Cultural Anatomies of the Heart of Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Harvey

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Marjorie O'Rourke Boyle
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     171 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Cultural Anatomies of the Heart in Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Harvey by Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle might appear to promise an exhaustive march through the cultural history of the heart by way of the varied thinkers named in its title. Moving through the text’s five chapters, however, it soon becomes clear that Boyle’s book is at once less exhaustive and more adventurous than that. Instead of beginning with, say, the rhetoric of the heart in the Tanakh and tracking its reception (or reconfiguration) in early Christian literature, Boyle aims to creatively juxtapose the natural-scientific study of the cardiac vessel and the multiple valences of the “heart” across two millennia of philosophical reflection. The result is an approach that is a bit jarring at first, but ultimately justifies itself by drawing out some unexpected connections between all of these cultural anatomists of the heart. 

Eschewing introductory and concluding chapters, Boyle leaps directly into the world of her first figure, Aristotle. She begins neither with his psychology nor with classical debates about the relationship between the soul and the heart. Instead, this chapter lays out an extended parallel between two material vessels: the vessel of pottery and the cardiac vessel. Gradually, it becomes clear that this parallelism is reflected in Aristotle’s own methodology, which aimed to “exploit the ordinary to investigate the extraordinary” (22). On the basis of the crude vessel of clay, even the mysterious vessel of flesh could be explained. 

It is one thing to point out a parallel between craftsmanship and anatomy, but it is quite another to extrapolate from that material observation to the “heart” in its immaterial sense. Boyle makes this move more explicitly in her chapters on Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin. Here, helpfully, she is able to lend greater coherence to her observations, now rooted in the historical development of Christian rhetoric concerning the heart. Central, at least to the first two theologians, was the notion of a “law written in human hearts” (36). While this phrase can be connected back to similar phrases in Romans 2:15 and Jeremiah 31:33, Boyle makes the case that the heart’s law is more complicated than it might at first seem. 

For many readers of Augustine in the context of the Christian tradition, the “natural” move here would be to read his phrase “law written in human hearts” as a type of pre-systematic anticipation of the natural law as it would be developed by (among others) Aquinas. Yet Boyle points out that this is more of an assumption than a well-grounded interpretation. She calls our attention back to the context of Augustine’s statement: namely, the often-cited episode from Book 2 of the Confessions wherein he and his youthful compatriots embody sinful transgression by stealing some pears. Reinserted into this context, Augustine’s phrase could refer to a kind of “customary behavior” motivated by “social sympathy” (36). This is indeed how Boyle reads the phrase, which suggests that she will contrast it against Aquinas’s natural law of the heart. 

Placing a wedge between Augustine and Aquinas on this issue is somewhat surprising, as Aquinas himself will cite Augustine as one of the proof-texts for his claim that “the law written in human hearts is the natural law” (67). This suits the Thomistic system well, insofar as it explains how the underlying structure of the eternal law, which providentially governs the universe, partially manifests within humankind by way of natural reason, which then allows us to construct human laws by reasoning on the basis of the precepts of natural law, written as they are, on our hearts. Yet by proffering this theory on the basis of Confessions 2, Aquinas has “deleted Augustine’s essential context” (68). As a corollary, he has also committed a category mistake, appropriating Augustine’s moralizing “rhetoric” of the heart for the sake of a “dialectic” of the natural law, which is far more Boethian than Augustinian (69). 

Less well known than Aquinas’s treatise on law is a text he wrote late in his life which dealt with the finer points of cardiac motion (93). Entitled De Motu Cordis,or On the Movement of the Heart, this text sees Aquinas emphasizing the link between natural law and the soul as form of the body, even at the expense of the traditional link between natural law and the heart (upon which it was supposedly written). Aquinas was not the only Christian thinker to get his hands dirty with the crass realities of corporal anatomy: Calvin, too, picked up some knowledge of anatomy due to his proximity to the dissection-tables of the Collège de Montaigu in Paris (123). Boyle creatively connects Calvin’s exposure to the still-Aristotelian natural science of cardiology in Paris to his own personal seal, the heart in hand, about which Calvin mused: “[m]y heart as if butchered I offer to the Lord in sacrifice” (101).

The final chapter deals with William Harvey, the 17th century English physician who added immeasurable detail to humankind’s understanding of its own circulatory system. Boyle’s observations here are memorable, although sometimes reliant upon puns, such as that linking Harvey’s use of classical oaths like mehercules to the Hippocratic oath (154). As a result, this chapter leaves the book feeling like a bit of a desultory affair, suggesting fruitful points of connection, but perhaps without linking most of those points to any thematic through-line. Nevertheless, when underlying motifs do rise to the surface, as in the middle sections on Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin, the appeal of Boyle’s approach is hard to deny.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Hannan is Assistant Professor in the Humanities Department at MacEwan University.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle is an intellectual and cultural historian specializing in Christian thought from the biblical to the early modern eras. She was early awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in religion.


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