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 …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.