sun, king, and heart: circulation of the blood 2

Part two

William Harvey was acquainted with Francis Bacon – of course. Harvey was, after all, a physician at James I’s court. He remarked to John Aubrey that Bacon “wrote philosophy like a Lord Chancellor.” This remark has been taken to mean that Bacon was, in Harvey’s eyes, no philosopher. And yet, it is not simply a disparagement – a meaningless quip. For what does it mean to write philosophy like a Lord Chancellor? Could it mean that Bacon’s administrative rationality – or his sense of stratagems – prevented him from understanding nature (which is presumably what Harvey is getting at – as Harvey was not interested in larger metaphysical issues)? And yet, were not Harvey and Bacon part of the same ‘team’, the team that turned upon a culture of reading – in which the sacred book emblematized the value of books – in favor of seeing, using instruments, measuring?

Harvey, as Walter Pagel has pointed out, did not derive his conclusions about blood circulating in a the closed system from experiment – that is, he did not ‘discover’ the circulation of the blood, in the sense that ‘discovery’ is an event that is not predetermined but thrust upon the observer by the facts as they are. “On such a view,” Pagel writes, “discovery should normally be the result of a sum total of observations and suitably designed experiments, and such a process should be discernible in Harvey’s own account of his discovery as the immediate conclusion from observations and experiments – as Willis’ ‘standard’ translation has it: ‘When I surveyed my mass of evidence.’” However – Pagels points out – Willis’ nineteenth century translation slips into Havey’s text a sentence – that sentence – which does not exist in the text. So much did Willis desire to believe in a certain image of Harvey, the experimentalist, that he overwrites what Harvey wrote, which was that “I often and seriously considered with myself what great abundance there was (sc. of blood)”. (3)

Pagel emphasizes that Willis’ Harvey, who operates like a Newtonian scientist, is not the Harvey who presents himself as a Cartesian scientist – whose idea that the blood circulates was due to a meditation, which depended, in turn, on a confidence that nature never acted without purpose. From that meditation, Harvey moved to create evidence – “to become science it required the chain of brilliantly conceived and executed experiments and observations…”

In this nuanced shuffle between scientific models, where is the Baconian?

It is here that Christopher Hill’s essay on Harvey intervenes. In 1966, Hill, who was writing his book on the English Revolution, pointed out that Harvey’s first book on the circulation of the blood was prefaced with an address to the King. This address combined two analogies: one to the absolute place of the monarch in the body politics, and one to Copernicus’ discovery of the heliocentric system.

"The heart of creatures is the foundation of life, the prime of all, the sun of their microcosm, on which all vegetation does depend, from whence all vigour and strength does flow. Likewise the King is the foundation of his kingdoms, and the sun of his microcosm, the heart of his commonwealth, from whence all power and mercy proceeds"

And, just so that we don’t think that this is a matter of dedications alone, see how Harvey defends the claim that his dissection of animals has import on the constitution of the human body:

“Since the intimate connexion of the heart with the lungs, which is apparent in the human subject, has been the probable cause of the errors that have been committed on this point, they plainly do amiss who, pretending to speak of the parts of animals generally, as anatomists for the most part do, confine their researches to the human body alone, and that when it is dead. They obviously do not act otherwise than he who, having studied the forms of a single commonwealth, should set about the composition of a general system of polity; or who, having taken cognizance of the nature of a single field, should imagine that he had mastered the science of agriculture; or who, upon the ground of one particular proposition, should proceed to draw general conclusions.”

One notices, in passing, that the connection of the animal to the human is purely physical, not a fact indicating a common interiority – to push Descola’s thesis. But the absolute distinction between nature and culture was in the making – and what one notices, as well, is the tendency of the natural philosophers to push a new sense of universality. What Harvey writes here about the homology between the animal and the human body participates in the same logic that makes Newton put the domain of physics on a unified footing, dissolving the line between the sublunar and the celestial.

This is done, by Harvey, with reference, as well, to political terms – to the Lord Chancellor’s rhetoric. And, as Hill notices, this reference to the commonwealth is also entangled with the analogy to the sun. In the crucial chapter in which Harvey announces that blood flows in a circle in the body, he writes:

“The heart, consequently, is the beginning of life; the sun of the microcosm, even as the sun in his turn might well be designated the heart of the world; for it is the heart by whose virtue and pulse the blood is moved, perfected, and made nutrient, and is preserved from corruption and coagulation; it is the household divinity which, discharging its function, nourishes, cherishes, quickens the whole body, and is indeed the foundation of life, the source of all action. But of these things we shall speak more opportunely when we come to speculate upon the final cause of this motion of the heart.”

These analogies may, of course, simply be the lateral poetry that opens the scientific imagination. And yet, Hill is right to point out the background noise, here – the ceaseless cataract of history. For Harvey’s claim that the heart is central, like a sun, or a monarch, changes when he comes to write his treatise on the circulation of the blood of 1649, and on the generation of animals of 1651 – changes in accord with the beheading of King Charles. Whether or not these changes are evidence of Harvey’s republicanism – Hill’s claim – they are changes in the analogy holding between the human body, the monarch, and the solar system. Even as the human is bound to the animal kingdom, kingdoms and cosmological centers seem to fall out of the realm of essences. Or out of the realm of those analogies that give us a clue about the circulation of the blood and the function of the heart.

“In I649, moreover, Harvey went out of his way to repudiate the astronomical analogy which he had used in I628. "The knowledge we have of the heavenly bodies" is "uncertain and conjectural"; its example "is not here to be followed".'1 An astronomical allusion in the De Generationec onfirms this point, since Harvey no longer draws a parallel between the heart and the sun but between the blood and "the superior orbs, (but especially the sun and moon)", which "do by their continual motions quicken and preserve the inferior world".12 (That inveterate obscurantist, Alexander Ross, was quick to spot the dangers of Harvey's new position. In a book published in I65I, which also attacked Bacon and Comenius, he particularly insisted on the sovereignty, the prerogative, of the heart, and on the hierarchical order in the human body: the testicles are "ignobler than the heart and brain".)”