Seth Lobis. The Virtue of Sympathy: Magic, Philosophy, and Literature in Seventeenth-Century England.
Seth Lobis's Thee Virtue of Sympathy: Magic, Philosophy, and Literature in Seventeenth-Century England is one of those rare books that delivers far more than its title promises. The seven-chapter monograph, bookended by an expansive introduction and cogent coda, provides an erudite revisionist account of the history of sympathy from the classical period through the nineteenth century, with a focus on the reconceptualization of sympathy in the early modern period. In attending most closely to sympathy in the writings of Sir Kenelm Digby, Margaret Cavendish, thomas Hobbes, John Milton, the Cambridge Platonists, the third earl of Shaftesbury, David Fordyce, James Thomson, and David Hume, Lobis masterfully unravels the intricate and evolving connections and tensions between the discourses of "universal and magical sympathy" and "interpersonal and moral sympathy" in their works (3). Along the way, Lobis expertly negotiates philosophical, theological, political, medical, and proto-psychological texts that relate to the subject of sympathy, from the works of such ancients as Hippocrates, Chrysippus, St. Paul, and Alexander of Aphrodisias through those of Isaac Barrow, Sir Isaac Newton, Bernard Mandeville, George Berkeley, Adam Smith, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Lobis theorizes that the seventeenth century is the perfect period on which to focus his revised history of sympathy because at this time the most pronounced reworking of the concept occurs. Following the English civil wars, Lobis argues, there was a "crisis of coherence" and a strong inclination to reconceive sympathy in "moral, social and psychological" instead of"broadly natural or cosmological" terms, moving from external and enchanted to internal and rational understandings of the concept (111, 3). However, while acknowledging this move, Lobis challenges Michel Foucault's theory of a "total rupture" between the hermeneutic of similitude rooted in the philosophy of sympathy in the sixteenth century and the 'classical' hermeneutic of identity and difference that emerged in the seventeenth, promoting instead "a more continuous history of sympathy" (16). The story of moral sympathy does not begin, he contends, after the story of cosmic sympathy ends, since the earlier concept remains an integral part of the latter. Lobis concludes, therefore, that we would be unwise to accept blindly the narrative promoted by the likes of Foucault and Charles Taylor of the world's gradual disenchantment, beginning in the seventeenth century. In fact, because of the popularity of the atomism of Epicurus in the seventeenth century, which was viewed as a threat to a coherent natural and social world, Lobis speculates sympathy "remained significantly in contact with natural and magical traditions," though he recognizes that moral sympathy or interpersonal connectivity was increasingly foregrounded (32). Rationalization could not displace enchantment entirely.
In his first chapter, Lobis closely examines the treatment of sympathy in Kenelm Digby's A Late Discourse Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy (1658), which Lobis deems "the most noted and extensive attempt to account for sympathy in mechanistic terms in the seventeenth century" (33). Lobis explains that in defending his use of his sympathetic powder, Digby did not wish it to be associated with magic (especially Paracelsian conceptions of such cures). Digby retains the sympathetic worldview but mechanizes it in A Late Discourse, therefore 'purging' it of magical overtones, though Lobis maintains vestiges of the mystical remain. Ironically, Lobis notes that while Digby can embrace a mechanistic sympathetic worldview in the medical field, he cannot do so in the moral arena, for Digby believes "moral sympathy" in a social context can be a dangerous thing, since it is rooted in passion rather than reason. Digby, therefore, advocates stoicism as opposed to sympathy in such cases. Lobis suggests that the experience of the civil war and its aftermath for the exiled Digby likely influenced this view of human sympathy in the social realm as a form of "contagion," which is opposed to Sir Thomas Browne's view of social sympathy as a charitable practice (33).
Lobis turns to Cavendish in the second chapter, reading her theories of sympathy against the backdrop of Hobbesian philosophy as a way to question the notion of a one-dimensional anti-Hobbesian rise to a univocal culture of sensibility. Lobis professes that Cavendish's natural philosophy (which reflects her vitalist and monist materialist worldview) is governed by sympathies and antipathies but not in enforced or predetermined terms, but rather in active, voluntary ones. Cavendish thus rejects the "violence" inherent in Hobbes's theory of matter and motion (96). Lobis reminds us of Cavendish's claim that "natural self-motions are free and voluntary" whereas in a Hobbesian paradigm, "matter is ... alwayes forced, perswaded or directed" (Cavendish, quoted in Lobis 84). However, Cavendish's theory of moral sympathy recognizes in part the truth that antipathy is a powerful force and in this she concurs with Hobbes, leading Lobis to deem her a "social Hobbesian." No doubt, such a view was inevitable for one who "encountered an immovable antipathy" during the Interregnum (93). Yet, Lobis speculates that Cavendish fashioned a "woman of feeling" in turning to rhetoric as an instrument of moral sympathy especially in her letters, and, on occasion, relied on Platonic notions of sympathy as a means to strengthen social bonds (72).
The works of John Milton, produced between 1620 and 1674, lie at the heart of the volume, and are the subject of Chapters 3 and 4. Lobis explores the evolution and complexity of Miltonic sympathy. Lobis first stresses the ambivalence felt by Milton on the subject, particularly when faced with "the problem of coherence" (111). Lobis argues that in his early years as a writer, Milton moved between envisioning the restoration of the cosmic sympathy lost at the Fall and confronting the reality of the impossibility of such a vision. Turning to the 1640's, notably to Milton's divorce tracks, Lobis writes that Milton shifted his focus from a fallen cosmic sympathy to the potential of "social and domestic harmony," deploying the discourse of "true consent" that ensures the "bonding force in marriage" (111, 34). Yet, this notion is complicated in Paradise Lost, Lobis maintains, because the epic links sympathy in marriage with the irrational and threatening (given its role in the downfall of cosmic sympathy) and warns of the dangers of occult sympathy, figured in Sin's relationship with Death. Lobis next argues that the epic, instead, values the rational "sympathetic society" that Adam and Eve enjoy at the poem's conclusion which offers a measure of compensation for the dissolution of cosmic sympathy and the "demonic appropriation and degradation of sympathy" (34, 112). The version of sympathy ultimately endorsed in Paradise Lost is, therefore, "intimacy without enchantment" or a rational and liberating sympathy, since reason can control feelings of sympathy and inform an appropriate response (34).
In Chapter 4, Lobis describes the redemptive sympathy presented in the last three books of Paradise Lost: the "ordering potential of domestic and personal harmony" signified by the voluntary union of two human agents in the world (158). However, Lobis points out that Milton is aware that even in this form, sympathy can undermine "the freedom and integrity of the individual," and a balance, informed by ethical reasoning, must be achieved "between closeness and distance" (166, 158). Sympathy in the political sphere is even more precarious: something to be wished for, but generally tentative and transitory. In comparing the negotiation of sympathy in the works of Milton, Digby, and Cavendish, Lobis concludes that Milton largely moralized sympathy whereas Digby and Cavendish tended to mechanize it. Nevertheless, he resolves that all "understood and represented human sympathy as bearing an essential, if complex, relation to the order and coherence of the cosmos" (259).
Lobis moves in the fifth chapter to the Cambridge Platonists and Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury, who was intellectually influenced by their syncretistic sympathetic worldview. Though Shaftesbury is believed to have developed a distinct approach to sympathy and sensibility at a particular historical moment, Lobis locates Shaftesburean works in an ongoing narrative of sympathy. While Lobis concedes that Shaftesbury focused on moral sympathy, as is often noted, he demonstrates that the philosopher was also indebted to the "magical, vitalist worldview" of the Cambridge Platonists (200). Though anti-Epicurean, non-mechanistic thinkers like More and Cudworth rejected the occult sympathy of Paracelsus and Fludd, they were convinced "that human sympathy was simply a logical extension of universal sympathy"; and they believed, unlike Milton, that the "sympathetic universe was ... a vitally present reality" (34). The Cambridge Platonists recoiled at the Epicurean description of Nature in the discourse of particulate matter, dispersion, and disconnection. Nor did they did not share Cavendish's or Hobbes's pessimism on sympathy in the social sphere. In the new mechanistic climate, the Cambridge Platonists presented "sympathy as a principle of physical and ethical coherence" (201). From this philosophical stance, they could forge an optimistic social vision: "peace, love, and harmony in church and society" (202). As with the Cambridge Platonists, Shaftesbury sought to "re-enchant" sympathy by moralizing and aestheticizing it, revealing its power as ethical and societal connective tissue (35). As Lobis explains, Shaftesbury "elevated human sympathy as an organizing principle of moral life within a totalizing sympathetic framework, one in which the part existed in necessary relation to the universal, mystical whole" (199)
In Chapter 6, Lobis traces the legacy of Shaftesburian thought to the re-energized sympathetic worldview in the works of two Scotsmen: the poems of James Thomson, notably The Seasons (1726-1730), and the philosophical prose of David Fordyce, particularly the two-volume Dialogues Concerning Education (1745-1748). By the eighteenth century, Lobis asserts, poetry is viewed as particularly receptive to a sympathetic worldview because it is less susceptible to, or threatened by, empiricism and skepticism. Lobis demonstrates that Shaftesbury's, and sometimes Milton's, negotiation of cosmic and moral sympathy in their works is taken up and adapted by Thomson and Fordyce when they are forced to confront an increasingly incoherent world. Some threads between cosmic and moral sympathy, therefore, remained unbroken, with moral sympathy keeping a sense of enchantment alive even in a period of skepticism. Lobis finds that the writings of Thomson and Fordyce are imbued with the "enthusiasm" and "mystery" of Shaftesbury's thought, and their view of sympathy is "not limited to human nature, but rather extended to nature a as whole: the sociable subject mirrored a sociable world" (259). For Fordyce, Shaftesburian sympathy is applied to educational contexts, while for Thomson, the paradisiacal contexts of sympathy in Milton's and Shaftesbury's writing constitute "a poetry of the world" in which "universal sympathy" is adapted "from the lost prelapsarian past to an idealizing seasonal present" (260). In the works of both Scotsmen, Lobis discovers that moral sympathy is inscribed to maintain "a sense of presence and coherence" that was destabilized when empiricists and skeptics undermined the notion of sympathy in nature as a whole (289).
In the final chapter of The Virtue of Sympathy, Lobis explores Hume's challenge to Shaftesbury's tenet that "universal sympathy" is implicit in social sympathy. Hume accomplishes his end by reducing sympathy to a "rigorous moral science" of the mind in which "[a] psychology of connection supersedes an ontology of connection" (35, 290). Sympathy is thereby disenchanted and reason is the order of the day. For Hume, Lobis asserts, the idea of a universal sympathy relies on nothing more than "a series of forced and far-fetched analogies" (297). As with the other writers examined in the study, Hume recognized and sought to ameliorate the "crisis of coherence," but he did so by embracing a rational sympathy of the subject (290). Though Hume states that we will never be able to grasp how all things in nature may or may not be connected, he is comforted by the belief that we can understand the nature of, and connection between, human beings. In this respect, Hume shares Shaftesbury's emphasis on the importance and power of sympathy in societal contexts, though Lobis differentiates the two thinkers even in this regard by stressing that while Shaftesbury strove "to enchant human relations," Hume sought to dissect and explain them through reason (291). Lobis further shows that Adam Smith, like his forebear Hume, also engaged in such disenchantment by focusing on facts and developing "a moral science founded on sympathy" (291). And yet, Lobis reveals, even the creative writings of those who venerated Hume's moral philosophy demonstrate "a lingering attachment to Shaftesburian warmth in a cold Humean climate," as is evident in the poem Sympathy (1788) by Samuel Jackson Pratt (291). Such examples lead Lobis to conclude that "by recognizing the deep and long-lasting relationship between sympathy and magic, and by shifting our attention from the philosophical to the literary, we can see that, in spite of the emergence of a new analytic of sympathy it remained a principle in defiance, and in excess, of the rational, a power beyond the reach of reason" (291).
In the book's coda, Lobis leaves us with close readings of the relation of natural and moral sympathy in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which he presents as a study in "the failure of sympathy" (315), and Nathanial Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, in which a mystical sympathy is inscribed in a more positive and powerful sense. The coda reveals, as does the rest of the volume, Lobis's commitment to exposing the rich complexity of the tensions and strains that define the history of sympathy. Taking both a diachronic and synchronic approach, the study makes a monumental contribution to our knowledge of sympathy and its transformation over time. It is at once a model study in the history of ideas and a compelling piece of literary criticism.
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|Author:||Nelson, Holly Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2016|
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