- The Nature of Nature in Early Modern Europe
Introduction: What Was Modern about the Early Modern?
The very term “early modern” implies a historical doctrine of preformationism: whatever characterizes modernity was somehow present in embryo—tiny but recognizable—in the period from circa 1500 to 1789. “Early modern” is as screamingly anachronistic and teleological a label as “the Middle Ages”; yet even a generation of historians trained to revile anachronism and teleology as cardinal sins still clings not only to the letter but also to the spirit of the term. The most provocative recent works of cultural, intellectual, social, economic, and political history locate the origins of the modern state, modern capitalism, the modern mind, the modern individual, and, of course, modern science in this pivotal period. The history of science has long underwritten, and continues to underwrite, the validity of the periodization “early modern” by singling out much the same chronological territory with its own portentous label, “the Scientific Revolution.” Despite upheavals in the recent historiography of the Scientific Revolution, the narrative remains one of mythic origins: the remarkable historical work of the past decade presents, for example, seventeenth-century experiments in a very different light than did James Bryant Conant or Marie Boas Hall, but the old and new studies agree that seventeenth-century experiments were at once a dramatic innovation with respect to all that came before, and the ancestor and model for all that came [End Page 149] after. 1 Even those who, like Bruno Latour, loudly assert that “we have never been modern” take this seventeenth-century moment to be seminal of our characteristic brand of unmodernity. 2 Like the preformationist fantasy of uncountably many human generations nested one within another in the womb of Eve, all that is modern, from secularization to commodity capitalism to scientific experiment, is imagined to lie curled within the fertile and capacious womb of the early modern. 3
Mythologies, especially origin mythologies, are notoriously deep-rooted and resilient. Dispense with them in religion, and they crop up in art: nineteenth-century biblical scholars debunked Genesis, only to embrace Der Ring der Nibelungen. Sigmund Freud’s “return of the repressed” was primarily and literally the return of buried mythologies—Oedipus, Jocasta, and company. Myths are tenacious because they defy the too-simple logic of true versus false. They are typically false in all their details, and true in their essences. I cherish no illusions about the efficacy of empirical counterexamples, or rational argument, or even ridicule to loosen the hold of such mythologies on the collective imagination of historians. Rather, I want to examine the most powerful variant of the myth of the early modern pregnant with the modern, the variant that has elevated the Scientific Revolution to epoch-making significance not only in the narratives of the history of science, but also in the grander (and usually gloomier) narratives of cultural critics, from Max Weber to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to Michel Foucault. This is the myth of the disenchantment of nature, here summarized in bare-bones version.
Sometime between the mid-sixteenth and the mid-eighteenth centuries, so runs the myth, nature lost its soul. No longer animated [End Page 150] nor active, nature was reduced to brute, passive, stupid matter. The Scientific Revolution transformed creative nature into a machine, blindly obedient to cause and effect. But as nature’s IQ plummeted, its authority soared. Nature replaced God as the ultimate basis for legitimation: natural law warranted the social and political orders, natural desires justified the expansion and deregulation of commerce, natural theology proved the existence and benevolence of the deity. Mythologists in this tradition resolve the apparent paradox of nature’s simultaneous fall and rise by pointing to the cultural logic of naturalization. Nature’s authority in hotly contested social and political matters such as the subordination of wives to husbands or the subordination of subjects to monarchs or the subordination of infidels to established religion depends on the claim that nature is a neutral party to such strife. And what is more neutral than a stupid machine? The very enslavement of nature to a metaphysics of regularity, necessity, and uniformity recommended it...