That it is good to be in debt
Printed for the first time in 1616 by Thomas Thorpe in the anonymous collection Essayes Of Certaine Paradoxes, That it is good to be in debt is the final paradox included in the edition. Of all the six paradoxes, it is the only one which has an earlier version, or rather draft, which has been preserved in manuscript, entitled That it is a happiness to be in debt (among the Tanner MSS in the Bodleian Library, then published by Bennet in 1931). Even though, as Bennett underlines, the latter is not a revision of the earlier paradox (1931, 221), some of its material was used again in a more polished and less light-hearted form, although reaching a similar “spiritual and serious conclusion” (Salzman 2013, 477).
Cornwallis asserts very clearly from the beginning his intention to discuss this topic as a paradox to “rectify [humankind’s] judgement” (l. 4) but, as Salzman points out, the last paragraph, with its religious references and the explicit allusion to the “Pater Noster” prayer, closes the argumentation with a graver tone than one would expect (Salzman 2013, 477). In the text, Cornwallis alternates examples of debt as being an intrinsic component of the universe and lighter evidences of the consequences of financial indebtedness on humankind. From the sun to man himself, in Nature everything is born with a bond of duty and hence a debt to the others; each part of our body is in some way in debt to another “as if Nature had rather man should not have been at all, than not to be a debtor in every part of him” (l. 22). Borrowing and lending are what makes the world work, without them it would be chaos: the stars, the seasons, the elements, the Earth – they all depend on loans. Why, then, should someone be ashamed of being in debt? On the contrary, a debtor gains not only the favour of his creditors, who pray for his life and prosperity, but such a power over them that he becomes almost like their landlord, towards whom they must observe courtesy and show adulation. Furthermore, if he ever gets caught by the law, he does not have to fear any punishment because, unlike rogues, traitors and those who criticise the Church, whom Cornwallis puts in the lower levels of the “purgatory-wise” (l. 75) prison, wasters and debtors are imprisoned in the higher level, closer to God and to a life of virtue. What emerges from the thoughtful conclusion is, however, that as much as any man may fear his material indebtedness – to the point of quoting Chaucer’s Complaint Unto His Purse (in which he begged his purse to remain full and keep him out of debt), everything is destined to die with him and what will matter in the end is his credit to God, the only one capable of forgiving his debts.
In spite of debt being a rather popular subject among paradoxes (see Bennett 1931, 227, n. 2), it is interesting to notice that the text was plagiarised in 1644 by Thomas Jordan with the title The debtors apologie, or, A quaint paradox proving that it is good to be in debt, and, in this age, may be usefull for all men by T. J. (Written in the yeer of Engagements, 1644). Jordan has long been believed to have authored this text, as we can see in P.B. Mitchell’s 1936 article “A Chaucer Allusion in a 1644 Pamphlet”. Like Cornwallis’s, Jordan’s side note attributes the final ballade to Occleve: according to Mitchell he was familiar with the 1602 edition of the works of Chaucer, the last published before 1644, in which for the first time Occleve is indicated as the author (436): it is this version which Cornwallis must have read.
Bennett, R.E. (1931), “Four Paradoxes by Sir William Cornwallis, the Younger”, Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 13, 219-40.
Jordan, Thomas (1644), The debtors apologie, or, A quaint paradox proving that it is good to be in debt, and, in this age, may be usefull for all men by T. J.
Mitchell, P.B. (1936), “A Chaucer Allusion in a 1644 Pamphlet”, Modern Language Notes 51 (7), 435-7.
Salzman, Paul (2013), “Essays”, in Andrew Hadfield (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of English Prose 1500-1640, Oxford University Press, 468-83.