Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Idolatry and Accommodation: "Histoires" and Their Natural-Philosophical Interpretations in Simon Goulart's Commentaires et Annotations Sur la Sepmaine De Du Bartas (1583)

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Idolatry and Accommodation: "Histoires" and Their Natural-Philosophical Interpretations in Simon Goulart's Commentaires et Annotations Sur la Sepmaine De Du Bartas (1583)

Article excerpt

"Poets feign" is a recurring expression in Simon Goulart's Commentaires on Guillaume Du Bartas's rewriting of Genesis into a biblical epic in the vernacular, the Sepmaine.1 First published in Paris in 1578, the Sepmaine enjoyed an extraordinary European success: some fifty editions were printed between 1578 and 1632.2 Simon Goulart, its commentator, was a Calvinist preacher, a historian, and a popularizer.3 He published his Commentaires in Geneva in 1581, and he constantly emended them until 1601: twenty- nine editions of this useful critical apparatus to the Sepmaine appeared between 1581 and 1628.4 In the preface, Goulart claims that the Comment- aires provide the reader with the knowledge needed to make sense of the Sepmaine.5 In Goulart's hands, Du Bartas's poetry becomes similar to a dictionary.6

The success of the Commentaires makes a case for the scholarly view that the Sepmaine was read as up-to-date popularized knowledge by the early moderns.7 In this article, I will focus on the interplay between rhetoric and knowledge that is instantiated in Goulart's unraveling of the natural philosophy encapsulated in the "histoires" (history and story) of the Sepmaine, understood both as exemplary images and as narratives.8 This unraveling sheds light on the role of accommodation in Calvinist hermeneutics in relation to natural theology, and on its problematic similarities with hermetic interpretations of idolatrous pagan myths. I will pay specific attention to the debates about the definitions of matter-primary, elemental, celestial-that Goulart extracted from classical myths and from Genesis in the alphabetical entries "Chaos," "Matter," and "Spirit" in his commentary on the "First Day" of Du Bartas's poem.

For John Calvin, the term "histoire" or "histoires" refers to the narrative itself, which is distinct from the "doctrine" it illustrates and mediates.9 Calvinism defines the two types of narratives instantiated in classical myth and in Genesis by opposing them to each other. Myth epitomizes idolatry: it is a fictitious narrative that deifies nature. By contrast, Genesis illustrates divine accommodation: it is the true word of God that defines nature as divine works. Myth promotes esoteric knowledge for a happy few, whereas Genesis reasserts that the world and scripture are the books of the unlearned, accommodated to their understanding.

Accommodation expresses divine incommensurability and the attempt at breaching it.10 Accommodation operates in the world and in scripture.11 Thus God created the world in ways designed to draw us from the spectacle of Creation to the praise of its Creator.12 In this first instance, accommodation defines knowledge of nature as a hermeneutical process through which man deciphers divine agency in Creation-it justifies the natural theological project of "reading the book of nature."13 The second form of divine accommodation operates in scripture, where God condescends to "lisp . . . with us as nurses are accustomed to speak to infants."14 This second meaning of accommodation labels all descriptions of God in scripture as oblique and justifies biblical hermeneutics. These two forms of accommodation supplement each other. Because man's intellect has been dulled by the Fall, one needs the help of scripture to make sense of nature.15 A recurring Calvinist metaphor thus states that we need the spectacles of scripture to read the book of nature.16 Through accommodation, God has made sure that scripture would allow man's fallen understanding to grasp the meaning of nature. Laying bare the natural philosophy of scripture is thus the only way to "read" nature properly. The Calvinist language of accommodation and

its commonplaces feature in the Sepmaine and were familiar to Goulart.17 His own views on accommodation in scripture appeared in his 1623 Meditation cbrestienne. Commenting on the phrase "the face of God" from Deuteronomy 5:5, Goulart defines accommodation as the visual expression of the divine and the verbal mediation of such a vision by a prophet aiming at a specific rhetorical effect: both vision and verbal description are adjusted to the audience's capacity. …

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