- Science, Literature and Rhetoric in Early Modern England
"No issue was more central to the dissemination of natural philosophy as a mode of inquiry," write Juliet Cummins and David Burchell in their introduction, "than the relationship between words and things" (1). This interplay between natural philosophy and rhetoric —and, specifically, the "problem of establishing 'certain' knowledge in linguistic terms" —the editors state, "is the territory upon which the current collection stakes its claim to originality" (1-2). While readers may desire a more cohesive sense of where the nine essays that follow leave us at the end, this volume nonetheless succeeds in assembling wide-ranging and frequently provocative studies that, individually and collectively, mark a welcome contribution to the field.
Not adhering to any particular taxonomy beyond a roughly chronological order, the collection begins with Peter Harrison's illuminating study of how early modern natural philosophers "sought to establish the moral credentials of the sciences" (16) by coopting humanist ideals of education. Depicting empirical research as virtuous in both methodology and result —the former improves moral habits, the latter charitably eases "man's estate" (24) —apologists helped reshape "social perceptions of utility" (34) and legitimize natural philosophy. In the next chapter, Anne Sutherland examines the "allegorical and empirical dimensions" (37) of the astronomical allusions in The Winter's Tale. These allusions, Sutherland contends, signal Shakespeare's interest in not only regeneration myths but also specific celestial alignments visible in Jacobean England, leading to a tenuous claim for dating the play to the spring of 1611. In the third chapter, David Burchell counters readings of Thomas Hobbes as posing a "non-rhetorical (or perhaps anti-rhetorical) model of civil philosophy" (53), and he recuperates the "range of other style-models" (54) available to Hobbes, including Lipsius's late sixteenth-century reinvigoration of Atticism. Burchell convincingly argues that Hobbes's [End Page 1406] ostensible rejection of rhetoric is, in fact, a studied posture, itself dependent on classical rhetorical theory.
At the volume's center are two essays on Milton and two on literary responses to the Royal Society. Angelica Duran examines "the relationship of catechism and emerging scientific method" in Milton's Of Education and Paradise Lost (76). Duran argues that by "replacing politically-charged and confining catechetical performance with productive ad hoc intercourse of the divine, human, and natural, Milton speaks to key new scientific reappropriations of catechism" (93). Catherine Gimelli Martin's compelling essay reads Milton's links to the Royal Society and affinity for the Royalist Cowley through "their common Baconian heritage" (99). This heritage "provide[s] the underpinnings of the simultaneously empirical and spiritual ideals embraced not just by Cowley and his fellow Royal Society rhetoricians, but also by Milton's Christian Doctrine and his Of Education" (100). Peter Dear argues that Margaret Cavendish trumpeted her aristocratic rank in order to legitimize her critique of the Royal Society in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. Emphasizing her position as "author rather than . . . experimenter" (125), Cavendish attacked "the work of the experimental philosopher" as having "no practical value" and as producing "deception rather than truth" (132). Also challenging the Society's "diffuse pursuits" and "love for arcane knowledge" (149) were satirists such as Thomas Shadwell and Jonathan Swift, the subjects of Peter Anstey's engaging essay on literary responses to Boyle's natural philosophy. As empiricists failed to communicate to a broader audience the "theoretical substructure or heuristic" (150) informing famous experiments, satirists exploited the increasingly blurred boundaries between "genuinely fertile . . . experimental inquiry" and "mere tinkering with nature" (152).
The volume concludes with two essays centering on the late seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. In a clever and eloquent study, Sophie Gee reads Pope's Dunciad as appropriating Milton's representation of Chaos in Paradise Lost —specifically, its philosophy of animated matter —in order to critique London's commodities market. Skeptical of the credit economy, Pope turns to "Milton's vitalist materialism" (180) since credit for Pope...