January 2013


The practice of publishing solicited advice aimed at the general (Anglophonic) public is usually held to have had its genesis in London in March of 1691 in the form of a double-sided broadsheet entitled The Athenian Gazette or Casuistical Mercury resolving all the most Nice and Curious Questions. Proposed by the Ingenious (Gazette being changed to Mercury after a competing newspaper—The London Gazette—complained about the similarity of their names). Published twice weekly and sold for a penny to London coffee houses to be shared by their (male) patrons and to chocolate houses where both women and men were welcome, peddled by (female) hawkers on the street, and sold directly from the shop of its enterprising publisher, the London bookseller, John Dunton, issues of The Athenian Mercury were periodically collected into leather-bound volumes and sold (for two shillings sixpence) as reference books under the paper’s original title (the title conflict with The London Gazette apparently not being raised with the books). The masthead of the first issue gives the date of publication as March 17, 1690 though the year should actually have been given as 1691, as it was in the subsequent issues of The Athenian Mercury that year. (The fact that England at the time had yet to replace the Julian with the Gregorian calendar, “losing” eleven days in the process, is neither here nor there as far as the year is concerned.)

In any event, the first issue lead off with a statement of purpose, the nub of which was this: “…The Design is briefly, to satisfy all ingenious and curious Enquirers into Speculations, Divine, Moral and Natural, &c. and to remove those Difficulties and Dissatisfactions, that shame or fear of appearing ridiculous by asking Questions, may cause several Persons to labor under, who now have opportunities of being resolv’d in any Question without knowing their Informer…”

Accordingly, the paper’s anonymous panel of experts then gamely proceeded to address the following questions drawn from “those already proposed” by their equally anonymous prospective readers:

  1. Whether the Torments of the damn’d are visible to the Saints in Heaven? & vice versa?
  2. Whether the Soul is Eternal, or pre-existent from the Creation, or contemporary with its Embrio?
  3. Whether every Man has a good and bad Angel attending him?
  4. Where was the Soul of Lazarus for the four days he lay in the Grave?
  5. Whether all Souls are alike?
  6. Whether ‘tis lawful for a Man to beat his Wife?
  7. How came the Spots in the Moon?

Actually, “panel of experts” is not quite right: In fact, “panel of casuists,” as the paper’s subtitle suggests, would be more like it. According to the OED, the term casuist first appears in English in 1616 designating “a theologian (or other person) who studies and resolves cases of conscience or doubtful questions regarding duty and conduct. (Often with a sinister application: see casuistry n.),” casuistry (first attested in 1712, after casuistical in 1649) being “The science, art, or reasoning of the casuist; that part of Ethics which resolves cases of conscience, applying the general rules of religion and morality to particular instances in which ‘circumstances alter cases’, or in which there appears to be a conflict of duties. Often (and perhaps originally) applied to a quibbling or evasive way of dealing with difficult cases of duty; sophistry.” Casuist is a borrowing of French casuiste, which Le Petit Robert derives “from Ecclesiastical Latin casus ‘matter of conscience’ [cas de conscience]” and goes on to define as “1. A theologian who sets himself the task of resolving matters of conscience by the rules of reason and Christianity. 2. A person who likes to [se plaît à] compromise with his conscience.”

While we may assume that Mr. Dunton and his team had only the positive sense of casuist in mind, if there lingered a whiff of ecclesiastical authority about their work, they did nothing to dispel it. Indeed, a number of cultural historians have remarked on the similarities between the dynamics of the advice column and those involved in the Sacrament of Penance: The process by which an anonymous penitent makes his (or her) confession to an anonymous priest, who offers a recipe for absolution is echoed by the anonymous seeker of advice to whom the anonymous casuist offers an answer, which may contain a recipe for resolving a particular problem. (A further similarity: The priest and penitent may in fact be known to each other; the advice-column petitioner may have to enclose his or her name—typically reduced to initials on publication—and address, and it is no secret that Ann Landers was really Eppie Lederer. Indeed, the Boston Globe’s “Miss Conduct” column states explicitly that “Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.”) Question 6 and its response are an interesting case in point.

The questioner asks if it is lawful to beat one’s wife. It is hard to read this question as a matter of idle curiosity, and the response suggests that it has not been taken as such:

Answ. The affirmative would be very disobliging to that Sex, without adding any more to it, therefore we ought to be as cautious and tender as may be in asserting such an ill tatur’d Position.—We allow a Wife to be naturaliz’d into, and part of her Husband, and yet nature sometimes wars against part of itself, in ejecting by Sweat, Urine, &c. what otherwise would be destructive to its very Frame; nay, sometimes there is occasion of greater violence, as lancing, burning, dismembering, &c. which the Patient submits to as his Interest: Now if a Man may thus cruelly treat himself, and be an Ancillary to his own Torture, he may legally chastise his Wife, who is no nearer to him than he is to himself, but yet (for I am not covetous of the Fate of Orpheus) as none but Doctors are proper Judges of reasonable Violences to nature; so there are but few Husbands that know how to correct a Wife. To do it in a passion, and pretend Justice, is ridiculous; because that passion incapacitates the Judgment from its Office; and to do it when one is pleas’d, is a harder Task; so that we conclude, as the legality is unquestionable, so the time and measure are generally too critical for a Calculation; when a Wife goes astray, ‘tis safe to use a Sympathetick Remedy, as the rebuke of a Kiss: the Antipathetick may prove worse than the Disease.” In other words, while strictly speaking it’s not against the law, you really shouldn’t beat your wife. (So don’t.)

As for the other questions, the answers (which I will shamelessly reduce to their essence in the interests of space):

  1. “…we assert that every Individual Person in Heaven and Hell, shall hear and see all that passes in either State…”
  2. “Souls are not Eternal, for then they would be Gods, and not Created Beings (Creation supposing a Commencement of time) and that they are Created Beings, we have the Testimony of Scripture.—Nor is the Creation of Souls contemporary with any of the six Days labours…[W]e conclude, that the Soul is only contemporary with its Embrio… ”
  3. Everybody has a Good Angel from birth, “But for the particular attendance of Bad Angels, we believe it not, and we must deny it till it finds better proof than Conjectures.”
  4. For various theological reasons, he couldn’t have been in either Heaven or Hell, “so we conclude, that those Angels which had Commission for the Reception of Souls…had also the extraordinary Order to retain them in their Custody, till the time limited for their re-entry into their respective bodies…” and Lazarus, extraordinarily, got a pass back to life.
  5. All Souls are of equal Excellency and Perfection…” They may differ, like the organs of the body, in “accidental perfection,” but basically all souls are of equal value. As with Question 6, the columnist addresses a possible subtext, this time having to do with the relative worth of different people.
  6. See above.
  7. Rejecting the notion that the Angel Gabriel created the spots by accidentally brushing his wing against the moon, “…we affirm, that in it’s [sic] Creation it was made an Opake and dark Body illuminable by the Sun, as more proper for the Regiment of the Night, a time of Repose and Cessation from Labor.”

Connsider the following words of advice addressed to the urban pedestrian:

  1. Look both ways when you cross the street.
  2. Cross at the green, not in between.
  3. descanso

    Good Advice

Like most advice, these variations on a theme have both an explicit and an implicit component. The explicit component advises you to do or to not do something (or in the case of variant #2, both to do something and to not do something else) while the implicit component predicts the consequences of not following the advice. Here, the explicit message is that you should be careful when you cross the street, and the implicit message is that if you aren’t, you may not make it to the other side safe and sound, a point underlined by the descanso bouquet in variant #3 and the elaboration by the F. B. Washburn Company of variant #2: “Look both ways when you cross the street / so you’ll be around to live and eat/ Waleeco, Waleeco / cocoanut bars are the best I know.” The implicit message rests upon the understanding that from the first decade of the 1900s when the terms were originally minted, jay drivers have always trumped jay walkers—jay in this context signifying a silly or stupid person, so called after the characteristic chattering of the bird of that name.

Sometimes the explicit and implicit are reversed, as in “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” the implicit advice being to eat an apple a day, the explicit consequence of doing so being good health as evidenced by the absence of house visits from the medical establishment; or “He who hesitates is lost,” loserhood being the spoken consequence of failing to heed the unspoken advice to seize the day. The boundary between advice and proverb is sometimes fuzzy (especially when the advice rhymes, as in variant #2). So are most of the boundaries between adjacent neighbors on the continuum of (expressed) opinion, advice, exhortation, admonition, warning, threat, and command(ment). Indeed, the word advice comes to us through French (cf. Modern French avis ‘opinion,’ Spanish aviso ‘warning’), ultimately from a reworking of the Latin expression vīsum est mihi ‘it looks/seems to me,’ vīsum being a nominal form of the past participle of the verb vidēre ‘to see.’ The differences are basically in the degree of firmness with which an opinion is articulated (and its following is urged), and these differences can be difficult for the recipient to decode, all the more so at second hand.

For example, imagining yourself in Adam’s place, what are you to make of the different renderings in Genesis 2:16-17 of the advice concerning the tree of knowledge? The King James Bible reads “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The New English Bible has “He told the man, ‘You may eat from every tree in the garden, but not from the tree of knowledge of good and evil; for on the day that you eat from it, you will certainly die.'” St. Jerome’s fourth-century Latin (Vulgate) version is not altogether illuminating: “praecepitque ei dicens: Ex omni ligno paradisi comede; de ligno autem scientiae boni et mali ne comedas; in quocumque enim die comederis ex eo, morte morieris.”  One standard dictionary glosses praecipere as ‘to give rules, advise, admonish, warn, inform, instruct, teach, enjoin, direct, bid, order,’ from which the following imperative comede (‘Eat!’) suggests we can rule out the warmer and fuzzier items here, though the injunction to not eat (ne comedas) is a form of the (hortatory) subjunctive and, as such, weaker than an out an out order.

The threat of fatal consequences is clear enough in all tellings, though the fact that Adam did not die immediately after eating the forbidden fruit (showing that the consequences of heeding or failing to heed advice don’t always turn out as predicted) could be taken as a sign of forgiveness for his confusion over whether he had been told rather than commanded (or advised, admonished, warned…) to restrict his diet. The fact that in the Hebrew version וַיְצַו [vayitsav] is unambiguously ‘commanded,’ and the injunction against eating from the tree of knowledge (ל תֹּאכֵל [lo tochal] ‘Do not eat!’) is definitely an imperative is not much help for Adam’s monolingual English-speaking (or even bilingual English- and Latin-speaking) avatar when all is said and done.

The advice offered to Adam was unsolicited, was delivered orally (as writing had not yet been invented), and Adam, being at that time the earth’s sole human inhabitant, was the only possible recipient and beneficiary of that advice. Variants #1 and #2 are typically unsolicited and delivered orally as well but are sometimes addressed to a group rather than to an individual. By contrast, the unsolicited advice of variant #3 is delivered in writing and intended for any and all literate street-crossers who find themselves at the intersection. So, what about solicited advice (in oral or written form to the one or the many)? As a form of social interaction, the active solicitation and subsequent delivery of advice can be fairly complex. In its simplest form, a human being A asks another human being B for advice, and B responds:

Bad Advice

Bad Advice

In our next viabrevis posting (“The Agony and the Exposition”), we’ll look at a familiar elaboration of this scenario in which advice is sought and dispensed quasianonymously through the medium of print. Our advice: Stay tuned.