Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Idolatry and Science: Against Nature Worship from Boyle to Rüdiger, 1680-1720

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Idolatry and Science: Against Nature Worship from Boyle to Rüdiger, 1680-1720

Article excerpt

The seventeenth-century debates about idolatry had a powerful influence, not only in theology and in religious struggles but in other disciplines as well. Since these debates have fallen into oblivion, their influence in an array of disciplines has been eclipsed or underestimated. Though they focused on ancient Israel and ancient Egypt, it is evident how much they structured nascent ethnology, the study of the religions of the New World, and exotic cultures.1 Moreover, they shaped the discourse about politics, for instance, in the critique of absolutism as "political idolatry." In this case, the debate was seemingly about the deification of rulers in antiquity, but also about the semi-religious veneration of Louis XIV.2 In the examples of Vico and Lafitau, these disputes provided the material from which the philosophy of history and anthropology emerged in the eighteenth century. What would a Vico be, without the speculations on the genesis of heathen beliefs in gods? What would a Lafitau be, without the parallels to idolatrous Greece?3 Finally, what would the radical critique of religion or the crise de la conscience européenne be, without the "confrontation of the Gods," as Frank Manuel phrased it? Yet there is an area in which the influence of the idolatry debates is least expected, namely, natural science, or more specifically, physics. Did physics in the age of the Scientific Revolution have anything to do with the problem of idolatry? I intend to show that it did indeed.

In 1686, in his work, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, Robert Boyle says: "many atheists ascribe so much to nature that they think it needless to have recourse to a deity for giving an account of the phenomena of the universe."4 The essential problem was that all the activities traditionally ascribed to God as the prima causa, were, since the naturalist tendencies of Renaissance philosophy, more and more attributed to nature itself. Notions like the natura universalis, the anima tnundi, and the idea of active singular natures, naturae agentes, were used for explanations of immanent activity. However, such a shift, according to Boyle's diagnosis, was ultimately nothing but idolatry: the veneration of the creation instead of the creator.5 To be precise, it was the veneration of an ersatz deity instead of the true God, because such an adoration could actually be discerned in decided naturalists and "atheists" like Giulio Cesare Vanini, who directed his adulation toward "Natura Dea," "Goddess Nature."6

In the seventeenth century, natural philosophers, particularly those associated with the occult tradition, invoked "Goddess Nature." Hermeticists and Paracelsians were quick to indulge in metaphors of nature worship, and philosophers from Descartes to Malebranche and Boyle developed deep concerns about this tendency. Moreover, the iconology of the "traces of Nature" or the "veil of Nature," which were used, for example, by Michael Maier, encroached upon the "normal" scientist of the epoch of the Scientific Revolution.7 Accordingly, in Gerhard Blasius's 1681 Anatome animalium (Figure 1) or, a few years later, in Leeuwenhoek's Arcana naturae detecta, we see Diana of Ephesus as Isis unveiled (Figure 2).8 To represent the process of the discovery of physical truths as the unveiling of a goddess implicitly bolstered the tendency to hypostatize or reify Nature. The ensuing iconographie problems of whether to portray Nature as Isis or as Diana of Ephesos, and of whether the intermingling of the two cults was permissible, necessarily led into the maze of the history of ancient religions, with all its superimpositions of cults from the most diverse Mediterranean traditions.9

Robert Boyle was worried about the whole complex of implicit and iconological idolatry. He understood himself as a truly Christian scientist whose program of an anti-idolatrous science had to rest on the principle of denying Nature any attribution of activity. …

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