George Herbert’s “Vanity (I)” (1633)
Science has always made people uncomfortable. Witness the recent comments from the U.S. House Science (Denial) and Technology Committee:
We’ve had climate change since the day the earth was formed, whenever that was, depending on whatever you believe. — Rep. Bill Posey (R – FL)
I just don’t know how y’all prove those hypotheses going back fifty, a hundred, you might say thousands or not even millions of years, and how you postulate those forward. — Rep. Randy Weber (R – TX)
These confused politicians are part of a long tradition that stretches back to the beginnings of modern science itself. George Herbert was a friend of Francis Bacon, but the pious Herbert wanted nothing to do with Bacon’s radical ideas about the natural world. Herbert’s recent biographer John Drury explains:
Long before the discoveries of Darwin and modern astrophysics, some explanation of how everything had come into existence and how it worked was required. Divine creation provided that, had no challengers, and held the field. The natural world presented no moral problems. Rather, it provided ample scope for the investigation of the heavens and the earth which was beginning to gather pace among intellectuals, led by Herbert’s older friend Sir Francis Bacon. In his early poem ‘Vanity (I)’ Herbert was chary about such ‘philosophy’ as it was called, dismissing astronomy and chemistry as too speculative to occupy the valuable time of the practical Christian.
Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, John Drury p. 12
In Herbert’s “Vanity (I),” we find the classic accusations: science is a result of pride and presumption, rendering the dynamic living world inert or dead. Notice also the metaphor of the rape of nature, which pops up frequently throughout history — and was not only used by the opponents of science.
In spite of Herbert’s condemnation of the most effective and intellectually honest way to comprehend nature, we can appreciate the language of one of the 17th century’s greatest poets.
Vanity (I) The fleet astronomer can bore, And thread the spheres with his quick-piercing mind: He views their stations, walks from door to door, Surveys, as if he had designed To make purchase there: he sees their dances, And knoweth long before, Both their full-eyed aspects, and secret glances. The nimble Driver with his side Cuts through the working waves, that he may fetch His dearly-earned pearl, which God did hide On purpose from the vent'rous wretch; That he might save his life, and also hers, Who with excessive pride Her own destruction and his danger wears. The subtle Chymick can devest And strip the creature naked, till he find The callow principles within their nest: There he imparts to them his mind, Admitted to their bed-chamber, before They appear trim and drest To ordinary suitors at the door. What hath not man sought out and found, But his dear God? who yet his glorious law Embosoms in us, mellowing the ground With showers and frosts, with love and awe, So that we need not say, Where's this command? Poor Man, thou searchest round To find our death; but missest life at hand.
Image credit: “Vanitas,” Adam Bernaert (1665)