“That vain Animal”: Rochester’s Satyr and the Theriophilic Paradox
Early Modern Literary Studies 9.2 (September 2003)
The Satyr against Reason and Mankind by John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), is a development of the theriophilic paradox, the idea that the human being occupies a lower rung than the beast in the moral-cosmic hierarchy. Reports of voyages to so-called “newly-discovered” parts of Asia, Africa and the New World led a number of seventeenth-century writers to rethink the centrality of the human within the known universe. Liminal figures such as Rochester, whose short life spanned the English Civil War and the Restoration, were conscious of living in a period characterized by the questioning of accepted axioms vis-a-vis the place of the human animal. John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Lycidas may have encouraged Rochester in his questioning of familiar views of hierarchy. An examination of theriophilic threads in Rochester’s Satyr and his Upon Nothing, including a look at possible Miltonic influences, can contribute to twenty-first century examinations of the way “the human” is defined in relation to other animals.