John Donne’s Paradoxes and Problems

A short while ago, I provided, here, excerpts from Aristotle’s Problems; in particular, I quoted two questions that Aristotle raises about alcohol and sex. Then,  I wanted to showcase the colorful framing of the question and the answer; the latter was made especially interesting because of the serious spirit of inquiry visible in it, one which, even if it seems to have gone off-mark, still impresses because of its earnestness.

Today, in the same spirit, I want to quote from John Donne‘s ‘Paradoxes and Problemes‘. The titles of these should indicate the mood in which they were written.

First, the Paradoxes:

I. A Defence of Women’s Inconstancy.
II. That Women ought to Paint.
III. That by Discord things increase.
IV. That Good is more common than Euill.
V. That all things kill themselues.
VI. That it is possible to find some vertue in some Women.
VII. That Old men are more fantastike than Young.
VIII. That Nature is our worst guide.
IX. That only Cowards dare die.
X. That a Wise man is known by much laughing.
XI. That the gifts of the Body are better than those of the Minde.

Then, the Problemes:

I. Why haue Bastards best Fortunes?
II. Why Puritans make long Sermons?
III. Why did the Diuell reserue Iesuites till the latter Dayes?
IV. Why is there more Variety of Greene, than of any other Colour?
V. Why doe Young Lay-men so much study Diuinity?
VI. Why hath the Common Opinion afforded Women Soules?
VII. Why are the Fairest falsest?
VIII. Why Venus Starre only doth cast a shadow?
IX. Why is Venus Starre Multinominous, called both Hesperus and Vesper?
X. Why are new officers least oppressing?

The online edition lists only the first ten of these; my copy of John Donne: Poetry and Prose (Modern Library Edition, Random House, 1967) includes an additional two, numbered XI (Why doth the Poxe soe much affect to undermine the Nose?) and XVI (Why are Courtiers sooner Atheists than Men of other Conditions?).

As a sample of Donne’s answers to the Problemes, here is his response to Probleme I, one that I’m sure has perplexed many over the years:

Is Nature (which is lawes patterne) hauing denied women Constancy to one, hath prouided them with cunning to allure many, and so Bastards de iure should haue better wits and experience. But besides that by experience wee see many fooles amongst them; we should take from them one of their chiefest helpes to preferment, and we should deny them to be fooles; and (that which is onely left) that Women chuse worthier men than their husbands is false de facto, either then it must be that the Church hauing remoued them from all place in the publike seruice of God, they haue better meanes than others to bee wicked, and so fortunate: Or else because the two greatest powers in this world, the Diuell and Princes concurre to their greatnesse; the one giuing bastardye, the other legitimation: As nature frames and conserues great bodies of Contraries. Or the cause is, because they abound most at Court, which is the forge where fortunes are made; or at least the shop where they be sold.

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