The Royal Society, Collective Vision and Samuel Butler’s “The Elephant in the Moon”

  • J. Ereck Jarvis
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine book series (PLSM)


In Samuel Butler’s (1613–1680) satire of the early Royal Society “The Elephant in the Moon,” a group of Fellows gather around a telescope, discovering and discussing life on the Moon.2 When the conversation turns to the ancient past, the Fellows’ characterizations are flawed, even inverted. For example, one member postulates that lunar peoples descended from Arcadians who “were reputed/Of all the Grecians the most stupid/Whom nothing … could bring/To civil Life, but fiddling” (ll. 103–6). However, past scholarship on “The Elephant in the Moon” effectively demonstrates that its satire targets not the “new science” but “particular scientists.”3 Building on this work, I argue that the poem faults particular philosophical practices of the Royal Society. Butler places the telescope and lunar observation at the center of his poem to foreground mediation—that which “intervenes, enables, supplements, or is simply in-between.”4 Using the central image of telescopic viewing to plumb the relationship between mediation and knowledge, Butler censures the Society’s engagement with the forms of collective vision burgeoning in the seventeenth century.


Royal Society Seventeenth Century Voluntary Association Philosophical Transaction Collective Vision 
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  1. 1.
    Samuel Butler, “Learning,” Satires and Miscellaneous Poetry and Prose, ed. René Lamar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), 157–162. This quote comes from page 157, ll. 7–8. References to this poem will be quoted by line number(s).Google Scholar
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    Ken Robinson, “The Skepticism of Butler’s Satire on Science: Optimistic or Pessimistic?” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660–1700 7.1 (Spring 1983), 4. See also Marjorie Nicolson, Pepys’ Diary and the New Science (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1965), 139–153Google Scholar
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© J. Ereck Jarvis 2016

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  • J. Ereck Jarvis

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