Michel de Montaigne and Thomas Hobbes make a superficially unlikely pairing. Montaigne, a minor French nobleman and literary immortal, invented the essay in its modern form and is a hero of the skeptical, sensual, anti-systematic humanism that takes the essay as its model for living: a series of reflective experiments, sallies into circumstance, that weigh opinion against experience on the imperfect scale of human judgment. Montaigne boasted, or confessed – that it was hard to say which was part of his art – that he took himself as his topic, and turned to old books for exercise, not knowledge. He wrote candidly about his sexual appetites, his pleasures and the waning of his powers; about his agonizing kidney stones, the habits of his bowels, and his soft-hearted hatred of cruelty. Although he took as his motto a skeptic’s question – What do I know? – and wrote with a self-irony that kept that motto always in view, he left us a devastating attack on European atrocities in the Americas, and a finely sympathetic portrait of indigenous American societies. His essays inspired such anti-systematic writers as Emerson, Thoreau, and Nietzsche, and a recent book on his thought is titled, quite appropriately, How to Live – for Montaigne, the necessary question, but one with no single answer.
Hobbes was born in 1588, four years before Montaigne’s death, and famously joked that, as a child of the year the Spanish Armada menaced England, he was born a twin of Fear. If the joke seems as grandiose as it is grimly elegant, that is Hobbes. He was among the very first systematic political philosophers in a line stretching to the present: deriving a theory of politics from an account of knowledge and human interests, he made arguments about language, law, and the nature of obligation that remain vital in professional philosophy. Because he attributed nearly absolute power to government, and made arguments that seemed to invite atheism (even as they stopped short of embracing that stance), he was long the dark shadow of modern thought, a haunting nemesis whom his successors could not escape. It seems certain that no study of Hobbes’s thought will be called How to Live.
Yet the two, taken together, show the coherence of an early-modern project that they shared: the emancipation from fear, which was also emancipation from a certain way of experiencing nature. This may seem wrong: Hobbes, as his quip acknowledges, was a philosopher of fear, revivalist of the pessimistic motto that “man is a wolf to man” and author of a political theory motivated by escape from a natural life both unpleasant and brief. Hobbes, though, was an educator of fear, concerned above all to distinguish those unpleasant things that humans had reason to avoid from those terrors and panics that were only projections of human feeling onto the mutable canvas of the natural world. He and Montaigne shared the view that people were, mainly, victims of their own minds, of the persistent and predictable misfires of intelligence. Motivated to preserve ourselves and satisfy our own desires, struggling to understand, predict, and control the natural forces that bore down on us from all sides, and always alert to threats from one another, people created fantasy worlds, systems of authority and meaning, realms of good and evil, which had no basis in reality, and which they nonetheless tried, tragically, to inhabit. These mistakes were the great source of dissatisfaction and self-hatred in personal life – a great concern for Montaigne – and of sectarian violence in politics, which motivated both men’s thought.
Between Montaigne’s birth, in 1533, and Hobbes’s death, in 1679, the two saw much of the European wars of religion, the battles between Catholics and Protestants, and among Protestant sects, in which Europeans turned Western Christendom from a kind of coherent civilization into a slaughterhouse and, frequently, recast politics into a kind of demonology, trading bloody-minded speculation about who in power might be Beelzebub or the Whore of Babylon. These wars had the same force for thinking about social, political, and religious order as the World Wars and genocides of the twentieth century had for thought about peace and progress. Familiar certainties came to seem like dangerous complacency, and new ideas, or at least serious reconstruction, now seemed necessary. Both men felt the wars of their times personally. Montaigne served as a diplomat, apparently trusted by Catholic and Protestant alike, and once saw his house and family seat invaded in the chaos and opportunism of war. Horror at the savagery of religious violence was a compass-point of his writings, which are a kind of therapeutic search for the origin of this violence and a technique to drain its power. Hobbes went into exile in France with the court of the crypto-Catholic Charles II after Parliamentary forces, with the strong support of Protestant radicals, executed Charles I and established a republic. The royalists’ violent reaction to the secular tendencies of Leviathan, today his best-known work in the English-speaking world, sent him back to England in 1651, and for the rest of his long life he was actually or prospectively harried by a mixture of religious and political persecution. His joke about fear was bleakly self-ironic: circumstance pressed a frightened life on him.
Both thinkers took aim at the sources of gratuitous, avoidable fear, the ways that people became dangerous to themselves and one another. This meant, in a curious way, that both men were enemies of imagination, the mind’s inventive habit of ascribing meaning to nature’s patterns, and the creative capacity to rework experience into speculative myths or theological inquiry. Although such speculation was an utterly predictable, perhaps nearly unavoidable expression of human intelligence, if taken seriously it led always to trouble, and too often to violence.
Both Hobbes and Montaigne offered to renovate the human predicament by understanding it in a new way. Both cleared the ground for their work by comprehensively dismantling the conceits of human knowledge. Skeptical arguments, to the effect that people could know very little, and that most putative knowledge was delusion, were well established in elite humanist circles, and both thinkers put them to extensive use. Montaigne asked how people could claim to know the meaning of such terms as honor, or beauty, when history and modern cultural diversity showed the many inconsistent meanings those ideas had borne, or to know anything about the nature of the universe, when philosophers and theologians had rehearsed the same arguments for millennia without settling much of anything. Hobbes devastatingly defined religion as “fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed,” and superstition as the same fear, only “imagined from tales” that were publicly disapproved (L 42). Our religious theories, and theories of the universe, came first from “anxiety,” our restless questing in the dark to understand a daunting world, and, second, from our habit of speculating outward from what we could know to what we could not – a God behind the world, to whom we then assigned a hodge-podge of qualities (L 75-76). Montaigne judged that “we have strangely overpaid” for our “fine reason” (358). Our capacity for reflection made us “slaves of hope … for shadows and vain images that fancy dangles before them – which hasten and prolong their flight the more they are pursued,” and made us miserable, for “He who fears he will suffer, already suffers from his fear” (840). In their demolitions of epistemic conceit, Montaigne described experience as perched on the dung-heap where reason voided its waste, and Hobbes sketched the most unsentimental and pessimistic portrait ever of the natural human condition.
For all their attacks on the paradoxes of hubristic speculation, both were interested in applying reason to a most radical project: the divinization of human beings. Hobbes opened Leviathan by comparing the voluntary creation of a commonwealth, “an artificial man … of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defense it was intended,” with “that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” The point was not lost on Hobbes’s bitter enemies, such as the naturalist and theologian John Ray, who argued that “whatever agent can introduce a form into indisposed matter … must be superior to any natural one, not to say omnipotent.” Montaigne ended his Essays with an approving quote from Plutarch, with which, he claimed, the Athenians had welcome Pompey into their city: “You are as much a god as you will own/That you are nothing but a man alone,” and with this gloss: “It is an absolute perfection, and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully.” For Hobbes, because religious doctrines and ideas of legitimacy and justice had no basis in knowable fact, and so were unavoidably human creations, people had to create and consent to an arbiter of such disputes, the artificial man whose artificial principles brought order as surely as God’s principles ordered the natural world. Skepticism’s lessons in what we could not know – the mind of God, as it were, or the moral order of nature – showed us what we must instead deliberately construct, and so by taking responsibility for our ignorance, we could overcome and create a political order to preserve us from fearsome conflict over irresolvable disputes. Montaigne’s conclusions had a different flavor, for they really were about “how to live,” not how to approach government, but he, too, argued that a clear understanding of the human situation helped us organize our lives to reduce the unnecessary suffering we caused ourselves and one another. Divinization is a metaphor – perhaps a hubristic one – for a better understanding of human limits and powers: the gods that either formula helps us to be are only the least frightened, least self-deceived, and most aware humans that we can become.
To achieve this newly calibrated relation between the human and the divine, and to bridge the present human reality and the ideal human potential, both Montaigne and Hobbes believed it necessary to drain the natural world of a rich reserve of imagination that people had imparted to it. Theirs was in many respects what we would call a magical universe, one deeply imbued with meanings that bore, morally and practically, on human life. This idea found expression in philosophical and theological arguments that divine design was manifest in the creation, and that nature, properly interpreted, contained instructions for political and social life: for instance, the alleged hierarchy among species corresponded to the hierarchy among men, with kings divinely appointed to rule their realms as lions ruled the savannah and eagles the sky. More colloquially, subjects might ascribe a drought or crop failure to the misbehavior or infertility of a ruler, or expect to see discord at court reflected in unharmonious cosmic events, such as a comet’s disruption of the usual night sky. An entire folk culture of magic underlay and interacted with all of this: peasants and tradesmen planted and harvested by the phases of the moon, sought to avoid evil omens, suspected ill-favored neighbors of withcraft, and propitiated fairies and other not-quite-empirical beings. Two premises united these various strata of magical civilization. First, epistemically, there was a constant mutual intelligence between human beings and the natural world. Its events were significant for us: thunder might be a judgment from an angry God, the distribution of species a lesson for political order. Conversely, our feelings and actions could affect nature, not directly, as with the axe and plough, but because hatred could blight a planting or sick a cow. Second, aesthetically, nature’s patterns, apparent to the eye, meant something: what struck us as order or disorder, nobility (eagle) or baseness (toad) was a moral fact. All these phenomena were involved in a web of nerves, one might say, that connected human and non-human in a single, terrifically complex, and always meaningful logic.
Both thinkers laid into this worldview, Montaigne with characteristic skeptical irony, Hobbes with a logician’s vigor and the acid of a man who hated tyranny over the mind. Hobbes insisted on a sharp division, not a continuity, between the human mind and the rest of the world: empirical events affected the mind through sensory data, but we had to work with the mental impressions that data gave us, without direct knowledge of the world, and certainly without moral or aesthetic meaning. The world was matter in motion and nothing more, and it had its effect by bumping up against the mind, which must also be a material phenomenon, and which lent events an interpretation. Hobbes roundly mocked the Aristotelian idea that objects in the world communicated with the mind through “intelligible species,” signals establishing an apprehending link between the two, rather than by “fancy, cause … by the pressure, that is, by the motion, of external things on upon our eyes, ears, and other organs.” For Hobbes, witches, spirits, and fairies were archetypes of mere fancy, nonsensical images confected of stray sense-data and projected back onto the world, then animated by anxiety, speculation, and the vain attempt to control the world by understanding it. Attempts to anoint political authority with theology were nothing but exploitation of these fears, most notably in the abhorred Catholic Church. (Hobbes had his sympathies in the religious wars; so did Montaigne, who tended to identify fanaticism with Protestants.) In his little-read but essential fourth book of Leviathan, on “The Kingdom of Darkness,” Hobbes spends some pages detailing the parallels between the storied kingdom of the fairies and the earthly magisterium of the Roman Church. Both, for example, enchant young children and steal them from their parents, rob the cream of the land in offerings from frightened peasants, and – here is the point – are fundamentally the fictional projections of frightened minds, as they take their authority entirely from “fancy.” Priests exist, of course, and fairies do not, but neither would exercise any power over the unfrightened mind. In a world washed with clear light, fairies would prove to be swamp gas and illusions, priests exploitative or deluded men, and, in a sense, both would cease to exist. Rulers would still govern, but their legitimate power would rest on the rational consent of the ruled, not any claim to divine or magical support.
Montaigne’s longest essay, the “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” was a subtle, complex, and finally devastating engagement with the kind of natural theology that often justified political rule in the sixteenth century. Sebond was a Spaniard who sought to combat the threat of skepticism by arguing that God’s plan for moral and political order could be inferred from the order of nature. Montaigne, the skeptic, could hardly have been a less obvious candidate to vindicate Sebond’s project. Montaigne, though, was also a loyal son, and his father asked him to translate and [give an account of] Sebond’s arguments. That account, the “Apology,” gently lays waste to Sebond’s arguments while, in fine skeptical style, also demonstrating that human reason is so impotent that Sebond’s opponents have no stronger claim on the conscientious mind than their target has. As Montaigne left it, systematic reflection on the natural world could provide no instruction on how people should live or whom they should obey. Indeed, such presumptuous speculation was preposterous, the “natural and original malady” of a creature lacking even self-knowledge and self-control, which nonetheless “in his imagination … goes planting himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing the sky down beneath his feet. It is by the vanity of the same imagination that he … picks himself out and separates himself from the horde of other creatures, carves out their shares to his fellows and companions the animals, and distributes among them such portions of faculties and powers as he sees fit.” Natural theology was, for Montaigne as for Hobbes, a fruitless and ridiculous game of the imagination. This was the lesson of the skepticism that the two shared.
Montaigne, though, reserved a different place for relations to nature than Hobbes, who wanted simply to see nature’s claims neutralized so that relations among humans could proceed without interference from an anthropomorphic and myth-making imagination. To him, nature seemed part of the therapy that philosophy could offer to the presumptuous and speculative mind. Montaigne’s skepticism, like Hobbes’s, was ethical at the root, epistemic in the branch: where Hobbes attacked spurious claims to authority, Montaigne hated cruelty above all. He identified the roots of cruelty in blindness to the humanity of others. This was the vice, for instance, of Spanish conquerors in the Americas, who persuaded themselves that those they harmed were mere “barbarians,” unintelligible and not part of the same moral world as European Christians. In fact, Montaigne insisted, it was precisely the conquerors’ willful blindness to the morally intelligible experience and suffering of these fellow humans that was barbaric. Barbarian was a key term for Montaigne’s moral analysis because it originated in the ancient Greeks’ term for those whose language they could not understand, which they transliterated as it struck their ear – the rude and repetitive nonsense syllables bar, bar. The failure was, of course, the Greeks’ to realize that they had not understood, rather than the “barbarians”’ to make themselves understood in Greek. Thus the moral failing, the barbaric act, was to believe in barbarians at all, for that meant shutting others out of the scope of your moral sympathy and effort to understand, while pretending they were just beyond understanding.
Thus the phrasing was significant when Montaigne wrote, in his great final essay, Experience, “The most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being.” Part of the source of cruelty lay in denying aspects of one’s own natural humanity, which produced, or at least encouraged, violence toward the same qualities in others. Those who “want to get out of themselves and escape from the man” are caught in “madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts.” Some, he observed, were “disgusted” with bodily pleasures, but this was “savage stupidity.” Montaigne’s pairings of terms are revealing: those who reject the human, the sensual and emotional aspects of bodily being do not ascend to a higher plane: instead, they are thrown down to the lower rung of madness, savagery, and bestiality. The idea of disgust is important here: revulsion from part of one’s self, whether in one’s own person or shown back to one in a “barbarian,” can inspire a reaction of cruelty, a wish to rub it out, which ironically makes the would-be angel a savage beast.
It might seem that Montaigne praised embracing animal nature, and certainly he did urge affectionate cultivation of the bodily nature that we share, as the story goes, with beasts but not with angels. He insisted, though, in a formula taken from Lucretius, that “We are neither above nor below the rest” of the world’s creatures. To say that we are not above the rest is to say that we cannot have the purely rational or purely virtuous spirits of disembodied beings – nor even know what that would be, except through the paradoxically debasing rejection of what we are, since “man can[not] raise himself above himself and humanity; for he can see only with his own eyes, and seize only with his own grasp.” To say that we are not below the rest is to avoid an equal and opposite reaction, disgust at our rational nature, or, as Montaigne and Hobbes might put it, at our incorrigible imagination. Just as fantasies of angelic nature cannot show bodily creatures how to live, so there is no escaping the peculiar troubles and pleasures of self-conscious, speculative, language-using creatures by finding a model in the rest of nature. Imagination must be a source of pleasure alongside the body, wrote Montaigne, who described himself as “meditat[ing] on any satisfaction,” not letting his “senses pilfer it,” but “bring[ing] my soul into it … not to lose herself but to find herself.” The great use of consciousness was to bring it more fully and attentively into those things that were closest to one’s self, to fill in the moment with distinctly human awareness: “When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; yes, and when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents … I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.”
The close connection between Montaigne’s great themes, cruelty and humanity’s place in the world, finds expression in his essay on “Cruelty.” There he reports that the religious wars have given him “incredible examples” of cruel conduct, “souls so monstrous that they would commit murder for the mere pleasure of it; hack and cut off other men’s limbs; sharpen their wits to invest unaccustomed torments and new forms of death.” He concludes that meditation, though, with a reflection on the relations between human and animals, arguing that there is a single thread of cruelty, linking cruel treatment of animals to that of other human beings. There was kinship, he argued, between our attitudes to animals and our attitudes to other persons, and in approaching animals, we should take a middle way. We should not, on the one hand, make gods of them. On the other hand, we should “resign that imaginary kingship that people give us over the other creatures.” Neither placing ourselves below an idealized nature nor elevating ourselves presumptuously over an abject creation, we should seek to show “a certain respect” and follow “a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants…. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.” If a part of the antidote to cruelty was not to despise our own being, that involved acknowledging our involvement with other living things, embracing that but not seeking to dissolve into it. It was just the kind of irony Montaigne wished his readers to own and live out that the claim of kinship with the animals came in that uniquely human production, a book of reflection upon one’s self. When he wrote, “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books,” on p. 850 of the monumental Essays, he did not mean to imply that, as a man, he should have found a shorter or less articulate way to that conclusion. A humane approach to our place in nature, connected with a humane attitude to other people, could only arise by human means, including the same passions and imagination that so often led is to cruelty, self-deceit, and myth-making.
The Epicurean Background and the Reaction [Hobbes’s Centaur]
In describing how the mind assembles images of non-existent things, Hobbes gave the example of a centaur, an imaginary beast created by joining sense-impressions of men (from the waist up) and horses (backward from the base of the neck. The example comes from Epicurus, the Athenian philosopher who whom Hobbes agreed that the world is matter in motion, nothing more. Montaigne, whose first language was Latin, peppered his essays with Roman epigrams, many from Lucretius, to the effect that the world is ever-changing, and the mind forever caught in fear of imagined death and suffering, fear that obscures the present reality. Lucretius, a Roman of the first century C.E., wrote his didactic poem, On the Nature of Things, all that survives from him, as a restatement of Epicurus’ philosophy. It was long the major point of European access to Epicurus, whose work was not available in Latin until [ ]. Both could be dangerous allies. Church leaders accused them of subversive atheism, and St. Jerome concocted a slanderous biography in which Lucretius, driven mad by a love potion, composed his poem in rare episodes of lucidity. Hobbes’s enemies in seventeenth-century England habitually linked him with Epicurus and the two with atheism.
Epicurus and Lucretius, his Roman acolyte, were speculative physicists, theorists of the stuff and structure of the universe. The passion they excited among both admirers and enemies, though, lay in their real significance: as theorists and practitioners of human freedom. Their physics implied a purely material world with no room for either a soul that survived death or gods that concerned themselves with human affairs. This life was the only life, and all things in it, we included, were of the same material nature. Because people failed to see this, they were cruelly hounded by phantasms of their own creation, and lived in unnecessary fear. Thunder, a favorite example for Lucretius, seemed to the frightened mind to be the voice of an angry god, threatening to avenge some human sin. The days and nights of this short life were shadowed and haunted by fear of suffering in an afterlife that would never come. Lucretius used religio for the false beliefs he combated, translated as religion, but also having the specific Latin sense of that which ties down, or oppresses. Even the double sense of religio fits Hobbes, in particular, who described false and oppressive interpretation, in “The Kingdom of Darkness,” as a net that the mind from ideas, which had to be carefully and systematically untangled by philosophy.
Epicurus and Lucretius took aim at unnecessary self-oppression and sought ways that a clear view of nature, knowledge, and the mind could help self-emancipation. They believed that, once the mind had let loose of its tormenting phantasms and faced the world as it was, men could concentrate on the real satisfactions of finite life: for them these were friendship and reflection above all, but the general idea is that the goods of this life must be the highest human goods, for they are the only ones – the focus on present pleasures that remains associated with the term “Epicurean.” Understanding our situation accurately, we could live undividedly on what Lucretius called “these shores of light,” his word for the only life we have.
Hobbes and Montaigne took up these themes and drew from them a set of implications. First, much suffering, that of the unquiet mind but also the violence of religious and civil wars and imperial conquest, had roots in a confused relation to our place in the world: loyalty, even subservience, to vague or empty ideas that we invented in the first place, and contempt for our own finite, imperfect, and concrete existence. Second, although the roots of these self-imposed disabilities lay deep in our nature as thinking, language-using beings, we could overcome them to some degree, which meant there was vastly more scope for human freedom and satisfaction than the present moment showed. Although human powers could be self-ensnaring, they could also be self-freeing. The bases for pessimism and for radical optimism were laced together in the same human qualities. Third, untangling our mental bonds required an unillusioned view of the physical world, which meant driving out of it all intelligible essences, metaphysical purposes, divine prescription, omens, spirits, and immortal souls – the inheritance of metaphysics, religion, and popular magic. They labored to clear the vantage of the mind, which, without impingement from these meaning-laden forces, could reflect clearly on its own processes and stance to a disenchanted natural world.
Of course, there is a lot of difference between Hobbes and Montaigne. The Englishman was a systematic political philosopher with a theory of individual rights and sovereign legitimacy. The mayor of Bordeaux, who lived a lifetime earlier, was an episodic explorer of the texture of experience, who mistrusted all systems, quite unlike Hobbes, who sought to replace flawed systems with perfected alternatives. Montaigne’s work aimed at clarifying the self-understanding of individuals, Hobbes’s at recasting political authority to purge it of spurious claims based in the abused and frightened imagination. Their difference, though, highlights their deep commonality: both were participants in the rediscovery and renewal of a project of self-emancipation from self-imposed mental bonds.
In the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth, a reaction against this project arose from several directions. Its loyalists consolidated an anti-Epicurean front that they also styled anti-atheist and anti-Hobbes. Some were philosophers, some natural scientists, and many took an intense interest in “natural theology,” what we today would call the argument of intelligent design. At least one, besides writing the typically titled Rational Discourse on the True Religion, was a man of letters, botanist, and student of English forestry. This was John Evelyn, best remembered for Sylva, a study of his island’s trees and their care and abuse, whose blend of practical science and vitalism led Thoreau to quote him in the famous passage of Walden describing the Concord hermit’s bean-field: “the earth, especially if fresh, has a certain magnetism in it, by which it attracts the salt, power, or virtue (call it ether) which gives it life, and is the logic of all the labor and stir we keep about it, to contain us.” The spirit of that passage, which attracted Thoreau, is typical of the intellectual mood that Evelyn shared with a movement in his time: a revival of the idea that nature contained forces and meanings, which humans interacted with and which bespoke divine design and contained lessons for our lives.
A distinct note of political and philosophical reaction animated this philosophical change. Although Hobbes wrote Leviathan as a supporter of the exiled Charles II and attacked the appeals that the King’s enemies made to divine authority, his “atheistical” doctrine came to be associated generally with hubristic disruption of settled order. The unifying commitment of his work was that humanity must escape its self-imposed immaturity and grow up into responsibility for its own choices and creations – whether systems of ideas or systems of political authority. Thus Hobbes’s atomism came to mean atheism, and atheism the disruption of all settled authority. When John Evelyn sat down to author A Rational Account of the True Religion, following the restoration of Charles II to the throne, he began his preface with a description of the age that made the book necessary: authority had collapsed. A king had been executed by process of law (“murdered” as Evelyn put it), bishops and priests denounced, and a proliferation of sects, each claiming a version of truth, displaced “the old Christian [religion], which taught men obedience to princes, reverence to antiquity, order and discipline in the Church.” In this time, “[f]undamental laws and establishments [were] subverted” and, with human judgment unleashed from authority, “’there was no king in Israel, but every one did what was right in his own eyes.’” The result had been a “rebellious and disobedient people” who behaved “maliciously and wantonly” in deposing their king and setting themselves up as rulers. These events, Evelyn suggested, at once made atheism more plausible and were themselves inspired by the doctrines of Hobbes and his philosophical fellow-travelers, such as Baruch Spinoza, who all aimed at “making religion a mere figment and … discarding all natural justice, goodness, and charity, and resolve it into brutish force.”
Evelyn claimed that these world-disrupting atheists had deified nature by making it (stripped of traditional divinity) the only source of moral guidance. They would have replied that they revealed the need for people to make their own free judgments, without super-human guidance. That Evelyn took their arguments as he did suggests that it was impossible for him seriously to imagine moral guidance apart from God. He therefore proposed a different sort of deification from what he thought the “atheists” had achieved: to show divine intelligence at every point in the natural order. We might not understand every aspect of providence, but
Though the pregnant clouds dissolve in the most seemingly unnecessary places, they may be the … originals of those rivers … which flow from those eminences to refresh the valleys, and give drink … both to man and beast. In a word, there is not silliest fly, or worm that crawls, not any grain of seed which falls, and becomes lost and scattered on the ground, but is for the food or help of some creature, at some time or other necessary for us; so as there is nothing made for nothing … but such ungrateful creatures, who blaspheme upon these accounts, and from their shallow reasonings.
The most abject, vile, and trivial things in nature are admirable, and those creatures which we reckon most defective, the most curious, and completely accommodated to their several functions. Indeed, some are noxious poisons, yet become antidotes; one fierce animal devours another, lest the wild beasts should increase upon us.
Evelyn’s account of the world’s complex and paradoxical design suggests that all things in nature are admirable, not straightforwardly, but because “the beauty of the world consists not in its separated parts, (which seem imperfect) but united, its order, economy, and concurrence to the end; which shows it to be the work of a wise and voluntary Agent.” “The world,” wrote Evelyn, “is a poem – the most perfect and consummate piece that ever was made.” To consider nature, then, was to be brought into communion with divine intelligence, which was manifest in the subtle weave of the world’s disparate and not always pleasing phenomena. It was in this light that Evelyn made himself a student of England’s forests, the uses of the trees, and the need to husband them properly, which he believed the Parliament and Protectorate had badly failed to do.
Simon Schama has observed that Evelyn saw the destruction of royal forests following the King’s execution and establishment of a republic as a symptom of anarchy, a world turned upside-down. Indeed, Evelyn’s lamenting the recent disorder seems to have been not mere rhetoric to gin up interest in his attack on atheism, but a candid report of his experience. His diaries, which span the years of civil war and restoration, are full of violent reactions to the killing of the king, the presumptuous rhetoric of the rebels, and, in particular, the loss of elite and traditional control over religious interpretation. He reported, in a telling entry from the early winter of 1653, “Going this day to our church, I was surprizd to see a mechanic step up. I was resolv’d yet to stay and see what he would make of it.” A commoner’s preaching in [a previously Anglican] service was already a kind of insurrection, typical of an egalitarian era when prophecies abounded. Worse was what followed: “His text was from 2 Sam. Ch. 23, v. 20: And Benaiah went downe also and slew a lion in the midst of a pit in time of snow. The purport was that no danger was to be thought when God call’d for shedding of blood, inferring that now they were called to destroy temporal governments … so dangerous a crisis were things grown to.” The same anarchic religious interpretation that brought calls for continued rebellion into Evelyn’s home church showed up in the ungoverned ranting of Quakers (“a new sect of dangerous principles who show no respect to any magistrate or other and seem a melancholy proud sort”), a general invasion of the churches by “sectaries of all sorts, blasphemous and ignorant mechanics usurping the pulpits,” Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s “riding in triumph thro the City,” on Ash Wednesday “in contradiction to all custom and decency,” and “how the women began to paint themselves, formerly a most ignominious thing and us’d only by prostitutes.” There was much order to be restored, much divine instruction for the order of nature to convey.
Evelyn’s keenly appreciative sketchings of nature, so different in tone from his denunciations of religious, political, and social unrest, were not just the pastoral musings of a disaffected conservative. He cited among his influences the philosopher Ralph Cudworth, and Cudworth, along with his Cambridge colleague and contemporary, Henry More, labored mightily to refute Hobbes’s revival of classical atheism and provide a new, or revived, picture of God’s role in nature, a picture that filled and comforted Evelyn’s mind and those of many more after him. Cudworth’s sweepingly titled True Intellectual System of the Universe suffered a Casaubon problem: like George Eliot’s ever-blocked scholar, whose projected Key to All Mythologies exhausted itself in a delta of notes, he wanted to account for everything – in his case, to show by exhaustive scholarship and argument both that true atheism was conceptually impossible and that the impossible ambition to be an atheist was very rare, at least before his own metaphysically besieged time. In the one volume he produced of an anticipated three, Cudworth devoted a tract’s worth of pages to a careful restatement of the positions of Hobbes, Epicurus, and Lucretius, ranged under the heading “atomic atheism.” If his characterization was sometimes polemical, it was also remarkable in a certain gift for sympathetic restatement. For instance,
[T]hey, who first introduced the belief of a Deity and religion … deserved very ill of all mankind, because they did thereby infinitely debase and depress men’s spirits under a servile fear… There can be no comfortable and happy living, without banishing from our mind the belief of these two things, of a Deity, and soul’s immortality…. It was therefore a noble and heroical exploit of Democritus and Epicurus … who, seeing the world thus oppressed under the grievous yoke of religion, the fear of a Deity, and punishment after death … did manfully encounter that affrightful spectre … of a providential deity; and by clear philosophical reasons, chase it away, and banish it quite out of the world….
Cudworth’s talent for sympathetic reconstruction spurred suspicion that he had pressed too far into atheist arguments and gone over to the other side. Besides his Casaubon problem, the disheartening effect of these rumors discouraged him from continuing his great work. The rumors also suggest the light in which contemporaries viewed the alleged atheism of Hobbes: as anathema, but also enormously seductive to anyone who breathed too deeply of it. Why else would the man who, as much as anyone, devoted his life to answering Hobbes have been suspected of secretly joining “the monster of Malmsbury”?
Cudworth’s lasting influence lies in the formula he developed to account for God’s place in nature – not a new idea in the world, but influential at a pivotal time, so that it became a widely shared sense for more than a century. This was the idea that nature’s “economy,” which John Evelyn so admiringly described, was moved from within by a living energy which expressed divine intelligence, what Cudworth called a “plastic force.” Cudworth’s own language suggested the aptness of Evelyn’s comparing the world to a poem, except that the poem’s author should not be imagined as inscribing it from outside. Instead, “Nature is art as it were incorporated and embodied in matter, which doth not act upon it from without mechanically, but from within vitally and magically.” Only this force gave Hobbes’s “matter in motion” its form or, for that matter, its motion. As Cudworth wrote, using the Greek, “if there be physis, then there must be nous: where the world follow a pattern, a mind must lie behind and infuse it.
Cudworth’s colleague, Henry More (whose thinking aligned so closely with the other man’s that Cudworth feared More’s proposed work would make his own superfluous), showed in his Platonick Song of the Soul how the resistance to political disorder and wish to elevate the human estate joined in this project. In this allegorical work, More described the political significance of a purely materialist view of humanity, which put the species on the same plain as other animals, with no admixture of spirit. In his imagined “Beirah,” city of beasts, there was “no truth of justice,” but only “false polity that into tyranny would quickly wend” if it were not restrained by “stern fear.” There, More wrote,
Democracy/Is not but a large hungry tyrant-train:/Oppression from the poor is an all-sweeping rain./A sweeping torrent that beats down the corn,/And wastes the oxen’s labor, head-long throws/The tallest trees up by the root torn,/Its raging force in all the land it shows…. Such is the out-rage of Democracy,/When fearless it doth rule in Beirah.
Democracy was, for More, the political principle of brute appetite, coupled with the animal equality of creatures whose relations were not shaped by divine principle. His reference to “stern fear” as the only principle of order for such creatures seems to be a swipe at Hobbes, and does he implication that the State of Nature persists in Beirah: “There’s no society in Beirah/But beastlike grazing in one pasture ground./No love but of the animated clay…” – that is, love only for one another as the animate matter we are (and all we are) in the materialist view. After the violence, experiments, and radical doubts of the English Civil War, political order seemed to need firmer shape than this – ideally, a frame made in a divinely informed human nature, not the free choices of a humanity freed from divine oversight, such as Epicurus and his revivalists might have produced.
These thinkers had some impulse to restore every haunted and enchanted place that their atheist opponents would have cleansed. John Evelyn reversed the Epicurean formula, claiming in a kind of philosophical taunt that even atheists must sometimes fear thunder. Henry More, to the embarrassment of some of his admirers, wrote on the reality of witches and ghosts, which he sometimes seemed to see as standing or falling with the immortal soul. The main direction, though, was the one Cudworth laid out, and which Evelyn already followed in his theological writing. As we have already seen, this was to see divinity in the whole design of nature, particularly its service to human well-being, and in the vital, or “plastic” principle that gave the spark of life to matter.
John Ray, a founding English naturalist and fellow of the Royal Society, exemplified this approach. Ray was at Cambridge with More and Cudworth, and he cited the latter as having refuted Epicurus’ atheism. His approach to nature, though, was more experimental and empirical, a systematic version of the rambling, cataloguing research that John Evelyn conducted. He worked on scientific taxonomy, particularly that of plants, and studied the motion of sap within trees. He was a founder of the tradition of lay naturalists that carried forward to Charles Darwin, and he had in common with Darwin and many others between them an intense curiosity about humanity’s place within nature, and the meaning of that place.
For Ray, the workings of nature were a grand apologia, proof of God’s existence and justification of his ways to man. Divinity suffused nature through the “subordinate ministry” of the “plastic principle,” the vital force that gave matter its order and motion, carrying out God’s design. The cycle of water, the distribution of minerals in the earth, the blend of hills and plains in the world’s landscapes, and the shape of the human body all bespoke God’s design for human convenience: to know nature was to appreciate our place within it, its solicitude for us, and to be weaned away from the atheistic conceits of Epicurus and Hobbes.
The lesson was one of appreciation, but not complacency. As Locke has urged that God intended the world for the useful and rational, Ray discerned an activist agenda for humanity. The presence of metal ores in the earth showed that we were meant to transform nature with technology and work. Otherwise, Ray wrote (again in line with Locke), we would be left to a “barbarous and sordid life [of which] the Indians in the Northern part of America are a clear demonstration.” Gold and silver, so physically convenient for coin-making, were evidence that God intended us to use money, so that the rewards of wealth would inspire us to life ourselves above “brutal Nature” and “rend[er] all and every one mutually useful and serviceable.” So it was only by labor and innovation that human beings achieved what the rest of the Creation enjoyed naturally: “mutual subserviency to each other, and unanimous conspiring to promote and carry on the public good.” Other living things, even those as humble and, in some cases, superficially pernicious as insects, carried out a twofold role just by being. On the one hand, they fulfilled a place in divine design. On the other hand, their existence enabled them “to partake themselves of his overflowing goodness, and to enjoy their own beings.”
For humans, by contrast, their “brutal Nature” was a threat to joining properly in divine design. They participated in the Creation by transforming it. This transformation was a kind of perfection, an improvement marked by its contrast with the “barbarous and sordid” lives of those peoples who had not overcome “brutal Nature.” But this mastery over nature, even the antagonistic relation in which “brutal Nature” posed a constant threat, was not the negation of nature that Locke ironically called the key to perfect freedom. Nature taught “mutual subserviency” and ultimate subservience to God. It dealt harshly with rebels, as Ray pointedly observed in his justification of noxious insects: they were God’s shock troops, like those of a ruler, pernicious in themselves but “necessary, either to suppress rebellions, or punish rebels, or other disorderly and vicious persons, and keep the world in quiet.” Those who deserved and should expect the greatest punishment, now or in the afterlife, were those
rebels … who have made it their business to banish Him out of the world, who is the great creator and governor of it; to undermine his being, and eradicate all notions of him out of their own and other men’s minds; to provoke his creatures and vassals to a contempt of him, a flighting of his fear and worship, as being such imaginary chimeras as are fit only to keep fools in awe. Certainly all this is the highest provocation that any man can be capable of, so it shall be punished with the surest vengeance.
The great and terrible rebels, therefore, were those who misused their distinctively human powers of voice, reason, and technical mastery, not to complete creation by participating lawfully within it, but to clear the world of God and, implicitly, assume his place as lawgiver and meaning-maker. These were the “atheists” that Ray wrote against, and whose arguments be believed nature itself refuted, if only we saw nature in the light of right reason. The trick, though, was to avoid, simultaneously, symmetrical dangers: falling into “brutal Nature,” the instinct that honored God in animals but was sin and debasement in humans; or rising hubristically above it on the wings of reason, as the rebel atheists had done.
With Ray, we have come to a world resembling that of Tocqueville’s Lockean settlers. Nature is at once a hostile force and a harmonious design that is theirs to complete. Nature’s God – a term that would appear in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence – was a subtle gardener, a craftsman who put natural forces and, above all, living things into a complex relation of interdependence. The human role in this order was also a gardener’s: to put the creation on a path of improvement. Although each thing was perfect in itself, it was naturally imperfect, even threatening, in relation to human needs. Meeting those needs was a part of the divine design, but a part that would not be consummated without intelligent human labor – the special quality of the industrious and rational. So, to be in harmony with the design revealed by creation, humans must struggle against it, in external nature and in themselves. Their reward would be a higher fruitfulness than unaided nature could have yielded – materially and spiritually alike. The cost would be a kind of constant warfare to maintain both material and spiritual mastery – and, at the same time, to deny the purer form of mastery that Epicurean atheism promised. Nature was a Restorationist commonwealth, harmonious on the surface, but subtly exacting in the sacrifices it demanded, both in labor expended and in ambition forgone.