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The Royal Society, Collective Vision and Samuel Butler’s “The Elephant in the Moon”

  • J. Ereck Jarvis
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine book series (PLSM)

Abstract

In Samuel Butler’s (1613–1680) satire of the early Royal Society “The Elephant in the Moon,” a group of Fellows gather around a telescope, discovering and discussing life on the Moon.2 When the conversation turns to the ancient past, the Fellows’ characterizations are flawed, even inverted. For example, one member postulates that lunar peoples descended from Arcadians who “were reputed/Of all the Grecians the most stupid/Whom nothing … could bring/To civil Life, but fiddling” (ll. 103–6). However, past scholarship on “The Elephant in the Moon” effectively demonstrates that its satire targets not the “new science” but “particular scientists.”3 Building on this work, I argue that the poem faults particular philosophical practices of the Royal Society. Butler places the telescope and lunar observation at the center of his poem to foreground mediation—that which “intervenes, enables, supplements, or is simply in-between.”4 Using the central image of telescopic viewing to plumb the relationship between mediation and knowledge, Butler censures the Society’s engagement with the forms of collective vision burgeoning in the seventeenth century.

Keywords

Royal Society Seventeenth Century Voluntary Association Philosophical Transaction Collective Vision 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Samuel Butler, “Learning,” Satires and Miscellaneous Poetry and Prose, ed. René Lamar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), 157–162. This quote comes from page 157, ll. 7–8. References to this poem will be quoted by line number(s).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Ken Robinson, “The Skepticism of Butler’s Satire on Science: Optimistic or Pessimistic?” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660–1700 7.1 (Spring 1983), 4. See also Marjorie Nicolson, Pepys’ Diary and the New Science (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1965), 139–153Google Scholar
  3. Guy Laprevotte, “‘The Elephant in the Moon’ de Samuel Butler: Le Contexte et La Satire,” Études Anglaises 24 (1927), 465–478Google Scholar
  4. William C. Horne, “Curiosity and Ridicule in Samuel Butler’s Satire on Science,” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660–1700 7.1 (Spring 1983), 8–18.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Clifford Siskin and William Warner, “This is Enlightenment: An Invitation in the Form of an Argument,” This is Enlightenment, ed. Clifford Sisken and William Warner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 5.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Seeing through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2004), 23. See also 1–7 and 21–24.Google Scholar
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    David C. Lindberg and Nicholas H. Steneck, “The Sense of Vision and the Origins of Modern Science,” Science, Medicine, and Society in the Renaissance: Essays to Honor Walter Pagel, ed. Allen G. Debus (New York: Neale Watson Academic Publishing, Inc., 1972), 36.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Ofer Gal and Roz Chen-Morris, “Empiricism without the Senses: How the Instrument Replaced the Eye,” The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge: Embodied Empiricism in Early Modern Science, eds. Charles T. Wolfe and Ofer Gal (Dordrecht: Springer, 2010), 122. See also Vogl’s discussion of Galileo’s telescopic work as an “exemplary” moment in the history of mediation that shifted the relationship between subject and object and redefined the operation and significance of vision. Joseph Vogl, “Becoming-Media: Galileo’s Telescope,” trans. Brian Hanrahan, Grey Room 29 (Fall 2007), 14–25.Google Scholar
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    Gal and Chen-Morris, “Empiricism without the Senses,” 131; Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 33–36.Google Scholar
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    Henry Oldenburg, “The Introduction,” Philosophical Transactions 1 (1665), 2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 15.
    Stephen Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 131. On the varieties of seventeenth-century Baconianism, see Antonio Pérez-Ramos, Francis Bacon’s Idea of Science and the Maker’s Knowledge Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 7–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Mark Knights, Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 223.Google Scholar
  13. 22.
    See also Henry Stubbe, Campanella Revived, or, An enquiry into the History of the Royal Society (London: Printed for the Author [s.n.], 1670). For Stubbe’s prodigious and sometimes inconsistent published writings against the Society, see “Appendix B—Aftermath: Stubbe’s Attacks on the Royal Society” in Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society, ed. Jackson I. Cope and Harold Jones (St. Louis: Washington University Studies, 1959), 68–74; andGoogle Scholar
  14. R. F. Jones, Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England, 2nd edn (St. Louis: Washington University Studies, 1961), 245–247.Google Scholar
  15. 27.
    Sven Bruun, “Who’s Who in Samuel Butler’s ‘The Elephant in the Moon,’” English Studies 50 (1969), 382, 386–387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 35.
    Lisa Jardine, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 174.Google Scholar

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© J. Ereck Jarvis 2016

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  • J. Ereck Jarvis

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