Materiality, aisthesis, Transcendence: Neo-Platonic, Naturalistic Configurations in Seventeenth-Century England




Project Leader: Prof. Dr. Verena Lobsien (Department of English and American Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin)

 

Academic staff: Dr. Lutz Bergemann, Dr. des. Cornelia Wilde, Prof. Dr. Wolfram R. Keller (co-opted), Dr. Gaby Mahlberg (co-opted), PD Dr. Claudia Olk (co-opted), Dr. Wiebke-Marie Stock (co-opted)

 

Sub-project 1: Corpuscularian Natural Philosophy: Transformation, Development and Neo-Platonic Hybridization of Naturalism in Early Modern English Philosophy (Dr. Lutz Bergemann)

 

Sub-project 2: In the Garden: Neo-Platonic-Epicurean Cultivations of the Natural in Seventeenth-Century English Literature and Music (Dr. des Cornelia Wilde)

 

The project “Materiality, aisthesis, Transcendence: Neo-Platonic, Naturalistic Configurations in Seventeenth-Century England” focuses on the tensions between Neo-Platonism and Epicureanism in early modern philosophical and poetic discourses. The dynamics between these two philosophies appear as an antagonism between metaphysics and materialism in contemporaneous philosophical debates. Seventeenth-century materialism develops as a transformation of classical Epicureanism: In terms of natural philosophy, it occurs as atomism; with regard to its aesthetic and cultural dimension, it emerges as naturalistic libertinism — in interaction with the seemingly juxtaposed discourse of Neo-Platonist metaphysics. How do metaphysics and naturalistic libertinism interact? What are — and what characterizes — the processes and modi required to synthesize the central tenets of these philosophies? The term aisthesis, central to the project’s title, suggests that the interaction of both seemingly incompatible philosophies, as well as the link between materiality and transcendence can be established and negotiated through aesthetic experiences and practices.

While early modern transformations of Neo-Platonism were investigated in the first phase of this project as “Configurations of Neo-Platonism. Variations and Models in English Renaissance and Restoration Culture” (Link zu Projekt 2005-2008)”, we now aim to study the renaissance of Epicureanism in seventeenth-century England. The renewed interest in Epicureanism is evidenced by a number of translations of Lucretius’s didactic poem De rerum natura, a poetic rendition of Epicure’s philosophy. Rather than conceiving of Epicureanism negatively and reductively — in terms of hedonism, excessive sensuality, and atheism — translators like John Evelyn (1656), Lucy Hutchinson (c. 1675), Thomas Creech (1682), and John Dryden (1685) engaged with Epicure as a serious natural philosopher and attempted to reconcile Epicureanism with Christian principles. In their work as translators, they draw on and extend the work of their contemporaries Pierre Gassendi and Walter Charleton, whose corpuscularian natural philosophical systems are themselves transformations of Epicurean atomism. These English translations of Lucretius’ Epicurean poem will be analysed with regard to the passages chosen for translation, with reference to the terminology used, and with respect to their potential Christian emphasis and transformation. This analysis will provide the basis for the investigations into more specifically natural philosophical and aesthetic-poetic configurations of Neo-Platonic metaphysics and Epicurean materialism, such as the philosophies of Nicolas Hill, Walter Charleton, Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway on the one hand, and – on the other hand – the cultural and poetic discourse of music as an art form that does not only bear a definite relation to the eternal, abstract, transcendent ‘music’ of universal order but is also sensually perceptible, and thus provides an aesthetic experience that links the aspects of materiality and transcendence.

 

Sub-project 1: Corpuscularian Natural Philosophy: Transformation, Development and Neo-Platonic Hybridization of Naturalism in Early Modern English Philosophy (Dr. Lutz Bergemann)

 

The engagement with Epicurus reflects crucial seventeenth-century controversies in all discourses relevant for the new sciences — cosmology, physics, psychology, theology, and politics. Thomas Creech’s polemic against Thomas Hobbes’s allegedly atheistic atomism which seemed to liken him to Lucretius, is already present in the works of the so-called Cambridge Platonists. While the Cambridge Platonists chastise Hobbesian atheism, they also absorb elements of Epicurean atomism and the explanation it provides for natural phenomena to the extent that they were suspected of Epicureanism themselves. The title of Henry More’s Democritus Platonissans already implies the hybridization of Epicurean and Platonic axioms. This project aims to elucidate how the rise of atomistic thought in seventeenth-century England is furthered by the complex interaction of the seemingly antagonistic Epicurean and Platonist natural philosophies. As such, this process is understood and described as the transformation of ancient philosophical notions within the early modern context of the new sciences.

 

Sub-project 2: In the Garden: Neo-Platonic-Epicurean Cultivations of the Natural in Seventeenth-Century English Literature and Music (Dr. des Cornelia Wilde)


Platonists are experts in dealing with invisible phenomena and veiled truths, whereas Epicureans are versed in the study of that which is sensually perceptible. Music is an art form and an aesthetic phenomenon that connects early modern Neo-Platonist, metaphysical and atomistic-naturalistic discourses insofar as it is conceived as an abstract principle of harmonic order and offers aesthetic and sensuous experience at the same time. The locus classicus for the idea of a harmony of the spheres is the Platonic creation myth of Plato’s Timaeus. This idea, however, co-exists with the notion of a ”casual dance of foppish atoms” (Hutchinson 1675). Music is even accorded the function to harmonise the “jarring seeds of Matter” (Brady, “An Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day”, 1692). In musicological, poetic, and dramatic texts (e.g. Robert Fludd, John Milton and John Dryden), music is concurrently perceived of as harmonic order and an acoustic phenomenon entailing the danger of sensual dissolution as an effect on the human precariously poised between this-worldly materialism and other-worldly spirituality. John Evelyn, Christian Neo-Platonist and translator of Lucretius, idealises the use of music as an anagogical force, transporting the listener through an aesthetic experience from the materiality and sensuousness of this world into higher and more intellectual spheres of reality. Evelyn envisages a life in an artistically cultivated, music-filled – Epicurean – garden, Neo-Platonically understood as the material representation of an immaterial reality – as a place that comes closest to the ideals of the pastoral Golden Age. In such a garden, inspired by aesthetically pleasing music, humans are enabled to transcend mere Epicurean sensuality.