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  • Empiricist Devotions: Science, Religion, and Poetry in Early Eighteenth-Century England by Courtney Weiss Smith
  • Endre Szécsényi
Empiricist Devotions: Science, Religion, and Poetry in Early Eighteenth-Century England by, Courtney Weiss Smith. Charlottesville and London, University of Virginia Press, 2016. viii, 280 pp. $45.00 US (cloth or e-book).

Empiricist Devotions is an important book. It is a well-written, highly erudite scholarly enterprise that deals with the seventeenth century tradition of Protestant meditation most clearly and most influentially represented by Robert Boyle's Occasional Reflections and with its deep impact on early eighteenth century popular Newtonian, economic, political, and poetical thought. Amos Funkenstein, Matthew L. Jones, Joanna Picciotto, Sorana Corneanu, Peter Harrison, and others have already discussed that the emerging natural sciences from Sir Francis Bacon onward were not primarily "scientific" in our sense of the word, but were tightly or inseparably connected to moral philosophy and theology, in other words, they have been well aware of the profound relationship between empiricism and meditation. This book belongs to this scholarly tradition, at the same time, it extends the familiar interpretive scheme to understand even the georgic [End Page 596] poetry of early eighteenth-century England. Empiricist Devotions demonstrates that, despite the well-known association of modern natural sciences with modernization, secularization, or the individual autonomy, "empiricism actually cooperated with the spiritual beliefs it is supposed to have undermined; that the empirical subject could be humble and pious, seeking subordination instead of mastery; that tropes like analogy were central to the new science's logics; and that people scrutinized nature in pursuit of both scientific and moral or religious truth" (36). This ambitious and intriguing enterprise needs to discuss an enormous number of authors of very different fields and their texts of very different genres written with either scholarly, or popular aims, applying inventive close-readings in their interpretations, and to discovering fruitful and illuminating relationships between seemingly distant ideas or realms. Empiricist Devotions meets all these requirements. Its prose provides welcome clarity even if that shades into a didacticism that overly mollycoddles the reader: it contains frequent summaries of the previous arguments and insights, and always clearly tells what the reader can expect in the following passages, so it is impossible to be lost in the text or to miss its major theses. Practically, a review of this book could easily be composed of a series of quotations from it. Courtney Weiss Smith must be a very good and devoted teacher.

The first four chapters address Boyle's meditation; Newton's popular clockwork world metaphor; the foundation of money in nature; and contemporary social contracts theories. In the final chapter, Smith discusses the georgic poetry of the early eighteenth century and its empirical-devotional poetics. In a sense, this chapter is the climax of the book, or at least it is one of its most original parts. "[E]arly eighteenth-century English poets understood georgic as an especially apt generic vehicle for the meditative empiricism." And mostly through Joseph Addison's Essay on the Georgics (1697) as a theoretical reflection on this genre, Smith shows that "his contemporaries privileged georgic as an exciting way of pursuing empiricist devotions;" since like those, "georgic encourages people to scrutinize particulars [of husbandry] as they try to understand what they mean — practically, morally, and providentially" (182–183). In this point, the reader might expect at least some hint at the emerging modern "aesthetics" (a word we cannot find in this book) elaborated by Lord Shaftesbury, Addison, Richard Steele, or Francis Hutcheson in the early eighteenth century: it basically means a new type of experience of nature that seems to follow a very similar logic. And Addison's "aesthetic" essays, which were evidently indebted to the Protestant tradition of meditation, could have additionally been an excellent occasion to reflect on other types of meditative traditions that were present in that time, and were also constitutive in formulating the new "aesthetic" experience. There was the Socratic-Stoic philosophy as "a way of life" famously discussed by Pierre Hadot (his [End Page 597] books are missing from Smith's impressive bibliography), which was also deeply determinant in Lord Shaftesbury's influential...


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