17th century / Arts / Science

“An Inexhaustible Treasure of Fancy”: Thomas Sprat, Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn.

By Aime Williams

During the mid- seventeenth century, there arose a new strand of philosophical thinking — the premise of which was that truth had been encoded into the world by God through his creation. The best way to find these truths, therefore, was to examine the world via observation and the senses. The central text of this ‘Natural Philosophy’, also called ‘Mechanical Philsophy’, is Thomas Sprat’s The History of the Royal Society, and it was this along with Robert Hooke’s Micrographia that Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) took as her inspiration when writing her early science fiction short story, A Blazing New World. What she saw to be scientific pedantry and the claim for objective truth is satirized and subverted to the vaunting of imagination and creation over this empirical digging and discovery. Similar impulses to engage with this new philosophy can be seen in the works of Aphra Behn (1640-1689), though her reaction is in some ways more ambiguous. As writers of fiction (long prose in the case of the former, verse in the case of the latter), the two women appropriated the new languages of scientific materialism into their works. However, this is not all they did. By using such language they entered into, and changed, the debate itself.

According to Sprat’s philosophy, all understanding comes from the external world. He detests the marring of children’s’ education by the loading of their minds with “Doctrines, and Praecepts”, suggesting that it would be more beneficial for them to “be exercis’d in the consideration of visible and sensible things; of whole impressions they are most capable, because of the … perfection of their senses.” The new members of the Royal Society raged against the self-absorbed, the solipsistic, and those “…wholy imployd about the productions of their own minds, and neglecting all the works of Nature that are without them.” However, Sprat acknowledges an understanding of the solipsistic impulse; the tendency to exist in the mind and imaginations:

“The solitary imaginations of Speculative Men are of all other the most easy: there a man meets with little stubborness of matter: he may choose his subject  where he likes; he may fashion and turn it as he pleases: whereas when he  comes abroad  into the world, he must indure more contradiction, more  difficulties are to be overcome, and he cannot always follow his genius… so  that it is not to be wonder’d, that so many great Wits have…rather chosen to  shut themselves up from the nois and preferments of the world to converse in  the shadow with the pleasant productions of their own fancies.”

Cavendish too, in the preface to her piece of utopian fiction Blazing New World, acknowledges the freedom of the imagination given by its separateness from the external world (“Fictions are an issue of man’s Fancy, framed in his own Mind, according as he pleases, without regard, whether the thing he fancies, be really existent without his mind or not…”). Like Sprat she maintains that Fancy does not aid the conveying of the philosophy, but is a completely separate entity, and not one that is conducive to truth (“the end of Reason is Truth; the end of Fancy is Fiction”). According to Cavendish both Reason and Fancy are born of rational matter, but the reasons for adding a “piece of Fancy” to “Philosophical observations” were to “divert…studious thoughts”, and “delight the Reader with variety”. In Cavendish’s Blazing New World structure of two rival, created utopias we find an echo to her claims to be mixing both reason and fancy. She presents not a binary opposition of ‘perfect imaginary world’ to ‘real world’, but a reaction of imaginary world against imaginary world, within the imaginary world of the fiction itself, in a confusing mise en abime. From this point in the narrative, the reader is transported from back upwards from beneath the layers of imaginary utopias, back into the ‘real world’, and into the court of Charles II. Likewise, the afterword, presented from the point of view of the creator and ruler of one of the utopias, acknowledges the tale as a fiction anchored within an external objectivity — a world that she has created containing the worlds of her fictional self (the fictional character of the duchess) within it: “By this poetical description, you may perceive, that my ambition is not only to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole World”. The idea that the insubstantial, such as language, could create power which might then translate into the real world is a troubling one for the new materialist philosophy, and showed the paradoxes at its heart.

If we are to continue Cavendish’s metaphor, however, the new philosophers are not authors, but readers, with their God as their ‘author’. Divine authorship has created the only world that the new philosophers deem ‘real’, and holding ‘truth’. She therefore writes that: “The satisfaction that he finds, is not imaginary, but real: it is drawn from things that are not out of the world, but in it…”, before continuing “Tis true that Knowledge which is only founded on thoughts and words, has seldom any other end but the breeding and increasing of more thoughts and words: But that which is built on Works (as his will be) will naturally desire to discover, to augment, to apply, to communicate itself by more Works.” Swift later satirized this total idea of communication by ‘works’ (that is, objects of the real world only and thus not through language) in his Gulliver’s Travels.

New discoveries will herald new potential metaphors, however, and the external will be linked to the internal by these metaphors argued Sprat: the “Works of Nature” being “an inexhaustible treasure of Fancy, and Invention, which will be reveal’d proportionably to the increase of their knowledge”. Sprat anachronistically echoes the Nietzschean in his critique of the worn metaphor caused by stale knowledge: “Those few things which they knew, they us’d so much, and applied so often that they almost wore them away by their using…They had tir’d out the sun, and Moon, and Stars, with their similitudes…”

Although true that this new philosophy was mired in the concrete, it inevitably fed into the abstractedness of language, for the discoveries can only serve towards “supplying mens Tongues, with very many new things, to be nam’d, and adorned, describ’d in their discourse”, as Sprat notes. As well as the suggestion of the invigoration of language through the naming and describing of new discoveries in a direct language object, signifier-signified relationship–think of Adam literally giving animals their names in Genesis and thus changing the world through language–Sprat alludes to the possibility for new metaphors that would be created by an increased empirical knowledge. All “delightful wit”, he notes, is “founded on such images which are generally known, and are able to bring a strong, and sensible impression on the mind.” This reverses the direction, and suggests at not only the possibility of an increased understanding between minds by reference to the external, facilitated by more apt metaphor, and resulting in better understanding of the abstract and emotional. The external will be linked to the internal by metaphor, the “Works of Nature” being “an inexhaustible treasure of Fancy, and Invention, which will be reveal’d proportionally to the increase of their knowledge”.

Aphra Behn, in a translation of French Academy member Bernard de Fontenelle’s text A Discovery of New Worlds reverses the direction of description; her aim here is not to use the new discoveries of the ‘scientists’ as inspiration for new ways of describing. Rather, it is to describe the theories of science in terms of the knowledge already held by everyone, spreading knowledge and communicating the new truths. She compares, for example, the layers around the sun to an onion, comparing a new external discovery with an old one, and trying to unify communication between those aware of new discoveries, and those not. Behn described her work as  “A middle way to philosophy, such as would improve everyone’s understanding”. The writer pointed out that his method of acquiring knowledge of the unknown by comparison with the known is the core achievement of the Bible as a text, “the expressions are always turned to fit our capacities”. This is  mirrored both in the fact of Behn’s translation of a French text: Babelian fragmentation being amended in order to aid the discovery of truth; and through its tone —the conversations frequently exemplifying the resonances of a gallantry that would have been better placed in a court — the text becomes a demonstration of scientific principles through the medium of fiction, both reaching a happy synthesis between science and literature, whilst, like Cavendish, championing our freedom to use language as we choose.