- Exquisite Mixture: The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England by Wolfram Schmidgen
In some ways, Wolfram Schmidgen's Exquisite Mixture: The Virtue of Impurity in Early Modern England tells a familiar story. It narrates the way seventeenth-century England overturned scholastic Aristotelianism, challenged political absolutism, and developed theological premises that limited the authority of institutional religion. However, Schmidgen's thorough and convincing unearthing of the intellectual history of the concept of mixture utterly defamiliarizes this narrative and provides us with a new account of the rise of modernity. Instead of an alliance between Protestant theology and the liberty of the [End Page 181] individual, Schmidgen argues that the Catholic intellectual tradition produced an account of liberty with the collective (or multitude) as its basic component. Furthermore, he highlights a supposedly conservative Anglican strain of thought that challenged the Calvinist view in which secondary causes, as well as primary ones, are determined by God's will. For Schmidgen, it is the Anglican, rather than the puritan, tradition that freed up the intellectual space for the New Science's exploration of secondary causes. Finally, Schmidgen argues that thinking through the primary importance of mixture in both politics and science allowed the intellectuals of the seventeenth century to reverse the Aristotelian hierarchy in which the purity of form dominated messy matter. In overturning these conventional assumptions about early modernity in seventeenth-century England, Schmidgen also argues for the centrality of mixture to our own political and scientific modernity, and offers mixture as a positive alternative to the persistent political narratives that uphold the purity of ethnic and national sovereignties.
This book consists of a substantial introduction, three long chapters (on mixture and science, mixture and politics, and mixture in the thought of John Locke), and a short and evocative conclusion. Throughout, Schmidgen demonstrates that mixture can be thought of as an agent of production and creation, which throughout the seventeenth century ceased to be subordinate to the purity of form and became "a fully legitimate cause in its own right" (19). In the introduction, Schmidgen outlines the significance of this process for our understanding of the production of English national identity in the early eighteenth century. Challenging the accepted view that this period saw the construction of a myth of "an essentially Anglo-Saxon culture," Schmidgen demonstrates that for many writers in the period "the process of civilization was fuelled by sexual, linguistic, social, and political mixtures" (2). Schmidgen builds a diverse canon that argues that mixture formed the strength and unity of English identity, a canon that includes not only more predictable and better-known texts, like Daniel Defoe's The True Born Englishman, but also works by the geographer Hermann Moll, the Tory historian Thomas Salmon, and the Augustan poet Jonathan Swift. In many ways, the introduction presents the endpoint of Schmidgen's narrative, a point at which a well-developed theory of mixture "normalised the threatening forces of multiplicity...and laid the foundations for the broad recognition of mixture as a source of perfectibility in early eighteenth century England" (22). In the chapters that follow, Schmidgen's archaeology of the concept of mixture details how we arrived at this point. [End Page 182]
The first chapter of the book shows how seventeenth-century scientists such as Kenelm Digby (biology), Nehemiah Grew (botany), Isaac Newton (physics), and Robert Boyle (chemistry) overturned Aristotle's theory of mixture. Schmidgen begins by demonstrating how two Anglican clergymen, George Hakewill and Nathaneal Carpenter, challenged the Calvinist orthodoxy that saw mixture as corruption, as God's punishment for man's transgression in Eden, arguing instead that nature's creative potential lay not in barren purity but in generative mixture. These unlikely figures become central to Schmidgen's account of the importance of mixture to the New Science. Boyle and Newton, the most canonical figures discussed here, provide the climax of the chapter. Schmidgen argues that whereas Aristotle had limited mixture to being only "a kind of middle" (27) between whatever components originally made up the mixture, Boyle...