Clark Lawlor

Our whole theory of life has long been influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the general conception of the universe which has been forced upon us by physical science.

Thomas Huxley, Science and Culture, 1880, 132—3

What am I? how produc'd? and for what End? Whence drew I Being? to what Period tend? Am I th' abandon'd Orphan of blind Chance: Dropt by wild Atoms, in disorder'd Dance? Or from an endless Chain of Causes wrought, And of unthinking Substance, born with Thought? By Motion which began without a Cause . . . Am I but what I seem, mere Flesh and Blood; A branching Channel, with a mazy Flood?

John Arbuthnot, Know Yourself [Gnothi seauton], 1734

Science, according to Huxley, is not separate from the rest of culture. The reluctant tone introduced by the word "forced" also indicates the doubts that have beset the advances of science in the centuries since Huxley's. No one has been immune — how could they be? — from the technology that science has brought to bear on our everyday lives. But the "force" of science operates on at least two, interrelated, levels. The first is that of the technology it brings into being. At the end of the eighteenth century, people's lives were more and more dominated by what we loosely describe as the industrial revolution; even at the beginning of our period new technologies were beginning to affect (to take a profound example) chronometry. New types of clocks and watches reconstructed the sense of time and narrative, as Stuart Sherman (1996) has argued. The second level of scientific influence is that of "world-view": our philosophical and even practical sense of what it means to be human. The "New Science" of the previous century, which stressed the role of the human body as a machine and the universe as a great watch mechanism, encouraged or even forced eighteenth-century poets and writers, such as Dr. John Arbuthnot, to contemplate deeply their place in the great scheme of things or "Chain of Being."

Famously, Arbuthnot was at the same time physician to Queen Anne, Fellow of the Royal Society, and a member of the Scriblerus Club, friend to Pope and Swift, Gay and Parnell. In an age where there was no great separation between poet and scientist, Arbuthnot chose to express his doubts and fears about the brave new universe in the best medium then available: poetry. He is better known to us through his collaborative satires, such as The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741) — which, ironically, were often directed at the Royal Society of which he was a member — but in the passage quoted above his moral philosophizing is clearly attempting to answer the questions posed by the materialistic implications of science. The mechanistic and Godless universe of a Descartes or even (potentially) a Newton or Harvey in England had apparently reduced man to a random, Lucretian assortment of atoms, thrown together by a blind Nature. Both the microcosm of the body and the macrocosm of the planets and suns were without ultimate meaning — mere machines. As we shall see later, these troubling questions did have religious answers that bypassed the fundamental problems of scientific secularization for the moment; but Arbuthnot's opening to the suggestively titled Know Yourself illustrates Huxley's broad assertion — and my specific argument in this essay — that science fundamentally altered the world-view of the literate part of eighteenth-century culture and, later, that of the illiterate also. Such a transformation in the cultural imaginary ultimately affected and inspired all poets in the period, although some more directly and topically than others.

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