- Milton among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth-Century England, and: Contemplation of Created Things: Science in Paradise Lost
In past studies of science there has been a dispute between intellectual historians such as Thomas Kuhn and Richard Westfall, who provide rational reconstructions of a natural philosopher’s thought by a careful reading and interpreting of texts, and social contextualists such as Christopher Hill, Steven Shapin, and Simon Schaffer, who question how the sociopolitical interests of scientists determined their allegiance to any theoretical construction of the physical world. Recently, however, these contrasting methodologies have been superseded by an even newer approach that attempts a revitalized examination of the intellectual content of past science without returning to the older form of rational “intellectualist” reconstructions. The goal—generally “intellectualist,” and exemplified by Rose-Mary Sargent’s studies on Boyle and those of Antonio Perez-Ramos on Bacon—is to provide a more localized and subtle understanding of differences in individual thinkers without resorting to the philosophical categories of twentieth-century academic studies
In similar fashion, Harinder Singh Marjara and Stephen M. Fallon begin their work on Milton by asserting the need to dismantle the conceptual barriers imposed by contemporary academic studies of literature and the history of science. While both studies can be classified as broadly “intellectualist,” Fallon’s work resembles the recent studies by Sargent and Perez-Ramos, which are historically aware of local differences between thinkers of distinct political and social milieus. In contrast, Marjara follows the practices of earlier “intellectualist” historians Thomas Kuhn, Peter Medawar, and William Shea by acknowledging the more general similarities that underlie the study of scientific activity and the practices of the literary scholar. Marjara’s main concern is to position Milton’s philosophical thought within the context of numerous scientific ideas in circulation during the seventeenth century, and to save him from the labels “medieval,” “anachronistic,” and “obscurantist” given to him by such literary historians as E. M. W. Tillyard and Douglas Bush.
As such, Marjara’s book serves as an important reference text on the various scientific beliefs found in Paradise Lost, such as animist materialism (the subject of Fallon’s book), the existence of extramundane space, the influence of the stars, and the use of mathematical models, to name but a few (discussed in part 2, “The Physical Universe in Paradise Lost”). Marjara’s purpose is to demonstrate the methodological affinities of science and poetry, showing how scientific [End Page 441] analogies interlinked “the various natural phenomena into a complex structure of metaphors” (p. 15). In part 1 (“The Ways of Science”), he argues that Milton’s vision of nature should not be considered as science in the narrow twentieth-century definition, but should be conceived as a complex system of interpenetrating meanings that included a moral, metaphysical, and theological dimension and could thus be compared to the scientific models of his contemporaries. For example, Milton’s use of geometrical lines to describe the flight of Satan demonstrated the importance of mathematical models as a means of orienting oneself in terms of the space around earth (p. 195). Likewise, Bruno and Galileo used mathematical illustrations in order to confirm the existence of an area of darkness revolving around the earth in the shape of a cone; without these geometrical abstractions, there would be no way for scientists to conceive of such a space. Throughout part 3 (“Milton’s Philosophy of Nature”), however, Marjara implies that the purpose of the poet did not coincide with that of the natural philosopher, whose task was to explain the workings of nature rather than to justify God’s ways to man. Marjara does not completely dismantle the philosophical categories of twentieth-century academic studies. While he compiles an indispensable encyclopedia of contemporary scientific beliefs found in Milton’s poetry, he does not reconstruct within Milton’s work a coherent philosophical system...