Paracelsus to Newton:
Word of God, the Book of Nature, and the Eclipse of the "Emblematic World View"
University of New York at Buffalo
do not assume the irrelevancy of Newton's pursuit of an ancient, occult wisdom
to those great syntheses of his that mark the foundation of modern science. The
Janus-like faces of Isaac Newton were after all the production of a single
mind, and their very bifurcation may be more of a modern optical illusion than
an actuality. Newton's mind was equipped with a certain fundamental assumption,
common to his age, from which his various lines of investigation flowed
naturally: the assumption of the unity of Truth. True knowledge was all in some
sense a knowledge of God; Truth was one, its unity guaranteed by the unity of
God. Reason and revelation were not in conflict but were supplementary. God's
attributes were recorded in the written Word but were also directly reflected
in the nature of nature. Natural philosophy thus had immediate theological
meaning for Newton and he deemed it capable of revealing to him those aspects
of the divine never recorded in the Bible or the record of which had been
corrupted by time and human error.
unity of Sir Isaac Newton's various esoteric and exoteric studies, the
fundamental intersection—even convergence—of what we would regard
now as discordant discourses, and the grounding in religion of Newton's
singular vision of Word and nature are foundational assumptions of much recent
and revisionist Newtonian scholarship. This essay embraces the general spirit
of the late Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs's remarks in the above epigraph, while
offering them for two strategic reasons. First, as an assurance to the reader
that the subject of this paper does have some pertinence to Newton, even if its
focus (and the limits of my scholarly horizons and competence) situates him on
the periphery of the essay's field of vision: for the Word of God and the Book
define metaphoric contexts for the narrative expression of Newton's "vision,"
or cultural project. Second, to suggest that certain specific features
contributing to the general spirit of Dobbs's portrait of Newton need to stand
out in sharper relief: what meanings might "the assumption of the unity of
Truth" have for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? How, and to what
extent, was such "Truth" accessible to humans? What were the relationships
between God, His Word, and nature? In what senses were God and His Word seen
to be "reflected" in nature? And finally, how was theological meaning encoded
in nature and "retrieved" by human interpreters?
propose to approach Newton indirectly by surveying some of the terrain that
surrounds, and perhaps leads up to, his own redescriptions of the boundaries of
science and religion. Specifically, I want to see if we can bring some of the
above features that Dobbs finds so prominent a part of Newton's double-faced
genius into sharper relief by casting our gaze upon the role played by
refashioned understandings of the Word of God and the Book of Nature in the
eclipse of the "emblematic world view" now associated with the Scientific
1. The Emblematic World View
emblematic world view can now be regarded as an important component of the
historiography of the Scientific Revolution. This accomplishment is largely
the work of William Ashworth, Jr., whose essay on this subject characterizes a
way of thinking about the natural world that acquired a good deal of legitimacy
in the sixteenth century.
While Ashworth is particularly telling in capturing the core meaning and
importance of the emblematic world view, his attempts to explain its collapse
are less satsisfying. Indeed, as I shall suggest, part of the problem is that
this emblematic world view needs to be situated in a broader intellectual and
cultural context before we can begin to account for its historical
transformation. Before I begin by summarizing Ashworth's notion of the
emblematic world view, let me first indicate the direction and larger purpose
of the argument I shall be making.
I shall argue that we must consider what lies "beyond" the emblematic world
view. I mean this in two senses: (1) I want to show that Ashworth's
"emblematic world view" is part of a
for reading the "Book of Nature" in this period. "Practices" and "reading" are
central here: how did natural historians, physicians, and natural philosophers
animate nature? What tools did they have at their disposal and how did they
define (or redefine) them? (2) I also want to examine Ashworth's claims
of the emblematic world view: what lies "beyond" it? This is especially
important in the present context, since Newton operates, in Ashworth's scheme,
well outside the chronological limits of the emblematic world view. Yet,
Ashworth's account of the latter's demise leaves us in a quandry when
considering where to situate and how to account for Newton's complex,
"Janus-faced," view of nature.
shall also invoke the example of Paracelsianism in order to illustrate how we
need to look "beyond the emblematic world view" in order to situate and
understand the set of interpretive practices Ashworth discusses
relate them to complementary (and conflicting) practices among early modern
students of nature, medicine, and the life sciences.
shall, moreover, explore the metaphor of the "Book of Nature" as deployed in
the sixteenth century as key to the question of the timing and causes of the
end of the emblematic world view. Specifically, I propose the central
importance of shifting cultural—especially Biblical—narratives to
shifting understandings of the nature and meaning of this divine "book of
nature." Here we shall see that the trope of nature as God's "text" forges a
strong link between natural things and language: (1) because figuring Nature
as a text raises the question of the
for reading and hence deciphering nature and natural things; and this, in turn,
raises the question of the relationship of this "language of Nature" (the
divine creative language?) to human languages; and (2) because the very legacy
of the creation of Adamic man—conjoining perfect knowledge of language
of the Edenic creatures] with mastery of natural things—and his
subsequent Edenic, postlapsarian, and post-Babylonic history underscores the
common search for knowledge, wisdom, and dominion through recapturing the lost
unity of the Adamic language
of Edenic natural forms.
the significance in postlapsarian history of diversity [variety and difference]
and unity to both nature and language link the latter together culturally and
historically. Their linking provides a key to dating, and understanding causes
for, the decline of the emblematic world view. That is, by attending to
shifting valuations of originative unity versus difference and variety
in the study of languages in the early-modern period we can better grasp the
movements that led to the eclipse of that search for a seamless text of
(unity in diversity) in the "Book of Nature" that forms the context for the
decline of Ashworth's "emblematic world view."
Emblematic World View: Ashworth’s Thesis
hope to show, even in this brief reappraisal, that when we look at natural
history through contemporary eyes, we see an entirely different world from
ours, a world where animals are just one aspect of an intricate language of
metaphor, symbols, and emblems. This "emblematic world view," as I choose to
call it, was the single most important factor in determining the content and
scope of Renaissance natural history (p. 305).
to William Ashworth, Jr., historians of Renaissance natural history have failed
to ask the right questions and, as a result, have far too frequently drawn a
skewed picture of their subject. In place of an account that sought to uncover
the full range of practices employed by sixteenth-century naturalists and to
understand the meanings that they discovered in the natural forms that
constituted the objects of their gaze, modern historians have instead looked
"for the roots of modern zoology and botany" (p. 304.) As a result, they have
championed examples of natural history, such as Belon and Rondelet, that appear
closest to the descriptive, anatomical, and classificatory preoccupations of a
much later age. A towering, and unavoidable, figure such as Conrad Gesner, on
the other hand, "is lauded for his attempt to gather firsthand information and
for his illustrations; he is chided for his humanist fondness for philology and
for his lack of any critical sense" (p. 304.)
counters this dominant historiographical trend by first noting the exceptional
contents of natural histories such as Gesner's, where an essay on the peacock,
for example, would record not simply its description, but also its habits,
characteristics (observed and reputed, from myriad sources), the etymology of
its name, its association with colors, stones, rivers, etc. named after it, its
mythological associations, and much, much more (p. 306.) As Ashworth suggests,
"Gesner believed that to know the peacock, you must know its
associations—its affinities, similitudes, and sympathies with the rest of
the created order" (p. 306.) Second, Ashworth charts the various kinds of
resources that the Renaissance naturalist would draw upon to flesh out his
account of such associations. These included, according to Ashworth,
"hieroglyphics," "antique coins and Renaissance medals," "Aesopic fables,"
"classical mythology," "adages and epigrams," and "emblems and devices" (pp.
307-11.) It is from the growing use of emblems that Ashworth coins his name
for this style of natural history. A result of this trend was to expand the
"web of associations" that the naturalist would provide for each animal or
plant, so that Gesner's article, at eight pages, was soon outdone by Ulisse
Aldrovandi's, which devoted thirty-one pages to the peacock (p. 313.)
then, is Ashworth's own characterization of the perspective practiced by
Renaissance natural historians:
emblematic world view is, in my opinion, the single most important factor in
determining late Renaissance attitudes toward the natural world, and the
contents of their treatises about it. The essence of this view is the belief
that every kind of thing in the cosmos has myriad hidden meanings and that
knowledge consists of an attempt to comprehend as many of these as possible.
To know the peacock, as Gesner wanted to know it, one must know not only what
the peacock looks like but what its name means, in every language; what kind of
proverbial associations it has; what it symbolizes to both pagans and
Christians; what other animals it has sympathies and affinities with; and any
other posssible connection it might have with stars, plants, minerals, numbers,
coins, or whatever.... The notion that a peacock should be studied in
isolation from the rest of the universe, and that inquiry should be limited to
anatomy, physiology, and physical description, was a notion completely foreign
to Renaissance thought (p. 312.)
and the “End” of the Emblematic World View
to Ashworth, "the demise of emblematic natural history was a crucial part of
the development that we call the Scientific Revolution. It was not simply an
aftermath of Descartes and the mechanical philosophy but an independent, and
perhaps even broader, cultural shift that had profound consequences for the
evolution of seventeenth-century science."
I am inclined to agree with Ashworth's assesment. I would, however, stress
that the peculiar practices involved in his emblematic natural history
represent but a portion of more extensive "technologies" for reading the Book
of Nature as symbolic and as unified by an interconnected network of analogy
and resemblance. This qualification becomes significant once we ask what
changes produce the "demise of emblematic natural history."
himself sees Joannes Jonston's
(1650-1653) as a "watershed publication" marking, if not the end of monumental
publishing projects, the end at least of emblematic natural history. Jonston's
discussion of the peacock, Ashworth notes, constitutes by Renaissance standards
an insubstantial two pages, with little more than description.
What is Ashworth's explanation for this dramatic change?
notes that attempts to write natural histories of animals found in the new
world had to confront the singular circumstance that "the animals of the new
world had no known similitudes."
Nature, or at least a part of it, seemed to have escaped the Renaissance
network of symbols and meaning. Here, Ashworth appears to be onto a
significant development, but he fails to press this line of inquiry far enough.
Indeed, his essay leaves the impression that the simple profusion of new
natural forms and the absence of ready-made emblematic associations for them
was too wide a gap for the older symbolic mode of reading nature's book to
bridge. I would argue, by contrast, that the assimilation of novelty, of
difference, and even of vast and at first sight bewildering variety was a
commonplace and strength of the emblematic, mythographic, and narrative
traditions that Ashworth invokes as constituents of his emblematic world view.
Thus, the tradition of examining and recuperating myths of the pagan gods
extended well beyond Boccaccio and could attempt to embrace the mythographic
structures and beliefs of native Americans, just as the culture, habits,
political organization, and social structure of the new world natives presented
challenges to theologians, lawyers, and political theorists who were
nonetheless fully capable of responding without immediately jettisoning belief
in the unity of human nature and humankind.
The problem then is not the absence of preexistent classical or postclassical
emblematic associations, as Ashworth supposes, but rather when and why many
Europeans abandoned habitual efforts to assimilate variety and difference to a
preexistent divine architecture of resemblance and sympathetic/symbolic unity.
blow to the emblematic world view, for Ashworth, was the emergence of critical
assessment of claims contained in the various fables, proverbs, myths, and
emblems that surrounded particular animals in works by Gesner, Aldrovandi, and
others. This critical perspective he traces to the new "antiquarianism and the
quest for historical truth" of the seventeenth century.
Unfortunately, Ashworth's claims regarding the role played by northern
European antiquarianism, with its attempts to use artifacts as "vital
historical clues," though highly suggestive, remain insufficiently developed as
an argument. In particular,
there is a new and critical attitude toward historical evidence evinced by the
use of artifacts,
Ashworth does not give a convincing argument for its emergence. Of course, he
is quite correct to point to the impressive development of "great museum
collections" in the early seventeenth century as a significant event in the
evolution of natural history, and undoubtedly this had an effect on fostering a
comparative and critical spirit.
But one suspects that this critical spirit was not as fully developed, nor as
internally consistent and uncontested, as Ashworth seems to imply. Certainly,
in his list of antiquarian scholars one finds names, such as that of Jan
Goropius Becanus, who remain wedded to the central importance of etymology for
uncovering divine wisdom through attempts to rediscover and study the
originary, Adamic language.
Ashworth, in my opinion, comes closest to articulating a line of inquiry that
can begin to make sense of the "demise" of the emblematic world view in a brief
section on Sir Francis Bacon. There, he notes that "Bacon's rejection of the
notion that the natural world is a divine language, encoded by God, is almost
certainly related to his views on human language." Furthermore, he draws from
Bacon's views implications that run directly counter to the assumptions
undergirding the emblematic world view: "If words have no hidden meanings, why
should nature? If the language of man is arbitrary, can there be a language of
nature at all? How can the Book of Nature shed light on God's plan, if the
language of that book is devoid of meaning?"
These are important questions, not least for any attempt to situate Sir Isaac
Newton's own reading of the Book of Nature. Unfortunately, Ashworth fails to
follow his own lead. He fails, that is, to explore the relationship of his
emblematic world view to the variety of ways—changing ways, I would
add—that the Book of Nature was understood as a code or language in the
early modern period. For Ashworth, Bacon simply comes too late, and his
influence on the naturalists he highlights in his essay is nonexistent. As we
shall see, however, there is more to the story of language, the Book of Nature,
and the eclipse of the emblematic world view than Ashworth's narrow and
negative focus on Bacon imagines.
2. Beyond the Emblematic World View: Other Hermeneutical Practices and
Symbolic Exegesis of the Book of Nature
can we understand the eclipse of the emblematic world view? We need, first, to
see emblematic natural history as part of a larger network of cultural beliefs,
practices, and narratives. We must look beyond the emblematic world view to a
set of related beliefs and practices in order to grasp their common
underpinning and, hence, related fortunes.
I would like to stress that the very resources that Ashworth identifies with
emblematic natural history—hieroglyphics, mythography, emblems, and
devices—are but contingent and highly specialized technologies for
reading the Book of Nature and producing (its practitioners would say
discovering) a kind of divinely-originating meaning. The assumptions that such
meaning exists in the Book of Nature, that it is accessible to human beings,
and that technologies for reading that Book and decoding such meanings are
available for humans to employ are fundamental not only to Ashworth's
emblematic natural history, but to a number of rather different, and at times
ideologically opposed, hermeneutic strategies in Renaissance natural philosophy
example, the well known sixteenth-century academic physician, Jean Fernel, who
authored comprehensive "textbooks" of virtually the whole of Galenic medicine,
sought in his natural philosophical and medical works to uncover the divine,
and divinely-originating meaning, in the Book of Nature. Fernel, trained at
Paris, juxtaposed scholastic elements of analysis with an exegetical approach
to texts and nature in his medical and philosophical works written while a
professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Paris. Such
textually-based exegesis, I have argued elsewhere,
prescribed a hermeneutics of scientific practice that focused upon the
interpretation of language and texts as bearers of a lost, but recoverable,
Adamic and divine understanding of nature and things. Exegesis as a technology
for reading nature assumes that language itself—deriving ultimately from
the most antique and "pure" of human languages—contains a kernel of
pristine wisdom mirroring the divine knowledge that found concrete expression
in the things contained in God's Book of Nature. Thus God's Word, unfolding as
his myriad Works in that Book, ensures human access to the truths of nature
through language and texts themselves.
the close connection between God's Word, the trope of language, and the Book of
Nature found in the very notion of exegesis also led—by transference to
"things" as the "pages" upon which God stamped his mysterious, veiled symbols
(or "signatures") in creating His Book of Nature—to a related exegetical
hermeneutics applied directly to that Book. Within this important Renaissance
hermeneutics of nature, the analogical, symbolic universe of the middle ages
was concretized. That is to say, the "abstract symbolism" of the middle ages
was transformed into a concrete "symbolic literalism" in which material things
themselves came to be seen as symbolic and as constituting an elaborate
tropological network linked together by intersecting, metaphorically conceived,
relationships in which the distinction between the "metaphorical" and the
"literal" was continually effaced.
Such a hermeneutics of nature bears strong resemblances to what Foucault
characterized as "similitude" and "resemblance."
Renaissance efforts to uncover the Truth contained in the Book of Nature, the
relative emphasis placed upon language and texts as repositories for a "hidden"
Adamic, divine "meaning" on the one hand, and, alternatively, upon the symbolic
traces of the divine Word stamped upon things themselves, depended upon how
individual natural philosophers, physicians, and their heterodox compatriots
negotiated complex cultural narratives. Specifically, the actual deployment of
linguistic (textual) exegetical strategies and symbolic exegetical strategies
(and the relationship between them) depended upon how individual practitioners
situated their attempts to read God's Book of Nature within larger, often
recast, narratives of the Fall, the confusion of tongues, and the Pentecost.
may serve as an example.
Man, says Paracelsus, "received from God in Paradise the privilege of ruling
over and dominating all other creatures, and not of obeying them."
Although relinquishing this "right" as a consequence of the Fall,
humans still retain freedom even in the face of an unruly nature. Paracelsus
wishes to make something of this freedom, and to do so he must unveil both
humankind's strengths and weaknesses. Postlapsarian, Christian "man's" assets
and deficits may be reckoned by attending to Adam's prelapsarian powers and the
legacy of the fall. Here Paracelsus invokes the
as link between the paradisical and fallen Adam. This
"teaches the true names to give to all things."
Underscoring its significance, Paracelsus tells us that:
our first father had complete knowledge and perfect understanding of these
names. For directly after the Creation he gave to all things their own proper
and specific names. He gave to each of the animals,—and also to the
trees, roots, stones, ores, metals, waters and to the fruits of the earth,
water, air and fire—its own special name. And as Adam then christened
them with their names, so was God pleased to ordain them. For their names were
based upon real foundations, not upon their pleasant appearances, but rather
upon a predestined art, namely the signatory art [
And for that reason, Adam was the first practitioner of this art of signs [
Paracelsus attributes to Hebrew (obviously in light of the belief that Adam
spoke that language in the Garden of Paradise) the ability to capture the
nature of things through their Hebrew names,
that capacity of language does not concern him. Rather, what remains
significant for Paracelsus is the conviction that Adam's ability to give all
creatures their proper names was dependent upon our first parent's capacity to
penetrate the mere appearances presented by natural things to uncover their
real natures. Indeed, Paracelsian natural philosophy turns upon a vision of
man, not as dwelling in the house of language, but as restless sojourner in the
world of things. For postlapsarian man must become, like Adam, a
a practitioner of the
one who operates within and on Nature, fathoming signs and manipulating the
hidden virtues of things.
Paracelsus hints, is what the wise man (
His wisdom comes, not from his intellect, not from his ability to read texts
like a slavish scholar, but from his ability to transform himself into a new
Adam through his direct engagement with nature. The nature of that engagement
ultimately depends upon Paracelsus's understanding of the relationship of the
the divine and creative Word, to the world and to man. That relationship is at
the very heart of what Paracelsus calls the
which turns upon the Paracelsian notion of
signatures of natural things.
the Paracelsian account prompts us to ask how it is that Adam, as the first
practitioner of this "art," can give things their real names. Let us examine
the passage concerning Adam's naming of all creatures more closely. Our
Paracelsian author states that Adam's naming reflects his "complete knowledge
and perfect understanding." What is the source of this understanding? Here we
encounter a knot in the Paracelsian narrative, for there seem to coexist two
contesting themes. On the one hand, Adam appears to choose names freely, if
aptly; on the other hand, the names themselves are grounded in what the story
tells us is a "predestined art." This "knot" can, I believe, only be loosened,
not untied. Indeed, the tension it embodies is, in my view, essential to the
Paracelsians' vision of man in the created universe. While emphasizing the
creatureliness of humans—their dependence upon God and, indeed, the
fallen nature that clouds the unaided human intellect—Paracelsus and his
followers for the most part draw back from reducing humans to a creature
utterly devoid of the freedom to act, to control nature, and to influence its
man—freely chooses the names that he gives to all creatures in the Garden
of Eden. Yet, this freedom does not mean that the names they are given are in
any sense arbitrary. Language, or at least the Adamic language, is not a
product of use, a human social construct, in Paracelsus's view. Free from all
sin, Adam's language bears a close relationship to the
God has not directly imposed this language upon Adam. Rather, God provides
Adam with a tool that, given his pure and unfallen nature, he is then able to
use correctly. This tool—the signatory art [
not itself knowledge of the true names of things. Rather, its proper use
requires that Adam turn directly to nature—to God's creatures—where
he may then read those "signs" that mark each natural thing as a natural kind.
That is to say, Adam's perfect understanding of the names of things depends
upon his ability to grasp, through direct experience, signs that reveal to the
able practitioner of the
the innermost secrets, hidden properties, occult virtues, and hence true
natures of things. By freely and accurately reading such signs, Adam exercises
his privilege as unfallen
and microcosm to rule over all other creatures. He also comes to enjoy
knowledge of those very elements of things that are based, or patterned, upon
the Divine plan or ideas that are the blueprint for all creatures. As a
result, the names spoken by Adam—the Adamic language—is one that
"pleases" God as the true, correct names that God then, in His power and
freedom, ordains as such. The Adamic names thus bear a direct and univocal
relationship to the Word of God.
man has lost full knowledge of the signatory art that brought Adam perfect
understanding of things. But, while his intelligence is clouded, man's freedom
enables him to choose the path of wisdom or of bestiality. Choice of the
former path leads humans to the
and from thence to nature's secrets. How is this path opened to humans in
through language. Not through mere textual exegesis and etymologies.
Paracelsus will not abide humans playing cat and mouse with language and texts.
The way to the Word, to the effects of the Divine
upon nature, is through nature itself. But humans—postlapsarian
man—must approach nature properly, in the proper spirit. Man's
freedom—limited though real—must seek the proper path and encounter
nature piously and, hence, with the aid of God. For "Adam" represents not only
humankind in paradise; rather "Adam," as Kurt Goldammer insists, "c'est l'homme
au sens théologique, c'est-à-dire tout d'abord un etre
This prisoner of sin nonetheless retains a certain liberty and can
consequently avail himself of whatever help God provides him in his fallen
state. And it is precisely the divinely-implanted light of nature (
that enables humans, Goldammer asserts, "à surmonter le
it is not such an easy task, this overcoming of man's fallen nature.
While the key may be the light of nature, access to that light requires
preparation. Given that preparation, however, nature and its secrets lay open
before all of mankind. Man must prepare himself for God's illumination in
order that the light of nature may awaken his intellect to the correct
interpretation of the signs God's created Nature has stamped upon things.
Humans must learn, through the
those practices that allow them to be bathed in the radiance of the
in his direct engagements with Nature. In short, humans must turn, with piety,
toward nature to encounter in the concreteness of lived experience both the
grace of divine insight and the light with which nature reveals its own
innermost secrets. In his conceptions of man, nature, experience, and God's
"signatures," Paracelsus points the way to a hermeneutics of nature that
promises to complete the narrative of Adam: of the "old," once privileged and
now fallen, Adam and the "new" regenerate Adam to come.
for Paracelsus, is it essential that man, this prisoner of sin, must turn to
direct and concrete experience of nature? How can such experience open the
human mind to the "light of nature?" The answer to these questions perhaps
lies in what would have seemed a paradox to Paracelsus. For it was precisely
what is most accessible, ready-at-hand, and visible that provides the key to
unlocking the most intimate secrets of nature hidden to human reason.
Aristotelians, Galenists, and other postlapsarian students of nature ignored
what was under their very noses to pursue fictitious entities raised up by
their clouded, but prideful, reason. While it is true for Paracelsus that the
properties, powers or natures that give rise to the activity of things in
nature are occult—hidden from our direct apprehension—, it is
equally the case that Nature has left evident "traces" of such animating
properties in the visible texture of things themselves. Thus, as Paracelsus
was so fond of saying, "It is the exterior thing alone that gives knowledge of
the interior; otherwise no inner thing could come to be known."
Postlapsarian man has ignored the external signs of the internal nature of
things; by his failure to engage things directly, he has failed to penetrate
the very secrets of nature. His failure, then, is at least in part a failure
to learn how humans must read the visible book of nature placed before them by
"doctrine of signatures" is then both an account of the relations between the
inner and outer aspects of concrete things in nature, and a hermeneutics that
teaches fallen man how he is to read things, to read Nature itself. The themes
of nature's signatures and of our dependence for knowledge of the hidden, inner
nature of things upon external "signs" that signatures (re)present to man,
pervade virtually all of Paracelsus's work. In different ways, he tells us
that the understanding of signs is indispensible to the knowledge and
manipulation of nature. "Nothing," he asserts, "exists without its signature."
Indeed, there is nothing produced by nature that it has not marked by a sign of
what is inside it. But such signatures have completely fallen out of use,
forgotten entirely by fallen, error-ridden man. Hence it is imperative that
"those who wish to depict natural things must grasp their signs and understand
the same through their signatures."
urges that humans become adept at reading signs. Nature imprints all things
that it creates with an outward mark, a sign or signature. Each sign enables
one who knows how to read them to know what it is that a given thing—a
plant, an animal, a mineral, even the stars—contains within it. This
"inner" thing controls, shapes, and activates that which we recognize by its
external form and properties in nature. But it is the internal, occult, and
secret properties of a thing that constitutes its very nature, that is the key
to our understanding its "thingliness" as a creature of God, and that contains
those very "virtues" that empower it to act according to its nature.
Understanding of the latter—an understanding that may only be grasped
experientially—enables man to tap into or extract the powers that lay
hidden in nature and thence to control, transform, channel, and transmute them.
Thus, Paracelsus envisions a society in which those who are privileged by their
experience—by the expertise that grounds itself in intimate experience of
nature—can use their expert knowledge to fathom the secrets of nature and
use such hidden virtues to improve the lot of humans on earth. Thus, for
expert practitioner of the art of signs [
may recognize by means of the signature the virtue inhabiting each material
being—that which is in herbs and in trees, in sensible and in insensible
things. For consequently such expert signators discover a great many
medicaments, remedies and other powers in natural things. And whosoever does
not note the power and efficacy of a plant from its signature, that person does
not comprehend what he writes. Indeed, he writes like a blind person who does
not understand what he writes.
man, blinded by his fall and turned away from things to the contentious world
of mere human words, does not comprehend what he writes and does not gain
access to the hidden nature of things through his vain "sciences." The order
prescribed by God in His creation does not permit such access except to those
who practice a different "science"—one that relentlessly follows the
tracks ordained by God in Nature that links the external signs of things back
to their inner virtues and actions.
This new Paracelsian "science"—the true knowledge of natural
things—reads in the visible signatures of things their origins and
meaning in the invisible and spiritual nature of their inner constitution.
and invisible, material and spiritual, concrete signature and symbolic order of
beings: all find themselves inextricably woven together in the texture of
God's creation. God's authorship of the Book of Nature, like Christ's voice
speaking of divine mysteries in the languages of man, animates the mere
material traces of the letters He has stamped upon this world. In fact, the
very light of nature that Paracelsus extolls throughout his works is but
nothing, were it not for the fact that it came from God. God's Word is the
source of our illumination through the light of nature, just as our very
nourishment and life itself comes "not from the earth, but from God through His
Where the blind Galenist or Aristotelian sees but mere accidents—a mere
cloak of passive matter to be cast aside in the profound search for
divinely illumined Paracelsian sees living symbols of Nature's hidden truths.
Thus Paracelsus rails against the mere "bookish" medical learning of a Galen,
Avicenna, Mesue, or Rasis. The door they hold open to their so-called art of
medicine leads to but a blind alley. Only nature itself offers humans true
access to the secret healing powers in things. The true door opening upon the
art of medicine is that produced by the "light of nature" alone. Against the
false, prideful, and pagan, books of man, one must oppose the only true book:
"that which God Himself has given, written, devised, and established."
It is to this book alone that man must turn if he is to uncover, through the
light of nature, the occult properties and secret virtues deep within natural
things. Those who ignore God's book, who foresake the
are condemned to wander in the world as if in a labyrinth without hope of escape.
example of Paracelsus attests to the powerful role played by the metaphor of
the Book of Nature and its deployment through highly localized rereadings of
traditional Judeo- Christian biblical narratives in emerging strategies for
interpreting nature in the late Renaissance. Such rereadings authorized
particular modes of human access to the "Word of God" contained in nature's text.
The priority given to texts in exegetical technologies championed by those
like Fernel, though based upon common assumptions about the "Word of God" and
the "Book of Nature," contrasted sharply with the exclusive priority given to
experience in Paracelsus's symbolic technology for the exegesis of "things."
natural history combines both technologies in so far as it weaves together the
meanings encountered in texts (myths; emblematic sayings; etc.) with the
experiential decoding of symbols embedded in natural things. Belief that
"divine" meaning—a meaning that transcends phenomenal differences and
exhibits their roots in the "complicated" unity of God's being and plan for the
world—can be uncovered through language alone generally rests upon the
special assumption that there is an intimate, if corrupted and occult,
relationship between the languages of human textual traditions and an originary
divine, "Adamic," language, the Word of God. Alternatively, belief in a divine
meaning embedded in things themselves rests on the assumption that God's
creative Word directly formed things and that, in so doing, the Word left
traces, or signatures, on things that humans, properly aided and motivated, can
learn to read as a symbolic language of nature.
these assumptions lead to strategies for reading the Book of Nature—at
one extreme relying chiefly on texts; at the other, on "things" as bearers of
symbolic meaning—, and both find their legitimation in the reworking of
narratives regarding Adam, the Fall, the Tower of Babel and confusion of
tongues, and, as we shall see later, the Pentecost, that authorized various
relationships between the Word of God, the "languages of man," and the Book of
Nature. Radically altered narratives and shifting interpretations of key
biblical episodes—together with resulting shifts in fundamental
assumptions about the relationships between the "Word of God," the "languages
of man," and the "Book of Nature"—are then, fundamental to charting
important changes in the technologies and strategies for reading nature in the
Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
3. The Eclipse of the Emblematic World View
to Ashworth's emblematic world view, I would like to stress how the link
between language theory and cultural narratives in the Renaissance provides a
way of understanding its eclipse.
While it is quite likely that changed attitudes toward natural history and
both botanical and zoological specimens were intimately related to
transformations in the evaluation and interpretation of human artifacts, the
grounds for such changes are not explored by Ashworth. Such radical
revisioning of nature and history implied, and I would argue necessitated,
radical recasting of fundamental narratives about Man, Nature, and language.
Only within such a radically altered narrative frame could a discourse emerge
that placed stress upon the critical
distinguishing animals and plants, rather than on the correspondences and
similitudes that bind them into an analogical and symbolic network. The latter
network supposed a creation narrative in which God was the Judeo-Christian
whose Word gave visible expression to the archetypes or ideas of the divine
mind. Nature was then the image of God and even a divine
that man must decipher. The question raised by the rise and fall of the
emblematic world view recounted by Ashworth is, then, how did this story lose
so much of its cultural force as authorizing narrative legitimating scientific
developments contributed to this loss of narrative authority. First, the
intimate and necessary connection between the Word of God and Nature came to be
questioned and redefined. Second, language began to lose its status as
originary source of knowledge through a gradual delegitimization of narratives
that figured humans as privileged readers of the text of nature. As a result,
the project of seeking knowledge of nature directly through deciphering the
symbols imprinted upon things, or indirectly, through seeking the truth of
things in language—that is, in etymology
or exegetical hermeneutics—lost its firm foundations.
many ways the second development prefigured and prepared the way for the first,
although it is not possible to insist upon any strict chronology. Not only did
these developments overlap with one another, the very discourses and strategies
authorized by conflicting cultural narratives survived and coexisted for much
of the late sixteenth through at least the early eighteenth centuries. The
point, however, is that Ashworth's account stops short of connecting the impact
of the new "critical" antiquarianism with the groundwork prepared by both of
these developments. Significantly, he does note that Francis Bacon's rejection
of the emblematic world view and its approach to natural history was rooted in
his firm denial that nature is in any way a mirror, image, or reflection of
God, thus suggesting an important role for the first development mentioned above.
But Bacon's significance in the demise of the emblematic world view is not
solidly connected by Ashworth to the role he claims for the new antiquarian
spirit of criticism. And, more fundamently, the importance of Renaissance
cultural narratives—and their gradual delegitimization—figuring man
as enjoying privileged access to the "Word of God" through his Adamic
inheritance (which allowed him to read the text of Nature) nowhere appears in
Ashworth's account as a context integral to the emblematic world view and its
order to underscore the significance of this narrative context for an
understanding of the hermeneutic strategies employed by natural history in this
period, let me briefly turn to a text cited by Ashworth, Edward Topsell's
Historie of Fovre-Footed Beastes
For Ashworth, Topsell epitomizes the emblematic world view: "his 'Epistle
Dedicatory' is a hymn to animals as symbolic images."
We should therefore find telling Topsell's preoccupation with the study of
nature as integral to humanity's quest for salvation; a quest that, without the
aid provided by the text of nature, may be doomed to failure by the curse of
an Interpretor in a strange country is necessary for a traveller that is
ignorant of Languages (or else he should perish,) so is knowledge and learning
to us poore Pilgrims in this our Perigrination, out of Paradice, unto Paradice;
whereby confused BABELS tongues are againe reduced to their significant
Dialects, not in the builders of BABELL to further and finish an earthly Tower,
but in the builders of IERVSALEM, to bring them all to their owne Countrey
Which they seeke, and to the desired rest of soules.
is this knowledge and learning that serves as an interpreter, allowing us
access to the language man needs in his journey away from his unfortunate fall
out of a state of grace in the Garden of Paradise toward the Paradise of the
soul's repose with God in heaven? Topsell would have us answer that it is
knowledge and learning concerning the beasts that will reveal the one language
that can guide us on our journey toward salvation. Indeed, Topsell's text
insistently implicates and emplots human pursuit of natural knowledge within
the grand narrative of possession of the Adamic language and its loss through
Adam's tragic fall and the subsequent confusion at Babel.
his Fall and through Babel "man" has lost his way on his journey toward God and
eternal salvation in Paradise. But, although he has lost the original Adamic
language, postlapsarian and post-babylonic man is still heir to the Adamic
legacy. That legacy—knowledge of the true names of all creatures and,
hence, access to the creative "Word of God"—is his, if man will simply
turn to the text of nature and read its divine message. Knowledge of that
text—knowledge deepened by the etymological, mythological and emblematic
learning of ancient and modern authors—serves as our interpreter on the
journey to Paradise.
The knowledge once lost, is yet again available to man:
[i.e., the beasts] life and creation is Devine in respect of their maker, their
naming divine, in respect that Adam out of the plenty of his own devine
wisdome, gave them their several appellations, as it were out of a Fountaine of
prophesie, foreshewing the nature of every kind in one elegant &
significant denomination, which to the great losse of all his children was
taken away, lost, & confounded at Babel. When I affirm that the knowledg
of Beasts is Devine, I do meane no other thing then the right and perfect
description of their names, figures, and natures, and this is in the Creator
himself most Devine, & therefore such as is the fountain, such are the
streams yssuing from the same into the minds of men.
"names, figures, and natures" of animals are in God Himself; from God as
source, they may flow "into the minds of men." Thus, the possibility of
recapturing Adam's lost knowledge of the creatures, of repairing the effects of
Babel and reconstituting a language that mirrors nature perfectly--that, in
effect, closes the gap between the languages of man and the Word of
God—is alive and very much present for Topsell. That possibility can be
enacted through study of the very beasts themselves, for Topsell is convinced
that God saved all animals from the flood by placing them on Noah's ark
precisely to enable man access to Divine knowledge and the saving wisdom that
may come with it. "Surely," Topsell, speaking of the animals saved by Noah,
proclaims, "it was for that a man might gaine out of them much devine
knowledge, such as is imprinted in them by nature, as a tipe or spark of that
great wisdome whereby they were created."
very Word, his Scriptures, "compare the Divell to a Lyon;...false prophets to
Wolves;...Heretickes and false Preachers to Scorpions...." Man needs the
knowledge God has "imprinted in" animals if he is not only to uncover, but also
comprehend, His saving Word. For it is "cleare that every beast is a natural
vision, which we ought to see and understand, for the more cleare apprehension
of the invisible Maiesty of God." Thus it is that Topsell counsels direct
investigation of all animals found in the book of nature, and that he brings to
this task "what the writers of all ages have herein observed" and recorded in
stories, images and emblems.
God is author of the universe, and humanity's task is to learn to read the
divine text of nature: "but this sheweth that Chronicle which was made by God
himselfe, every living beast being a word, every kind being a sentence, and al
of them together a large history, containing admirable knowledge &
learning, which was, which is, which shall continue, (if not for ever) yet to
the world's end."
Topsell returns, then, to man and language. For him, natural history is the
divine text written in the language of creatures that contains that "knowledge
& learning" that Adam and his offspring lost through the fall and curse of
Babel. In the very making of Ashworth's "emblematic world view" we therefore
of the grand Renaissance cultural narrative of man's fall and redemption.
Natural history, as both the tool and product of reading God's text, enables
humans access to their lost Adamic heritage, and with it, access to the saving
Renaissance natural history, the emblematic world view, and much of what I
have elsewhere called the hermeneutics of symbolic exegesis have been emplotted
in this story of man's fall and salvation.
The natural history of Gesner, Aldrovandi, Topsell and others is therefore
part of that Renaissance quest for the wisdom of the Adamic language lost in
the Babylonic confusion.
Let us now turn for examples of natural history to Paula Findlen's recent work,
where we shall also find clues for understanding the eventual delegitimation of
emblematic natural history. Ultimately, this concern will bring us back to
consideration of changes in Renaissance language theory—particularly
changes in those very cultural narratives that shaped attitudes toward
language—and in the scholarly study of languages that were a crucial
development in the decline of the emblematic world view and, more broadly, of
concern has been with natural curiosities that Renaissance naturalists and
collectors increasingly viewed as "jokes of nature":
Her achievement has been to bring what appears to the modern as patently
marginal to the forefront of the cultural and social system of early-modern
science, particularly natural history. Jokes of nature—for example,
nature's replication of natural forms, such as clouds, mountains, or faces,
upon stones; shells in the shape of ears; the transformation of coral from a
plant-like to a stone-like substance; fossils; or, flowers that assume the
shapes of other natural creatures—are no mere oddities, nor simply the
abberant imaginings of otherwise rational, even systematic, students of nature.
Rather, they display fundamental assumptions about both nature and the practice
of late Renaissance natural history.
is fundamentally playful and creative; it is, in short, poetic. As poetic,
nature displays all the imaginative and creative powers associated with
fiction. Nature can mimic; it can take natural forms and make them
metamorphose into other shapes; it is inherently active, transformative,
plastic. Because, at times, of "her" willful disposition, nature's playfulness
may seem to subvert the very categories and kinds into which creatures are
ordered. This aspect of the
marks something of the independence of nature from the usually stable order of
God's creation. Nature, through creative powers instilled in her, spills over
with variety and invention and threatens to disrupt the very order of things.
Yet, her playfulness also exhibits the workings of patterns, of archetypes in
nature. Stones and plants mimic the forms of animals and humans; menstrual
blood undergoes metamorphosis into toads. Such transformations and mirroring,
then, display the analogical, metaphorical, and hierarchical structure of the
divine system of nature. Its very playfulness was authorized by the way in
which nature, as a divine language of things, was constituted by the
replication of divine archetypes, vertically within different strata, and
horizontally among its different "kingdoms and worlds."
Hence, the decline of nature's playfulness, as with the decline of the
emblematic world view, stemmed from the delegitimization of this archetypal,
symbolic vision of nature as divine language.
such a view, variety may be rampant. Yet, the overarching system of
correspondences and analogies provide a way of recuperating variety and
difference, of transforming them into so many instances of a unified language
of things. The very image of God as creator unfolding and "explicating" the
unity of His Being into the multiplicity of material things carries with it the
complementary image of movement back toward unity. Unity becomes then the very
ground for the possibility of diversity; and diversity—the
multiplication, even the playfulness, of natural forms—becomes the
occasion for the quest for an originative unity.
is precisely the coincidence of this double movement, from unity to diversity
and back again to unity, that the cultural narratives authorizing Renaissance
language theory and legitimating the hermeneutics of symbolic exegesis in the
study of nature enforce in their own domains and reinforce among each other.
Consequently, we should view with great interest those movements across the
grain of unity-in-diversity that erupt at the margins of Renaissance
linguistics and language theory and that begin to complicate the story of
language, both manifesting and instigating revision of the narrative of man's
Céard enables us to see just such roots of change in sixteenth-century
transformations of the story of Babel and the Pentecost. Céard, well
known as a student of sixteenth-century natural sciences,
expresses fascination with contesting tendencies in Renaissance engagements
with language and its status. Transfixed by the epic quest for the original
Adamic language, the Renaissance nonetheless finds itself drawn to the sheer
diversity of languages.
The story he relates illustrates how a guiding assumption such as that of an
originary language can foster inquiry that, in turn, transforms the very terms
in which language, and the ideal of an original and universal language, are
recounts the Renaissance confrontation with the legacy of Babel and consequent
search for a perfect, universal, Adamic tongue. He discloses the grounds of
sixteenth-century obsessions with Hebrew, with etymologies, and with the lure
that cabalistic attention to the form itself of letters, words, language
exercised over the imaginations of contemporary scholars.
Yet, even this obsession constantly stumbled upon the effects of diversity
within language, the inevitable presence of a multiplicity that contrasted with
question was, what to do about this variety within, and of, language? The
recuperative power of Renaissance discourses are much in evidence in the
challenge posed by the obvious variety of the languages of man. Every tendency
exerted its force to find order, and therefore traces of a deeper unity, in the
systematic study of language. Céard testifies to the imposition of the
mental grid of Renaissance naturalists—also students of
diversity—upon linguistics in the sixteenth century.
In particular Céard cites, as an almost archetypal example of this
recuperation of variety to a hermeneutics that enforced unity as the ground of
all interpretation, the great sixteenth-century naturalist and embodiment of
the "emblematic world view," Conrad Gesner. Both a natural historian of the
first rank and early student of comparative linguistics, Gesner was author of
and the monumental
also of 1555.
According to Céard, "dans les deux livres, Gesner met en oeuvre la meme
conception de l'ordre et de la varieté."
diversity was, of course, a legacy of Babel. As such, one might dismiss the
sheer variety of vernacular tongues as merely exhibiting the decadence and
degeneration from an ideal language implicit in the notion of an historic
confusion at Babel. Hence, one response to this linguistic variety might well
be to deem its study ignoble. For Gesner, Céard notes, this conclusion
fit the case of "barbaric" tongues, particularly Hungarian, which had nothing
in common with languages that enjoyed a more noble pedigree. Just as Gesner
the naturalist lavished scrupulous attention upon the viviparous quadrupedes
whose affinities to man lent them a certain dignity, Gesner the linguist
evinced preference for those vernaculars, and ancient tongues, dignified by
relationship to the sacred languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, "celles dans
lesquelles s'exprime le verbe de Dieu."
For Gesner, barbaric languages like Hungarian, occupy the same ignoble place
among languages in general as the lowly insects do among living things.
while Gesner encouraged some attention to the variety of linguistic phenomena,
his strongly hierarchical understanding of languages—flowing from his
implicit adoption of a reading of the Babel narrative as suggesting decadence
and degeneration from an ideal—placed limits upon the significance of
such diversity. Other readings that looked to Babel as the origin of
"linguarum varietas" were perhaps more receptive to details of such variation
and their intrinsic significance.
Thus, for some the very diversity of languages might mask a deeper, hidden
As Claude Duret, author of massive tomes on language and on natural history,
revealed according to Cèard:
y a "cinq differentes sortes d'escrire": les Asiatiques et les Africains
écrivent de droite à gauche; les Européens, de gauche
à droite; les Indiens, Chinois et Japonais, de haut en bas; les
Mexicains, de bas en haut et, dans certains cas, en spirale. Il en conclut
qu'ainsi sont exprimés "les secretz et mysteres de la croisee du Monde,
et de la forme de la Croix, ensemble de la rotondité du Ciel et de la
we see the continuation of that impulse Céard noted earlier: the
tendency promoted by belief in an original, Adamic language to embrace
linguistic variety. In Duret's case, such variety leads back to a more
fundamental, if sometimes occult, unity. But, as Céard strikingly
contends, that willingness to embrace linguistic diversity authorized by the
myth of Babel's originary view of language also led to radical revaluation of
the relationship between linguistic variety and universality in the late
sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. If the encounter with variety
prompted this revaluation, what extended and authorized it was another myth,
another re-reading of Renaissance cultural narratives that gave prominence to
the Pentecost as privileged, Christian context for repairing the effects of
linguistic variety was no longer simply a divine punishment and hindrance to
man's reformation. Linguistic variety was, instead, a fact of human existence,
and one within which humans learned to operate and to communicate.
Céard presents a catalogue of opinions, each illustrating ways in which
Renaissance thinkers came to domesticate linguistic diversity and to see in
such variety opportunities for enobling "man's" status. Thus, for example, the
Renaissance came to admire the polyglot, the person who forged bonds of
universality, if not unity, with others through an appropriation of diverse
tongues. Languages became a vehicle not only for communication, but also for
acquiring the totality of human heritages—learning and wisdom.
surgeon Paré testifies to certain changes regarding language as well.
While animals enjoy the ability to understand every individual member of their
own species, man, according to Paré, displays his superiority to animals
in his "dexterité d'apprendre toutes langues."
Céard sees in such views the beginnings of a new attitude toward
language and the curse of Babel inflicted upon man: "Par cette
'dexterité' universelle, il échappe à la punition de
Babel: l'unité perdue, il la reconstitue dans l'universalité."
Clearly, this step in itself does not constitute the end of the emblematic
world view. Paré did not abandon a vision of nature as expression of
the divine Word accessible to man. His approach to nature remains wedded to
analogy and the semiotics of resemblance and a symbolic order.
such revaluations of linguistic diversity did open a discursive space for the
articulation and transformation of powerful Renaissance cultural narratives.
And such transformations could have the effect of delegitimizing the very
narrative and discursive foundations underwriting the hermeneutics of symbolic
exegesis, including the emblematic world view. It is this aspect of
Céard's examination of language and the myths of Babel and the Pentecost
that are of such importance to our own story. His point is decisive for the
historical changes we have been considering:
mythe d'une langue unique et universelle cède la place à un autre
mythe: celui d'une aptitude à parler toutes les langues du monde,
à disposer de toutes les richesses du verbe. La langue universelle,
c'est le 'thresor' de toutes les langues de cet univers. Dans cette abondance
se refait la langue parfaite des origines.
here, however, we must resist the temptation to proclaim a rupture in history.
What we have is no more than an alternative articulation, a recast narrative
whose terms are so familiar that they are always in danger of being
reappropriated to a familiar discourse, reinscribed within the very narrative
it attempts to discard. The alternative myth of speaking all tongues, does
lead to an embrace of diversity and variety unparalleled in the more
traditional quest for the traces of the lost, Adamic language. And yet that
"new" myth remains haunted by the shadowy presence of a perfect originative
Céard has exposed in sixteenth-century thought is not so much a rupture
within discourse as its tensions and opposing valences. That does not mean
that nothing has changed. Quite to the contrary, the exposure and articulation
of these tensions only serve to heighten new possibilities for language theory
and for the hermeneutics of nature. My point is simply that these new
possibilities did not vanquish the old; rather they existed side by side, even
indeed within the same text and discourse. This state of affairs was in fact
productive of a veritable explosion of interest in the diversity and variety of
nature. On the one hand, a Gesner could appreciate the diversity of languages
and the variety of natural forms as worthy of scholarly and scientific
investigation. Nature could be laid bare as a text upon which God had
imprinted a rich array of forms, a veritable profusion of natural dialects of
the unifying and creative Word of God. For Gesner, such diversity was
contained within the larger frame of belief in a single, originary divine
language of man and creation. Gesner's language theory and his practice as
natural historian fit within the mainstream of the emblematic world view. His
world, and that of his standard-bearers like Aldrovandi, was one that awaited
the other hand, one could also find in a Guillaume Rondelet a fascination with
the variety of natural forms that resisted reinscription in the cultural text
of a quest for an originative unity—a unity, not just of the specific
forms themselves and the orders to which they belonged, but of the similitude
of all forms that constitute the originative divine language of creation. It
is precisely this symbolic, emblematic quality to the natural order, and to
natural history, that Rondelet resists, and that has set him apart—along
with the likes of Belon—among Renaissance naturalists in standard
histories of the subject. Indeed, Ashworth's historiographic plea for the
centrality of his emblematic world view constitutes a reaction to what he sees
as the anachronism of elevating the spare, descriptive natural history of a
Rondelet to the standard against which Renaissance texts must be judged.
Rondelet should not, in fact, become such a standard. Nonetheless, the very
century that produced a Gesner and an Aldrovandi also produced a Rondelet.
They must, I think, be seen as emerging from the very possibilities for
alternative discursive solutions to the problem of variety and unity that
Céard's treatment of the myths of Babel and the Pentecost allow us to
see in Renaissance language theory and natural history. Finally, we may regard
a Paré as exhibiting a tolerance for linguistic diversity that finds
itself easily recuperated by the belief in an originary
authorizing a basically analogical, metaphorical, and hierarchical
understanding of nature.
Céard has uncovered is that opening up of a discursive space in the
Renaissance that would, in time, widen into something like a chasm. That space
allows for the articulation of a new linguistic ideal authorized by a subtlely
recast narrative of cultural origins that never quite breaks with past, and one
might even say dominating, narratives. The ideal is that of a universal
language. The ideal itself is but a trope: a projective desire for a whole
that will bind together the many fragmented parts constituting the languages of
man. In this sense then, this new ideal generates itself out of a trope that
it shares with its rival. But this new ideal threatens to destablize discourse
by reemploting that trope in a narrative that alters its fundamental meaning.
For the trope of a universal language now looks, not to the past, to the unity
of Adamic innocence and perfection for its authorization and its model, but
instead to the future. The metaphoricity of the Adamic language now becomes
transformed into the synecdoche of an ideal universal language. The universal
language is not something that has been, but rather an ideal to be created by
humans out of the multiplicity of linguistic phenomena constituting the very
languages of man.
the late sixteenth century, then, one can find the cultural narrative within
which theories of language are emplotted broadened and diversified to allow for
new possibilities in the understanding of the relationship between the Word of
God and the languages of man. The story of the confusion of tongues at Babel
may now be read through "le miracle de la Pentecôte."
The languages of man thereby gain the possibility of a new relationship to the
the very diversity that was once a sign of their corrupt, fallen
status—a status to be overcome through supression of their individuality
and alterity—now becomes the very material out of which a rich and proper
universal language of things may be forged anew.
the prospect of such a universal language, as we have noted above, was not
easily disengaged from the old ideal of an originative unity. Only a distant
hope, this new ideal did help to open up the very scope of natural history and
the investigation of natural phenomena. By allowing that the perfection and
universality of truth—of true knowledge of nature—was not to be
through exegesis of texts and the book of nature, but rather was something to be
by mankind through our efforts and work, this new ideal—however
tentatively and partially articulated—looked toward a new hermeneutics of
nature. Just as the miracle of the Pentecost embraced the diversity of tongues
and of mankind in an image of God's Apostles engaged in the work of creating a
new Christian unity, those pious disciples of the Lord who choose to work upon
God's Book of Nature can create a new order by de-in-scribing God's plan within
the variety of his earthly creatures. This new Pentecostal narrative of man's
fall and redemption hence pointed toward emphases upon human industry and the
observation of nature in all its diversity—and away from a symbolic
ordering of nature—that was to become a hallmark of the new science of
Bacon, Galileo, Mersenne, Descartes, and Boyle.
for a moment to Ashworth, the parallelism and, indeed, the intimate
relationship between language theory and natural history, together with their
mutual legitimation through the work done in recasting cultural narratives,
must not be forgotten in attempts to explain shifting models for the practice
of natural history. For, as in the case of the encyclopedic and comparative
study of language in the sixteenth century, the sheer diversity of natural
things that the discourse of encyclopedic, emblematic natural history uncovered
(including the flora and fauna of the new world) tended to overwhelm and
undermine the discourse of resemblance, correspondence, and symbolism and its
underlying ideal of an originative unity. And yet, as was also the case in the
study of language, this sheer diversity—the sheer weight of things and
facts—was not of itself enough to transform the discourse of natural
history. Instead, diversity in language as well as in nature had first to be
reinscribed within transformed narratives. Only such new, legitimating
narratives could work to delegitimize the relationship between the
and nature that authorized the ideal and discourse of originative unity. By
recasting stories of Babel and the Pentecost, "man" was now authorised to study
diversity—both in language and in nature—within the context of a
new relationship between the languages of man and the Word of God.
4. From Paracelsus to Newton: The Word of God and the Book of Nature "Beyond"
the Emblematic World View
do we get from Paracelsus to Newton? If we read Ashworth's account of the
"demise" of the emblematic world view with this question in mind, we may be
left with a number of impressions. We may surmise that the sheer weight of
"new" and previously unknown things, and the lack of ready-made symbolic
associations, led, by the mid-seventeenth century, to the utter devaluation of
symbols generally and, more specifically, of the bookish search for knowledge
pertinent to nature in the textual traditions of ancient biblical and pagan
cultures. I have myself called attention to the fact that attacks by
proponents of the "new science" such as Galileo, Bacon, and Sprat on "the uses
of metaphor and fables in the study of nature implied that, unlike their
opponents, they did not surround their descriptions of things with
ever-expanding webs of meaning fashioned from words, myth, poetry, and symbols"
and that "this distinction is in one sense true."
In another sense, however, this "fact" is too simple and contributes to the
marginalization of Newton's "esoteric" interests (and their divorce from his
"real science") in the heroic narrative of modern science.
heroic narrative can be reinforced, unwittingly, by Ashworth's account of the
demise of the emblematic world view, since it implies a nearly
frictionless—virtually "natural"—transition to things that stand
by, and for, themselves and that demand only to be described. Coming after the
great divide—"beyond" the emblematic world view—, Newton's return
to symbols (in some sense) and to ancient biblical and pagan texts fails to do
what should now come "naturally." Is Newton simply unique, or even
sense of anachronism diminishes, I think, once we view the "demise" of the
emblematic world view as, instead, an "eclipse," and locate the transition not
as one from "text to things" or from "nature emblematized to nature laid bare"
(as its polemicists would have us think), but as the product of an essentially
narrative reconfiguration of early modern European culture itself. Here, the
work of narrative reconfiguration is fundamentally religious in content and
purpose. Reconfiguring narrative relationships among the "Word of God," the
"languages of Man," and the "Book of Nature" through reinterpreting key
biblical stories allowed European culture to reposition and rebuild itself in
the wake of confessional and sectarian divisiveness, reassertions of human
frailty and Divine omnipotence, and, yes, the growing sense of the diversity of
things and peoples.
in this way, the eclipse of the emblematic world view need not be seen as an
intrinsic part of a larger—and later—Enlightenment project of
"reason" and "emancipation." Rather, we can regard it as yet another
transformation of Western "bookish culture"; a transformation, that is, of the
culture of the "Word." Narratively reconfigured, the "World" no longer
"reflects" the divine Word as a mimetic image. It is now a contingent
expression of an all-powerful Word, reflecting the Word's power, majesty, and
providence, but not constrained to reflect its (incomprehensible) essence.
account allows for the complexly negotiated relationships between "science" and
religion that we find emerging in the latter half of the seventeenth century
among figures like Boyle and Newton. Boyle's intense interest both in a
descriptive, experimental "new" philosophy stripped bare of emblematic
associations and in biblical language and the excellency of theology, manifest
continued preoccupation with narratives of the "Word of God," the "languages of
Man," and the "Book of Nature" that I have argued are essential to the eclipse
of the emblematic world view.
too, exhibits unending concern with the "Word" and the "Book of Nature," and,
indeed, preoccupied himself with the work of reexamining the chronology and
meaning of biblical and grand cultural narratives throughout his lifetime. As
James Force, Kenneth Knoespel, Richard Popkin, and many of the scholars
contributing to this volume have stressed in their own investigations,
Newton's voluminous unpublished works on the scriptures are not isolated
preoccupations, but are, rather, deeply connected to his reading of the Book of
Nature "as scientist." I would add, neither are they anachronistic, for they
represent fresh attempts to situate and legitimate human inquiry into the Book
of Nature: in a sense, they follow in the tradition of rereadings of
narratives that provoked the eclipse of the emblematic world view.
Newton's world is a world "beyond" the emblematic world view, it is nonetheless
a world of symbols, biblical narratives, and prophecy. Just as Newton sought
"Rules for interpreting ye words and language of Scripture"
and, as Sarah Hutton says, always leaned "towards the literal,"
so, too, Newton departs from the emblematic world view in so far as he both
sought symbols in nature as keys to the divine order and unity of nature and
yet neither conceived such symbols as identifying God with his creation, nor as
constraining God's freedom and power. For Newton symbols and the emblematic
could themselves become occasions for mistakenly introducing idolatrous ideas
that corrupted the meaning of the scriptures and undermined the truth of God's
omnipotence and the utter contingency of his creation. Thus, he was committed
both to reading scriptures and nature in a way that revealed their divine truth
and meaning, while avoiding and denying these theological errors.
Force has noted how Newton links the origins of "idolatrous gentile theology"
with misappropriation of biblical figures like Noah and his sons (linking them
with the planets) and with "encoding these esoteric doctrines in hieroglyphic
symbols." Furthermore, "with the Egyptian conquest of her neighbors, including
the Jews, these new idolatrous hieroglyphic symbols were taken as the cause of
the polytheistic worship of the gods." Quoting a long passage from Newton's
of Ancient Kingdoms Amended
Force shows Newton connecting this ancient polytheism with (in Newton's words)
"this emblematical way of writing."
do not presume that Newton uses the term "emblematical" in the same sense we
attach to Ashworth's "emblematic world view." Yet it may be useful to note
that Newton, on the other side of the great divide separating emblematic
natural history from modern science, assumes a certain vigilance with respect
to the presence and operation of symbols in cultural narratives and in nature.
In pointing to the close association between "this emblematical way of writing"
and the error of polytheism, Newton wants to guard against any diminution of
God's unique status. Similarly, the presence of symbols in nature can be
misconstrued as necessitating
links between natural things and God, thus limiting both God's freedom and
power. As I have discussed elsewhere, under the influence of a radical
Calvinist reading of signs in nature, what was once proclaimed by Paracelsus as
a necessary congruence between the outer signature of a natural thing and its
innermost essence came, in the seventeenth century, to be read by some of his
protestant followers as a merely contingent and arbitrary link utterly
dependent upon the will of God. Knowledge of such links, in turn, were
themselves contingent upon God's grace.
Taken a step further, not only does the merely carnal and external sign
stamped by God on things become arbitrary, the very order and nature of
physical things and systems themselves become merely contingent expressions of
God's will rather than mirrors of His eternal and unchanging nature. "Newton,"
as James Force says, "...urges instead a cautious empiricism through which he
recognizes the power of God to effect changes even in created natural law" (p.
Newton has crossed the great divide separating emblematic natural history from
modern science, his is still a culture of the Book. For, while Newton rejects
the particular forms of "bookish culture" associated with earlier interpretive
strategies for reading the text of Nature as symbolic and emblematic, his own
work and practices remain embedded in the metaphoric contexts of the "Book of
Nature" and the "Word of God." Unlike historiographical positions that assume
disjunction between the new philosophy and premodern natural philosophy, it may
be useful to think of Newton as
inherited metaphoric contexts, rather than simply rejecting them. Newton is
neither Renaissance symbolic hermeneut, nor secular Enlightenment philosophe,
although he is undoubtedly closer to the former than the latter.
Newton's fundamental assumption—the assumption of "true knowledge" as a
"knowledge of God" and therefore of the "unity of truth"—must be
understood in the context of his own reworking of the traditional tropes of the
"Book of Nature" and the "Word of God." Within this Newtonian context, truth
itself is reconfigured not as an occultly interconnected symbolic order of
nature necessarily reflecting the essence and order of the divine
but rather as the divinely established, if contingent, order of things and of
history. These orders surely bespeak for Newton God's majesty, power, and
other attributes, although they remain products of His will and therefore
manifestations of His activity in the world. The truth that humans must work
to uncover, then, is precisely the evidence of God's activity. Such truth was,
for Newton, "one," as Dobbs suggested, but the assumption of the "unity of
truth" differers markedly from that found in the emblematic world view and
related technologies for reading the Book of Nature. The unity that Newton
seeks is not that of an architectonic symbolic order based upon essentialized
analogical, or metaphorical, links among things and their deeper meanings.
Newton, as we've seen, seeks to go beyond the corruptions of mere man-made
symbols and idolatrous, "emblematic" ways of writing. Rather, by enjoining
humans to uncover evidence of God's activity in the world, Newton refigures
"unity" as the unity of various parts making up the larger whole of God's two
Books, of the universe as a whole. Yet, as Robert Markley has argued, Newton
remains profoundly skeptical of traditional readings of these two books,
precisely because of the corruptions and distortions introduced by human
interpreters and transmitters of biblical and natural knowledge.
This narrative refiguring of the "Word" and the "Book of Nature" leads Newton
to envision a difficult, incomplete, and perhaps unending task of
interpretation that may best be considered an inevitable consequence of "man's"
Fall. While enjoined to work—through the laborious processes of
induction and of textual-historical criticism—, humans necessarily
encounter the opacity of God's Word and World since they are mediated through
the incomplete and, at times, distorting lenses of human languages and
Jo Dobbs understood this well. Let me then end, in Newtonian fashion, not with
a definitive conclusion, but by a return to our beginning point, by implication
an invitation to a new beginning. Dobbs has written of Newton's view that
beings had once known how to worship God properly, and had understood the true
religion. But humanity had slipped into idolatry...and the knowledge of true
religion had been corrupted or lost. However, true religion might be restored.
One comes finally to that powerful fountain of motivation that kept Newton at
his furnace year after year...—at the knowledge of God's activity in the
actions are His glory.... His actions, the "issues" of His will , are indeed
only glory by which God manifests Himself to His creatures, and which His
creatures are able to behold in Him, the reason why His creatures worship Him,
and the life and soul of all worship we can give Him....
worship of God for His
in the world—in creating it, preserving it, and governing it according to
His will—that is the true religion. That is what Isaac Newton intended
to restore through his study of God's activity in cosmology, alchemy, and
Newton's use of symbols, beyond the emblematic world view, must begin with
thorough appreciation of this narratively refigured Newtonian context.
Jo Teeter Dobbs,
Janus Face of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 5-6.
B. Ashworth, Jr., "Natural History and the Emblematic World View," in David C.
Lindberg and Robert S. Westman, eds.,
of the Scientific Revolution
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 303-32.
"Emblematic World View," p. 305.
"Emblematic World View," pp. 317-8. Joannes Jonston,
6 vols. (Frankfurt, 1650-1653.)
"Emblematic World View," p. 318.
Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); and Anthony Pagden,
Encounters with the New World
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.)
"Emblematic World View," pp. 319-22.
"Emblematic World View," p. 321.
On early-modern museums, collecting, natural history and scientific culture,
see Bruce T. Moran, ed.,
and Institutions: Science, Technology, and Medicine at the European Court,
(Rochester: The Boydell Press, 1991), especially Paula Findlen, "The Economy
of Scientific Exchange in Early Modern Italy," pp. 5-24; Paula Findlen, "The
Museum: Its Classical Etymology and Renaissance Genealogy,"
of the History of Collections
1 (1989), pp. 59-78; Paula Findlen, "Museums, Collecting and Scientific Culture
in Early Modern Italy," Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1989;
Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor, eds.,
Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985); and Adalgisa Lugli,
et mirablia. Il collezionsimo enciclopedico nelle Wunderkammern d'Europa
John Francis Eros, "Diachronic Linguistics in Seventeenth-Century England, with
Special Attention to the Theories of Meric Casaubon," Ph.D. diss., University
of Wisconsin, 1972.
"Emblematic World View," p. 323.
Fernel, see James J. Bono, "Reform and the Languages of Renaissance Theoretical
Medicine: Harvey versus Fernel,"
of the History of Biology
23 (1990), pp. 341-87; and Bono,
Word of God and the Languages of Man: Interpreting Nature in Early Modern
Science and Medicine
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), Chap. 4.
have discussed "abstract symbolism" and "symbolic literalism" in James J. Bono,
"Medical Spirits and the Medieval Language of Life,"
40 (1984), pp. 91-130, esp. pp. 100-101. This distinction is applied to the
metaphorical discourse of Renaissance medicine and its tendency toward slippage
from the metaphorical to the literal in Bono, "Harvey versus Fernel," and
Word of God
Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
(New York: Vintage, 1973.) For criticism of Foucault's view of the
Renaissance, see George Huppert, "'Divinatio et Eruditio': Thoughts on
13 (1974), pp. 191-207. See also Wolfgang Harms, "On Natural History and
Emblematics in the Sixteenth Century," in Allan Ellenius, ed.
Natural Sciences and the Arts
Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Figura Nova, vol. 22 (Uppsala: Almqvist &
Wiksell, 1985), pp. 67-83; and Harms, "Bedeutung als Teil der Sache in
zoologischen Standardwerken der frühen Neuzeit (Konrad Gesner, Ulisse
und Weltenwürfe in Übergang von Mittelalter zur Neuzeit
(Gottengen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1989), pp. 352-69.
following discussion of Paracelsus is from Bono
Word of God
pp. 130-7, where original texts and references are cited in full.
9 Bucher De Natura Rerum 
vol. 11, ed. Karl Sudhoff (Munich; Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1928), p. 378. The
translation is from Paracelsus,
Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus Bombast of
Hohenheim, Called Paracelsus the Great
ed. Arthur Edward Waite, 2 vols. (Boulder: Shambhala, 1976), 1:174. Where
necessary, I have modified this English version with my own translation from
the original German found in Sudhoff's text.
p. 397: "die kunst signata leret die rechten namen geben allen dingen."
and Alchemical Writings
I have substantially modified the English version provided in Waite's edition.
p. 378. Paracelsus contrasts the wise man to the bestial man (
One rules the stars, the other is ruled by them. Implicit in this passage is
the notion that postlapsarian man, even though he has lost Adam's free, easy,
and immediate dominion over nature, nonetheless may win back some measure of
his lost control. To do so, he must revive and master the Adamic
.  Kurt
Goldammer, "La conception paracelsienne de l'homme entre la tradition
théologique, la mythologie et la science de la nature," in
de la renaissance, viiie Congrès International de Tours
(Paris: Vrin, 1973), p. 248.
"La conception paracelsienne," provides a complex understanding of Paracelsus's
divided and tension-filled view of man, at once limited and filled with
possibilities. See especially, pp. 248-51 and 258.
the new Adam, Christ, God's Word, and the light of nature, see Paracelsus's
oder die ganze Philosophia Sagax der grossen und kleinen Welt [1537-38]
vol. 12, ed. Karl Sudhoff (Munich; Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1929), p. 398. On
Paracelsus and theology also see Hartmut Rudolph, "Kosmosspekulation und
Trinitätslehre, Weltbild und Theologie bei Paracelsus," in
in der Tradition
Beitr. Paracelsus- Forschung
ed. S. Domandl, 21 (1980), pp. 32-47; and Hartmut Rudolph, "Einige
Gesichtspunkte zum Thema 'Paracelsus und Luther',"
72 (1981), pp. 34-54.
vol. 8, ed. Karl Sudhoff (Munchen: Otto Wilhelm Barth, 1924), p. 97: "Allein
die eussern ding geben die erkantnus des inneren, sonst mag kein inner ding
Den Naturlichen Dingen [1525?]
vol. 2, ed. Karl Sudhoff (Munich; Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1930), p. 86.
Massimo Luigi Bianchi,
rerum. Segni, Magia e Conoscenza Da Paracelso a Leibniz
(Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 1987), p. 62.
p. 396: "Also ist die speis und das leben nicht von der erden, sondern von got
durch sein wort;" and, p. 397, "So das ist, so ist das natürliche liecht
nichts, sondern es muss aus got gehen, dan so ist es genug."
medicorum errantium [1537-38]
vol. 11, ed. Karl Sudhoff (Munich; Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1928), p. 169.
p. 170: "Was concordirt in das liecht der natur, das bestet und hat kraft. was
aber in das nit concordirt, das ist ein labyrinthus der kein gewissen eingang
noch ausgang hat."
details see Bono
Word of God
especially Chap. 3.
following discussion is from Bono,
Word of God
Marian Rothstein reminds us, "the very word 'etymology'[is]...from
true,real...," "Etymology, Genealogy, and the Immutability of Origins,"
43 (1990), p. 332.
"Emblematic World View," pp. 322-3.
Historie of Four-footed Beastes
"Emblematic World View," p. 316.
"Beastes," sig. A3.
note Topsell's insistent tone in setting forth, near the end of his "Epistle
Dedicatory," the claims of the Book of Nature for bringing the counsel of God
to his people: "For how shall we be able to speake the whole Counsell of God
unto his people, if we read unto them but one of his bookes, when he hath
another in the worlde, which wee never study past the title or outside;
although the great God have made them an Epistle Dedicatory to the whole race
of mankind," no pagination.
in "The Epistle Dedicatory," no pagination.
in "The Epistle Dedicatory," no pagination.
in "The Epistle Dedicatory," no pagination.
in "The Epistle Dedicatory," no pagination. Ashworth, "Emblematic World View,"
quotes this passage on p. 316.
Word of God
for discussion of symbolic exegesis.
Findlen, "Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of
Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe,"
43 (1990), p. 325.
Nature et les Prodiges: l'insolite au seizième siècle
(Geneva: Droz, 1977.)
"De Babel à la Pentecôte: la transformation du mythe de la
confusion des langues au XVIe siècle,"
d'Humanisme et Renaissance
42 (1980): 577-94, p. 577.
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 578 ff. See also Bono,
Word of God
.  Céard,
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 581.
De Differentiis Linguarum
ed. Manfred Peters (Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1974), reprint of 1555 Zurich
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 581.
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 583, and pp. 581-84 for this
discussion in general.
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 583.
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 581.
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 585.
de l'histoire des langues de cest univers (1613)
(Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1972), original publication: Cologny, 1613;
admirable des plantes et herbes
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 585.
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," see pp. 585 ff.
livre des animavx et de l'excellence de l'homme
ed. J. F. Malgaigne, in vol. 3 of
complètes d'Ambroise Paré
735-69 (Paris: J. B. Baillière, 1841), as quoted by Céard, "De
Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 589.
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 589.
"De Babel à la Pentecôte, " pp. 589-90.
"Emblematic World View," pp. 304-5.
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 592.
"De Babel à la Pentecôte," p. 593.
Word of God
Boyle, see two recent works: Rose-Mary Sargent,
Diffident Naturalist: Robert Boyle and the Philosophy of Experiment
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), especially Chap. 5, "Biblical
Hermeneutics"; and Robert Markley,
Languages: Crises of Representation in Newtonian England, 1660-1740
(Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.)
example, see Kenneth J. Knoespel, "Newton in the School of Time: The
of Ancient Kingdoms Amended
and the Crisis of Seventeenth-Century Historiography,"
Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation
30 (1989), pp. 19-41; and, James E. Force and Richard H. Popkin,
on the Context, Nature, and Influence of Isaac Newton's Theology
(Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1990), and Force and Popkin, eds.,
Books of Nature and Scripture
(Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1994.)
quotation from Yahuda Newton MS 1 is taken from Sarah Hutton, "More, Newton,
and the Language of Biblical Prophecy," in Force and Popkin,
of Nature and Scripture
"More, Newton, and the Language of Biblical Prophecy," p. 46.
am indebted to James Force for allowing me to see page proofs of his now
published essay, "Samuel Clarke's Four categories of Deism, Isaac Newton, and
the Bible," in Richard H. Popkin, ed.,
in the History of Philosophy
(Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1996), p. 58.
Word of God
pp. 140-66, for discussion of Croll's Calvinist Paracelsianism.
esp. Chap. 4, pp. 131-77; p. 144.
works by Knoespel and Markley cited earlier and their essays infra.
Faces of Genius
pp. 87-8, quoting Yahuda MS. Var. I, Newton MS 21, ff. 2-3.