Sunday, 29 August 2021

The Royal Society: And the Invention of Modern Science, by Adrian Tinniswood, Head of Zeus, RRP£18.99, 256 pages

 Nullius in Verba. On no man's word.

The motto of the Royal Society 

In science, it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds, and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should because scientists are human, and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan

August 29, 1662. The council and fellows of the Royal Society went in a body to Whitehall to acknowledge his Majesty's royal grace to granting our charter and vouchsafing to be himself our founder; then the President gave an eloquent speech, to which his Majesty gave a gracious reply, and we all kissed his hand. The next day, we went in like manner with our address to my Lord Chancellor, who had much prompted our patent.

— John Evelyn

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

Isaac Newton 1675


Adrian Tinniswood’s new book is a superb introduction to the origins of the Royal Society. His book part of the Landmark Library series is well written and finely researched. Tinniswood is a historian with no previous track record in science history, so this is a remarkably good book. It is compact and highly accessible.

The Society resulted from the huge intellectual and political ferment that was created by the English bourgeois revolution. Tinniswood shows that before the Royal Society became a recognised body, it comprised a collection of discussion groups.

Many of these groups were inspired by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon was part of the massive growth of intellectual ideas that proceeded in the seventeenth century. Bacon is an important figure because he was the first to reject traditional Aristotelian thinking and proposed an experimental investigation to find truths about nature.

As Karl Marx wrote, "The real progenitor of English materialism is Francis Bacon. Natural science is to him the true science, and sensuous physics the foremost part of science. Anaxagoras with his 'homoimeries' and Democritus with his atoms are often his authorities. According to Bacon, the senses arc unerring and the source of all knowledge. Science is experimental and consists in the application of a rational method to sensuous data. Observation, experiment, induction, analysis are the main conditions of a rational method. Of the qualities inherent in matter, the foremost is motion, not only as mechanical and mathematical motion, but more as impulse, vital force, tension, or as Jacob Boehme said, pain of matter. The primitive forms of the latter are living, individualising, inherent, and essential forces, which produce specific variations".[1]

However, not everyone saw as clear and precise as Bacon according to the Marxist writer David North " until the seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt a death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it was well underway".[2]

Historians have largely accepted that the English bourgeois revolution created the conditions for establishing the Royal Society. Many of the practices adopted by the Society, according to Tinniswood, were "far ahead of its time". Probably one of the most important activities was the publishing of Philosophical Transactions, launched in 1665. It is the world longest-running scientific journal.

One of the more gruesome facts uncovered by Tinniswood was that live experiments were done on the premises at Gresham College. In 1664, Robert Hooke inserted a pipe into the trachea of a dog and pumped in the air with bellows saying, "I was able to preserve it alive as long as I could desire after I had wholly opened the thorax and cut off all the ribs, and opened the belly,".

Tinniswood convincingly argues that the Royal Societies methodology, scholarship and activities laid the foundations for developing modern science. Tinniswood book does not examine the class background of the founders of the Society, but it is clear that many of its founding members were from sections of the lower middle class and gentry class.

As Neil Humphrey writes, "The nature of the Society's membership evolved over the following centuries, but from its beginning, it was a multifarious organisation. Members of the British gentry that used the Society as a means for social advancement (while injecting it with much-needed capital) were plentiful alongside studious researchers. This diversity created a tension between science and privilege that finally exploded in 1830 when fellow Charles Babbage lambasted the glut of unproductive members. In 1847 the Duke of Sussex took the Society's reins, and scientific fellows seized control and amended its constitution in 1847 to stymie further influence from the gentry. This power-grab forever transformed the nature of the Society from that of a scientific, social club into a scholarly society".[3]

It is not easy to cover over three centuries of scientific developments in such a short book, but Tinniswood does well. One mild criticism is his lack of interest in what is happening recently in the Royal Society. It would appear that the Society's recent history is not as glorious as its past. In 2008 the Royal Society's education director, Professor Michael Reiss, was forced to resign for advocating the teaching of creationism in schools and evolution studies. He said, "Creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view."[4]

His comments provoke and anger and opposition from many members. Nobel Prize winners Richard Roberts, John Sulston and Harry Kroto, sent a letter demanding Reiss step down.


Tinniswood's history of The Royal Society is an accessible account of the formation of modern science. His writing style and explaining complex historical matters in a simple manner means the book is accessible to the general reader without losing its academic rigour. I would highly recommend it.



About the Author:

Adrian Tinniswood many books include Behind the Throne and The Long Weekend. He writes for many publications such as The New York Times and BBC History Magazine. He is a senior research fellow in history at The University of Buckingham, and he lives in Bath, England.




[1] England and Materialist Philosophy-

[2] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism

David North-



Sunday, 15 August 2021

Review: Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton-Nicholas McDowell-Princeton University Press October 27 2020- 494 pages


"Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:

England hath need of thee: she is a fen

Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,

Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,

Have forfeited their ancient English dower

Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;

O raise us up, return to us again,

And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power."

William Wordsworth-London, 1802[1]


Let us never forget Milton, the first defender of regicide.[2]

-Frederick Engels, The Northern Star December 18, 1847.


"Innocence, Once Lost, Can Never Be Regained. Darkness, Once Gazed Upon, Can Never Be Lost."

John Milton


"We develop new principles for the world out of the world's own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to".

Karl Marx, Letter from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher to Ruge (1843)


It would be perhaps an understatement to say that the poet John Milton (1608–1674) has a unique position in England's literary and intellectual history. It could also be argued that Paradise Lost and other great works could place Milton in the realm of one of the world's greatest narrative poets.

Nicholas McDowell's new book provides the reader with a competent introduction to the life of John Milton. While I do not normally pay too much attention to the title of a book, it is worth mentioning on this occasion. While Mcdowell concedes that Milton was a "poet of Revolution", he does not say that Milton was the poet of the English bourgeois revolution. McDowell deliberately downplays Milton's radicalism and his theoretical connection to groups like the Levellers, Diggers and other radical groups that appeared during the English bourgeois revolution.

A second significant omission from Mcdowell's book is his failure to show Milton's significant contemporary importance. The Poet Christopher Kempf recently issued a collection of Poems entitled What Though The Field Be Lost.[3] Kempf is a huge fan of Milton. According to Erik Schreiber, "The book takes its title from a line in Poet John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), which describes Satan's rebellion against God, his defeat and his temptation of Adam and Eve. Critics have likened the angels' uprising to a civil war, and Milton's initial attempt to write the epic was indeed interrupted by the English Civil War. It is legitimate that Kempf turned to Milton after being inspired to focus on the American Civil War".[4]

Kempf, to his eternal credit, quotes for an ordinary soldier who, even during the most bloody conflict in American history, had the outstanding ability to compare his struggle with that of Milton's, writing, "An eagle in the very midst of the thunderstorm might have experienced such confusion. Milton's account of the great battle between the forces of good and evil, which originated in this same question of secession, gives some faint idea of this artillery duel."[5]-

The biggest weakness of McDowell's book is its deliberate failure to draw any connection Milton had to radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers. His oversight is perhaps driven more by ideological considerations than an unintended omission on McDowell's part. One such omission is Mcdowell's non-use of David William's, Milton's Leveller God.

According to John Rees, Williams has "done a considerable service in bringing out this interpretation of Paradise Lost as an account of self-determining democratic revolution. It is a powerful and closely argued reading that will repay careful consideration by all those who wish to understand Milton's purpose. But there are more difficulties in seeing this as a direct reflection of specifically Leveller politics. First, there are some circumstantial difficulties. Things said in the revolutionary 1640s do not have the same meaning when said in the late 1660s. And they are not the same said in poetry rather than pamphlet prose. A revolutionary program advanced in the heat of debate and a poetic reflection two decades later may be related, but not in simple or straightforward ways. Second, and more importantly, in concentrating on the Leveller strand of thought informing Milton's politics, Williams excludes other threads in a more varied tapestry. There are, to be sure, continuities between Milton and the Levellers, but there are also important differences. Williams has certainly done us all a service in highlighting the former, but the latter need some consideration as well.[6]

Milton was a genius for all to see, but his Dissent and radicalism did not fall from the sky. He was part of the intellectual flowering of Dissent, a complex religious and intellectual development shared by other radical elements of the English Civil War, such as the Levellers, who wanted greater equality although not for everyone in society.

Milton and the other radical groups were also part of the merchant and manufacturing classes in their struggle against the aristocracy. Milton put this struggle by the merchant and manufacturing classes into a literary form and was joined by other major figures like John Bunyan's and his world-famous Pilgrim's Progress (1678). According to Paul Mitchell, Bunyan's use of imagery" reflected deep objective changes in society that also expressed the subjective strivings for a better future".

Milton's defence of the English Revolution and his agreement with the execution of Charles I meant his work would go on to influence a whole number of French and American revolutionaries. Milton's work was also followed by major figures in the 1917 Russian Revolution. The people's commissar for the Enlightenment, Anatole Lunarcharsky, compared the Russian Revolution to Milton's. Milton is also an attractive figure for revolutionaries of today. His revolutionary fervour, unfailing attachment to the 'good old cause', commitment to human freedom, and hatred of all forms of tyranny are good examples for all revolutionaries to follow. But you would not get that from McDowell's book.

McDowell's book is not without merit. It is a groundbreaking work in many ways and contains recent archival discoveries that, on a limited basis, further our understanding of the connection between Milton and the revolution he fought for. Mcdowell, unfortunately, is not a radical. His biography is very conservative and challenges biographers such as the Marxist Christopher Hill[7] , who, unlike Mcdowell, believed Milton was radical at a very early age and became more radical during the English revolution. Also, unlike McDowell, Hill believed that Milton's prose was heavily influenced by the English bourgeois revolution and groups such as the Levellers and Diggers. McDowell mentions the Levellers only twice in the book.

McDowell believes that Milton was a great history man but does not subscribe to any materialist or Marxist view of such men. Although the great Russian Marxist G.V Plekhanov was writing about a different period of history and different historical characters, his perceptive understanding of the role great figures play in history could be applied quite easily to Milton.

Plekhanov writes, "In the history of the development of human intellect, the success of some individual hinders the success of another individual very much more rarely. But even here, we are not free from the above-mentioned optical illusion. When a given state of society sets certain problems before its intellectual representatives, the attention of prominent minds is concentrated upon them until these problems are solved. As soon as they have succeeded in solving them, their attention is transferred to another object. By solving a problem, a given talent-A diverts the attention of talent B from the problem already solved to another problem. And when we are asked: What would have happened if A had died before he had solved problem X? – we imagine that the thread of development of the human intellect would have been broken. We forget that had A died, B, or C, or D might have tackled the problem, and the thread of intellectual development would have remained intact in spite of A's premature demise.

In order that a man who possesses a particular kind of talent may, by means of it, greatly influence the course of events, two conditions are needed. First, this talent must make him more conformable to the social needs of the given epoch than anyone else: if Napoleon had possessed the musical gifts of Beethoven instead of his own military genius, he would not, of course, have become an emperor. Second, the existing social order must not bar the road to the person possessing the talent which is needed and useful precisely at the given time. This very Napoleon would have died as the barely known General, or Colonel, Bonaparte, had the old order in France existed another seventy-five years. [8]

Christopher Hill

As was said earlier, Mcdowell does not subscribe to a materialist view of historical development. The last person to place Milton within the context of the great English bourgeois revolution was the Marxist Christopher Hill. Even with a cursory look at his biography of Milton,[9] it is easy to see that it contains more insight and gives the reader a far more multifaceted view of the poet than any other biography of Milton, including McDowell's. It could be argued that this was Hill's greatest book.

Hill correctly places Milton alongside other "Bourgois radicals" of the English Revolution. While Milton was influenced by ancient writers such as Plato, Aquinas, and Homer, Hill, believed Milton's connection with radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers and others had a far more profound impact on his thinking and actions than has been given credit.

As this quote shows, Hill did not think Milton was a Leveller but said, "Lest I be misunderstood, I repeat that I do not think Milton was a Leveller, a Ranter, a Muggletonian or a Behemist. Rather I suggest that we should see him living in a state of permanent dialogue with radical views which he could not wholly accept, yet some of which greatly attracted him. (Milton and the English Revolution [1977], 113-14)

As Andrew Milner perceptively writes, "By the standards of previous Milton criticism, Hill's Milton is boldly adventurous. It restores the poet to that social context from which he has been wrenched by the ahistorical idealism of mainstream literary criticism. Its emphasis on the radicalism both of that context and of the poet himself serves as a valuable corrective to those who have sought to subsume Milton under the mantle of conservative orthodoxy. Milton the dour Puritan is superseded by Milton, the libertarian revolutionary, and much that has previously appeared obscure becomes clarified".[10]


McDowell's Poet of Revolution is not a bad book and contains much that is worthwhile. However, it does not give the reader any great new insight into the English bourgeois revolution or Milton' place within that revolution. Milton was a major player in that revolution. Marxists like Hill saw the  English Revolution of 1640-1660 as a bourgeois revolution. Hill also believed that paved the way for the future development of capitalism.

Figures like Milton and Oliver Cromwell were bourgeois revolutionaries who were convinced that they had divine support for their revolution. But they were not alone. Other radicals formed the left wing of this revolution. It was these groups that had an important impact on Milton's thinking as a poet and revolutionary. The next biography of Milton needs to explore this connection in greater depth.







[3] What Though the Field Be Lost-Poems-by Christopher Kempf- LSU Press


[5] Pvt. John C. West, 4th Texas, July 27, 1863-

[6] Williams, David. Milton's Leveller God. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens UP, 2017. xviii + 494pp. ISBN 13: 9780773550339. $120.00 (cloth). Review by John Rees.

[7] Milton and the English Revolution Paperback – 18 Aug. 1997

by Christopher Hill

[8] G.V. Plekhanov-On the Role of the Individual in History(1898)

[9] Milton and the English Revolution-Christopher Hill-