A Discourse of Wit (1686)

For Men considering the wonderful, and most skilful, and inimitable Actions of Apes, Elephants, Swallows, Bees, Dogs, &c. were loath to allow them to be endowed with some king of Reason, as if they should thereby range themselves among the Beasts.

– Abercromby, 1686, p. 10.

Nature. What does this word mean to you? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is the collective phenomena of the physical world; the plants, animals, insects, birds, mountains, sea, soil and so on. For most of us what does not generally come to mind are humans or the things that we create. Why is that? Are we truly not of nature? Are we something else? Is it just a cultural or linguistic thing?

We have been brought up to think in this way – conditioned if you will. Nature is commonly used as a shorthand to describe the non-human world. This, at least, is one description that the Oxford English Dictionary gives for Nature, but it is not the only one, nor the most prominent.

Nature means all kinds of things, things that most of us don’t really think about.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can relate to the power or strength of a thing or person, sexual impulses and bodily functions, feelings, and senses. As the word cloud below suggests, nature means many things, to many people, but it seems that in all cases it relates to things that humans feel are somewhat out of their control.

Figure 1: Word cloud created from descriptions of ‘Nature’ (n) in the Oxford English Dictionary
Figure 1: Word cloud created from descriptions of ‘Nature’ (n) in the Oxford English Dictionary

It is the nature of things, we say when something happens that we can’t stop or easily change. Plants, animals and other aspects of the Earth are called Nature as they, too, are not easily controlled by us, although we do try.

Where nature does apply to humans it’s in the form of something that we call ‘human nature’. We tend to use this term most often as an excuse; a reason perhaps for excusing our own fallibility or to explain wayward or taboo patterns of behaviour. It is something negative. Is this a misunderstanding? Are we wrong to think of ourselves as something different than nature? As Satish Kumar, Editor Emeritus of the Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine argues, “Humans are as much part of nature as the mountains, the animals, the birds, and the butterflies”.

All of this suggests that Nature is a challenge to what we believe ourselves to be, rather, perhaps, than what we are. It suggests a separation of uncontrollable elements from our belief in ourselves as intelligent, unique, and civilised beings. We aspire to escape our natures and the uncontrollable physical world, by considering what we create and therefore control as not nature, but human.

None of this is new. In 1682, a Scottish physician and philosopher David Abercromby (d. 1701?) tried to argue that animals had reason and wit. In doing so, he went against established theories about the uniqueness of humans, and against beliefs that the animal realm was thoughtless, wild, and uncivilised. As one small part of that argument, Abercromby argued in his A Discourse of Wit, that Apes, Elephants, Swallows, Bees, and Dogs could all be demonstrated to show both reason and wit. He claimed that humans had been generally ‘loath’ to admit that these animals might have ‘some kind of Reason’ as that might suggest that, after all, we are little different than beasts. Indeed, Abercromby believed that humans were only a little different. He described animals as rational creatures, but did admit that they were ‘of a lower Rank, and less perfect than Men’ (Abercromby, 1682, 10). 

This was not the only reference that Abercromby made to Honey bees as displaying some form of wit and reason that demonstrated a limited uniqueness of humanity. A few pages later he described the honeycomb as a ‘Pleasure and Admiration, a very accurate, and regular piece of Fortification’ (Abercromby, 1682, 12). In other words, the regularity of shape, the effectiveness, and efficiency of its design, was proof enough that honey bees could be just as ingenious as humans.

Whilst I love this depiction of honeycomb as a kind of fortification, the wording is also telling and interesting. It accidentally reveals in Abercromby a very human appraisal of honeybees. Honeycomb is so many different things to the bees; it provides structure, nurseries for their young, storage for food, a means to regulate colony temperature, but also barriers from threats. It is the latter that Abercromby thinks about when he describes the beauty of honeycomb. He describes what he would have seen if he were a beekeeper when peering into a hive – a block perfectly formed that acts as a barrier to human inquisitiveness. At the very least this signalled to Abercromby that honeybees had capabilities that can equal or beat those of a human. He saw similar reflections in spiders’ webs and swallows’ nests. He saw pattern. Design. Intelligence. More to the point, Abercromby saw that what we would term as nature was not all that different from us, after all.


Bees      1

Honey   1

Wax      0

Further Reading

Paul Tomassi, ‘Abercromby, David (d.1701?), physician and philosopher’, ODNB (2004) [Retrieved 3 July 2019]. DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001.

David Abercromby, A Discourse of Wit (London, 1686) – EEBO-TCP  

David Abercromby (d. 1701?): A physician and philosopher from Scotland, most probably, a member of the Abercromby’s’ of Seaton in the north-east. In his early life he was a staunch believer in the Roman Catholic faith, going as far as to join the Jesuits in France. Abercromby published on syphilis and the pulse, and, later in life, various religious works. At first, he defended his faith from Protestantism, but later he converted himself and began to attack his old faith. He did this, most prominently, in his A new and infallible method to reduce Romanists from popery to protestancy (1682).

His other interest was philosophy. Whilst studying with the Jesuits, Abercromby published A Discourse of Wit (initially in 1685, with the second edition in 1686), in which he sought to show that humanity was not all that different than animals as all shared properties of rationality.

A good companion for a Christian (1632)

A good companion for a Christian was published posthumously in 1632 by John Norden’s son (probably John Norden Jr, although it could have been Josias). He states this in his dedicatory epistle to the Baron of Dondaulk, noting that ‘my deceased Father very often surveyed the Kings lands, but now by me he humbly tenders himself to be surveyed by you’. Indeed, John Norden had been mostly known for his work as a cartographer and surveyor, but, as his ODNB biographer has noted, in times when work was scarce publishing devotional works helped to bring in some extra money (his biographer, Frank Kitchen is, however, quick to stress that Norden’s publications were also a reflection of his religious devotion).

This text was only printed the once and was advertised as a series of meditations and prayers ‘for every day in the weeke’ relating to preparation for death. Norden’s son claimed that his father had produced the treatise and left it with his children:

‘to assure us, and al men that himselfe chiefly studied and shaped his courses so to dye that he might never dye, & that he prepared himselfe so to depart fro[m] the earth, that when he did leave the Earth he had no other business but to leave the Earth, for his actions were but an example of his precepts’.  

The treatise is divided up by sections on each of the senses, examining first the body, then the tongue, eyes, ears, taste, smell, touch, and heart, with chapters on interestingly sub-titled subjects such as;

  • Signs that a mans house, body and soul are out of order
  • If the heart be good the words cannot be evil
  • Above all seek the illumination of the inward eye
  • The taste hath devoured many
  • The feet are necessary member: yet often used to sin

These sections are then followed by a long list of prayers for each day (morning and evening) and for specific purposes such as before a Sermon, or for specific persons, such as ‘a short prayer for a woman with child’.

References to Bees

Norden refers to Bees twice in this treatise. The first is an example of perfection in the sense of taste. Norden argues that God in his ‘wisedome and goodnesse’ created both man and beast with five senses and that in some creatures he gave them perfection in a particular sense; the Eagle has perfect hearing, the Dog has a perfect sense of smell, the spider excels at touching things, and Bees in tasting. Norden goes on to explain that only man has ‘reason’, but that other creatures do come close in understanding ‘exquisite Art’. He asks, what man can build a spider’s net? What man can form honeycomb? Who can make the nest of a Wren?  These examples show, Norden believed, that God gave many creatures some level of knowledge and capability, which in certain ways exceeds that of man.

The second reference appears in a chapter entitled ‘The best heart hath some feelings of evill motions’. Here, Norden discusses sin. He suggests that sin is a subtle ‘prompter’ and ‘deceiveth the heart not well instructed’, but that a heart with whom ‘the Spirit of God hath sanctified’ can recognise the deception and dislikes the ‘sundry motions which intrude themselves as it were, by stealth into it’. Norden compares such a heart to Bees removing the drones from their hive: ‘to hurle them out of the hyve of the heart’. The description not only recognises the fact that drones are removed from the hive en-masse but also suggests that this is an act of removal of something sinful by the bees. This is interesting as it suggests knowledge that the drones do not forage or work and become a burden on the hive (much like sin can be on a soul).

References to Honey

There is only one reference to honey in A good companion for a Christian. Norden refers to it when describing ‘taste’. He suggests that humans should use their ability to taste for the purpose ‘that God hath given it’, meaning to distinguish food and drink that is safe, from that which is dangerous. He refers to the difference between sweet and sour tastes, wholesome or unwholesome meats and drinks. To illustrate the point, Norden compares ‘hony from Gall’ noting that without taste ‘thou shouldst finde no difference of the relish of edible things, the most tainted and contagious would bee as pleasing unto thee, as the most salutary’.


Frank Kitchen, ‘Norden, John (c.1547-1625)’, ODNB (2004). DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/20250

The art of knowing one-self (1695)

For around ninety years the Edict of Nantes had protected the rights of Huguenots in France, protecting them from persecution and promoting civil unity. In 1685 that all ended when the edict was revoked by Louis XIV, leading to an exodus of Protestants, many of whom ended up as refugees in the German principalities. Jacques Abbadie (1654-1727), himself born in France, played a crucial role in encouraging many of the Huguenot refugees to settle in Brandenburg during the 1680s, having already been summoned to lead the congregation of refugees in Berlin before the edict had been revoked.


The Art of Knowing One-self

The Art of Knowing One-self is a book about moral philosophy, providing an alternative to the views on self-love and morality purported by Jansenists and Calvinists in the seventeenth-century, which were based on a severe reading of Augustine. Abbadie described the principle of self-love in detail, looking at pleasure and happiness as aligned to Christian morality. Isaac Nakhimovsky has argued that Abbadie’s moral theory was a rejection of the Augustinian claim that only divine grace could correct the corruption produced by the fall of man. Nakhimovsky stresses that Abbadie viewed self-love as an integral part of the eternal, uncorrupted soul, rather than an aberration caused by human sin.

In what he terms as epicureanism, Nakhimovsky argues that Abbadie only took up the ethical elements of what Epicurus had described before 270 BC, and not the physics. He accepted that an ideal of happiness or good should be equated with pleasure, as Epicurus had suggested, but rejected the idea that pleasure is nothing more than an arrangement of atoms ‘agitated in a certain manner’. He aligned his understanding also to Descartes moral theory, which argued that a desire for happiness is the primary feature of self-love and that ‘true and eternal happiness must be founded on the soul’s awareness of its perfection’ (Nakhimovsky, 2003, 8). Overall, Abbadie offered something different, building upon such ideas to come to his own understanding of morality that would influence theories around morality, luxury, and pleasure in the following centuries.

Indeed, in 1853, G. de Felice described Abbadie’s book as ‘full of judicious observations, and shows that the author had profoundly meditated upon the relations of the human conscience to the duties of the Gospel’ (Felice, 1853, 386). In 1992, Ruth Whelan went further, by describing Abbadie as ‘the father of Christian apologetics in the eighteenth century’ (Whelan, 1992, 32), although she does not refer directly to The Art of Knowing One-self but rather to Abbadie’s religious treatises. In this, Whelan is referring to Abbadie’s ideas about deism, or, in other words, his belief in a god that does not intervene, but could be known through understanding of natural laws and knowledge; a knowledge that is both acquired and innate. Abbadie argues for a connection between ‘natural revelation and natural religion and morality’ (Whelan, 1992, 34-5), providing a front of religious debate and discussion in the emergent process of Enlightenment. 

Pride, Pleasure and the Honey Bee

The last portion of The Art of Knowing One-self deals specifically with pride; dividing it into five branches: love of esteem, presumptuousness, vanity, ambition and arrogance. It is in this section that the single reference to the Honey Bee is made.

This appears in a section on pleasure obtained by ‘vain-glory’. Abbadie argues that ‘any man in the World would openly praise himself, if he dar’d be so bold’ but does not as he is fearful of ‘a breach of Modesty’ and instead uses ‘Cunning and Artifice in displaying his Merit to the Eyes of Mankind, so as not to attract the Reproach of too great Vanity’. The claim that Abbadie makes is that we are all vain in our own way, that we often disparage others, or make an accusation of fault, as to show ourselves as exempt and better: “As for my part, tho’ I have very great Defects, yet may I boast that I have not This”, as Abbadie quotes as an example of a kind of ‘dull and unpolitick Self-love’.   

He goes on to note that pride can therefore bring pleasure, as can hatred, but neither lasts. The Pleasure of conversation is not ‘innocent’ as ‘indifferent things are tedious to us’ but those things that relate to our own pride, hatred, impiety, ambition, or some other passion, ‘excite’. Thoughts also bring pleasure as ‘our Heart, being prepossess’d with certain Passions, can’t enjoy it self, but when it thinks upon certain Objects; and therefore suspends all our other Thoughts and Reflections’. The pleasure of a Lover who forgets all things but the object of his love is given as a prime example. As is dedication to God, ‘for indeed these proceed merely from the too great Pleasure, which the Ideas of temporal things excite in our Minds’

The essential point that Abbadie makes is that pleasure is in all things, even where we would prefer to pretend that it is not. It is, as he suggests, that:

The Bee metaphor is used not only to suggest that pleasure, like flowers, can be found in abundance, but also that the Bees can often find them ‘in foul and Moorish places’. This extension of the metaphor is to suggest that pleasure is often found in bad places; the excitement of an affair, the risk of life, delighting in ‘lamenting the death of illustrious persons’ and even, perversely, in prolonging our own sorrow. 

Further Reading

G. de Felice, History of the Protestants of France from the Commencement of the Reformation to the present time, trans. By Philip Edward Barnes (London, 1853).

Isaac Nakhimovsky, ‘The Enlightened Epicureanism of Jacques Abbadie: L’Art de se connoȋtre soi-mȇme and the morality of self-interest’, History of European Ideas, 29 (2003), 1-14.  

Ruth Whelan, ‘Abbadie, Jacques [James] (bap. 1654?, d. 1727)’, ODNB (Oxford, 2004).

Ruth Whelan, ‘From Christian Apologetics to Enlightened Deism: The Case of Jacques Abbadie (1656-1727)’, The Modern Language Review, 87:1 (Jan., 1992), 32-40.