Enlightenment

Believing in an Age of Enlightenment

Editors of Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France, Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins argue that Enlightenment did not signal the end of religious tradition and show how religious belief in France continued to function in dynamic ways throughout the long eighteenth century.


Over the past few decades historians have justly complicated the narrative of the Enlightenment’s essentially secular nature. The once normative tale of philosophes heroically sparring against religious belief to plant the seed of modern secularism has given way to a landscape that is far more complex and nuanced, challenging the stark difference between the religious and the secular. Whether it be the story of religious reformers seeking to find a via media between traditional articulations of belief and the opinions of radical critics or the investigation of how philosophical perspectives had their genesis in mysticism and theology, scholarship on the Enlightenment has affirmed the important role that religion played in the era’s intellectual and cultural transformations. In so far as the eighteenth century was an age of secularization, it was so partly as a result of the ideas and actions of those who self-identified as proponents of religious traditions and not just their vocal opponents.[1]

However, scholars have only scratched the surface of religious belief in the Enlightenment. In Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, we dig deeper into the manifestations and impact of belief in France and its empire during the long eighteenth century. In their various ways, the contributors demonstrate how belief continued to show up in conversations, representations, and institutions, sometimes in unpredictable ways. They find the persistence of religious belief at the heart of social, cultural, and political life well into the nineteenth century.

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Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley edited by Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins is the latest volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series

At the center of our investigation is the Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism. Active throughout Catholic Europe, Jansenism found a home in France and impacted ecclesiastical and political life in dramatic ways. At first glance, the penitent and rigorist sensibilities of Jansenists seem far from the progressive and worldly predilections of enlightened philosophes. A deeper look, however, reveals how Jansenist belief contributed to a host of social and political reforms including the critique of the absolute monarchy, the promotion of religious toleration, and the articulation of the rights of the citizen and the rule of law. Jansenists present historians with examples of intensely devoted Catholics whose religious beliefs contributed to their engagement with the political public sphere.

Jansenism, however, did not exist in a vacuum. Throughout the long eighteenth century, it competed with other voices in the Church over what it meant to believe in an enlightened age. The conflicts wrought by Jansenists and their internecine nemeses, the Jesuits, dominated political conversations in France certainly until the latter’s expulsion and suppression in the 1760s but even after. The tensions between these groups involved disparate ways of reconciling traditional religious beliefs with new epistemologies. In their disagreements about such matters as human nature, society, and politics, they both articulated forms of enlightened Catholicism that competed with one another throughout the eighteenth century.

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An anti-Jesuit polemical image showing members of the Jesuits falling through a sieve held by God and shaken by a member of the French parlements, judicial bodies in the Old Regime

The centrality of this conflict in the conversation about belief and its manifestations during the Enlightenment owes much to the work of Dale K. Van Kley, whose scholarship this volume honors. His work over the past four decades has provided the foundation for all of our contributors’ investigations into French religious life. Van Kley has shown that the competition between Jansenists and the partisans of the Jesuits defined religious culture in France and consequently played a formative role in shaping how belief impacted political and social institutions during the Enlightenment and well into the revolutionary era.

The persistence of the Jansenist-Jesuit struggle complicates the long-standing narrative of France’s progressive secularization beginning in the eighteenth century. It sheds new light on the way that we frame the Enlightenment’s connection with secularization and, therefore, modernity. Amidst increasing voices calling for the separation of social and cultural life from the auspices of the Church, many continued to see religious belief as not only a part of their identities but also an important tool for navigating the social and political spheres of the modern world.

– Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins (Vassar College and Baylor University)

References

[1] For an example, see the work that Alan C. Kors has done on the history of atheism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe: Alan C. Kors, Atheism in France, 1650–1729, vol. 1: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Naturalism and Unbelief in France, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Epicureans and Atheists, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).


Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


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Enlightenment

From catechisms to Voltaire: Religious tradition and change in eighteenth-century novels

Alicia C. Montoya explores how eighteenth-century readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire in her chapter of Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français (edited by Isabelle Tremblay), the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.


Scholars of the Enlightenment have tended – like intellectual historians generally – to stress the movement’s newness, rather than its continuities with the past. Yet these continuities are many, and none are so little explored, perhaps (pace Carl Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers), as religious continuities, with religion conceived not in theological terms, but as an everyday praxis of rituals, prayers, and religious reading.

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Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français edited by Isabelle Tremblay is the January 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series

No doubt some of the problem lies in essentialist concepts of ‘religious tradition’. In fact, traditions change over time, in response to specific historical configurations. One of the insights of Philippe Martin’s too-little-noticed Une religion des livres (1640 – 1850) is that popular devotional titles, such as catechisms and prayer books, were continually adapted and rewritten throughout the eighteenth century, both to suit the needs of successive generations and local dioceses.[1] In terms of print runs, these remained the best-selling titles of the period, right until the end of the century. On the eve of the French revolution, from 1777 to 1789, Jacques Coret’s Ange conducteur (1681) enjoyed a print run of 125,400 copies.[2] In the same years, in provincial cities alone, over 27,000 copies were printed of abbé Fleury’s Catéchisme historique (1683).[3] But how did these titles relate to the better-known literary productions of the Enlightenment? Were they read by different groups of readers, or was there some overlap? And if there was overlap, which titles shared shelf space with which other titles? Would a catechism sit comfortably on a nightstand next to Voltaire’s latest polemic? And if not, how did readers actually move from reading a religious catechism to reading a work by Voltaire?

One way to explore this question is to focus on private libraries and their holdings, as we do in a bibliometric project that will run until 2021, MEDIATE (Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in Europe, 1665 – 1830). By studying both collocations – which titles are most often found in libraries next to one another – as well as specific title frequencies, this project hopes to shed light on titles that might have served as intellectual bridges between a traditional, religious worldview, and the new ideas associated with the Enlightenment.

But bibliometrics can only take us so far, and to really understand the impact of books on intellectual change, we need to study their contents. So another way to find out how readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire is to look more closely at the formal and discursive structures of these works. Catechisms are defined formally, for example, by their question-answer format. Yet religious books were not the only ones to use this structure. The catechism genre is referenced in publications ranging from Fleury’s Catéchisme to Voltaire’s Catéchisme de l’honnête homme (1764), or the revolutionary Catéchisme historique par une bonne citoyenne (c. 1790). A philosophe’s or a revolutionary’s use of the catechism format payed tribute to Christian tradition, even while explicitly distancing itself from it. At what point, then, did the religious reference no longer impact the reception of these texts, or ‘disappear’, to be replaced with ideas clearly aligned with the new?

Among the works that most insistently drew on religious formats were religiously-inspired pedagogical texts. Often female-authored, these titles re-used thematic elements and discursive structures associated with a Catholic worldview, joining them to Enlightenment pedagogical ideals. Texts such as Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Education complète (1753), for example, used the catechism’s question-answer format to teach its young readers the history of the world, from the biblical Flood to the present day. In her best-selling Magasin des enfants (1756), to inculcate in her readers the elements of history, geography, and the natural sciences, Beaumont used religious number symbolism, structuring her narrative into seven days of dialogue between seven fictional pupils, punctuated by twelve fairy tales underlining specific moral points. In the pupils’ allegorical names, the medieval system of the seven vices and virtues was still recognizable. At the end of the century, Marie-Françoise Loquet adopted the system of vices and virtues in her Voyage de Sophie et d’Eulalie au palais du vrai Bonheur (1781), detailing a succession of encounters between the protagonists and personifications of the vices and virtues, in a quest to reach the abodes of Divine Charity and True Happiness.

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Portrait of Madame de Genlis by
Adelaide Labille-Guiard (public domain, courtesy of LA County Museum of Art)

But other pedagogical authors like Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, while paying lip service to religious beliefs, de facto made little use of them. In her collection of tales Veillées du château (1782), Genlis foregrounded the ‘the order in which I needed to present [my ideas] to gradually enlighten the spirit and elevate the soul’. But the content of her tales was so deeply indebted to the new scientific ideas of her age that their religious dimension disappeared from view. In one of the volume’s tales, ‘Alphonse et Dalinde’, Genlis took the reader on a dizzying tour of the world, describing a series of natural and man-made wonders, ranging from earthquakes, meteorites, automata, Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity, and much more. So amazing are all these wonders that the author forgets, finally, to point out the divine hand at work in them. The tale ends up reading as a eulogy of modern science and rationality, in a world that no longer requires divine intervention.

So what remained in the writings of both religiously-inspired pedagogical authors and philosophes, increasingly, were merely the formal and discursive structures of traditional religious genres, now emptied of their religious content. Bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble, the works of Madame de Genlis and of Voltaire do, in fact, surprisingly often find themselves close neighbours on the shelves of eighteenth-century readers, attesting to the conceptual bridge that pedagogical works such as Genlis’s provided between two worldviews that, at first sight, might appear difficult to reconcile.

– Alicia C. Montoya (Radboud University)

References

[1] Philippe Martin, Une religion des livres (1640 – 1850) (Paris, 2003).

[2] Simon Burrows, ‘Charmet and the book police: Clandestinity, illegality and popular reading in late Ancien Régime France’, French History and Civilization vol. 6 (2015), p. 34 – 55 (48).

[3] Julia Dominique, ‘Livres de classe et usages pédagogiques’, in Histoire de l’édition française, vol. 2: Le livre triumphant 1660 – 1830, éd. Henri-Jean Martin and Roger Chartier (Paris, 1990), p. 615 – 56 (629).


Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


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Enlightenment

Language, science and human control of nature: the case of Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’

Hanna Roman discusses the importance of understanding the link between language and nature in 18th century France in her book, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.


In the French eighteenth century, it is difficult to understand how science worked without first studying its relationship to written language. Language was not only a way to communicate ideas. It was the foundation of worlds both real and imagined: it comprised the building blocks of both human nature and of external nature. Things in the world existed because people named, ordered and narrated them. Nature could be studied because it was, in large part, an invention of the human mind; its workings became legible, predictable, scientific because they had been captured in language. In the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot asked: ‘What difference would there be between the reading of a work in which all the motives of the universe are explored, and the very study of the universe? almost none.’[1]

roman-BuffonThe French natural historian, Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon, thought in a similar manner, proposing in his 1778 ‘Des époques de la nature’ (just recently translated into English!) to recount the great eras of natural history ‘as they are or as they could be: for these two points of view are practically the same.’[2] He wrote as if he had personally observed the work of nature since the birth of the planet Earth, and the imagined or hypothetical story was to be considered as good as, if not better, than the first-hand experience of observation. My book traces this curious assumption which can sound quite foreign in the light of modern scientific practices, but which begins to make sense when science is understood as itself a language. The discipline of natural history, in particular, was rigorously redefined by Buffon in the 1750s terms of the creation of relationships (‘rapports’) between the mind and the world in the form of written expression.

Buffon believed that the more the historian studied nature, dedicating time and thought to understanding its order and operation, the more his or her language would come to resemble the world. Nature could be reproduced in words, and soon words could come to stand in the place of nature. The idea of a new, written nature became ever more important to Buffon’s work through the 1760s and 1770s, when he suggested that real nature was losing energy and slowly dying. It needed to be replaced with the human idea of nature. This was no longer simply the story of the past eras of natural history or of the regularity of natural law: it was a vision of a future where the art of human language and the artificiality of human landscapes would become the new natural. Humans gained the ability, right, and obligation to control and change nature because they had appropriated its language. In ‘Des époques de la nature,’ Buffon imagined the world devoid of what he thought to be terrifying wild animals, rugged and inhospitable forests, and cold, uninhabitable swamps. Once people could speak like nature, they could possess it and transform it into a temperate garden, a terrestrial Eden.

After finishing the final chapter of the book, about the human control of nature and the creation of what Buffon considered to be a ‘better world’ through language, I began to think more about the continued influence of the Enlightenment on modern-day thought. It is crucial to understand eighteenth-century attitudes and theories such as Buffon’s about nature in order to see better the assumptions made in Western societies about the environment and its relationship to people. These are not only assumptions about dominating, taming, and taking control of nature for the good of human survival, industry, science, and culture. There is also the underlying belief that the relationships between humans and the natural world are intrinsically part of a story. They must be made to fit into and justify the arc of an inevitable narrative with a clear beginning, end, structure, and chain of causality linking all parts together (examples of such narratives and how to approach their study are examined in the recent publication, Anthropocene Reading, for instance). The language of this story was, for Buffon, a series of keys that would eventually unlock the meaning of the past and the implications or predictions for the future.

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The underlying motifs of Buffon’s story were the slow death of nature as it lost its initial heat and energy, and the opposing, active force of humankind as it worked to hamper this heat death by conquering nature and changing, taming, subduing it. Buffon in fact begged for global warming: he encouraged people to cut down forests, to burn fallow land, to dry up swamps. This idea became part of the narrative of industrialization in western culture, and it is still present as society considers what it has done to the world and how to mediate the world’s end. Buffon’s narrative is an upsetting one—but it raises the issue of the value of a story, of the necessity of inventing a new narrative of nature to which to aspire, and of the uses, implications, and dangers of fiction in the modern sciences.

– Hanna Roman

Hanna Roman is an Assistant Professor of French at Dickinson College. She is interested in the discourses of scientific knowledge in Enlightenment France, and her new research focuses on the languages of theology and natural history in works of eighteenth-century geohistory.

 

References

[1] ‘Quelle différence y auroit-il entre la lecture d’un ouvrage où tous les ressorts de l’univers seroient développés, & l’étude même de l’univers? presqu’aucune.’ Denis Diderot, ‘Encyclopédie,’ Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert, ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, Ed. Robert Morrissey (Chicago, n.d.) http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/, vol.5, p.641 (my translation).

[2] Buffon, ‘Des époques de la nature’, in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: supplément, vol.5 (Paris, Imprimerie royale, 1778), p.53.

Images

[1] Portrait of Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1753) François-Hubert Drouais, Musée Buffon à Montbard

[2] Cover of Hanna Roman, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2018)


 

The Language of Nature in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

 


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Enlightenment

The ‘Beccaria moment’: revisiting the origins of the modern penal system with Philippe Audegean

Pierre Musitelli discusses Cesare Beccaria’s lasting impact on European criminal law, in celebration of the latest Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume, Le moment Beccaria: naissance du droit pénal moderne, 1764-1810, edited by Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia.


Published anonymously in Livorno in July 1764, Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments is at the origin of a remarkable moment in European culture. Translations and commentaries appeared instantly in several languages, and this brief work of some 100 pages gave rise to what Michel Porret has called the ‘Beccaria moment’,[1] referring to the period of intense debate that led to the whole European tradition of penal law being called into question, culminating less than fifty years later in France with the promulgation in 1810 of the Napoleonic Code pénal.

A new book, Le moment Beccaria. Naissance du droit pénal moderne, 1764-1810, edited by Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2018) allows us to revisit this ‘moment’.

The shock wave caused by On Crimes and Punishments

Persuaded that ‘knowledge is the pre-condition of enlightened consent to the laws, that itself is the condition of liberty’ (Audegean[2]), Beccaria makes his text accessible to a wide readership. He rejects the use of Latin, and emphasises clarity and concision. He brings together, to quote his first French translator André Morellet, ‘the strength of reason and the warmth of feeling’[3]. In so doing, criminal law – which had hitherto remained the private and confidential domain of the legal profession – becomes a public affair. The ‘Milan school’ and the group around the journal Il Caffé (1764-1766) that includes Beccaria have as their declared aim, to quote Pietro Verri, to dispel ‘the fog and mystery that allowed the select few to act with impunity while the greater number remained in misery’.[4]

The aim of On Crimes and Punishments is to modernise penal law by establishing it on clear, secular, moderate foundations, so as to fight against the abuses of justice : torture, the scaffold, extreme corporal punishment, the confusion between crime and sin, the arbitrariness of the judiciary, the slowness and secrecy of trials. Penal law is to be brought in line with a sense of legality as defined by the social contract, liberty and the equality of man. This revolution, which established the foundations of the constitutional state, causes a shock wave in Europe of unseen proportions.

To speak of the ‘Beccaria moment’ is therefore to recognise that the origins of modern criminal law are to be found not just in the modest pages of the Milanese thinker but in the hundreds of texts and speeches that his pages inspired in the following decades, from Voltaire’s Commentaire and the issuing of the Nakaz by Catherine the Great (1767) to the abolition of the death penalty in Tuscany (1786) and the criminal laws of the young American nation drawn up by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams, from the first French penal code of 1791, the product of debates among the Constituants in which the name most often cited was Beccaria’s, to the Napoleonic code and the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). But the ‘Beccaria moment’ continues in Victor Hugo’s campaign of 1848 to abolish the death penalty, or, closer to our times, in 1981, in the actions of Robert Badinter.

To understand the sources of modern criminal law means taking into account both Beccaria’s book and its interpretations – in Germany, England, France and Italy – thanks to which a new legal structure gradually emerged, and new principles of punishment meant that the legality of punishments replaced the arbitrary power of the courts.

A ‘moment’ that remains modern

Beccaria’s modernity lies in his having reconceived the problem of punishment in the framework of a new conception of politics born in the Enlightenment period and which is still our own : a framework in which the state’s authority is subjugated to the laws protecting individuals. Criminal law is no longer the royal instrument used by the sovereign to guarantee his strength and establish social order, but rather the instrument of citizens to protect and uphold their liberty and safety against public or private violence.

It follows, as the authors show here, that ‘the power to punish is revealed in all its tragic ambiguity’[5], since it may be necessary, to protect citizens from violations that threaten them, to violate the libery of others, and to threaten their dignity and their physical integrity. How to protect ourselves against the excesses and extremes of the laws that protect us ? This book demonstrates, if it were necessary, that the ‘Beccaria moment’ remains relevant, and it reminds us of the need today to rethink the principles of the Milanese writer so as to better understand in particular the modern tension between the principles of security and liberal values. It invites us to think about the problems raised by the widespread preventative surveillance of individuals in the name of the ‘security of the state’ at a time when new radical forms of criminality are emerging.

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The ‘Beccaria moment’ of 1764 has clearly passed, yet its aspirations represent unfinished business. In the same way that between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, public debate opened up to problems that had not been envisaged by the author of On Crimes and Punishments – in particular the emergence of a new prison regime – his book throws a light today on the present evolution of criminal law, which since the Enlightenment has been a founding and defining element of social order and our institutions. In 2015, Michel Porret elegantly summed up the problem:

As an Enlightened Utopian, Beccaria dreamed of a just city, regulated by constrained force, since excessive punishments encourage brutality in social behaviour […]. Speaking in the language and culture of his times, Beccaria paves the way for the eventual abolition of capital punishment. Today this humane project is enshrined in European democracies. So at a time when certain European gaols resemble more and more the prison hell deplored by John Howard at the end of the eighteenth century, and when populism sees an ethnic element in criminality, fosters social vindictiveness, and in general questions the Enlightenment legal heritage, condemning the State’s role to heal and urging punitive excess in response to problems of security, the generous words of the Italian thinker remain immensely relevant. As if we were still living in the Beccaria moment inaugurated in 1764.[6]

On Friday 12 October 2018, I am pleased to be organising at the École normale supérieure in Paris a round table debate devoted to the book edited by Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia, in the presence of the authors/editors. Also participating in the discussion are Italo Birocchi (professor of the history of medieval and modern law at the University of  Rome La Sapienza), Manuela Albertone (professor of modern history at the University of Turin), and Denis Baranger (professor of public law at the University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas and deputy director of the Institut Michel Villey).

Pierre Musitelli, École normale supérieure, Paris

Translated by Nicholas Cronk.


References
[1] Michel Porret, Beccaria: le droit de punir, Paris, Michalon, 2003, p. 116; and Michel Porret and Élisabeth Salvi (eds.), Cesare Beccaria. La controverse pénale, XVIIIe-XXIe siècle, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015, « Introduction. Le moment Beccaria », p. 15-38.

[2] C. Beccaria, Des délits et des peines, translation by Philippe Audegean, Lyon, ENS Éditions, 2009, p. 398.

[3] [C. Beccaria], Traité des délits et des peines, traduit de l’italien [1765], « Préface du traducteur », p. VIII.

[4] Il Caffè, t. I, foglio V, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 1998, p. 56.

[5] Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia (eds.), Le moment Beccaria. Naissance du droit pénal moderne (1764-1810), Oxford university studies in the Enlightenment, 2018, introduction, p. 4.

[6] Cesare Beccaria. La controverse pénale, p. 37-38.

Images
[1] Allegory of Justice refusing to receive some heads from the hand of a man with a sword, illustration from C. Beccaria, Dei delitti e delle pene. Edizione sesta di nuovo corretta ed accresciuta, Harlem [Paris?], 1766. Public domain. Source: http://gutenberg.beic.it

[2] Title page of the original edition of the Napoleonic code of 1810. Public domain

Le moment Beccaria. Naissance du droit pénal moderne, 1764-1810 is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


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Enlightenment

Green Wigs? Ecology and the Long Eighteenth Century

Denys Van Renen explores the relationship between nature and “new science” in his latest book, the first to be published under the new partnership between the Voltaire Foundation and Liverpool University Press.


Without a doubt, the Restoration era always exceeds students’ expectations. Students arrive with images in their heads of powdered wigs and royal ceremonies; they leave savoring the frankness, liveliness, and relevance of playwrights Aphra Behn, Susan Centlivre, George Farquhar, and John Dryden (All of Love and Amphitryon especially). Generic expectations circumscribe and limit.  But as Dryden describes, poets capture an idea or image in language and activate the senses their readers, creating a pulsating conduit between them and the objects represented. Dryden insists that his aesthetic forms, in his case heroic drama, initially obtrusive, merge with what he depicts. In the period after the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne, the “care and labour of Rhyme is carry’d from us, or at least drown’d in its own sweetness, as Bees are sometimes bury’d in their Honey.” Literary forms serve as porous borders that foster interaction and vibrancy, melting into the things they represent once this exchange has been activated.

Elizabeth Blackwell, “The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus.” Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739).  Credit: Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

How did literature overcome what had become stale Renaissance constructs and respond to contact and exchange across the Americas, Africa, and Asia? The premise of Nature and the New Science is that natural systems shape poetry, philosophy, geography, and politics. After the era I define, writers increasingly fix nature as something to be sought rather than always and everywhere an ambient condition of human life.  But from 1665-1726, nature operated as the medium through which the British sought the unknown, interpreted contact with others abroad, and allowed them to explore the self and adapt to new political and economic realities.

Because so many aspects that define our contemporary world took root in the period, the study of the long eighteenth century remains paramount to understanding seemingly intractable problems as well as institutions we’ve grown to cherish. A few examples include: Western conceptions of the East, global interdependencies, the lives of servants and women, treatment of indigenous people, and the (still) undervalued contributions of women writers. We often characterize the era as charting the “rise” of large-scale processes—the rise of the nation-state; the rise of the novel; the rise of the modern subject; the rise of democratic republicanism, the rise of capitalist economies—obscuring the originary conditions of these movements. In this book I am concerned with the literature that remains in dialogue with various processes, phenomena, places, and beings.

Various initiatives encourage cross-fertilization across academia, governmental organizations, and industry. My own university is in the process of uniting its Colleges of Arts and Sciences into one unit, giving me the opportunity to create interdisciplinary classes like “The Literature, History, and Science of Spaceflight.”  The period under discussion can serve as the lingua franca, enabling increased dialogue among academic units. It is a commonplace to point out that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century disciplinary silos were nonexistent, but what remains understudied is how different areas of study remain tethered, how they need one another to define themselves.

I should know. Earning degrees in both Aerospace Engineering and English and working at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU-Boulder and, later, at Stanford University on satellites called QuickSCAT and Gravity Probe B, I viewed engineering and English as complementary disciplines. Likewise, the “New Science,” which emerged in the seventeenth century, promised to illuminate natural phenomena through the use of reason and special instruments, encouraging detailed inquiries into physical systems. The methodology resembles the practice of close reading a literary text: life appears when one appreciates the minutia. At the same time, the practitioners of the New Science recognized the object of study was inseparable from the device through which one grasped it, as did those who sought innovation in poetic form.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

While receptivity to their surroundings unites the authors studied here from Margaret Cavendish and Milton to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Daniel Defoe, the book observes a gradual diminishment in the writers’ attunement to natural processes as a means to discernment. They succumb instead to constructs of national identities characterized by borders and attendant socio-economic systems. Behn, for instance, ties technology to its capacity to intertwine people and sites rather than displace them, and for Dryden, the kinship between the English and nature enabled circum-oceanic travel. But by the end of the period I trace, only auditory sensations (the haunting cries of animals) remind Robinson Crusoe of vestigial affiliations among all beings.

In the Anthropocene, we struggle with the effects of how human activity changed the climate and environment. Conceptualizing the world through natural systems will not directly reverse rising oceans and carbon dioxide levels. The literature from the period, however, remains vital in that it reminds us that we cannot compartmentalize environmental degradation. It links human and natural systems, helping to perceive this crisis and to reconcile the separation between the two that led to it.

– Denys Van Renen

 

Denys Van Renen is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is the author of ‘The Other Exchange: Women, Servants, and the Urban Underclass in Early Modern England’ and co-editor of ‘Beyond 1776’. He has a critical edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals forthcoming.

 

Images

[1] Elizabeth Blackwell, “The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus.” Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739).
Credit: Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[2] Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.


 

Nature and the new science in England, 1665 – 1726 is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

 


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