Along with Descartes, the seminal intellectual figure in the transition from the old to the new natural philosophy was Isaac Newton, whose work, particularly the 1687 Principia, contributed more than any other to the revolution in consciousness. Indeed the mechanical philosophy is known interchangeably as the Newtonian or the Cartesian worldview. In his early years as a student at Cambridge Newton imbibed the mechanical philosophy, including the conceptualisation of matter as inert or inactive, unless, of course, acted upon by an external force. Yet at the same time, from his earliest days until late in life Newton was heavily engaged in the ideas and practices of alchemy, the foremost esoteric practice of those steeped in the Hermetic philosophy.24 For years Newton collected and pored over alchemical manuscripts, transcribing, translating and absorbing them. He immersed himself in alchemical experiments, building his own laboratory in the garden outside his rooms at Trinity College and sometimes keeping the furnace alight for days at a time while he worked on his chemical transformations. He was perhaps the most theoretically knowledgeable and experimentally proficient alchemist of all time.
While it is easy today to mock Newton's efforts—one experiment optimistically began 'Take of Urin one Barrel'25—in fact he went about his chemical labours with the same concentrated application of systematic and careful thought and testing that marked all his work. Yet throughout his scientific career Newton never abandoned the intuition that the Earth is always engaged in incessant activity. In some respects, the idea is not too far from the truth for modern geology tells us that the Earth's crust is being constantly overturned by the process of subduction, the under-thrusting or down-welling of tectonic plates into the Earth's mantle. 'For nature is a perpetuall circulatory worker', Newton wrote,26 and in texts such as the Principia he forever sought to capture the Earth's ceaseless transformation with the use of verbs like condensing, fermenting, coagulating, precipitating, exhaling, vegetating, circulating and generating.27 He understood gravity as the divine force that animates and orders the universe and which is caused by 'the direct action of God'. However antagonistic the two worldviews seem today, the mechanistic view in Newton's hands became permeated from the outset with a conception of a living Earth. He infused the mechanical philosophy with something new and distinctive, which led some at the time to criticise the Principia for occultism.28
The story of Newton's intellectual development suggests that the essential Hermetic insight of a living Earth and the rigorous practice of modern science are not, at heart, incompatible. Conceiving of the world as alive or dead is not a decision that can be taken on the basis of scientific evidence but is due to either intuition or habit. To be sure, alchemical practice—which made the mistake of interpreting the metaphysical in physical terms— could not withstand the withering force of scientific experimentation. But mechanism was never more than a metaphor, although it did not take long for the metaphor to be mistaken for the thing it represented, not least because it suited certain social and political forces to do so. The difficulty for Newton was that Hermeti-cism had become closely associated with political radicalism and religious enthusiasm, both of which presented a threat to the established political order and church authority in the late seventeenth century.29 Newton's dilemma became acute in the 1690s when radical and free-thinker John Toland linked demands for social change with the implications of Newton's natural philosophy.30 If Nature is in a constant state of transformation there is no philosophical justification for a stable human order.31
Whatever its intellectual force, the mechanical philosophy could not succeed on the basis of evidence or logic alone. In addition to the church—which from the Middle Ages had been retreating from its more holistic instincts and for which pantheism and enthusiasm had become threats—the mechanical world-view found its advocate in the emerging middle class, whose accumulation of pecuniary and political influence depended on a stable social order. The growth of commerce and industry also needed to overcome resistance to exploiting the Earth's resources. Since minerals were seen to have some form of vegetative life mining had to be treated cautiously, and miners often performed propitiatory rituals.32 As Carolyn Merchant observed: 'The image of the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother had served as a cultural constraint restricting the actions of human beings. One does not readily slay a mother . . .'33 Yet there was mounting commercial pressure to expand mining. In the 90 years to 1680 the amount of coal dug from English soil increased tenfold.34 The cloth industry and large-scale farming were other sectors growing rapidly along capitalist lines, so that 'for the first time in England the earth was seen primarily as a source of profits by an increasingly powerful sector of the economy'.35
Max Weber, the founder of sociology, began his great work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, with the observation that the development of certain types of practical rational conduct may encounter serious inner resistance from spiritual obstacles. 'The magical and religious forces, and the ethical ideas of duty based upon them, have in the past always been among the most important formative influences on conduct.'36 The development of the ethos of modern capitalism first had to overcome these obstacles and it was the Protestant ethic that brought to capitalism 'the change in moral standards which converted a natural frailty [acquisitiveness] into an ornament of the spirit, and canonized as the economic virtues habits which in earlier ages had been denounced as vices'.37 Calvinists and Puritans believed God had given man dominion over the Earth and it was his duty now to exploit it.
If the natural world can be expunged of immanent purpose and intrinsic value, the world has value only to the extent of its contribution to human welfare. Weber coined the phrase 'the disenchantment of the world' to refer to the way the modern mind began to see the Earth as an inert realm 'out there', ripe for exploitation. The notion that the world is alive and in which we are intimately involved came to be seen as superstitious and disreputable. The scientific attitude of dispassionate withdrawal and non-participatory deliberation found favour with the official church as well as the rising bourgeoisie, and it was this combination that saw European industrial power come to dominate the world.
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