Samuel J. Galson, *16

Department of Classics

Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Scientific Revolution (2016)


This dissertation examines Ovid’s engagement with philosophy in the Metamorphoses in light of the continuous reception of the poem by natural philosophers, from Seneca the Younger to thinkers credited with the foundation of modern scientific principles, such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes. In Chapter 1, it provides a new interpretation of the “realism” of Ovid’s fantastical fictions, demonstrating that by setting realism in conflict with fantasy Ovid highlights the fact that different ancient philosophical schools both attacked and defended the usefulness of fictions to philosophy in contrasting ways. Contemporary scholars usually regard Ovid as straightforwardly anti-philosophical, but the reception history unveiled in the following five chapters sets this view against the historical fact that Ovid’s credibility as a natural philosophical authority grew with the development of natural philosophy in the Middle Ages and actually reached its height during the Scientific Revolution. Focussing on astrology, natural magic and alchemy, and their modern counterparts, astronomy, experimental science and chemistry, the dissertation shows that the reception of Ovid in these domains exhibits a complex interplay of rejection and appropriation, both within and between different philosophers, which replays the dynamics of the reception of fiction exposed within the original poem. Ovid’s poem thus functioned historically as a crucial site for debate about the role of fiction in scientific method, and affords valuable insights into disputes between realist and anti-realist philosophers of science that continue to generate controversy.

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