When the Dutch prince William of Orange took the English throne in 1688, he sparked a poetry war. Originally a supporter of William, the journalist John Tutchin became disenchanted and in “The Foreigners” attacked the Dutch as a people “void of Honesty and Grace, / A Boorish, rude, and an inhumane Race” and chided his countrymen for giving to such “excrement” a “Portion in the Promis'd Land, / Which immemorially has been decreed / To be the Birth-right of the Jewish [that is, English] Seed.”
Daniel Defoe, a Whig supporter of the Revolution, responded with a poem of his own, the wildly popular “The True-Born Englishman.” It was absurd, he said, to defend English identity since the Englishman came “from a mixture of all kinds” and had always been a “het’rogeneous thing.” For Defoe, “a true-born Englishman’s a contradiction, / in speech an irony, in fact a fiction.” English blood is a cocktail of Angle, Saxon, Roman, Danish, British, Norman, all “jumbled” together.
In later editions, Defoe had to add a preface to defend himself against charges of “bewraying my own nest and abusing our nation by discovering the meanness of our original.” His poem was not slander because he viewed “mixtures of blood” as an advantage: “Had we been an unmixed nation, I am of the opinion it had been to our disadvantage.” Nations that are “most mixed are the best, and have least of barbarism and brutality among them.”
The political skirmish between Tutchin and Defoe reflected a submerged cultural debate over questions of purity. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, English writers formulated a myth of uncontaminated Saxon identity. According to Richard Rowlands, unmixed Germanic blood flows in English veins because the Danes and Normans who invaded and conquered the Saxons were themselves Germans. John Hare and Francis Whyte agreed that the hardy Saxons had preserved “their blood, lawes, and language incorrupted.”
But Defoe was not alone in his opinion that England benefits from the “Wise Providence” that “mixes us daily with exceeding care.” As Washington University (St. Louis) English scholar Wolfram Schmidgen argues in his Exquisite Mixture, scientific, political, cultural, and religious developments in the early eighteenth century conspired to raise the value of mixtures of all kinds. The Enlightenment has often been seen as a movement of rationalization and simplification. Schmidgen, a specialist in eighteenth-century English literature, identifies thinkers for whom impurity and complexity were not a danger to be avoided but a potent force that could produce vibrant order.
Chemistry led the way. Robert Boyle combined ingredients in artificial compounds that had qualities not found in nature. Mixing “Corpuscles of Sand with . . . Saline ones” produced glass that is “more lasting and more unalterable” than many natural elements. Combine three ingredients and you can produce a “new Body, whose Operations are more powerful and prodigious, then those of almost any Body of Natures own compounding.” That powerful mixture was gunpowder.
Locke did for political thought what Boyle did for chemistry. He advocated a “mixed” political system that combined the virtues of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Mixture did not, as Continental absolutists feared, foment chaos but instead nurtured a polity of ordered liberty. Aristotle’s notion that a female womb is little more than an incubator for male seed was foundational to Robert Filmer’s Patriarchy. In attacking Filmer’s politics, Locke attacked his Aristotelian biology, insisting that procreation results from a “mixture of Male and Female.” In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke explained the power of the mind to mix simple ideas into “complex ideas” like “parade” or “gratitude” or “incest.”
Schmidgen discerns a link between Puritanism and the taste for cultural and political purity. At root, he argues, Calvinist “metaphysics,” with its insistence on the comprehensive sovereignty of God as first cause, is a metaphysics of purity, and he portrays Arminian and Catholic critics of Calvinism as heroes of diversity and plurality. Here Schmidgen’s thesis is on shakier ground. He cites Samuel Rutherford as an orthodox Protestant who promoted “political mixture and multitude,” without noting that Rutherford was a minister of the Calvinist Church of Scotland and a delegate to the Westminster Assembly. More generally, English Calvinists were hardly advocates of absolutism, and Calvinist scientists played a considerable role in England.
Still, Schmidgen’s thesis about “impure thinkers” challenges what we think we know about the early Enlightenment. In one of the standard accounts of modernity, the purist Descartes looms large with his epistemology of clear and distinct ideas and his sharp separation between ghostly mind and mechanical body. This genealogy of modernity has a long history. One of the greatest of impure thinkers, J.G. Hamann, sniffed something like Pharisaism in what he described as Kant’s “purism of reason.”
Hamann wasn’t imagining things, but Schmidgen demonstrates that from the outset the modern impulse to purity competed with a “countermodernity” that bears a close family resemblance to what we have come to call “postmodernity.” His fascinating book helpfully complicates our understanding of what it means to be modern.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.