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kvond

A Worm in Cheese

Campanella and Spinoza On Perspective

It has long been my suspicion that Spinoza had read, and has a debt to the much forgotten Tommaso Campanella. There is evidence that Descartes’ most central contributions have in some way be under this influence, and Spinoza’s position indeed is in many ways a response to Cartesianism. But it more than this. There is in the thought of Campanella a particular panpsychic, and cybernetic understanding of what is epistemological, and power, which reads open, and corrects, the overly rationalistic reductive reading of Spinoza’s many propositions.

Here I take up only a tangential connection, one that moves from the sharing of a single, (if common), trope. It does not prove the influence of the one on the other, but at the very least it operates as a happy coincidence, or even an expression of a continuity of Geist, (however delineated), between thinkers and times. This is the figure of the “worm in cheese”.

It was a prevalent image Headly tells us, a part of the “folk culture” of the Late Renaissance, the cosmological idea that we are all severely limited in our perceptions and knowledge, locked within a localization of understanding, surrounded by our food source, on which we blindly feed. But Campanella lifts this picture of the world up to larger purposes, sharpening it to both epistemological and political effect, drawing forth the consequences of such an instructive image.

First, there is his famous sent letter to the Emperor of China. It should be known at first that Campanella really was in a worm-in-cheese predicament. He had endured acute torture at the hands of the Spanish authorities, in which he had to feign, and therefore prove his “madness”, and thus avoid an inquisitional burning at the stake as heretic. And then he had suffered multiple years locked away in the worst dungeon of Italy, chained and manacled in a nearly lightless cell of the formidable Castel San Elmo, where he worked would work free sonnets on bits of paper, and access his prodigious, certainly photographic memory, sketching out his metaphysics. It is a story I really do have write, but it is the not purpose here. Rather, only, if anyone knew what a worm in cheese was, Campanella had a sort of privileged view of the condition.

But back to the letter to the Emperor. Campanella was fast on the idea of restoring in the papacy some sort of universal, indeed Catholic, governance, one that put the whole world into communication with itself, so that there were to be a free flowing of knowledge and sciences that would help liberate men from their ignorance. Ming China, by Campanella’s understanding, had cut itself off from outside influences, and turned itself inward. This is something extraordinary that gives us a piece of the so-called “volcanic” mind of Campanella, that a monk of no importance, under years of imprisonment, would even concern himself with the notion of a world history, and take it upon himself to compose such a letter.

Campanella writes to the Emperor:

Those men [your subjects] are lacking in aspiration; they seem like men but like worms born inside a cheese, who reckon nothing more or better there to be in the world beyond their own cheese from which they are nourished, sustained, hidden, or as worms born in a man’s stomach who know nothing of man, nor his mind, but cocooned away, complacent, not wanting to be disturbed, jealous of their remove. So, oh King, [the monarch of China], you seem to us… Stick your head out beyond your cheese, beyond the stomach of your land (TC-QR, 221).

It is a powerful call somehow, extending far beyond the prison walls, and the walls of history, into history. Campanellla makes use of a similar worm-image, to a different effect in his utopian vision “The City of the Sun”. Here, describing the conceptions of the people of La Cità del Sole, ones who live in a kind of blissful perfection of knowledge, in a city that is shaped with concentric ramparts so that it is the shape of the Solar System:

They [the Solarians] assert two principles of the physics of things below, namely, that the sun is the father, and the earth the mother; the air is an impure part of the heavens; all fire is derived from the sun. The sea is the sweat of earth, or the fluid of earth combusted, and fused within its bowels, but is the bond of union between air and earth, as the blood is of the spirit and flesh of animals. The world is a great animal, and we live within it as worms live within us. Therefore we do not belong to the system of stars, sun, and earth, but to God only; for in respect to them which seek only to amplify themselves, we are born and live by chance; but in respect to God, whose instruments we are, we are formed by prescience and design, and for a high end.

Here we have the more benign, and perfecting simile of the world as an immense and sensate animal, with we but like parasitic worms, feeding on it, but also part of its expression, its system. And lastly, in concert with Campanella’s notion the importance of empirical knowledge, direct experience, the testings of science and observation, come from his study of Telsio, we have another use of the worm-in-cheese metaphor, that expressing the historical linking of observations, the importance of communicability:

Just as namely, through individual perceptions, the mind adds to truth, so too with what belongs to others. Otherwise one would be like a worm in cheese, knowing nothing, except those parts of cheese that touch it. Every narrator, whether by letter, or in mouth stretched, or in movements, a historian is.

And lastly, we come to the worm of Spinoza. Memorably, after writing to the founding secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, about his arguments and notions of God, as being both a totality and expression of parts, all of which fit together. If we, in our experience on thing or part as a complete entity, this is a kind of selecting out of the whole, from a perspective of ignorance. This he compares to the kind of knowledge that a worm in the blood of the body has, as it goes about bumping into something so vast it has no possibility of understanding. One has to keep mind that Spinoza was an early maker of microscope lenses (attested to be of rather high quality), and it is perhaps likely that he had stared into lenses, looking at blood and the what must have seemed infinitesimally small forms therein.

This was an extraordinary time, when the smallest and the most distant were coming into view (Spinoza would become a companion of Christiaan Huygens, the discoverer of the rings of Saturn, and it is imagined to be likely that he would then look through his telescope too, when they spent time together at Huygens’ country estate). It is said by Colerus, his first biographer, than he would lift his magnifying glass and stare at mosquitoes and flies. All the vastness was opening itself up, and closing in.

Let us imagine, with your permission, a little worm, living in the blood¹, able to distinguish by sight the particles of blood, lymph, &c., and to reflect on the manner in which each particle, on meeting with another particle, either is repulsed, or communicates a portion of its own motion. This little worm would live in the blood, in the same way as we live in a part of the universe, and would consider each particle of blood, not as a part, but as a whole. He would be unable to determine, how all the parts are modified by the general nature of blood, and are compelled by it to adapt themselves, so as to stand in a fixed relation to one another. For, if we imagine that there are no causes external to the blood, which could communicate fresh movements to it, nor any space beyond the blood, nor any bodies whereto the particles of blood could communicate their motion, it is certain that the blood would always remain in the same state, and its particles would undergo no modifications, save those which may be conceived as arising from the relations of motion existing between the lymph, the chyle, &c. The blood would then always have to be considered as a whole, not as a part. But, as there exist, as a matter of fact, very many causes which modify, in a given manner, the nature of the blood, and are, in turn, modified thereby, it follows that other motions and other relations arise in the blood, springing not from the mutual relations of its parts only, but from the mutual relations between the blood as a whole and external causes. Thus the blood comes to be regarded as a part, not as a whole. So much for the whole and the part.

Letter 15 (32), 1662

There are obvious wide-sweeping parallels, none of which create an argument of influence: comparison to worms living in the body, and the locality of perceptions which seal each person off from the rest of existence, and contingency of our immediate sense knowledge. And there is the political character of communications itself, the sharing of descriptions across countries and the globe, and the kind of epistemic building (albeit from a difference in emphasis or even process: Spinoza looked for a rational grasp of “common notions” which joined bodies and minds, Campanella appraised observation and a species of synthetic becoming what one observed), by grasping the larger and larger wholes, of which one is participating. At the very least there is something shared; it is that animate sense that one is within a psychic, sensate thing, when one is in the world, and that knowledge consists in identifying with, and constructing epistemic conjoinings, as part of an over-arching, and yet un-understood entirety. And in this service, a catholic freedom of exchange becomes the nexus for that building of communications, a Renaissance notion of political and ideal creation.

1. A notable annex to this comparison of worms in cheese and worms in blood is Kircher’s microscopic observation that the blood of fever victims was worm-filled:

The “dust” on old cheese was found to be not dust at all but little animals, and swarms of minute worms were discovered tumbling about in vinager (Fontana 1646, Borel 1656, Kircher 1646). Kircher announced that the blood of fever victims also teemed with worms, and there was talk that they infested sores and lurked in the pustules of smallpox and scabies. (Ruestow, 38).

This is likely the main triggering thought in Spinoza’s mind – though I have never seen it noted by scholars – as Oldenburg mentions the very same Kircher’s later work Subterranean World in the previous letter which Spinoza is answering.

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3 responses to “A Worm in Cheese

  1. Wim Klever July 8, 2008 at 3:27 am

    Reading this article on ‘A Worm in Cheese’ I want to ask attention for the capital influence of Spinoza’s letter 32 (vermiculum in sanguine)on John Locke, who likewis talks about a worm, not in the blood however, but in a cabinet. At this moment I have a draft available under the title “Apple and worm. An essay on Locke’s Philosophy as a Disguised Spinozism” (100 pp) in which I aruge on the basis of around 40 crypto quotations by Locke from Spinoza’s text.

  2. kvond July 9, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Sounds fascinating. I wonder if this would make John Yolton’s thesis regarding a lineage non-representational “ideas” from Descartes to Locke more tenable. I would of course be glad to post a copy the essay here on this weblog if you were interested.

  3. Pingback: Spinoza’s Notion of Inside and Outside: What is a Passion? « Frames /sing

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