- Subverting Aristotle: Religion, History, and Philosophy in Early Modern Science by Craig Martin
Subverting Aristotle, the title of this excellent contribution by a specialist in the field of early modern science and philosophy, plays on the grammatical ambiguity of the word subverting, which can be read either as a participle (therefore as an adjective, suggesting that Aristotle was a “subversive” author) or as a gerund (therefore as a noun, suggesting that the “subversion” of Aristotle happened during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). Either reading suits the subtitle well: Aristotle undermined “religion, history and philosophy in early modern science” (historically speaking), or else undermining Aristotle was necessary for redefining “religion, history and philosophy in early modern science.” To add to this productive ambiguity, one may notice as well that, while subversion and to subvert denote actions aimed at overthrowing some established order, they also signify “to corrupt” and “to debase,” especially in a moral context. This kind of ambiguity is semantic rather than grammatical and adds a particular nuance (perhaps slightly conspiratorial) to the early modern perception of Aristotle’s philosophy. Beginning in the Middle Ages, Aristotelian ideas insinuated themselves cleverly and stealthily into the fabric of Western philosophy, science, and theology. In different ways during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the persistent dangers of Aristotelian doctrines were associated with the oppressive control of the establishment (which is to say, of scholasticism, including the more up-to-date version provided by the Jesuits) or with the self-sufficiency of the laws deemed to govern the cosmos (which is to say, with various forms of naturalism and determinism).
The tension produced in the title by grammatical and semantic ambiguities (a very titillating tension for the reader) is put to rest by the main thrust of Martin’s thesis, which is that, in the early modern period, the only remedy [End Page 106] against the subversive Aristotle (the impious perverter of Christian minds and morals) was to subvert Aristotle himself through new metaphysical, scientific, and historiographic accounts in tune with new religious and theological views. Indeed, the theological and religious motives for dislodging Aristotle were perhaps stronger than any philosophical, scientific, or philological drive. From this point of view, the book is impeccable in its thorough and learned analysis. I was hoping, however, that the ambiguity pleasantly lingering in the title (whether accidental or deliberate) would be kept alive throughout the volume. In Martin’s picture, there is very little room left for the actual “subversive” Aristotle during the early modern period, while almost all of the attention is reserved for the “subverted” Aristotle or the process through which Aristotle was subverted. The viewpoint, then, is a conservative one: Aristotelianism returns to be seen as the tattered ghost of a former speculative splendor dispelled by the scientific revolution, the Reformation, and various instances of mechanical and corpuscularian philosophies. It is for this reason, perhaps, that William Harvey, a trendy and avant-garde Aristotelian of the seventeenth century, has been so surprisingly left out or that the Aristotelian contribution to the development of early modern aesthetic thinking and literary criticism (the senses, theory of judgment, and mimetic empathy) did not make it into Martin’s account.
Guido Giglioni, Cassamarca Senior Lecturer in Neo-Latin Cultural and Intellectual History at the Warburg Institute, University of London, is a coeditor of Francis Bacon on Motion and Power and the author of numerous articles, in English and Italian, on early modern philosophy, medicine, and science, as well on authors such as Robert Boyle, William Harvey, and Ralph Cudworth.