Correspondence such as Moriaen's, sifted, edited, transcribed and disseminated by Hartlib or at Hartlib's behest, initiated no new ideas, but played a crucial role in broadcasting such ideas and stimulating discussion and revision of them. To borrow the mercantile imagery so often employed by members of the circle, Moriaen was not a producer of 'ingenuity and knowledge' but he was a major trader in it.

The focus of this study has been deliberately narrow. My main aim has been to render more accessible an invaluable body of source material for the intellectual history of the seventeenth century. It has not been my purpose to challenge or champion any particular interpretational orthodoxy, but rather to supply details of specific research which I hope will inform broader theoretical debate. As a conclusion, I am more concerned to proffer a few frankly personal and subjective responses than to venture any wider analysis or definitive statement.

There is an unavoidable danger, in the assessment of any historical period, that a skewed picture will be presented on the basis of fortuitously preserved fragmentary evidence. The very survival of Hartlib's papers, or at any rate a substantial part of them, is at once a boon and a pitfall for the historian. On the one hand, they present an enormous fund of primary evidence about the intellectual life of the period. On the other, they present only one person's individual collection of contemporary documentation, and as such represent an inevitably partial view. The task is to assess the extent to which they can be regarded as representative, and what exactly they can be regarded as representative of. It is virtually a truism that the discovery of this archive has entailed the rewriting of the history of the period, but it should always be borne in mind how different that rewriting might be if it were someone else's papers - Moriaen's, for instance, or Hübner's, or Glauber's - that had been discovered instead. For Hartlib's papers to be assessed as a document of their time, it is necessary to determine whether they chart an individual obsession or are a random jackdaw selection of interesting tidbits, whether they were collected purely for the sake of being collected or serve a particular agenda, whether they document an individual or a society, or a given group within a society.

It is, therefore, of some significance that Hartlib can be shown to have been recognised by a particular group of people as their organiser and spokesman. The term 'Hartlib circle' is not merely a convenient tag. It was, however, a very large and diffuse group which cannot be reduced to any such simplistic formulation as 'Puritan', 'experimental', 'hermetic', 'Baconian' or the like. As the foregoing study illustrates, there were radical differences of approach and priority, and sometimes bitter conflicts of opinion, within the circle. But there was a circle, and its members were conscious both that they belonged to it and that Hartlib was its centre. Moriaen's first surviving letter to Hartlib vividly conveys both Hartlib's centrality and the sense of community among his supporters. Urging his friend to take at least some <248> thought for himself and not to pay for the promotion of Comenius with his own financial ruin, Moriaen provided a neat vignette both of Hartlib's discreet but crucial role in the operation and the sense of community among his supporters:

You oblige the rest of us and do quite enough by directing the work, initiating and maintaining correspondence, and procuring and sending out each man's portion: as for the costs, they should be borne jointly by the devotees of the project.[1]

Given that the group existed, a more difficult task is to define it, in terms both of its membership and its ideology. Obviously, no rigid demarcation is possible. At its nexus, it was an association of personal friends. Hartlib and Dury were the two key figures: Comenius, despite their best efforts, always remained a cause they were supporting rather than a fellow co-ordinator. Around them were, initially, Hübner, Haak, Pell, Moriaen, Rulice, Hotton and Appelius, later to be joined by Sadler, Beale, Culpeper, Worsley, Boyle and Clodius. But as soon as one looks any further than this from the centre, the lines of communication begin to branch and cross, threading their way into the entire intellectual community of Europe and America. It is a circle with a definable centre but an almost infinitely extendable periphery. No wholly satisfactory methodological framework for the study of the group has yet been constructed. Perhaps it is a mistake to try to construct one.

Charles Webster used the papers to draw conclusions about 'the Puritan world view and the rise of modern science'.[2] Webster's Great Instauration remains, in my view, the finest book-length account of the group, and an indispensable secondary source for the study of it, but I am unconvinced by his definition of Puritanism as a unifying thread. Although there undoubtedly is a Puritan and Calvinist bias in Hartlib's milieu, there was nothing denominationally exclusive about his undertaking, and indeed the rejection of confessionalisation was itself characteristic of many figures in the circle. As often as not, of course, 'rejection of confessionalisation' simply means expecting everyone else to accept one's own. But I hope I have shown that figures such as Moriaen, Worsley and Hartlib himself did promote an approach that was genuinely anti-denominational without being in the least atheological.

Hugh Trevor-Roper, in depicting Hartlib, Dury and Comenius as the 'philosophers of the Puritan revolution', accepted the notion of a unifying Puritanism to serve a very different agenda.[3] By going on to trivialise their thought, he set out to imply that the 'Puritan revolution' did not have much of a philosophy at all. Though it is overstated, over-simplified, and transparently inspired by a sense of personal antipathy across the centuries, Trevor-Roper's approach should perhaps not be wholly dismissed. It is undeniable that, with the exception of Robert Boyle and perhaps John Pell, there was no individual anywhere near the centre of Hartlib's circle possessed of intellectual gifts comparable to those of Descartes or Hobbes. More debatable is whether the engineers of the revolution really did set so much store by them, or for that matter by any other individuals. That the Parliamentarians Cheney Culpeper and John Sadler were committed supporters and promoters of Hartlib and his schemes is beyond dispute, but their personal influence was not vast. When it came to putting things into practice, there is precious little evidence of real commitment from Parliament as a whole beyond a modest and irregularly-paid private pension for Hartlib himself. Durham College sank without trace within a few years of its foundation. State funding was never found for Comenius, or Kuffler, or <249> Rittangel, or Chelsea College, or the College of Jewish Studies, or the Office of Address, or a host of other Hartlib-inspired projects. Hartlib was not without influence in the inter-regnum Parliament, but he was hardly the revered guru Trevor-Roper makes him out to have been.

More recently, Richard Popkin has attempted to define what he calls, 'for want of a better name', a 'third force' in seventeenth-century thought whose representatives 'tend to combine elements of empirical rationalist thought with theosophic speculation and Millenarian interpretations of Scripture'.[4] Eclectically inspired by the mysticism of Jacob Boehme, the Millenarianism of Joseph Mede and the inductivism of Francis Bacon, this arose and took on definition (Popkin argues) in response to the sceptical crisis of the seventeenth century, to the revival of Pyrrhonism, the deductivism of Descartes and the materialism of Hobbes. While accepting that reason and sense perception were important sources of knowledge and a necessary check on the irrational and extravagant fantasies of the 'enthusiasts', such thinkers saw these as fallible tools that required the guidance of Scripture in order to be used properly. Two leading exponents of the trend, Comenius and Dury, were core members of the Hartlib circle, while others, such as William Twisse and Henry More, were at least peripherally associated with it. Hartlib himself was 'a central figure in keeping contact with various people of the third-force outlook in England and elsewhere'.[5]

But if 'Puritanism' is too narrow a pigeonhole to accommodate the Hartlib circle, the notion of a 'third force' seems to me too broad and inclusive to define it. Not that Popkin claims it does: he portrays the thought of the Hartlib circle as symptomatic of a broader philosophical trend, not as its source or exemplar.[6] He considers that the majority of third-force thinkers 'largely lacked a metaphysical theory',[7] and that seems to me true of most if not all the figures discussed in this study, even of Comenius, though I am sure Comenius himself would have been greatly affronted by such a statement. The only figures Popkin sees as having provided a more or less coherent 'metaphysical theory' for the third force, Henry More and Anne Conway, remained very much on the outskirts of the Hartlib group, and More in particular, especially after the 1640s, positively cold-shouldered some of Hartlib's approaches. Insofar as the Hartlib circle can be seen as unified at all, it is in an acute but largely unformulated metaphysical unease rather than any one shared ideology.

What the archive supplies is a fragmentary but panoramic view of the European intellectual landscape in the mid-seventeenth century. It does not, on its own, provide the material for an account of any definable philosophical or ideological trend. Hartlib's papers are a ragbag, which is precisely what makes them so interesting and valuable historically.

It seems to me that if there is a positive philosophical viewpoint common at least to the figures at the heart of the circle, it is a slightly hysterical optimism about the nature and value of knowledge. It was perhaps this optimism, rather than any genuine <250> methodological debt, that was most authentically 'Baconian' in their outlook. They expected the increase of knowledge to alleviate humanity's lot in every respect, from the most mundane to the metaphysical: by improving living conditions, by producing wealth, by curing disease, by promoting consensus, by bringing people closer to God and by preparing for the Millennium. In impeccably Paracelsian fashion, they sought the cure for the disease in its cause, and set out to resolve the sceptical crisis of their age by means of the very explosion of learning and technology that had caused it in the first place. But did they not perhaps protest too much? Did the endlessly reiterated assertions of faith in 'method' really reflect confidence in such a culmination, or were they a prophylactic mantra against the conception of an unorganised, unguided, and ultimately unknowable universe?

Their guiding ideals in all their undertakings were unity and universality. Dury laboured to be 'all things to all men', Comenius to 'teach all things to all people in all ways'.[8] Warning against Pell's projected involvement with Descartes and his parabolic lenses, and in favour of his pursuing instead the study of analytical method, Moriaen urged:

what he [Descartes] seeks is still uncertain, and, besides, only a point of detail. But what he [Pell] knows and can perform already in elaborating [Vieta's] Universal Logic is altogether certain, and moreover a universal labour from which countless such particularities will follow of their own accord.[9]

The image of a key, or of an opened door, recurs significantly in their own writings and their favoured texts in all their fields of interest, from Mede's chiliastic Clavis apocalyptica (Key to the Apocalypse) through Comenius's pansophic Janua rerum (Gate of Things) to Starkey's alchemical Introitus apertus in occlusum regis palatium (An Open Entrance to the Shut-Palace of the King). Entry to the citadel of wisdom was to be gained not by siege but painlessly and peacefully, by finding the key to it. Finding the key required great labour and diligence, but once it was found, the search would be over once and for all.

This well-nigh obsessive harping on unity and universality was symptomatic of a deep sense of disunity and fragmentation. This was a period of unprecedented division and diversity of opinions and ideologies in all fields, the religious, the political, the philosophical and the scientific. Christianity had always had its schisms, but never had it shattered so quickly into so many distinct and mutually antagonistic groups as between the mid-sixteenth and the mid-seventeenth century. Nor had there ever been a conflict as widespread or as destructive as the Thirty Years War. In intellectual matters, the rise of specialisation, so abhorrent to Comenius, threatened to hedge in every intellect with an impenetrable mass of detail. Humankind - or so it seemed to these thinkers - was in danger of being left like so many people trapped in a maze, each gazing down a different blind alley and unable to communicate with the others, while an overview would - or must? - discern the one true path that would lead them all out of it.


All their multifarious lines of enquiry represent different prospective routes to the same goal, the discovery of the true method that would, quite literally, make sense of everything. The notion of pansophic method and that of the Philosophers' Stone have much in common. Both have more than a whiff of the miraculous about them. Both were deemed attainable only by divine grace: 'it is not of him that wills, or of him that runnes, but of God only who in this as in more higher things enlightens whom he will'.[10] Both were quite explicitly presented as the means to restore humankind to its prelapsarian state, perfectly understanding Nature and exercising dominion over it. Both were articles of faith clung to with perceptibly mounting desperation as what we now call relativism, materialism and scepticism began to gain ascendancy within Western thought. They were expressions of a beleaguered faith in universal harmony, order and purpose, in providential guidance of the universe by an ultimately benevolent deity. They were envisaged as a sort of deus ex machina to close the final act of the human comedy.

This genuine and passionate belief in a transcendental quick fix is perhaps the hardest aspect of these people's thought for a modern sensibility to take seriously. Many of their ideas have become so exclusively the province of placard-bearing cranks and brainwashed cults that it is difficult to imagine how so many sane, intelligent, educated people could organise their whole existence around them.[11] But they undeniably did so. They seriously expected to master the transmutation of metals and the cure of all diseases, to gain access to all knowledge and to unite the entire human race in one faith, and all in a matter of years. All they had to do was formulate the right method. That is not to say that anyone thought finding the right method would be easy. But once it was found, everything else would follow. This outlook was tenable only in the context of an equally profound faith in an omnipotent God who intervened personally in the destiny of humankind, who would himself provide the illumination that would make all this possible, and who would appear himself in glory when the providential plan was accomplished.

Like so many of their specific projects, this exalted unifying faith of Hartlib and his comrades fizzled out as a damp squib. Thirty years of bloodshed in Germany ended not in the overthrow of Antichrist but in a settlement that left the overall balance of religious power pretty well the same as it had been at the outset. The visionary new Commonwealth of England, instead of building a New Jerusalem, aborted itself after twelve years and handed back the reins of power to the family it had so painfully wrested them from. No panacea or Philosophers' Stone materialised. 1658 came and went without any verified sighting of Elias Artista. The Jews remained obstinately Jewish. Comenius died without completing his Pansophy, and the Second Coming began to seem less and less imminent.

The increase of knowledge, in which the Hartlib circle had undoubtedly played an important role, exacerbated the fragmentation of learning rather than healing it. It contributed, in due course, to a rise of scepticism and to a secularisation of both learning and society - the precise opposite of the circle's intentions. Whatever their intellectual and ideological significance in the broader historical perspective, on their own terms Hartlib and his friends failed utterly.

They had believed themselves to be living in 'the time of the end', when 'many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased' (Daniel 12:4). They <252> had paid less heed to the warning of Ecclesiastes 1:18: 'In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.'

[1] 'Der herr obligirt vnß andere doch vnd thut eben genug daß er das werckh dirigirt die Correspondentz pflanzet vnd erhält vnd einem Ieden das seinige verschafft vnd zuesendet was die kosten belanget die behören von den Liebhabern gesambter hand getragen zue werden' - Moriaen to Hartlib, 13 Dec. 1638, HP 37/2B.

[2] Webster, Great Instauration, 484-520.

[3] Trevor-Roper, 'Three Foreigners: The Philosophers of the Puritan Revolution', in Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (London, 1967), 237-93.

[4] Richard H. Popkin, The Third Force in Seventeenth-Century Thought (Leiden, 1992), 90-91.

[5] Ibid., 95.

[6] In the print edition of this book, I give a seriously misleading account of Popkin's analysis, an account which says more about what I had been looking for in his work than about what he actually wrote.

[7] Popkin, The Third Force, 111.

[8] See above, pp. 90 and 103.

[9] 'was Er suchet ist noch vngewiß vnd darzue nur ein particular stuckh. Was Er aber bereit weiß vnd pstirn kan in elaborando Logistica speciosa das ist ganz gewiß darzue ein Uniuersal werckh dareus [sic] dergleichen vnzehliche particularia von sich selbsten entspringen werden' - Moriaen to Hartlib, 14 Nov. 1639, HP 37/47A. On Moriaen's and Pell's involvement with Cartesian optics, see above, pp. 22-3.

[10] Worsley to ?, 14 Feb. 1655/6, HP 42/1/5A (cf. Romans 9:16, and see fuller quote above, p. 233).

[11] I am uncomfortably aware that this statement is a good deal more debatable in 2006 than it was when I first wrote it over a decade earlier.

© 2023 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL - newtonproject@history.ox.ac.uk

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