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History has taught us that although being of the Enlightenment in much of his thinking and practice, Davy was also driven throughout his career by the bleeding heart of a Romantic, as evidenced by his pre-emptive poem The Sons of Genius (Davy 1799). Raised on the Cornish coast, Davy felt a close affinity with nature from a young age, whilst also being fascinated with the burgeoning industrial revolution taking place around him. This potent mix of the natural and industrial in his formative years was to inspire Davy throughout his career, and make it difficult to pigeonhole him as either a Romantic or Enlightenment thinker exclusively. This is nowhere better demonstrated than at the onset of Davy's scientific career, when he temporarily abandoned his Romantic poetic aspirations, insisting that they had 'fled before the voice of truth.' (Davy 1797), a rather romantically dramatic assertation in itself.
So how far did Davy deviate from an Enlightenment vision? This essay will focus mainly on Davy's A Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (Anthology II, pp. 148-58), in an attempt to answer this question.
Davy immediately reveals a sublime, Romantic fascination for his chosen field in his opening statement: "Chemistry is that part of natural philosophy which relates to those intimate actions of bodies upon each other, by which their appearances are altered and their individuality destroyed" (Anthology II, p. 148). This is a radical departure from the Enlightenment obsession to dissect to understand, and a clear Romantic appreciation of the sublime notion of different species of matter continually interacting and changing, by means of forces that we still do not fully comprehend. Davy continues to evoke the sublime in the following paragraph, stating that "all the substances found upon our globe" (Anthology II, p. 148), fall under the dominion of chemistry, a mind boggling idea at the time. Davy also furthers his concept of the universality of chemistry, (thus enhancing his own self-importance), making the distinction between the everyday physical phenomenon, "which are daily coming under the cognizance of our senses" (Anthology II, p. 148), and "convulsions in nature, which....awaken our astonishment" (Anthology II, p. 148). One assumes that Davy includes the former to elevate the later. Emphasis is also placed on the validity of the imagination as a spur to fresh knowledge, and the chemical changes in the natural world which, "excite our curiosity" (Anthology II, p. 148): a sublime reference to nature, atypical of dry Enlightenment rationalisation. All of these ideas are strongly Romantic, and quite removed from the numerical exactitude of Newtonian science.
Davy follows these introductory paragraphs, by developing his argument for the universality of chemistry, and its inevitable harmonious relationship with other areas of science: natural history; botany; zoology; mechanical philosophy; astronomy, with varying degrees of plausibility. Davy also lauds the present and potential benefits of chemistry in industry: Agricultural productivity, improved metallurgy, bleaching, dyeing, tanning and the production of porcelain and glass. Davy takes on the mantle of enlightened crusader here, particularly regarding his own research into the art of tanning, which resulted in demonstrably superior methods that initially came up against "the common prejudice against novelties" (Anthology II, p. 152). Davy's desire to improve working methods through reason is entirely enlightened, presenting an agenda for the greater good. However, Davy betrays a lack of social conscience in his ardent desire for greater efficacy in the manufacture of "the most refined enjoyments and delicate pleasures of civilized society" (Anthology II, p. 151). This could be put down to Davy's middle-class audience, and the role of the text in recruitment and fundraising. The style here is very passionate and compelling, and one does sense an earnest, utilitarian desire on Davy's part to use chemistry to further science and industry for the greater good.
Throughout the text, Davy argues for the co-existence of "certain harmonious relations" (Anthology II, p. 150) between the varying branches of science, and also between the many faculties of the human mind, with regard to the universal utility of chemistry. Davy partially rejects Enlightenment reductive demonstrability, and places more store in self and the value of intuition, when he insists that, "The man of true genius who studies science in consequence of its applicationâ€¦.will rather pursue the plans of his own mind than be limited by the artificial divisions of language" (Anthology II, pp. 150-151). This is very representative of the recognised evolution of Enlightenment individualism into a more intense, near narcissism in Davy's self reverential regard for his own personal experience.
Davy had a complex relationship with faith and nature, born from an intense love of the sublime in nature and his unarguable creative and academic gifts. In these lectures, Davy advocated the Enlightened rejection of such dogma as total depravity and predestination, stating that man was, "independent of chance or accident for his pleasures" (Anthology II, pp. 153), and declaring that science had endowed man with, "powers which may be almost called creative;" (Anthology II, pp. 153). Yet Davy did not always hold such radical views, and in an essay on gratitude submitted to his Truro schoolmaster, wrote pejoratively on how man 'makes a God of his own desires, and adores them instead of the Deity' (26). Davy's early successes and indefatigable drive were to transmogrify his earlier, almost worshipful admiration of nature, into something more covetous, hinting at a previously dormant God complex, with an intense desire to understand and control the natural world. This is born out when Davy professes the ability to "interrogate nature with power,â€¦.as a master" (Anthology II, p. 153) - an aggressive claim, born from a scientific admiration of the sublime multiplicity of nature. This type of radical rhetoric is provocative even by present thinking, but reveals the development of the Enlightenment idea of nature as an object of study, to the more extreme, sublime Romantic theory of the natural world and mankind as an expression of God: thus man is inherently divine and shares God's creative power. As we know, Mary Shelley would soon take a keen interest.
Davy displays Enlightenment tendencies in his acknowledgment of the great deal of understanding yet to be achieved in his field, which by his own admission is, "far from being perfect" (Anthology II, p. 154). But again, the obvious thrill he conveys in comprehending, "sublime imaginations concerning unknown agencies" (Anthology II, p. 154) yet to be understood, and the frisson of excitement he reveals at his own immanent, pre-destined glory in discovery, reveal his Romantic proclivity. Davy makes no secret of his desire to comprehend, "the most profound secrets of nature" (Anthology II, p. 154): one can almost hear the lightning clouds gathering. Rather than refer to Davy as a 'Romantic Scientist', it may be more accurate to say, 'Sublime Scientist', so ubiquitous is the sublime in Davy's thought and expression, to the point that one might wonder if any current of Enlightenment idealism is purely by chance of profession, and an innate desire for self advancement and immortality.
Davy continues on Enlightenment themes for the remainder, purporting utilitarian views on the importance of the printing press in disseminating fresh knowledge to the masses, and talking at length to his largely middle-class audience on the value of progressive science in the improvement of working-class conditions, and the refinement of industrial and artistic manufacturing processes. Davy plays devil's advocate to some extent here, instructing his audience on their enlightened, altruistic duty of reform. He demonstrates his great skill and tact once again here, when arguing the usefulness of science in enabling his audience to become "the friends and protectors of the labouring part of the community" (Anthology II, p. 156) - any direct reference to the very recent French Revolution was entirely unnecessary - and loosening the purse strings of the "guardians of civilization and refinement" (Anthology II, p. 156) with flattery.
These lectures show us beyond doubt, the considerable oratory gifts Davy possessed. His arguments are quite masterfully, intelligently persuasive, with an obvious passion underpinning them. The question of how far Davy committed to a full-scale Enlightenment vision however is far less succinct. From Davy's childhood, and throughout his meteoric professional rise, the dual influences of the Enlightenment and Romantic movements are evident. His lectures on electrical phenomena for the Royal Institution fulfilled Enlightenment goals of the dissemination of knowledge proven by repeated, demonstrable proof, but owed a great deal of their success to the sublime, dramatic spectacle of their 'stinks and bangs' and Davy's own enormous charisma. Arguments for the application of reason as a means to universal betterment are in keeping with Enlightenment values of progress and challenging the status quo, but Davy's fascination with the sublime, his belief in himself as a man of destiny and the rampant egotism he displayed in his private correspondence are all indicators of strong Romantic appetites.
Davy is then, like Napoleon, an Enlightened Romantic. This may seem trite, but the similarities are manifold. Both were self confessed 'Sons of Destiny', both rose to the top of their chosen professions from humble beginnings, through an almost divine charisma, an understanding of the zeitgeist, a fearsome intelligence and the application and extension of existing knowledge, and both arguably allowed ego and ambition to carry them beyond their natural limit.