Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The End of the Metaphysicals: Vaughan, Hobbes, Milton, Cudworth

In our recent class discussion, we followed the story of Adorno and Horkheimer who argued that it was Bacon who undermined the older idea of 'substance,' and left a world once animated by spirit, bereft and disenchanted. As was suggested in our discussion, the poetry of the period - from Donne to Vaughan - may be understood as an attempt to confront this Baconian legacy.

As a starting point for poems by Vaughan next time - Corruption, Man, Retreat and Cock Crowing - we will look at Milton's representation of this crisis, as Adam and Eve are forced out of the Garden of Eden. Please look at the passages from Book XI of Paradise Lost: what does Adam bemoan as he realizes that he must leave Eden? How does the archangel Michael - with whom he is in conversation - attempt to console him? Does Vaughan represent a similar sense of loss in his poems? What forms of consolation are available in his poetry? Are there consolations similar to those in Milton? in Donne? Is Vaughan a metaphysical poet?

For the second part of class, we will be considering similar questions - but in relationship primarily to Thomas Hobbes and the Cambridge Platonist, Ralph Cudworth. What happens to the kinds of questions with which the poets of our period have engaged when they are rendered philosophically? How does Hobbes - in the passages on the document available on our site - understand the relationship between soul and body? Why is he in such a huff about what he calls 'separated essences'? Why does he get upset by those people who use terms like 'incorporeal substance'?

We will also look briefly at how Milton deals with the relationship between spirit and matter. Though it's a huge subject, we will examine a short passage from Book 7 in which the Creation is described - also in the document on our site.

Finally, we will discuss Ralph Cudworth, author of the vast True Intellectual System of the Universe. Excerpts from his text will be made available in class. A preview here:
Unless there be such a thing admitted as a Plastick Nature, that breeds for the sake of something, and in order to Ends, Regularly, Artificially and Methodically, it seems that one or other of these Two Things must be concluded, That Either in the Efformation and Organization of the Bodies of Animals, as well as the other Phenomena, every things comes to pass Fortuitously, and happens to be as it is, without the Guidance and Direction of any Mind or Understanding; Or else, that God himself doth all Immediately, and as it were with his own Hands, Form the Body of every Gnat and Fly, Insect and Mite…
What mileage does Cudworth get out of the 'plastic power'? Is it a philosophical principle? a poetic one? What work is it performing for him?


  1. Wow, what an interesting set of texts and questions!

  2. THE END. How sad. Maybe you'll teach Milton next year?