Image: Detail, A Philosopher lecturing on the Orrery (1766).  Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), Oil on Canvas. Derby Museum & Art Gallery.

1 See D. King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic Poet (London: McMillan, 1986). See also B. Nicholson, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light, 2 vols. (London: Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, 1968). According to Morton D. Paley, William Blake would have been profoundly influenced by Priestley’s Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit. See M. D. Paley, Energy and the Imagination: A Study of the Development of Blake’s Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 8. Another Lunar man, Thomas Day (1748-89), published between 1783 and 1789 a novel, Sandford and Merton, which ran through a hundred and forty edition before 1870 and which was able to inflame the imaginations of several Romantic literati.

2 On the category of Preromanticism, see M. Brown, Preromanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991). For an up-to-date survey on “Lunar men” and “Lunar society”, see J. Uglow, The Lunar Men. The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810 (London: Faber & Faber, 2002). However, unsurpassed in its historical insight is R. E. Schofield, The Lunar Society of Birminghan: A Social History of Provincial Science and Industry in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963). A good reconstruction of the historical context and the social roots of Erasmus Darwin’s scientific knowledge is M. McNeil, Under the Banner of Science. Erasmus Darwin and His Age (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987). Excellent intellectual biographies of Darwin are D. King-Hele, Doctor of Revolution: The Life and Genius of Erasmus Darwin (London: Faber & Faber, 1977) and Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement (London: DLM, 1999). On Priestley, see R. E. Schofield, The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1733 to 1773 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).

3 See Uglow, The Lunar Men, 157, 257.

4 See H. Vyverberg, Historical Pessimism in the French Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958); H. Petit, “The Limits of Reason as a Literary Theme in the English Enlightenment”, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 26 (1963), 1307-19 and R. Young, “The Human Limits of Nature”, in J. Benthall (ed), The Limits of Human Nature (London: Allen Lane, 1973), 235-74.

5 A theme clearly dealt with by R. Lenoble, Mersenne ou la naissance du Mécanisme(Paris: Vrin, 1943).

6 Although very suggestive, the charge of “imperialism” and “totalitarianism” faced by Adorno, Horkheimer and other against Enlightenment is an ahistorical and superficial nonsense. See M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. J. Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1990). About the supposed “imperialism”, see K. Racevskis, Postmodernism and the Search for Enlightenment (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993).

7 For a keen survey on the criticisms to the primacy of the Cartesian ego, see S. D. Cox, ‘The Stranger Within Thee’: The Concept of the Self in Late Eighteenth-Century Literature (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1980).

8 On the progress of medicine in the eighteenth century and on the definition of human beings in terms of body and physical structure, see R. Porter (ed.), Medicine and the Enlightenment (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994) and R. Porter, “Medical Science and Human Science in the Enlightenment”, in C. Fox, R. Porter and R. Wolker (eds.), Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth Century Domains (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 53-87.

9 See for example J. Priestley, Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit (London: 1777), 28, 44. The main eighteenth-century sources for similar ideas are La Mettrie, Histoire naturelle de l’âme (The Hague: 1745); Id., L’homme machine (Leiden: 1748); D. Hartley, Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations, 2 vols., (London: 1749); D’Holbach, Système de la Nature (London: 1770).

10 Priestley, Disquisitions, 11.

11 Ibid., 42.

12 Ibid., 49.

13 Quoted in R. Porter, The Creation of the Modern World. The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 50.

14 On the eighteenth-century rejection of Plato, see P. Gay, The Enlightenment, An Interpretation, vol. 1, The Rise of Modern Paganism (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967), 83.

15 See J. Priestley, Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, part. I, in The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley (vol. 4, London: 1817-32), 383.

16 Referred by Charles Darwin in E. Krause, Erasmus Darwin, with a preliminary notice by Charles Darwin (London: 1879), 35.

17 Priestley, Disquisitions, 342.

18 On the re-discovery of the symbolic power of matter, see C. B. Wilde, “Matter and Spirit as Natural Symbols in Eighteenth-Century British Natural Philosophy”, British Journal for the History of Science, 15 (1982), 99-131.

19 See the letters of Erasmus Darwin to Josiah Wedgwood (2 July 1767) and to Matthew Boulton (29 July 1767).

20 E. Darwin, The Temple of Nature (London: 1803), Canto II, lines 43, 44. To an analysis of the spontaneous production of life the whole Canto I is devoted.

21Ibid., Canto IV, lines 398-400.

22 Porter, The Creation of the Modern World, 139.

23 On Priestley’s radicalism, see I. Kramnick, “Religion and Radicalism: English Political Theory in the Age of Revolution”, Political Theory, 5 (1977), 505-534.

24 J. W. Yolton, Thinking Matter: Materialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983). On materialism as a source of radicalism, see C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, repr. 1978). See also M. C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981).

25 The best account of Priestley’s phenomenism is J. G. McEvoy, “Joseph Priestley, ‘Aerial Philosopher’: Metaphysics and Methodology in Priestley’s Chemical Thought”, Ambix, 25 (1978), part I, 1-55, part. II, 93-116, part III, 153-75; 26 (1979), part IV, 16-38.

26 Priestley, Disquisitions, 109. See also Yolton, Thinking Matter, 123.

27 Quoted in Porter, The Creation of the Modern World, 219.

28 Uglow, The Lunar Men, xviii.

29 On the fundamental ambivalence of seventeenth and eighteenth-century culture towards wonders and the extraordinary, see L. Daston and K. Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998).

30 See J. J. Winkelmann, Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks, trans. H. Fuseli (London: 1765).

31 See McNeil, Under the Banner of Science, 31-58.

32 On the eighteenth-century interest for an ideal antiquity, see A. O. Lovejoy, et al. (eds.), Documentary History of Primitivism and Related Ideas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935). On the eighteenth-century picturesque, see W. J. Hipple, The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetics Theory(Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1957) and C. G. Argan, “La pittura dell’illuminismo in Inghilterra”, in Id., Da Hogarth a Picasso (Milan: Feltrinelli 1983).

33 See Porter, The Creation of the Modern World, 155.

34 Ibid., 445.

35 Darwin, Temple, Canto IV, line 66.

36 J. Priestley, Memoirs of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley Written by Himself (London: 1809), 17.

37 Darwin, Temple, Canto IV, lines 429-30.

38 Ibid., Canto IV, lines 447-50.

Conclusion: Classical Order versus Romantic Nature

Virgil’s Tomb (1782), Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), Oil on Canvas. Derby Museum & Art Gallery.

Wright painted several versions of this scene, believed to be the tomb of the Roman poet, Virgil located above the Grotto of Posillipo in Naples. It was a stopping point on the aristocratic Grand Tour and therefore provided a concrete example of the classical world for wealthy young men who traversed southern Europe as part of their education. Wright’s interpretation of the scene does more than portray a picturesque ancient monument. He invests it with a disturbing grandeur. The tomb becomes an overgrown darkened cave. The lunar light provides a glow which barely illuminates its entrance. Darkness and uncertainty lie within the worlds of Ancient Rome and the 18th century Enlightenment, a message that was understood by Priestley and Darwin.

5. Conclusion: Classical Order versus Romantic Nature

In speaking about the Enlightenment, in particular that peculiar form of Enlightenment embodied by the Lunar men, we have to be extremely careful to avoid the over-simplification made by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the famous German philosopher and art-historian. He claimed that ancient Greece was everywhere suffused by joy and serenity, that statues were basically uncoloured forms and that Greek artists were lacking in dreadful sentiments and emotions.30 Accordingly, Lunar men were not only champions of optimism and industrial heroes who devoted all their energy to shape a new harmony. It is true that they reinvented classicism. Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) at his “Etruria” factory, copied some artefacts retrieved during the first archeological excavations, the Portland Vase for example, and thanks to the contribution of Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), at Soho, he helped to diffuse a British taste for a neoclassicism. Darwin and Priestley were in turn formed on neoclassical standards. Engravings, allegories, Arcadian myths and pathetic fallacies are scattered in several of their works.31
However, this “recovered” classicism and the praise for harmony are in the first instance a sentimental journey, a homesickness for an imagined antiquity, and the outcome of a picturesque mood.32 The more they behave in accordance with a “neoclassical” order, the more they betray a gap. In particular, coming across the works and the whole cultural experience of Darwin and Priestley gives us the opportunity to enshrine a large truth. The West Midlands Enlightenment was not completely in consent with itself and it cannot be simply interpreted as a new form of classicism. It is unquestionable that Priestley pictured intelligence and human order endlessly prevailing over brute materiality, thanks to a divine direction.33 He pledged himself to spread harmony and reasonableness. Darwin, in turn, painted an optimistic, naturalistic and this-wordly picture based on evolution: “Darwin and his peers presented a man-centred view of man making himself – a Promethean vision of infinite possibilities.”34 But infinite possibility involves an infinite deficiency, and a boundless improvement implies present boundless needs. Darwin’s evolution implicitly assumes the continuity between animals and humans, and admits that in “man” operates the brutal fecundity of nature: “one great Slaughter-house the warring world!”35 For his part, Priestley was not a poet, although in his prose works matter shines like a powerful and disquieting prophecy – materiality means mortality. Priestley’s taste for classical harmony, then, was badly fitted to a man who ironically declared to have often embraced “il lato eterodosso in quasi ogni questione.”36
In every realistic inquiry, progress and decay necessarily face each other. Lunar men applauded progress and human intellect with the analogous intensity they employed to remember the individual’s transience, mortality and failure: “Hear, O ye Sons of Time! your final doom,/ And read the characters, that mark your tomb”.36 The materialistic point of view which buttressed the ideology of the Industrial Revolution reveals at the same time the abyss of darkness which opens beneath human existence and discloses the tragic awareness of the depth of past and future times. Priestley stated that death is not, as Christianity has portrayed it, simply the threshold to futurity. Since we are fundamentally matter, death is something to which we are exposed. Moving from a corresponding materialistic worldview, Darwin depicted hallucinatory and subconscious worlds which compare with William Blake’s:

“Thus the tall mountains, that emboss the lands,
Huge isles of rock, and continents of sands,
Whose dim extent eludes the inquiring sight,

If, as Enlightenment thinkers, Darwin and Priestley acclaimed progress and civilization, the “Reason’s empire o’er the world”, if they supported the eighteenth-century project of ordering, naming and classifying, they were driven to do so not by a self-confident and a classical serenity but by a fundamental anxiety and a fear of darkness. They helped further generations to open their eyes to new forms of the philosophical materialism. They gave new meanings to old notions of matter and supported the claim of the essential material nature of the human beings. For this reason, Darwin and Priestley were fearful about the weakness of the individual ego or spirit. Universal ferment and complexity, awareness of risks and transience, not harmony and serenity, were the watchwords of the late Enlightenment. And Darwin and Priestley were the living demonstration of the truth of this thesis.

Darwin, Priestley and Romantic Materialism

Image: Bridge through a Cavern, Moonlight (1791).  Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), Oil on Canvas. Derby Museum & Art Gallery.

Wright visited Italy in 1773-1775 and Bridge through a Cavern, Moonlight is one of several scenes he painted of the Naples area. Wright was fascinated by caves and caverns. He explored them artistically whilst his Lunar friends, John Whitehurst and Erasmus Darwin researched them scientifically. Wright investigated through the medium of paint the world which Darwin and Priestley probed philosophically, the relationship between darkness and light.

4. Darwin, Priestley and Romantic Materialism

Lunar men, Darwin in particular, actively looked for a personal commitment to materiality.18 Earth was the source of neverending images. “Matter” was but another name for an original matrix, a creative chaos or “broth” whose bits and pieces are scattered everywhere. After an excursion into a cave called “the Devil’s Arse”, near Castelton, Derbyshire, Darwin could not easily hide his excitement for having been “into the Bowels of old Mother Earth”, “into the Regions of Darkness” and having seen the “Goddess of Minerals naked, as she lay in her inmost bowers”.19 Years after, in The Loves of the Plants, in The Economy of Vegetation and especially in The Temple of Nature, the poet could not resist the allure spreading from the living Mother Earth, a queen who takes over “immortal matter”, “unchanging but in form”, lifting her primeval power in order to give birth to life.20 At the top of his mystical, heathen wonder, nourished by Romantic images, Darwin makes out that the “wrecks of Death”, in nature, could not actually hamper the perpetual youth of life. Matter is the leading actor yet again: “Emerging matter from the grave returns,/ Feels new desires, with new sensations burns”.21
In addition, Darwin’s rapture for materiality is completely in tune with the new discoveries of contemporary physiology. John Hunter, from Scotland, Albrecht von Haller and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, from Germany, turned down Cartesian mechanicism as unable to explain the features of living matter. From crystals to animals, matter shows an astonishing power of self-organisation. It is true that the “soul” and other spiritual qualities have been banished from Enlightenment natural philosophy, but Hunter, Blumenbach, and Haller, like Darwin and Priestley, could not oppose a new vitalistic conception of materiality. No more than matter, the living and active stuff could grow per se, thanks to a spontaneous and enduring stream and without any supernatural intervention. As Roy Porter cleverly noted, in these years “seemingly paradoxical, vitalism was thereby recruited to bolster materialism.”22
Thanks to Priestley, the doctrine of materialism acquired unheard-of scientific importance and especially a new figurative strength. It became a prop of a revolutionary radicalism intended to turn the social and scientific world upside-down.23 In Priestley’s mind, traditional hierarchies did not hold anymore. “Matter is life”, “matter is active”, “matter is not a principle opposed to thought”, are mottoes which abundantly ran all along seventeenth and eighteenth-century British culture, from Locke onward.23
However, at the end of the century matter was no more simply the “substance” which everyone thinks to be extension, solidity, impenetrability, vis inertiae. In Priestley’s thought, matter was not a substance anymore. On a metaphysical level, Priestley completely rejected the traditional notion of substance and turned out to be a sheer phenomenist: matter is an explanatory principle, a word which we cannot leave out when we think, although we completely ignore its nature and its secret essence.25 The Cartesian split between an active res cogitans and a passive res extensa fell irreparably down not because Priestley maintained that all reduces to matter. Priestley openly defended “a very different kind of materialism from that grosser sort”.26 More than the first receptive substratum, matter is the conceptual starting-point, the omnipresent “myth”, an invisible point from where all our discourses flow, a quid unknown in itself but well known in its effects. Whatever it is, matter manifests itself like spirit and vice versa. Priestley claimed for the spiritualization of matter, i.e., for considering matter in terms of a primeval force. Matter is not a dead object. It is a never-ending power, something which is already life and spirit. As a speculative philosopher, Priestley saw matter as omnipresent, but dreadfully unfamiliar: pure effect, pure life, pure activity, pure revolutionary energy.
Some syllogisms come out unbound: we are matter, matter is energy, we are energy; we are matter, matter is in itself unfamiliar, we are partly unfamiliar to ourselves. Priestley thus overturned the traditional philosophical belief of a dichotomy between matter and energy. According to Priestley, matter and energy are both the sum of what we are aware of, a secularized reality, but much more than this. If speaking about matter involves speaking about a substantial mystery, the whole eighteenth-century materialistic culture, Darwin and Priestley in particular, did not definitely wipe away the frightful obscurity, the original nightmare of human culture. On the one hand, they wished to wipe away obscurity, but in the meantime they admitted that they were attracted by Henry Fuseli’s portraits of ghosts, incubi and succubi. They were seen as a dimension of energy entailed in matter. Priestley confessed having read the account of the man in the iron cage in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress during his childhood “with the greatest perturbation”. The memory of that “state of ignorance and darkness” gave him “a peculiar sense of the value of rational principles of religion”.27 The keen sense of our physical proximity to ignorance and darkness, plus the dialectic between darkness and light, could not be ignored. Wishing to erase and repudiate obscurity (and hence implicitly admitting its efficacy) points out a sublime contradiction of the late eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Notwithstanding Darwin’s and Priestley’s exceptional scientific discoveries, they perceived the world as a mystery, like looking through a glass darkly. As Jenny Uglow observes, “medicine was a saga of bleeding and blisters; chemistry a matter of green fumes and red fumes”.28 Enlightenment rationality has its perennial verso in the same way the night mirrors its recto during the daylight. It is gratuitous to argue that Enlightenment was not fascinated by obscurity, secret powers, and the strength of the extraordinary.29

Priestley: Body, Matter and Death

Miravan Breaking Open the Tomb of his Ancestors (1772).  Joseph Wright of Derby(1734-1797), Oil on canvas. Derby Museum & Art Gallery.

Image: Miravan Breaking Open the Tomb of his Ancestors is one of Wright’s overtly allegorical paintings. Wright describes the background in his notes. It describes the story of Miravan, a young man who came across a tablet on the chamber of the tomb of his ancestors which announced, “In this tomb is a greater treasure than even Croesus possessed”, a reference to the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia in Asia Minor who died in about 546 BC. The canvas shows Miravan’s discovery. Instead of gold he found bones and another inscription on the slab held by the men on the right “Here dwells repose. Sacriligious wretch, searchest thou for gold amongst the dead! Go son of avarice – thou canst not enjoy repose.” Miravan has exercised free choice, but his avaricious pursuit of gold has led him to discover that death is the ultimate reality. He has lost the real treasure that life brings, the eternal repose that follows a good life.

3. Priestley: Body, Matter and Death

During the 18th century intellectuals rediscovered that the human being is not just a spiritual being which resides in body, but is entirely a material entity.8 “Body” and “matter” are notions which, for the very first time in a major way, contribute to define the proper essence of men and women. They are no longer seen as an “obstruction”, an “impediment”, a “clog” to the spirit, a source of all vices and disorders or a dead and torpid substance. Body and matter become what we properly and essentially are.9 A follower of Hartley’s physiological theory, Joseph Priestley is in this sense highly representative. “Philosophers have given too little to matter, in divesting it of all powers”, Priestley maintains.10 Christian orthodox spiritualism affected a big part of western philosophy and for this reason Descartes, Pascal and Andrew Baxter, could easily find in that tradition several hints to support the thesis of the immaterial active thinking principle in man. But because matter is no more described as a passive substance, the idea of a spirit as essentially different from it falls to the ground. Humans are no longer “actuated” by a heavenly principle distinct from the body, Priestley claims.11 The powers of sensation, perception and thinking may also belong to the same substance that has also the properties of attraction, repulsion and extension and humans are but “organized systems of matter”.
Priestley’s discovery of the body involves an emphasis on transience and mortality. The system of materialism and philosophical necessity that Priestley strenuously maintained, urged him to consider “man” as “no more than what we now see of him. His being commences at the time of his conception, or perhaps at an earlier period. The corporeal and mental faculties, inhering in the same substance, grow, ripen, and decay together; and whenever the system is dissolved, it continues in a state of dissolution, till it shall please that Almighty Being who called it into existence to restore it again.”12Resurrection and a future life completely depend on the free choice of God, not on our being a supernatural soul.
Contrary to God-like spiritual beings, humans as such have no titles to an after-life. Because of his yearning for a pure ideal world, Plato, Viscount Bolingbroke mantains, is but “a bombast poet and a mad theologian”.13 Priestley agrees. In general, Enlightenment culture refused to acknowledge a debt to Plato and his metaphysical visions. A deep realism even though it was itself a metaphysical doctrine contrasted with Plato’s otherwordly mysticism. Plato seemed puerile, whimsical, full of unintelligible jargon.14
Humans were compelled to live as if there were no truer, spiritual, other-worldly existence. The main lines of a new tradition-free anthropology are here clearly drawn: “Man”, said Priestley, is “no more than what we now see of him”. The adverb “now” is central, because it entails the idea of an exclusive material presence of human beings on earth. We are mortal, we are our body, and, furthermore, we have to be our world. This revaluation of body and matter does not simply entail a process of secularization. Matter and the earthly world become sacred since God chose to create them and, Priestley admitted, actively wished them.15
Because matter is something more than an impediment it could be appreciated in terms of the positive limit or the visible shape of the so-called “spirit”. Being in consent with matter and body is the way one can affirm ones own presence and individuality. In France as well as in England, Enlightenment culture was always suspicious of the ascetic contempt for materiality and “mundaneness”. This is but the collateral effect of what I have called a “realistic” world-view. Darwin, James Keir remembers, “despised the monkish abstinences and the hypocritical pretensions which so often impose on the world.”16 And Priestley could merrily echo with an equivalent statement: “The opinion of the great value and importance of bodily austerities came from the heathen philosophy” and hence it is unsuitable for a sound “Christian”.17 This not only emphasizes a conventional pleasures such as eating and drinking. Going behind the letter of such declarations, we could discover a philosophical worship for materiality. Matter by itself is a value and improving matter is the best chance a human being has to leave a visible trace and to create a future. At the end of the eighteenth-century the theory of the improvement of matter is thus a secular substitute for the traditional belief in the after-life.

The Philosophical Context: From Optimism to Realism

The Widow of an Indian Chief watching the Weapons of her deceased Husband (1785). Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797), Oil on Canvas. Derby Museum & Art Gallery.

Image: Celebration of the “noble savage” is a feature of 18th century art. In this painting of an American Indian woman, Wright does something very different. He uses a human image to comment on the transience of achievement and the fragility of existence. The widow sits stoically under a blasted tree, decked with the military symbols of status that belonged to her husband. Around her lightning strikes, a volcano spews smoke, a flood engulfs the land and the sun barely shines through a vortex of clouds. There is little sense of consolation in the picture.

2. The Philosophical Context: From Optimism to Realism

During the last two decades of the 18th century both the Old and the New World experienced violent turmoils. The season of the classic Enlightenment – daydreamer’s optimism, partisan rationalism, blind utilitarianism, compulsive anti-traditionalism – came to an end. Although we could easily doubt whether such a “classic” or “narrow-minded” Enlightenment ever existed, it is unquestionable that the Napoleonic period following the wreck of the French revolutionary ideals made visible the dangers coming from the uprooting of traditions and the simplistic worship of reason. The “tyranny of reason” was the danger Edmund Burke envisaged in his Reflections of the Revolution in France (1790), and Burke’s was but one among the several voices raised against sweeping rationalism. The effortless optimistic tone was displaced at the very beginning of the 19th century and philosophers recovered more realistic points of view and down-to-earth expectations. Despite Hegel’s opinion, Enlightenment culture was never narrowly optimistic and rigid in its attitudes. A sense of the brevity of life, human fragility and a non-consolatory worldview was deeply rooted in the Enlightenment experience.
In truth, just in order to react to a perceived chaotic reality, the standards of reason and optimism were of great interest to philosophers who in general had a keen consciousness of the fallibility of human faculties and of the fragility of human nature. Intellectual humility, pessimism, Socratic irony, awareness of the overwhelming power of history and nature over human endeavours and distrust of every speculative system, were defining tracts of “classic” Enlightenment culture, from Voltaire onwards, no less than a supposed rationalism and optimism.4
Complexity and universal ferment, not serenity and harmony, were thus the watchwords of Enlightenment. As a whole, eighteenth-century culture was clearly leaning towards realistic, less systematic and omni-comprehensive representations of the world. Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz had long since disappeared. The seventeenth-century idea that the human mind could take over the actual world lost much of its strength. It is true that everybody could still remember Francis Bacon’s motto, that science is power, but Enlightenment culture perceived itself as lying faraway from this target: the dominion of science and knowledge was far from being complete. To the Enlightenment players, humans appear no less than ridiculous when they think they are the owners of their destiny. The world is basically a series of problems to be tackled slowly, not a mystery to be unveiled suddenly by some gifted metaphysician. Voltaire, for instance, was a sour detractor of Cartesian systematic thought and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, one of the finest interpreters of late-eighteenth-century German culture, withheld recognition to those “All-embracers” who dissolved multifaceted reality into an a priori conceptual scheme. But Rousseau, Diderot, Buffon, La Mettrie, D’Holbach and Jefferson adopted a similar position. The philosophers of eighteenth-century culture turned down Cartesian “certain and perfect science” (founded upon universal principles, independent of actual experiences), and clearly preferred to follow the road opened by previous theoretical entrepreneurs, by Mersenne, Roberval, and Newton, for instance.5
It is worth remembering that the Enlightenment was empirical and tentative, not rationalistic and systematic, in its fundamental character and in its historical outcome. Within this frame of reference, the proclaimed confidence in human reason is not dependent on a firm belief in the full transparency of the world to the human mind. In the same way optimism has been a reaction to a world experienced as basically menacing, rationalism is an exhortation, a prophylaxis for preventing fear and anxiety and a rhetorical strategy to increase human hope. During the Enlightenment, the scientist-philosopher becomes a traveller who explores an unknown land with patience and fortitude. Philosophical knowledge itself turns out to be an experience besides other “human” experiences. Religion, literature, politics, ethics, medicine and industry are but useful ways in which humans could continuously re-describe themselves, in the hope of improving their situation.
In all its wide semantic range, “attempt” is the sound basis of the Enlightenment, in particular in its later forms. “Attempt” means at once an act whose result is uncertain and an endeavour, a challenge. “Sapere aude”, dare to know, was the Roman poet Horace’s line chosen by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant to incite humans to construct their future, that is, an improved earthly destiny. The counterpart of optimism, it is an exhortation and a wish: “dare!” As such it reveals in which terms Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers considered the way humans usually dwell in the world. It reveals an implicit philosophical anthropology. A being exhorted to start improving its condition is a being lying on the borders of reality, a peripheral creature lost amidst the world, full of potentiality, and hence still lacking in actuality and success. Somehow, who is pushed to embark on a venture has to experience a strong sense of his own future and cannot already be satisfied, self-centred, and self-celebrating.6 Urging humans towards their future, by means of neverending new experiences, the Enlightenment achieved the project already created by Newton and Locke. It rejected both the Cartesian ego, source of every evidence and value, and the Christian spiritual self, a pre-formed spirit who has merely to resist the temptations of the material world.7

Introduction: Between Enlightenment and Romanticism

Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, (exhibited 1775, reworked 1795). Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), Oil on canvas. Derby Museum & Art Gallery.

Image: This is one of Wright’s overtly allegorical paintings. He shows an alchymist seeking the “Philosopher’s Stone”, the substance which turns base metal into gold and cure all the world’s ills. The word alchymy or alchemy is derived from the Arabic for chemistry; the use of the word as synonymous with unscientific magic is recent, but was also current in the 18th century. Wright portrays a laboratory rather than a magician’s cave and the alchymist instead of finding the “Philosopher’s Stone” has discovered phosphorus, popularly known as the “Devil’s Element”, which bursts into light and illuminates the faces of the experimenter and his assistants. The awe-struck alchymist is present at a birth, not of the Christ-child but of the power of discovery to illuminate, change and terrify the world, an experience which Darwin and Priestley shared.

1. Introduction: Between Enlightenment and Romanticism

The West Midlands cultural milieu provided sufficient elements to define a particular kind of Enlightenment, whose specific value dramatically outstripped the borders of conventional historical partitions. Scholars have stressed, for instance, the deep commitment of the thought and the “style” of some west Midlands players to the construction of British Romanticism.1 Internationally known philosophers, scientists, and strong supporters of the Industrial Revolution, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), better than other “Lunar men”, have been the interpreters of this west Midlands, “pre-Romantic” Enlightenment.2
Like the well-known French philosophes, of course, these men were rationalists fond of progress and useful science. Darwin and Priestley took part in the European Enlightenment and hence they appear naturally doubtful of Calvinistic predestination, aristocratic privilege and ancestral lineage. They tried to promote sociability, education, arts, individual pleasures and cheerfulness, to foster, in short, the “happiness” of humankind.
Nevertheless, Darwin’s and Priestley’s mineralogical, geological, chemical, botanical and medical enquiries were not wholly developed to buttress objective science, impersonal technology and money-making industry. They were not simply forerunners or advocates of a pre-twentieth-century secularism. Their enquiries, whose results are scattered in poems, botanical, chemical, and physiological treatises, moral essays, philosophical letters and sermons, hung on a pre-Enlightenment idea of knowledge. For Darwin and Priestley, natural philosophy was not yet specialized. “The Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone” was not only the title of an exciting and emotional painting by Joseph Wright. It is, so to say, a heading stamped at the very entrance of an “ethical laboratory” where res (things) are not clearly detached from verba (words), where things have a value of their own, where Darwin, Priestley and other scientist-philosophers, like sorcerers involved in a mystic enterprise, could undergo a metamorphosis or a dissection of their own body, in order to break up accepted customs and let nature and matter carry out all their terrific power. Darwin’s and Priestley’s cultural challenge place humans into the material, earthly world, and shed light on human existence to clarify the possibilities this world could realistically provide. Upon the “Frankensteinian” Enlightenment of these two father-figures, upon a cultural world where “alchemy should be respected as a genuine search for wisdom”, and James Watt’s steam was “demonic in its strength, a hissing, heaving animal of fire and water and air”, this paper is concentrated.3

Both Sides of the Moon: Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and the West Midlands’ Enlightenment

A Philosopher lecturing on the Orrery (1766), Joseph Wright (1734-1797), Oil on Canvas, Derby Museum & Art Gallery.

Image: Wright’s painting is a celebration of scientific knowledge and the interpreter of this knowledge, the philosopher. The latter dominates the picture and explains the working of the sun and planets via an orrery, a mechanical representation of the solar system. The audience is transfixed by the demonstration, which may be showing the causes of eclipses. Light floods the scene, illuminating the philosopher and the faces of the observers. Frequently, this famous picture is interpreted as a visual expression of the Enlightenment, which Wright portrayed in its Midlands context. The painting was composed in 1766 towards the start of Wright’s career and contrasts with the less celebratory imagery of his later years.

Text: Professor Maurizio Valsania
Image captions: Malcolm Dick


Studies of Enlightenment thought have concentrated on the great European thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and Goethe or the Scots including David Hume and Adam Smith. Less attention has been paid to the Enlightenment in the West Midlands, but in the late 18th century, Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley were recognised as international figures contributing to new ways of thinking. The West Midlands was the powerhouse of scientific and technological innovation and industrial and commercial development. The intellectually curious could observe their environment, create theories and engage in experimentation. Darwin and Priestley were two such men. Professor Maurizio Valsania explores their ideas and notes that the popular perception of Enlightenment thinking as optimistic and based on conceptions of progress is an oversimplification. Darwin and Priestley were aware of the limitations of reason, the terrifying and unknowable nature of much of the natural world and the fragility of human achievement. The paper is linked to selections from Joseph Wright’s paintings which reflect in visual form the ideas of the two men.