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Friday, August 13, 2004


Martin Luther had suggested that before his Fall Adam "could have seen objects a hundred miles off better than we can see them at half a mile, and so in proportion with all the other senses."
-- Original Sin and the Problem of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, Peter Harrison, Journal of the History of Ideas 63.2 (2002) 239-259

LI promised. last week, to dilate upon the charming intricacies of Joseph Glanvill – one of our promising posts, which the ardent reader might have reckoned among the graveyard of so many others – the extended post about ritual and novel reading, the post that continued the study of Francis Bacon and Thomas Babbington Macaulay, all the dead soldiers, all the semi-erudition, all the LI voice – trumpery and desperation. But no! We were serious this time.

However, after reading Peter Harrison’s excellent article, that deflation of our original motive set in. Glanvill, we originally thought, was some ignored genius of bad ideas – rather like that Victorian savant, Gosse, who wrote Omphalos, a book suggesting that the oh so uncomfortable fossil record indicating a date for the creation of the earth somewhat greater than Bishop Ussher’s reckoning of 6000 years was actually due to God strewing the planet with counterfeits – evidences of a past that never was. Borges, as our readers know, devoted an essay to Gosse, even as he admitted to never having read the book. But surely Glanvill’s thesis that all the instruments of science in the Early Modern Era – the microscope, the telescope, the improved compass – embodied, in dead metal and glass, Adam’s everyday sensorium – surely this deserved an essay in Borges’ finest style.

Glanvill is not a writer of Sir Thomas Brown’s dignity – is involuted prose seems less an attempt to overlay English with a Latinate brilliance than a flailing attempt to communicate from deep inside some ecclesiastical-scholarly hole. But about Adam, he is clear enough:

“Adam needed no Spectacles. The acuteness of his natural Opticks (if conjecture may have credit) shew'd him much of the Coelestial magnificence and bravery without a Galilaeo's tube: And 'tis most probable that his naked eyes could reach near as much of the upper World, as we with all the advantages of art. It may be 'twas as absurd even in the judgement of his senses, that the Sun and Stars should be so very much, less then this Globe, as the contrary seems in ours; and 'tis not unlikely that he had as clear a perception of the earths motion, as we think we have of its quiescence.”

Now, this emblematic, instrumental Adam, we thought, was a will of the whisp of Glanvill’s brain. But Harrison shows that, for the early modern scientists, science itself was a sign. For some, it was an eschatological sign – the regaining of Adam’s original perceptions, via, say, the microscope, meant that we were, perhaps, in the last days. This is a way of interpreting science that is simply bizarre, according to the positivist tradition. But there it is. Harrison’s essay refers to the work of other researchers who have complicated, to say the least, the Whig tradition of science history.

Harrison (whose insights into these historic currents make LI extremely jealous) has a nice graf summing up the Catholic religious context:

“A major point of contention in early-modern assessments of Adam's Fall and its cognitive effects was to do with the extent to which the faculties which Adam used to acquire knowledge were damaged. The Protestant reformers had typically tended to elevate the abilities of the prelapsarian Adam and stress the comparative depravity of the present human condition. Their negative appraisals of human cognitive powers were opposed to a long-standing scholastic view, according to which the natural perfections with which the human race had been originally endowed—including the powers of reason—had emerged relatively unscathed from the sorry episode in the Garden of Eden. The "natural gifts," wrote Thomas Aquinas, "remained after sin." Reason was one such natural gift. The "light of natural reason," Aquinas explained, "since it pertains to the species of the rational soul, is never forfeit from the soul." 26 What befell Adam after the Fall, was for Aquinas and his scholastic successors a privation only of supernatural powers, rather than a corruption of human nature. Subsequent developments in the theology of the Franciscans were even more dismissive of original sin, harking back to the more benign assessments of the nature of Adam's sin more typical of Church Fathers before Augustine. 27 The whole enterprise of natural theology, for which Aquinas' "five ways" is the classical model, was premised upon this optimistic view of the natural powers of the human intellect. Moreover, it was on this basis that the natural philosophy of the "pagan" writers, most notably Aristotle, was in principle acceptable to the medieval schools, for there was no reason to be suspicious of learning which had sprung from the exercise of natural and universal principles of reason. To be sure, Aristotle and the other ancients had known nothing of the divine will, nor of God's salvific plan; neither could they cultivate the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love. But these deficiencies, however crucial they might prove on the day of judgment, would not prejudice the accumulation of natural knowledge.”

Harrison holds on to an important binary in finding his way through the labyrinth of Early Modern controversy. On the one hand, there is the view of imperfection as a negative thing, a loss; on the other hand, there is imperfection as corruption. Many English Protestants seem to cluster around the latter idea. From our viewpoint, the modern view – the rejection of reason as the guide to science, and the elevation of the senses – seems a wholly secular thing. But it was, at the time, interpreted by the actors involved in it in heavily theological terms. Adam was a continual reference. Harrison has dug up some wonderful quotes. We love this one from Robert South, an English divine, who contrasts Adam’s time, in which "Study was not then a duty, night watchings were needless," with our current sad state: “the doom of fallen man, to labour in the fire, to seek truth in profundo, to exhaust his time and impair his health, and perhaps to spin out his days, and himself into one pitiful, controverted conclusion."

LI could easily take that as a motto.

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