Author: Dominic Berry
This post reports on a seminar that took place long long ago, back at the end of April. Very sorry indeed for the delay, but we have a number of events taking place in May, June and July that have required my attention. Our two speakers were Neil Tarrant and Heike Hartung. As ever, this post is only intended to capture key parts of their talks and a flavour of the discussion they inspired. An audio recording of their talks is available for those who write to me directly.
Neil Tarrant, University of York
The Roman Index and Arnald of Villanova: The Rejection of Albert the Great’s Astrology
This talk focussed on one part of Tarrant’s larger project on censorship in science of the sixteenth century. The case of Arnald of Villanova, a fourteenth century physician and philosopher whose works on the proper uses of talismans would come to be censored in the sixteenth century, can teach us not only more about talismans, but how they were thought to work, the broader epistemologies they were a part of and were capable of transgressing, and the intellectual foundations for what would eventually become natural philosophy. Why was it that Arnald’s astrological works would come to be censored? What precisely made them suspect? The debate about the legitimacy of talismans hung on whether or not their use necessarily involved a communion with demons, or whether they provided orthodox access to nature and its powers.
Some influential thirteenth-century theologians, notably Albertus Magnus had accepted that it was possible to make astrological talismans. Others, including Albertus’s student Thomas Aquinas argued that they could not possibly have any natural power, but merely opened up the user to potential demonic encounters. His reasoning being that though the actual inscriptions placed on talismans (which most commonly were bits of metal or stones marked with symbols and words) could have no actual power, they could nevertheless attract demons who - seeing the effort to make markings - might interpret them as evidence of ungodly irreverence. By the fourteenth century, the argument over legitimacy of talismans was still unresolved. Albertus’s view actually seemed to predominate – especially in many universities. Arnald of Villanova for instance could argue that talismans functioned by natural means and were acceptable to Christians. His practical work as a physician incorporated talismans, and his publications explained how they could be made and their occult powers used to rid demons and improve health.
Even by the time of the sixteenth century, the status of talismans remained ambiguous. A repertoire of Christian arguments existed that could be used to justify the use of talismans, and Albertus’s defence of talismans kept open a possible path to good talismans. This changed with the establishment of the Roman Inquisition, which began to sharpen definitions of orthodox practice by returning to the arguments of Aquinas and giving them a renewed currency. By choosing Aquinas’s view over Albertus’s, the Roman Inquisition defined which of these two theological authorities was correct. By extension they determined which account of the natural world and the use of talismans was ‘true’. These kinds of argument - building an epistemology out of philosophy and theology - would have a legacy in the eventual formation of natural philosophy, providing early modern natural philosophers materials by which to begin anew the work of distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge.
In the question period we asked Tarrant to go deeper concerning the kinds of narrative present in and evoked by talismans. He emphasised the importance of the images inscribed, which could be quite elaborate, and could indeed be done deliberately to attract demons, though the philosophers he studies often self-censored when it came to this kind of question! Another audience member wondered whether or not there is an element of competing narrative understandings in play when it came to the markings: when, for instance, the Inquisition began prohibiting particular talismans, was that because they had different understandings of how these marked objects fitted into a cosmological, theological and philosophical relation with the world? Tarrant argued that there is a rediscovery of much of this kind of argumentative culture precisely as a result of the new Inquisitorial activity emanating from Rome in the sixteenth century. Different versions of Aquinas’ thought could contribute to different Thomist agendas, that can be distinguished by their increased emphasis on the possibility and danger of tacit pacts, and of indiscriminate inscription or narrative making.
Heike Hartung, University of Potsdam
Longevity Narratives: From Life Span Optimism to Statistical Panic
Our next speaker had a background in literary and cultural studies, a perspective she applied to debate and discussion of ageing from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. What longevity is, and whether the extension of average human lifespans is a worthwhile goal, are controversial subjects. Whereas debate and discussion in the eighteenth century focussed on the importance of overcoming restrictions on ageing to demonstrate man’s increasing prowess, in the nineteenth century discourse shifted to deeper concerns about the role of heredity and the environment in determining life expectancy. Theorists also began to distinguish between life expectancy, a statistical average available to members of a population, and lifespan, the greatest possible age that a person could achieve.
Hartung then shifted to two twentieth century figures, one from the science of senescence and the other from literature. Putting them in dialogue provided means to reveal important assumptions underpinning discussion of ageing that continue to influence contemporary debate. American psychologist G. Stanley Hall's Senescence was published in 1922, and is considered foundational to age research thanks to its multidisciplinary approach and embrace of a wide range of generic forms. The psychological approach drew on elderly people as interview subjects, on the grounds that they possessed better knowledge and understanding of the ageing process than had typically been assumed up to that point. In his view, senescence was a particular stage of life, beginning in a person’s early 40s, a category that he had long entered. In doing so, Hartung pointed out, he not only created older people as a category apart from everyone else, but also established himself as uniquely expert. This grounding did not lead to any narrow range of prescriptions, but rather lead Hall to propose a wide range of interventions and solutions for European society ranging across problems of political disillusionment, to the crisis of modernity, pension reform and evolution.
The dystopian potentials of this collection of themes and approaches were mirrored by another work published only the previous year, George Bernard Shaw's play cycle ‘Back to Methuselah’ (1921). This monster of a play spans thousands of years in great leaps, and sees human society as only able to survive thanks to efforts to expand life expectancy to dramatic lengths, so that ‘ancients’ might eventually gain sufficient knowledge to avert catastrophe. Here too ideas of evolution, the natural order, and the political possibilities opened up by extended lifespans are the stuff of narrative in the face of a world’s otherwise impossible complexity.
In the question period we sought further clarity on the comparison being made between Hall and Shaw, and the extent to which they diverged. Hartung clarified that the key feature she is interested in, that longevity offers up new kinds of wisdom, is something that really characterises them both, and which is not otherwise readily found outside of the earlier Enlightenment texts. Shaw himself did not want people to focus on the fantastical element of his play, but rather use it as a worthwhile intellectual exercise. Another participant wanted to ask about how increasing complexity of society is paralleled in both cases by an increasing need for longevity. Hartung reflected on how strange it is that both focussed on the importance of key individuals to solving problems, given Shaw’s own commitment to socialism.
The next seminar has already long been and gone, and featured Sally Horrocks, Paul Merchant and Sarah Dillon. A blog post will follow hot on the heels of this one!