Month: December 2014

Visions of Science: Mary Somerville

Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his remarkable Inventing the Flat Earth (1991), wrote that the “Flat Error,” the myth that medieval thinkers insisted that the earth was flat, continues to survive because, firstly, we wittingly or unwittingly “repeat and propagate errors of fact or interpretation”; secondly, we are often led by our “biases more than by the evidence”; thirdly, we blindly privilege certain systems over others; fourthly, our assumptions about “progress” leads us to “devalue the past in order to convince ourselves of the superiority of the present”; and finally, such “myths” take on a “life of their own, creating a ‘cycle of myths’ reinforcing one another.” Most recently, Maria Popova, the author of the usually excellent Brainpickings blog, in celebrating the life of Mary Somerville (1780-1872), has fallen into such blunders. On her Twitter account, Popova claimed that the word “scientist” was coined for a woman, that being Somerville. She then links the tweet to a specious article with an entirely misleading hook:

Not only did Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville (December 26, 1780—November 28, 1872) defy the era’s deep-seated bias against women in science, she was the very reason the word “scientist” was coined: When reviewing her seminal second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which Somerville wrote at the age of 54, English polymath and Trinity College master William Whewell was so impressed that he thought it rendered the term “men of science” obsolete and warranted a new, more inclusive descriptor to honor Somerville’s contribution to the field.

Thony Christie, at The Renaissance Mathematicus, has done a fine job debunking Popova’s claim, and has himself written some insightful comments about Somerville. In brief, Whewell did not coin the word “scientist” on Somerville’s behalf. Besides, according to Sydney Ross’ excellent article, “Scientist: The Story of a Word” (1962), British men of science detested the word. “To them,” Ross wrote, “the word scientist implied making a business of science; it degraded their labours of love to a drudgery for profits or salary.” The Duke of Argyll regarded the word with “great dislike,” as did Grant Allen and Lord Rayleigh. John Lubbock had never used it himself, and preferred the old word “philosopher.” And Thomas Henry Huxley was quite unequivocal: “To any one who respects the English language, I think ‘Scientist’ must be about as pleasing a word as ‘Electrocution.'”

Mary Somerville

The Brilliant Mary Somerville

At any event, another insightful guide is, of course, James Secord’s Visions of Science (2014), particularly his fourth chapter, which is dedicated to Mary Somerville. Since my knowledge of Somerville was very limited, after reading Secord’s chapter I spent most of the day reading various articles and works on Somerville, some already cited in Secord, and some not. Besides the ones cited in Secord, which I will mention below, I have found useful Elizabeth C. Patterson’s “Mary Somerville,” The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 4, no. 4 (1969); Claire Brock’s “The Public Worth of Mary Somerville,” British Society for the History of Science, vol. 39, no. 2 (2006); and Patricia Fara’s “Mary Somerville: A Scientist and her Ship,” vol. 32, no. 3 (2008). In addition, some contemporary sources, for example, “Mrs. Mary Somerville, The Leisure Hour (Oct 7, 1871); “Mrs. Somerville,” The Illustrated Review (Dec 1872); The Morning Post (Dec 2, 1872); The Times (Dec 2, 1872); “Mrs. Somerville,” The Saturday Review (Dec 7, 1872); The Athenaeum (Dec 13, 1873); The British Quarterly Review (Jan, 1874); “Mary Somerville,” The Quarterly Review (Jan, 1874);The Academy (Jan 3, 1874); “Mary Somerville,” Chambers’s Journal (Jan 17, 1874); “Mary Somerville,” Good Words (Dec, 1875); “Mary Somerville,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Jun, 1888); and finally “An Evening with Mrs. Somerville,” The Leisure Hour (Nov, 1892), have also increased my understanding of Mary Somerville’s life and work.

Secord is an authority on Somerville. In addition to this chapter, Secord is the editor of a nine-volume Collected Works of Mary Somerville, published by Thoemmes Continuum Press (2004). Of course, her most well-known works were The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831) and On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834). “Connexion” is the operative word. After the discovery of the relation between electricity and magnetism in the 1820s, Secord tells us, “there were tantalizing indications of a unity underlying all physical phenomena.” The prospects of a “theory of everything” loomed large mid-century. The great physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79), in his article “The Correlation of Physical Forces, Nature (1874), recognized this as Somerville’s aim, writing: “Mrs. Somerville’s book on the ‘Connection of the Physical Sciences’ was published in 1834 and had reached its eight edition in 1849. This fact is enough to show that there already existed a widespread desire to be able to form some notion of physical science as a whole.” According to Somerville, mathematics was the “most promising source of ultimate unity.”

Henry Brougham had approached Somerville in 1827 to write an accessible version of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s massive five-volume Traité de mécanique céleste (1798-1827) for English readers. Brougham, as we have seen, had an “almost unlimited hope for the possibilities of readers achieving enlightenment through self-education.” How best to make such a complex text accessible, he had no doubt that Somerville was up to the task. Brougham saw her as “someone who exemplified in her person the virtues of self-help that would be required more widely in the population if the proposed work was to succeed.”

Secord goes on to give a brief biography of Somerville, drawn from her own Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville, edited by her daughter Martha Somerville and published by John Murray in 1874. She was the only daughter of Admiral Sir William Fairfax, who initially opposed her natural curiosity. According to Patterson, she “grew up in the freedom of a hearty outdoor life, which fostered a robust constitution and an abiding interest in and love of plants and animals, but with so little formal education.” All together, Somerville had only twelve months of formal schooling. But she was an “Edinburgh belle,” attracting the best circles of Edinburgh society. Her first husband had a “low opinion of the capacity of…[the female] sex,” but “had neither knowledge of nor interest in science of any kind.” He died in 1807. As a widow, she developed genial relationships with leading intellectuals. In 1812 she married again, this time to the more liberal-minded William Somerville, an army doctor and later physician to the Royal Hospital. William and Mary were enthusiastic travelers, making frequent Continental tours, where they both enjoyed the company of many European savants.

When Brougham approached Somerville, many other women had become well-known popularizers of science. Maria Edgeworth, Sarah Trimmer, Priscilla Wakefield, Jane Marcet, and Margaret Bryan were active popularizers during the first half of the nineteenth century. Bernard Lightman, in his erudite Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007) has called this group of female popularizers the “maternal tradition,” for they addressed themselves to an audience of uninformed women and children. Later, mid-century, the “maternal tradition” was redefined by a “golden age” of female popularizers of science, such as Arabella Buckley, Phebe Lankester, Sarah Bowdich Lee, Mary Ward, Anne Pratt, Anne Wright, Margaret Gatty, Rosina Zornlin, Mary Roberts, Jane Loudon, Elizabeth Twining, Lydia Becker, Mary Kirby, and others still. But as both Lightman and Secord point out, Somerville did not belong to the “maternal tradition.” She was atypical, writes Lightman, in the sense that she “addressed knowledgeable adults, including men.”

Indeed, her original publisher, Brougham’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, refused to publish her Mechanism because they feared it was too technical and voluminous. John Murray, who was a cordial friend of the Somervilles, published it in 1831, including her later Connexion in 1834. Both texts are made for drudgery reading, however. Dense, abstruse, and full of technical terms such as “apsides,” “ellipse,” “cosine,” “isogeothermal,” “perturbations,” “eccentricities,” leading to an extensive glossary, they are demanding reading. Somerville, moreover, continually revised her Connexion, later editions becoming “longer, more authoritative, didactic, and ponderous.” But as Secord points out, “the value of Somerville’s labours would not be in making French celestial mechanics accessible to the millions, but as a symbol.”

She had a “reforming zeal,” and was liberal minded both in politics and religion. She stressed the interconnections and interdependences found in nature. In some editions of her Connexion, a quotation from Francis Bacon appears on the title page, “No natural phenomenon can be adequately studied in itself alone—but, to be understood, it must be considered as it stands connected with all Nature.”

But the “most obvious and immediate significance of Connexion,” Secord tells us, “was theological.” Somerville had shown that the mathematical laws of French celestial mechanics need not lead to atheism or materialism. As Secord puts it, “the connected explanation of these laws provided by science is not seen as support for a thorough-going materialism, as it had been by Laplace, but rather as evidence of God’s all-knowing foresight.” Indeed, the Connexion closes with a profound declaration that mathematics is the highest form of theology:

These formulae, emblematic of Omniscience, condense into a few symbols the immutable laws of the universe. This mighty instrument of human power itself originates in the primitive constitution of the human mind, and rests upon a few fundamental axioms which have eternally existed in Him who implanted them in the breast of man when He created him after His own image.

Somerville had been raised within a Scottish Presbyterian tradition, but she “never could find God in formal church-going.” Rather, she found the “divine transcendence of God’s power” in the language of mathematics. Later in life she would became sympathetic toward the rational religion of the Unitarians. As Secord aptly puts it, “Somerville may have abandoned traditional Christianity, but she had replaced this by a passionate faith in a God who could be best understood through mathematics.” One final interesting element of Somerville’s thought that Secord draws our attention to is her ready acceptance of commercial progress and imperial expansion. As Fara also shows, “Somerville gave her name to a ship that carried British products around the world, and portrayed herself as an ideal role model for women and also an exemplar of European civilization.” Her Whig political leanings, her transcendent theology, and her rejection of the divinity of Christ, were combined with an English imperial ideology that viewed English society as civilization, progress, and the future of mankind.


Visions of Science: John Herschel

In his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), Charles Babbage ushered in the authority of astronomer John F.W. Herschel (1792-1871) as testimony that science in England was in decline. In a footnote to his article on “Sound” in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1817-45), Herschel lamented about the “crude and undigested scientific matter” found in English scientific journals. He complained that there were “whole branches of continental discovery” that remained “unstudied, and indeed almost unknown, even by name” among English scientists. Babbage had sent a draft manuscript to Herschel of his Decline of Science in 1830. And although he agreed with Babbage’s reforming goals, he nevertheless recommended that he “burn it, or rewrite it.” According to Secord, Babbage had “blazoned” Herschel’s footnote, “as testimony that science was in a bad way.” But Herschel so deeply regretted this association to the declinist position that, after reading the draft, he told Babbage that “if I were near you and could do it without hurting your and thought you would not return it with interest I would give you a good slap in the face.”

John Herschel

A wild-eyed John Herschel late in life

John Herschel is the next key figure in Secord’s Visions of Science (2014). Herschel wanted to see science reformed just as much as Babbage did, “but feared the execution in Decline a disaster from which it would be difficult for science to recover any shred of reputation.” This was not simply because he hated public controversy; rather, he saw science as a “conduct to everyday life.” In this sense, Babbage’s polemical writing lacked the qualities and character of the true man of science.

Secord begins by pointing out that Herschel’s most well-known work, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831) was unlike any other philosophical treatise published at the time. “Given its low price and large sales,” he says, “readers of the Preliminary Discourse were far more likely to have used it as a conduct manual” (my emphasis). According to Secord, “conduct manuals gave instructions, not only about table etiquette and topics for conservation, but also about good character and appropriate mode of thinking.” As Herschel and many others saw it, “science was pervasively bound up with defining and maintaining canons of behaviour, from cultivating appropriate modes for discussion to encouraging the avoidance of outright fraud.” Indeed, science could “now provide a foundation for good character across the social spectrum.”

The book’s “material form,” as Secord puts it, supports his claim. The Preliminary Discourse was published by Longman for Dionysius Lardner’s “Cabinet Cyclopaedia,” and modeled from other encyclopedic “preliminary discourses,” such as Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s (1717-83) Encyclopédie of the eighteenth century, the Britannica (1771), Ree’s Cyclopaedia (1802), the Edinburg Encyclopaedia (1808), and the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1817). Further, it was a small book: machine printed, on lower quality paper, with stereotyping, bounded with glazed pink calico cloth over boards made of card, and sold for six shillings. Further still, Herschel modestly presented himself on the title pages as simply “John Frederick William Herschel, Esp., A.M., Late Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, &c. &C &c,” without, as Secord aptly puts it, “an ‘ostentatious parade’ of honours and societies trailing in its wake.” The Preliminary Discourse sold well and was translated into French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Russian.

Secord argues that the Preliminary Discourse emerged from the debates surrounding the decline of science, particularly in regards to the Royal Society. For Herschel conduct was central. “If Decline, with its polemical tone and political edge, was an example of how not to behave, the Preliminary Discourse could offer a model for the actions of the ideal seeker of after truth.” Indeed, as Secord perceptively points out, Herschel had accepted Lardner’s commission in February 1830; Babbage sent his daft manuscript in March 1830; and Herschel wrote most of the book in the summer of 1830, “immediately after the clashes over Babbage’s book.” In short, the Preliminary Discourse was a “quietly utopian vision of science and its public uses.”

The Preliminary Discourse wasn’t simply a philosophical treatise on observation, experiment, and induction. Because of its unimposing style, ordered structure, and humble tone, readers found it inclusive. It gave readers the impression, writes Secord, “that in understanding the Preliminary Discourse, they are engaged in the first steps of scientific study.” The text is grounded in the belief that “reading has the power to transform the human condition.” In reading, one can “vicariously” live through the scientist in “the act of discovery and an appreciation of natural truth.” As a result, humanity is “brought to the frontiers of human knowledge and ‘nearer to their Creator.'”

Indeed, this was Herschel’s chief aim in the Preliminary Discourse: to develop these “habits of the mind.” He wanted to distinguish between necessary and contingent truths. In mathematics we have what is necessary. The properties of a circle or square remain the same whether we are in broad daylight or the darkness of a cell. But the senses can be “tricksters or magicians.” Because we are often misled by our senses, “nature and its laws” are always contingent. Science, in short, must be modest.

This modesty in science has great moral and practical benefits. What Herschel offered was “a wider rational foundation for how to behave in everyday life.” As Secord notes, Herschel drew on a “tradition of the scientific pastoral, in which the contemplation of nature leads to an inner repose and the erasure of selfish, individual feelings.” Science would not only revitalize political life, it would ultimately lead us to “appreciate the need for a higher power, and avoid the brazen certainty of unbelief.”

Herschel’s book became so popular that newspapers, magazines, journals, and pamphlets mined it for quotations, “becoming set-pieces to be learned by heart.” And this “serial anthologizing,” particularly in cheap weeklies, afforded readers who could not afford to read Preliminary Discourse, whether for economic reasons or time constraints, to learn from its sagacious author. Scientific thinking was presented as a higher calling that almost anyone could now pursue.

Visions of Science: Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage Brain

Charles Babbage’s brain in a vat at the Hunterian Museum

When he died, Charles Babbage (1791-1871), English polymath, mathematician, philosopher, engineer, and the “father of the computer,” donated one half of his brain to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it still sits in display today in the Hunterian Museum. The other half resides in the computing galleries of the Science Museum in London.

Fittingly, Babbage is the subject of Secord’s next chapter in Visions of Science (2014), and particularly his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), including his later Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832). With the death of Davy in 1829, “the loss of such a celebrated discoverer led to fears that the momentum achieved early in the century was petering out.” The most well-known, if not notorious, lament came from the pen of Babbage. According to Secord, the Decline of Science “portrayed English science as moribund and corrupt, and looked to the Continent, especially France, for models of scientific reform.”

Charles Babbage Computing Machine

The ‘Calculating Engine’ by Babbage

Known for his magnificent calculating engine, Babbage “believed that machines would ultimately reshape intellectual labor as fully as they were transforming the craft trades and manual work.” The relationship between science and technology was a much contested issue during the early decades of the century. From our own vantage point, science and technology is often represented as inextricably connected, closely intertwined, and coterminous. This is a view presented to us largely by the media and Hollywood. But this commonplace ignores the immense complexity of  a long historical debate. Not only has the historical relationship between science and technology been in constant flux, but historical figures themselves have held conflicting views. Those who argued for a close relationship between science and technology associated both with state funding and the economy. But this is a historically situated argument. During the revolutionary Napoleonic era, for instance, “science” was harnessed for national benefit. But was this knowledge, pursued for the welfare of the state, “science”?

In the early twentieth century, historians of science such as George Sarton, Alexandre Koyré, Herbert Butterfield and others, would have said no. “Science,” Sarton said, “was about the production of truths, not technologies.” Koyré maintained that the great minds of the past, such as Galileo or Newton, were not engineers or craftsmen. Technological improvement was incidental, a mere by-product of the progress of science.

This view, it has been claimed, was a reaction against Marxist histories, which portrayed science as the offspring of economic and technological development. Marxist historians Boris Hessen, Edgar Zilsel and others, argued that the impetus behind modern science was its economic utility. This, in a qualified sense, was none other than Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) view. Indeed, Bacon insisted that natural philosophy should be cultivated and put into the service of the commonwealth. Likewise, the founding of the Royal Society of London fostered a utilitarian view of science.

By the eighteenth century, France in particular sought to harness the technological potency of the sciences. New institutions such as the École Polytechnique, for example, were designed, write Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus in a different work, “to deliver an education in natural philosophy (to army cadets in particular) that was fully expected to result in technological and engineering expertise” advantageous to the state.

And here is where Charles Babbage enters the stage. His Decline of Science was an invective against the Royal Society for not pursuing science as the French and Germans had done. There was something “rotten in the [English] system.” Babbage was not alone in his critique, however. A number of newspapers, magazines, reviews, and pamphlets, including the Morning Chronicle, Lancet, and The Times, took note of the mismanagement of the Royal Society. Many saw it as a “bloated monopoly,” and called for the formation of new scientific societies, such as the Astronomical Society and Geological Society, a more “reformed, mathematically refined, and secure version of the subject.”

To this end, Babbage felt justified in naming names. That is, he sought a “public accounting” of the failures of specific members of the Royal Society. For example, in his Decline of Science he attacked specifically astronomer Edward Sabine as a charlatan. He justified his public character assassinations by arguing that “a true philosopher, faced by accusation of corruption and forgery, would remain calm. Only those with something to hid would react badly; openness was a sign of honesty.” This was polemic at its finest.

But Babbage, by attacking the of governance, leadership, and organization of the Royal Society, aimed at something bigger. As Secord writes, “reform of the Royal Society served as a model of what needed to be done more generally in politics and the emerging industrial economy.” Observation is relative. Thus Babbage called for a mechanism that would “calibrate observations.” More importantly, there was the problem of fraud. This included, says Secord, “hoaxes, forging, trimming, and cooking.” How does one ameliorate such a disease? By making science completely open. It must be open to adepts and experts alike. It must be, in short, public. And finally, moral character must be essential. “Freed of human subjectivity and foibles, the pursuit of knowledge would be manly ans secure, a suitable model for political action.”

In his next book, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, Babbage targeted the dirty secrets of the book trade, and, in much the same way he did with members of the Royal Society, he very publicly attacked specific publishers and printers for their moral shortcomings. But all this came at a cost. In 1832 he accepted the nomination as a Whig parliamentary candidate for Finsbury. He lost to the Tories. “Many readers,” writes Secord, “were uncomfortable with the praise Decline heaped on foreign governments that gave honours, money, and status to scientific men.” Men such as William Robert Grove (1811-96), William Whewell (1794-1866), and George Bidell Airy (1801-92) were not as enthusiastic as Babbage was for the Napoleonic regime. Whewell and Airy, for example, saw “no merit in Babbage’s argument that state funding for science was essential to ensure continued technological progress.” Babbage seemed to bestow too much power to the state.

Even more disconcerting, however, Babbage seemed to invoke the trope of conflict between science and religion. As Secord notes, “the promotion of the use of knowledge for human needs, would best be served by secular—not religious—education; for among the unenlightened, even true religion was tinged by ‘superstition’ and developed irrational habits of thought.” Indeed, it seemed that Babbage maintained that science and the state would solve all problems: “Ministers of the state, with minds shaped by reason rather than tradition, would then be in a position to give scientific men the opportunities they needed for the research that would reshape the economy.”

Secord concludes this chapter with some comments that beg further explanation. For example, Babbage seemed to think that although mankind was the masterpiece of “divine power,” “other planets still loftier forms of intelligence will have appeared, the product of the same laws of nature.” For this “Almighty architect” had created the universe by a process akin to a calculating engine. And what “looked to ordinary observers like miracles of creation could be understood by the man of science as the intelligent actions of a divine machine.” Secord says no more than this about Babbage, thus leaving his reader wondering what, then, was Babbage’s religious views?

Visions of Science: Humphry Davy

Secord - Visions of ScienceMy Christmas gift this year was James A. Secord’s recent Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age (2014). After reading Secord’s magisterial Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (2000) earlier in the year, I have looked forward to Secord’s next big book. And Visions is a big book, not so much in page number (a mere 306, including endnotes, whereas Victorian Sensation was a massive 624) as in topic. Secord focuses on a series of remarkable books published in the early decades of nineteenth-century Britain. He discusses seven in total: Humphry Davy’s (1778-1829) Consolations in Travel (1830), Charles Babbage’s (1791-1871) Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), John Herschel’s (1792-1871) Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), Mary Somerville’s (1780-1872) On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Charles Lyell’s (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830-33), George Combe’s (1788-1858) Constitution of Man (1828), and Thomas Carlye’s (1795-1881) Sartor Resartus (1836). I have read all but Somerville’s On the Connexion this past year in my research, so Secord’s insights on these works is a much welcomed aid.

Initially, the selection may appear odd. But Secord is interested in the great transformation of the sciences during this period. “Science,” he says, “was changing from a relatively esoteric pursuit into one known to have profound consequences for the everyday life of all men and women.” Each of the above authors, in this respect, had something profound to say about the future of science. Each author, in his and her own way, had stressed the need of science “as a remedy for the country’s social, political, and religious malaise.” More importantly, each author “projected a vision of the future.”

Secord sets up his project with a short introduction. Modern science emerged in Britain within a Christian atmosphere of apocalyptic and millennial ideas and hopes. But at the same time, Secord writes, “there was a sense of limitless possibility through projections of the future economy based on machines.” These utopian hopes were of course embodied within the new science. There was a danger in the new science, however. As Secord notes, “Paris was the scientific capital of the world in the 1820s.” But in the British mind, French science was associated with the naturalism or materialism of the philosophes. More importantly, concerns over the new science was directly associated with the shock of the French Revolution. Science had to be domesticated and disassociated from anything that smacked of the French, both from its “godless libertarianism” and its guillotines.

This was achieved by some of the authors that Secord discusses. They constructed an image of science as offering a way forward, as mending the current political tensions between the Tories, Ultras, and Whigs. This was a push toward reform, but not simply a reform in politics. It was an attempt to reform all aspects of society, knowledge, science, and religion. And this could only be achieved with what Secord calls “the mechanisms of intellect”; that is, the transformation of the production and availability of knowledge. The steam-powered printing press played a central role in the diffusion of the new knowledge. But so did the creation of new institutions, clubs, and societies, such as the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) in 1826. According to Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham (1778-1867), one of the founding members of the SDUK, the new science could be used as a route to political reform. In his short 1825 tract, Practical Observations upon the Education of the People trumpeted the new science as “nothing less than the complete reformation of society through knowledge.” Obstacles to self-improvement, says Brougham, are chiefly “want of money, and want of time.” He therefore promoted “cheap publications.” But more than that, he called for the publication of “our best authors upon ethics, politics, and history, and promote cheap editions of them in Numbers, without waiting until the demand was such as to make the sale a matter of perfect certainty.” To this end, new ambitious publishers emerged with the goal of diffusing the new knowledge to all classes of society, such as Archibald Constable, John Murry, the well-known Longman company, and most recently the enterprising brothers William and Robert Chambers. In short, these new books popularized science by using philosophy, religion, and history, thus rousing “metascientific” discourse. For “happily the time is past and gone,” writes Brougham in his Practical Observations, “when bigots could persuade mankind that the lights of philosophy were to be extinguished as dangerous to religion; when tyrants could proscribe the instructors of the people as enemies to their power.” Indeed, “it is preposterous to imagine that the enlargement of our acquaintance with the laws which regulate the universe, can dispose to unbelief.”

Humphry Davy

A young Humphry Davy (1778-1829)

Secord’s first chapter deals with Davy’s interesting Consolations in Travel. Davy was a well-known and well-regarded Cornish chemist, inventor, and president of the Royal Society. Davy’s book is constructed as a dialogue between Onuphrio (a liberal aristocrat), Ambrosio (a liberal Roman Catholic), Eubathes (a physiologist and naturalist), Philaethes (the narrator), and a “Unknown” stranger. The dialogue partners discuss the laws of history, divine progression, happiness, and the enlightenment of society.

According to Secord, Davy’s Consolations in Travel was modeled off of Boethius’ classic Consolation of Philosophy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (a close friend of Davy) Consolations and Comforts from the Exercise of and Right Application of the Reason, the Imagination, and the Moral Feelings, and, perhaps more covertly, French philosopher Comte de Volney’s The Ruins: A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. Boethius and Coleridge were safe, but Volney was dangerous grounds. Davy thus takes Volney’s narrative and transforms it for English conservatism. Whereas Volney sees “kingcraft and priestcraft” as passing away, “to be replaced by a faith unified around a God known not through Scripture or dogma, but the laws of nature,” Davy has each character in his dialogue acknowledge the value in religion, including Christianity. The skeptical aristocrat Onuphrio, for example, declares: “I consider religion as essential to man, and belonging to the human mind in the same manner as instincts belong to the brute creation, a light, if you please, of revelation to guide him through the darkness of this life, and to keep alive his undying hope of immortality.” But this is a new kind of Christianity. Onuphrio, for example, does not see Christianity as occupying a more privileged place than other religious traditions. Even Ambrosio, the Catholic in the dialogue, envisions a “creed fitted for the most enlightened state of the human mind and equally adapted to every climate and every people.”

After the men retire, Philaethes, the narrator, experiences a vision. In the vision Philaethes is guided by “Genius” through a journey on the history of humanity. Genius explains to him how civilization has progressed from the barbarous to higher states of being. This has been achieved in two ways. First, and most recently, by the invention of the printing press. “I looked, and saw,” says Philaethes, “that in the place of the rolls of papyrus libraries were no filled with books. ‘Behold,’ the Genius said, ‘the printing press; by the invention of Faust the productions of genius are, as it were, made imperishable, capable of indefinite multiplication, and rendered an inalienable heritage of the human mind. By this art, apparently so humble, the progress of society is secured.” Second, the progress of civilization has been accomplished by great men. “It sometimes happens,” Genius discloses to Philaethes, “that a gigantic mind possess supreme power and rises superior to the age in which he is born…but such instances are very rare; and, in general, it is neither amongst sovereigns nor the higher classes of society, that the great improvers or benefactors of mankind are to be found.” Davy than adumbrates a list of such men: “Anaxagoras, Archimedes, Roger Bacon, Galileo Gallilei, in their deaths or their imprisonments, offer instances of this kind, and nothing can be more striking than what appears to have been the ingratitude of men towards their greatest benefactors.” Genius goes on to reveal the laws of history, society, and spiritual natures to Philaethes.

In another dialogue, while the characters are exploring the ruins of the temples of Paestum, they encounter an “Unknown” stranger who introduces the topic of geology to their discussions, a touchy subject for both British scientists and religious believers at the time. Ambrosio believes in a single creation, but is not a scriptural literalist. Onuphrio promotes the cyclical geological theory of James Hutton. What all speakers agree on, however, is that there is no evidence for the transmutation of species, a position advocated by more radical thinkers Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Philalethes argues that “all philosophy must begin from a foundation of faith, and that this can be validated not only by studying God’s works, but also by drawing parallels between the infinite mind of the divine and the mind of man.” It is interesting how the revelation of Scripture is replaced by a revelation of nature, or natural theology, in Davy’s dialogue.

Secord notes how some early reviews of Davy’s Consolations in Travel were highly critical. In general, however, Davy’s short book was well received. And what these more charitable reviewers focused on, from the Literary Gazette to La Belle Assemblée, was Davy’s spirit of progress. What is interesting about Davy, however, is that he was not at all enthusiastic about the spread or diffusion of scientific knowledge. In a letter to his wife, for example, he wrote:

I become, however, every day more sceptical as to the use of making or endeavoring to make the people philosophers. Happiness is the great object of existence, and knowledge is a good only so far as it promotes happiness; few persons ever attain the Socratic degree of knowledge to know their entire ignorance, and scepticism and discontent are the usual unripe fruits of this tree—the only fruits which the people can gather; but I will say no more, knowing how unpopular my arguments will be; yet I could say much.

According to Secord, Davy’s vision of universal history and the progress of European civilization “become a commonplace, moving from speculation to assumption as the century progressed.” The scientific sage of the philosophes had become a “scientific, Christian philosopher” in Davy. But this philosopher was not a philosophy of the people. Rather, he was the provincial, aristocratic gentlemen of science. According to Davy, with the help of “great men in history and in science” civilization will be reborn, “rising towards infinite wisdom.”

The Bodleian Library: A Protestant Arsenal against Catholicism

Bodleian LibraryThe other day I began reading the introduction to Anthony Grafton’s Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (2009). This work is a collection of essays, originally published between 1983 and 2008, on the nature of scholarship. Grafton covers a wide-ranging set of topics, from The Republic of Letters to Google’s digitizing empire and the future of reading. Amidst such topics are concise, but erudite, discussions on Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Casaubon, Mark Pattison, Leon Battista Alberti, Johannes Trithemius, Tommaso Campanella, his own postgraduate supervisor Arnaldo Momigliano, and the Warburg Institute of the University of London. Grafton also discusses John O’Malley and his work on the Jesuits, in addition to the relationship between Christian and Jewish learning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What particularly struck me in the introduction was his reference to Paul Nelles’ essay on the Bodleian library of Oxford, “The Uses of Orthodoxy and Jacobean Erudition: Thomas James and the Bodleian Library” (2007). Citing Nelles, Grafton writes: “The Bodlien was created…to serve as an arsenal of erudition for the Protestant side in the great intellectual war that raged over the Christian past.” He goes on to say that Bodleian’s first librarian, Thomas James (1573-1629), “believed that Catholic scholars had deliberately corrupted the texts of the church fathers to make them support their theological positions.”

I immediately found Nelles’ piece with a quick Google search. Nelles begins his essay with a thought-provoking question: What was the Bodleian library for when it opened its doors in 1602? Whatever the intentions of its founder, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), as its first librarian, Thomas James set its early program. According to Nelles, James was a “rabid anti-papist,” and thus something of an embarrassment to historians of the library. Nevertheless, “the scholarly work James carried out as Bodley’s librarian affords a rare glimpse of the interaction of libraries, manuscripts, printed books, and the readers who used them.”

For three decades James labored at collecting the textual tradition of the Latin Church Fathers and Medieval English authors. According to Nelles, James’ scholarship became a “store-house of Protestant learning and a bulwark against Roman Catholicism or, in the language of the period, ‘popery.'”

Of course, James was not alone in this initiative. Indeed, Bodley supported his goals, and shared much of the same religious orientation. They were sons of Marian exiles, and both were strict Calvinists. While attending New College at Oxford from 1593-1602, James was surrounded by anti-Roman sentiment and theology. James eventually became a “profound student of manuscripts, an able textual scholar, and an acute reader of the church Fathers,” marshaling “library resources at Oxford and elsewhere in order to engage Roman Catholic theologians and church historians on their own ground.” He was convinced that the “historical roots of the modern English church were to be found in a pure Saxon ecclesiastical community which had conformed to the primitive church as described in the writings of the Fathers and the early councils.” His near contemporary, Richard Hooker (1554-1600), likewise used the writings of the Church Fathers in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) in sketching out the history of the English church. Others included John Jewel (1522-1571), Thomas Bilson (1547-1616), and Andrew Willet (1562-1621). In short, “by the early seventeenth century the use of the Fathers had emerged as a pivotal, though not uncontroversial, element within Anglican theology as the conformity of the contemporary reformed church with the primitive church.”

Another element in James’ scholarship was his emphasis on the historical continuity between ancient Christianity and the contemporary English church. According to Nelles, this view goes as far back as John Foxe’s (1517-1587) Book of Martyrs (1563), where he allegedly “documents the trials and tribulations of the ‘true church’ which had survived underground and invisible through centuries of papal corruptions and outright persecution.” James contributed to this tradition with his Apologie for John Wickliffe (1608).

And of course the final element of James’ scholarship is his obvious anti-popery. According to Nelles, “almost all of James’s published writings—particularly those devoted to textual scholarship—are directed against papist corruption and deception.” Nelles aptly summarizes this commonplace:

According to this view, attempts by the Bishop of Rome to control and corrupt Christian religion had been adroitly seen off within the early church: the church of the Fathers had not been subject to papal jurisdiction and at times could be seen to have been aggressively anti-Roman. Yet through deceit and treachery the pope had usurped Christ’s rightful place at the centre of  the  church  over  the  course  of  the  middle  ages.  The  pope  (now Antichrist) used all means possible to increase his power: he withheld the  true  teachings  of  Scripture;  he  appealed  to  popular  superstition through  liturgical  hocus-pocus  and  abuse  of  the  sacraments;  and  he invented traditions founded neither in Scripture nor the writings of the Fathers.  From  this  perspective  it  was  at  the  Council  of Trent  that  the views of the popish minority came to dominate the church as a whole. Thus, while early Protestants had merely broken with Rome, the contemporary reformed church was engaged in a pitched battle with a united Roman  Catholic  church  supported  by  foreign  Catholic  princes  and receiving instructions directly from the pope.

In the case of James, he believed that papist corruption went beyond doctrine, the sacraments, and church government, extending to “falsification, corruption, and destruction of ecclesiastical records and the textual heritage of the church.” According to Nelles, James’ “conception of the history of the church and his unique vision of the value of the insular textual legacy directly influenced his views on the nature and purposes of books and libraries.”

For instance, in 1600, James published a catalogue of manuscripts housed in Cambridge and Oxford colleges. Dedicated to King James I, the palaeographical Ecloga Oxonio-Cantabrigiensis won much acclaim, the famous biblical chronographer James Ussher once told him that “you are in a manner the only man among us that make search for the furthering of God’s cause.” James saw himself in the tradition of “Elizabethan hunters of medieval manuscripts,” cataloging nearly 3,000 codices (1,325 in Oxford; 1,498 in Cambridge). But despite its scholarly character, according to Nelles, “James firmly positioned the Ecloga within the context of the paper war which raged between Catholic and Protestant scholars over the sources of church doctrine.” Indeed, the Ecloga was presented as a “gateway for Protestant scholars to an untainted manuscript tradition of patristic texts.” According to James, the Reformed church was supported and confirmed by authentic manuscripts, whereas the Catholics, “habitual liars and gross forgers,” were the true “heretics.” This was a well-known commonplace, from William Perkins to William Crashawe. As Nelles sums it up, “Armed with evidence of present-day Catholic suppression and altering of texts from the Index librorum prohibitorum and the Index expurgatorius and further justified by notorious medieval forgeries such as the Donation of Constantine and the False Decretals, Protestant polemicists imagined centuries of papist textual meddling.”

A few years later, James turned to the Latin Church Fathers, and again complained that they had been “manifoldly corrupted” by the hands of “Popery and superstition.” In his proposal, Humble Supplication…for the reformation of the ancient Fathers Works, James set out with a team of students of Divinity to hunt down as many manuscript copies as possible. Once completed, James maintained that this new index would “show the corruptions of the printed copies of either Papists or Protestant editions, which have been very lamentably abused in this kind by too much trusting of the Papists.”

James never finished this project, the financial support drying up by 1612. Nelles turns to James’ program as Bodleian librarian. Interestingly enough, although he remorselessly attacked Catholic scholars, it is clear that James appropriated much of their findings. “On most technical issues of scholarship,” writes Nelles, “James and his Catholic opponents in fact had much in common.” This engagement with the Catholic world of scholarship is found in a large number of Bodleian indices of “prohibited and expurgated books published by Catholic authorities in Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, and Germany.” But as Nelles is careful to mention, “Bodleian was by no means exceptional in the orientation of its holdings. On the contrary, the amassing of an abundance of Catholic scholarship in the Bodleian in its first decades reflected activities” in other libraries in Britain.

In the conclusion of the essay, Nelles considers the relationship between James’ Ecloga and the early collections of Bodleian. When James became its first librarian, he donated several volumes to the library, which were listed in his Ecloga. While some manuscripts were in fact ignored, others listed in the Ecloga were not even present in the library at the time. This suggests, Nelles tells us, that James not only “stole these volumes,” but that James “appropriated these manuscripts while preparing the Ecloga, later bringing them into the Bodleian.”

At any rate, studying Oxford’s first Bodleian librarian reveals a remarkable religious and cultural context. “From its inception,” Nelles writes, “the Bodleian was much more than an Oxford or even a university library. For James and others it played a central role upon both the English and continental religious and political stage. The contemporary observer who viewed the Bodliean Library…through lenses heavily tinted with anti-popery was surely not alone in his sentiments…the Bodleian, whose riches were considered to exceed those of even the Vatican library, served as ‘a very lively fruit of the true religion of Jesus Christ.'”