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  • Rhetoric, Science, and Magic in Seventeenth-Century England
  • Gwynn Dujardin
Ryan J. Stark . Rhetoric, Science, and Magic in Seventeenth-Century England. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009. Pp. 234.

Ryan J. Stark's Rhetoric, Science, and Magic in Seventeenth-Century England revisits a paradox in seventeenth-century writing that has long puzzled literary scholars: how do we reconcile early scientists' calls for a "plain" writing style with their own figurative, even florid, prose? As Stark notes in his introduction, previous critics have supposed "that the new philosophers contradicted themselves by using metaphorical styles to critique metaphorical styles, or were—to put it bluntly—hypocrites" (1-2). Stark counters this trend by rereading the critiques through the dual lenses of science and magic. Examining a century of antirhetorical rhetoric, Stark's book shows how supernatural belief persists with the advent of British empiricism, and even serves to shape modern scientific discourse.

In Stark's view, early modern experimentalists do not seek to eradicate all figurative language from writing. Rather, the new philosophers oppose "charmed rhetoric" (2), or the use of tropes believed to conjure or mystify. The difference, Stark insists, is ontological, as the proto-empiricist writings he reviews espouse a pragmatic, materialist philosophy averse to the notion of rhetorical enchantment. When in The History of the Royal Society (1667), for example, Thomas Sprat observes that rhetorical tropes are "generally chang'd to worse uses," and "give the mind a motion too changeable, and bewitching, to consist with right practice" (qtd. 49), Stark draws our attention [End Page 226] to the term "bewitching" to argue that Sprat's condemnation of the "worst uses" of rhetoric does not apply to all forms of metaphor but specifically to occult applications. Putting the language reforms of the new philosophers in this reformed intellectual perspective, Stark discerns how figurative language might be used to decorate the new philosophers' ideas without contradicting their calls for plainness.

More significantly, he argues effectively for the substance behind seventeenth-century approaches to style—in particular, how the new science promotes rhetorical simplicity as an epistemological proposition. Training our eyes on Joseph Glanvill's revisions of The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661), published in 1665 as Scepsis scientifica, Stark accounts for Glanvill's ostensibly stylistic revisions in philosophical terms. What in the earlier work Glanvill repeatedly refers to as "aqueous Crystal," for example, he later designates simply as "ice." Addressing this seemingly minor alteration, Stark points out how the "crystalline shape evokes the Renaissance scrying stone" (37), a mystical crystal purported to offer visions for divination and known to have been used by renowned sixteenth-century magus John Dee. The change reflects more than a mere substitution, Stark argues, as the difference between "aqueous crystal" and "ice" marks a divergence between two points of view, indeed Glanville's gradual rejection of supernatural perception and his embrace of empiricist modes of observation. Throughout the book, Stark conducts comparable, original readings of the writings of Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Browne, Thomas Sprat and John Locke, as well as Meric Causabon and John Dryden, among other prominent seventeenth-century authors.

The finer Stark's terms of analyses, the more surprising and useful his contribution, as when he distinguishes between objections to early modern practitioners of the occult and those practicing witchcraft and demonry. The new philosophers seek to discredit and eradicate the former, Stark discerns, because occult philosophers, which include natural magicians, Neoplatonists, Rosicrucians, alchemists, and astrologers, represent an episteme based in the mystical that the new science aims to displace. By contrast, as belief in the presence and powers of witchcraft forms the dark complement to religious belief, repudiating the existence of the supernatural wholesale is tantamount to rejecting the foundations of Christianity. Limning these distinctions in admirably clear prose, Stark adds clarity to other features of early modernity as he discerns the functions of figurative language in the scientific movement for plain style.

Stark's contribution would be more wide-ranging were he to observe how the experimentalists' denunciation of charmed rhetoric dovetails with other notable rejections of linguistic "distemper" in the period. For example, he [End Page 227] quotes one of the most renowned passages of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5111
Print ISSN
1556-8547
Pages
pp. 226-228
Launched on MUSE
2012-11-10
Open Access
No
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