Nature and Culture in the Discourses of the Virtuosi of France

Part of the The University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 58)


Nature, as the topics treated in this volume attest, embraces a wide range of issues. Even the most casual perusal of early modern texts suggests that nature functioned as the critical term defining the relationship of human beings to their world. But between the early modern view of nature and our own lies the intellectual chasm and historiographical minefield of the Scientific Revolution.1 The work of Allen Debus, 2 in particular, has shaken our faith in positivistic accounts of this development; extensive exposure to the virtues of Paracelsus, van Helmont, Robert Fludd, John Dee, etc. has made clear both that the transition from early modern to mechanical views of nature was less than clear-cut and that there was extensive and empirically-grounded opposition to a mechanical view of nature throughout the early modern period.3 Recent, more polemical studies have also attacked the Scientific Revolution as the source of an approach to nature which produced environmental disaster; that is to say, the mechanical philosophy is charged with condoning man’s rapacious exploitation of the earth’s natural resources.4 This negative reassessment of mechanical science is grounded in a fundamental distinction between nature and culture, where nature is primary and good, and culture is secondary, and, if not bad, at least suspect as artificial.


Seventeenth Century Scientific Revolution Mechanical View Perpetual Motion Mechanical Philosophy 
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  1. 1.
    For an interesting collection of essays discussing some of the historiographical implications of the Scientific Revolution, see David Lindberg and Robert Westman, eds., Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
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    See, in particular, by Allen G. Debus: The French Paracelsians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Man and Nature in the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978); and The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 2 vols. (New York: Science History Publications, 1977).Google Scholar
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    Important additional sources on Paracelsus and van Helmont are by Walter Pagel: Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (Basel: S. Karger, 1958); “The Religious and Philosophical Aspects of van Helmont’s Science, ” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, supplement no. 2 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1944); Joan Baptista van Helmont: Reformer of Science and Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); “Recent Paracelsian Studies, ” History of Science 12 (1974): 200-211. By Allen G. Debus: The English Paracelsians (London: Oldbourne Press, 1965); “The Chemical Philosophers: Chemical Medicine from Paracelsus to Van Helmont, ” History of Science 12 (1974): 235-259.Google Scholar
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    Carolyn Merchant argues that before the Scientific Revolution, female earth was central to an organic cosmology which was undermined by the Scientific Revolution. As she put it: “Nature was contrasted with art (techne) and with artificially created things. It was personified as a female-being, e.g. Dame nature; she was alternately a prudent lady, an empress, a mother, etc. The course of nature and the laws of nature were the actualization of her force. The state of nature was the state of mankind prior to social organization and prior to the state of grace. Nature spirits, nature deities, virgin nymphs, and elemental forces were thought to reside in or be associated with natural objects.” The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1980) p. xxiii.Google Scholar
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    Because of Théophraste Renaudot’s connection with the medical faculty of Montpellier, it is assumed that large numbers of physicians, especially those excluded from Parisian medical practice, offered medical services at Renaudot’s clinic and participated in the conferences. Some sources estimate that there were one hundred participants, but provide no evidence for such an estimate. There are a total of 643 topics addressed. The first sixty meetings had paired topics, but subsequent meetings treated one topic. On Renaudot’s difficulties with the Faculty of Medicine, see Howard Solomon, Public Welfare, Science and Propaganda in Seventeenth Century France: The Innovations of Théophraste Renaudot (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 162-200.Google Scholar
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    Conference 2, part 1, “Des Principes et de la Fin de toutes Choses, ” Recueil général des Questions traitées es Conférences du Bureau d’Adresse sur toutes Sortes de Materières, par les plus beaux Esprits de ce Temps. (Paris: Bureau d’Adresse, 1634) pp. 9-17.Google Scholar
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    Carolyn Merchant provides a particularly useful description of the Renaissance cosmos: “the Renaissance shared certain presuppositions about nature. The Renaissance cosmos was a living unit, of which all parts were interconnected in a tightly organized system. The orthodox view inherited from the medieval interpretation of Aristotle was an earth-centered hierarchical cosmos extending upward from the four inanimate elements which were mixed together to form the minerals, vegetables, and animals found in the sublunar region of change, the other unchanging ether-filled spheres of the seven planets, with their associated hierarchies of angels, above the moon. Beyond the planets was the sphere of the primum mobile, source of the daily rotation of the heavens, then the sphere of the fixed stars and zodiacal constellations, and finally the Empyrean heaven of god. Together they comprised a living chain of being, each member a step in a stable, ordered, spherically-enclosed world, each member sharing some particular feature with the steps below and above, yet excelling in some unique characteristic. Man was linked to the animal world below, with which he shared sensation, and to the angels above, with whom he shared rationality. Each part of his body was governed by one of the zodiacal signs, so that as a microcosm, he was a miniature replica of the celestial spheres, or macrocosm.” Death of Nature, pp. 100-101.Google Scholar
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    Conference 10, part 2, “Des deux Frères monstrueux, vivans en un mesme Corps, que se voyent en cette Ville, ” Recueil général, pp. 68-72.Google Scholar
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    The possible explanations for the introduction of the form are theological or philosophical. “For, such is the order of nature, that when a subject possesses all of the dispositions requisite for introduction of a form, the Author of Nature, or (according to Plato) the Idea, or that soul of the world (which Avicenna held to be an Intelligence designated to the generation of substantial forms) concurs in the production of the Form.” Conference 122, “De l’Origine des Formes, ” Troisiesme Centurie, p. 163.Google Scholar
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    The separation of heat is an explanation for birth marks. “As the degrees of life have dominion over the First Qualities, so they have authority one over another, each in his order. The vegetative life in man makes use of the elementary qualities at pleasure, even to the prejudice of their own nature. So, heat congregates things of the same and separates those of different nature; but our vegetative soul makes it do the contrary; namely, unite the four humours in the veins though different in nature, instead of segregating things: for in this case, heat acts not with full authority but as the soul’s officer, following her intentions. And the reason is, because these four humours being ingredients to the nativity of man, they must necessarily pass into his nourishment; which they cannot do without being mingled together … so the mother’s spirits keep the same course and rule towards the embryo, so that those which served to the mother’s touch, go to find that same place in the child’s body, there they mark the image which they brought from the brain; nature find ways for her intention where none appear.” Conference 121, “D’ou viennent les Marques que les Enfans apportent du Ventre de leur Mère, ” Troisiesme Centurie, p. 159.Google Scholar
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    Conference 58, part 2, “De la Peinture, ” Seconde Centurie, p. 71.Google Scholar
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    Conference 131, “Comment se fait l’Accroissement” [second speaker], Troisiesme Centurie, p. 199. The fourth speaker also applies this principle to human beings: “wise nature has set herself such bounds as she judged convenient, beyond which most do not grow; which are, for men, between six and seven foot” (p. 200).Google Scholar
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    Conference 118, “Des Maux de la Mer, ” Troisiesme Centurie, p. 143.Google Scholar
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    Conference 126, “Des Causes de la petite Vérole, ” Troisiesme Centurie, p. 179.Google Scholar
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    Conference 351, “Antiperistaze, ” Quatriesme Centurie, p. 351.Google Scholar
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    The second speaker most strongly makes this point: “That those two principles which seem contrary one to the other, are not so, if rightly understood; for when the chemists say, the similar curantur similibus, they speak not of diseases, as the Galenists do, with whom they agree, that the same are augmented by the use of resembling things; but of the part diseased which (being the seat of affections against nature) can alone be said to be cured, and not the disease which is only a privation, errour, or disorder of the body … which the dogmatists, as well as the chymists, cure by remedies like in substance to the nature of those parts which they strengthen; For what ever is a friend to nature, called by Hippocrates, marborun medicatrix, is also an enemy to that which is against nature.” Conference 49, part 1, “S’il y a des Remèdes spécifiques à chaque Maladie, ” Recueil général, pp. 393-394. This translation is from the English translation of the seventeenth century.Google Scholar
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    Conference 289, “Si le Fer appliqué sur un Tonneau empesche le Tonnere de corrompre le Vin. Et pourquoi, ” Quathesme Centurie, p. 436.Google Scholar
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    As the fourth speaker proclaimed in making the comparison, “Nature shows that she is not satisfied with her other productions when she makes other animals propagate by generation; but when she has made a mule, she stops there, as having found what she sought.” Conference 46, part 2, “Du Caprice des Femmes, ” Recueil général, p. 375.Google Scholar
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    Conference 139, “Quel est le plus désirable de vivre peu ou longuement, ” Troisiesme Centurie, p. 230.Google Scholar
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    Conference 48, part 1, “Si tout ce qui nourrit d’Animal doit avoir eu Vie, ” Recueil général, pp. 385-390. This is the one discourse which explicitly raises the question of whether nature exists for man’s benefit. It provokes vehement opposition. Note for example the objections of the fifth speaker (p. 388): “the life of man cost nature dear, if it must be maintained at the expence of so many other animals’ lives. If you say, that being made for man, the greatest happiness that can befall them is to serve him in something be it by the loss of their lives. But it is a fair excuse to cover our cruelty and luxury; to say that Animals are no more proper than Plants to nourish man … the similitude of substance is of little consideration; for animals live not of their like, and the Cannibals are ordinarily all Leprous. That a thing may be food, it is sufficient that it have an humidity or a substance proportionate to ours, in whatever order of things soever it be found. And nature has had no less care of nourishing an animal ….” This translation is taken from the seventeenth-century English translation by G. Havers.Google Scholar
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    Conference 123, “Si les Maigres sont plus sains, & de plus longue Vie que les Gras, ” Troisiesme Centurie, p. 167.Google Scholar
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    Conference 156, “Si les Hommes se formeraient un Langage n’en ayans point appris d’Autre, ” Troisiesme Centurie, p. 398.Google Scholar
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    Conference 46, part 1, “Du Vuide, ” Recueil général, p. 317.Google Scholar
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    Conference 40, part 2, “Pourquoi tous aiment-ils mieux commander qu’obéir?, ” Recueil général, p. 321.Google Scholar
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    A more orthodox opinion on this question is expressed by the sixth speaker who claims that man was originally created to lead and thus ambition is just a sign that he is trying to revert to his nature “that man having been created by God for command, as Holy Writ attests, he always retains the remembrance of his origin and would be master everywhere.” Conference 40, part 2, “Pourquoi tous aiment-ils mieux commander qu’obéir?, ” Recueil général, p. 322.Google Scholar
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    In Conference 7, part 2, “S’il est meilleur à un Estat d’avoir des Esclaves, ” p. 54. Participants in this conference express several interesting opinions. For example, one speaker contends that it is less un-Christian to make criminals slaves than to kill them. Another speaker claims that the French should lead in the crusade against slavery because “if there is any place which ought to carry the cause, it is France where a slave from other countries is freed when he sets foot in France.” Recueil général, pp. 54-57.Google Scholar
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    Conference 37, part 2, “S’il faut toujours dire la Vérité, ” Recueil général, p. 301.Google Scholar
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    Conference 289, “Si le Fer appliqué sur un Tonneau empesche le Tonnere de corrompre le Vin. Et pourquoi, ” Quatriesme Centurie, p. 436.Google Scholar
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    The fourth speaker uses God as the basis of his argument that the moderns cannot be less favored than the ancients. “For God does not create souls now with any less advantages and grace than formerly; he is as liberal of his favours as ever, especially in the ages of grace”. Conference 144, “S’il y eu de plus grands Hommes un quelque’un des Siècles précédens qu’en cettui-ci, ” Troisiesme Centurie, pp. 350-351.Google Scholar
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    See Margaret C. Jacob, The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1988); and Merchant, Death of Nature. Google Scholar

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