Lucretian Thought in Late Stuart England: Debates about the Nature of the Soul by Laura Linker (review)
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Lucretian Thought in Late Stuart England: Debates about the Nature of the Soul by Laura Linker
New York: Palgrave, 2013.
viii+86pp. US$75. ISBN 978-1-137-39857-4.

There is an old adage about love that says, “It is we know not what, which comes in we know not whence, and goes away we know not how.” In the early modern period, several natural philosophers sought to address this timeless complaint: they developed theories about what love is, about where it comes from, and about how it might be prolonged or regulated towards the best ends. These theories are brought to the fore in Laura Linker’s fine study of the shaping and development of naturalphilosophical ideas in selected literary texts of the early modern era. The central figure of her study is Walter Charleton, a popularizer of Pierre Gassendi’s Epicurean atomism in mid-seventeenth-century England. Linker traces the influence of Charleton’s amatory fiction The Ephesian Matron (1659) to the anonymous satire The Cimmerian Matron (1668), and then examines the impact of Charleton’s Natural History of the Passions (1674) on George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), before concluding with a discussion of Lucretian atomism in the Poems (1703) of Mary Chudleigh. Linker’s study is valuable for the light that it throws on Charleton’s ideas and, more generally, the influence of Epicurean atomistic thought on the literature of the period.

Though Linker’s subtitle suggests that she will offer a survey of “debates about the nature of the soul,” her discussion focuses more narrowly on discussions about one singular aspect of the soul: its passions. The work begins with an account of the natural-philosophical ideas embedded in The Ephesian Matron, the tale of a comely young widow who is overcome by the death of her beloved husband. While the widow is mourning beside her husband’s coffin, she attracts the attention of a nearby soldier, who is guarding the body of an executed thief. The handsome soldier commiserates with the widow, revives her spirits with food and wine, and then sits and chats with her into the wee small hours. Naturally—of course!—they end up falling into each other’s arms and having wild, passionate sex beside the dead body of the woman’s husband. Despite its scandalous subject matter, the tale is intended to be a nonjudgmental lesson in the changeability of the passions. The tale provides Charleton with a platform to discuss his medico-philosophical theories about the influence of the “animal spirits,” those rare blood particles responsible for atomic motions in the body. Linker’s analysis helpfully points to innovations in Charleton’s thought, his rejection of Descartes’s idea of a single unified immaterial soul, and the development of his own theory of [End Page 519] two souls: one an incorporeal substance (the “rational” soul), the other corporeal (the “sensitive” soul). This dual-soul model provides Charleton with a physiological explanation for why human beings have so little power over their actions, especially in the throes of love and sexual desire. Why do they have so little power? Because the disordered animal spirits act involuntarily within the corporeal soul, placing the passions outside of the direct control of the rational mind. In the course of spelling out these ideas, Linker contends, Charleton adapts and revises the Cartesian theory of the passions.

On the whole, Linker’s work admirably succeeds in highlighting Charleton’s original refinements on Epicurean atomism and his impact on other literary texts of the period. But it is not so clear that this work succeeds in showing how Charleton radically departs from Descartes’s views. Contrary to what Linker suggests, Descartes did not believe that the immaterial soul and the material body are “separated” in this lifetime (13, 14); rather, he maintains that the soul and body are closely interconnected and intermingled in the living human subject. Furthermore, he did not claim that the passions “originate” in the soul (4). In his view, they are caused, rather, by the bodily motions of animal spirits acting on the pineal gland in the brain. Like Charleton, Descartes regards the...