Robert Boyle and the English Revolution
The Newtonians and the English Revolution: 1689-1720
One of the more tedious historical controversies of recent years has been over the relationship of Puritanism to the origins of modern science in England, and in particular of the Royal Society, founded in 1662. R. K. Merton, in a brilliant study some forty years ago, suggested a close connection. But “Puritanism” is an elusive word: any statement about it is apt to be predetermined (whether overtly or not) by the definition of the word “Puritan” which is used. Margot Heinemann has neatly shown that the statement “Puritans opposed the theater” usually assumes a definition of “Puritan” as “a man opposed to the theater.” The best-known enemies of the theater in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England were in no usual sense of the word Puritans.
A similar confusion has bedeviled controversies over the Merton thesis. Psephological games have been played with the early Fellows of the Royal Society in order to exaggerate or minimize their “Puritanism.” The exercise is made easier by the circumstances in which the Royal Society was founded. In 1660 Charles II had been restored to the throne of his fathers after the collapse of the republic set up in 1649. With him bishops returned to the Church of England. The “Puritan” Revolution was defeated. The Royal Society was founded in 1662 by a group of scientists from London and Oxford. Most of them had collaborated with the republican and Cromwellian regimes which had ruled England since the execution of Charles I in 1649: some had been enthusiastic supporters.
Science had flourished in Oxford under the Commonwealth and Protectorate, leading scientists having been intruded into the university after the expulsion of royalists. Many of them were ejected in their turn in 1660. One of these was John Wilkins, Cromwell’s brother-in-law, intruded as Warden of Wadham. He was to be Secretary of the Royal Society and became a bishop. One quite conscious object of those who founded the Royal Society was to clear science and scientists of their republican and Cromwellian associations. For this purpose the patronage of Charles II was invaluable. Any peer who was prepared to join the Society was made a Fellow.
The climax of this campaign was the publication in 1667 of the History of the Royal Society. It was written by Thomas Sprat, former panegyrist of Oliver Cromwell, also a future bishop; but it was a semi-official work in which many Fellows had participated. One object of the History was to proclaim not only the total abstention from politics of the Royal Society but also the fundamental opposition between science on the one hand and “fanaticism,” “enthusiasm,” on the other. Science buttressed the monarchical status quo against attempts of extremists to upset it, and defended religion against “mechanic atheism.” Sprat perhaps protested a little too much, but he did a good job.
In these circumstances, psephological analysis of Fellows of the Royal Society becomes a ticklish business. Most of them had a past to cover up. Some had no doubt been half-hearted collaborators in the 1650s: all had to demonstrate their royalism now. So definition of the word “Puritan” becomes both crucial and very difficult. One scholar adopted a definition which would have excluded well-known Puritans like Richard Baxter and John Milton. Another assumed, with holy simplicity, that no one who later became a bishop could possibly be classified as a Puritan! It was easy by such means to establish that there were virtually no Puritan Fellows of the Royal Society.
On the other hand, merely to stress the “Puritan” origins of Wilkins or Boyle ignores the post-restoration atmosphere in which such men conformed to the restored episcopal church. A happy solution was found by Professor Barbara Shapiro, who suggested that the word “Latitudinarian” would describe most of the Fellows. The word, unknown before 1660, was used after that date to describe former Puritans, or men who had accepted the republican and Cromwellian regimes but conformed after 1660. “A Latitudinarian,” said John Bunyan (who did not conform), “can, as to religion, turn and twist…like the weathercock that stands on the steeple.” He can “hop from Presbyterianism to a prelatical mode.” Henry Stubbe, another unfriendly critic, agreed that “a Latitude-man…is one that, being of no religion himself, is indifferent what religion others should be of.” Like most successful diplomatic formulas, the ambiguous word “Latitudinarian” satisfies everyone—adherents of Merton because most of the Latitude-men had been Puritans, opponents of Merton because they conformed in 1660. The storm in a teacup is happily over.
The controversy however had been about something important, not merely about words. It was about the nature of the English Revolution and of the restoration settlement. Why did former Puritans conform in 1660, and aim thereafter at keeping the Church of England as broadly Protestant as possible? Why did the Latitudinarians see science as having a moderating role? The authors of the two books under review raise the whole discussion of these questions to a higher plane, away from counting and recounting Fellows of the Royal Society, from debating whether it is or is not “far more significant that Wilkins later became a bishop than that he married Cromwell’s sister.” (How many angels can dance on a needle?) They have shifted from a study of personalities to a study of ideology.
Professor J. R. Jacob has made it his task to elucidate the origins of the ideas of the Hon. Robert Boyle, father of chemistry, the man who formulated the scientific philosophy which the Royal Society accepted. “To arrive at a fuller understanding of Boyle’s thought,” he begins, “we must see it in the context of the world in which it evolved.” Boyle’s ideas “constitute his response to revolution.” With a delicacy and subtlety to which a summary cannot do justice Professor Jacob shows Boyle rejecting the traditional aristocratic ethic, with its emphasis on “honor” and “birth,” in favor of an ethic “emphasizing struggle against the odds and individual initiative in the pursuit of self-interest.” Such ideas contain “a levelling or democratizing tendency.”
When the moral life is internalized and no longer depends upon descent, when men must in fact defy all outward circumstances including gentle lineage, then more people are given the chance to cultivate virtue than were under the old ethical dispensation.
Boyle was very close to Milton’s friend Samuel Hartlib, middleman of science, staunch Parliamentarian, and advocate of reform, whose central importance in the 1640s and 1650s has recently been demonstrated by Charles Webster. Like Hartlib, Boyle accepted the Commonwealth, since “in republics the way to honour and preferment lies more open to desert, which is a quickening spur and a great incitement to noble spirits.”
But the Hon. Robert Boyle rejected fiercely claims by radical revolutionaries that perfection can be attained in this life: he felt that this would mean the end of traditional social subordination and of the established church. “This multiplicity of religions,” among “the giddy multitude,” he feared, “will end in none at all”—a disaster he devoted his life to preventing. He hoped to purge alchemy (chemistry) of the radical associations which had hitherto clung about it. He was particularly anxious to assert the immortality of the soul, rejected by many of the sectaries, and valued his corpuscular philosophy because it did just that. He rightly saw his ideas as defending the social order against revolution from below while incorporating the work ethic to which he hoped to convert the aristocracy.
For Boyle himself work meant scientific experiment. In 1651 he expected “a revolution whereby [traditional] divinity will be much a loser, and real philosophy flourish.” “There can be no religion more true or just than to know the things that are.” “Only by applying intelligence and industry to the study of nature,” Professor Jacob sums up Boyle’s view, “can men at once gratify their material desires and fulfill their duty to God.” The discipline and co-operation required by the experimental scientist would set an example which might bring religious dissension to an end. It was an attractive philosophy for those propertied Englishmen who wanted order and stability.
Boyle shared the millenarianism of the English revolutionaries. “All the old frame of heaven and earth must pass,” his sister wrote to him in the early 1650s, “and a new one be set up in its place.” She implied that Boyle believed that this new world would come in about seven years. John Dury (whom Professor Shapiro would claim as a premature Latitudinarian) and Henry Oldenberg (subsequently Secretary of the Royal Society) saw Oliver Cromwell as God’s agent in building a Protestant union to destroy the papacy and establish a new world order. The wealth of the Protestant Boyles came from Catholic Ireland, recently reconquered by Cromwell. Boyle’s brother, Lord Broghill, was one of Cromwell’s closest associates.
“Piety,” Boyle wrote, “was to be embraced not so much to gain heaven as to serve God with.” We should govern “ourselves by the same safe methods and the same great maxims by which God governs the world.” Covetousness drove men to labor, to trade, to colonize, to invent, to study nature, but a hidden hand works all out for the best. Professor Jacob sums up again: “The alliance by which private interest is made to conduce to public good is not between science and trade but between science, trade, and empire.” For Boyle as for many of his contemporaries, religion and colonial expansion meant the same thing. Hence his activity in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel of 1649, renewed in 1662 as the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, of which Boyle was governor. Both tried to convert the Indians of North America to the Protestant work ethic as well as to Christianity. The vision of a Protestant empire laboring to the glory of God was one which the Royal Society shared. Sprat looked back proudly to the Protestant reformation: Newton was fiercely anti-Catholic. So long as Catholic France was England’s main rival, patriotism, Protestantism, and empire went naturally together.
So, Professor Jacob concludes, “Boyle’s ‘puritanism,’ produced by revolution, is no longer puritanism as Merton defines it.” “The answer lies in the dialectics of revolution.” Boyle approved of the republic which had opened careers to the talented. He hoped to lead the aristocracy to accept the new society. But he abhorred the democracy of the sectaries which had no respect for “noble spirits” and seemed to be abandoning belief in an afterlife and concentrating on building an egalitarian society on earth. Hence his passionate rejection of “enthusiasm,” “fanaticism,” the key bogy words of 1660. Since Cromwell’s rule had not brought the millennium, we must settle for social stability under Charles II, and a longer-term perspective. Boyle was sufficiently well born to have no difficulty in adapting to the restoration regime; and his ideas exactly corresponded to those which the “Latitudinarians” of the Royal Society put forward. Sprat saw “the political function of science” as “the maintenance of order and stability.”
The last phrase is from Professor Margaret Jacob. Her striking book extends her husband’s thesis forward in time. He examined the revolutionary world from which Boyle’s ideas emerged; she studies the Newtonians rather than Newton, the social uses to which Sir Isaac’s great synthesis was put. “Historians of science,” she begins,
have often presumed that the new mechanical philosophy triumphed in England simply because it offered the most plausible explanation of nature. It just may do that, but in my understanding of the historical process that made it acceptable the supposed correspondence of the new mechanical philosophy with the actual behavior of the natural order is not the primary reason for its early success.
It made sense to seek royal patronage for the Royal Society, to enroll as many peers, courtiers, and budding bishops as possible. Committed figures like Hartlib, Hobbes, and Sydenham were not elected to this gentleman’s club. Hence the vulgar utilitarian emphasis, especially on agricultural improvements, shown by the Society; hence the gadgetry of the early experiments designed to entertain the Fellows. By accepting the restoration Latitudinarians had helped to save England from social revolution; now, Margaret Jacob writes, their “most historically significant contribution…lies in their ability to synthesize the operations of a market society and the workings of nature in such a way as to render the market society natural.” They devised a “natural religion” which “made the actions of the prosperous compatible with Christian virtue and with the very mechanism of the universe.”
The new mechanical philosophy, Margaret Jacob argues, triumphed in England because “the ordered, providentially guided, mathematically regulated universe of Newton gave a model for a stable and prosperous polity, ruled by the self-interest of men,” escaping from the materialistic atheism, the encouragement of rapacious self-interest, and the political absolutism implicit in Hobbism, which now seemed more dangerous than radical sectarianism. “The latitudinarians were trying to stem a tide, not to hold back the growth of capitalistic forms of economic and social life, but to Christianize them.” They wanted to tame Hobbes’s social philosophy as Locke tamed his political philosophy. The Latitudinarians “were neither more nor less keen on promoting industry and trade than were the nonconforming preachers.” One of them, Tillotson, proclaimed that “virtue promotes our outward temporal interests.” “This is the wisdom of religion, that it does advise and lead us to our best interest.”
Mrs. Jacob concludes that:
Only a natural philosophy such as Newton’s, that embodied nonmechanical assumptions about nature, was compatible with the social philosophy of the latitudinarians…. If matter moved by its own inherent force, God would be rendered useless and men would pursue their interests unimpeded. If matter was infinite and active, and space merely a relative notion, as Descartes would have it, then both space and matter would be eternal and independent of God.
The providence of God guided the delicate interplay of forces at work in the political world, just as he guided the natural world through active principles and laws of motion…. The meaning of the Newtonian synthesis that was bequeathed to the Enlightenment, partly by Newton himself, was profoundly political.
While ensuring “stability and piety,” the synthesis allowed for “the expression of individual self-interest, which in the course of the eighteenth century became increasingly synonymous with capitalistic enterprise.”
Again the argument is subtler than can be shown even by extensive quotation. Margaret Jacob shows how the Latitudinarians, like Boyle, rejected Calvinist predestination, because it eliminated the necessity for effort and undermined the virtue of self-help. “Almost certainly their return to what was, in effect, a doctrine of good works occurred in response to the uses to which predestination was put by the radicals in the late 1640s and 1650s.” She sees the Latitudinarians following Boyle too in a millenarianism less radical than that of the sectaries of the English Revolution, looking forward to a world triumph of a broad and tolerant Protestantism that rewarded private endeavor. Not the least fascinating of her chapters surveys this “Anglican” millenarianism, which most of the scientists, including Newton, seem to have shared. She sees it as a response to political instability; it died away in upper-class circles after the establishment of political stability and the defeat of France in the early eighteenth century.
The Revolution of 1688 made the Latitudinarians “the ecclesiastical and intellectual leaders of the church.” Tillotson became Archbishop of Canterbury. The Boyle Lectures, Margaret Jacob shows in another interesting chapter, were established in 1691 to popularize the Newtonian world view against the attacks of “deists and libertines.” These appeared especially dangerous after the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 set radicals free to reproduce arguments of the 1650s. Boyle’s battles had to be fought all over again. If “there is no God nor religion,” declared the Boyle Lecturer of 1697, then “all men are equal.” Property rights and the hierarchical structure of society, he thought, depended on religion.
There has been nothing in historical writing quite like the partnership of the Jacobs since Sidney and Beatrice Webb or J.L. and Barbara Hammond. But these great partners wrote their books jointly: the Jacobs have divided their territory chronologically, and their writings complement one another. Margaret Jacob’s book appeared first, but it already assumes themes since developed by J.R. Jacob. Between them they are rewriting the intellectual history of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England. While being careful to disclaim a merely sociological “explanation” of Boyle’s chemistry or Newton’s physics and astronomy, nevertheless they show us these two great thinkers against the background of a changing society in whose transformations they were active participants. The governor of the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England was no academic recluse; nor was Newton, who rallied Cambridge against James II in 1687, became an MP and Master of the Mint. The Jacobs make sense of the ideological interests of Boyle and Newton, which have perplexed “restrictivist” historians of science, interested only in the ultimate corpus of scientific knowledge. The Jacobs show us scientists in society, evolving a total body of ideas of which the “scientific” were only a part; and they show us by implication some of the alternative ideological possibilities.
This may ultimately prove the most exciting part of their work. For each holds out prospects of another book, dealing with the opposition to Boyle and Newton. J.R. Jacob promises to deal with that mysterious thinker Henry Stubbe, who moved from a radical sectarian position in the 1650s to what has often been taken as a conservative critique of the Royal Society in the 1660s. Professor Jacob sees him as a link between the radicals of the revolutionary decades and eighteenth-century deism. Margaret Jacob proposes to study John Toland, early eighteenth-century deist, biographer of Milton, and devoted editor of texts by other great writers of the Revolution—Harrington, Ludlow. She sees him as the heir to the Hermetic tradition which goes back to Giordano Bruno and which inspired so many of the radical scientists of the revolutionary decades. Serious studies of these two significant but underrated figures may well transform our understanding of the intellectual history of the period. The Jacobs have the learning and above all the historical imagination to equal the achievement of the Webbs and the Hammonds.