Light, Truth, and Caricature (without Consolation): Regarding James Gillray

A Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism — “Magna est Veritas Praevalebit” was the first work by the great eighteenth-century London caricaturist James Gillray to catch my attention.

Gillray Peep

As chance would have it, I encountered it in precisely the same way in which those who first saw it would have: by opening the first volume of the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine.

Looking back at the notes I took in the Houghton Library at Harvard on my old Handspring Visor, I see that I was confused as to who was the creator of the image that folded out (not unlike the collapsible Targus keyboard I’d attached to my Visor) from the pages from the journal.

KeyboardMy notes indicate that I initially confused the publisher of the Review with the creator of the print:

As frontispiece for the volume:  J. Wright — “A Peep into the cave of Jacobinism — “Magna est Veritas praevalebit” — shows truth bringing a light that illuminates monster of egalite and burns up books labelled atheism, ignorances, anarchy, sedition, libels, etc.

I went on to include a brief discussion of it in my article on the problems with the OED’s definition of “enlightenment,” which summed up what I thought the print suggested about the struggle over the concept of “enlightenment” at the close of the eighteenth century:

The image of the light of truth banishing the darkness of error was far too powerful a trope for opponents of the Revolution to surrender to their enemies. So they used it themselves. The frontispiece of the first volume of the Anti-Jacobin Review was an engraving by James Gillray entitled “A Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism.” It depicts a woman wearing a banner on which is inscribed the word “Truth.” Holding a torch in her hand, she enters the cave in which “Jacobinism”- a creature that is half-human and half-snake-sits surrounded by books bearing the titles “atheism,” “ignorances,” “anarchy,” “sedition,” and “libels.” The light from Truth’s torch not only frightens the creature in the cave (causing its mask to pop off, revealing the hideous face beneath); its rays also cause the equally monstrous books surrounding the creature to burst into flames. What is striking about the imagery employed in the engraving is how familiar it is. Change the name of the creature in the cave to “Jesuitism” and alter the titles on the books to “fanaticism,” “enthusiasm,” and “prejudices” and the frontispiece could have been used on any number of Enlightenment journals.1

By and large, this still seems right to me, though there is, of course, a lot more that could have been said about Gillray and — as my recent foray into Hans Blumenberg’s metaphorology has driven home — even more that could be said about the image of light and truth.  The various implications of the cave are as good a place as any.

Spelunking with Blumenberg

Any discussion of the metaphor of light as truth is, of course, going to wind up dealing with Plato at some point and, even more inevitably, any discussion of light and truth in Plato is going to spend a fair amount of time puzzling out the mysteries of the allegory of the cave. It is hardly surprising, then, that Blumenberg’s 1957 article on “Light as a Metaphor of Truth includes an excursus on “the Cave.”2

In the course of conversation last week, a colleague mentioned that whenever he read Blumenberg he got the impression that what he was seeing on the page consisted of a dumping of Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten out onto the printed page. I take his point, but I’m still impressed:  Blumenberg must have had a killer Zettelkasten. His survey
of caves visits Plato’s only briefly and spends most of the time showing how ubiquitous and various the image of the cave turns out to be (perhaps we can chalk this up to his admirable distaste for most things Heideggerian?).

His tour begins with the observation that,

The world of the cave is an “artificial,” indeed perfectly violent, underworld, relative to the sphere of natural light and natural dark: a region of screening-off and forgetting, a surrogate and derivative of Being (36)

We might expect, at this point, a descent into Plato’s cave. Instead, we get a comparison to Cicero’s:

The most important difference from the allegory of the cave in Book 7 of Plato’s Republic is that, in Cicero, the situation in the cave is merely a thought experiment for hypothetically reducing the factor of being accustomed. The normal situation … is outside the cave (37).

In Plato, the world beyond the cave was reserved for the initiates and the ascent to it is arduous, difficult, and dependent on an able guide. In contrast,

Cicero’s cave world is one of ‘urban’ luxury, a dazzlingly appointed sphere of culture, which captivates in virtue of its sheer attractiveness …. The realm of artificial light has nothing horrifying about it. Cicero has become familiar with the economy of the dark (37).

For Blumenberg, Cicero’s chief contribution lay in his stripping the cave of its “existential seriousness” (a phrase that appears — as might be expected — in scare quotes in Blumenberg’s text):

it becomes a hypothesis, a mental exercise. The contrasting background of obscuritas rerum, along with the internalization of  lumen naturae corresponding to it, have undermined the assumptions behind the image of the cave. From here on, radical reinterpretations of “cave” become possible (38).

The reinterpretations include the Neoplatonic extension of the metaphor of the cave to the entire cosmos, which, in turn, was given a further modification in Eastern Christian accounts of the Incarnation, which replace the stable with a cave.

The paideutic path no longer leads out of the cave; the gaze is directed into the dark, because in it the unbelievable — that light could appear here — has become believable. The Platonic opposition of the cave fire to the sun of the Good has been eliminated: the light in the cave is of one essence with its origin; it is its steward and guarantor, and not a deceitful source of shadows (38).

This “reassessment” of the inside of the cave brings with it a shift in the location where Truth is to be found:

As individualized caves, the small room and the monastic cell become … places where the truth is openly present, an indication that now everything can be expected from within (38).

This image would ultimately be subject to a further twist with Francis Bacon, for whom “leaving the cave is now longer the paideutic path of the wise individual into full light, but rather a method, a ‘technique’ for the production of a ‘greater common world’ for all” (38-39)

From this point on, the cave becomes the accepted metaphor in the philosophy of history for the point from which “progress” must begin. The problems of human socialization are exemplified by the hypothetical situation of leaving the primordial cave (where, quite fittingly, the relics of primordial man are also sought and found) (39).

There is much here that Blumenberg would revise and extend, most immediately in his Paradigms for a Metaphorology and, ultimately in his Work on Myth. But there is already enough here to begin to make sense of what is going on in Gillray’s “Peep into the Cave.”

Gillray’s Caves

I closed last week’s post by characterizing (without much in the way of explanation or justification) “A Peep into the Cave” as “one of the great James Gillray’s weaker efforts” — though I went on to add that “weak Gillray is better than practically anyone else.” I would not disagree that — as Lichanos (who has a good discussion the print on his blog) pointed out in a comment on last week’s post — there is quite a bit to admire in the Peep.  But it is somewhat difficult to square with the better-known works in Gillray’s portfolio. The explanation for that would seem to be simple enough.

Gillray had been courted for a number of years by George Canning, a member for Prime Minister William Pitt’s circle who had worked his way up to a position in the Foreign Office and would be instrumental in the founding of the  Anti-Jacobin, a journal covertly supported by the government with the aim of responding to what the government saw as the growing threat posed by British friends of the French Revolution. These efforts culminated late in 1797 with the awarding of a secret government pension of £200 a year to Gillray. With it came with the expectation that he would support the government line — both in his contributions to the  Anti-Jacobin and in the works he continued to produce for his publisher (as well as landlady and, until Gillrary got cold feet, prospective wife) Hannah Humphrey. Over the course of 1798 Gillray produced something on the order of one caricature a week, many of them single print caricatures that were displayed at Humphrey’s shop (frequently in front window) and, for those with the means, available for purchase.3

As part of this arrangement Gillray was expected to refrain from personal caricatures of government officials (though it is worth noting that Canning himself seems to have viewed his appearance in one of Gillray’s caricatures as a useful career move). This expectation was more easily enforced in the case of the prints that appeared in the The Anti-Jacobin and its successor, The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, where it was possible to exert editorial control over Gillray’s work, than it was with the prints distributed via Humphrey’s shop where, as Ian Haywood notes in a helpful discussion of Gillray’s work during this period, Humphrey’s “commercial independence” provided Gillray with a certain amount of cover.4

This context helps to explain the difference in style between the Peep and a caricature from 1790 that is, in many respects, thematically similar: Smelling out a Rat,  Gillray’s famous homage to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Smelling Out a Rat

In both, a creature engaging in nefarious activities under the cloak of darkness is surprised by the sudden entry of a figure that casts light on its deeds. The Peep gives us a literal cave with a masked monster, while Smelling Out a Rat gives us a clergyman (the great political theorist, friend of the American Revolution, and actuary Richard Price) working away in his study.5 In both cases, the creatures that labor in darkness cannot abide the light: the monster’s mask pops off (unveiling its hideous face) and Price is gripped with horror at the entry of what looks to us to be a duckbill with glasses, but which would have been instantly recognized by eighteenth-century consumers of caricatures as nothing less than a caricature of a caricature of Burke.  It reduces him to nothing more than the two features on which his caricaturists had fastened: his nose (now grown to enormous size) and his spectacles.

Burke’s Reflections was treated rather roughly by other caricaturists. His long-time nemesis Frederick George Byron, focusing on the book’s somewhat lurid account of the events of October 6, 1789, when an “almost naked” Marie Antoinette was compelled (along with Louis XVI) to leave Versailles and take up residence in Paris and the lament for the demise of the “age of chivalry” that followed, fired off a series of prints — each one more outrageous than its predecessor — casting Burke in the role of Don Quixote, utterly smitten by his “Beautiful Vision.”  The final installment imagines the happy lovers reunited at last: Burke forswears his wife’s “eggs and bacon” in favor of the “delicious Dairy” of his “celestial Vision,” while an aroused Marie embraces her “God of Chivalry” and excitedly grasps for his “invincible Shillelee.”6

When compared to what Byron and others were producing, Smelling Out a Rat might be viewed as a defense of Burke’s book. But as a number of commentators have noted, if the content of the piece puts Price in a bad light, its form makes Burke look ridiculous or worse.7 In Peep into the Cave we see a monster illuminated by an idealized image of a human being. In contrast, Smelling Out a Rat shows us a clergyman attacked by a monstrous nose and glasses. It must have been difficult for at least some contemporary viewers not to sympathize with the alleged villain of this piece.

By the end of 1798, it seems that Canning as his associates were beginning to have doubts about the wisdom of their arrangement with Gillray.8 The December issue of the Anti-Jacobin Review included a “note to readers” reporting that the journal was reconsidering its policy of including “satyrical prints” on the grounds that at the might be regarded as “derogatory from the dignity of the Work” (739). Nevertheless, Gillray continued his relationship with the Anti-Jacobin Review (though he was later replaced by Thomas Rowlandson) and also accepted a commission to contribute prints to the Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin. But he resisted the demand from Canning and his colleagues that (in keeping with the new policy of laying aside sectarian politics in order to present a united front against France) he cease personal caricatures of opposition leaders. When Gillray refused to submit his drawings for review prior to publication, Canning observed to an associate that “the scoundrel” Gillray was “not so ready as you imagined to receive any instruction or correction.”9

Among the works intended for the Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin was yet another grotto scene, this one set in Hell. It depicts Voltaire instructing the monster child of Jacobinism.  The image, an oil sketch on paper, appeared in a 2004-2005 exhibit of Gillray’s work at the New York Public Library along with an oiled paper transfer, which would have been produced as part of the process of transferring the image to plates for printing. But no prints of Voltaire Instructing the Infant Jacobinism survive: either the they were never made or they were among the plates that Gillray, bowing to Canning’s demands, turned over for destruction when his collaboration with Poetry for the Anti-Jacobin ended.

Artificial Lighting

Assessing Augustine’s role in the metaphorics of light as truth, Blumenberg argued that,

In contrast to the Neoplatonists’ ecstatic concept of truth, in which the highest level of the disclosure of truth is seeing-into-the-light, Augustine returns to the classical form of the metaphor of seeing-in-the-light: we can recognize the light only by the certainty that it grants us in elucidated beings. … Light is always, so to speak, ‘behind us’ and that is true precisely for lux interior, which is responsible for things being laid plain to us. the “locus” of illuminatio is the “depths” of the soul, especially memoria‘s “ground” of inwardness (43).

What would have perplexed the Neoplatonists about this was the lack of any clarification of “the ‘direction’ from which illuminatio comes.”

To put it in the language of Plato’s allegory of the cave, the accent is on turning away from the shadows, or more narrowly and precisely, on breaking the chains that forced the gaze toward the shadows. Everything depends on something that, in Plato, the prisoners in the cave were not able to accomplish by themselves, although this is treated as incidental there and is given no importance in comparison with the path of paideia. At the start of the path of paideia, there is now an all-important condition, namely, the act of gratia, which can be grasped in the experience of conversio. Augrustine’s doctrine is a “metaphysics of conversion” (43-44).

Laying aside the question of whether Blumenberg’s account captures the complex relationship between Plato, Neoplatonism, and Augustine (a topic I am incompetent to address), it does seem to capture something of the peculiar quality of the light in the various frontispieces that I discussed in my previous post. The source of the light is always hidden: it streams from above, it illuminates the world, but — aside from the ridiculous smiling suns that pop up from time to time — its origin always lays somewhere “behind” or “above” us.

But this is clearly not the case in Gillray’s treatment of light: it has a clear source and, in most cases, that source has political connections that are as clear as day. Burke blasts into Price’s study bearing the Cross and the Crown. The figure of Truth in Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism is accompanied by cherubs carrying the Cross, the Crown, and the scales of justice. And in LIGHT expelling DARKNESS, – Evaporation of Stygian Exhalations, – or – The SUN of the CONSTITUTION, rising superior to the Clouds of OPPOSITION, a 1795 print published by Humphrey we see this:

Light Expelling Darkness (Wikimedia)


William Pitt appears here as Apollo (a role, it might be note, that had previously been played by Louis XIV), crossing the heavens in a chariot pulled by a lion (British, of course) and a white horse (Hanoverian — according to the New York Public Library’s explanation). Various “Foxite” Whigs (including Fox himself) flee in terror, while a Fury labelled “Whig Club” cowers to one side. Pitt’s chariot grinds its way over a scroll emblazoned with slogans that inventory the various Anti-Jacobin fears: “Plan for inflaming the Dissenters in Scotland,” “A scheme for raising the Catholicks in Ireland,” “Jacobin Prophecies for breeding Sedition in England.” The light that illuminates the scene is exactly where Blumenberg says it should be: behind Pitt. But it is clearly visible and labelled: on the face of the sun we see “Wisdom” (in Hebrew) and around it, those earthly arbiters of wisdom — Commons, King, and Lords. The whole scene is so ludicrously over the top is that it is hard to shake the suspicion that taking it seriously would reduce one to the level of those deeply confused individuals who have somehow managed to convince themselves that Stephen Colbert is actually a conservative.

A little over a month later, Gillray released Presages of the MILLENIUM:

Presages of the Millenium

Pitt returns as Death itself, riding a pale horse. Various Whig politicians are trampled underfoot, along with a herd of swine (obviously, an uncomfortably literal reference to Burke’s “swinish multitude”). But even a viewer unaware that the creature with the feathered crown busy kissing Pitt’s ass is the Prince of Wales (one might have thought it would be the other way around) cannot help but get the impression that Pitt comes off even worse than the Whigs. It probably matters that, as Robinson notes, Gillray was the son of an invalided soldier and, while he may have found the French Revolution and its British supporters appalling, he was no less appalled by the policies of Pitt and his ilk. Their only virtue would seem to be that they were willing to pay for his services.

Gillray’s ruthless exploration of the image of light and truth may well have reached its high point with the mind-bogglingly complex Democratic Transparency … with its Effect upon Patriotic Feelings: Representing, the Secret-Committee throwing a Light upon the Dark Sketches of a Revolution found among the Paper of the Jacobin-Societies lately apprehended, a print from April 1799, published by Humphrey and executed while Gillray was supposed to be towing the Pittite line.

Yale Center for British Art

Yale Center for British Art

There is much to sort out here and readers seeking a fuller account should consult Ian Haywood’s discussion of the print in his Romanticism and Caricatures.10 It helps to know that, in eighteenth-century London, a transparency was a popular form of street art, which involved illuminating pictures from behind. The pictures here illuminated are scenes from the report of a secret committee of the House of Commons investigating the activities of suspect groups in England and Ireland.

The report, which was released in March 1799 and published in the Anti-Jacobin Review, purported to have

found the clearest proofs of a systematic design, long since adopted and acted upon by France, in conjunction with domestic traitors, and pursued up to the present moment with unabated perseverance, to overturn the laws, constitution, and government, and every existing establishment civil or ecclesiastical, both in Great Britain and Ireland, as well as to dissolve the ties between the two kingdoms, so necessary to the security and prosperity to each (Anti-Jacobin Review Vol. II, January-April 1799, 413-414).

As Haywood explains,

four illuminated panels … form the centrepiece of Gillray’s Exhibition of a Democratic Transparency. The print claims to have based these ‘dark sketches of a revolution’ on material ‘found among the Papers of the Jacobin Societies lately apprehended’, but Gillray surely knew that none of the documents in the Appendix supported the report’s sensational insurrectionary narrative, and the ambiguously denoted ‘sketches’ could equally refer to the report’s transformation of obscure hints into full-blown tableaux.

Instead of exhibiting an actual Jacobin plot, the print shows that the insurrectionary narrative is actually the product of the report itself: by ‘throwing a light’ on these original documents, the report is likened to an illumination, a form of popular visual spectacle in which a powerful light magnified and projected an image painted on a transparent screen only by the assistance of artificially enhanced illumination (loyalist fantasy) that a small-scale, fragmented, group of radical political cells could be transformed into a vision of national revolution. The dazzling light of Gillray’s ‘democratic transparency’ connotes the hyperbolic luminosity of the loyalist imagination, not the penetrating beams of sublime Truth (67).

Haywood concludes that Gillray’s point was that “loyalist fantasies of Jacobin conspiracy have more in common with caricature than with the truth: politics and caricature have converged into an aesthetics of distortion, demonisation, defamation and violence” (67). But I wonder whether this interpretation — which turns Gillray into a covert operative that, even as he mouths the party line, finds ways to undermine it — captures what might be the truly unsettling force of Gillray’s work.

To say that Gillray’s Exhibition of a Democratic Transparency captures “the hyperbolic luminosity of the loyalist imagination” rather than “the penetrating beams of sublime Truth” rests on the presupposition that Gillray believed that there was a “Truth” unstained by the filth of party politics.  While Haywood and others are far more familiar with the Gillray’s work than I am, I wonder whether we might do better to expand Max Horkheimer’s roster of “dark writers of the bourgeoisie” to include at least one caricaturist. Perhaps Gillray’s free-ranging suspicion, like Nietzsche’s distrust of pity, “redeemed the unwavering trust in humanity which day to day is betrayed by consoling affirmation.”

  1. James Schmidt, “Inventing the Enlightenment: Anti-Jacobins, British Hegelians, and the ‘Oxford English Dictionary,’” Journal of the History of Ideas 64:3 (2003): 436.
  2. Hans Blumenberg, “Light as a Metaphor for Truth at the Preliminary Stage of Philosophical Concept Formation,” in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. David Michael Levin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 36-40.
  3. The classic resource for information about Gillray is Draper Hill, Mr. Gillray the Caricaturist, a Biography (Greenwich, CT: Phaidon Publishers, 1965). For what was known about Gillray during his own time, see Christiane Banerji and Diana Donald, Gillray Observed : The Earliest Account of His Caricatures in London und Paris (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  4. Ian Haywood, Romanticism and Caricature (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2013) 60.
  5. Haywood notes that the image of Price parodied “traditional representations of holy anchorites such as Saint Jerome and Saint John the Evangelist “ 69.
  6. Robinson 143-144.
  7. Hall, 42; see also Haywood, 68.
  8. The New York Public Library’s Gillray site includes excerpts from a letter, dating from the end of 1797, in which Canning’s associate John Hookham Frere complains about Gillray’s failure to follow the instructions of his employers (see item 64 on )
  9. See item 69  at
  10. Haywood, Romanticism and Caricature Chapter 3;  Haywood has pursued this line of interpretation further in “The Transformation of Caricature: A Reading of Gillray’s The Liberty of the Subject,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 43:2 (2010): 223–42.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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4 Responses to Light, Truth, and Caricature (without Consolation): Regarding James Gillray

  1. Pingback: Images of Enlightenment: The Lamp and the Sun | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Pingback: Hans Blumenberg on Light & Truth, with Some Thoughts on Eighteenth-century Frontispieces | Persistent Enlightenment

  3. Lichanos says:

    “…Cicero’s cave world is one of ‘urban’ luxury, a dazzlingly appointed sphere of culture, which captivates in virtue of its sheer attractiveness …”

    Spiritual source of the RenIssance grotto, another form of cultural cave?

    “I wonder whether we might do better to expand Max Horkheimer’s roster of “dark writers of the bourgeoisie” to include at least one caricaturist…”

    Yup. His sensibility is too acid to imagine he felt secure in taking political sides. You mention his father-some have noted his religious background, Moravian?

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