All called in doubt

As the second Elizabethan age drifts towards its close, Gloriana’s subjects sit uneasily with themselves – distanced from the senses of cultural, social, political, religious and even existential security that earlier generations could, it sometimes seems, take for granted. One of the many virtues of Helen Hackett’s new book is to remind us that, grim as all of this may be, there is little new under the sun.

Although Hackett is a professor of English, The Elizabethan Mind is a work of cultural and intellectual history. In it she reconstructs the nature and scope of the human mind as the sixteenth century understood them. Her source materials are what the early moderns referred to as “poetry” and what she calls “literature”: fictional writing in all its forms. As such, she has written a literary history too – one in which she juxtaposes the canonical and extra-canonical (the translator Anne Lock, the poet Isabella Whitney and the autobiographer Thomas Whythorne, among too many others to list) to illuminating and persuasive effect . But there is no disciplinary inwardness here. It is just that, as Hackett explains, “for the Elizabethans … it is arguable that greater advances were made in understanding the mind through literature than through science”.

By the end of this book the claim seems more than merely arguable. This is partly thanks to Hackett’s compendiousness, but chiefly because she shows that early modern works of literature were capable of grasping a theoretical problem accounts of the human mind worked hard to obscure: amid a range of competing and ostensibly authoritative explanations for the origins and nature of human cognitive power, it was all but impossible to determine which ones were true. In 1611 John Donne famously claimed that “new philosophy calls all in doubt”, but in 1599 Sir John Davies had already channelled a century or more of learned opinion in declaring that “All things without, which round about we see, / We seeke to know, and have therewith to do: / But that whereby we reason, live, and be, / Within our selves, we strangers are theretoo”. Hackett makes it clear that the early modern English had no need of Galileo to feel dazed and confused by their place in the world.

The fantasies of harmonic order propounded by EMW Tillyard in The Elizabethan World Picture (1942) might be seen to hover over this project, as might the various subversions of the Tillyardian vision offered within the new historicism. Yet Hackett’s alertness to the plurality of her subject allows her to sidestep all such schematismwith deft authority. The first three of her ten chapters establish the foundations on which the remainder are built. Their range is remarkable: from body and mind to medicine and philosophy, Aristotle and Plato, reason and the passions, and Christian belief alongside – and by no means always against – secular accounts of the human condition, ancient and modern. Particularly impressive are Hackett’s discussions of embodied cognition in the Aristotelian tradition (making good use of the interconnections between the vegetative, sensitive and intelligent souls) and the Galenic medical tradition (making good use of the ample, and engaging, discourse on melancholy). So, too, is the attention paid to stoicism; its doctrines of rational self-mastery had long been an object of scorn for Christian humanists (as if a mere philosopher could elevate himself above the passionate condition assumed by God the Son on our behalf), but by the beginning of the seventeenth century they were very much in vogue.

Next, The Elizabethan Mind examines the “marginalized” status accorded to the minds of women and Africans. After Aristotle and Galen, women were viewed as overly emotional creatures whose powers of rational judgment were compromised by their appetites and imaginations. The presence of an unmarried queen like Elizabeth I, as well as the public emergence of women writers, put these suppositions under a good deal of pressure, but they remained intact. Africans, by contrast, were regarded in a more positive light: according to the doctrine of geo-humouralism (in which human diversity came about through the bodily humours reacting to different environmental stimuli in different parts of the world), the torrid African climate made its inhabitants melancholy. In this case melancholia connoted not just a downcast disposition, but the virtues of creativity and intellectual power — which, as Shakespeare demonstrates in his Aaron, were sometimes taken to cross the line into calculation, cunning and cruelty. Although the Elizabethans never had to strain themselves to discover feelings of prejudice against foreigners in general and Africans in particular, it is salutary to be reminded that theories of Africans’ innate inferiority were a response to the monstrosities of the Atlantic slave trade, not its cause .

From here Hackett moves to consider mental disturbance, and the ways in which it could be avoided. Melancholy and other humoural imbalances were blamed, of course, but there were also the threats posed by demonic possession, misaligned stars and unbridled imagination. The prophylactic and the cure were the same: a regime of virtuous governance. On this account the human mind resembles the hierarchically structured state. It should habituate itself, as should the rest of the human body, to be ruled by its highest powers: anyone seeking a well-tempered mind had to accept the sovereignty of reason over the emotional predispositions that might lead their judgment astray, and of which malign forces (whether natural or supernatural) might seek to take advantage.

The concluding two chapters are marked by a change in focus. Rather than early modern controls about what the mind is or could be said to be, their subject is one of the things that it does – and that the early moderns helped it to do better. That is, the form of applied cognition that we call writing. One chapter looks at the experimental forms of selfhood made possible through autobiography, sonnet sequences and prose fiction such as Sidney’s Arcadia; Hackett is especially strong on the Christian inflections of writing the mind, as the pious subject seeks introspectively to write his or her way to cognizance of having been touched with grace. The last chapter turns to Hamlet. It was Matthew Arnold who first proposed that, in the play’s soliloquies, we observe “the dialogue of the mind with itself”. Hackett is interested both in the dynamics of this dialogue, and in the ideas that he seeks to articulate. If she sometimes treats the soliloquies as if they can be abstracted from the dramatic whole of which they are a part, her approach never feels gratuitous. She needs Hamlet to do certain things in rounding out her history, and she ensures that it does them.

One surprise is that Hackett largely overlooks the debate about the boundary between human beings and, to borrow a phrase, beasts that want discourse of reason. After Vesalius had demonstrated that there was nothing distinctive about the anatomy of the human brain (no special place for the rational soul), this dividing line came to look ever more porous. Montaigne could amuse himself with the notion that his cat was playing with him because he knew that only one of them would be writing essays about their time together; because only one of them enjoyed the liberating benefits of language and Christian belief as Montaigne construed them. Others were less sure of the exceptionalism with which the human condition was conventionally framed. Lear’s anguished “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all?” is a fine case in point; Descartes’s cogito (like his bête machine) is another.

As it stands, The Elizabethan Mind is an outstanding achievement: broad-ranging, intelligently synthetic and written in unflaggingly lucid prose. It will be the starting point for anyone who wishes to understand how the sixteenth-century English thought and wrote about the human mind. Just as importantly, Helen Hackett shows us over and again that the inability of the Elizabethans to know themselves as fully as they wanted to mattered to them a great deal. Discomfited though this state of affairs could leave them feeling, it explains much of why their literature still matters to us today.

Rhodri Lewis teaches at Princeton University. His new book, Shakespeare’s Tragic Artshould be coming out next year

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