With this post, we are happy to welcome Professor JM Smith, Geographer of the Human Spectacle, as a regular contributor to the Orthosphere. Dr. Smith has contributed a few guest posts, and has often commented here perspicuously. Regular visitors will be familiar with his wry, rapier wit. His interest in and knowledge of the intellectual history of the West since the late Middle Ages will, we trust, add a new and rarefied note to our construction of a traditionalist diapason. KL
Nowadays, a rant is a tirade. It is an unchecked outburst of anger, umbrage and bile. Sour old men rant in broken-down armchairs. Delirious vagrants rant on dirty sidewalks. Defeated professors rant in somnolent lecture halls. To us, today, a rant is a squall of impotent rage. It is a loud, bitter, and pathetic gripe.
This was not always so. When the word first appeared around 1600, to rant was to talk wildly, but one could rant out of happiness or grief as well as anger. The grieving Hamlet is said to have ranted beside Ophelia’s grave; in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the ranting character is a jovial and bombastic innkeeper. At that time, to rant was to speak without meaning—to vapor, to burble, to boast. But it was not, or was only incidentally, to complain. Ranting was empty talk. It was not, as now, empty threats. It took in more than the sputtering that accompanies the shaken fists of sour old men, delirious vagrants, and defeated professors.
We must bear this semantic slippage in mind when we read about the seventeenth-century religious enthusiasts who were called Ranters. These Ranters were not angry. They did not commandeer street corners to castigate passers by. They most often capered in the streets, burbling about “joy” and “love” and “bliss.” Ranters were the mooncalves of early-modern England. If you met one today, you would call him a hippy, and a dippy hippy at that.
Ranter is but one of the names applied to the seventeenth-century enthusiasts. They were also called Familists, Seekers, Quakers, or followers of the New Light. Their common doctrines were that Christ had returned, albeit in a mystical sense; that the New Testament promise had therefore been fulfilled, and the New Testament covenant thereby ended; that religious instruction would henceforth be by direct inspiration; and that they themselves, being already under this tutelage, were the first fruits of this new creation. This is why they burbled and capered. They ranted because they were overjoyed, and they were overjoyed because their millennium had begun.
Rants were salted with Christian symbols. A critic complained that their tongues were “tipped with the language of Canaan” (1). But in their mouths these symbols were strangely changed. They conveyed “mystical” or “spiritual” truths, not reports of things past, not promises of things to come. The Cambridge philosopher Henry More said that they “allegorize away all that solid and useful truth of the history of Christ, into a mere moral or mystical sense, as if the letter were but a parable or fable.” Their aim, he said, was to “superannuate Christianity” and “introduce another evangel,” and in 1660 their revolution was going like a house on fire. “If ever Christianity be exterminated,” he opined, “it will be by Enthusiasm” (2).
More was a perspicacious fellow, wasn’t he?
But here’s what I find interesting. Once the burbling mooncalves had stampeded the corridors of power and become mandarins of modernity, their rants became ideals, and the caviling complaints of their victims became the new ranting.
If you are tempted to rant, it’s probably because you are ruled by Ranters! This is a temptation we should resist. Impotent rage is ridiculous, mooncalves were made to be mocked, and, to a man armed with Christian fortitude, their counterfeit millennium is the greatest show on earth.
(1) Claudius Gilbert, A Sovereign Antidote Against Sinful Errors (London: Francis Titon, 1658), p. 53.
(2) Henry More, An Explanation of the Grand Mysteries of Godliness, (London: W. Morden, 1660), pp. 276, x, vi.