Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Introduction: "Capturing Proteus"

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Introduction: "Capturing Proteus"

Article excerpt

SCIENCES AND ARTES ARE NOT CAST IN A MOULD, but rather by little and little formed and shaped by often handling and pollishing them over: even as Beares fashion their yong whelps by often licking them: what my strength cannot discover, I cease not to sound and trie: and in handling and kneading this new matter, and with removing and chafing it, I open some facilitie for him that shall followe me, that with more ease hee may enjoy the same, and so make it more facile, more supple and more pliable:

--vt hymettia sole
Cera remollescit, tractataque pollice, multas
Vertitur in fades, ipsoquefit vtilis vsu.
                --Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.284

As the best-Bees-waxe melteth by the Sunne,
And handled, into many formes doth runne,
And is made aptly fit
For vse by vsing it.

--Michel de Montaigne, "An Apologie of Raymond Sebond," trans. John
Florio (1603) (1)

In the midst of the longest and most philosophical of his Essais, Montaigne grapples with an epistemological dilemma--are there limits to human knowledge?--with two parables of form derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The first alludes to the myth that mother bears lick their whelps into shape, an image quoted in the lecture of Pythagoras in the last book of Ovid's poem: "A cub that a she-bear has just brought forth is not a cub, but a scarce-living lump of flesh; but the mother licks it into shape, and in this way gives it a figure proportionate to its size" (15.379-81). (2) The second parable comes in the Latin fragment describing the "many formes" of melted wax which can be "made apdy fit / For vse by vsing it," a passage that derives from Ovid's tale of Pygmalion. Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with his own statue and pleads with the goddess Venus to transform the simulacra into a living woman. His prayers are answered, and at the moment the statue comes to life Ovid's poem compares her softening ivory body to a lump of wax growing warm in the sun. The philosopher, Montaigne suggests, is like the mother bear and the great sculptor, licking, handling, kneading, and shaping the "Sciences and Artes" into forms that keep the material of knowledge malleable enough to be reshaped by those "that shall followe [him]."

These two Ovidian exempla, which represent the work of form in acts of knowledge production, are noteworthy for their divergence from the familiar Aristotelian view that form is a masculine principle as well as the conventional Platonic view that form is perfect and unchanging. More importantly for our purposes, this passage offers a highly literary vision of the work of the philosopher. Indeed, it heavily implies that the "new matter" of Montaigne's philosophy--that which he sounds, tries, handles, and kneads into shape--is comprised of linguistic figures. Lastly, these Ovidian fragments define form in terms of formation, a process that unfolds in time and space, "by little and little." In this account, philosophy does not produce anything solid, certain, or complete, but rather simply participates in the ongoing formation of new shapes. Working within the terms of Montaigne's epistemology, we might say that knowledge in the "Sciences and Artes" can only be produced when this continual process of formation is momentarily arrested. Only then will the "matter" of philosophy assume a particular shape, that is, a new form.

We begin with this passage from the "Apologie" because it underscores the central claim of this special issue: early modern science is shaped by imaginative engagements with the problem of form. The essays included in this double issue reveal how early modern natural philosophy requires the category of form in order to define itself and its objects of inquiry. At the same time, these essays also illustrate how the language arts and imaginative literature are sites of philosophically consequential formal innovation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (3) Like Montaigne, we position form as a concept that straddles the intersection of early modern literature and science (or what Montaigne and Florio would call "poesie" and "natural philosophy" respectively), and we emulate Montaigne's description of knowledge production as the dynamic formation of lively shapes made fit for "vse. …

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