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Reclaiming Our History

Dead on Arrival

by David Kubrin

The role of science in Western thought since the 17th century, as a model of the use of reason and the need to marshal evidence to establish certain knowledge, has been recounted in many studies and is a central theme in a number of history books.

Other works have focused on the possible relationship between the new science and the later onset in England of the Industrial Revolution.

Considerably less attention has been paid to a deeper, more significant role played by early modern science: how it functioned ideologically, teaching people to view the world in particular ways so as to foster certain values and denigrate others. I want to focus on how Western science served to sanction an altogether new, predatory approach to the natural world in early modern times.

The early modern period of English and European history is remarkable for its extraordinary range of new institutions, practices, and ideas:

  1. the colonial subjugation of the "New World" as well as parts of Asia and Africa;
  2. a vast expansion in the trafficking in slaves;
  3. the Protestant Reformation;
  4. the European campaign to wipe out Witchcraft ("Burning Times");
  5. the formation of the first nation-states;
  6. the first appearance of the nuclei of capitalism (in textile manufacturing and farming, for example);
  7. the beginnings of industrial forms of production in key sectors of the economy (textiles, again, and mining);
  8. an economy relying on extractive processes — such as deforestation, plantation agriculture, and mining — so that the scale of the taking from nature expanded enormously; and
  9. the scientific revolution.

It is these last two changes, the spread of deep extractive processes and the scientific revolution, and their profound connections to each other, that interest us here. Such a tremendous transformation in peoples' practices in relation to nature would have been unthinkable unless similarly vast shifts were occurring in their consciousness. Digging shafts of two to three hundred feet into the hills and vales, in order to mine silver or coal, would not have been easy in a society in which nature was seen, as it was nearly everywhere in earlier times, as alive.

"Mother Nature" was more than just a familiarizing term. It conveyed a complex system of beliefs and implied a set of values in relation to the landscape, which was seen literally as the embodiment of a sacred presence. Certain springs, trees, caves, and rock outcroppings were experienced as particularly holy and were used for healing or fertility rituals. The cosmos as a whole possessed a world soul, or anima mundi, which at times would reflect sentience, purpose, or consciousness.

From a nature such as this, one simply did not take at will. Because a sense of balance had to be respected, offerings were given in return for the ore, food, or herbs removed from the fields, mountainside, or forest, so as to maintain that sense of reciprocity. Rituals were held to mark the beginnings and ends of the planting cycles or hunts, and also when a mine was begun or a new shaft sunk.

As late as 1600, belief in a world that was alive was universal. Within a century that was no longer the case. Among the educated classes and those influenced by them (through sermons, pamphlets, etc.), belief in a nature that was fundamentally dead became the dominant view. These changes can be traced to the kinds of transformations occurring in the political economy of early modern Europe.

A respect for the sacred nature of the landscape became a noxious obstacle in a society intent on taking as much as could be physically had from nature's bounty. Aside from considerations of the availability of labor power, difficulties in transportation to markets, and the number of potential buyers, in this new society no other "factors" could be allowed to interfere with either production or profits. In retrospect, what had been a sacred landscape was in the process of being transformed into a set of "natural resources."

Nature-as-Mother had another worrisome association in early modern Europe. The animistic basis of a living nature had always been the philosophical underpinning for magic. From the Renaissance (c. 1400) on, there had been a substantial and problematic rise in magical belief. The magical roots of Roman Catholic practices and doctrines were a major reason for the attacks by the Protestant Reformation. Nonetheless, popular magic was widely practiced, both in the villages and by the nobility and educated classes.

The widespread social tensions, including the many dislocations, economic instabilities (rising rents, years of bad harvest, enclosures of common lands, etc.), growing landlessness among the peasantry, peasant uprisings, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, widespread religious warfare, and the various other transformations and upheavals of early modern times led to an actual Civil War and revolution in England. This lasted from 1642 until 1653. Then Oliver Cromwell took power as Lord Protector, replacing the monarchy, which was cut down with the revolutionary execution of Charles I in 1649.

The Civil War appeared to pit Parliament against the Crown. But a number of truly radical groups, some on the fringes of power and composed for the most part of journeymen and apprentices, pushed for changes so revolutionary that they greatly alarmed the propertied classes represented by both the royalists and Parliament. These more radical groups, many holding to an absolute egalitarianism ("leveling") that to them was implicit in the Reformation, questioned and defied the most fundamental beliefs and customs. This included notions of private property and of sin (for a number of the radicals, the two were closely connected, if not indeed identical), as well as sexual behavior, the social role of women, and more. Some of the radicals were accused of engaging in group copulation in churches as part of their religious practice.

In contrast to the other Protestant churches, members of these radical groups believed that nature was alive. God was to be found in nature, in matter itself. For example, the leader of the Diggers, Gerrard Winstanley (who led a group to farm collectively on St. George's Hill on the outskirts of London on April 1, 1649, arguing that "the earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood to whole mankind, without respect of person") claimed that the only preachers needed were the many things and creatures that had been created [See RQ#71].

Among these radical groups, the practice of magic was common. In fact, during the decade that followed the defeat of the Crown, there was an outpouring of works on astrology, Paracelsianism, and other mystical chemical or alchemical works, as well as the first English translations of Rosicrucian texts. Oxford and Cambridge universities came under pressure to teach courses on astrology and alchemy during this period.

As magic emerged as the spiritual framework for the dispossessed and more radical combatants in the Civil War and revolution, powerful voices in England realized that neither magic nor the notion of a living nature could any longer be tolerated. Beginning a few years after the execution of Charles I in England — and a decade or more previously on the Continent, where the radical challenge had come to the surface earlier — impassioned attacks on magic suddenly appeared in sermons and pamphlets. These condemnations, which continued after the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, mocked the pretenses of the many followers of magic. Radicals were labelled as "enthusiasts," literally meaning "filled with god," or as "Rosicrucians." John Wilkins, who after the Restoration of the Crown was a leading figure in the formation of the seminal scientific research institution, the Royal Society, wrote in 1646 that the enthusiasts had recently been "much cryed up and followed... [but] in the opinion of many sober and judicious men, [the enthusiasts] deliver only a kind of cabalistical or Chymical, Rosecrucian Theologie, darkening wisdom with words, [and] heaping together a farrago of obscure affected expressions and Wild allegories."

Seth Ward, another figure important in post-Restoration scientific and mathematical circles, condemned the "canting Discourses... of the Rosicrucians." The Restoration bishop, Samuel Parker, claimed that Rosicrucianism led its followers to "the wildest and most Enthusiastical Fanaticisme." Anthony á Wood, the chronicler of Oxford University's history, charged that those who professed to having visions, revelations, and the like, were really "aiming at an utter subversion of the Universities, churches, and schools." Accusations such as these were repeated and amplified in treatises, sermons, and pamphlets by Robert Boyle, Joseph Glanvill, Ralph Cudworth, Isaac Barrow, Simon Patrick, Walter Charleton, Christopher Wren, and other Englishmen. The sheer volume of such attacks readily supports P.M. Rattansi's observation that "the natural magic tradition attained unprecedented influence and attention... during the Puritan Revolution," as well as demonstrating that a focused reaction against that widespread magical radicalism had very much become a priority in influential circles.

It is illuminating to look at some of the specific charges raised against the enthusiasts by a widely read Cambridge critic, Henry More, a man whose ideas significantly influenced Isaac Newton. (Newton was a student at Cambridge, where More taught, right after the Restoration.) According to More's Enthusiasmus Triumphatus (1656), the philosophical roots of Enthusiasm can be found in alchemy. He singled out Paracelsus and his followers for attack, charging that their philosophy was the basis of pagan beliefs and claiming that they professed to meet "God in every object of their senses." Alchemists mistakenly held, according to More, "That Nature is the Body of God..." As one of More's counterparts in France had observed earlier in the century, in attributing power to mere matter itself, alchemy undercut the power of God and threatened to become "the sole religion of mankind."

Henry More warned in Enthusiasmus Triumphatus of those who suffered from an "enormous strength and vigor of the Imagination." The problem was that, in an era of peasant uprisings, popular rebellions, and enthusiastic frenzies by masses of people, the imagination was subversive. It was the magi, using images in their words or talismans, who taught how to make the imagination manifest. Hence the campaign to rein in the imagination set off an assault against magic.

The reaction against magic and imagination was itself part of a profound cultural war, dominating the middle decades of the 17th century, that aimed at a thorough transformation in the key areas of language, music (theory and performance), and science. Overall, the effect, as the sociologist Max Weber has said, was to dis-enchant the world.

In language, the campaign aimed at imposing a more direct and plain style, abandoning altogether figurative images, rhetorical devices, or rhythm, which were all seen as props whose only purpose could be to mask the truth. Serious attempts were made to formulate the language so as to make all ambiguity impossible: a single word would be used to denote any one thing and each word would have but a single meaning. No one would be able to use words that referred to purely imaginary things, such as fairies. Such a campaign, besides being both laughable and scary, led to a scientific makeover of the language that greatly afflicted written and spoken discourse in the second half of the century, as is readily seen by comparing the nature of English writing before this campaign (Shakespeare, John Donne, and John Milton, for example) with what came after (Jonathan Swift, John Dryden, or Alexander Pope).

In music, the campaign aimed at making impassable what had been easily accessible musical paths to ecstasy. This was achieved through a new theory of harmony and the "tempering" of the scales, as well as new rules for using bows with string instruments and the proper use of ornamentation, etc. As Marin Mersenne, a French cleric and the major exponent of this musical reform, explained, the proper role of the musician was "to restrain the passions." Having perceived a direct line between states of ecstasy and insurrection in the uprisings in England and elsewhere during the 17th century, Mersenne's reforms were to act as formidable barriers, standing in the way of ecstatic possession.

At the same time, in science a sudden wall arose separating newer, machine-like explanations for natural phenomena from animist concepts that had been an important part of the scientific lexicon during the earlier phase of the scientific revolution. This remarkable outpouring of new comprehensions of nature and mathematics by natural philosophers such as Gallileo, Kepler, Descartes, William Harvey, and especially Isaac Newton — what has been called the 17th century scientific revolution — reinterpreted what was real. The newer, machine-like theories were critical in this shift and in establishing, in the final analysis, the "death of nature." In the course of the 17th century, the inert nature of all matter had been enunciated with increasing clarity and emphasis by successive scientists until it became firmly established as the first of Isaac Newton's Three Laws of Motion. By itself, matter is utterly passive, capable of acting only if it is acted upon. (Hence the analysis was in terms of forces, the primary actors in his grand treatise, the Principia [1687]). Once in motion (straight line, constant speed), bodies continued in motion, unless a force acted to stop them; if at rest, bodies stayed at rest unless forces acted to make them move. As a result, emphasis shifted to explaining not motion, but changes in motion. In this way, according to what was called the "mechanical philosophy," all causation had to come from outside a body. And bodies were thereby axiomatized as being passive entities, mere objects.

It is not clear to what extent the philosophers who insisted on the replacement of animist worldview with a mechanized one were conscious of the economic and political need for a natural world drained of all animus, or soul, to serve the prerogatives of industries like mining or practices like deforestation. The change was probably made unconsciously, mediated by a multitude of considerations, hesitations, and layers that disconnected machine metaphors from processes of extraction of metals or wood from the natural world. No matter, the end result is the same. The world, by definition, was now conceived of as dead. And it is hard to mourn the death — this the rulers must have known — of what is, by fiat, already dead.

It is clear that other, political and religious, motivation for de-spiriting the world, the need to render people passive, was conscious. After the upheavals and insurgencies of the previous decades, it was painfully obvious which notions encouraged subversion and which ensured passive subjects. It was the latter that were now socially mandated and were achieved by undermining the processes by which they had been led to enthusiastic subversion.

However conscious the changes were, from around 1600 to 1700 a profound transformation in consciousness occurred, initially among the educated classes of Europe and England, but soon spreading, nearly everywhere through pamphlets, sermons, theater, and popular culture. In a nutshell, the new teaching was that nature consisted of dead matter. Through this lesson, a whole different understanding of "reality" was imposed on the population. Any explanations even hinting at an anima mundi, a knowing nature, were clearly heretical. Scientists soon learned to guard against expressions that might reveal any such deviations from orthodoxy, at the most perhaps guardedly hinting at them in their private journals or unpublished writings. In fact, to this day, expressions implying nature having purpose or anything other than blind mechanism in natural processes are still considered the unthinkable heresy within science. Nature is entirely to be understood in terms of objects.

Thus was erected a scaffolding of concepts and patterns, regarding the shape of the natural world and the way it was understood to undergo changes, which was used to mold and orthodox "reality." This new orthodoxy was necessary to bring to birth the systems of nation states and of capitalism that were then assuming such formidable roles on the stage of early modern history.

There is a profound hidden irony in all of this. The scientist who is given the most credit for the astounding transformation from an animated cosmos, to the modern machine universe, is Sir Isaac Newton. Yet Newton himself was most emphatic — at least in his private papers — in denying the mechanical nature of the cosmos. He saw both his Principia and Optiks, the two scientific treatises that both summed up and established the reality of the scientific revolution, as giving but a superficial understanding of how the world worked. The mechanical laws of nature, such as the Principia and Optiks revealed, merely explained how matter behaves when it is acted upon by external forces. The real aim, which Newton sought primarily through his tireless alchemical researches, both before and after the Principia, was to determine those forces that acted in bodies. In his many attempts to explain how such internal forces must operate, the bulk of Newton's examples were drawn from living creatures, whose generative, digestive, and putrefactive powers gave the lie to the mechanical philosophy's presumption of matter's passivity. He suspected the role of light to be central to this inner activity of bodies.

On several occasions — all left unpublished — Newton testified that nature everywhere seemed alive. Thus Sir Isaac Newton's system of the world, his ideas on movement, light, forces, matter, mathematics, and methods of doing science, was really a carefully crafted negotiation of the allowable spaces reality could occupy, a largely hidden dialectic played back and forth between inner and outer layers of the doctrines in which he believed.

And the Newton seeking the principles that led to activity in the cosmos, who wondered how the motion inevitably lost, due to irregularities in the interactions of bodies, might be restored to the cosmos, who realized that the world could never be simply a blind mechanism, the Newton whose theories were rooted in a magical conception of the cosmos — this Newton was denied to the world for centuries, partially emerging only in recent decades. The Newton who bequeathed us a machine universe was simply too important an icon hanging, as it were, on the gateposts to modernity to be in the least way questioned. But Newton himself chose this understanding of his vision to be the one revealed to the public, sharing his less orthodox views only with the dozen or so young disciples he used to fight for his ideas.

David Kubrin is the author of Marxism & Witchcraft, a treatise on the ecological crisis from which this essay is adapted. He has a doctorate in the history of science, is a middle-school teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District, and has been a longtime political activist.