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

By John Rogers | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION
Adamant Liberals: The Failure of the Matter of Revolution

There was, however, another revolution which never happened.

-- CHRISTOPHER HILL, The World Turned Upside Down

It is possible there was never a point at which any of the vitalists we have considered was secure in the faith that a natural philosophy of self-moving matter could prompt a reorganization of society or polity. We have not seen represented a consistent or uncompromised subversion of authoritative discourse by the vitalist rhetoric of agency and organization. We have seen instead how each of these writers has inscribed within his or her work a sense not only of vitalism's attraction but, too, of its inevitable defeat. The natural philosophy of vitalism did not, we know, prove sufficiently strong to withstand its dissipation by the mechanistic philosophies of matter that came to dominate the Scientific Revolution. It may not have been strong enough to survive the doubts of the vitalists themselves. But liberalism, that organizational abstraction I have provisionally associated throughout this book with vitalism, clearly did move on to establish itself as an authoritative set of discursive positions. I want now to consider why vitalism, as a natural philosophy, failed to sustain on ontological grounds the general faith in independent agency and decentralized organization that would come to be known as liberalism. With an eye to the relation of the political and rhetorical energies with which this book has been concerned, I submit an explanation for vitalism's inability to deliver to modernity the liberal individual. The failure of the vitalist revolution can be seen both as a reflection of and as a response to an aggregate of failures occurring disconcertingly early in the English Revolution.

Harvey, Winstanley, Marvell, Milton, and Cavendish have all encoded in their work, with differing degrees of self-consciousness, representations of

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