«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»
Cotton Mather’s Christian Philosopher,” Church History. 56.1 (1987): 73-92), who both emphasize the consonance of Mather’s scientific interests with his religious worldview.
intellectual history, but precisely in order to understand it “as an object that works in the world … to produce [meanings] … rather than … as an idea that accumulates” them (10).
In the case of Mather and Lafitau, the system genre is precisely what enables them to bridge any gap between science and divinity—a goal, it must be noted, shared by their nemesis, Peyrère, as the Latin title of his work indicates—since the system is designed expressly to produce a coherent and limited set of abstract principles capable of accounting for the diversity of human experience and other observable phenomena.
A system, according to the first dictionary of the Académie Française, published in 1694, is the “[s]upposition d'un ou de plusieurs principes, d'où l'on tire des consequences, & sur lesquels on establit une opinion, une doctrine, un dogme, &c.” The examples given are, “Le systeme de Ptolomée, le systeme de Copernic. il a trouvé un nouveau systeme” (521).160 Among its many definitions of system, the Oxford English Dictionary provides the following, for which it offers several examples from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: “A work or writing containing a comprehensive and regularly arranged exposition of some subject; a systematic treatise” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, definition II.8.d). Thus the work of the system as a genre is precisely to “totalize and rationalize,” but, unlike our contemporary sense of “the system” as a nebulous and ill-defined object or force, the early modern and Enlightenment system is grounded in an exactly enumerated set of principles or axioms and the deductions that can be drawn from them.
“supposition of one or several principles, from which one draws consequences, and on which one establishes an opinion, a doctrine, a dogma, etc.”; “The system of Ptolemy, the system of Copernicus, he has found a new system” (translation mine) As Siskin aptly notes, “[w]hat systems want … is the highest ratio of parts to principles” (23). The ideal system, then, would be the simplest yet have the greatest explanatory power. For Mather and Lafitau this ideal system was Christianity itself, with the single principle of God underpinning the entirety of creation. To simply accept the principle of God outright, however, would run counter to the thinking of many of their contemporaries, who insisted upon the need for empirical data.161 The Abbé Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, for example, in his Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines, insists “il n’y a point d’idées qui ne soient acquises ; les premières viennent immédiatement des sens” (13).162 Thus Mather and Lafitau turn to the realm of the human in search for manifestations of the Christian God.
In Lafitau’s case, we find the systematic application of two basic axioms: that all human practices share a common origin, and that that original practice can be most accurately discerned through a comparison of the current practices of the “primitive” Native Americans with those of their ancient counterparts in Europe and elsewhere. Motsch suggests that this pair of axioms gets Lafitau stuck in a tautological rut because “il manque un tiers terme : ce qu’il offre, c[e n]’est que des analogies” (62).163 I would counter, however, that there is a silent third term operating throughout the text: modern, Siskin, for his part, reproduces our modern bias towards the secular system in his privileging of systems like Newton’s that have become cornerstones of modern physics, and he thereby minimizes not only the pervasiveness of religious belief among early scientists but also the ready affinity between theology and systematic thought in general; even Albert Einstein, after all, remained convinced that God had established the laws of physics.
“we have no ideas but what come from the senses” (Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge 18) “he lacks a third term: what he offers is [nothing more than] analogies” (translation mine) civilized Europeans. After all, the express purpose of Lafitau’s text is to illuminate the shared origins of all customs, and, thereby, all religion for his contemporary European audience; thus, the entirety of his analysis is framed with their concerns and modes of thought in mind.
This quest for shared origins finds its most developed application, fittingly, in Lafitau’s chapter on religion, which takes up almost two-thirds of the first volume of the Mœurs.
Lafitau uses a number of strategies to try and demonstrate the shared origins of all religions, addressing everything from the visual similarities between religious icons, to the conceptual similarities underlying their attitudes towards particular rituals (even where those rituals differ in appearance), to the etymological similarities between Native American and ancient Asian, Middle Eastern, or European religious vocabulary.
Thus, quite early in the chapter Lafitau notes the widespread identification of God with the sun, calling it “le symbole Hieroglyphique de la Divinité chez toutes les Nations” (1.129), and then moves on to other common celestial identifications of God, including thunder and the moon.164 This gives way to a discussion of the Iroquois words for the sun, “Endi ou Enni”, and the moon, “Endit’ha ou Ennit’ha … ce t’ha final étant un diminutif dans leur Langue,” which Lafitau argues are derived from the word “Bendis, que les Auteurs anciens disent avoir été le nom de Diane dans la Langue des peuples de Thrace, dont les Orgies furent transportées dans la Grece, et particulierement à Athenes “the hieroglyphic symbol of divinity among all nations” (1.104) sous le nom de Bendidia or Mendidia” (1.135).165 Lafitau backs up this claim with a sophisticated argument based on comparative phonology, noting that the Hurons and Iroquois do not have “B. M. V … et des autres Labiales” and thus “ne manquent presque jamais d’ajoûter un ou” at the beginning of words that would, in Europe, begin with a labial “à cause de l’Euphonie” (1.135).166 He then goes on to link this root to other words in other languages that serve to signify the moon or the sun or other religious figures.167 While the majority of Lafitau’s Mœurs follows this pattern, leaving the third term of his comparison unspoken, it emerges explicitly from time to time when Lafitau wants to particularly emphasize the superiority of contemporary European ways of knowing over those of the Native Americans. Motsch isolates a perfect illustration of this when he shows how Lafitau distinguishes between the American Indian method of counting time by simply enumerating the seasons and the European method, which uses mathematical calculations to establish a more perfect system for measuring time. Lafitau states that the Native Americans “ont quelque conoissance de l’Astronomie,” yet “ils n’ont point une “endi or enni”; “Endit’ha or Ennit’ha … the terminal –t’ha being a diminutive in their language”;
“Bendis … a word which the ancient authors say used to be the name of Diana in the language of the Thracians by whom the orgies were imported into Greece, particularly to Athens under the name of Bendidia or Mendidia” (1.108) “B. M, V … and other labials”; “never fail to join an ou”; “for the sake of euphony” (1.108) Lafitau’s arguments about the universal identification of the sun as a key god still later lead him into a comparison of the visual representation of gods in various religions to find significant similarities between them, with detailed engravings provided to support his claims. A good example is Plate V on page 140 of the first volume, which, in his own words, portrays “Isis assise sur une fleur de Lotos” [“Isis seated on a lotus flower”], “Pussa ou Isis symbolique des Chinois, assise sur une plante en forme d’Heliotrope” [“Pussa [Pushan] or symbolic Isis of the Chinese, seated on a plant in the shape of a heliotrope”], “Figure symbolique du Soleil tirée d’un Antique trouvé à Rome dans la voye Appienne, expliqué par Tristan” [“Symbolic figure of the sun, taken from an ancient one found in Rome, on the Appian Way, explained by Tristan”], and another “Image de Pusse ou de l’Isis des Chinois” [“Another picture of Pussa or the Isis of the Chinese”] about which he further notes that “ Kirker dit que c’est une figure du Dieu Amida des Japonois” [“Kircher.. says that it is a figure of the God of the Japanese who is parallel to Harpocartes”] (b2r-v [1.9-10]).
exactitude mathematique pour les intercalcations, et pour accorder les années heliaques avec les années lunaires” (2.225, 2.232).168 Lafitau thereby suggests a developmental hierarchy that places the exactness of European methods above those of the Native Americans because it appeals to an abstract, mathematical ideal derived through systematic reasoning. As Motsch puts it, “[s]i le temps est initialement perçu à travers la succession d’événements naturels, sa standardisation et sa supputation suggèrent qu’il s’agit plutôt d’une entité abstraite qui existe en dehors de ces événements” (198).169 It is hardly an accident that Lafitau here places the contemporary European power of reasoning above the purely iterative capacity of the Native Americans. The distinction is, for Lafitau, commensurate with that between the European use of alphabetic writing and the hieroglyphic method deployed by Native Americans and ancient peoples, and thus it serves as the basis of his analysis; in fact, Lafitau’s discussion of Native American astronomy leads him into a discussion of the “hieroglyphic” writing of the Maya and the Aztecs. The comparative aspect of Lafitau’s work—his placing of Indian customs alongside those of pre-Graeco-Roman peoples—is rooted precisely in the problem that both present to him because, lacking alphabetic writing, they do not belong to history as such. As Duchet puts it, the “mouvement pendulaire” of comparison permits “l’instauration d’un sens [dans] les vides du discours et les silences des textes” (610).170 “have... some smattering of this science [astronomy]”; “they have no mathematical exactness in intercalcations to bring their heliac years into agreement with their lunar years” (2.130, 2.133) “If time is initially perceived across the succession of events, its standardization and computation suggests that it is more a matter of an abstract entity that exists outside these events” (translation mine).
“the pendular movement”; “the instauration of a meaning [in] the blanks in the discourse and the silences of the texts” (translation mine) The ethnocentrism of Lafitau’s equation of the distinction between alphabetic and hieroglyphic writing with that between reason and its absence can hardly go unnoticed by the modern reader, and yet it may well remain surprising to us that this very equation underlies the split between ethnography and history as systematic, and therefore scientific, disciplines. Motsch is again helpful here, distinguishing between two notions of writing: the first, writing as simply the graphic technique for preserving knowledge;
the second, a much broader sense of writing as “la production du sens” (“Mémoire” 115).171 According to this latter notion, “[l’]écriture couvre … un vaste champ de production humaine, car le sens peut s’afficher sous de multiples formes : comme littérature, science, peinture, musique, chant, récit, etc., mais aussi comme comportement humain, sous forme de gestes et de rites sacrés ou profanes” (“Mémoire” 115).172 Such a notion of writing would of course extend even to custom itself.
The problem, however, is that custom, for Lafitau, is the kind of writing people make when they are incapable of writing as such. Thus when he considers the customary use of beaded wampum belts by North American natives as a means of recording treaties, contracts, and other public records, he notes that they do so “[c]ar les Sauvages n’ayant pas l’usage de l’écriture et des lettres, et se trouvant par là exposés à oublier bien-tôt les choses qui se passent parmi eux” (1.506).173 The wampum belts may, in his words, “the production of meaning” (translation mine) “writing covers a vast field of human productions, as meaning can present itself through any number of forms: as literature, science, painting, music, song, story, etc., but also as human behavior, through the form of gestures and rituals, both sacred and profane” (translation mine) “suppléent à ce défaut,” but they do so only by providing “une mémoire locale par des paroles qu[e les Sauvages] attachent à ces Colliers” (1.506).174 This record itself is a tenuous one, since it requires the nobles and elders to be responsible for remembering the significance of each individual belt. While Lafitau indicates that the pattern and quantity of beads may give some clue to the relative significance of the event or treaty they record (1.505/1.310), he makes it clear that they do not themselves disseminate their meaning;
rather, they embody the meaning for the individual who is responsible for preserving it.