THE GIST OF THE MATTER
HERE’S THE DEAL: Perseverance born of an unslakable curiosity had stimulated a small cranium, enlarging its capacity. Introduced to the realms of history, mathematics and, particularly, philosophy, Sly had devoured every book he got his claws into. He had a talent for quickly grasping essentials. His conned knowledge, though extensive, had inevitably lacked depth. It had not been enriched by reflection and firsthand experience. He’d acknowledged the weakness and dedicated himself to correcting it.
. . . . . On the other hand, his grasp of natural philosophy was rooted in the core of his being. Natural Philosophy was proto-science. It was the precursor to what we now call science in that it was an attempt to understand the world. The term science simply meant knowledge. In another fifty years, a new system of verifiable analysis would come into its own. At this time, reason and fancy were not yet considered to be antithetical.
. . . . . The natural philosophers did not feel compelled to test their ideas in a practical way. They observed phenomena and drew theoretical conclusions. The up-and-coming mechanical philosophers believed that hard and fast data derived from practical research was the key to understanding the workings of nature.
. . . . . Sly reveled in the diverse currents of philosophical thought. He attempted to engage the foremost thinkers of the day by submitting to the Cortada. He claimed a special insight into the the workings of the natural world, especially in regard to its creatures. He insisted, ‘Learning is artificial, but wit is natural. Insight can trump intellect.’
. . . . . Were he known to be an animal, he would have been considered monstrous. Women scholars were ridiculed. How much more so a cat? ‘Oh times! Oh manners!’ would be the cry. Aristotle himself would ‘wish he had never been the master of all schools, now to be lectured to, and by a cat!’
. . . . . He was highly offended by the notion that animals had no understanding. He challenged this viewpoint, under the guise of, as he put it, a friend of all creation. As he grew bolder, he adopted a literary device, the persona of a cat (it was hardly commented on, he was already considered quite strange) in order to speak for his fellow creatures:
. . . . . ‘In the dejectedness of our spirits from the despisements of the humankind, who think it impossible that we should have either learning or understanding, wit or judgement, we out of a custom of dejectedness think so too, which makes us quit all industry towards profitable knowledge and concern ourselves only with low and petty employments. We are not allowed to develop our higher faculties, hence we remain bestial and irrational. We are become like worms that only live in the dull earth of ignorance. The oppression of men has so depleted our spirits that we have come to believe our inferiority. We study no more of Nature’s workings than of how to trap a mouse’.1
. . . . . He postulated a living universe, self-awareness present in every grain of sand. He expounded an animistic tradition with a non-interventionist God rather than a providential ordering force. This was explosive stuff, so extreme that it shocked his critics and embarrassed his (few) scholar-friends.
. . . . . His personal experience required him to argue for the reality of the fantastic: ‘The possession of a soul is not species-determined. Men share the bestiality of animals and lack the humanity the soul is said to endow’. And: ‘The boundary between man and beast waivers. All creatures are capable of learning’.
. . . . . He had no way to publish his tracts except by correspondence with scholars in the field. He hoped to provoke outrage leading to a reportage which would eventually filter down to the masses, broadcasting his plea for inter-species understanding in an increasingly polarized world: Man the arrogant destroyer of the balance of Nature, the remainder of creation his to do with as he would.
. . . . . His more outrageous proposals were meant to skewer the pretensions of the mechanical and experimental philosophers. I will go as far as to assert that he consented to being thought ridiculous, if he might but plant a seed of compassion in a soil able to receive and sustain it. He acted the buffoon to gain attention, hoping that the rationality of his message resonated in a few exceptional minds. He was willing to be mocked in order to be heard.
. . . . . Who was this fellow? He used Terms of the Schools, of Philosophers, Physicians, Astronomers, Theologians, and the rest of the Gowned Tribe, the community of the learned, with ease and intelligence. That he was a graduate of a university seemed impossible (nor did he make the claim), and this permeability of intellectual boundaries was almost more repugnant than the substance of his outrageous message.
. . . . . In his universe, minerals, vegetables, animals, and humans all possessed, to some extent, sense and reason. He thought nature full of activity, matter itself sentient. He wholeheartedly embraced vitalistic materialism, as he called it, every atom with its own spark of life, with untapped potential. Here is an excerpt from one of his letter-lectures: ‘The faculty of Discourse, though in greater degree of obscurity, may be attributed to brute animals. Did not Saint Jerome converse with a fawn?
. . . . . He was careful to distance himself from any hint of atheism by alluding to a superior being often: ‘God’s supreme will rules the Universe. Therefore, reject no notion, however remote’. He appealed to pride: ‘Men deny that lesser beings have reason and soul. Some think that animals are automations who feel nothing, even when they suffer. Barbaric! Who is the beast here?’
. . . . . In an especially interesting bit of correspondence, found in the papers of Henry ______, the third Earl of _______, dated April, 1580, we find a letter written in verse–he was fond of such wordplay–in which he seems to have lost all patience with the new philosophies:
‘Who knows but in the Brain may dwell little small Fairies; who can tell?
If so, why should not to annoy good sense be their transcendent joy?
How but for that, the Gown-ed Tribe, intent on Progress, dares describe
strange doings: substances combined, spirits distilled, methods refined,
odd instruments to mix and weigh and render Science – so they say –
to solve a puzzle – so they claim. The life force makes a cunning game indeed.
To trap the Vital Spark and violate it – what a lark! –
by probing mysteries bethought to confer power. All for naught
are such pretensions. Never can mankind be the custodian
to secrets of such grave import. It is a ludicrous disport.
Mechanical-Men, on the whole, prefer the Atom to the Soul.
To take the measure of the lice is their idea of Paradise.
For them, the wonders of the age are hat tricks suited to the stage.
Quite profitable, I should think, to tour the realm with the hoodwink.
Experimentals, you who deign to spurn – core to your bold chicane –
hypotheses drawn from a cause conjectured, your empiric laws
derive from stringently culled fact and computationals exact.
My fuss with your precise approach is, one, your logic fails to broach
the chasm between motes in flux and consciousness, the very crux of Being.
Two, your rigid scheme rejects the relevance of dream.
Without our dreams, where would we be? Nowhere at all, I guarantee.
Sensitive matter is the glue which binds creation, in my view.
I posit that it doth pervade the Cosmos, down to a grass-blade.
Your vision of the world is bleak. Your misconceptions – I shall speak
straight from the heart, as I am known to do – they chill me to the bone.
Nature, inert? Nay, not a bit. Impassive? Quite the opposite.
Are creatures automations mere, whom man is born to domineer?
Do I so lack lucidity, that I seek an epiphany
of ones without a doubt astute, of parts, high pride, and wide repute?
I do. I have the brass to try, though even I can’t justify
a poke at the great hornet’s nest of scholarship, so to molest
the bumble-brains bestowed therein. Just what do I expect to win?
The most of you, I understand, dismiss my ravings out of hand.
A very few will write me, then, I’ll never hear from you again.
Some lunatic or other might prick up his ears and see the light.
From my best word-work shall I earn a heartbreakingly small return.
Gentlemen, tinker if you must with your gadgets. Compound. Combust.
Tout your achievements, yes. Don’t fail to slam your rivals, to assail
the hordes of hacks and hucksters who covet distinction, unlike you.
Your impulse is to help, to heal, the good of all, the commonweal.
Your hearts are pure. Don’t miss a chance to strut, with a slick song and dance:
sly references to your degrees, and similar inanities.
Have you smart patrons? Sure you do. No? For God’s sake, invent a few!
Dropped names, Lord This and Lady That, will peg you an aristocrat yourself.
Have colleagues to your club. Your swanky parlour shames their pub.
Stand rounds, always. You can be sure free-flowing beer redeems a boor.
Bear with me, now. I’m almost through. I’ll leave you to your barley-brew.
Forgive me if I seem to scold.
Do useful work, sirs. Conjure gold.
. . . . . Sly spoke for the unlearned against the classically schooled, and for the vulnerable against arrogance and power. He spoke from the perspective of the ‘other’, the despised stranger. As I’ve said, he felt particularly well qualified to understand and interpret nature.
. . . . . Yeah, sure. He’s a thinker. My cats are thinkers too. They sure have me figured out. What of his oratorical abilities? How does a cat come to talk? I’ve done my research. Let’s see, where are my notes? Ha! Here we go.
. . . . . The classical tradition of eloquent argument had long been a pillar of intellectual activity. And in Tudor England a fluid language – encompassing made-up terms, oriental imports shipped in on the hordes of merchantmen, and words with vigorously migrating meanings – was especially revered as the embodiment of a vibrant cosmopolitan culture.
. . . . . Ostentatious declamation was in vogue. Now, one ought not to take pleasure in being obscure. But a dusting of terms with a classical pedigree lends weight to platitudes, greatly adorns every subject, however mean, and results in more gravity and majesty than is to be had from more modern words. Widespread usage of learned Latinate phrases, embellished grammar, rhetorical repetition and other poetic devices, and a theatrical delivery, the more flamboyant the better, all gained you social cachet.
. . . . . Pronunciation varied, thanks to the many dialects extant. An ambitious animal, paying careful attention to sounds, soon gets together a modest vocabulary. Intelligibility itself was not essential. Did you mumble? It was no impediment if done with a sneer, or a snarl. The uneducated masses admire most what they least comprehend, and grant the benefit of the doubt to an imperious attitude, the cat’s specialty. His verbal skills blossomed in this forgiving atmosphere.
. . . . . How about it? Have I convinced you?
. . . . . Well, can we agree to implement a common convention, the so-called suspension of disbelief?
. . . . . Hmmm. You are a tough nut to crack. Look, you’re going to have to take my word for it. The cat talks. Let’s move on.
- This speech, and many of the quotes, with a few cat-appropriate alterations, belong to Margaret Cavendish. Her natural philosophy was very similar to Sly’s. The first two lines of the verse are hers, the balance, Sly’s and mine.