Cummins, Juliet and David Burchell (eds), Science, Literature and Rhetoric in Early Modern England

Juliet Cummins and David Burchell (eds), Science, Literature and Rhetoric in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 256 pp. £60 hb. ISBN 0754657817.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

This volume brings together ten scholars from various fields in early modern studies to discuss the ways in which science, literature and rhetoric contributed to new forms of knowledge in the early modern world. The introduction by Cummins and Burchell sets out the rationale for the project in a clear and informative way, giving newcomers to the topic a useful grounding in the scholarly background to the work. Essentially a call for an interdisciplinary approach to research on early modern thought, the introduction begins with the observation that ‘early modern “literature” and “science” cannot always be sharply distinguished’ (p.2). The editors go on to argue that, this being the case, it is more fruitful for scholars to investigate ways in which both literary and scientific practices worked together to contribute to early modern thought.

This is an interesting and potentially very productive line of research, and clearly requires the interdisciplinarity emphasised by the editors. Despite the range of contributors, though, in this particular volume most essays deal with texts that modern readers (and, one suspects, early modern ones) would class as literary rather than scientific. The editors are straightforward about acknowledging that the essays mainly concentrate on figures ‘outside the mainstream of early modern natural philosophy’ (p. 8). In fact, most deal with major literary figures of the period – Hobbes, Pope, Behn, Milton, Cowley, Shakespeare, Swift – though of course some natural philosophers also appear, including Robert Boyle. Whilst no doubt extremely interesting and useful, the emphasis on literary texts results in a volume more likely to appeal to literary scholars than historians of science.

Peter Harrison’s chapter discusses the arguments for humanist and natural philosophical learning in the early-modern period. He contrasts Sidney’s Defense of Poesy (1595), ‘a typical Renaissance defense of the social utility of literature’ (p. 16), with the works of Bacon and other natural philosophers, particularly those involved with the early Royal Society. Harrison rightly points out that although it is easy for modern readers to assume the dominance of science from the outset, the reality was very different. He discusses the various attacks made on the Society in particular and natural philosophy in general by the dramatist Thomas Shadwell, the scholar Meric Casaubon and the polemicist Henry Stubbe. He concludes with the interesting point that discussions of the utility of natural knowledge that arose in the early modern period in Europe may be usefully seen as a step towards the acceptance of science in the West and may explain why other cultures such as China and the Arab world chose not to pursue science as a valuable way of obtaining knowledge.

Anne Sutherland puts forward an interpretation of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale in which the plot is based on three separate Roman myths of regeneration but the imagery contains specific astrological and alchemical references pointing to the play’s composition for the vernal equinox in March 1611. She makes an interesting and complex argument, but I think goes a step too far when concluding that because alchemy and astrology were underpinned by close observation of the natural world, their use in the play shows ‘the infiltration of the attitudes of the emerging new sciences’ (p. 51) into Shakespeare’s work.

David Burchell’s chapter on Hobbes and rhetoric discusses the various rhetorical stances made by philosophers in France and England over the course of the seventeenth century. He closes by arguing that Hobbes’s perceived rejection of rhetoric should rather be seen in the context of shifts in rhetorical fashion amongst groups of philosophers that led to particular qualities being valued over others in literary composition.

Angelica Duran’s chapter argues that Milton, in Paradise Lost and Of Education, makes use of catechistic models, and further, that natural philosophical works of the period also use the familiar structures of catechism, and that this enabled a quicker integration of the new philosophy into existing ways of knowing. This is an interesting idea, but unfortunately Duran does not provide any supporting evidence for her claim that natural philosophical texts follow a catechistic model. She mentions only one such text, the French Calvinist Lambert Daneau’s Physice Christiana (1580). This work was hardly central to the new philosophical movement and Duran mentions it only briefly. Similarly, her contention that Milton’s Of Education advocates a catechistic pedagogical programme is not supported by evidence from the text.

Catherine Gimelli Martin also discusses Milton, examining his Baconianism and using this as a lens through which to view his relationship with the Royal Society rhetoricians, particularly Thomas Sprat and Abraham Cowley.

Peter Dear argues that Margaret Cavendish based her claims for philosophical authority on her social status, which allowed her to publish her philosophical theories whilst preserving her female identity. Cavendish rejected the experimental philosophy of Hooke, in particular, because she believed that the scientific instruments on which he placed such importance present a false picture: the truth of the material world can only be known through the use of normal human perception and reason. With Hobbes, she emphasised the need to understand the causes of things rather than mere matters of fact.

Peter Anstey’s analysis of the literary responses to Boyle’s natural philosophy begins with an outline of the literary context, specifically the battle of the ancients and the moderns, and goes on to discuss two key satirical responses to the new philosophy, Shadwell’s Virtuoso, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Anstey argues that Shadwell’s and Swift’s attacks focused on three perceived problems with the new philosophical endeavour: lack of demarcation (the problem of sorting useful facts from random observations); lack of immediate utility; and an excess of credulity. These are useful texts to study in the context of this collection as they represent some of the most obvious early modern literary responses to the new philosophy. On the other hand, they have been much studied in the past, and it may have been fruitful to consider alongside them some lesser-known texts, such as the works of the Christ Church wit William King, who made much the same attacks on the new philosophy and Sir Hans Sloane in particular in his Useful Transactions in Philosophy (1709) and The Transactioneer (1700).

Sophie Gee compares Pope’s description of the Chaos that is the Dunciad’s Grub Street with Milton’s Chaos in Paradise Lost, arguing that Milton’s philosophy of animate materialism was more use to Pope than the theories of eighteenth-century post-Newtonian science.

Finally, Robert Markley sets up some interesting parallels between the cosmology of Christiaan Huygens and Daniel Defoe, and goes on to focus on the concept of geosymmetry (that is, the belief that conditions in the same latitude will be similar) and its relevance to some of Aphra Behn’s works.

The essays in the volume were originally presented as conference papers at a symposium which, we are told, ‘achieved its aim of creating an interdisciplinary dialogue between scholars about the interaction between science, literature and rhetoric in developing new approaches to knowledge in early modern England’ (p. xiii). The collected papers do give a sense of this interdisciplinarity, although the strong emphasis on canonical literary figures produces a volume that mainly discusses the complex ways in which literary culture responded to the emerging ideas of the new philosophy. David Burchell’s chapter is the only one that deals successfully with ways in which the new philosophy may have appropriated the conventions of ‘literary’ texts – further work on this side of the question would have been a welcome addition to what is nevertheless a useful and interesting volume.

Felicity Henderson, The Royal Society