The Unknowable in Early Modern Thought
Natural Philosophy and the Poetics of the Ineffable
Kevin Killeen



EARLY MODERNITY WAS MESMERIZED BY the idea of the unknowable, what was constitutionally beyond the ability of fallen humanity to fathom, and it developed a rich hoard of terms to describe the inexpressible. “To paint a Sound,” wrote the physician and natural philosopher, Walter Charleton in 1652, “is a far easier task, then to describe the impervestigable manner of Gods operations.”1 If the “impervestigable” is unfamiliar these days, we might also note Henry More and Gilbert Burnet, exercised with the “imperscrutable,” while Richard Linche tried out “inexcogitable,” and Thomas Morton played with the “indeprehensible.”2 Things, but God in particular, could be: uncogitable, indivinable, searchless, uninvestigable, inscrute. What cannot be said naturally produces a good deal of speech, and the era inherited not just a vocabulary, but an impressive intellectual machinery for thinking through those bolts of perception that eluded words, to glimpse the thing beyond.

This book looks at the failures of language and the buckling of logic when faced with an elusive object, whether skittish divinity, dumbfounding paradox, or a reality so skewed as to defy words. In particular, it explores how scientific thought dealt with this hinterland. Faced with the endemic inscrutability of the world they encountered—below the threshold of sight, before the beginning of time, beyond the parameters of reason—the response of natural philosophers was not always to suppose that better instruments, sounder logic, or more refined paradigms were the issue. Seventeenth-century thinkers believed in the generative role of the imponderable. Rhetorical, poetic conceptions of the unthinkable were a part of the early modern lexicon that natural philosophy relied upon. Early modernity was in part paralyzed by and in part energized by the gymnastics of paradox and contradiction. The natural philosopher and theorist of skepticism Joseph Glanvill, in a chapter of The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661) entitled “Our Decay and Ruins by the fall, descanted on. Of the now Scantness of our Knowledge,” depicts a particular protest of those who “after all their pains in quest of Science, have sat down in a profest nescience.” This nescience has the seeker of knowledge adopt “the Adage, Science had no friend but Ignorance.” This was by no means a counsel of despair. The cusp of knowledge, what lay beyond the visible and beyond the sayable, was a valuable intellectual resource.3

The thing that can be intuited but not understood, sensed but not described is, in its theological guise, termed the “apophatic”—knowing only by negation, the via negativa, in which God can only be intuited by what he is not or what he is, in inexact fashion, like.4 But early modernity is not a period associated with any flourishing of the apophatic. It was, in Protestant England at least, a tainted tradition, its best professors being Catholic, Jewish, or Sufi, with their rich mystic philosophical legacies.5 In a post-Reformation era and culture so convinced of biblical fullness, plainness, and sufficiency, the notion that God might be willfully obscure was not wholly welcome, even while the unapproachability of God was conceded: Richard Hooker lamented how “Dangerous it were for the feeble braine of man to wade farre into the doings of the most High.”6 Robert Dallington, bemoaning the “froath” of philosophy, noted that “it is a presumption to think we can pierce the marble hardness of Gods secrets with the leaden screw of our dull understanding.”7 However, we might term this mere courtesy ignorance—to be politely acknowledged, but not long dwelt upon. The period’s chief theological concern was with the hard labor of doctrinal and biblical scholarship, with limited inclination for the cloud of unknowing and the gossamer semiotics of the ineffable. A great deal has been written on the religious culture of the long Reformation, and few would claim a diminution of religious experience in these most fervent of times, but mysticism, in general, has little part in it; indeed histories of mysticism have tended to “leapfrog” early modernity, to presume its heyday was past, and that what remained was its mere devotional remnant.8

The intellectual culture of early modernity was, however, syncretic and voracious, given to creative recycling of tradition, medieval as much as classical, that it encountered. The central idea explored here is this: early modernity inherited a rich set of rhetorical, poetic, and logic-twisting strategies for grappling at the edge of what can and cannot be said, to negotiate the unknowable, drawn from Platonic and hermetic traditions, from a scholastic engagement with insolubilia and paradox, and from a variety of popular and learned mystical traditions.9 But the seventeenth century experienced the unknowable quite differently from earlier eras—at times as a puckish game, at times as a terrible hole in a sought-for reality—and it produced its very particular array of unthinkables, which included the mechanics of creation from nothing, the character of the infinitesimal, the world’s intractable character and its richness beyond the merely visible. A lush rhetoric of nescience, a grammar of ignorance came down to an era obsessed with epistemological loss, the hobbled nature of fallen thought, and the painful distance to which God had retreated (though strictly speaking, it was humanity that had moved), and the era deployed this battery of techniques beyond, though never entirely separate from, the theological. The apophatic was borrowed in a scientific register of thought.

The questions asked by a culture invested in nescience were never quite the questions asked by what would become “epistemology,” never quite as clean and clinical. Many of the texts explored here can be understood as natural philosophy, but sprawlingly so, wrapped up in theology or the scriptural, while others are centered in political or religious concerns: what unites them is their deployment of the apophatic in a nondevotional register. It remains important, however, that the apophatic is always in some sense about longing, as much as it is about knowledge. The unknowability of God may have been more or less a fact in the eyes of early modern thinkers, but only a fact in the way that love or agony could be a fact. It was not the territory of cold, hard thinking, nor was it abstract or austere in its logic. The apophatic, as a theological discipline (of sorts) depends on how as much as what one does not know, the emotional valence of a truth glimpsed and lost. The apophatic dangles its knowledge; it tantalizes and disappears, at best a fleeting truth, only briefly really real. In so far as knowledge of the world’s inner workings, the terrain of natural philosophy, resembled knowledge of God, it suggested something unstable and unsolid. Much of what mattered was elusive, victim of a fallen world where lack of coherence was endemic, and certain things could be known only in a manner akin to the fleeting nature of how one might encounter God.

This book does not provide an orderly account of events. To borrow Rosalie Colie’s quip in speaking of early modern paradox, its subject is less the zeitgeist of the seventeenth century than a poltergeist within it.10 Its center of gravity is seventeenth-century England, though European thought was, of course, distinctly porous. It explores the philosophical sublimity of Jacob Boehme, the German shoemaker mystic, whose account of the world before time existed and the origin of the universe was avidly consumed in England. It looks at Robert Boyle and Margaret Cavendish contending over the infinitesimal, what can and cannot be seen, and the mysterious nature of matter distended in the microscopic gaze. It addresses the skittish apophatic prose of the mystic-scientist Thomas Browne and the quasi-prophetic language of the radical Anna Trapnel. It returns frequently to the event of creation, that most inconceivable of moments, the mechanics of which positively obsessed the era, in scientific writing by Thomas Burnet and others. The Book of Job, with its chaotic account of creation, provides a starting point, and Milton’s nearly omnipotent forays into the eternal provide its conclusion, making the case that the vertigo of the epic, its travels in the nontime and the nonplace of chaos, owe a good deal to the early modern fascination with the unknowable and the apophatic. Some of these writers, Boehme and Browne, for instance, are more readily associated with the mystical, but others are not. In the seventeenth century, the book will show, serious and sober scientific thought could coalesce with what would come to seem outlandish speculation. Most but not all of the chapters bear on natural philosophy. Running through them all, however, is a concern with how a rhetoric or poetics indebted to the apophatic was wrought to idiosyncratic purpose, to new problems of the knowable and unknowable.

The miscellaneous and the amorphous character of the terms that will recur here—the unfathomable, the unutterable, the unthinkable, the ineffable—will not be carefully disentangled, because the object of attention is very much how they slip and slide into new usage. Indeed, the blur is of some importance to the terrain of the book, in which the strategies of apophatic thinking and apophatic poetics are deployed beyond sacred experience and become potent intellectual tools in other domains. Its chapters do not point to a card-carrying “School of the Unknowable” in the seventeenth century. Nor is there a shared theological or philosophical position between the writers encountered here: some are on the Puritan spectrum of religiosity and some on the Anglican; some are sober and some outlandish in their scientific or religio-political thought. They share a sense that the world or ideas they describe are in some respects unfathomable, such that they not only encounter, but need to incorporate what is beyond reason. The complexity of failing to fathom the divine, and of our terrible fallenness, which so intruded in all areas of early modern thought, spread wildflower seeds of paradox and the unknowable far and wide. Straight-up mysticism, out of the medieval traditions, may not be widely discernible in Protestant early modernity—indeed, there is a deep strain of antipathy toward the mystical and enthusiastic, but its brilliant, controversial, alogical strategies of thought were still very much alive. The argument here is that these habits of thought migrated and underwent a disciplinary shift. The strategies by which apophatic theology grappled at the edge of what can and cannot be said were purloined and deployed to quite different purposes, contributing to the rhetoric and the poetics of early modern natural philosophy.

A growing body of scholarship on early modern intellectual history has attended to the rhetorical and literary character of scientific thought, its dialogic and analogical habits, and its practices of narrative construction. Claire Preston’s The Poetics of Scientific Investigation, for instance, shows the conscious, complex alignment of style and idea in scientific writing of the era. She discerns an emergent seventeenth-century idiom in which writers sought, in their varied generic forms, the expression of a partial and provisional understanding of the world. Figures such as Joseph Glanvill, Henry More, Robert Boyle, and Francis Bacon are evidently self-conscious in their poetics of scientific writing, not as mere embellishment: it was a constituent part of how one could make sense of the natural world. For writers “attuned to the incomplete character of natural knowledge,” a corresponding style was required.11 Writing of these rhetorical hinterlands where the literary and natural philosophy blur, Frédérique Aït-Touati has noted how often such works turn their gaze on creation, a widespread early modern “association of aesthetics, cosmology, and poetics . . . a demiurgic game, a meditation both geometric and poetic on creation and on the Creation, a paradoxical association of nothing and everything passing from the infinitely large to the infinitesimally small.”12 An older critical legacy on this kind of cosmopoetics, in works by for example, Marjorie Nicolson, explored the shared imaginative endeavours of the scientific and the literary, and the ways in which nascent disciplinary forms readily borrowed from each other.13 These studies register something central about the intellectual bent of the era, how readily it turns to an outsized “cosmopoiesis” in its scientific gaze. But they do not, I think, register the marked theological character of the early modern unknowable, its resort to a theopoetics for speaking about the outer edges of experience, that which could be sensed, intuited, or glimpsed at best, and it is the poetic or the theopoetic strategies of such thought that occupy this book.

While early modernity looks, in retrospect, like a vibrant era of new ideas and relations between ideas, it did not always feel so to contemporaries. Katherine Eggert depicts a sense of stasis, even stagnation, in the thought of the era, working with “a discredited knowledge system that is nonetheless the only game in town.”14 This calcified knowledge structure, understood as a concoction of sixteenth-century humanist, religious, and old scientific ideas, necessitated what she characterizes as the exercise of strategic ignorance and amnesia, whereby ideas and their vocabularies cling on, because the problems they arise from are still deemed real. She notes, for instance, how Eucharistic theologies and questions, inherited from a scholastic framework of accident and essence, come to be discussed in early modernity in terms of alchemical change and, later, Cartesian matter theory.15 In all likelihood, this did not do much either for theology or for the emergence of physics, but as the incommensurable frames of reference collapsed under the weight of their contradictions, the character of the era’s intellectual questions shifted. A Kuhnian frame of reference—the lurching nature of scientific paradigms—might be implied in this, but seventeenth-century thought often involves a much messier disciplinary slippage, encompassing theology, imaginative poetics, and philosophy, as much as the scientific, considered in any discrete fashion.16 The sprawling nature and organizational cacophony of early modern writings, which can move from high-caliber philosophical thought to witchcraft to the apocalypse in a single work, are familiar to many readers of such texts. Ernst Cassirer wondered, for example, why the Cambridge Platonists in seventeenth-century England, though in many ways elegant of thought, wrote such ill-shapen monstrosities.17

The era’s penchant for digression and the labyrinthine, in writers such as Montaigne or Burton, has been widely noted, and Anne Cotterill suggests that this reeling had something threatening and something energizing about it at the same time, in that it “facilitates an oblique way of seeing, an alternative perspective and hidden or peripheral or forbidden vision.”18 Cotterill’s work focuses mainly on the quasi-political use of meandering, but indirection has its theological (and philosophical) lineage, as well: the apophatic is wordy and circuitous about its inexpressible object. This concern with language that fails is the subject of Carla Mazzio’s The Inarticulate Renaissance; Mazzio notes the era’s swollen sense of its own rhetorical competence and fluency, and explores a fecund underside to this, in which its speakers flunk their eloquence, where lovers, courtiers, thinkers, or lawyers find themselves trapped in a “logic of unintelligibility.” She traces some spectacular instances of bad prayer, mumbling to God, thwarted speech, and the botched word. The devil goes around with a satchel collecting up mumbles, hoarding the unsaid.19 Language, in early modernity, was damaged, and with it, knowledge. If we poor humans were prone to bumbling and babbling, we were no less prone to babble-thinking with the same lack of elegance. There is, in the scholarship I mention here, an impressive sense of the era’s makeshift character, its improvised concoction of new intellectual forms and its obsession with failure of thought. And if this was true on the microcosmic scale of human interactions, it was true too on the cosmic scale. The rich disciplinary hodgepodge so characteristic of seventeenth-century thought, where science and religion are braided together, offers some of the most startling instances of thinking in the no-man’s-land of what cannot be said.20

Cosmology and the Unknowable

What, apart from God, was unknowable? When early modern thinkers asked about the origins of the world, the precosmological, or when they sought answers to how time was bound up with eternity—and there could be no answer that was not both exegetical, dealing with the biblical, and apophatic—they had to concede that many of the questions they wanted answers to floundered in the cosmic dark. Scholarship on early modern “cosmology” has tended, naturally enough, to think about its models of the created universe, Copernican or otherwise, of the earth and its history, or about how the era understood the laws that underlie nature, its harmony and disharmony, its contingency or necessity.21 But alongside such subject matter, often itself speculative, there was a rich seam of writing on the utterly unrecoverable. The beginning of all things, the creation from nothing, was the subject of vast amounts of commentary, theological, philosophical, and hexameral (on the six days of creation), despite its being, or because it lay, fundamentally beyond what could be known. John Sparrow, translator of Jacob Boehme, writes about the gap between the bare biblical event of creation (“In the Beginning God Created the Heavens and the Earth”) and the hidden mechanisms that must have driven it, the logistics of the Word. The Bible’s explanations only deepen our ignorance and leave more unanswered than they clarify: “But it no where expounds what the Beginning, God, the Creation, the Heavens, the Earth and the Light, are, nor how God did then Create, or how spake and it was done.”22 Joannes d’Espagnet, in his Enchyridion physicae restitutae (1623), commenting on the deep unknowable facts of physics, writes as though it were an unfortunate oversight: “I am not at present able to lay down any positive determination concerning that first Principle of things, since it being created in the dark, could never by mans invention be brought to light.”23

The Book of Job occupies the opening chapter of this book, and its extraordinary place in early modern thought generates some of the central ideas here. It is not so much the lamentable and put-upon Job that is at issue, the figure who would come to be at the center of biblical theodicy, but rather the book’s cosmopoesis. The Book of Job features a version of the creation far longer and more detailed than that in Genesis, rolling and seething across four chapters. But unlike Genesis, in its majestic good order, creation in Job is chaotic, precarious, close up, and loud. It is at least a little apocalyptic, with end-time falling back in upon the beginning. God, it seems, strains with the immensity of holding the logic of the universe together and recalls, by way of discordant answer to Job’s pain, having given birth to the messy world, containing its molten geology, and attending to the world’s anarchic variety—wild seascapes and desolate land brimming with animals. The poetic vertigo of the book, its rapid changes of scale, its sublimity, makes early modern readers dizzy. Job was widely and frequently described, by virtue of this hexameral harangue, as having a capacious scientific knowledge, because the creation that God subjected him to was understood within the framework of natural philosophy. At the same time, however, Job was also castigated by the divine voice on the grounds of his encyclopedic ignorance. He cannot know what is, perforce, unknowable. Ignorance is human. Creation, narrated in God’s whirlwind logic, was, it seems, some kind of response to why he should suffer so, or perhaps a roaring refusal of an answer. In the seventeenth century, the Book of Job was not only a theodicy, or a morality play. In its atonality, its noncorrespondence between Job’s abjection and God’s parade of painful creation, the book represented an apophatic poetics of creation, things whose meaning and order were only ever briefly glimpsed.

It is useful to probe here what early modern writers did and did not expect to find in such inquiries into the origin of the world. In one respect, this speculative natural philosophy sought, via deduction and biblical clues, some insight into the “mechanics” of creation. There was an abiding sense that scientific logic and philosophical logic were entwined with scriptural truths. But we might note also, in this respect, Terry Eagleton’s comment that to treat creation narratives as a botched attempt at scientific explanation is “like treating ballet as a botched attempt to run for the bus.”24 Neither Job nor Genesis, nor early modern explications of them, was trying to do the very direct, running-for-the-bus explanatory thing that modern scientific thought understands as its task, to get to the point, to fathom reality, and to minimize the unknown and unknowable. Early modern natural philosophy was wholly interested in the poetics of biblical creation, what was beyond understanding, only to be sensed in the gap between the biblical creation narratives—both of them—and what natural philosophy could infer. To theorize the unknowable origins of the world was an exercise in wonder, as well as in natural philosophy.

When the cobbler-philosopher Jacob Boehme wrote his dazzling hexameron, Mysterium Magnum, he recounted the creation of the world in an idiosyncratic industrial-erotic surge, the nearest thing, perhaps, to the cacophony of Job’s theopoetics. Boehme’s heaving depiction of God, continually flickering into being, positively reveled in the fugitive and playful nature of God and creation—wrestling, kissing, writhing. Boehme’s “anarchic vision” of a cosmogony that consists of “moral or sentient forces” and a universe that reacts in its innermost composition to the deeds and energies of scriptural actors will not allow any aspect of the world to be over and done with, to be static.25 There is an endemic provisionality, an inwritten wrongness to any formulation of universe or God. Neither chronology nor causality is unidirectional, but hurls wave upon wave, the constituent causes of being arriving and receding, in their “Egresse of the Spirit” and the “will of the Abysse,” Boehme’s enigmatic Ungrund.26 None of this should make sense, entirely. Insofar as it will allow itself to be understood, it is as a fleeting shadow of a truth that cannot be calibrated or captured. Mysterium Magnum aimed less to describe a natural philosophical state than to exemplify the perplexity of the surging, enthusiastic spirit, at best a momentary understanding, which rapidly decays and is replaced. It is apophatic, Escheresque, and abyssal, one thing continually modulating into another. Boehme, the subject of chapter 2, found a wide audience across an arc of Northern Europe, from Görlitz, in what is now split between Germany and Poland, to Holland and England, and many of his works were published in translation far earlier than in his native German. The chapter makes the case that his appeal to early modern thinkers (of a certain cast) lay in his kaleidoscopic attention to the unknowable origin of things, a natural philosophy of the eternal.

To address the time before time, or the state of the eternal prior to the universe, is as giddy and hubristic an enterprise as any. It is the terrain of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work whose tumultuous changes of perspective are Jobean in scale. Milton has something of Boehme about him and something of Job too, though perhaps, considered as “source,” they constitute no more than an oblique echo here and there within the poem. Nevertheless, the seventeenth-century obsession with the unknowable, shapeless state of things before the universe is at the core of Paradise Lost, a work that never loses sight of the “fact” that it takes place in the nonsequential eternal, that its words are not equal to its indescribable subject, and it revels in the vertigo of this, its interpretative abyss. Its vastness of scale and perspectival shifts cannot be calibrated to any quotidian experience. It is beyond theology, and the poem deals with realities never quite accommodated to human thought. The Miltonic unknowable, subject of the last chapter of this book, links back to, indeed grows out of the book’s first two chapters, not only in their shared early modern obsession with chaos, creation, and the atemporal, but in that they convey the experience of encountering what is, strictly speaking, unthinkable. The last chapter makes the case that Milton, most unmystical of writers in some respects, produces, in his shifts of geocosmic scale, a quasi-theological, quasi-apophatic plunging into the unfathomable. Paradise Lost is vertiginous in other ways too, in its mazy intrusions of the fallen world into the unfallen, in its doppelgänger hermeneutics, where resemblance is as often as not misleading and our hapless postlapsarian view of things is always wrong-footed. Disorientation, the poem’s “delirium” as Gordon Teskey terms it, is for Milton theological in a manner quite different from the poem’s “major” theological investments, its attention to free will and the justification of the ways of God.27 Disorientation in the hinterland of logic that tries to fathom the eternal is almost apophatic, and it is yet another turn of the screw that the ineffable in the poem is encountered as much in hell and in chaos as in Milton’s heaven. The poem’s sublimity—that once ubiquitous term for Paradise Lost nearly lost in modern criticism—is theological. Perhaps the sublime, an idea that was to become a ubiquitous term of reference in the following century, might be present throughout this book, but it might have misleading, aesthetic associations, so I engage only sparingly with the idea before the final chapter.28

The cosmology of the creation lost to time—which both begins and concludes this book—allowed for an entirely singular mode of speculative thought, which involved divinity, poetics, and natural philosophy. But it was not the only discursive field that borrowed from the apophatic, or that traded in the poetics of the unknowable. The ordinary world in front of natural philosophers presented ample opportunities, and it is these which occupy the central three chapters of the book. There were, of course, fundamental differences between the speculative realm of cosmogenesis and the visible, tangible objects of the present, which might be perplexing, but which could nevertheless be investigated, explored, and reasoned through, notwithstanding our fallenness. The scientific culture of the seventeenth century conceded its limits, but could hardly be accused of surrendering the mundane as something beyond understanding. On the contrary, post-Baconian and Royal Society natural philosophy, and its continental equivalents in France and elsewhere, seemed, at least in their promotional rhetoric, supremely confident. Historians of science have done a good deal to complicate narratives of scientific whiggishness, perhaps most importantly in showing that thinkers in the era were well aware that there was a point at which their “objectivity” could no longer be assured.29 Robert Boyle, writing in his Discourse of Things above Reason (1681), has one of its philosophers describe a set of “Priviledg’d Things,” a body of “supra-intellectual” half-ideas or semi-knowable facets of the world, things that existed, but which were not amenable to philosophical discussion. This was not a distinction between the things of reason and the things of faith, but a description of the hinterland of truths that can be intuited but remain intractable, not fully thinkable.30 The gaze through the microscope, the controversies over what was seen there and what language and visual rhetoric could appropriately mediate its strange sensory experience, has become one of the most productive areas for historians seeking to rethink the character of early modern scientific thought, and the carefully wrought poetics of subsurface discovery and perspectival mystery have been subject to some probing analysis. Alexander Wragge-Morley, for example, in a work exploring the “empiricism of imperceptible entities,” looks at how the scientific culture of the era sought common strategies to perceive and represent “both infinitesimally small atoms and an infinite, immaterial God.”31

Chapter 4 will make the case that early modern encounters with the minuscule—the vertigo of a microreality so choppy, so counterintuitive and at odds with experience—remain alert to the unknowable character of what they come upon there, on the cusp of the perceptible. In response to this frustration, that the thing sought will always remain elusive, the “last leaf to be turned over in the booke of Nature,” as Thomas Browne put it, natural philosophers concocted a poetics of distortion.32 They found their models for this, the chapter will argue, in unpalatable places: firstly, in an inheritance of mysticism where reason buckles, but equally, in the poetics of the arch-atheist of the early modern imagination, Lucretius. Nobody wanted to be indebted to Lucretius: his atomic theories, considered as “science,” were largely understood to be preposterous, but he was, nevertheless, ubiquitous in early modern scientific thought, because he provided a way of thinking about disproportion in scale and perception—a poetics of the invisible. To attend to the “merely” literary and rhetorical debts of early modern science might be seen, by some, as interesting but peripheral. The chapter argues, however, that there is something fundamentally wrong in characterizing Restoration writing on microscopy as a debate primarily over the efficiency of the technology. Or rather, although there was a good deal of debate over the technology, and the use of artificial experiment, this was always preface to, or sideshow to, more fundamental questions, including the character of the unknowable in the mundane world. A natural philosopher such as Margaret Cavendish is rendered more or less incomprehensible when the questions asked of her writings are the same as those that tend to be asked of Hooke and the Royal Society. Cavendish, whose remarkable vitalism is dealt with in chapter 4, troubles the very idea of an objective observer probing the limits of the knowable, insofar as she invests matter with a kind of knowledge, alert to its surroundings. Like Milton, Cavendish is a writer who, tonally, has little of the mystic about her, but whose ability to plumb vertiginous quarters of reality is indebted to an early modern fascination with the unfathomable.

There is, then, a rich seam of early modern thought that thrives on (or wallows in) its nescience. We might, however, set this against what has been seen as the militant optimism of the era, in a figure like Francis Bacon, who rails against the defeatism of acatalepsy—the idea that knowledge of the world is impossible—and who defies the era’s endemic pessimism, its working presumption that how we think is a product of our fallenness.33 It is true that Bacon’s projects of knowledge (and their Royal Society imitators) might seem to run counter to the thesis of this book, but I think, nevertheless, that he shares some of its scientific-apophatic approaches. Francis Bacon is a natural philosopher who seemed, once, the embodiment of no-nonsense engagement with the world. But it is a long time since he was that epitome of empirical probity and positivism, or what Paolo Rossi describes as “the completely imaginary Bacon of Sir Karl Popper.”34 The much more complex figure we know now is more gnostic, as likely to speculate on intangible, pneumatic theories of matter as to spend his time dabbling in experiment and pure induction. More recent studies have noted a kind of early modern vertigo faced with Bacon’s unabridgeable “infinitie of individuall experience,” and Bacon’s puppy-dog excitement with particulars in the endlessly deferred search for “natures of things.”35

Bacon’s Novum Organum, his deranged masterpiece, a vast mining machine for digging down into the structure of reality, has as its key tool a sprawling set of “Prerogative Instances” or “Instances with Special Powers.” These constitute a spreadsheet of anomalies, theoretical instances of the unknown—in particular its “forms”—and how we circumvent our ignorance of these elusive qualities, by deducing in intricate fashion, their outcrops into the discernible. The Baconian forms are not Platonic idealizations, but involve understanding the nature of such physical qualities as “yellowness, weight, ductility, fixity, fluidity” and how they function as “latent processes” in Nature.36 There is something utterly seductive about Bacon’s vast intellectual vision, his hard philosophical logic in play with his metaphorical tricksiness, all interim steps, in Novum Organum, to discerning the rudiments of reality, a syntax of its most impalpable attributes, to enable the natural philosopher to “slice into nature.”37 Bacon’s algebra of forms involves a detailed “presentation to the understanding of all the known instances” of a thing: a key example is heat. Bacon suggests that in order to grasp something that is simultaneously so ordinary and so unfathomable, we need to tabulate the occurrences, absences, and qualities of heat, in a kind of “big data,” to quantify what it might be and what it is not, by reference to where we encounter it and fail to find it. He speculates on some twenty-seven classes of prerogative instances, though this is not meant to be an exhaustive list.38 This is his toolkit—gimlet, wrench, and pliers, to pry reality apart, to crack the safe, philosophically speaking. We might object that, far from being the “unknowable,” this is merely the unknown, and yet it is not the outer teguments of heat he seeks, or its utile qualities, but some deeper nature, the nature of which is the very mystery at issue. While there seems something absolute about the “unknowable,” this is not where mere humans work. Human fallibility requires that we trade in, as Boyle puts it in Things Above Reason, “gradual notions of truth . . . limited and respective, not absolute and universal.”39 Bacon’s descanting on murky forms of an encrypted nature can border on the Faustian, and he can very often seem hierophantic in his ambition. So while his grand designs to fathom nature fall outside the parameters of this book, I take it too that he is an ally on the borderlands of the philosophical and the quasi-mystical.40

The key idea that runs through the book is the early modern obsession with a poetics or a theopoetics of what cannot be said, how seventeenth-century thinkers attempted to shape language, to find mitigating strategies for the brokenness of our fallen perception. Bacon, at times haughtily insistent that he attends to res not verba, things not words, also deploys some of the most dazzling scientific metaphors of the era, in whose alchemy, ideas are transported from the provisional to the solid; it is hard to argue with a metaphor, or to dislodge it, once it has established itself.41 If this is true in scientific thought, it is also the first rule of the mystic. The mind, in its dull rationality, needed to be tricked in order to encounter a reality that was indescribable, unattainable, more than the merely real. Some truths, those of the natural world as much as those of the divine, could only be glimpsed fleetingly, in lightning flashes, as Maimonides put it, in his Guide of the Perplexed, a text that remained influential into early modernity.42 The terrible correlate of this was that “truth,” be it God or the character of the Eternal, could only be grasped in ephemeral form, by outwitting our rationality. The poetics of negative theology can dazzle and estrange in a manner that produces its particular illumination, but even the most adept metaphor, the most sublime analogy, which hurls you into some encounter with the divine, will begin, in time, to pale. The power of language to move is, intrinsically, mutable. Though early modern writers attended frequently, if not obsessively, to the “essence and attributes” of God, it was also conceded that little important about the divine could be represented in propositional form. This was also true of other kinds of knowledge, that they are apprehended in a kind of flash-logic. Descartes would say as much in a note, copied by Leibniz: “The seeds of knowledge are within us like fire in flint; philosophers educe them by reason, but the poets strike them forth by imagination, and they shine the more clearly.”43

This notion, the mutable character of truth, or the perception of truth, is addressed in chapter 3, on Thomas Browne, who shares with Boehme at least some tinge of the mystic-scientist-enthusiast, but who, in his carefully crafted prose, in his learned humanism and his medical frame of reference, seems also to be from another, altogether more sober world. For all that, however, in The Garden of Cyrus (1658) he writes on an elegant edge of sanity. It is a text variously scientific, erudite, and scrupulous, yet batty and demented, soaring toward its mystical finale. It is hard to say what it is about, a work so diffuse, so digressive as to defy logic, a text that undertakes to demonstrate order and pattern in the world through its chaotic, ungovernable accumulation of particulars. Sometimes a natural theology and paean to the beautiful design of the world, and at times carefully scientific in its observation of the natural world, The Garden of Cyrus nevertheless contrives to baffle, with its quincuncial miscellanies and its puckish shape-shifting. Exploring its rhetorical style, the chapter will make the case that Browne’s text mimics something essential about apophatic longing: its ravenous character, prone to inattention and never able to rest. Though not a text with much to say about the divine, it nevertheless exemplifies a poetics to the apophatic, a protocol of metaphor, disorientating, failing, needing constantly renewed attention.

Browne is a writer in whom the scientific and the humanist are combined with careful erudition. That he shares something, tonal and gentle, with Boehme, is intuitively plausible, but at the same time, the two figures emerge from very different worlds. Jacob Boehme was much admired and translated in mid-century England, but largely this admiration was centered in radical political-religious communities, disdainful of “university learning” as dead-letter thinking, cultures of enthusiasm, and spirit-infused illumination, while Browne was averse to schism. “Behmenists” (as Boehme’s followers were termed) were allied with Fifth Monarchists, Ranters, Quakers, and the like, figures who almost court incoherence. One such radical, Anna Trapnel, is the focus of chapter 5. Trapnel sits still more incongruously beside Browne, but the focus of this chapter is likewise on early modern strategies for animating tired and dead language, lightning strikes of insight. One such strategy was the prophetic, which bears closely on the seventeenth-century engagements with what lay beyond words. But prophecy was also, in the minds of many, absurd and unkempt, practised by charlatans, the self-aggrandizing and the insane, making up for its senselessness with theatricality, making up for its lack of content with spurious enthusiasm. It was also political, anarchic, and class-conscious: in the view of its detractors, in the era of the civil war, in particular, it aimed primarily to overturn order, hierarchy, and education. It consisted of cheap stunts, biblical juggling, and impressed only the gullible. Though there might be agreement on this across a wide religious and political spectrum of early modern opinion that could agree on little else, nevertheless, prophecy mattered. It did things with language, and with biblical language in particular, that were appealing. It woke language up.

Anna Trapnel’s prophetic episodes in the 1650s were a phenomenon, in which a self-educated, working-class woman, a Fifth Monarchist from a shipwright family, prophesied in Westminster and grabbed the attention of London in its two weeks of tumult. From a certain perspective, this political-religious event might lie outside the book’s tracing of the apophatic—Trapnel involves herself in Cromwellian political drama in a manner that is a far cry from the “mystic tradition”—but to tell the tale of the seventeenth-century apophatic without attending to this seam of prophetic enthusiasm would be to miss the most potent and radical deployment of this mystical tradition, as it manifested itself in the era. There is a fairly direct line from Boehme, whose work straddles natural philosophy and proto-theosophy, to the radical sects of the English civil war. The account of Trapnel’s prophecy was taken down by a stenographer as it happened; even if she reworked the text, perhaps with the help of an unknown shorthand secretary, there is nothing like it in terms of its immediacy, and few texts illustrate so well how prophecy was understood to plumb the instability of language, adopting the deranged style of biblical prophecy, with its fragmented logic, as the proper correlate to a deranged world.

Mystical Theologies

Michel de Certeau’s two volumes (the latter posthumous) on early modern mysticism provide an important survey of a subject he depicts as always already lost, its best days gone by. Mystic discourse inspired both a distaste and a longing, and produced, as if by default, “a mourning . . . the malady of bereavement,” a homesickness for a kind of religious experience that was no longer quite possible, and he remarks that this was “already a hidden force in sixteenth-century thought.”44 Certeau deploys the term la mystique, which the translator renders “mystics,” as opposed to “mysticism,” with a syntactic bent similar to how we might use the word “poetics.” His “mystics” implies a protean reformulation of the ineffable into political, philosophical, psychological, psychoanalytic, and other forms: “hundreds of brilliant fragments remain,” writes Certeau, of the tarnished discourse, with their “quid pro quos between the hidden and the shown.” It is, he comments later, “a ghost that continues to haunt Western epistemology,” with its resources of uncertainty.45 Such fragments are the subject of this book, too, the remnants of an apophatic way of thinking, its spillage in an era more interested in the character of the unknowable, its black hole in fallen reality, than in the individual in his or her spiritual-mystical longing. Some of these fragments, these habits of thought, turn up in early modern natural philosophy, and some in its politics, and the era’s noisy love of prophecy. I will have various occasions on which to refer back to these traditions, but this book is not about mysticism, as such. It is, however, worth saying a little about the main coordinates of this never quite orthodox strand of religious experience, one that has often aroused antipathy, but which has never quite been absent, either, from Christian tradition, and which has a rich place in Jewish and Islamic thought.

Theology is cataphatic, wordy to the core, a “verbal riot, an anarchy of discourse,” according to Denys Turner, in The Darkness of God, writing on medieval mystical traditions, but it also suffers its own wordiness, insufficient to its divine object. It is overburdened with its borrowings, its metaphorical character, and leans heavily on its abundant nonverbal vocabulary, “its liturgical and sacramental action, its music, its architecture, its dance and gesture.” The ecclesiastical gluttony for the visual and aural, he suggests, is at least some compensation for the failure of words. 46 Turner attends to an uncertainty in the “canon” of mysticism, which at times understands its character as ecstatic and experiential, the brief lightning of understanding, shot through with love, communicable only as aesthetic, para-gnostic luminosity.47 But as often, he finds writers resisting or qualifying the experiential, and deploying a more speculative mode of thinking about unthinkability, a dialectic of excess, the hobbled soul’s ascent requiring an undoing of logic, a derangement. This is a useful distinction and qualification of how mysticism is understood. Though some of the topics explored in subsequent chapters here might be characterized as experiential, on the whole, seventeenth-century thinkers are interested in a more speculative dialectics of bafflement.

The traditions of negative theology came down to the Protestant seventeenth century tainted, because they were so often associated with Catholic mysticism and devotional practice, with dubious visions, pilgrimage, and the testimony of devout anchorites and anchoresses. And it was tainted too because its speculative theological character was so often opaque. This is a vast and unwieldy heritage, one that can hardly be outlined in any brief fashion. We can perhaps usefully divide it, following Turner’s ideas on the experiential, into the popular-devotional and the philosophical-speculative strands of mysticism, though they are not, of course, clear-cut categories.48 A good deal of the animus toward mysticism in early modernity is predicated on what was seen as its popular, concocted, marketplace nature, dangerous both because it was sponsored by Catholicism and because it was not sufficiently corralled and tamed by the church, having something anarchic about it. Popular mysticism, associated with meditation and devotion, was deeply rooted in the religious cultures of medieval Europe.49 It was both firmly institutional, associated with popular piety and cults of saintliness, and existed on the dangerous fringes of Lollardy, and sometimes on the dangerous fringes of gender battles, in the writings of Marguerite Porete, Margery Kempe, and Teresa of Ávila, to name but a few. To these, we might add John of the Cross, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and others who recount their experiences—pious, tortured, sexual, profound. Although any such canon of mystics is a later construction, they remained in view in early modern England.50 As with Ignatian spirituality, there was a deep ambivalence, both impressed with and suspicious of its devotional claims. Those persecuted in pre-Reformation Europe—Porete was burned and Meister Eckhart was hounded to death—could, by default, be coopted as Protestant proto-martyrs.51

Alongside this history of “practical” mystics, so to speak, whose domain stretched from the heretical to the quite orthodox, there were other streams of mystical and apophatic theology—Platonic and patristic—that were harder for Protestantism to ignore or disparage. There was an august patristic heritage in, for instance, Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, and in Pseudo-Dionysius or Dionysius the Areopagite, the most astonishing theorist of the character of language in relation to the divine, and a figure to whom later chapters will return. The ninth-century Irish scholar, John Scottus Eriugena, translator of Dionysius into Latin, and author of Periphyseon (Division of Nature), honed what Deirdre Carabine terms a hyperphatic theology of superaffirmation, every predicate empty in itself, yet metaphorically electric. In tandem with the writings of Aquinas and other medieval luminaries, Hugh of St. Victor’s Didasalion did much to establish the monastic-meditative expectation that the study of the world and of natural philosophy were not only compatible with the devotional and mystical, but proper conduits through which to know and not to know God.52

From the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries onward, this Christian intellectual-spiritual inheritance was intertwined with the revival of a Platonic strand of mysticism in the Florentine humanism of Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino, and proved very attractive, not least in the latter’s edition of and annotations on Dionysius the Areopagite, whose authenticity was later to be put through the wringer. Ficino’s Platonic Theology, together with the era’s recovery of or new attention to Philo, Plotinus, and Proclus, produced a rich neo-Platonism, with elaborate imagined lineages of ancient theology, the prisca theologica of Mosaic “Egyptian” hermetic knowledge, which, interwoven with Greek neo-Platonism, fed the hermetic thought of early modernity, centered most notably in England on the amorphous and prolix Cambridge Platonists.53 Less often, accounts of Jewish and Islamic mysticisms and their medieval heritage were noted, but were not on the whole given much sustained attention in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.54 Nicholas of Cusa, a writer of delirious breadth, produces some of the most important late medieval revisions to the tradition with his notion of a coincidence of opposites, his quasi-mathematical demonstrations of how irreconcilable ideas can, from the perspective of the infinite, be reconciled.55

Although the presence of neo-Platonism, philosophy bordering on mysticism, is well-enough established in early modern historiography, a working presumption is that the era has limited patience with the more practical and popular mysticism, that it was more or less routed in the Protestant North during the Reformation. Such a view is not meant to imply that the numinous and the holy played a reduced part in the clearly intense individual religious experience of the era, but Protestantism’s recrafting of corporate religiosity brought a different set of issues to the fore, doctrinal and ecclesiastical matters, and above all, one’s engagement with scripture. This narrative has been challenged and nuanced by several scholars, including Sarah Apetrei and Liam Temple, who trace the persistence of a well-theorized Catholic devotional mysticism and its opponents, and recount how this jigsawed with radical Protestant mysticism—Quakers, Philadelphians, and others—whose spirituality was frequently labeled as enthusiasm and tarred as irrationalism, with accusations of trafficking in obscurity and religious charlatanism.56

A large part of the story of mysticism in early modernity revolves around the prophets and enthusiasts, radicals and mystics whose engagement with the apophatic “canon” is considerable, but whose demeanor—rhetorical as well as social—has little of the contemplative, devotional character of medieval mysticism. For these porous and protean communities—Quakers, Baptists, Fifth Monarchists, Ranters—God’s engagement with reality was political, in the way that the prophets of the Bible were political. I will not have much to say about the taxonomies of their political-religious radicalism, though it is important enough. What I do address, however, is their engagement with the unthinkable. Theirs was a theology, Nigel Smith comments, in his Perfection Proclaimed, “predicated upon an intensely rhetorical understanding of Scripture language and indeed of the world generally, despite the radical castigation of learned rhetoric.”57 This rhetoric is fissile, unstable, and it speaks to a sense of the mutable self, shaped in its mold of scripture. The language of these radicals can be shocking and can border on incoherent—this is a rhetoric aware of its own aesthetic, crafted to the mangled reality in which the cold present of England in the seventeenth century was only one coordinate of being. They lived, at the same time, in the technicolor of Revelation or the sometimes feral biblical prophets (Ezekiel baking his bread upon dung, Isaiah going naked for a sign, Hosea’s sexual-political marriage antics), through which lens, time was chopped and nonsequential, and through whose poetics, the world was intrinsically a skewed half-reality. The motley prophets of the seventeenth century, in their large numbers, can hardly be said to interpret the scripture they so inhabit. There is little sense of an objective hermeneutic, which is applied in this or that literal, typological, or figurative fashion. Rather, it seems that they are inside the scripture, rattling its bars. They are its syntax. They are the connection between its parts, Old and New, bitter and sweet.

The connections between English radicalism and this mystical tradition are reasonably well established; Smith’s work, for instance, notes the translations of John Everard, Giles Randall, and others into English of something like a mystical canon, and Ariel Hessayon has explored figures such as Jane Lead and TheaurauJohn Tany, in their truculent idiosyncrasies.58 However, it is also the case that the radicals just do not sound like medieval mystics. Where the older devotional adepts might commune quietly toward an annihilation of self, into which purged space God may move, the sectarians are all noise; too political, too raucous and wild-eyed. The early modern prophetic responded to a reality that could not be fathomed, but which was resolutely political. They could, they were sure, see clearly how the theological, the cosmic, and the political structure to things was imploding, the turmoil of an eternal wrath surging into temporal being. No words but mad words could correspond. The “chopped and minced” prophetic style, both biblical and early modern, was a kind of nescience, an apophasis, responding to a chopped and minced reality.59 It is a style, at once scriptural, borrowed, and crafted to outrage. The rapids of prophecy, their quick-fire spate of divinely infused language, in early modern sectarian writing, was a poetic hunting of truths that changed as soon as you found them.

Alongside and in response to such raving, there was a deep-seated seventeenth-century skepticism about the ruses of mysticism. Abraham Caley’s A Glimpse of Eternity (1679), for example, characterizes the insubstantiality of the apophatic, and the emptiness of so-called mystical experience; he cites Cornelius à Lapide who comparing mysticism to a German magician’s feast for “Noble Persons, who while they sate at Table, received good content, and fared deliciously to their thinking, but when they were departed, found themeselves as hungry as if they had eaten nothing at all.”60 Mysticism, in such a view, looks tasty, superficially, but is entirely insubstantial. The vast and scholarly survey of mystical vocabulary by the Dutch Jesuit, Maximilian Van der Sandt (Sandaeus), Pro theologia mystica clavis (1640), irked some readers, even while it impressed them in its thoroughness. Edward Stillingfleet, noting with Sandaeus that mystical writers might be “obscurus, involutus, elevatus, sublimas, abstractus, & quadem tenus inflatus” (rendering the latter term “flatulent”), added that “there were some, who (not unhappily) compared them to Paracelsian Chymists, who think to make amends for the meanness of their notions, by the obscurity of their terms.”61 The problem with mystics was their courting of the opaque and the ambiguous. The premodern reader, on the whole, did not love polysemy and plenitude of meaning, but sought rather clarity, with the possible, but quite cordoned-off, exception of the Bible—ambiguity, argues Anthony Ossa-Richardson, tended to signal for early modern thinkers a lack of control, an excess and fault in language, rather than an opportunity for polysemy.62

Again and again, writers voice their irritation with this theological legacy and those who would reanimate it. Stillingfleet goes on to despair over Dionysius the Areopagite, in response to Carolus Hersentius’s 1626 commentary on him: “God would never require from men the practice of that . . . which it is impossible for men to understand, when it is proposed to them.”63 Louis Ellies Du Pin, in his vast New History of Ecclesiastical Writers (1693), writes of Nicholas of Cusa’s De docta ignorantia that the “Work is very abstract and obscure” and of his subsequent Apology for the work, that “the two Books of Conjectures are yet less intelligible, and less useful, and contain nothing but Metaphysical Notions, which are of no use.”64

If early modern thinkers were alert to what might be called, in modern philosophical parlance, bullshit, or what Meric Casaubon called “mere Gulleries and Impostures to get money (as is practised to the day . . . ),” the suspicion surrounding the mystical tradition was also a philological one, in a culture alert to forgery. Casaubon’s attack on enthusiasm, published in the 1650s, when it was a highly fraught and politicized issue, has relatively little to say about his radical enthusiastic contemporaries, but reserves its venom for “Ancient Theologues and Poets, pretending to Divine Inspiration,” in particular, “Dionysius Areopagita, the first broacher of it amongst Christians.”65 Dionysius, who is lush and poetic, but not the Pauline figure he insinuated he was, attracted serious ire, firstly for the misattributed authorship, uncovered by Lorenzo Valla and noted by Erasmus, but equally for his obscurity. Writing on Dionysius’s “Mysticall Theologie against which I think too much cannot be said,” Cauaubon finds it “apt to turn all Religion and all Scripture (in weaker brains) into mere phansie, and Teutonick Chimericall extravagancies.”66 Meric Casaubon’s more famous scholar father, Isaac, had, a generation earlier, been part of the unmasking of Hermes Trismegistus, lauded by Marsilio Ficino as the conduit for this Mosaic wisdom, albeit Hermes may have been the collateral damage in Isaac Casaubon’s more pressing aim, to demolish the genealogy of Catholicism in Cesare Baronio’s Annales ecclesiastici.67 Such hostility speaks at least in part to the dangerous appeal and pliability of mysticism, broadly construed, in an era when religion was inextricably interwoven into early modern natural philosophy as well as politics. 68 If the Reformation had exposed the Catholic proclivity to mysticism as ruse and chicanery, mystification and charlatanism, the suspicion was that the revival of its apophatic bag of tricks in the political arena, by Quakers, prophets, and radicals, was new mountebankism designed to lure the gullible and procure disorder.69

In his introduction to a modern edition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Jaroslav Pelikan cites Bertrand Russell’s “celebrated bon mot, that he had difficulty telling the difference between a paradox that veils a profound truth and one that is simply nonsense.”70 The ambivalence we find in early modernity toward mysticism—suspicion and attraction—bears at least brief comparison with contemporary philosophical thought. The suspicion aroused by negative theology is that the runaway apophatic begins to seem a bushfire of negation, a contagion of the unutterable in which “God’s name would suit everything that may not be broached, approached or designated in an indirect manner. Every negative sentence would already be haunted by God,” writes Jacques Derrida, a concern that the pathological negation threatens to tether together negatives that have nothing in common.71 John Caputo, commenting on the plurality of negatives in the apophatic, writes not only of its ruse of turning into the cataphatic—all talk, verbose and profuse—but equally of its crafty twist by which it becomes more certain than any affirmative, how it “drops anchor, hits bottom, lodges itself securely in pure presence and the transcendental signified, every bit as much as any positive onto-theo-logy,” even while it insists it has, ostensibly, given up on all “representative paraphernalia.”72 There has been a substantial and sustained interest in negative theology in critical theory and contemporary philosophy, not quite post-God, but understanding the resources of the apophatic to speak to the profane much more widely. William Franke, whose writings form an important part of this, talks in his On the Universality of What Is Not of the “apophatic turn in critical thinking,” across a substantial, modern disciplinary span. If this is the case in mystic contemporaneity, it comes with a long history of outright hostility.73

It is in the context of this multiform suspicion of the apophatic that the subject matter here emerges, a depiction of early modernity fascinated with the idea of the unknowable, but wary of the spiritual-intellectual lineage in which it was couched. Neither the intense personal spiritual helter-skelter of devotional writing nor the hermetic-Platonic philosophical tradition is the subject of this book, though they constitute its intellectual, and its poetical-rhetorical, background. It is not, in itself, a chapter in negative theology, and neither does it constitute forgotten episodes in the history of mysticism. It is rather about the adaptation of the apophatic, its rhetorical habits, its tropes, and its poetics, wrought to other purposes—political, natural philosophical and literary. And it shows how the seventeenth century encountered the unknowable anew, at a moment when the parameters of natural philosophy were being redefined.



1. Walter Charleton, The darknes of atheism dispelled (London: William Lee, 1652), 117, 348; Thomas Barton, Aντιτειχισμα or, A counter-scarfe prepared anno 1642 for the eviction of those zealots (London: Andrew Crooke, 1643), 19; Timothy Batt, A treatise concerning the free grace (London: Ed. Blackmore, 1643), 36.

2. Gilbert Burnet, A modest and free conference betwixt a conformist and a non-conformist (Edinburgh, 1669), 88; Henry More, An explanation of the grand mystery of godliness (London: Walter Kettilby, 1660), 493; Richard Linche, The fountaine of ancient fiction (London: Adam Islip, 1599), B1v, loosely translating Vincenzo Cartari, Le Imagini de i Dei de gli Antichi (Venetia, 1571); Thomas Morton, A discharge of five imputations (London: R. Milbourne, 1633), 174; Thomas Jackson, A treatise of the consecration of the Sonne of God (Oxford: Leonard Lichfield, 1638), 356 (mispaginated).

3. Joseph Glanvill, The Vanity of Dogmatizing (London: Henry Eversden, 1661), chap. 2, 15–16.

4. The term “apophasis,” however, is not used with quite the same meaning in the early modern era, when it tends to be paired with paralipsis, or occupatio, pretending not to speak of a thing, while doing so; for example, John Smith, The mysterie of rhetorique unveil’d (London: George Eversden, 1665), 156–57: “a denying . . . a kind of an Irony, whereby we deny that we say or doe that which we especially say or doe”; similarly, Richard Lloyd, The Latine grammar (London: Thomas Roycroft, 1653), 11.

5. William Franke speaks of the apophatic being “the basis of the mutual understanding and reciprocal appreciation among the three Abrahamic faiths during the Middle Ages. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity communicated cross-culturally on the basis of a common recognition of intrinsic limits to their ability to conceptualize God,” though it would be difficult to find any such concord in the post-Reformation era. William Franke, On the Universality of What Is Not: The Apophatic Turn in Critical Thinking (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020), 9–10.

6. Richard Hooker, Of the lawes of ecclesiasticall politie eight bookes (London: John Windet, 1593), p. 49, Book 1.2, going on “yet our soundest knowledge is to know that wee know him not as in deed he is, neither can know him; and our safest eloquence concerning him is our silence” (buried reference to Job 36.36).

7. Robert Dallington, “A Briefe Inference upon Guicciardines Digression, In The Fourth Part Of The First Quarterne of His Historie,” 53, 56, appended (with separate pagination) to Aphorismes civill and militarie (London: Edward Blount, 1613).

8. There are exceptions, who invariably note the presumption that the field is thin: Sara Poor and Nigel Smith, eds., Mysticism and Reform, 1400–1750 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 10–11; Liam Peter Temple, Mysticism in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2019), 1–2. Also see Bernard McGinn, “The Venture of Mysticism in the New Millennium,” New Theology Review 21, no. 2 (2008): 70–79, at 71, taking issue with a characterization of early modernity, in which “mysticism as a creative aspect in the life of the church was moribund, if not quite dead” by the seventeenth century; and McGinn, Mysticism in the Reformation (1500–1650) (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2017).

9. See, on the scholastic tradition, Thomas Bradwardine, Insolubilia (Insolubles), trans. Stephen Read (Leuven, 2010).

10. Rosalie L. Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), xi.

11. Claire Preston, The Poetics of Scientific Imagination in Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 88.

12. Frédérique Aït-Touati, Fictions of the Cosmos: Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 1–2; Judith H. Anderson, Light and Death: Figuration in Spenser, Kepler, Donne, Milton (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 77–112, on analogy in literature and science; Elizabeth Spiller, Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature: The Art of Making Knowledge, 1580–1670 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), on the early modern fascination with perspective. See too Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998); Giuseppe Mazzotta, Cosmopoiesis: The Renaissance Experiment (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

13. Marjorie Nicolson, The Breaking of the Circle: Studies in the Effect of the ‘New Science’ upon Seventeenth-Century Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton, 1960); Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963).

14. Katherine Eggert, Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 2.

15. Eggert, Disknowledge, 59–109.

16. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

17. Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 42–43. C. A. Patrides, The Cambridge Platonists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), xxv, editing Henry More’s An Antidote Against Atheism (London: J. Flesher, 1653) for the volume, says he will “flatter” him by omitting large portions of the work on bewitchment and magic. Examples of such sprawling subject matter within single works include Charleton, The Darknes of Atheism; Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (London: Andrew Crook, 1643); or Ralph Cudworth, The true intellectual system of the universe (London: Richard Royston, 1678).

18. Anne Cotterill, Digressive Voices in Early Modern English Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 20. See too John Lennard, But I Digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

19. Carla Mazzio, The Inarticulate Renaissance: Language Trouble in an Age of Eloquence (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 6–9, 28, citing the character, Titivillus, from the late medieval drama, The Myrroure of Oure Lady (1530), sig. F2v.

20. Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

21. A useful starting point is Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston, eds., The Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 3: Early Modern Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). See too Kenneth J. Howell, God’s Two Books: Copernican Cosmology and Biblical Interpretation in Early-Modern Science (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002).

22. John Sparrow, preface to Jacob Boehme, Mysterium Magnum, or an exposition of the first book of Moses called Genesis, trans. Sparrow (London: H. Blunden, 1654), sig A1v.

23. Joannes d’Espagnet, Enchyridion physicae restitutae (Paris, 1623), translated as Enchyridion physicae restitutae: or, the summary of physicks recovered (London: W. Bentley, 1651), 10.

24. Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 50.

25. Bo Andersson, Lucinda Martin, Leigh T. I. Penman, and Andrew Weeks, eds., Jacob Böhme and His World (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 17–18.

26. Boehme, Mysterium Magnum, 1.5, p. 2; 2.1, p. 3, “das Ausgehen des Geistes . . . der Wille des Ungrundes.”

27. Gordon Teskey, Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

28. See Caroline van Eck, Stjn Bussels, Maarten Delbeke, and Jürgen Pieters, eds., The Early Modern Reception and Dissemination of Longinus’ Peri Hupsous in Rhetoric, the Visual Arts, Architecture and the Theatre (Leiden: Brill, 2012); See too Thomas Matthew Vozar, Abstracted Sublimities: Milton, Longinus and the Sublime in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

29. Lorraine Daston, “The Empire of Observation, 1600–1800,” in Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck, eds., Histories of Scientific Observation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Daston, “On Scientific Observation,” Isis 99, no. 1 (2008): 97–110. See too Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris, Baroque Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

30. Robert Boyle, A Discourse of Things above Reason (1681), in Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2000), 9:361–94 (at 366, 369). See Jan W. Wojcik, Robert Boyle and the Limits of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). An earlier version appears in Michael Hunter’s more broadly relevant collection of essays, Robert Boyle Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 139–55; Lotte Mulligan, “Robert Boyle, ‘Right Reason’ and the Meaning of Metaphor,” Journal of the History of Ideas 55, no. 2 (1994): 235–57.

31. Alexander Wragge-Morley, Aesthetic Science: Representing Nature in the Royal Society of London, 1650–1720 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 19, 47–72.

32. Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (London: E. Dod, 1646), 2.2, p. 58.

33. On acatalepsy, see Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, in Graham Rees and Maria Wakely, eds., The Instauratio Magna, Part II: Novum Organum and Associated Texts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), with parallel texts, 1.37, p. 53; 1.75, p. 84. On latent process, 2.1. See the capacious account of the epistemological consequences of the Fall in Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), especially 73–88.

34. Paolo Rossi, The Dark Abyss of Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), xiii.

35. See, in particular, Kathryn Murphy, “The Anxiety of Variety: Knowledge and Experience in Montaigne, Burton and Bacon,” in Yota Batsaki, Subha Mukherji, and Jan-Melissa Schramm, eds., Fictions of Knowledge: Fact, Evidence, Doubt (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 110–11.

36. Bacon, Novum Organum, 2.5.

37. Bacon, Novum Organum, 2.52.

38. Bacon, Novum Organum, on Heat, 2.11–20, elaborated into the prerogative instances, 2.21–52.

39. Boyle, Things Above Reason, 376. See Wojcik, Robert Boyle and the Limits of Reason. Sarah Mortimer and John Robertson, eds., The Intellectual Consequences of Religious Heterodoxy 1600–1750 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 1–46, on the coexistence of contradictory ideas.

40. This description from Sophie Weeks’s forthcoming work on Bacon, and its roots in “Francis Bacon’s Science of Magic,” PhD diss., Leeds University, 2007, which includes some important attention to the role of ignorance and the via negativa in Bacon, 46–50, 136–48, 240–47.

41. Among the various studies of Bacon’s sinuous poetics, see, in particular, Stephen Clucas, “‘A Knowledge Broken’: Francis Bacon’s Aphoristic Style and the Crisis of Scholastic and Humanist Knowledge-Systems,” in Neil Rhodes, ed., English Renaissance Prose: History, Language, and Politics (Tempe, AZ: MRTS Press, 1997); John C. Briggs, Francis Bacon and the Rhetoric of Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

42. Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans Shlomo Pines, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 7.

43. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 80. Maximilian De Gaynesford, The Rift in the Lute: Attuning Poetry and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 17, noting a different translation in René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 1, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 4.

44. Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. Michael B. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 1–2.

45. de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, 7–8, 77.

46. Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 20. See too Oliver Davis and Denys Turner, Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Eric Bugyis and David Newheiser, Desire, Faith and Darkness of God: Essays in Honour of Denys Turner (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015).

47. Turner, The Darkness of God, 260.

48. See William Franke, On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, 2 vols. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), an invaluable collection of texts from the apophatic traditions, learned and popular.

49. A starting point for the relevant scholarship is Bernard McGinn’s multipart Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991–).

50. See, for instance, Danielle Clarke, “Life Writing for the Counter-Reformation: The English Translation and Reception of Teresa de Ávila’s Autobiography,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 50, no. 1 (2020–21): 75–94; Liam Temple, “‘Have we any mother Juliana’s among us?’ The Multiple Identities of Julian of Norwich in Restoration England,” British Catholic History 33, no. 3 (2017): 383–400.

51. For an overview of some of the key figures in northern mysticism, Ronald K. Rittgers and Vincent Evener, eds., Protestants and Mysticism in Reformation Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2019). Ranging geographically, see Dale Shuger, God Made Word: An Archaeology of Mystic Discourse in Early Modern Spain (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022); Louis Cognet, Crépuscule des mystiques: Bossuet, Fénelon (Tournai, 1952).

52. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 13, arts. 1–10; and his treatise on Dionysius, In librum Beati Dionysii De Diuinis Nominibus expositio, ed. Ceslai Pera (Turin: Marietti, 1950). See David B. Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), attending in particular to the use of analogy as a conduit to knowledge of what is, conceptually speaking, ungraspable. Deirdre Carabine, The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), 301–22; Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981); John Joseph O’Meara, Eriugena (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Paul Rorem, The Dionysian Mystical Theology (New York: Fortress Press, 2015), 79–100; Hugh of Saint Victor, The Didascalicon, ed. Jeromy Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). On Hugh (albeit not particularly on his apophatic thought), see the idiosyncratic work of Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); G. R. Evans, Bernard of Clairvaux (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 72–101.

53. Key modern points of reference include Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, ed Michael J. B. Allen, 5 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Brian Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). As with much of the material in these synoptic paragraphs, the potential bibliography on this is vast. Starting points include Michael J. B. Allen, Studies in the Platonism of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico (New York: Routledge, 2017); Stephen Clucas, Peter Forshaw, and Valerie Rees, eds., Laus Platonici Philosophi: Marsilio Ficino and His Influence (Leiden: Brill, 2011). For an impressive synoptic account of the philosophical traditions in which this all sits, see Dmitri Levitin, Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science: Histories of Philosophy in England, c. 1640–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

54. See, for example, Elliot R. Wolfson, Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Sara Sviri, Perspectives on Early Islamic Mysticism: The World of al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī and His Contemporaries (New York: Routledge, 2021).

55. See, on his influence, Simon J. G. Burton, Joshua Hollmann, and Eric M. Parker, eds., Nicholas of Cusa and the Making of the Early Modern World (Leiden: Brill, 2018); F. Edward Cranz and Thomas M. Izbicki, eds., Nicholas of Cusa and the Renaissance (New York: Routledge, 2000); Peter Casarella, ed., Cusanus: The Legacy of Learned Ignorance (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2006); and Peter Casarella, Word as Bread: Language and Theology in Nicholas of Cusa (Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2017). Nicholas of Cusa, Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises, ed. Jasper Hopkins, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 2001).

56. Temple, Mysticism in Early Modern England; Sarah Apetrei, “Gender, Mysticism, and Enthusiasm in the British Post-Reformation,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 17, no. 2 (2015): 116–28; Sarah Apetrei, “Prophecy and Mysticism in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Louise Nelstrop and Simon Podmore, eds., Exploring Lost Dimensions in Christian Mysticism (Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2013); Poor and Smith, Mysticism and Reform.

57. Nigel Smith, Perfection Proclaimed (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 16.

58. Smith, Perfection Proclaimed, 107–43. Ariel Hessayon, “Gold Tried in the Fire”: The Prophet TheaurauJohn Tany and the English Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2007); Hessayon, Jane Lead and Her Transnational Legacy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

59. John Locke’s phrase complaining about atomizing the Bible; John Locke, A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, c. 1700 (1733), vi–vii. See the impressive rendering of a political apophatic in China Miéville, “Silence in Debris: Towards an Apophatic Marxism,” in Evidence of Things Not Seen, Salvage 6 (New York: Verso, 2018), 115–54.

60. Abraham Caley, A Glimpse of Eternity (London: Thomas Parkhurse, 1679), 48.

61. Maximilianus Sandaeus, Pro theologia mystica clavis (Cologne, 1640), 6; Edward Stillingfleet, An Answer to Mr. Cressy’s Epistle apologetical (London: Hen. Mortlock, 1675), 25.

62. Anthony Ossa-Richardson, A History of Ambiguity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 2.

63. Stillingfleet, Answer to Mr. Cressy’s Epistle, 25, regarding Carolus Hersentius, Caroli Hersentii in D. Dionysii Areopagitae de Mystica Theologia (Paris, 1626). This also exercises Meric Casaubon, A treatise concerning enthusiasme, as it is an effect of nature, but is mistaken by many for either divine inspiration, or diabolical possession (London, R. D., 1655), 112–13.

64. Louis Ellies Du Pin, A New History of Ecclesiastical Writers (London: Abel Swalle, 1693), 87, in the appended, History of the Controversies . . . Transacted in the Fifteenth Century (separate pagination).

65. Casaubon, A treatise concerning enthusiasme, 30. Bullshit is raised to its proper philosophical status in Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

66. Meric Casaubon, A treatise concerning enthusiasme (1656), A4v, pp. 149, 167, 173. Pseudo-Dionysius, a fifth-or sixth-century mystic, who presented himself as the figure converted by Paul in Acts 17.34. Casaubon is responding to Life of Sister Katharine of Jesus (1628). On the text’s early modern fortunes, see Karlfried Froehlich, “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century,” in Colm Luibheid, ed., Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987), 38–39. Lorenzo Valla, Collatio Novi Testamenti, ed. Alessandro Perosa (Florence, 1970), 167–68. On Acts 17.22–23, see Anne Reeve and M. A. Screech, eds., Erasmus’ Annotations of the New Testament, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1990), 2:312–13. On the fluctuations of Pseudo-Dionysius’s reputation, see Feisal G. Mohamed, “Renaissance Thought on the Celestial Hierarchy: The Decline of a Tradition?” Journal of the History of Ideas 65, no. 4 (2004): 559–82.

67. Isaac Casaubon, De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis exercitationes xvi (Geneva, 1655). See Anthony Grafton, “Protestant versus Prophet: Isaac Casaubon on Hermes Trismegistus,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 46 (1983): 78–93.

68. See Steven E. Ozment, Mysticism and Dissent: Religious Ideology and Social Protest in the Sixteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).

69. Clement Hawes, Mania and Literary Style: The Rhetoric of Enthusiasm from the Ranters to Christopher Smart (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1–49; Michael Heyd, Be Sober and Reasonable: The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 1995).

70. Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Odyssey of Dionysian Spirituality,” in Luibheid, ed., Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, 11. Cited also in Richard H. Jones, Philosophy of Mysticism: Raids on the Ineffable (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016), 240.

71. Jacques Derrida, “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” trans. Ken Frieden, in Harold Coward and Toby Foshay, Derrida and Negative Theology (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), 73–142 (76). On the context of this essay, in debate with Jean-Luc Marion, see Arthur Bradley, Negative Theology and Modern French Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2004), 81–111. See also Poor and Smith, Mysticism and Reform, 10, on works whose “broad approach seems to imply that nearly everything involves mysticism,” with reference to Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard, Mystics: Presence and Aporia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

72. John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 11.

73. William Franke, On the Universality of What Is Not: The Apophatic Turn in Critical Thinking (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020). See too Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).