with Special References to Mischiefs of Party Spirit


Mischiefs of Party Spirit by Joseph Addison , The Spectator No 125

As an essayist Addison’s professed doctrine was to improve the morals and mores of his contemporary society. Social criticism is by and large the core of his essay. In his Spectator essays, as also in some of his Tatler publications, Addison wrote to focus on the flames and depravities of his fellowmen and pointed out how these lacunae could be overcome. This is not to suggest that he had any professed political or ideological standpoint; nor was he motivated by any terrible reformistic zeal. He was a benign essayist at bottom and, accordingly satire or bitter criticism of human frailties was not his domain. He, with a Chaucerian view, laughed good humorously at the foibles, specifically related to social manners and social health, with the purpose of killing as well as laughing with those faults of those persons he laughed at. In his essay entitled Mischiefs of Party Spirit, Addison focuses on the evils that are escalated in society through a zealous adherence to narrow and parochial party interest, as practiced by political personages. 

Politics, Addison sees around him, is not guided by purely ideological motivations but by a violent intolerance of contrary opinion and a disrespect for anything and everything out of the straitened spheres of partisan political activity. Addison is of opinion that it is owing to the mischief’s the parties do in the country that good neighborhood is spoiled and basically honest gentlemen are led to hate one another. Moreover the major governmental policies which are supposed to work for the prosperity for the nation we also dictated by such narrow concerns of party interest, as a result of which the basic purpose of such politic are betrayed. For him, it is a great plight of a nation when a country, a government or the most major institutions are sharply divided into polar opposites as a result of the workings of this party spirit. Addison says that such a division, since it rends a country into two virtually makes a common enemy stronger, but he is not particularly interested in the international aspect of the mischief’s of the party spirit, rather he is concerned with the ‘private evil which the spirit  private evil of partisanship breeds in the heart of every particular person. The influence of narrow partyism, for Addison, is ruinous “both to means morals and their understanding, it sinks the virtue of a nation”.

It is a religious as well as a philosophical percept that once hate is given an entry into the human mind, it would naturally multiply itself, ultimately roving harbourer of hate its victim. The party spirit engenders the passion of hate in man. Addison is less concerned with the philosophical aspect of this insalubrious passion, he concentrates on the evils it thrust upon social life. He laments that the mind of many good men among us appear soured with party principals which defy both reason and religion.

The party spirit does not only confound and improve men’s morals, it injures and dangers one’s faculty of judgment. One who is guided by this spirit becomes one-eyed, incapable of discerning real truth and appreciating real beauty. As a result, a man of merit and honour may appear to one as a dishonorable and vile person if he belongs to different camp; a bad book may appear illuminating or an indecently opprobrious style of writing may be regarded as satire. Partisan attitude to life by its prejudiced nature distorts knowledge and learning in man.

Addison says that such a shameless practice will ultimately destroy virtue in good man it is the restless ambition of artful politician which thus splinters the integrity of nations and infects the innate virtue man. Addison’s answer to this problem is that all honest men should unify into an association irrespective of political learning’s and should stand against the common enemies of virtue, humanity and good sense. Addison’s final solution to the partisanship does not appear to be convincing. He unwillingly falls into a fallacious argument because he himself is advocating a clear breach of social though on moral grounds. There shall remain every possibility that in such cases of cleavage between virtuous and villainous, two parties will ultimately be formed which will, once again, stand the danger of engendering the party spirit. 

  Ardhendu De




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