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Posts Tagged ‘litany in time of plague’

Of what may we be certain? In the vast cosmos, as in our circumscribed private lives, what is predictable and what is not? Between the expected and the unexpected, where does the balance lie?

Some fifty years ago, in an essay entitled “The Unexpected Universe,” the distinguished anthropologist Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) eloquently addressed those questions. Recalling a remark by the nineteenth-century German scientist Heinrich Hertz, who believed that “knowledge of nature” would enable us to predict future events and arrange our present affairs accordingly, Eiseley contrasted Hertz’s confident outlook with that of a previous era:

Hertz’s remark seems to offer surcease from uncertainty, power contained, the universe understood, the future apprehended before its emergence. The previous Elizabethan age, by contrast, had often attached to its legal documents a humble obeisance to life’s uncertainties expressed in the phrase “by the mutability of fortune and favor.” The men of Shakespeare’s century may have known less of science, but they knew only too well what unexpected overthrow was implied in the frown of a monarch or a breath of the plague. [1]

Among the many resonant phrases in this passage, one in particular stands out. In speaking of a “humble obeisance to life’s uncertainties,” Eiseley evokes the courtly manners of Elizabethan England. Beyond that, he invokes an outlook as foreign to our own time as Shakespeare’s diction is to contemporary English. (more…)

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