Thomas Harriot Lecture 2014: “The Certain and Full Discovery of the World: Thomas Harriot and Richard Hakluyt”

Thursday 29 May 2014, 5pm, in the Champneys Room, Oriel College Oxford.

David Harris Sacks
Richard F. Scholz Professor of History and Humanities
Reed College, Portland , Oregon USA
Life Member, Clare Hall, Cambridge UK

Richard Hakluyt the younger and Thomas Harriot, in their different ways, were explorers and discovers in newly-opened territories of learning. The former promoted ventures of overseas discovery and published the results of those who had made them. For him the world was the terrestrial globe, the earth. His own explorations, as he would emphasize, were largely in journeys to libraries and archives. He made what might be called second-order discoveries, derived primarily from the larger narrative that emerged from his arrangement of the sources he collected, edited and published, mainly in his Principal Navigations of the English Nation, which first appeared in 1589 and was then substantially into three large volumes published between 1598 and 1600.It is a work he undertook in fulfillment of “the certain and full discovery of the world,” a project, first focused on and then developed in the era of Europe’s wars of religion, that he made his life’s work. Hakluyt was a conduit for knowledge acquired by others, and a promoter and guide to discovery.

Harriot, in his way, also sought certainty and fullness of knowledge, but for him the “world” included the celestial as well as the terrestrial globe. He made discoveries at the first hand, some in Virginia with which Hakluyt was especially connected, but most in the realms of mathematics and what we now call the natural sciences. However, apart from his account of the “new found land of Virginia,” which he published under his own name in 1588 and which Hakluyt helped make widely available thereafter, none of his discoveries reached print during his lifetime. As he would say, he “was contented with a private life for the love of learning” in order that he “might study freely.” While he lived, his numerous discoveries circulated primarily to his patrons and intimate friends. But by the time he had significant new discoveries to report in the first years of King James I’s reign, both his patron—Sir Walter Ralegh and the 9th Earl of Northumberland—were incarcerated in the Tower of London at the King’s pleasure, and as he suggested in a letter to one of his correspondents, he found it dangerous in these circumstances to philosophize openly on matters that might arouse accusations of religious or moral heterodoxy.

This lecture examines the wider cultural significance of this drive for certainty in what could be known about the world as God had created it and explores the circumstances, conditions, and contexts underpinning it. It treats the ideas and desires of both men in light of their associations with an Erasmian form of irenicism, which inculcated in each of them, it will be argued, not just in their intellectual and religious upbringing but in their experiences of the brutal religious and political upheavals of their era and its effects on individuals influential in their lives—not least Sir Walter Ralegh on whose patronage the two men depended early in their careers. For purposes of the lecture, particular attention will be given to their educations, especially in Oxford during their student days.