The 'All-Attoning Name': The Word Patriot in Seventeenth-Century England

By Knowles, Ronald | The Modern Language Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

The 'All-Attoning Name': The Word Patriot in Seventeenth-Century England


Knowles, Ronald, The Modern Language Review


Reigning words are many times of such force as to influence us considerably in our apprehension of things.

(Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury)

John Dryden's 'All-attoning Name' is the word patriot, which he accorded to the first Earl of Shaftesbury in 'Absolom and Achitophel' (1681), a satire on the political turmoil of the Exclusion Crisis. (1) In the above epigraph, Shaftesbury's grandson is lamenting the absence in English of an adequate equivalent to the Latin patria which would give expression to 'love to one's country', 'something moral and social [...] a naturally civil and political state', 'a civil state or nation', rather than just the earth of England celebrated by contemporary 'patriots of the soil'. (2) Patriot had indeed become a 'reigning word' by the end of the seventeenth century, and remained so right up to the modern world, as memorials in every village, town, and city in the United Kingdom remind us today. Yet patriotism has received relatively little study as a literary, social, or political concept and the significance of the patriot in the seventeenth century has been only rarely touched on, (3) even though leading scholars have drawn attention to the importance of responding to nuances of political vocabulary in such words as, for example, 'ancient constitution', 'interest', and 'commonwealthman'. (4) J. G. A. Pocock has been a key figure over four decades and his explorations of the historicized contexts of language have influenced scholars of the history of political thought and specialists in the history and literature of seventeenth-century England such as Quentin Skinner, Kevin Sharpe, and Steven Zwicker. (5) Two quotations from Pocock are pertinent:

The historian's first problem, then, is to identify the 'language' or 'vocabulary' with and within which the author operated, and to show how it functioned paradigmatically to prescribe what he might say and how he might say it. (Politics, Language and Time, p. 25)

Such words as 'commonwealthman' and 'patriot' were indeed used now and again to denote those who could think of king, parliament, and people as forming a polity in which any part might be resisted and restrained in the name of the whole. But such language, though observably classical in its connotations, was hindered in its development by those other styles of thought we have been studying. (6)

In this article, I re-examine the latter in terms of the former and thereby aim to restore the patriot's 'All-attoning Name' to discussion of the political and literary discourses of seventeenth-century England.

The English word patriot appears in the 1590s, possibly as a loan word from sixteenth-century French. (7) (The significance of the French political contexts will be touched on in relation to later seventeenth-century translations into English.) Both derive from the post-classical Latin patriota which, in turn, with all cognates such as pater and patria, comes from the Greek, patrios, 'of one's fathers', and patris, 'fatherland'. (8) Patriota, which first appeared in the sixth century, is from the Greek patriotes. (9) Here it meant 'fellow-countrymen' or 'compatriot'. The evidence of such documentary sources as chronicles, saints' lives, and plea rolls of the Middle Ages, shows the use of patria to indicate a particular area of country or land such as a province, county, diocese, or principality. (10) In addition, commentators have pointed out the legal and juristic significance of the word patria. It denoted a district of court jurisdiction. (11) Then, 'from describing the unit whence the jury were chosen the word, by a transference of meaning, came to denote the jury itself'. (12) Classical Latin does not have a noun for patriot, but uses phrases to express the equivalent, such as Ovid's 'amor patriae ratione valentior omni' ('love of country stronger than any reasoning'), the lament of the exile (Ex Ponto, I. 3. 27). (13) In Virgil's Aeneid, the patria is always closely linked with the paternal (household gods, dead progenitors, or a visionary patrimony) in the story of the lost patria, Troy, and the founding of a new, Latium, so fitting for a poem in celebration of the new bearer of Rome's destiny, the 'sancte pater patriae', Augustus. …

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