Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Everard Digby: A Syncretic Philosopher at Spenser's Cambridge

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Everard Digby: A Syncretic Philosopher at Spenser's Cambridge

Article excerpt

IN 1579 A PAIR OF SCHOLARS, each with degrees from Cambridge earlier in the decade, published a first book. For Edmund Spenser, that book was The Shepheardes Calender, and it opened a career honored now by bookcases of scholarly investigations and two professional journals. For the other young man, Everard Digby (not to be confused with the unrelated namesake a generation later, a Gunpowder conspirator), the book was the Theoria Analytica, and this extensive Latin treatise on logic and metaphysics would be largely forgotten, commemorated at length only in a pair of unpublished doctoral dissertations defended, with odd simultaneity, in 1980.1 Spenser and Digby are not known to have been acquainted, though Digby was something of a character, notorious in later years for his in-college pranks and already in the 1570s a well regarded young teacher of philosophy, who might well have attracted Spenser's attentions. More importantly, though, the Theoria bears important witness to the ways one Elizabethan Platonist practiced a vigorous syncretic approach to ancient philosophy, uniting Aristotelian and Platonic terms and themes in a way familiar to readers of The Faerie Queene-that insistently Neoplatonizing romance built on a foundation of Neo-Aristotelian ethical categories. The Theoria affords us a look at what ideas came to mind, and what books came to hand, in Platonizing circles at Cambridge in the 1570s. If one wished to invent a figure who could show us something of Plato-spinning during Spenser's university days, one would invent somebody like Everard Digby.

The neglect of the Theoria can be readily understood, of course. Even the full title makes the point: Theoria Analytica, Viani ad Monarchiam Scientiarum demónstrales, totius Philosophiae & reliquarum Scientiarum, necnon primorum postremorumque Philosophorum mysteria arcanaque dogmata enucleates. In tres libros digesta.2 Few readers today will tackle a book offering well over four hundred pages of scholastic Latin. Who now has the taste-or the genius-of the young Leibniz, who read scholastic metaphysics (as he later recalled) with a pleasure akin to that of reading a novel?3

Digby was controversial in the 1580s for his attack on the fashionable Ramist philosophy, of which attack more below. But Digby was forgotten by the seventeenth century, not to be seriously explored until Charles de Rémusat came upon the Theoria in preparing his Histoire de la philosophie en Angleterre depuis Bacon jusqu'à Locke (2nd ed., 1878). As an historian of philosophy, Rémusat looks for anticipations of ideas with a future; thus he links Digby on the mind with Leibniz. But he rightly views as Digby's "pensée fondamentale . . . celle d'une ressemblance, d'une correspondence, d'une certaine identité entre la nature et l'esprit, entre le monde et l'intelligence, entre les objets et les idées." And he aptly admires the web of analogy that dominates the Theoria: "Le symbole, la métaphore, en un mot l'imagination figurative, envahit sa cosmologie, sa théologie, sa psychologie."4

The case for Digby was challenged some dozen years later by another erudite historian of philosophy, Jakob Freudenthal ofBreslau, who demonstrated something Rémusat had missed: much of Digby's learning, many of his impressive citations in the Theoria that had impressed the Frenchman, came from intermediate sources-in particular from the kabbalistic dialogues of Johannes Reuchlin. For the German there is nothing original, and nothing of interest, in Digby, just dead medieval ideas in rébarbative late Scholastic language. Freudenthal heaps particular scorn on Digby's substantial neglect of "clear-thinking humanists" in favor of Schwarmgeister-superstitious enthusiasts, among whom the professor at Breslau numbers Ficinod Freudenthal extinguished the briefly renewed interest in Digby-perhaps appropriately for philosophers, but most regrettably for seizièmistes, in particular those who want to know about Platonism in Elizabethan Cambridge, for whom Ficino is a master and not a superannuated denizen of medieval thought. …

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