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Virtue of SympathyMagic, Philosophy, and Literature in Seventeenth-Century England$
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Seth Lobis

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780300192032

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300192032.001.0001

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Sir Kenelm Digby and the Matter of Sympathy

Sir Kenelm Digby and the Matter of Sympathy

(p.36) 1 Sir Kenelm Digby and the Matter of Sympathy
Virtue of Sympathy

Seth Lobis

Yale University Press

This chapter focuses on Sir Kenelm Digby’s A Late Discourse…. Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy, which provides a mechanistic account of the action of sympathetic cures, a peculiar pharmacopoeia of salves and powders alleged to heal wounds though applied at a distance from the patient. In analyzing the cures in terms of matter and motion, this chapter argues, Digby ultimately pursues a more ambitious aim, the mechanization of a sympathetic worldview. That his cure failed at least as often as it worked, however, undermined the credibility of his claim that sympathy was a fundamental principle of the natural world. The declining status of sympathetic cures tracks a parallel decline in the broader status of a sympathetic worldview. Yet an increasing emphasis among natural philosophers on the experimental establishment of fact reinforced the idea that although sympathy did not obtain on the macrocosmic level, it remained a potent principle of human nature. Digby treats human sympathy as a threat to reason, emphasizing the need for rational self-discipline. The chapter concludes by setting Digby’s Stoic moral philosophy against Sir Thomas Browne’s account of charity in Religio Medici, which expresses a far more positive view of human sympathy.

Keywords:   Sympathy, Sir Kenelm Digby, Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, Sympathy Powder, Weapon Salve, Mechanization, Moral philosophy, Charity

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