Rethinking English Phyisco-theology: Samuel Parker’s Tentamina de Deo (1665)

in Early Science and Medicine
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Recent historiography has claimed that a radically new, non-dogmatic physico-theology gained prominence with, and simultaneously promoted, the new science. This article challenges this view by focusing on an important physico-theological work by the young Oxford cleric Samuel Parker, published in 1665. It received a glowing review in the first volume of the Philosophical Transactions and gained its author election to the Royal Society, yet has been almost entirely ignored by modern scholars. Parker’s work demonstrates both how easily the pious rhetoric of the naturalists could be incorporated into the traditional – largely humanist – knowledge gained by a typical M.A. student in ­mid-seventeenth-century England. Moreover, far from being non-dogmatic, Parker’s physico-theology culminated in a remarkable deployment of the new philosophy (specifically Thomas Willis’s neurology) to explain scriptural passages referring to God’s passions. Parker believed himself not to be doing something radically new, but to be working in the traditions of scholastic theology. At the same time, his work was one of the most important conduits for the early English reception of both Descartes and Gassendi. 

Rethinking English Phyisco-theology: Samuel Parker’s Tentamina de Deo (1665)

in Early Science and Medicine




Henry Oldenburg to Robert Boyle 8 June 1666The Correspondence of Robert Boyle eds. Michael Hunter Antonio Clericuzio and Lawrence M. Principe 6 vols (London 2001) iii 168; John Beale to Robert Boyle 31 October 1666 Correspondence iii 260. Beale was still praising Parker to Boyle in the 1680s: see the letters of 26 June and 1 July 1682 in Correspondence v 299–300 306. Beale was an important member in the nascent Royal Society and is in need of fuller study; for a start see Mayling Stubbs “John Beale Philosophical Gardener of Herefordshire: pt I Prelude to the Royal Society (1608–1663)” Annals of Science 39 (1982) 463–89.


Most powerfully argued in ParkinCumberland37–45; idem “Hobbism in the Later 1660s: Daniel Scargill and Samuel Parker” Historical Journal 42 (1999) 85–108 esp. 96–108. See also Robert Crocker Henry More 1614–1687: A Biography of the Cambridge Platonist (Dordrecht 2003) 201–2.


See now Jacqueline Rose“The Ecclesiastical Polity of Samuel Parker”The Seventeenth Century25 (2010) 350–76.


Dmitri Levitin“The Experimentalist as Humanist: Robert Boyle on the History of Philosophy”Annals of Science 71 (forthcoming 2014 pre-publication version available: For Gassendi see Lynn S. Joy Gassendi the Atomist: Advocate of History in an Age of Science (Cambridge 1987); for an earlier period see the classic Christoph Lüthy “The Fourfold Democritus on the Stage of Early Modern Science” Isis 91 (2000) 443–79. More generally see Anthony Grafton Defenders of the Text: The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science 1450–1800 (Cambridge MA 1991).




Ibid.20–1drawing onJohannes Jonsius De scriptoribus historiae philosophicae libri IV (Frankfurt 1659) 195–96 (which explicitly attacks Cicero); G. Ménage “In Diogenem Laertium Observationes et Emendationes” in Laertii Diogenes de vitis dogmatis et apophthegmatis eorum qui in philosophia claruerunt libri X ed. Gilles Ménage (London 1664) 258–83 (new pagination). For the long-term story see Don Cameron Allen “The Rehabilitation of Epicurus and His Theory of Pleasure in the Early Renaissance” Studies in Philology 41 (1944) 1–15.




Peter R. Anstey“Boyle on Occasionalism: An Unexamined Source”Journal of the History of Ideas60 (1999) 57–81; John Henry “Occult Qualities and the Experimental Philosophy: Active Principles in pre-Newtonian Matter Theory” History of Science 24 (1986) 335–81.




Peter Harrison“The Influence of Cartesian Cosmology in England” in Descartes’ Natural Philosophyeds. Stephen Gaukroger John A. Schuster and John Sutton (London 2000) 168–92.


On Willis’s lectures see Frank“Willis”121–22.








Vivian Nutton“Wittenberg Anatomy” in Medicine and the Reformationeds. Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham (London and New York) 11–32. For the reception translation and printing of Galen the essential study remains Richard J. Durling “A Chronological Census of Renaissance Editions and Translations of Galen” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 24 (1961) 230–305.


See esp. William F. Bynum“The Anatomical Method, Natural Theology, and the Functions of the Brain”Isis64 (1973) 444–68 at 446. For the chronology of Willis’s turn to dissection see Frank “Willis” 130.


Rina Knoeff“The Reins of the Soul: The Centrality of the Intercostal Nerves to the Neurology of Thomas Willis and to Samuel Parker”Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences59 (2004) 413–40 at 431.


Samuel Parker“Pre-existence” in A Free and Impartial Censure of the Platonick Philosophie (2nd ed. Oxford 1667) 191–97; Parker argues against the idea that the pre-existent soul is sent to a body as punishment for previous sins in favour of a more positive notion of souls being placed into providentially-designed bodies where they could fulfill pious lives the intercostal nerves being the soul’s instruments for controlling the passions. This use is noted in the very interesting discussion in Knoeff “Reins” 433–36 the only discussion to consider seriously Parker’s use of the new natural philosophy. But Dr Knoeff fails to recognise Parker’s earlier use of Willis’s experiment in the Tentamina leading to what seems to me the unwarranted extrapolation that “Anglican emphasis on the use of reason in natural and spiritual affairs strongly influenced the ideas of Willis as well as those of Parker” (436). Parker deployed Willis’s psychology first not against Origenism but in the different context of the Tentamina which is not treated by Dr Knoeff.




Meric Casaubon“Notae, & Emendationes” in Laertii Diogenes De vitis dogmatis et apophthegmatis eorum qui in philosophia claruerunt; Libri X (London 1664) esp. 24–5 (new pagination).


E.g. AristotleHistory of Animalsv.1 539a23–5.


ParkerTentamina117. Although Parker did not cite specific passages in Lucretius and Cardano one assumes he was thinking of De rerum natura v.820–50 and Girolamo Cardano’s De subtilitate libri xxi (Paris 1550) 44r–v.


Hiro Hirai“Le concept de semence de Pierre Gassendi entre les théories de la matière et les sciences de la vie au XVIIe siècle”Medicina nei Secoli15 (2003) 205–26.


ParkerTentamina125–6. For Gassendi see the chapter “De Animalibus sponte nascentibus” in the Syntagma in Opera ii. 260a–267a esp. the key passage at 262b which is also discussed in Roger Life Sciences 111–12 and Lolordo Gassendi 197–99.


CharletonAtheism6–38; Stillingfleet Origines Sacrae 367–74; Henry More An antidote against atheisme (London 1653) 6–8.




ParkerTentamina163. This was one of the two passages that Parker said inspired the writing of the Censure (see there 2).




As already noted in LolordoGassendi228.


See e.g. G.A.J. Rogers“Charleton, Gassendi et la réception de l’atomisme Épicurien en Angleterre” in Gassendi et l’Europe (1592–1792)ed. Sylvia Murr (Paris 1997) 212–25; Antonio Clericuzio “L’atomisme de Gassendi et la philosophie corpusculaire de Boyle” 227–35 in the same volume. But see Frank Harvey 92–93 for an exception.




MaimonidesGuide for the Perplexediii.29 (for a modern edition see that edited and translated by Shlomo Pines 2 vols (Chicago 1963) ii 514–22).


ParkerTentamina197–8. Rather ironically Parker’s interpretation of Egypt here depends on a supposed line from Lucian (“Votaque Pyramidum celsas solvuntur ad aras”) which appears to have been invented by Athanasius Kircher (Oedipus 309–10) whom Parker elsewhere mocked viciously for his credulity and incompetence as a scholar.


ParkerTentamina201–4 212–14.














ParkerTentamina241–2. Indeed Parker claims this is how the universal theism of the “the most noble Herbert [of Cherbury’s De religione gentilium (1663)]” had to be understood. Parker’s positive citation of Herbert further substantiates the thesis that his reputation as a ‘deist’ was a later invention on which see Richard Serjeantson “Herbert of Cherbury before Deism: The Early Reception of De VeritateThe Seventeenth Century16 (2001) 217–38.






ParkerCensure32–6 92–115.


ParkerTentamina282–3. Parker does not cite any sources no doubt because the heresy was too well known to require introduction; references are scattered but the key source for Anomoean doctrines is Epiphanius Panarion ii.76.




ParkerTentamina298.For Episcopius see his Institutiones theologicae privatis lectionibus Amstelodami traditae (Amsterdam 1650) 286. For a statement of More’s which Parker would have known see Antidote 11; for the history of this position see John Henry “Francesco Patrizi da Cherso’s Concept of Space and its Later Influence” Annals of Science 36 (1979) 549–73.




ParkerTentamina324. Interestingly Parker correctly recognised the historical origin of this methodology in ps.-Dionysius (“Atque equidem congrue Doctores Scholastici id a Pseudo-Dionysio edocti ad Naturae Divinae investigationem triplicem assignarunt viam…”). For Aquinas’ three viae and their relationship to the famous Five Ways of knowing God see Leo J. Elders The Philosophical Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Leiden 1990) 132–3.


ParkerTentamina321–2. Parker gives as examples the anthropomorphism of Epicurus for which the key source is the long ridiculing of the idea at Cicero De natura deorum i.27–33; as for the other Greek philosophers he quotes Tertuallian De anima 3.2 on how the various pagan philosophers treated the soul: “…hi statum eius aliunde deducunt hi exitum aliorsum abducunt prout aut Platonis honor aut Zenonis vigor aut Aristotelis tenor aut Epicuri stupor aut Heracliti maeror aut Empedoclis furor persuaserunt”. The idea that pagan theology worked through this kind of autobiographical anthropomorphism was common in early modern readings and Parker admits to drawing much on the first syntagma of the classic Renaissance study of pagan theology Lilius Gyraldo’s De deis Gentium (Basle 1548) – see there 1–100.








Harrison“Physico-Theology”180; see also idem Protestantism 171. Prof. Harrison also repeatedly claims that the idea of natural philosophy serving natural theology was tied to the Protestant idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’: this seems particularly peculiar as examining any Catholic natural philosophy textbook reveals.


GaukrogerScientific Culture153.


For their troubles see Feingold“Mathematical Sciences”390–92 426–27; Hunter “Latitu­dinarianism”; idem Science and Society in Restoration England (Cambridge 1981) “Science Learning and the Universities” 136–61; Harold Cook The Decline of the Old Medical Regime in Stuart London (Ithaca 1986) 133–82; idem “Physicians and the New Philosophy: Henry Stubbe and the Virtuosi-Physicians” in The Medical Revolution in the Seventeenth Century eds. Roger French and Andrew Wear (Cambridge 1989) 246–71; idem “The New Philosophy and Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England” in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution ed. David C. Lindberg and Robert S. Westman (Cambridge 1990) 397–436.


As in GaukrogerScientific Culture149; see also 226–7 supinely swallowing all of Glanvill’s propaganda.

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