Bentley was born at Oulton near Wakefield, Yorkshire. His grandfather had suffered for the Royalist cause following the English Civil War, leaving the family in reduced circumstances. Bentley's mother, the daughter of a stonemason, had some education, and was able to give her son his first lessons in Latin. From the grammar school of Wakefield Richard Bentley passed to St John's College, Cambridge in 1676. He afterwards obtained a scholarship and took the degree of B.A. in 1680 (M.A. 1683).
He never became a Fellow, but was appointed by his college, before he was twenty-one, headmaster of Spalding grammar school. In this post he did not remain long, being selected by Dr Edward Stillingfleet, dean of St Paul's, to be tutor to his son. This appointment brought Bentley into contact with the most eminent men of the day, gave him access to the best private library in England, and put him on familiar terms with Dean Stillingfleet. The six years Bentley passed in Stillingfleet's family were employed, with the restless energy characteristic of the man, in comprehensive study of Greek and Latin writers, storing up knowledge which would be of use to him later.
In 1689 Stillingfleet became bishop of Worcester, and Bentley's pupil went to Wadham College, Oxford, accompanied by his tutor. Bentley's was soon on a footing of intimacy with the most distinguished scholars in the university, including Dr John Mill, Humphrey Hody, and Edward Bernard. Here he revelled in the manuscript treasures of the Bodleian, Corpus Christi and other college libraries. He occupied himself with collecting material for vast literary schemes. Among these are specially mentioned a corpus of the fragments of the Greek poets and an edition of the Greek lexicographers. The Oxford (Sheldonian) press was about to bring out an edition (the editio princeps) from the unique manuscript in the Bodleian of the Greek Chronicle (a universal history down to AD 560) of John of Antioch (date uncertain, between 600 and 1000), called John Malalas or "John the Rhetor"; and the editor, Dr John Mill, principal of St Edmund Hall, had requested Bentley to look through the sheets and make any remarks on the text.
This inspired Bentley's Epistola ad Millium, which occupies less than one hundred pages at the end of the Oxford Malalas (1691). This short tractate placed Bentley ahead of all living English scholars. The ease with which he restored corrupted passages, the certainty of the emendation and the command over the relevant material, are in a style totally different from the careful and laborious learning of Hody, Mill or E Chilmead. To the small circle of classical students (lacking the great critical dictionaries of modern times) it was obvious that he was a critic beyond the ordinary academical standard.
Bentley was also self-assertive and presumptuous, and made enemies as a result. Dr Monk, Bentley's biographer, charged him (in his first edition, 1830) with an indecorum of which he was not guilty. "In one place," writes Dr Monk, "he accosts Dr Mill as Si luavvidiov (Johnny), an indecorum which neither the familiarity of friendship, nor the licence of a dead language, can justify towards the dignified head of a house." But the object of Bentley's apostrophe was not his correspondent Dr Mill, but his author John Malalas, whom in another place he playfully appeals to as "Syrisce." From this publication, however, dates the origin of those mixed feelings of admiration and repugnance which Bentley inspired.
In 1690 Bentley had taken deacon's orders. In 1692 he was nominated first Boyle lecturer, a nomination which was repeated in 1694. He was offered the appointment a third time in 1695 but declined it, being by that time involved in too many other undertakings. In the first series of lectures ("A Confutation of Atheism") he endeavours to present Newtonian physics in a popular form, and to frame them (especially in opposition to Hobbes) into proof of the existence of an intelligent Creator. He had some correspondence with Newton, then living in Trinity College, Cambridge, on the subject. The second series, preached in 1694, has not been published and is believed to be lost.
Scarcely was Bentley in priest's orders before he was promoted to a prebendal stall in Worcester Cathedral. In 1693 the keepership of the royal library became vacant, and great efforts were made by his friends to obtain the place for Bentley, but did not have enough influence. An arrangement was made, by which the new librarian, a Mr Thynne, resigned in favour of Bentley, on condition that he received an annuity of £130 for life out of the £200 salary. In 1695 Bentley received a royal chaplaincy and the living of Hartlebury. In the same year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1696 proceeded to the degree of D.D. The recognition of continental scholars came in the shape of a dedication, by Graevius, prefixed to a dissertation of Albert Rubens, De Vita Flavii Mattii Theodori, published at Utrecht in 1694.
Bentley now had official apartments in St James's Palace, and his first care was the royal library. He made great efforts to retrieve this collection from the dilapidated condition into which it had fallen. He persuaded the earl of Marlborough to ask for some additional rooms in the palace for the books. This was granted, but Marlborough kept them for himself. Bentley enforced the law against the publishers, and thus added to the library nearly 1000 volumes which they had neglected to deliver.
He was commissioned by the University of Cambridge to obtain Greek and Latin fonts for their classical books, and accordingly he had cast in Holland those beautiful types which appear in the Cambridge books of that date. He assisted Evelyn in his Nuinismata. Bentley did not settle down to the steady execution of any of the great projects he had started. In 1694, he designed an edition of Philostratus, but abandoned it to G Olearius, (Ohlschiger), "to the joy," says FA Wolf, "of Olearius and of no one else." He supplied Graevius with collations of Cicero, and Joshua Barnes with a warning as to the spuriousness of the Epistles of Euripides. Barnes printed the epistles and declared that no one could doubt their genuineness but a man perfrictaefrontis out judicii imminuti. Bentley supplied to Graevius's Callimacijus a masterly collection of the fragments with notes, published at Utrecht in 1697.
The Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris, the work on which Bentley's fame in great part rests, also originated accidentally. William Wotton, about to bring out in 1697 a second edition of his book on Ancient and Modern Learning, asked Bentley to fulfil an old promise to write a paper exposing the spuriousness of the Epistles of Phalaris. This paper was resented by the Christ Church editor of Phalaris, Charles Boyle, afterwards earl of Orrery, who in getting the manuscript in the royal library collated for his edition (1695) had quarrelled with Bentley. Assisted by his college friends, particularly Atterbury, Boyle wrote a reply, "a tissue," says Dr Alexander Dyce (in his edition of Bentley's Works, 1836-1838), "of superficial learning, ingenious sophistry, dexterous malice and happy raillery." The reply was hailed by the public as crushing and went immediately into a second edition. Bentley was forced to respond, in what Porson styles "that immortal dissertation," to which no answer was given, although the truth of its conclusions was not immediately recognized.
In the year 1700, Bentley received that main preferment which, says De Quincey, " was at once his reward and his scourge for the rest of his life." The six commissioners of ecclesiastical patronage unanimously recommended Bentley to the crown for the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge. This college, the most splendid in the university, and regarded as the most eminent, had in 1700 greatly fallen from its high estate. Although no worse than the other colleges, its former reputation made the abuse of endowments in its case more conspicuous. The eclipse had taken place during the reaction which followed 1660, and was owing to causes which influenced the nation at large. The names of John Pearson and Isaac Barrow, and, greater than either, that of Newton, adorn the college annals of this period.
These men had not inspired the rank and file of fellows of Trinity with any of their own love for learning or science. Any excuse served for a banquet at the cost of "the house," and the celibacy imposed by the statutes was made as tolerable as the decorum of a respectable position permitted. Bentley arrived here, obnoxious as a St John's man and an intruder, unwelcome as a man of learning whose interests lay outside the walls of the college. Bentley replied to the Fellows' concealed dislike with open contempt, and proceeded to reform the college administration. He made extensive improvements to the buildings, and used his position for the promotion of the interests of learning both in the college and in the university. But this energy was accompanied by a domineering temper, an overweening contempt for the feelings and even for the rights of others, and an unscrupulous use of means when a good end could be obtained. The continued drain upon their purses--on one occasion the whole dividend of the year was absorbed by the rebuilding of the chapel-was the grievance which at last roused the fellows to make a resolute stand.
After ten years of stubborn but ineffectual resistance within the college, they appealed to the visitor, the bishop of Ely (Dr Moore). Their petition was full of general complaints and not alleging any special delinquency. Bentley's reply (The Present State of Trinity College, etc., 1710) is in his most crushing style. The fellows amended their petition and put in a fresh charge, in which they articled fifty-four separate breaches of the statutes as having been committed by the master. Bentley, called upon to answer, appealed directly to the crown, backing his application by a dedication of his Horace to the lord treasurer (Harley). The crown lawyers decided against him; the case was heard (1714) and a sentence of ejection from the mastership was drawn up, but before it was executed the bishop of Ely died and the process lapsed. The feud continued in various forms. In 1718 Bentley was deprived by the university of his degrees, as a punishment for failing to appear in the vice-chancellor's court in a civil suit; and it was not till 1724 that the law compelled the aniversity to restore them. In 1733 he was again brought to trial before the bishop of Ely (Dr Greene) by the fellows of Trinity and sentenced to deprivation, but the college statutes required the sentence to be exercised by the vice-master (Dr Walker), who was Bentley's friend and refused to act. Although the feud was kept up till 1738 or 1740 (about thirty years in all) Bentley remained in post.
During his mastership, except for the first two years, Bentley pursued his studies uninterruptedly, though the results in the shape of published works are minor. In 1709 he contributed a critical appendix to John Davies's edition of Cicero's Tusculan Disputations. In the following year he published his emendations on the Plutus md Nubes of Aristophanes, and on the fragments of Menander and Philemon. The last came out under the name of "Phileutherus Lipsiensis," which he made use of two years later in his Remarks on a late Discourse of Freethinking, a reply to Anthony Collins the deist. For this he received the thanks of the university, in recognition of the service thereby rendered to the church and clergy. His Horace, long contemplated and in the end written in very great haste and brought out to propitiate public pinion at a critical period of the Trinity quarrel, appeared in 1711. In the preface he declared his intention of confining his tttention to criticism and correction of the text, and ignoring exegesis. Some of his 700 or 800 emendations have been accepted, aut the majority of them are now rejected as unnecessary and prosaic, although the learning and ingenuity shown in their support are remarkable.
In 1716, in a letter to Dr Wake, Archbishop of Canterbury, Bentley announced his plan of preparing a critical edition of the New Testament. During the next four years, assisted by JJ Wetstein, an eminent biblical critic, who claimed to have been the first to suggest the idea to Bentley, he collected materials for the work, and in 1720 published Proposals for a New Edition of the Greek Testament, with specimens of the manner in which he intended to carry it out. He proposed, by comparing the text of the Vulgate with that of the oldest Greek manuscripts, to restore the Greek text as received by the church at the time of the council of Nice. A large number of subscribers to the work was obtained, but it was never completed. His Terence (1726) is more important than his Horace, and it is upon this, next to the Phalaris, that his reputation mainly rests.
To the same year belong the Fables of Phaedrus and the Sentenliae of Publilius Syrus. The Paradise Lost (1732), undertaken at the suggestion of Queen Caroline, is generally regarded as the most unsatisfactory of all his writings. It is marred by the same rashness in emendation and lack of poetical feeling as his Horace; but there is less excuse for him in this case, since the English text could not offer the same field for conjecture. He put forward the idea that Milton employed both an amanuensis and an editor, who were responsible for clerical errors, alterations and interpolations. It is uncertain whether this was Bentley's excuse for his own numerous corrections, or whether he really believed it. The contemplated edition of Homer was never published; all that remains of it consists of some manuscript and marginal notes in the possession of Trinity College. Their chief importance lies in the attempt to restore the metre by the insertion of the lost digamma.
Some anecdotes are related by his grandson, Richard Cumberland, in vol. i. of his Memoirs (1807). The hat he always wore during reading to shade his eyes, and his preference of port to claret (which he said "would be port if it could ") are mentioned in Pope's caricature (Dunciad, b. 4). He did not take up smoking till he was seventy. He held the archdeaconry of Ely with two livings, but never obtained higher preference in the church. He was offered the (then poor) bishopric of Bristol but refused it, and being asked what preferment he would consider worth his acceptance, replied, "That which would leave him no reason to wish for a removal."
Bentley was the first Englishman to be ranked with the great heroes of classical learning. Before him there were only John Selden, and, in a more restricted field, Thomas Gataker and Pearson. "Bentley inaugurated a new era of the art of criticism. He opened a new path. With him criticism attained its majority. Where scholars had hitherto offered suggestions and conjectures, Bentley, with unlimited control over the whole material of learning, gave decisions". The modern German school of philology recognises his genius. Bentley, says Bunsen," was the founder of historical philology." And Jakob Bernays says of his corrections of the Tristia, "corruptions which had hitherto defied every attempt even of the mightiest, were removed by a touch of the fingers of this British Samson." The English school of Hellenists, by which the 18th century was distinguished, and which contains the names of R Dawes, J Markland, J Taylor, J Toup, T Tyrwhitt, Richard Porson, PP Dobree, Thomas Kidd and JH Monk, was the creation of Bentley. And even the Dutch school of the same period, though the outcome of a native tradition, was in no small degree stimulated and directed by the example of Bentley, whose letters to the young Hemsterhuis on his edition of Julius Pollux produced so powerful an effect on him, that he became one of Bentley's most devoted admirers.
Bentley was a source of inspiration. to a following generation of scholars. Self-taught, he created his own science; but there was no contemporary guild of learning in England by which his power could be measured, and his eccentricities checked. In the Phalaris controversy his academical adversaries were absolutely defeated. Garth's couplet--"So diamonds take a lustre from their foil, And to a Bentley 'tis we owe a Boyle"-- expressed the belief of the wits or literary world of the time. The attacks upon him by Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot and others are evidence of their inability to appreciate his work. To them, textual criticism seemed mere pedantry and useless labour. In a university where the instruction of youth or the religious controversy of the day were the only known occupations, Bentley was an isolated phenomenon. All his vast acquisitions and all his original views seem to have been obtained before 1700. After this period he acquired little and made only spasmodic efforts--the Horace, the Terence and the Milton.
FA Wolf, Literarische Analekten, i. (1816); Monk, Life of Bentley (1830); J Mahly, Richard Bentley, eine Biographie (1868); RC Jebb, Bentley ("English Men of Letters" series, 1882), where a list of authorities bearing on Bentley's life and work is given. For his letters see Bentlei et doctorum-virorum ad eum Epistolae (1807); The Correspondence of Richard Bentley, edited by C Wordsworth (1842). See also JE Sandys, History of Classical Scholarship, ii. 401-410 (1908); and the Bibliography of Bentley, by AT Bartholomew and JW Clark (Cambridge, 1908).
This entry is updated from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.