Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Sir Kenelm Digby (16031665)
[Kenelm Digby was the son of Sir Everard Digby, executed for his participation in the Gunpowder Plot. He was born in 1603, at Gayhurst, Bucks, an estate which was preserved to him by the care of his mother. For a time he seems to have been educated as a Protestant under the charge of Laud, then Dean of Gloucester; but although there are doubts as to the date of his adherence to the Roman Catholic Church, he certainly became an avowed Roman Catholic before 1636. He studied first at Gloucester Hall (afterwards Worcester College) in the University of Oxford, and next in the University of Paris, and spent a large part of his early manhood abroad. In 1623, he received the honour of knighthood, and in 1624 was privately married to Venetia Stanley, descended from the Earls of Derby and the house of Percya lady of great beauty and talents, with whose reputation, however, scandal had been busy. In 1627, he started, under royal licence, as head of a privateering expedition, in which he defeated a Venetian and French fleet. On the outbreak of the disputes between the Crown and the Parliament, he fell under the suspicion of the Parliamentary party and was banished; and it was while in France, under the protection of Henrietta Maria and her mother, that he published his chief work, On the Nature of Bodies, and the Nature of Mans Soul. The sincerity of his political principles is rendered doubtful by his subsequent friendly relations with Cromwell; but strangely enough, he seems never to have broken off his connection with the Royalist party, and was well received at Court after the Restoration. He took an interest in the establishment of the Royal Society in 1663, and died in London in 1665.]
AMONGST the many strange personalities of the 17th century, there are few whose character it is more difficult to gauge than that of Kenelm Digby. He played his part as courtier, man of fashion, romancer, critic, soldier, virtuoso, and philosopher; and although he was distinguished in each, there was no sphere in which some suspicion of charlatanism did not attach to him. It is indeed difficult to avoid the conclusion that an element of madness entered into his composition, or at least that his versatility was united to an abnormal eccentricity, which, if it partly relieves him of the worst charges, yet explains how small his influence was in any single sphere of activity. His vanity was prodigious, and is naturally most conspicuous where his writings (as is frequently the case) relate to his own actions.
His Private Memoirs, first printed from his MS. in 1827, give us an account of his life down to 1628; and the larger part is occupied with a singular history of his early love and marriage with Venetia Stanley. The story is told as a romance under assumed names, and it is impossible to tell what part of it is true and what part pure romancing. In style it is inflated and turgid, and exhibits all the absurd magniloquence of diction characteristic of the romances of the day, with a strange perversity in its moralisings which is peculiar to Digby himself. Besides this we have some shorter narratives; one entitled Sir Kenelm Digbys Honour Maintained, in which his prowess in resenting an insult to his king by single combat is set forth; and another, the journal of his privateering expedition, which is simple and direct narrative. In 1643, he printed his Observations on Religio Medici, written in feverish haste, and with something of captious criticism of Brownes work; in 1644, his Observations on an obscure passage in Spensers Fairie Queene; and in the same year his chief philosophical work, On the Nature of Bodies, and the Nature of Mans Soul.
Some of his most marked peculiarities are best exhibited by the contrast between Browne and himself, which appears in his Observations on Religio Medici. In Brownes mysticism the imagination is always stronger than the ingenuity, and the breadth of a generous and liberal sympathy is more conspicuous than any definiteness of formal belief. But Digby is always straining after a system; and he evidently wrote the criticism under the influence of the philosophical theory which he sets forth more elaborately in the longer treatise on the Nature of Badies and the Nature of Mans Soul. What attracts us most in Browne is his keen perception of the bearing of religious belief upon the faculties of man; he never obtrudes any dogmatism, but he steers his way through the labyrinth of creeds, with a calm and steady equipoise which never loses its courteous dignity. Digby, with far less of philosophic calm, is much more of the schoolman; without attacking any religious dogma, he yet pursues, with greater pertinacity, a sort of rationalistic system. He will not subscribe to Brownes gentle contempt for the impotence of human reason, but would fain base religion upon the foundations of reason. The germ of freethinking was there; and it is difficult to avoid the belief that Swift, whose writings are full of reminiscences both of Browne and of Digby, found in Digbys sprightly philosophising a type of the mental complacency against which he directed his satire.
His more elaborate philosophical work begins by tracing the operations of physical nature, and through them, explains the action of instinct in animals. He distinguishes sharply between these instincts (the result, as he maintains, solely of physical causes), and the operations of the human intellect, even when these approach most nearly to the semblance of the instincts in animals. From this distinction he argues that there must be some basis for these operations which is not physical; that this basis is the sole foundation for a belief in the existence of the soul; and enunciates in a somewhat different form, the thesis Cogito ergo sum. And because this basis is not physical and is not therefore subject to physical laws, it must be immortal. The theory is open to assault at many points; but it is worked out with much care and ingenuity; and by the very care and accuracy of his argument, Digbys style becomes clear, exact, and forcible. He has not the boldness or the mastery of language which invents new expressions or clothes new thoughts in words. But he writes with the polished ease and grace which in his carriage and his manner so vividly impressed all his contemporaries, even when they were compelled to admit his total want of veracity. He has the confidence, and, at the same time, the breadth of view, acquired by converse with every phase of life. His prose has not the quaint turns, and the sympathetic subtlety of Brownes; but as the extracts given below will show, he can rise occasionally to very lofty heights of dignity and eloquence. With all this, however, there is a pervading impression of artificiality, as of one whose character was above all things theatrical; and of superficial confidence, as of one to whom philosophical lucubrations were only a phase of eccentric and ill-balanced restlessness. The best description of Digby is that given by a master of word-portraitureClarendon.
Sir Kenelm Digby was a person very eminent and notorious throughout the whole course of his life, from his cradle to his grave; of an ancient family and noble extraction, and inherited a fair and plentiful fortune notwithstanding the attainder of his father. He was a man of a very extraordinary person and presence, which drew the eyes of all men upon him, which were more fixed by a wonderful graceful behaviour, a flowing courtesy and civility, and such a volubility of language, as surprised and delighted; and though in another man it might have appeared to have somewhat of affectation, it was marvellous graceful in him, and seemed natural to his size and mould of person, to the gravity of his motion, and the tune of his voice and delivery. He had a fair reputation in arms, of which he gave an early testimony in his youth in some encounters in Spain and Italy, and afterwards in an action in the Mediterranean Sea, where he had the command of a squadron of ships of war, set out at his own charge under the kings commission . In a word, he had all the advantages that nature and art, and an excellent education could give him; which, with a great confidence and presentness of mind, buoyed him up against all those prejudices and disadvantages (as the attainder and execution of his father for a crime of the highest nature; his own marriage with a lady, though of an extraordinary beauty, of as extraordinary a fame; his changing and rechanging his religion; and some personal vices and licences in his life) which would have suppressed and sunk any other man, but never clouded or eclipsed him from appearing in the best places, in the best company, and with the best estimation and satisfaction.
Had (Sir Kenelm Digby) been dropt out of the clouds in any part of the world he would have made himself respected; but the Jesuits who cared not for him, spoke spitefully, and said, Twas true, but he must not have stayed above six weeks.