The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton

By John Rogers | Go to book overview

1
The Power of Matter in the English Revolution

As for our intellectual concerns, I do with some confidence expect a Revolution, whereby Divinity will be much a Looser, & Reall. Philosophy flourish, perhaps beyond men's Hopes.

-- ROBERT BOYLE(1651)

The story of the relation among science, politics, and literature in the later seventeenth century begins with a brief but potent burst of intellectual activity at a particular juncture in the Revolution, the interval just before and after the execution of Charles I on January 30, 1649. The period between 1649 and 1652 sees the production of an impressive group of texts: Andrew Marvell 's "Horatian Ode" and nearly all the pastoral poems, the communist manifestoes of Gerrard Winstanley, John Milton's Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Eikonoklastes, and First Defence of the English People, Thomas Hob bes 's Leviathan, William Harvey's Disputations on the Circulation of the Blood and On the Generation of Animals, and two volumes of England's first established woman writer, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. These particular works, encompassing a wide array of literary genres and discursive modes, engage, quite obviously, a vast and divergent set of interests. But for all their many differences, each of these texts participates in or reacts to one of the least understood intellectual movements in early modern England, a short-lived embrace of philosophical idealism that I identify as the Vitalist Moment. The philosophy of vitalism, known also as animist materialism, holds in its tamest manifestation the inseparability of body and soul and, in its boldest, the infusion of all material substance with the power of reason and self-motion.1 Energy or spirit, no longer immaterial, is seen

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For discussions of vitalism, see L. Richmond Wheeler, Vitalism: Its History and Validity ( London: Witherby, 1939), pp. 3-27; Walter Pagel, William Harvey's Biological Ideas: Selected Aspects and Historical Background ( New York: Hafner, 1967), pp. 251-77; Merchant, Death of Nature, pp. 117-26; John Yolton, Thinking Matter: Materialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 1-26; John Henry, "The Matter of Souls: Medical Theory and Theology in Seventeenth-Century England," in The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Roger French and Andrew Wear ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 87-113; and Fallon, Milton among the Philosophers, pp. 79-110.

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