- La voix de la nature dans l'œuvre de Jacques Peletier du Mans (1517–1582)
Jacques Peletier du Mans (1517-82), mathematician, physician, poet, courtier, and college president, single-handedly embodies some of the most exciting currents in French Renaissance culture. But what is the common denominator behind these pursuits? Sophie Arnaud introduces Peletier as the practitioner of a "poetic epistemology." For him, knowing the universe was not a purely intellectual process, but one that was intimately shaped by the will, desire, and enthusiasm of the knower. Peletier thus combined the scholastic conception of knowledge-as-contemplation with a more modern notion of knowledge-as-construction, but only by conceiving of knowledge as oratio.
This book originated as a PhD dissertation written at the Université de Poitiers under the direction of Marie-Luce Demonet. As is very often the case, such origins are still noticeable in the structure of this monograph. Arnaud's voluminous work is subdivided into two parts, each consisting of two chapters. This makes it difficult to steer one's way through the numerous sub-sub-subdivisions of the book without frequent consultation of the table of contents. Fortunately, this is well worth the effort. Arnaud has written a reliable and thoroughly documented study of Peletier's scientific project that sheds important new light on the relation between court and university culture in the French Renaissance.
In the first part, Arnaud explores various aspects of Peletier's attitude toward Nature, while the second part is devoted to his relation with the word. "Le sens de la nature" opens with a chapter on nature and human destiny. Here, Arnaud immediately makes clear the fundamental importance of mathematics for Peletier's "poetic epistemology." Peletier firmly believed in the geometer-God and in the creative force of the geometrical point or single number, ideas which he shared with Cusanus and Cardano. Accordingly, he resolves the tension between determinism and fortune by recommending the study of geometrical proportions in nature as a way to avoid the vagaries of fortune. However, this does not mean that the intellect can know the mind of God, or that Peletier is interested in the theologia mathematica that previously preoccupied the circle of Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples. In Peletier's work, reason and transcendence remain firmly separated, and touch only in indirect ways: For instance, knowing the world remains dependent on the semina that the divine mens has sown at Creation.
Consideration of this last idea allows Arnaud to offer a fascinating reconsideration of some undervalued currents in Renaissance humanism. The first concerns [End Page 218] humanism's relation with craft traditions. It was not just Paracelsus, but also orthodox humanists — Peletier, Marstaller, and most famously Vivès — that valued the manual transmission of knowledge and attached religious significance to it. A second theme on which Arnaud sheds new light is humanism's fascination with the innate knowledge of the "simple folk," which they often (but hardly exclusively) celebrated through bucolic and didactic poems.
In her second chapter, Arnaud explores Peletier's ideas on mathematical "harmony," which turn out to be more commonplace. For Peletier, music is the fundamental mathematical discipline, but needs astrology to disclose the full extent of natural harmony. Within this context, Arnaud provides a salutary discussion of Peletier's attitude towards the ontological and epistemological status of mathematical hypotheses.
Unlike Ronsard, Peletier views the poet's task not as imaginative demiurgy, but as a reproducing of the natural world. That this is done in metrum shows that the poet's word obeys the (mathematical) natural law that it seeks to represent. Accordingly, Arnaud devotes part 2 of her monograph to "La parole naturelle." From a close reading of Peletier's works, Arnaud establishes that the ear, not sight, was his preferred external sense, which ties in with the larger context of reading practices in sixteenth-century Europe. Through his poetry, Peletier seeks...