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Professor Allison Coudert

Science & Religion | November 23, 2020

Listen to “Professor Allison Coudert: How did Religion Influence Science? [Science 2/4]” on Spreaker.

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we sit down with Professor Allison Coudert, of the Department of Religious Studies at UC Davis, to discuss the historical interplay of science with religion, and specifically with Kabbalah.

During a 1917 lecture talking about the rational mindset underlying science, Max Weber famously declared that “This means that the world is disenchanted.” Though this sentiment has permeated the public consciousness, Allison thinks the real story is more complicated. She thinks that science and enlightenment philosophy only heightened the magic we humans could experience, and that enlightenment movements have done so historically. In her mind, religion and science aren’t opponents, as they’re so often framed, but engage in a mutually-beneficial relationship, each inspiring and strengthening the other.

What has the historical interplay of science and religion been? What influence has Kabbalah specifically had on scientists’ thought? What connotations do the words “modernity” and “enlightenment” tend to evoke in listeners? And are these evocations justified? Tune in to hear Allison Coudert discuss the influence that Jewish thought has had since the Scientific Revolution.

For more, visit https://18forty.org/science/#coudert.

TRANSCRIPT

David Bashevkin:

Welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring science and religion. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy questions about religion in the modern world, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org, where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

David Bashevkin:

I believe I mentioned in the introduction that this topic of how science and Torah interact, science and religion interact with one another, is one that I stepped in in the early 2000s when, again, there’s a cycle of the controversies that affect any religious community, particularly the Jewish community, and there’s a cycle every, I don’t know, 50, 100 years, there’s some major science and Torah, science and religion, conflict, contradiction, whatever it is. That’s how I grew up. And about… I’m trying to figure out exactly how many years after those heady years, those heavy conversations related to the Slifkin affair, and whether or not true science is reflected in the Torah. I don’t know how I stumbled upon the work of Dr. Allison Coudert. I believe it was through my teacher, mentor, and friend, Dr. Ari Bergmann, who we’ve had on this podcast previously, I think he’s used her work, and he found, he introduced her book to me. And her book simply knocked me off my feet, and I just want to give a little bit of an introduction for why it knocked me off my feet, and why I think this conversation is so important.

David Bashevkin:

Dr. Allison Coudert is a professor of religious studies at UC Davis, and her work is absolutely outstanding. Full disclosure, I asked her this on the interview, I’m not sure if it made it into the final cut: she is not herself Jewish, but she has focused on how Jewish wisdom, particularly mysticism, affected the Scientific Revolution. She’s very interested in a period of time and a demographic known as Christian Hebraists, which were people who were Christian, but became enamored, and there were different types and segments within this community, but people who became enamored with Jewish wisdom, non-Jews who became enamored with Jewish wisdom. She traces the history of how one of these communities of Christian Hebraists became fascinated by the translation of Lurianic Kabbalah and mysticism into their language, into English or Latin. I believe it was Latin, the Kabbalah Denudata.

David Bashevkin:

What makes her so fascinating is it totally re-frames the interplay and the perceived conflict, so to speak, between science and religion. Because I think for most, when you hear science and religion next to each other, you think of two boxers in their opposite end of the corner, each trying to jockey for dominance in the public square, in the public’s mind. She re-frames that in a really rigorous, fantastic way by really showing and tracing through history how so many of the ideas lying within Jewish mysticism actually served as catalysts for scientific discovery. Her book is absolutely remarkable, and I need to give, I think I give a disclaimer, also, in the podcast. I need to give a disclaimer: it costs an absolute fortune because it is published by Brill Publishers, who are, they really publish wonderful stuff. But usually the topics of their book are so niche, they’re so segmented, that there are only like 11 people in the world interested in them, so to recoup the cost of publishing a book, they have to charge each of those 11 people a great deal of money. I think her book costs about $300 online. I hope I’m wrong and it’s less, but you can check it out.

David Bashevkin:

There are also tons of articles that we’ve linked to, and her work is really, really outstanding in reframing the interplay and the influence, the mutual influence, of science and religion on one another. And speaking from somebody outside of the Jewish community, it was deeply moving and really fascinating what brought her to this area of study, which is something I’ve always wondered. Until we spoke, I never knew anything about her actual personal life or orientation in the scholarly community, I just knew that I found her book absolutely fascinating. It felt like it was from the Da Vinci Code, it feels like it was based on a movie or something, or something you’d find on, I don’t know, a Jewish outreach site. But it’s the real deal scholarship, and her book is absolutely fascinating. I wish it didn’t cost the fortune that it did, but please check us out on 18Forty.org, 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y dot org, and you can find so many more of her articles and ideas that we linked to, because her work is really fascinating in reframing the conversation between religion and science in modern history. I hope you all enjoy my conversation with Dr. Allison Coudert.

David Bashevkin:

Welcome, everyone, to the 18Forty podcast. I have such a fascinating guest today, someone whose scholarship, books, articles I have long been fascinated with. It is my very special pleasure to welcome Professor Allison Coudert. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

Allison Coudert:

Absolutely, you got it right.

David Bashevkin:

On the first try.

Allison Coudert:

Usually people call me “cow dirt”.

David Bashevkin:

Okay, Coudert. Professor Coudert teaches at UCLA right now?

Allison Coudert:

No, UC Davis.

David Bashevkin:

UC Davis. Oh Lord, okay, I’ve already transgressed. She has a wonderful bio. She got her PhD from The Warburg Institute at the University of London, and she focuses on the interaction between religion in science with a special emphasis on the Jewish contributions to science and gender issues. She has written some fabulous books, all of which we will link to, and we will discuss, but without further ado, Professor Coudert, thank you so much for joining.

Allison Coudert:

Oh, it’s great to be here.

David Bashevkin:

So your scholarship is jaw-droppingly fascinating. The first time I came across your writing, and the first book I was introduced to, was entitled The Impact of the Kabbalah in the Seventeenth Century: The Life and Thought of Francis Mercury Van Helmont, which discusses the influence of mysticism on the Scientific Revolution. The first time I read this, I heard these ideas, I figured it was from some Jewish outreach institution. I didn’t even believe that this was the serious scholarship, and then I read your work, and I was floored. So before we get into your specific scholarship and contribution, maybe you can tell us a little bit about where you grew up and what drew you to studying the intersection and the influence between Jewish mysticism and science.

Allison Coudert:

Okay. I grew up in New York City, which was a boon, a fabulous thing to be in a city that was so multicultural and interesting, and I went to a wonderful girls’ school called The Brearley School in New York, and got a really very good education. I think I started out at a very early age, and I think it was because I learned about the Holocaust, I think I was 10 years old when I learned about the Holocaust. I think that has been with me my entire life, and I am utterly fascinated about how people can do such horrendous things to other people.

Allison Coudert:

So the whole history of prejudice and dealing with racial issues and religious divisions is something that I’ve worked on my entire life. That seems like a long introduction, but then I went on to do a PhD, and I was in England at the time, and had the good fortune to be able to go to The Warburg Institute and work with Frances Yates. To bring this full circle, I actually got involved with looking at this very strange and wonderful man, Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, because of my tutor, Frances Yates. She directed me there. He was trying to solve the religious dilemmas of the period. I don’t know if most of your viewers know, but the early modern period, the 16th and 17th century, was a period of horrible, intense religious warfare as a result of the Protestant Reformation. Lots of people died.

David Bashevkin:

So you came on to this not interested at first in mysticism, but from the persecution side?

Allison Coudert:

Well, mystics, to me, are absolutely wonderful, because I think mystics across religious boundaries, they have more in common, often, with other mystics than they do with their fellow religious people in their institutional religion. Because they’re not worried about, they want to get to God, they want to know the truth, they want to have this mystical union of sorts. They’re not worried about keeping their institution going and being sure that their religious adherence, behave themselves, and stay in the institution. So I have been fascinated by mystics, it’s one of the first classes I ever taught as a grad student, believe it or not. I’m 23-years-old, and I’m teaching a course on mysticism, which maybe seems a little odd, but I just found the mystics so appealing.

David Bashevkin:

So you’re in your late teens or early 20s, and that’s when these residual memories of the Holocaust, and persecution, and inequality, and that’s what drew you to this personality, who we’ll discuss, Francis Mercury van Helmont, correct?

Allison Coudert:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

Is that…

Allison Coudert:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. So maybe we could dive in a little bit, and maybe we’ll come back more to your story, but I wanted to begin with a quote from your article, Rethinking Max Weber’s Theory of Disenchantment, where you write as follows: “There has been a long tradition of scholarship in the West claiming that from the Reformation onwards people experienced the world as incredibly disenchanted. According to this narrative, science demystified the world, taking the magic and mystery out of nature.” Now, why do you think that this theory of Max Weber, that science basically sucked out the mystery of the world, why do you think that needed to be revisited?

Allison Coudert:

Because I think it’s absolutely not true. I think there were many reasons why Weber came to that position, and I think it was anxiety over modernity and what was called, at that point, and still is, “scientism”, but I think anybody knows that we can go out and take a walk in the mountains or the woods or even in our local park, and sometimes you have this immense feeling of joy and cosmic consciousness, as it was called in the early 20th century. So I think there’s so much magic in the world. I mean, presumably, a lot of your audience is going to have a pet, a cat, or a dog, or something. I mean, there’s magic in those relationships, and also with other people. So I think this notion of disenchantment went hand in hand with fear of modernity, and I think fundamentalism goes with that as well. So it’s complicated.

David Bashevkin:

So, I want to share another quote, and it’s not from your book, it’s from Matt Goldish’s Judaism in the Theology of Sir Isaac Newton. We’ll talk about how this relates to your studies. But this is a quote that you’re certainly familiar with. It is a letter, an article, reflecting on Newton’s Library that was written by Lord Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, who bought at auction a lot of Newton’s Library. This is what he writes. It’s a little long, but I think it’s the right way to enter into this conversation.

David Bashevkin:

Keynes here is reflecting on Newton’s Library, and he writes: “In the 18th century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists. A rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think that anyone who has poured over the contents of that box, which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians. Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God laid about the world, who allowed a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood.”

David Bashevkin:

Professor, help explain: how did, and why did, the leaders of the Scientific Revolution all contend with ideas about religion? I’m used to thinking that all of this, in Weber’s Theory of Disenchantment, was a rebellion from religious ideas. But you tell the story of how religious ideas animated much of the Scientific Revolution. How did that come to be?

Allison Coudert:

I think the usual idea is that good science emerged when bad religion and bad magic disappeared. This was the thesis of the three volume History of Science, written by George Sarton, that I still read when I went to Vassar College. More and more people have shown that this is simply not true. I am not an original in this. My scholarship, like all scholarship, relies on putting bits and pieces together of other people’s scholarship. So, really starting in the ’50s and the ’60s, and a little bit earlier, too, there was a realization that science emerged as modern science in the West. This does not mean that Greek science and Islamic science and Chinese science and Indian science didn’t influence Western science.

Allison Coudert:

One of the arguments made by a really wonderful scholar, J H Hedley Brooke, is that science arose because of the push given to it by Christian ideas, Judeo-Christian ideas, and let me just tell you some of them. One is that God created the world, and everything he created after he did the creation, what did he say? “And he saw that it was good.” So, this idea that the creation was something that was good, it wasn’t negative, it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t something you had to escape, led to an idea that there were two books that one could read to find out about God, and one was, obviously, scripture, and the other was the Book of Nature.

Allison Coudert:

So someone like Robert Boyle, the so-called father of modern Chemistry, said he and the people like him, the scientists, the people in London’s royal society, were the true priests because they read the book of nature. So all of the work that Boyle did, and Boyle was a great friend of Newton, John Locke was involved with him, the three of them worked very closely together, all of them thought reading the Book of Nature was a way of glorifying God. So I think that’s so important to understand.

David Bashevkin:

So maybe you could explain a little bit, and I’ll tell you how it was put to me. Let’s talk about what was the shift in science that the Scientific Revolution ushered in? Before we unpack the influences about that shift, maybe we could understand the shift a little bit more closely. When I took a course with Professor Elisheva Carlebach, who is the chair of Jewish studies –

Allison Coudert:

Oh, yeah! I know her.

David Bashevkin:

At Columbia. One of the most wonderful professors I’ve had. She summed it up with a clever little story. She said, “Previously, people wanted to know how many teeth were in a horse’s mouth, so they would speculate, ‘What was the perfect number? 10 teeth? 20 teeth? 36 teeth? 18 teeth?’ What the Scientific Revolution changed is that they got together and said, ‘Let’s open up the horse’s mouth and count.'”

Allison Coudert:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

I don’t know where the anecdote comes from, but there was a shift into being more proactive, to experiments, to contend with nature and not just to observe and report. Do you think that that’s an accurate description? Again, a broad oversimplification, but as one of the major shifts of what the Scientific Revolution ushered.

Allison Coudert:

I think there’s a great deal of truth in that. One thing I want to say is science never didn’t exist. I mean, medieval Roger Bacon, for instance, represented science in the Middle Ages. So there’s a definite continuity. But what does happen, and I give my classes, when we talk about religion, magic, and science, I give them Galileo to read, and also a very educated Englishman called Fairfax, who writes a treatise about how his daughters were bewitched. I get my students to try to look at, what is the kind of evidence that Fairfax educes to prove to his readers that his daughters were bewitched?

Allison Coudert:

It’s all hearsay evidence, it’s all secondhand evidence, it all has to do with the reputed character of the so-called witches. But when you get to someone like Galileo, it’s basically looking at, exactly, opening the horse’s mouth and counting the teeth. So I think there is a different way of preceding that becomes more and more prevalent during the Scientific Revolution.

David Bashevkin:

So let’s talk about how these scientists even stumbled upon Jewish or religious ideas, and maybe we could begin with a fascinating text that you write extensively about called the Kabbalah Denudata, which was a Latin translation by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth. Is that correct?

Allison Coudert:

Yep.

David Bashevkin:

Of Lurianic Kabbalah. Now, tell me the story: why did he translate it, and how did it eventually get to the hands of all of these scientists? Why would they be interested in a translation like this? Why not a, stick to a standard, most of them were Christian. Why not stick to Christian ideas? What enchanted them about this, and how did it circulate?

Allison Coudert:

Okay. Now, I’m not going to say that all the scientists in the big pantheon of scientists read the Kabbalah Denudata. It was in Newton’s Library, and there were some dogeared pages down, so he did have it, but he did not like it.

David Bashevkin:

No. Newton did not like mysticism.

Allison Coudert:

Yes, he did! Yes.

David Bashevkin:

He didn’t like the kabbalistic mysticism.

Allison Coudert:

He wasn’t too keen on that.

David Bashevkin:

Okay. We’ll come to that.

Allison Coudert:

Let me just go back. So, what happened is, Knorr von Rosenroth was a chancellor in a very small German duchy of Sulzbach. He and van Helmont, the guy I wrote the book about, were great pals. Both of them had grown up, they were born at the beginning of the 17th century in Germany. They spent a lot of time there, van Helmont actually was born is what’s Belgium now. But they were deeply affected by the Thirty Years’ War, this horrible, long war that went on between Catholics and Protestants throughout the 17th century. This was part of the terrible religious fighting that followed the Reformation. So they grew up scarred by this kind of religious fighting.

Allison Coudert:

The English had the same kind of thing happen with their civil war, all of this fighting. So a lot of people began to think, “Why do we have this religious warfare, and how can we stop it?” So van Helmont and von Rosenroth somehow became and got these Lurianic Kabbalistic texts. How they got them is a little too complicated to go into now. But they got them, and these texts seemed to answer important questions for them. One of them was, what happens… Remember, we have trade travel going on from the 14th Century, people are discovering all kinds of people who were not Christian. There was the problem of, what happened to the good pagans? What happened to people who never heard of Christ? How could God, a decent, nice, benevolent God, damn all these people to Hell?

Allison Coudert:

So, the idea of stopping religious warfare and getting salvation available to everything were driving a lot of these people. So, van Helmont and von Rosenroth felt that they had found in the Kabbalah a possible ecumenical religion that could unite pagans and Jews and Christians and Muslims. One of the things they loved about it was the idea of reincarnation or metempsychosis that Luria had, that you had a chance to be reincarnated. That’s very fascinating to figure out. How did the Kabbalah come up with that? That’s a whole different question. But it was for these kind of theological problems that they turned to mystical Lurianic texts to try to find some religion that would unite people rather than dividing them.

David Bashevkin:

So, it’s a fascinating idea. It just recalls to me your own story of having seen the…

Allison Coudert:

Yes!

David Bashevkin:

Was that conscious when you came across that, about hearing and learning about the Holocaust and influencing your immersion into this field of studies, and that repeating in an earlier different way, of their looking at all the tragedy in the world and being driven to more holistic, unifying, mystical ideas?

Allison Coudert:

You’ve hit the nail on the head, and I think this raises a problem, which is: Can scholars be objective? Quite clearly, I was very happy to land with the research topic of Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont. Now that was complete luck. Frances Yates, my tutor, basically gave me that subject, but she could not have given me a better one. I don’t think I would have been as happy writing about some kind of anti-Semite. But I do want to say that I still think no scholar can be totally objective. We all have our presuppositions and our axes to grind, but we can try to filter those out. But you did hit the nail on the head. This was just manna from Heaven for me to work on these people who were so concerned with trying to bring some kind of unity, kindness, toleration.

David Bashevkin:

We covered the characters of… I’m going to butcher the names throughout.

Allison Coudert:

That’s fine.

David Bashevkin:

That’ll be a recurring theme, of von Rosenroth and van Helmont. So they’re together and finding it. Now, how did it get into the hands of scientists? Was van Helmont a door-to-door encyclopedia salesperson? Which doesn’t exist anymore, it used to be that they’d knock on your door with the Britannica or the World Book and ask you to buy it. How did it circulate? Was it in bookstores? How did it get into the hands of scientists, and which scientists became most enchanted by this?

Allison Coudert:

Van Helmont went everywhere, he seemed to know everybody. He went from court to court. He spent a lot of time in Hanover. He was a very good friend of Leibniz, the great philosopher Leibniz, who actually, strange to say, because Leibniz was so brilliant, and van Helmont was often considered odd, let’s say, odd, by people, but Leibniz actually sat at his feet and listened to him. And as I discovered from this cache of manuscripts in the [inaudible] in Hanover, that Leibniz had ghosted… Another woman found this out, but then I found more manuscripts showing that Leibniz had taken down van Helmont’s ideas, he ghosted a book for van Helmont. He was very interested in these ideas.

Allison Coudert:

So van Helmont would go from court to court. Now, it’s not just the Kabbalah Denudata that was spreading some of these ideas. The idea of reincarnation as a solution to the fact that Christianity is a historical religion that had a beginning and end… So what happens to the people who were born before Christ came to Earth, and what happened to the people who never got to know about Christ? It was a big problem for Christians, because they couldn’t all go to Hell. That would not be the mark of a benevolent, merciful God. So reincarnation became a big deal.

David Bashevkin:

It gave them a framework to contend with people who didn’t have salvation, so to speak, in their ideology.

Allison Coudert:

Yeah! So what happened is, according to van Helmont’s theory, that he took from Lurianic Kabbalah, but put with his own ideas, is that everybody had 12 lifetimes, revolutions. They had 12 lives. In one of those lives, they would come across Christ, but in a very nontraditional form. So what I argue is that the Christianity purveyed by van Helmont and von Rosenroth is really not Orthodox Christianity at all. I make the further argument that they were one of the few people during that period who didn’t think Jews were good only if they converted. I mean, it was very interesting –

David Bashevkin:

I’m going to ask you, how did their immersion in this sect of Jewish thought, and you have an article that talks about whether the Kabbalah Denudata, this Latin translation, was a vehicle for conversion, trying to convert Jews and bring them to Christianity, or an admiration for Jewish thought.

Allison Coudert:

Yeah. Remember, at the same time all of this is going on, there is the search for what is called the prisca theologia, the original religion that was passed down by God to either Moses or Adam. That was another approach. If we could find this prisca theologia, this original doctrine, then everybody could agree to it, and we would have peace. So van Helmont and von Rosenroth, along with other people, argued that the Kabbalah was this prisca theologia.

David Bashevkin:

Tell me a little bit about how these ideas, aside from the ones that you mentioned, actually impacted their approach to science. Were they two separate, did they live in two separate homes? They had a day job as a scientist, and then they would go home, in the comfort of their own home, and read these esoteric texts? Or were they influencing one another?

Allison Coudert:

Well, as I argue in the book, the doctrine of tikkun haolam is really important here, this whole idea of restitution.

David Bashevkin:

Let me jump in before you continue on this, because I love this passage, I quote it in my book, and I’ll read it like this: “The Lurianic Kabbalist could not retreat into his own private world. He had to participate in a cosmic millennial drama in which his every action counted. The Lurianic Kabbalah was the first Jewish theology which envisioned perfection in terms of a future state, not in terms of a forfeited past, and as such, it contributed to the idea of progress emerging in the West.” Tell me more about what that idea of progress, and how it was influenced from these ideas.

Allison Coudert:

Oh, it’s very interesting, again, at that point, in the 17th century into the 18th century there was a great deal of apocalyptic and millenarian thought. One of the ideas that was prevalent was that you could make the world a better place and bring Jesus back. Now this was a whole group of people, not necessarily following the Kabbalah, but had this kind of idea. It was a very positive kind of apocalyptic thinking, so different from today, with ideas of the rapture, the 140,000 will go up, and the rest of us left behind are evil, and we’ll all be killed off.

Allison Coudert:

There was this very positive energy that improving the world, making things better, would bring about a millennial state. So Kabbalah is one group of ideas in that. There was a whole nother group that were called pansophists, they were millenarians. They all mingled together, and as the great historian Richard Henry Popkin writes about Amsterdam, Holland was filled with this mix of Christians and Jews, all involved with millenarian thinking in this very positive way that promoted science, because they made better tools to do agriculture, they started, Johnny Appleseed, growing trees, and doing all kinds of stuff.

Allison Coudert:

So in this very odd – I don’t find it odd anymore because I studied it so much – but this very progressive religious view that you had to work with God to make the world a better place contributed to all kinds of inventions, and van Helmont went to Hanover and worked with Leibniz on making things like a better wheelbarrow, better cooking pots, and my favorite, shoes with springs for fast getaways. I kid you not, that’s one of the things they invented, then I went into a sneaker store about 20 years ago –

David Bashevkin:

Like Inspector Gadget had them.

Allison Coudert:

And I found sneakers with springs on them.

David Bashevkin:

That’s fabulous. Wow. Who would have known the history behind Inspector Gadget’s famous shoes? I don’t know if you watched that cartoon.

Allison Coudert:

That’s right!

David Bashevkin:

You may have missed that, but that’s absolutely fascinating. One part I was really fascinated with is the intersection of these ideas and medical revolutions, of how medicine was changing. Who was the central figure in the evolution of medicine – and you discuss this in your book – and how was he connected to this circle?

Allison Coudert:

Well, to tell you the truth, none of us would want to live in the 17th century when it came to medicine, I mean it was pretty horrible. The basic routine was purging and bleeding. I think Louis XIV, there’s a wonderful article that I quote somewhere, where he was bled and purged over 2,000 times in his life, and it was only his strong constitution that kept him alive from all of that.

David Bashevkin:

I’m afraid of doctors as it is, I get nervous when I go to a doctor’s appointment. The fact that there’s no purging is a comfort.

Allison Coudert:

You’re much better off today, thank God for doctors and modern medicine. But there was someone like [William] Harvey understanding that the heart was a pump. So what we have is a mechanical analogy there, that the heart works like a pump. What I try to suggest, really using the work of other historians in medicine, is that that was a new way of looking at the body, that actually the body could be fixed. If the heart was a pump, you could put in new valves in it. So it was this way, you have to remember that there is a huge tradition, in Christianity particularly, that thinks the body is the source of sin. I mean this goes on to this day, that the body is the locus of sin, the body is disgusting, the body is bad. Of course this has psychological roots in the fact that we’re all afraid of death. Christianity made the body a disgusting, horrible thing. This kind of new way of thinking about the body as a potential machine that could be fixed got rid of all that notion of loathing and disgust. Not entirely, because it’s still with us today, but this idea that the body is fixable I think is very, very important for the development of medicine.

David Bashevkin:

And Paracelsus, who was a major part of this shift in medicine, he somehow found his way into this circle as well.

Allison Coudert:

Yeah. One of the interesting things, and I’m working on this now, in a way, Paracelsus also – this could be misused – but also was beginning to have the idea of how important the mind-body relation was, and that psychosomatic interconnections are the cause of disease. He also had the notion that disease came from the outside and attacked organs. You have to remember that the old theory, the Galenic, following the second century Roman physician [Claudius] Galen, the Galenic theory was that we have four humors, and it was inside us, and it was the imbalance of those humors that caused disease. Paracelsus had the very interesting idea that, no, diseases came from the outside. He understood that there were special diseases for miners and for people in different professions. So this was a step to understanding the dynamics of disease.

David Bashevkin:

Do you think these changes in medicine were connected in any way to their religious thought? Aside from the Christian view of the body, and maybe stepping away from that, were there larger religious themes underneath this? Because both of them were involved in these religious circles.

Allison Coudert:

Well, now, Paracelsus was quite a character.

David Bashevkin:

Haha, tell me more.

Allison Coudert:

He was mad. He was a drunkard. I mean, there are wonderful descriptions of him leaping out of bed in the middle of the night with his sword because he thought some demon was there. But what I would say, to answer your question, the larger thing is, nobody in this period’s thought was uninfluenced by the religious world around them. There was no separation between what was called, then, “natural philosophy” – we now call it “science”, but the word “science” didn’t really come into being until the mid 18th century – natural philosophers were working within a cosmology that was taken into Christianity, it was called The Great Chain of Being, I don’t know if you know what that is.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Allison Coudert:

Everything was connected. It was a wonderful, homey world. For instance, if you look at the sun, why does Louis XIV have suns all over Versailles, wonderful pictures of the sun? Because the sun is the planet that is under God. The king is the position of power under the sun. The lion represents the king, the sun, and God. So you had everything organized in these wonderful series, and that influenced the way people thought about the body. So there was no separation between the way you thought as a natural philosopher and your cosmology, they were so interconnected.

David Bashevkin:

So, before we step into more contemporary times, I was wondering if you could share, we’ve spoken about science and medicine. What have you discovered about political philosophy? Because this time, so much of the way that states were being governed, and democracy began to flourish, and you already mentioned John Locke. What was Locke’s connection to these religious ideas? Is any of it explicit?

Allison Coudert:

Well, van Helmont, again, went and stayed with Locke, with John Locke. According to the History of Science during the 1960s and ’70s when I was writing this stuff, Locke was a rationalist philosopher and van Helmont was this crazy mystic. One of the things I wanted to understand is, how could Locke invite van Helmont to come and stay where he was for four months if they were so different? How did van Helmont and Leibniz get along so well? So what I think we have to do is break down these arbitrary divisions between rationalists and mystics that were much later, they were made much later. So Locke, again, was interested in limited toleration. He wasn’t as tolerant as van Helmont, and he had reservations about Jews, as so many people did, but he certainly thought they should be tolerated in England. There was the whole issue of readmitting Jews to England in the 17th century. So notions of democracy were in the air, do remember that in 1649 King Charles had been executed, and regicide was just an unthinkable crime, so there were changing attitudes towards political things. I think ideas of tolerance and individual human ability and worth, they’re all connected with one’s religious positions and understandings, I think.

David Bashevkin:

Absolutely. I love that question, and maybe you could answer it more directly. It’s a metaphor of sorts. How did they get along, Locke and van Helmont? How did Leibniz and van Helmont, how did that friendship work? It’s a metaphor for what I find, now, the disciplines seem to be much more adversarial. I’m curious if you could share on a personal level, how did those friendships actually work?

Allison Coudert:

I think they were interested in the same things. I mean, you have to remember, at the end of the 17th century there was a really good start in rejecting Calvinism and the idea of original sin. That idea of original sin, to me, is just horrible, but I understand it because it helps to explain evil by putting it squarely on the shoulders of human beings. But there was the beginning of this idea that little children were not born sinful, innately sinful, that they were born with what Locke called a blank slate, a tabula rasa. It was through education that you could make a good citizen and a good human being.

Allison Coudert:

Now this opens the world to all kinds of progressive notions, because if you could form wonderful, good, tolerant citizens through education, you can see how progressive that is. I mean, we’re still in this situation today because I think we’re schizophrenic in the US. We have a lot of people who think people are just evil and bad, and I would say conservative Christians, by and large. “Throw them in jail, throw away the key!” But then on the other hand, we have these ideas coming out of the end of the 17th century and 18th century enlightenment saying, “Come on, people can change, they can be educated. They can be reformed. We have to take that in its original sins to remake them.” These ideas, this is why the early modern period is so fascinating to me, because you have all of this in the mix.

David Bashevkin:

Maybe we could jump to contemporary times, and looking at the landscape that we’re in now, what would you say… Maybe I’ll phrase it a little bit differently. What do you think a Leibniz would think if he met the world of science today? Meaning, would he feel more comfortable in a religious setting, or would he feel more comfortable in that, I don’t know, conservative Christian? Where would he land? How would they look at the world of science today, you think?

Allison Coudert:

Gosh. Leibniz is so above my mental capacity that I don’t even want to speculate, but I will, of course. And I think what happens is, I end up, Leibniz had a philosophy of monads, which is really too complicated, in a way, to get here, but in a sense – and again, I’m using other scholarship, plus my own – I think he saw matter almost as fields of force. I think a lot of his thinking would fit in well with quantum mechanics and modern ideas of matter. I think he’d be extremely comfortable. He spent his whole life, he was a nominal Lutheran. I say “nominal” because he certainly did not accept predestination, at least I argue that. Other people don’t agree with me, but I think I’m right. He was really looking for a tolerant, ecumenical religion. I think he would be happy to see that in some cases this has come about, but I think he’d be really distressed to see the rise of a fundamentalism that turns its back on climate change and basically modern science. So I think he’d have mixed reviews.

David Bashevkin:

Mixed reviews.

Allison Coudert:

Yep.

David Bashevkin:

Coming back more broadly, and I’ll phrase it the other way: What do you think contemporary science can find in religious ideas, and what do you think religious ideas should turn to for science? What are they each misunderstanding about the other?

Allison Coudert:

I think this idea that they are inevitably at loggerheads is a big mistake, and I was really happy to investigate that in the early modern period, but there is this idea now that religion and science are enemies. I think, quite frankly, if you take a literal view of the Bible, if you absolutely believe in the conservative God that is presented, you do have a problem. I mean, we do have a problem with, still, theodicy, trying to prove the justice of God. I mean, how does this work in one of the most horrible centuries of all time where the amount of death, killing, and genocide, and holocaust, is unspeakable, if you think about it?

Allison Coudert:

I mean, ever since the Gatling gun was developed in World War I, just think what we have come to. We can wipe ourselves off the face of the Earth, and we’re doing a very good job of that. So, I think, really, modernity poses many, many problems, and I think, modernity, you can sum up in basically one word: “ambiguity”, and a loss of a single truth. I think human beings spend a long time as children, and I’m not being facetious or nasty here, but I think it is very hard for some people to realize that they have to grow up. I think we want leaders, and we want texts, and we want things to tell us how to behave and what to do. In other words, we don’t want to think about the complex issues that are out there, and it’s worrying to me. I mean, if we have 27% of the American population that are strict fundamentalists and believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and reject science, I think we’re in deep trouble, and we’re watching this play out now.

David Bashevkin:

On the flip side, meaning that scientism: What is the angst and anxiety of that outlook? When it looks to religion, and very often religious ideas, esoteric ideas, mystical ideas that can’t be verified, there’s almost a fundamental adversarialness towards those ideas.

Allison Coudert:

Great point.

David Bashevkin:

How does that need to be reimagined given everything that you’ve researched?

Allison Coudert:

Starting with Kant, as you well know, lose the separation between the phenomenal and the noumenal. So you could know the phenomenal, you could know this, you could do science. You couldn’t know the noumenal, you couldn’t know anything about Heaven or God. Wittgenstein reinforced that. So, in a sense, what scientism, in this way, does is it removes all the important and interesting – I mean, not all of them, but – questions that we have. We can’t live without thinking about, what is the purpose of life? Why do we die? What is ethics? What is morality?

Allison Coudert:

So I think this idea of Dawkins and people like this, that religion is all bad and is terrible, there’s plenty of religion that is awful and terrible, but there was plenty of science that was awful and terrible too. Racial science, social Darwinism, things like that, eugenics, they were all terrible. So I think we have to calm down, we have to realize that we are deeply metaphysical beings, and we have to try to figure things out, and I think philosophy and religion can help us do this. That’s why I say I love the mystics, because the mystics are not saying, “You must believe in this dogma. You must wear these clothes. You must say these prayers.” They are looking at the deeper connections in this world. I think we are all so connected that I don’t have any trouble figuring out my purpose in the world. I just don’t think I do it well enough, but I’m not thinking, I have to go and join a sect that tells me I have to wear long dresses and veils and stuff like that to be a decent female.

David Bashevkin:

Professor Coudert, I cannot thank you enough. Just your scholarship, your ideas, I find them absolutely fascinating. I usually end with some quicker questions, more personal, a little bit more fun, and you can let me know if you’re comfortable with any of that. I always am curious about people’s schedules. What time do you usually go to bed, and what time do you usually wake up in the morning?

Allison Coudert:

I try very much to go to bed around 10:30, because I have to get up at 6:30, because, I mean, I’ve done this for ages, but now I have to give my poor dear cat, OJ, insulin injections. This is complicated, because I also like to have dinner parties, and I like to start dinner parties at 6:30, and I can’t go round up the cat and try to give him insulin shots while people are coming for dinner, so I want to feed him by 6:30 and put the insulin shot in by a quarter to 7. But I like getting up early, and that’s not really very early.

David Bashevkin:

Well, if I had that library, I see the image of your home library, and that is just astounding, and it’s a great next question. For somebody who wants to learn more about the intersection of these ideas and the influence, I would say, obviously, to read your book. My concern though, and I’m saying this with a lot of love and respect: it is a little bit expensive.

Allison Coudert:

Oh my God! Yeah, but the thing is I have them all, so I’ll send them to anybody.

David Bashevkin:

Oh, that’s very kind of you.

Allison Coudert:

I mean, I’m sure that if this gets out I’ll be sued, but it’s ridiculous.

David Bashevkin:

It’s a pretty penny. I always say, these academic books, because they have such a narrow audience, even though I think this is for everybody because it’s so fascinating, but because they only sell a handful of copies, they want to make the same amount, so they charge $10,000 a copy.

Allison Coudert:

It’s ridiculous!

David Bashevkin:

I know you don’t set the price, and I love it. Is there another book that has influenced you that you would recommend, maybe in a different price bracket?

Allison Coudert:

Gosh, you’ve got me on the spot here. I don’t know, but all I can say is, if anybody wants to email me I’d be happy to… There’s so much out there that really is quite good, but it depends on if they want to know about the history of the Scientific Revolution or if they want to know about Jewish mysticism.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Allison Coudert:

I mean it’s quite hard to put all those things together. I love Matt’s book, but Matt’s book costs a fortune.

David Bashevkin:

That’s also a pretty penny!

Allison Coudert:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

That’s part of the hiddenness of mysticism, is that you have to charge a lot for the academic books, so the discipline stays hidden.

Allison Coudert:

It does, but…

David Bashevkin:

Financial esotericism.

Allison Coudert:

Yeah, that’s it.

David Bashevkin:

Okay. Final question, and you may already be working on this: If you had a sabbatical to take a year off, all expenses paid, to write a book, what book would you be writing?

Allison Coudert:

I’m writing a book on changing attitudes towards pain and suffering.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Allison Coudert:

So that’s what I’m writing, and I’m writing it from 1450 to early 1900s. It is fascinating. It is really an interesting subject.

David Bashevkin:

I am so excited for it to come out, and we will absolutely link to it. Professor Coudert, thank you so much for your time and insight today, it’s so appreciated.

Allison Coudert:

David, this has been great fun, I really enjoyed it. It is so nice to be able to talk to somebody. I mean, these subjects are pretty abstruse, and it’s just great to be able to talk. So thank you.

David Bashevkin:

Thank you so much. Leaving the conversation with Dr. Coudert, I’m left with this question, and that is: If you took religion out of the world, and if you really removed all of the religious ideas out of the world, do you think you would still have the same commitment and approach and the world and societal world that we have today? I always ask people who seem to be so oppositional towards people with religious commitment: What do you think the world would look like without it? What do you think are the contributions, maybe not directly, but the way that it animates people’s commitments and family life and the way it orients people to the world?

David Bashevkin:

Look, I don’t think that any individual commitment to religion necessarily is bringing the cure for cancer, but I do think that in the long arch of history, religion provides this deep purpose and meaning that gives life to the inquiry and creativity that we’ve seen throughout history. It hasn’t always been this oppositional in the way that I think a lot of the public looks at it. I think a lot of that is a caricature. I think just imagining for a moment, do you think Isaac Newton would have been a greater scientist, more fascinated in that great riddle of the world, without these religious and theological influences?

David Bashevkin:

It’s a question worth answering. I don’t think that my commitment lives or dies by any given answer, but I think it’s one worth considering, and I hope this conversation helped you reframe and look maybe a little differently at the way religious commitment, religious ideas, have motivated and propelled and served as a catalyst for world progress and scientific discovery.

David Bashevkin:

So thank you so much for listening. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of shnorring, so if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered, be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8, followed by the word “forty”, F-O-R-T-Y, dot org. You’ll also find videos, articles, and recommended reading. Thank you so much for listening, and stay curious.

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