ISSN: 1086-6523


Snider, Alvin Martin. Origin and Authority in Seventeenth-Century England: Bacon, Milton, Butler. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994; 3+ 243 pp. $65.00

Reviewed by Cherrie Gottsleben
September 26, 1996

    Snider's critical and scholarly study addresses the relationship between works of Bacon, Milton and Butler, and the mythical existence of an absolute origin as grounds for authority. Concentrating on the Novum Organum (1620), the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674), and the third part of Hudibras (1678), Snider reconstructs the 17th century milieu of epistemology, politics and language theory; he employs a historicist/deconstructive method that weaves dialogue between contemporary and early modern texts on the constructedness of cultural authority. Through a broad use of intertexuality, poetry, philosophy and politics interconnect in a hegemonic structure.

    one trace cultural authority to an absolute, transcendent origin? The attempt, implies Snider, seems not only difficult but impossible; the social matrix constitutes "complex interrelations," and "poststructuralism has convinced us of the constructedness of every origin" (6). But if poststructuralism has "convinced" us, why do some continue to wield authority on the basis of origin? From a deconstructionist's standpoint, Snider would say that these wielders are subject to illusion or delusion. The key word seems to be "absolute;" "origins" exist for Snider, only as necessary fictions. He therefore reconstructs the idea in a more relativistic light. He borrows Edward Said's idea of "beginnings" which conveys the concept of "temporal thresholds" in the constant pursuit of self-definition. It appears that in focusing on the past as the "ultimate origin" of "certain knowledge," the present seems a deliberate "interruption" in the production of meaning and becomes subservient to the authority of the past; this not only empowers the past, but creates "beginnings" for each present.

    the boundaries between the idea of origin and "constructedness" in the concept of "beginnings," discourse in the seventeenth century still leave the problems of "intentionality" and the author's "consciousness" unsolved. Snider is far from solving this problem and is not interested in doing so; however, he distinguishes his writing from Foucault in that he allows interplay between discourse and the categories of "author and oeuvre." With the theories of Althusser and others in mind, Snider differentiates his interpretation of ideology from others as an "intersubjective system for producing meaning and constituting cognitively meaningful beliefs" (8-9). Instead of illusion, ideology then, becomes a "system of meaning governing social acts." Nothing is studied in isolation and systems frequently overlap; for example, the non-political may sound political and science may find itself in epic narrative. Snider does exceedingly well in laying plain the intricate interconnections and interrelations between beginnings and cultural authority, and between theories of the seventeenth and twentieth centuries.

    of Bacon's "science" is his use of aphorisms in the Novum Organum which he used to displace "idols"(social forces foreign to truth) and to reinstate the evidence of sense. His aim to revivify pure origination, and to "recapture a perceptual purity uncontaminated by time" is viewed as impossible by Snider and such an unalloyed origin Snider terms as fiction. He therefore associates Bacon's view, Mary Hesse's summary of science in the Anglo-American tradition:

      The scientist, as both observer and language-user, can capture the external facts of the world in propositions that are true if they correspond to the facts and false if they do not. Science is ideally a linguistic system in which true propositions are in one-to-one relation to facts, including facts that are not directly observed because they involve hidden entities or properties, or past events or far distant events. These hidden events are described in theories, and theories can be inferred from observation, that is, the hidden explanatory mechanism of the world can be discovered from what is open to observation. Man as scientist is regarded as standing apart from the world and able to experiment and theorize about it objectively and dispassionately(23).
    In agreement, Snider links Baconian epistemology with "naive realism," "universal scientific language" and correspondence theory of truth. Bacon assumes that turning from error means turning to absolute truth, and thus appeals to an objective reality that the mind somehow copies. This, Snider contends, is illusory, since in one may not be able to absolutely escape the faulty interaction of 'primary notions' and 'idols.'

    attempting to reconstruct knowledge, Milton, in Paradise Lost, struggles to attain the reality of an absolute origin but finds himself in a predicament when he tries to reconcile this attempt with the fact that truth is difficult to locate outside language. When Beelzebub tells his fellow infernals that another inhabited world exists, he adds, " if ancient and prophetic fame in Heav'n/ Err not." Here, he "opens up the possibility of faulty transmission, rumour and uncertainty," says Snider; and even Adam's perfection is subject to doubt.

    in his conversations with Raphael, views limitations as not only imposed by God to keep his omniscience secure, but to emphasize that excess knowledge can mean ignorance, in keeping with the Baconian view that our limitations are subject to error; the cognitive linking of word and object is then error-prone as well. Snider insightfully points out that when Eve sees her reflection, truth and illusion divide. What she sees, is something unseen before, but yet, subject to deception in its transmission--alluding to the inevitable gap between things in themselves and the world of appearances. Both Bacon and Milton then, attempt to recover origins as "a way of connecting ideas to the world."

    and Milton use the discourse of origin to direct the reader to a "critical self-consciousness about language;" similarly, Butler "exploits" epic to emphasize language in its historical and cultural situation. He aims to narrow the gap between words and things by demonstrating the reader's "alienation from the reified and inaccessible world of epic." According to Snider, experiencing the revolution and Restoration led to Butler's fear for some social groups 'legitimizing rationales' and to distrust all 'totalizing systems' which ceaselessly employ equivocation and ambiguity, thereby turning public discourse away from political integrity. Comparing Hudibras with The Aeneid and contemporary anti-epic works, Snider shows clearly though Butler possessed a 'nostalgia' for a pure origin, he realizes the impossibility of attaining from an 'uninflected, ideologically neutral medium,'

      Revivifying the heroic ideal of the indubitable origin began to look like farcical enterprise. Butler could still, however, reinvent epic by standing the form on its head, reinscribing its scientific, historical, and encyclopaedic conventions to establish himself at the root of a new tradition. Despite an emphasis on the absurdity of post-Virgilian epic, he renews the form and becomes a sort of seminal figure, thus performing one of epic's traditional functions. He adjusts the loose assemblage of generic codes that constitute epic so that his poem might accommodate diverse and even incompatible materials" (234).
    I find in Snider's book is an intense, scholarly study of the intersubjective and intertextual hegemony that constitutes the development of cultural authority. We are all shaped and conditioned by language as it orders experience. Constructed over time and in mutable circumstances, the discourse of origin reveals the tendency to error in the relation between mind and world. Thus, through literature, philosophy and politics Bacon, Milton and Butler "considered the possibility of devising a language that could adequately represent an authoritative origin" (243). Though the notion of absolute origin became subject to extensive debate in the seventeenth century, origins still provided a "grammar and repertoire of images" essential to the establishing of Baconian science and the reconstruction of Virgilian epic. This review merely touches the fringes of Snider's intense study, and a close reading for a clearer understanding of the development of origin and authority in the seventeenth century is highly recommended.

    Cherrie Gottsleben
    Graduate Student
    Northeastern Illinois University

Library of Congress Information

Author:        Snider, Alvin Martin, 1954-
Title:         Origin and authority in seventeenth-century England :
                  Bacon, Milton, Butler / Alvin Snider.
Published:     Toronto ; Buffalo : University of Toronto Press,
Description:   viii, 286 p. ; 24 cm.
LC Call No.:   B1131 .S65 1994
Dewey No.:     121 20
               820.9/384 20
ISBN:          0802028659 (alk. paper) : $65.00
Notes:         Includes bibliographical references (p. [245]-278) and
Subjects:      Philosophy, English -- 17th century.
               Bacon, Francis, -- 1561-1626. -- Novum organum.
               Milton, John, -- 1608-1674. -- Paradise lost.
               Butler, Samuel, -- 1612-1680. -- Hudibras.
               Beginning -- History -- 17th century.
               English poetry -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History
                  and criticism.
Control No.:   95106754 

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September 26, 1996