The prolongation of life in early modern English literature and culture, with emphasis on Francis Bacon Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Jackson, Roger Marcus
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Drawing upon early modern texts of poetry, theology, and natural philosophy written in England and the continent, this dissertation explores the intellectual traditions inherent in Renaissance discourses addressing the prolongation of life. It is organized around two nodal questions: Can life be prolonged? Should it be prolonged? The project hinges upon Francis Bacon (1561-1626), for whom the prolongation of life in the sense of a longer human lifespan serves as the loftiest goal of modern experimental science. Addressing the first question, Part One illustrates the texture and diversity of early modern theories of senescence and medical treatments against the disease of old age promoted by Galen, Avicenna, medieval theologians, Jean Fernel, Marsilio Ficino, and Paracelsus. Part Two then demonstrates that Bacon's theory of senescence and corresponding therapies nevertheless differ from those of his predecessors and contemporaries in three regards: their attempt to isolate senescence from disease, their postulation of senescence as a process based on universal structures and actions of matter, and their deferral to further experiment for elucidation. Addressing the second question, Part Three situates Bacon within a moral and theological context. It first divulges this context through a close analysis of his most explicit defenses for his project of life extension. Cued by Bacon, who argues that the prolongation of life is the most basic form of Christian charity as well as a natural desire, subsequent chapters engage two sources by which early modern debates about the prolongation of life were fueled, Christian theology and classical philosophy. These inform poems and plays dealing with senescence and human longevity by two English authors whose lives overlapped Bacon's, Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson. A comparison of their works with passages from the Bible, Seneca, Lucretius, Cicero, and John Calvin discloses tensions resident within early modern culture at large, tensions that arose from a matrix of conflicting beliefs--a natural desire for survival, Stoic and religious injunctions against life for life's sake, optimistic and pessimistic valuations of old age, and contrasting natural and transcendent ideals of human perfection.
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  • Barbour, Reid
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