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Science, Salvation, and the Cabala

The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine, and Reform 1626-1660

by Charles Webster
Holmes and Meier, 630 pp., $29.50

In a book published in Italian in 1957 and in English translation in 1968 (Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science), Paolo Rossi drew attention to the millennial aspect of Bacon’s philosophy. He showed by quotation that Bacon thought of his “Great Instauration” of learning as an attempt to return to the pure state of Adam before the Fall, when, in close contact with God and nature, he had insight into all truth and power over the created world. This insight and this power were lost by man at the Fall, when sin clouded his perceptions.

This outlook gave a strongly religious tinge to Bacon’s projected reform of the sciences. The primary object of the Great Instauration was “to redeem man from original sin and to reinstate him in his prelapsarian power over created things.” When this salvation through science was achieved the millennium would be at hand. Bacon seems to have believed that the great reform could be brought about within a relatively short time and that its sequel, the End, might therefore be not far off. Rossi’s extraction of millenarianism from Bacon’s works came as a great surprise at a time when the older type of history of science was not as yet seriously challenged.

In his essay on “Three Foreigners: The Philosophers of the Puritan Revolution” (1961, republished in enlarged form in Religion, the Reformation, and Social Change, 1967) Hugh Trevor-Roper demonstrated the importance of three foreigners, Samuel Hartlib from Germany, John Dury from Scotland, and John Amos Comenius the Czech, in forming the outlook of the English Puritans. All three might be described as “millenarian Baconians,” enthusiasts for the Baconian reform interpreted as a religious movement. The sufferings of the Protestants in the Thirty Years War, between 1618 and 1648, had intensified the apocalyptic side of the movement. The Puritans, led by Hartlib, Dury, and Comenius, combined their Baconian philosophy with their grave religious anxieties. “Was it not a time to count the few remaining days of the world, to expect the conversion of the Jews, to listen for the last Trump?” The situation of the Jews was particularly a matter for anxiety; for the conversion of the Jews was expected to usher in the Last Days. In this intense atmosphere, Baconianism took on an increasingly strong millenarian tinge.

The researches of Christopher Hill have turned up an immense amount of material on the thought of the Puritans, particularly in his books Antichrist in Seventeenth Century England (1971) and The World Turned Upside Down (1972). He illustrates the importance of millenarian expectations in the excited imaginations of the Puritans and searches for indications of the growth of science within this movement.

To these trends of modern scholarship on the English Puritans, Charles Webster has now added the weighty volume under review. He makes Puritan eschatology the ideological framework of his study of “science, medicine, and reform 1626-1660.” Obviously he is following in a track prepared by other scholars in underlining millenarianism as a basic factor in the Puritan outlook, but the originality of his book lies in the detailed way in which he relates the scientific effort of the period to this outlook. I can only give a few examples of how he works this out.

The Puritans laid great stress on reform and spread of education, following the Baconian program as expanded by Hartlib and Comenius. The vital force behind this effort, according to Webster, was the Puritan insistence on the ruin of human abilities at the Fall, a ruin which needed to be restored in preparation for the millennium. With this interpretation of the spiritual motive force behind the intensive cult of education by the Puritans, Webster couples his detailed factual analysis of Puritan education, using writings on the subject, examination of practical efforts of educationalists, the chief of whom was Samuel Hartlib.

Medicine was of prime importance in the Puritan program. Webster relates this interest to the effort to restore man’s physical perfection, lost at the Fall. His intellectual perfection was to be restored by the new educational program; his physical perfection by the new medicine. Hence the surge of influence of the doctor and alchemist Paracelsus; for notions of the kind congenial to Puritans were implicit in the Paracelsan medicine. Webster’s detailed factual survey, compiled by a trained historian of medicine, is probably the fullest account of the subject hitherto available.

The Puritan attitudes to technology, and particularly to agriculture, developed in the context of the Garden of Eden, to which man would be restored when he had regained control over nature by the new science and technology. Research and practical efforts were directed toward increasing productivity, through which food and wealth would be available to all. This was very obviously to be interpreted as a move toward the millennium, or (as Blake might say) toward the building of Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. In connection with this vision, Webster gives what is probably the first full account of Puritan husbandry.

The book includes surveys of every aspect of Puritan science and will thus be indispensable to historians quite apart from its ideological argument. Most readers, confronted with the enormous range of detailed information, will feel convinced that science did advance in the period and that it was Puritanism which encouraged the advance. Another vexed question which the book solves is that of the actual influence of Bacon on the Puritans. It has been said that Puritan Baconianism might have been an abstract interest without practical results. Webster demonstrates that Puritans made a determined effort to give practical form to the Baconian program.

But the remarkable new view which emerges from Webster’s work is his argument that it was actually the Puritan eschatology that was the religious spur driving the Puritans to the cultivation of science. One would think that people who believed that the End was near would fold their hands and make no further effort. For the Puritans, the millennium had to be worked for with hard social effort, with intense application toward regaining for man the lofty position which he had lost at the Fall. The Puritan doctrine of work was applied to working for the restoration of all things (a Biblical phrase frequently used)—man and the world would be prepared, through increased knowledge and scientific advance, for a millennial restitution of the state of Adam before the Fall.

Thus the aspect of the Puritan religion and outlook which seems most remote from mundane reality, the eschatology, was actually, according to Webster, the driving force behind the Puritan scientific advance. This argument will not be welcomed by many historians of thought to whom it may well seem entirely unrealistic. They will, however, find it hard to demolish an argument supported by such a wealth of evidence. For my part, I believe Webster. It seems to me that he has made his case.

Where could such ideas as these have come from? It is all very well to trace them to Bacon, undoubtedly their immediate source, but how did Bacon himself arrive at them?

In spite of contemporary enthusiasm for “interdisciplinary” studies, scholars can still be imprisoned within their “special fields” and unaware of what has been going on beyond their hedges. The tremendous outburst of millennial excitement among English Puritans was contemporary with another religious movement which the great work of Gershom Scholem has revealed in recent years. This was the intensification throughout the seventeenth century of apocalyptic hopes of the imminent coming of the Messiah, working up in Jewish mystical, or Cabalist, tradition toward a climax when it was believed that the Messiah actually had come. Scholem’s books, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (first English edition 1941) and his more recent volume Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah (English translation 1973), have made available knowledge about this movement which has been obscured or lost. Historians of thought have not yet fully grasped the significance of Scholem’s work for their studies. One area in which comparison with developments in the Jewish Cabalist tradition is certainly long overdue is the English Puritan movement of the seventeenth century.

The important date to hold in mind is 1492, the date of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Before that date the Jewish mystical tradition as it developed in Spain is known as Spanish Cabala. After that date, the frightful experience of the expulsion altered the character of Cabala, concentrating it far more than earlier on apocalyptic hopes of the coming of a Messiah. A new school of Cabala developed, reflecting the new attitudes. It was centered at Safed in Palestine and its founder was Isaac Luria (1534-1572), after whom it is called the Lurianic Cabala.

The new or Lurianic Cabal held that its chief task was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. The task of man, says Scholem, was defined by Luria as the restitution of his primordial situation before the Fall. The Fall of Adam affected the whole cosmos, as well as man, and the prayers of the Cabalist must be for the restoration or redemption of all things. In a sense man himself, cooperating with God, is responsible for the restoration of all things. “The task of man is seen to consist in the direction of his whole inner purpose toward the restoration of the original harmony which was disturbed by the original defect and by the powers of evil and sin.” Scholem compares the older version of the Messianic process, that man and the cosmos will not be restored until the Messiah comes, with this Cabalist view that the Messiah cannot come until the restoration has been effected, the work of the Cabalist being to effect this preliminary restoration through his spiritual efforts.

The similarity of this outlook to the Puritan aim, as elucidated by Wesbster, of working to make the millennium come is obvious. As Christians, the Puritans expect a Second Coming and a millennium, rather than a new Messiah. And as scientists they seem to give a somewhat materialist interpretation of the work they must do in preparation. Yet when we remember that their practical works had for them a spiritual or salvational meaning the parallel remains close. In fact, the very practicality of the Puritans has a certain Jewish ring about it.

The influence of the Lurianic Cabala from about 1630 onward was intense throughout Jewry. It fomented apocalyptic and messianic hopes “and raised every Jew to the rank of protagonist in the great process of restitution.” And the Messiah came. A young man called Sabbatai Sevi announced in 1665 his Messianic mission. A tremendous mass movement spread among the Jews, “already prepared for this event by the influence of the new Cabala.” And, almost immediately, came the tragic anticlimax. In 1666, the Messiah apostatized to Islam.

Look at the dates, the gathering strength of the movement from 1630 onward, the climax in 1665-1666. Within these dates, the English Puritan movement ran its enthusiastic course. The Puritan movement was intensely philosemitic, Hebraic, and Biblical in all its modes of expression. Surely there can be no doubt that there must have been interaction of some kind between the two movements. Webster’s analysis of the eschatology of English Puritanism and its influence on their scientific outlook should certainly be seen in the context of the contemporary messianic movement among the Jews.

There was also a European movement known as Christian Cabala, the history of which has not yet been written with the immense intellectual power and grasp such as Scholem has shown in his studies of Jewish Cabala. Christian Cabala was founded by Pico della Mirandola. It claimed to be able to convert the Jews by proving to them by their own Cabalistic methods that Jesus is the name of the Messiah. The conversion of the Jews was an important item in the Puritan millennial program, though I do not think that there has been any study of Christian Cabala from this point of view. We know however that a Christianized version of Lurianic Cabala was known in the period, for example to Henry More.

In my book The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1973) I attempted to make a critical historical study of the so-called Rosicrucian manifestos published in Germany in the early seventeenth century. Though wrapped in a fable about “Christian Rosencreuz”—his travels, his foundation of a group of brethren devoted to mystical and scientific studies—this movement turned out to have affiliations with scientific interests of Johann Valentin Andreae and his friends.

Since writing my book I have found it stated by Leibniz that he understood that the Rosicrucian manifesto known as the Fama Fraternitatis was written by Joachim Jungius (Leibniz, Philosophische Schriften I, edited by P. Ritter, 1930, p. 276). Jungius was a scientific thinker of first-class ability whose work and efforts to found scientific societies were frustrated by the Thirty Years War. His Fama announces a dawn of new knowledge and power for man before the approaching End. It describes the mythical travels of Christian Rosencreuz from Spain, where he is rejected, to the East. This story may contain a hint of the movement of Cabala after the Expulsion, though it is definitely stated that the revelation now announced is Christian. The author is Protestant in his interpretation of Antichrist.

I drew attention to the parallels between the Rosicrucian myth described in the Fama and the myth in which Bacon wraps his scientific program in The New Atlantis, and suggested that the German Rosicrucian movement should be seen as parallel to, or in some way connected with, the Baconian movement in England. It was a distinctively Cabalist method to present some truth or movement in the guise of a tale or fable. The Rosicrucian fable, as used by the two scientific thinkers, Joachim Jungius and Francis Bacon, suggests a current of Cabalist mysticism in both the German and the English movements.

It is important to notice what Bacon says about Cabala and the Jews in The New Atlantis. The visitor to this imaginary country is told that Solomon’s House, or College, where all the sciences are cultivated, is based on the wisdom of the Hebrews. He meets a Jewish merchant, for the people of the country allow some Jews to dwell among them, who tells him that the laws of the country are based on those ordained by Moses “by a secret Cabala” and that when the Messiah comes the king of that country shall sit at his feet. Bacon adds these words to his description of the Jew: “But yet, setting aside these Jewish dreams, the man was a wise man and learned, and excellently seen in the laws and customs of that nation.” Surely we can now understand that the learned Jew expecting an imminent Messiah was a Lurianic Cabalist from whom the Christian learned much, including his belief that earnest preparation must be made for the coming of the Messiah. Transferred into Christian terms, this would mean earnest preparation for the coming of the millennium through the cultivation of the sciences, exactly the program of the later Puritan Baconians as now elucidated by Webster.

One of the German Rosicrucian pamphlets describes an “Invisible College,” an imaginary institution of similar meaning to Bacon’s College of Solomon. As is well known, the natural philosopher Robert Boyle referred in letters of 1646 and 1647 to an “Invisible College” with which he was in contact, apparently a group of friends with wide scientific and philanthropic interests. This seems an obvious, half playful, reference to the Invisible College of the Rosicrucians. The expression was certainly known in England. Ben Jonson scoffed at the Invisible College of the Rosicrucians in a masque at court in 1624.

Webster produces an elaborate membership for Boyle’s Invisible College, recruited from “Anglo-Irish intellectuals associated with the Boyle family.” Though it sounds so factual, there does not seem to be any real evidence whatever for this detailed application of Boyle’s vague words, and Webster’s remark that Boyle’s college “was Invisible not out of a desire for secrecy of the Rosicrucian type, but because its members were likely to be geographically separated” is highly unconvincing. Boyle was writing to a French Protestant who would have understood the continental allusion. Webster wants to transfer to an English clique an allusion that seems obviously to refer to the continental movement which Hartlib and his friends, refugees from the disasters of the Thirty Years War that had overwhelmed Andreae and the Invisible College, were trying to continue in England.

This refusal to admit a continental derivation for the Invisible College is typical of Webster’s approach, which tends to make the English scientific movement parochial. He says little about the environment abroad whence Hartlib came to England. He ignores the connections of the “three foreigners” with the Queen of Bohemia and her circle, representative of the Protestant cause abroad. He mentions only once, and that in passing, the Queen of Bohemia’s son, Charles Louis, Elector Palatine, so important a figure for Hartlib, the scientist Theodore Haak, and for the English Puritan sympathizers with the Palatinate cause.

I am convinced that Hartlib, Dury, and Comenius nourished the hope that Cromwell might be persuaded to name the Elector Charles as his successor, and that this was why it was so important to show Cromwell the book Lux in tenebris, containing the Kotter prophecies about the sacred destiny of the Palatinate house. Charles, Elector Palatine, as Charles II, King of England, might have supported the Puritan social, as well as scientific, revolution, for he was a great admirer of Hartlib. At any rate, Charles Louis makes a striking alternative to Charles Stuart. The prospect was not so impossible as it now seems. The principle of choosing a Protestant relative of the Queen of Bohemia as king in preference to a rightful, but Papist, Stuart heir was actually applied in the case of George I.

These questions affect Webster’s main subject of Puritan science and they matter still more in any discussion of the origins of the Royal Society and the reasons why Thomas Sprat suppressed the evidence about the role of Haak—who was from the Palatinate—in the early meetings. The men of the Restoration and of the Royal Society had to suppress the memory of the Puritan revolution and its continental connections. In suppressing the Invisible College from among the ancestry of the Royal Society and in forgetting the Palatinate and its history in relation to the Puritans (which the Puritans themselves never forgot) Webster is continuing the good work of Thomas Sprat, and without Sprat’s political excuse for his obscurantism.

Thus one feels a certain narrowness in Webster’s approach, a restriction to the “special field” of English Puritan science. Nevertheless within his limits he has performed a valuable work in his exhaustive account of Puritan science, medicine, and reform between 1626 and 1660, which is, after all, the specific task which he set himself. And within his field he has dug deep, deep enough to uncover the spiritual motive force of Puritan science in its eschatology. This is an important discovery. And when Puritan millenarianism is compared, as I have tried to do in this review, with the contemporary Jewish messianic movement some remarkable vistas begin to emerge.

Protestants and Jews, experiencing similar agonies of persecution and exile, drew together in those years. The Puritan felt that the Jewish experience was not dissimilar to his own, and the climax of this rapprochement was reached when Oliver Cromwell received Manasseh Ben Israel and allowed the settlement of the Jews in England. Puritans expecting the Christian millennium and Jewish Cabalists expecting their Messiah had much in common in their intensive striving toward the restoration of all things and the restitution of man to his proud position before the Fall. The millennium did not come and the Messiah proved an illusion. But something came, the Royal Society, symbol of the arrival of science, through which man would indeed enlarge his knowledge and his powers, though it has not yet restored him to the Garden of Eden.

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