Knowledge:The British Virtuoso
In the long eighteenth century, the New Science, its objects and practices, seemed to demand a form of commitment from the naturalist community that many Britons felt to rival and, essentially, to endanger a Christian's devotion to God. Naturalists' observation of nature, as Lorraine Daston has shown, could indeed become "too absorbing to be easily compatible with other social, professional, and religious commitments."1 Although naturalists like Robert Boyle claimed that experimental philosophy represents a form of religious worship—a concept that Courtney Weiss Smith has called "meditative empiricism"—criticism persisted throughout the long eighteenth century.2 Enlightenment moralists condemned contemporary scientific practices and approaches to knowledge as a secularized form of devotion that had lost sight of reason, God, and the afterlife. They used the satirical character of the Virtuoso to respond to what they considered to be naturalist enthusiasm and, hence, a threat to the stability of contemporary society.3 Their texts show how the Virtuoso conceives of, approaches, and examines his object of interest.4 Such representations allow us to draw conclusions as to the meaning and forms of scientific devotion in the Enlightenment.
Moralistic writers imagined the Virtuoso to express his scientific devotion, first and foremost, in and through his practices. In the texts I have examined, the most stable practice is that of collecting—collecting curiosities and rarities from past and present, from Europe and beyond.5 The habit of collecting is intricately connected to the idea of ordering, or classifying [End Page 279] systematically or even taxonomically, for instance, by grouping insects and their subsets according to their kind.6 The majority of the texts explicitly engage with observational practices that Lorraine Daston has shown to be prominent in the period, namely, attentive and repeated observation that entails inductive reasoning and careful examination with the help of the senses.7 Like the type's historical models, the Virtuoso takes advantage of scientific instruments like "microscopes, telescopes, thermometers, barometers, pneumatic engines, [and] stentrophonical tubes."8 Furthermore, he is keen on inventing new tools that he can use in his experiments—an urge that associates him with the Projectors of the period, notorious for their dubious business schemes.9 A minority of my sources present the Virtuoso as habitually engaged in acts of reading such natural philosophical texts as Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and Carolus Linnæus's Systema Naturae.10
These practices were not suspicious as such, but they became problematic as the Virtuoso misapplied them. Enlightenment moralists often felt scientific devotion to be accompanied by excess and madness—two characteristics that show in the Virtuoso's unrestrained curiosity and, in turn, in the neglect of his family and his private and public affairs.11 The Virtuoso's immoderate study of nature often makes him essentially unsociable—even asocial.12 The relationships within the scientific community replace family ties; yet, more than that, scientific devotion kindles a sense of pride and superiority—a sense of competition—that threatens to undermine any allegiance within the (scientific) community and, hence, endangers the stability of contemporary British society.13 This was all the more tragic because moralists found difficulty in reconciling the Virtuoso's accomplishments—from collections of bottled air and a method of breeding sheep without wool to collections containing "Pope Joan's toe-nail"—with their conception of (socially) useful knowledge.14
Yet while moralists criticized the Virtuoso for his misconceived devotion to knowledge, they used their writings to present a balanced alternative. The Tatler No. 119, for instance, discovers the periodical's persona Isaac Bickerstaff pondering the merits of the microscope and "reflecting upon Myriads of Animals that swim in those Vessels of an human Body. While [his] Mind was thus filled with that secret Wonder and Delight, [he] could not but look upon [him]self as in an Act of Devotion."15 Mr. Rambler emphasizes the value of collections of art and science as well as the significance of examining "the structure of animals … ; they exhibit evidences of infinite wisdom, bear their testimony to the supreme reason, and excite in the mind new raptures of gratitude, and new incentives to piety."16 Here, Bickerstaff and Mr. Rambler confirm seventeenth-century naturalist convictions that the study of nature corresponds to religious acts of devotion. So the core [End Page 280] of the problem rests in the role of reason, as Mr. Spectator expresses in an essay dedicated to the nature of and errors in devotion: "Devotion … may disorder the Mind, unless its Heats are tempered with Caution and Prudence. … [W]hen it does not lie under the check of Reason, [it] is very apt to degenerate into Enthusiasm."17 The Virtuoso's actions and habits exhibit immoderate, enthusiastic devotion to knowledge. Reason and moderation, by contrast, coupled with naturalist practices, are conducive to socially and morally useful knowledge and, hence, inspire adequate scientific devotion.
Theresa Schoen is assistant professor and the chair for English Literary Studies at Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg, at Halle, Germany. She is at work on a manuscript, "A Cosmography of Man: Character Sketches in The Tatler and The Spectator," which explores how Joseph Addison and Richard Steele's character sketches communicate and order moral knowledge by adapting early scientific observational practices. Her research interests include the concept of character and the interrelations of science and literature, particularly in the eighteenth century, as well as ideas and images of madness as conceptualized in literary texts.
1. Lorraine Daston, "The Empire of Observation, 1600–1800," in Histories of Scientific Observation, ed. Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck (Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011), 81–113, 102.
2. See Peter Harrison, "Sentiments of Devotion and Experimental Philosophy in Seventeenth-Century England," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 44, no. 1 (2014): 113–33, 128. Courtney Weiss Smith, Empiricist Devotions: Science, Religion, and Poetry in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Charlottesville, VA: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2016), 47.
3. For an introduction to the character of the Virtuoso, see Walter Houghton, "The English Virtuoso in the Seventeenth Century," Journal of the History of Ideas 3, no. 1 (1942): 51–73; and Houghton, "The English Virtuoso," Journal of the History of Ideas 3, no. 2 (1942): 190–219, accessed 17 June 2010, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2707461 (Part I) and http://jstor.org/stable/2707177 (Part II).
4. As the majority of the texts display male (and gentleman) Virtuosi, I shall abide by the masculine personal pronoun. Remarkably, The Spectator alone represents an exception regarding the type's gender and rank, ridiculing female Virtuosi belonging to the merchant rank.
5. I have analysed the portrayal of the Virtuoso in the following texts: Thomas Shadwell, The Virtuoso , ed. Marjorie Hope Nicolson and David Stuart Rodes (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1966); The Tatler, ed. Donald F. Bond, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 3, nos. 216 and 221 ; The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 2, nos. 242 and 278 [1711/1712]; Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels  (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), part III; Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, ed. Walter J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, 5 vols. The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), 4, nos. 82 and 83 [1750/1751]; Tobias Smollett, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle , ed. James L. Clifford (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), chap. 103; George M. Woodward, Eccentric Excursions or, Literary and Pictorial Sketches of Countenance, Character and Country in Different Parts of England and South Wales, Interspersed with Curious Anecdotes, Embellished with Upward of One Hundred Characteristic and Illustrative Prints (London: Allen and Co, 1796), chap. 9, accessed 3 March 2017, http://find.galegroup.com/ecco/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=ECCO&userGroupName=halle&tabID=T001&docId=CW3316610631&type=multipage&contentSet=ECCOArticles&version=1.0&docLevel=FASCIMILE; and "The Virtuoso Broker: A Dramatic Proverb," in The Young Gentleman's and Lady's Magazine, or Universal Repository of Knowledge, Instruction and Amusement, Intended to Open the Tender Mind to an Acquaintance with Life, Morals and Science, the Works of Nature and of Art, and to Serve as an Useful Auxiliary to Public and Private Tuition, ed. Dr. Mavor, 2 vols., (London, 1799–1800), 2: 313–26, accessed 3 March 2017, http://find.galegroup.com/ecco/infomark.do?&source=gale&docLevel=FASCIMILE&prodId=ECCO&userGroupName=halle&tabID=T001&docId=CW3306046279&type=multipage&contentSet=ECCOArticles&version=1.0.
6. See Shadwell, The Virtuoso, 76; Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 134ff.
7. Daston, "Empire of Observation," 91–95, 99–100. See e.g. Smollett, Peregrine Pickle, 662–63.
8. Shadwell, The Virtuoso, 55.
9. See Shadwell, The Virtuoso, 43; Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 137; Smollett, Peregrine Pickle, 663.
10. See The Spectator, 442; Woodward, Eccentric Excursions, 100.
11. On the relationship of naturalist attention, curiosity, and wonder, see Lorraine Daston, Eine kurze Geschichte der wissenschaftlichen Aufmerksamkeit (München: Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung, 2001).
12. For the historical background, see Daston, "Empire of Observation," 102.
13. See The Tatler, 2: 153–55; Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 119ff.
14. See Shadwell, The Virtuoso, 76; Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 137; "Virtuoso Broker," 315.
15. The Tatler, 2: 206.
16. Johnson, The Rambler, 4:72–73.
17. The Spectator, 2: 289.