restricted access Reading Locke and Newton as Literature
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MIL TON WILSON Reading Locke and Newton as Literature What does one expect from a title like 'Reading Locke and Newton as Literature'? Maybe some account of their prose style, or, more broadly, of their rhetoric, as it contributes to the persuasive quality of what they are arguing for. Well, it would certainly be possible to include my particular concerns, plus plenty of other matters, under the broad umbrella of rhetoric. But what I really want to do is discuss Locke and Newton in terms which would not seem out of place in a course on poetry or drama or, more especially, fiction. I am thinking of such long-standing critical topics as narration, point of view, characteristic diction, patterns of images or exempla, quality of mimetic detail, even creative myth-making or imaginative range. And I am interested not so much in how these things contribute to the arguments of Locke and Newton as in how they don't: that is to say, in how the excesses and unpredictabilities of these authors' literary invention go beyond the philosophy (or natural philosophy in Newton's case) in ways that, while not always subversive of the philosophic purpose, manage to seem somehow self-sustaining. Obviously my two authors are not among those philosophical changelings whom poets are fond of claiming as their brethren, like Plato or Nietzsche. No librarian has ever had second thoughts about shelving Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding or Newton's Opticks. What follows is, I suppose, an attempt to provide grounds for such an idiosyncratic librarian. I should add that, although this paper contains few specific debts to them, I nevertheless feel hovering over its pages the presence of three former teachers in Toronto's English department: I am thinking of Kenneth MacLean and Rosalie Colie on Locke and F.E.L. Priestley on Newton. As is often pointed out, much of the effect of a philosophical argument comes from the skill with which instances are chosen and applied. But whereas the philosophic reader needs to be convinced by their relevance to the author's argument and somehow kept from regarding them as an unrepresentative batch, the literary reader may easily be more concerned with their place in the author's self-presentation. Locke's autobiographical tone is pervasive and, unlike that of Descartes in the Meditations, it is casual and informal, and, unlike that of Montaigne, it extends over an UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 57, NUMBER 4, SUMMER ]988 472 MILTON WILSON essay of nearly a thousand pages. His instances seem drawn from a lifetime of experience and imply thousands more. I needn't spend much time on staple phrases in the texture of Locke's Essay such as 'Ionce knew aman ... who told me he had never dreamed in his life .. : or 'I once saw a creature that was the issue ofa cat and a rat' or 'I was once in a meeting of very learned and ingenious physicians' or 'a sort of birds 1lately saw in St. James's park'; these have the essay flavour of things in Bacon like 'I knew two who were competitors for the secretary's place in Queen Elizabeth's time: But we get more than Locke ransacking his store of past episodes, we also get the present essayist writing in the here and now. Whereas philosophical commentators, when they discuss his account of identity, are understandably concerned with such useful instances as 'the soul of a prince ... enter[ing] and inform[ing] the body of a cobbler' or Socrates awake and Socrates asleep, a literary reader might be more struck by the reflexive moments when Locke at work on his Essay is the instance at hand. After all, the famous tabula rasa image isn't just an image for the mind; it faces Locke literally from his desk. He says, Had I the same consciousness that I saw the ark and Noah's flood, as that Isaw an overflowing ofthe Thames last winter, or as that Iwrite now, Icould no more doubt that I who write this now, that saw the Thames overflowed last winter, and that viewed the flood at the general deluge, was the...