Volume 1, Number 2 (August 1995)

Alvin Snider. Origin and Authority in Seventeenth-Century England: Bacon, Milton, Butler. Toronto: Toronto UP, 1994. x + 286pp.

Review by,
Philip Edward Phillips
Vanderbilt University

Phillips, Philip Edward. "Review of Origin and Authority in Seventeenth-Century England: Bacon, Milton, Butler." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.2 (1995): 9.1-7 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/01-2/rev_pep1.html>.

Copyright (c) 1995 by the author, all rights reserved. Volume 1.2 as a whole is copyright (c) 1995 by Early Modern Literary Studies, all rights reserved, and may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Archiving and redistribution for profit, or republication of this text in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the Editor of EMLS.

  1. Alvin Snider's Origin and Authority in Seventeenth-Century England explores the construction, reproduction, and dissemination of the discourse of origin in the seventeenth century, arguing that "a desire to establish the legitimacy of the present through the recovery and representation of origins figured prominently in the writing of both philosophy and epic poetry" (3). Focusing upon three figures one would not expect to see together, Snider discusses a turbulent period in English history and attempts to describe "a particular, historically bound response to the problem of certain knowledge: ways in which origins, points of departure, and moments of inception were produced as a solution to an array of questions endemic to seventeenth-century England" (4). Both philosophy and epic poetry, Snider argues, share a desire for originary knowledge as an alternative to error. However, while the situating of truth closer to an origin of source motivates various methods for the acquisition of knowledge, Snider claims that the process of recovery becomes increasingly problematic for these writers. He attempts to demonstrate this through an analysis of the major works of Bacon, Milton, and Butler. In Snider's estimation, each writer considered in this study seeks to secure himself against error in the search for "certain knowledge" by turning to the "validating authority of metaphysical absolutes identified with a concealed or reclaimed origin" (3).

  2. Snider's central thesis is that the "enabling fiction of a clearly demarcated genesis" urged people in the seventeenth century to believe that "through the retrieval of an originary source they could overturn the effects of time and reposition themselves in respect to first principles" and thereby "reverse the ongoing process of etiolation and decline" (3). Snider's project concentrates on three English authors, Francis Bacon, John Milton, and Samuel Butler, and his focus is delimited chronologically by the publication of the Novum Organum (1620), the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674), and part three of Hudibras (1678). These authors, Snider contends, "invoke myths of a normative primacy and attempt to ground subjectivity in transcendent realities they link to the origin" (8). According to Snider, the discourse of origin provided a systematic order for articulating notions of truth and representation in the seventeenth century: it provided Bacon with a method for conducting scientific inquiry and a basis for constructing new forms of intellectual authority, and Milton with a "metaphysical legitimization of a particular form of belief" grounded in a "theological absolute" (238). Butler, however, remained more sceptical about such "legitimations", adopting a stance hostile to epic and to organized religion while still maintaining some allegiance to "an origin positioned on the other side of a cognitive gap occupied by language" (238).

  3. In his lifetime up to and through the Restoration, Bacon's works surrounded themselves with an aura of originality. Indeed, Bacon's desire to sweep away the accumulated error of the past and begin the process of learning anew involved recapturing an original purity uncontaminated by time. While Bacon hoped to effect a renewal of all the disciplines of knowledge by rebuilding knowledge from the very foundations, he had a central contradiction in his thought: his basing of philosophical authority upon foundational assumptions in spite of his scepticism concerning the value of tradition and the mind's ability to perceive any reality deeper than language itself. Snider argues that this problem of linguistic mediation prevented Bacon from naively laying claim to any simple method for recapturing the origin and concludes that while the Novum Organum dedicates itself to a program of ideological analysis, it remains entangled in an ideology of unmediated perception. Bacon's method for connecting unmediated thoughts to language was the use of aphorisms, an attempt to "pursu[e] the origin on its own terrain" (53). However, while Bacon's methods remained problematical, his works were granted canonical status by Restoration readers. According to Snider, Bacon's desire to abolish error through a systematic renovation of authority directly contributed to the formation of an ideology of scientific objectivity. The Novum Organum presents the quest for origins as a corrective to error and uncertainty, and Bacon's desire to recuperate the ultimate origin of language motivates his interest in Adam's naming of the creatures in Genesis and "brings him to the same originary narratives and metaphors that inform Paradise Lost" (88).

  4. Snider compares Milton's use of the epic quest to uncover historical and spiritual origins to Bacon's scientific quest for knowledge, and argues that Paradise Lost is "informed by the contradictions of origins, the problematic relation between a copy and its original" (92). According to Snider, Milton attempts to preserve the integrity of origins as transcendent absolutes in his epic, even though he realizes "the difficulty of locating an absolute truth outside of language" (92). Snider's section on Milton concerns the ideal of epic unity as a function of recovering an absolute historical origin, and his three chapters on Paradise Lost explore Milton's fascination with epic origins, the origination of human consciousness, and mirroring as a metaphor for the authentication of the self in another.

  5. In the final section, Snider turns to Samuel Butler, who confronts the paradox of origins by fashioning a "counter-epic" mode and establishing his thought within a self-consciously post-humanist framework. Snider asserts that if Milton reworks Vergilian epic with high purpose and solemnity, Butler parodies its conventions and delegitimizes its form. Butler, confronted with a similar sense of belatedness, attempts to circumvent rather than affirm the idealized past. For Butler, the epic becomes an obsolete genre unable to contend adequately with experience and reality: "unremittingly topical and self-conscious, Hudibras treats the epic origin as an absurd idealization, and demonstrates the historically conditioned character of heroic values" (15). Butler, according to Snider, demonstrates an intense nostalgia for a stable truth associated with origins, and attempts, through a topical and self-conscious style, to find an authorizing origin to stabilize the relation between signs and their meanings; however, Butler's attempt to justify specific social arrangements and one form of church governance by reference to an authority situated "in the beginning," according to Snider, finally fails.

  6. While Snider's treatment of the discourse of origin is often cogent and informative, it relies rather too heavily upon contemporary critical theory and not enough upon close analysis of the texts. This study shows its fluency in the postmodern theories of Foucault concerning ideology and the problem of origins, but in that regard does little to contribute to our understanding of Bacon, Milton, and Butler. The circularity that Snider finds in the projects of Bacon, Milton, and, to a lesser degree, Butler, also exists in the postmodern presupposition that there is no origin to be found. Snider seems to favor Butler's "counter-epic" over Bacon's New Organum and Milton's Paradise Lost primarily because of its self-conscious satire upon humanity's foolish pursuit of origin or truth. However, satire asserts its own form of truth in its attempt to ridicule human foibles, and Butler was criticizing his culture through satire and hoping that his audience would get the point.

  7. On the whole, Origin and Authority makes valuable insights into the discourse of origins in seventeenth-century England and offers an interesting way to discuss these authors' preoccupations with origins. While grounded primarily upon philosophical, political, and literary sources, Snider's investigation of the discourse of origin yields no conclusion except that the desire for unambiguous reference resulted in "increasingly complex, if finally unsatisfactory, theories of truth" (242). One might add that Snider's consideration of these authors suffers from the same limitations. However, his study follows a well-organized pattern of setting down the philosophical or critical groundwork that underscores the texts discussed, and offers as well succinct summaries of major points. Written primarily for a specialized but diverse body of scholars, Origin and Authority warrants the attention of those interested in seventeenth-century English literature, the history of ideas, and contemporary theory. Snider raises important questions and makes connections between literature and philosophy that deserve further attention and research.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@arts.ubc.ca.

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[JW, RGS; August 30, 1995.]