The Matter Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton.
Using the medical, polemical and poetical writings of William Harvey, Milton, Marvell, and Margaret Carendish, John Rogers identifies what he calls a "Vitalist Moment" in the years 1649-1666. In vitalism these writers found an intellectual impulse "to forge an ontological connection between physical motion and political action" (ix), allowing a materialist science of corpuscular interaction to inform a new political discourse of popular sovereignty and consent. Mid-seventeenth-century concerns regarding agency and organization enabled the vitalistic philosophy of self-motion to provide a discourse for nonhierarchical and inclusive political association.
For example, while in his 1628 treatise Harvey had structured the circulatory system around a centralized monarchical power (the heart), by 1649 he had been sufficiently influenced by vitalism's discourse of immanent spirit and energy to claim that blood was in possession of its own native heat and innate warmth. According to Rogers, in 1641 Harvey had staged an examination of Viscount Montgomery's unusual heart condition so that the king himself could discover the 'insensitivity' of the heart organ, symbolically decentering his own agency in the body politic.
Yet, while claiming Harvey as an exemplary figure of the conflictive discursive practices of the revolutionary period, Rogers does not fully account for Harvey's continual Royalist affiliations despite his commitment to vitalist (nonhierarchical) philosophy. Rogers's method eschews the sociology of knowledge fostered by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer in favor of the analogical analyses favored by Carolyn Merchant and James and Margaret Jacob. While this method successfully identifies the discursive practices shared by members of disparate social and political groupings, a sociological reading might well have explained the cultural authority which motivated a writer such as Harvey to use vitalism as a means of defending centralized government.
Still, one of the many strengths of this study is its avoidance of schematic identification between philosophers and institutions. Rogers's intent is to "shift and expand" the thesis that the English revolutionary sentiment was figured primarily in the Calvinist strain of Puritanism. While acknowledging that mid-century Calvinistic providentialism served to justify independent political action, Rogers claims that Calvinism generally relied upon a mechanistic and Hobbesian worldview (as did the Anglican Royalists) to locate power and agency in an arbitrary, voluntaristic God or monarch. In contrast, animistic materialism necessitated not only a feminism but an egalitarian logic used by the Levellers and Diggers.
Interestingly enough, Rogers focuses on less radical thinkers who defended social hierarchy. While seeming to advocate vitalist ideals Harvey, Marvell, Milton, and Cavendish called several aspects of vitalism into question, signalling the demise of the movement at its inception and failing ultimately to construct the liberal individual in vitalist rather than mechanistic terms. Using Marvell's "Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Faun" and Michael's prophecies of divine intervention into human history (Paradise Lost), Rogers demonstrates how the vitalist ideal had been, even at the moment of its birth, represented in elegiac terms as sacrificial and degenerative. Vitalism fell inevitably into a mechanism whereby the virtuous individual became the "negotiating citizen" subject to the authority of a higher power.
While this reading successfully accounts for the defeatist stance of non-royalist poets Milton and Marvell, a larger question might still be raised as to how the vitalism of a Harvey and a Cavendish, both committed Royalists and polemists, may have served a conservative agenda which advocated a distanced yet still active central power. Rogers's work is an important and original study of a neglected philosophical discourse, and lays the foundation for future research into the alliances between political and natural philosophy in the early modern period.
DIANA B. ALTEGOER Old Dominion University
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|Author:||Altegoer, Diana B.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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