Intellect Over Politics: ‘The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn’

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn
Margaret Willes
Yale University Press
September 2017

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, “over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism.”

This is the curious world opened up by the diaries and correspondence Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703) and John Evelyn (1620 – 1706). Willes has not written a biography of either men but instead uses them as points of entry into this world, putting its personalities, habits of mind, and institutions into orbit around a particular kind of English intellectual adventurousness and curiosity. It’s an account of an inquisitiveness inspired by a new principled approach to empirical discovery that is at the heart of the Scientific Revolution, as well as an account of new – and sometimes from a modern point of view quite ludicrous – levels of acquisitiveness enabled by colonialism and trade.

With Pepys and Evelyn, Willes has subjects that are both fairly typical Restoration-era (post-1660) educated men of means as well as differing enough from each other to illustrate the broad-mindedness that characterized their social circles. Both men either acquired or inherited wealth and were respected and accomplished in their own right – Pepys as a civil servant and administrator, Evelyn as a writer and civic-minded man of ideas. Both made modest and enduring contributions to the disciplines and organizations that interested them. Evelyn wrote influential texts on forestry, gardening, and the problem of coal pollution in London, for example, and Pepys was a tireless source of administrative support for the Royal Society in its financially insolvent early days. His name as President of the Royal Society from 1684-1686 appears on the title page of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). Both men knew and worked with Christopher Wren, William Petty, Robert Hooke and others well remembered by posterity, but neither were themselves giants of science or innovation.

Yet as Willes observes at many points, Pepys and Evelyn and the scientists and virtuosi that circulated among them maintained long-lasting friendships and working relationships despite their respective political, religious, and cultural differences. And this was an era of pronounced and prolonged differences – Pepys and Evelyn observed the English Civil Wars (1642 – 1649) and its concomitant proliferation of radical religious groups, the execution of Charles I (1649), the establishing of the English Republic (1651 – 1660), the Restoration of the Monarchy, (1660), and the Popish Plot (1678 – 1681). The 17th century was electric with religious, political, and philosophical differences.

Pepys and Evelyn were both Anglican of opposite tendencies, the one hounded by accusations of Catholicism throughout his adult life, the other maintaining a streak of Puritanical austerity. The Royal Society’s original fellows included invites from France and Holland as well as a Protestant Nonconformist and a Roman Catholic. The Society was not, however, altogether modern in its character. The founding statutes expressly excluded women from attending meetings. When Margaret Cavendish secured an invitation in 1667 through family connections, a co-ed experiment not be repeated for two centuries, Pepys peevishly remarked how he found her dress “so antic [crazy] and her deportment so unordinary, that I do not like her at all, nor did I hear her say anything worth hearing.”

The Society’s only purpose, in Evelyn’s words, was “the investigation of Truths & discovery of Errors & Impostures… without any Offence to anybody”. As early as 1676 he could cite in a letter to his wife “many useful inventions” arising out the Society’s collective efforts, “such as watches, cranes, pumps, and mathematical instruments.” There’s something characteristically English about such an endeavor, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences. The impulse recalls Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” of civil society and Michael Oakeshott’s “civil associations” – institutions created by and for free people to pursue and cultivate their creative impulses.

Equally English and very nicely chronicled by Willes were the satirical jabs at the Society provided most pointedly by the playwright Thomas Shadwell (1642 – 1692) who irked Evelyn by seeming to target him directly. Where Pepys and Evelyn were free enough to cultivate and pursue their own occasionally esoteric scientific interests, so Shadwell was free to write mockingly of a fictional Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, a ridiculous philosopher who, at a Royal Society demonstration, “learns to swim like a frog on a table with the help of a Swimming Master.” Without passing too much judgment on her subject, Willes herself writes with humor on the indulgent acquisitions Pepys collected in the 1660s. It included not only such newly introduced goods as coffee, tea, and chocolate, but also a pet monkey (which he mentioned “quite by chance”), cages filled with canaries, and (with the “zoological acme” reached) a pet lion from Algiers, “good company” he described it, which he somehow kept in his lodgings in Westminster.

By no means does this brief detour into one key chapter of The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn exhaust its content and charm. Willes has not written, nor intended to write, a trenchant academic work – rather this is deftly written popular history that captures a context and a moment of discovery and excitement in Restoration England. Like the chapter on science, the chapters on music, theatre, gardening, books, and fashionable exotica from the New World and the Far East are breezily but proficiently drawn by Willes as curious but never inexplicably so given the resources, industriousness, and natural curiosity available to individuals like Pepys and Evelyn.

RATING 8 / 10