Month: June 2016

J.W. Draper’s Introductory Lecture in the Course of Chemistry at the University of New York

John William Draper is often accused of cribbing after Comte and Buckle. But Draper had formulated his own ideas years before these other men published their work. Draper was considered a popular lecturer by his contemporaries. Thus when he began lecturing at the University of New York in the 1840s, many of these lectures were immediately published. In his introductory lecture to the course of chemistry for the medical department, Draper spoke of the intimate relationship between chemistry and medicine. “There is not a force in nature which does not affect us,” he told his students. To understand the physical agent, we must have a “general idea of the structure of the earth, the ocean, and the atmosphere; the various laws which regulate each, and the phenomena they exhibit.” In other words, to understand the individual, one must know something of his environment.

Draper goes on to argue that “The changes that we see in living things, are the consequences of fixed and immutable laws.” To understand these laws is to enter the “house of REASON.” Anticipating T.H. Huxley’s later sentiments in his “On A Piece of Chalk,” Draper informed his audience that “in each single grain of tripoli, which is found in beds and strata many feet thick, and extending over areas of many miles, it is known that there are the remains of more than a hundred and eighty millions of individuals…There is not a spot on which you place your feet, that does not cover the remains of unspeakable millions.” The dead beneath our feet provides us with a moral lesson, Draper relates. “We see that not only have individuals passed away, but also whole species, tribes, and genera, have become extinct. In the periods of human record has not the same thing happened? Great empires and mighty republics have ceased to exist, and the specific tribes of men that founded them have vanished.” According to Draper, this has all come to pass through the “operations of general laws.” “The march of events in the human family, is as little under your control as the march of those planets in the sky.” Interestingly, Draper closed his lecture by stating that “the broad hand of an overruling PROVIDENCE is also plainly discovered, dispensing with an unerring justice the rewards of national merit and national crime.”[1]

[1] John William Draper, Introductory Lecture in the Course of Chemistry: University of New-York, Medical Department (New York: Hopkins & Jennings, 1841).

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Hobbes (Sheehan) on Heresy

Yesterday I posted on Jonathan Sheehan’s recent article on Hobbes the theologian. Today I came across—entirely by coincidence—an article by Cees Leijenhorst on “Hobbes, Heresy, and Corporeal Deity,” published in John Brooke and Ian Maclean’s Heterodoxy in Early Modern Science and Religion (2005). Leijenhorst shows quite convincingly that Hobbes himself defended himself against charges of heresy and atheism. Using juridical arguments, for instance, Hobbes contended “that contemporary English law had neither the legal framework nor the proper juridical authorities for a formal charge of heresy.” He supported his claim by tracing a “history of the concept of heresy.” According to Hobbes, heresy came to “stand or an unpermitted false belief held by a minority, as opposed to ‘catholic’ orthodoxy.” But this opposition was the result of the paganization of the early Church. The introduction of Greek philosophy had a pernicious effect on the early Church. Hobbes wrote:

Most of the pastors of the primitive church were…chosen out of the number of these philosophers; who retaining still many doctrines which they had taken up on the authority of their former masters, whom they had in reverence, endeavoured many of them to draw the Scriptures every one to his own heresy…And this dissension amongst themselves, was a great scandal to the unbelievers, and which not only obstructed the way of the Gospel, but also drew scorn and greater persecution upon the church.

Now, I might be wrong in saying this, but this argument looks remarkably similar to the one Sheehan himself makes. Hobbes seems to be defending his “heresy” by declaring that heresy was present in the early church from the very beginning. In other words, there has never been orthodoxy. Leijenhorst also makes the interesting point that Hobbes also attempted to separate reason from faith, or philosophy from theology. Philosophy deals with things that are conceivable; theology with the inconceivable.

But to return to the main point, Leijenhorst admits that notions of orthodoxy, heterodoxy, and heresy were extremely complicated in seventeenth-century England. When Hobbes maintained that he his views were orthodox, he based this on his own criterion of orthodoxy, which was based on his history of heresy. So when Sheehan points out the “Christian archive” of heterodoxy, he seems to be following Hobbes’s own argument! But as Leijenhorst makes clear, “it is a historical fact that all the various sects, as well as most of the leading scientists [sic] in seventeenth-century England…agreed that Hobbes was either a heretic or an atheists.”

Was Hobbes a Theologian?

During lunch a friend reminded me about an article on Hobbes I sent him a few weeks back. I had only quickly scanned it at the time, sent it to him, and apparently forgotten all about it. The article is written by Jonathan Sheehan, and published in The Journal of Modern History (June, 2016). It asks the provocative (and perhaps “perverse”) question: Was Thomas Hobbes a theologian?

Sheehan begins by calling attention to the so-called “return of religion” or “religious turn” in modern scholarship, a term used by various scholars in recent decades, including Thomas Albert Howard, Thomas Ahnert, S.J. Barnett, James E. Bradley, Jonathan D. Clark, Dale K. Van Kley, Louis Dupré, Knud Haakonssen, Ian Hunter, Thomas Munck, Dorinda Outram, J.G.A. Pocock, Roy Porter, Mikuláš Teich, David Sorkin, Robert Sullivan, and Bruce Ward, among others, and mostly in the context of Enlightenment studies. Sheehan himself has participated in such work, particularly in his The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (2005), which argued that the Bible’s place in eighteenth-century German and English Protestantism was transformed rather than eclipsed. Earlier still was his important review essay, “Enlightenment, Religion, and the Enigma of Secularization,” published in American Historical Review (Oct, 2003).

According to Sheehan, asking if Hobbes was a theologian might seem perverse. Although he never claimed to be an atheist, countless commentators have called Hobbes’s philosophy atheistic. As he notes, “between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries…there is complete consensus on the anti-Christian disposition of Hobbes’s thought.” Contemporaries were horrified by his impiety. Nineteenth-century thinkers also recognised Hobbes’s mechanistic metaphysics as atheistic. But by the early twentieth century, according to Sheehan, a number scholars were beginning to view Hobbes as “perfectly orthodox.” But how could this be? One scholar, e.g., A.P. Martinich, answered that most Hobbes scholars were secularists, and thus “bowdlerized his philosophy to match their prejudices.”

But according to Sheehan, the situation is more complex. Conventional critiques that Hobbes was an atheist or, more recently, assertions that he was entirely orthodox, miss a particularly important point about Hobbes’s religious context. Sheehan is worth quoting at length:

Hobbes teaches that, absent controlling authority, the Christian archive is heterodox, that it is not one tradition or one theology or one orthodoxy. Its pluralism goes back to the very dawn of its formation, built on layers of texts, authorities, traditions, and claims. There is, as Hobbes wrote about his own book, “nothing contrary to the Faith of our Church, though there ares several [doctrines] which go beyond (superantia) the teachings of private theologians.” As Hobbes understands it, however, the “Faith of our Church” was one hardly circumscribed—at least at the moment when the Leviathan was published—by orthodoxy. Rather, it was ill-formed, internally argumentative, variable, and agonistic.

So is Hobbes a theologian? We might be in a better position now to think about our opening question. Let us imagine with Hobbes that, absent institutions that guarantee certain statements as authoritative and orthodox, anyone can be a theologian. In fact, in a certain sense, everyone is a theologian—heterodox, perhaps, or even “ heretical, ” once external and political guarantees of right teaching disappear. In that case, what I called in the opening of this essay the “perversities” of Thomas Hobbes, D.D.—an atheist theologian, a mechanist theologian, an anti-ecclesiastical theologian — are suddenly no longer perverse at all. Instead, they are possibilities of thought unregulated by authority. They are only perverse in a world where a normative standard of orthodoxy can successfully be applied.

Leviathan was not written in such a world, and this invited Hobbes to practice a theology that was simultaneously mechanist and pious, anti-ecclesiastical and pro-establishment, atheist and Christian. We do not live in such a world either. In our world, the state takes little interest in regulating the unruly and messy Christian archive.

But Sheehan might be overstating his case. To be sure, the religious and political world of England was in much turmoil when Hobbes wrote his Leviathan. Indeed, it was penned while he was in self-exile, living in Paris, fearing for his life. When the Civil War ended, Hobbes returned to England in 1652 and settled down in the household of the earl of Devonshire. These circumstances no doubt are reflected in his writings. The fact that so many writers, as Sheehan himself points out, found Hobbes’s writings atheistic also questions his notion that the “Christian archive is heterodox.” That there was an almost “complete consensus” against Hobbes’s position is telling indeed.