Notes by RBJ on
The Subtle Knot
by Margaret L.Wiley

My impressions of this book, of which I have read only a part, are faint and unreliable. I will record them here as I disengage without completing the book.

The book presents itself as primarily about scepticism in the seventeenth century as it appears combined with faith in the literature of the period. As a sceptic and a non-believer, someone lacking and understanding of poetry, I proceded in the hope that there would be something to learn about scepticism, which there is.

Eventually however, I came to the view that this was not a wholehearted scepticism, either in the author or in the subjects of the book, and that there was too little to be learned from it by one inclined in religion to disbelief rather than faith.

I found in these pages little sign of religious doubt, and it seems that this scepticism is the scepticism of men whose inclination to believe runs deep and who find scepticism a useful weapon against considertaions which might otherwise threaten to undermine their belief

The central symbol of the book, the subtle knot, symbolises the relationship between flesh and spirit, which the author considers the centre of the scepticial stance. This however seems to me to have no bearing on scepticism. Surely this symbolises an attitude toward some aspects of religious belief? (bearing in mind that the "duality" here, a central theme for the book, is not the less religiously oriented Cartesian duality between mind and body)

Perhaps the author was unwittingly drawn into a conception of scepticism too greatly tainted by its association with faith, for her interest was she says drawn by the coexistence of faith and scepticisim in some of the literary figures of the seventeenth century. My impression is that she has studied and presented these sceptics too exclusively. She has presented them, to be sure, in the context of a history of scepticism, but the history is lightly drawn and the subsequent detailed examination of the five chosen "sceptics" compares them among themselves rather than with sceptics who lack their faith.

[Since I wrote the above I have read "Fram Savonarola to Bayle" bu Richard Popkin and am better acquainted with the revival of Pyrrhonism and its role in religious controversy in the seventeenth century.]


Ch.2 An Historical Definition of Scepticism
Greek Scepticism
The New Academy
Sextus Empiricus
The Knot
As our blood labours to beget
Spirits, as like souls it can,
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtile knot, which makes us man:
So must pure lovers souls descend
T'affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great Prince in prison lies.
The Middle Ages
Nicholas of Cusa
The Renaissance
Phyrrhonism in France
Italian Scepticism
Erasmus and Galileo
Raleigh and Montaigne
The Sceptic Pattern
Ch.3 Seventeenth Century Scepticism: The Knot
WHERE, like a pillow on a bed,
A Pregnant banke swel'd up, to rest
The violets reclining head,
Sat we two, one anothers best.
Our hands were firmely cimented 5
With a fast balme, which thence did spring,
Our eye-beames twisted, and did thred
Our eyes, upon one double string;
So to'entergraft our hands, as yet
Was all the meanes to make us one, 10
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.
As 'twixt two equall Armies, Fate
Suspends uncertaine victorie,
Our soules, (which to advance their state, 15
Were gone out,) hung 'twixt her, and mee.
And whil'st our soules negotiate there,
Wee like sepulchrall statues lay;
All day, the same our postures were,
And wee said nothing, all the day. 20
If any, so by love refin'd,
That he soules language understood,
And by good love were growen all minde,
Within convenient distance stood,
He (though he knew not which soule spake, 25
Because both meant, both spake the same)
Might thence a new concoction take,
And part farre purer then he came.
This Extasie doth unperplex
(We said) and tell us what we love, 30
Wee see by this, it was not sexe,
Wee see, we saw not what did move:
But as all severall soules containe
Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love, these mixt soules, doth mixe againe, 35
And makes both one, each this and that.
A single violet transplant,
The strength, the colour, and the size,
(All which before was poore, and scant,)
Redoubles still, and multiplies. 40
When love, with one another so
Interinanimates two soules,
That abler soule, which thence doth flow,
Defects of lonelinesse controules.
Wee then, who are this new soule, know, 45
Of what we are compos'd, and made,
For, th'Atomies of which we grow,
Are soules, whom no change can invade.
But O alas, so long, so farre
Our bodies why doe wee forbeare? 50
They are ours, though they are not wee, Wee are
The intelligences, they the spheare.
We owe them thankes, because they thus,
Did us, to us, at first convay,
Yeelded their forces, sense, to us, 55
Nor are drosse to us, but allay.
On man heavens influence workes not so,
But that it first imprints the ayre,
Soe soule into the soule may flow,
Though it to body first repaire. 60
As our blood labours to beget
Spirits, as like soules as it can,
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtile knot, which makes us man:
So must pure lovers soules descend 65
T'affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great Prince in prison lies.
To'our bodies turne wee then, that so
Weake men on love reveal'd may looke; 70
Loves mysteries in soules doe grow,
But yet the body is his booke.
And if some lover, such as wee,
Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still marke us, he shall see 75
Small change, when we'are to bodies gone.

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