Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Rhetoric, Science, and Magic

Ryan J. Stark, Rhetoric, Science, and Magic in Seventeenth-Century England (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2009).

Powell's Books


From the Amazon description provided by the publisher:

Rhetoric operated at the crux of seventeenth-century thought, from arguments between scientists and magicians to anxieties over witchcraft and disputes about theology. Writers on all sides of these crucial topics stressed rhetorical discernment, because to the astute observer the shape of one's eloquence was perhaps the most reliable indicator of the heart's piety or, alternatively, of demonry. To understand the period's tenor, we must understand the period's rhetorical thinking, which is the focus of this book.

Ryan J. Stark presents a spiritually sensitive, interdisciplinary, and original discussion of early modern English rhetoric. He shows specifically how experimental philosophers attempted to disenchant language. While rationalists and skeptics delighted in this disenchantment, mystics, wizards, and other practitioners of mysterious arts vehemently opposed the rhetorical precepts of modern science. These writers used tropes not as plain instruments but rather as numinous devices capable of transforming reality. On the contrary, the new philosophers perceived all esoteric language as a threat to learning's advancement, causing them to disavow both nefarious forms of occult spell casting and, unfortunately, edifying forms of wonderment and incantation. This fundamental conflict between scientists and mystics over the nature of rhetoric is the most significant linguistic happening in seventeenth-century England, and, as Stark argues, it ought profoundly to inform how we discuss the rise of modern English writing.

Ryan J. Stark is assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.

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