The 12+12 Books of Christmas #23

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Science in Augustan England was a contradictory and confusing enterprise. The 1600s and especially the 1690s in England have long been a favorite period of historians. So much was going on and so much of what would become the modern world was being formed. Mistakes were plentiful, which is great for historians, because they can pick out something like Newton’s weird mysticism and do the historian’s version of pointing and laughing. Sometimes this is incredibly instructive and helpful to anyone who wants to learn something about the Augustans.

Some time in 1600s, Dr. John Woordward acquired a shield, a French buckler, that was roughly one hundred years old. The shield depicted a scene from ancient lore and Dr. Woodward was able to convince himself that he his shield was actually forged in Roman times. In his mind, and the minds of many others, this was a priceless antique, not a souvenir put together by some French guy a few years back. He was of course completely wrong about his beloved shield and he was mocked by satirists like Pope and the Scriblerians.

Why did Dr. Woodward believe something that was obviously false? In Dr. Woodward’s Shield, Joseph Levine tries to explain the farcical affair that included dubious historical materials:

Why then did Woodward accept the story and defend it with so much erudition? The answer lies in the peculiar authority that the classical historians exercised over Renaissance Europe and later centuries. The humanists were agreed that the classical authors furnished the standards of style and form. […] There was thus an overwhelming disposition to believe.

On the other hand, there was something else brewing in Dr. Woodward’s time:

In Dr. Woodward’s day the debate was reopened by the Dutchman Jacob Perizonius, and it gathered increasing strength in the eighteenth cetury. It was fed, no doubt, by an increase in general skepticism, by the appearance of “historical pyrrhonism” that was beginning to cast doubt on the reliability of all historical sources. The French Jesuit Hardouin announced paradoxically that the classical authors were the invention of medieval monks, since they were found only in medieval manuscripts.

Hardouin’s views were not popular at the time, but they show how far the other way the pendulum could swing. From a total belief in “the virtuoso’s dream” to utter skepticism about all antiquity.

The shield is the centerpiece of Levine’s wonderfully written book, but it’s not its main attraction. The book is about thought at a time when modern science was coming into existence. The rules of evidence and argument were still largely unwritten. There were more than enough of extravagant theories and views flying around. Levine shows his readers a cabinet of curiosities made of theories, ideas and thoughts. It is perhaps one of my favorite books, because it makes a topic many view as quite boring — seventeenth and eighteenth century intellectual history — incredibly vivid and exciting. It has a lot of pointing and laughing, but it is science pointing and laughing at itself. As disrespectful as that is, isn’t it finally what science is all about: recognizing your mistakes and being able to correct them with good humor.

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