Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/September 1880/The English Precursors of Newton I
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The English Precursors of Newton I
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THE seventeenth century must be regarded as the most memorable in the history of science; our own age has been remarkable for the skillful application of scientific analysis, but it has not produced a Bacon and a Galileo, a Harvey and a Newton. Between 1600 and 1700 theoretical knowledge received an increase far outweighing in importance the sum total of what has been achieved between 1700 and the present time. The definitive acceptance of the true theory of the world, and its triumphant establishment on a basis of universal and harmonious law; the constitution of physiology as a science by the great discovery of the circulation of the blood; the vast stride made in mechanics by the clear recognition of the laws of motion; the knowledge of the fundamental truths relating to light and color; the foundation of the sciences of magnetism, electricity, and chemistry—are all due to that period. The nineteenth century is not more eminent for the invention of mechanical agencies by which the external conditions of human life have been revolutionized than the seventeenth for the production of those momentous "aids to sense" the telescope, microscope, barometer, and thermometer—by which an indefinite series of new worlds have been annexed to the domain of human intelligence. In the abstract region of mathematics, the performances of the epoch under consideration are equally remarkable. By the invention of logarithms, calculation was hardly less expedited than communication has been in our time by the discovery of the electric telegraph; while the differential and integral calculus, through the enormous increase of power conferred by it, might not inappropriately be termed the steam-engine of the intellect. Yet, notwithstanding the utilitarian character of the prevalent philosophy, inventions of practical utility remained comparatively rare; and no advance, corresponding in any degree with that accomplished in science, was made in the comforts and conveniences of every-day life. Thus, by a singular irony, a generation which sought in its experiments "fruit," found "light"; while our own age, which, with the dying Goethe, demands "more light," has received, instead, "fruit" not always sweet to the taste.
To Englishmen the seventeenth century is rendered of peculiar interest by the circumstance that, during its course, the center of scientific progress was shifted, through the overwhelming force of genius, from the Continent to this island. When it opened, our countrymen were in the position of disciples; when it closed, they were recognized as the teachers of Europe. The advance made in the interval was enormous. In 1600 Tycho Brahe was still inculcating at Prague the geocentric theory of the universe; Galileo was expounding the "sphere" on Ptolemaic principles; Harvey was listening at Padua— the "Quartier Latin of Venice," as M. Renan has called it—to the cloudy conjectures of Fabricius as to the purpose served by the valves in the veins. In 1700 the "Principia" had been for thirteen years the common property of mankind; Newton was acknowledged as the arbiter of science by the greater part of the civilized world; the principles of mechanics were settled on the same footing on which they stand to-day; and the last cavil against the innovation of the Folkestone physician had long ago been forgotten. We propose, in the following pages, to sketch in its broader outlines the movement of thought which led to such great results, and to devote some brief attention to a man whose career was the most conspicuous failure of the century, and who, aspiring to play the part of the Octavius, was condemned to that of the Antony of science.
Dr. Robert Hooke not only was unable to "command success," but we doubt whether he could have conscientiously asserted that he deserved it. He was original, diligent, and ingenious; but he wanted the concentration, disinterestedness, and, above all, the indefeasible patience, which mark the highest order of minds. Among the contemporaries of Newton, he approached most nearly to and contrasted most strongly with that great man, whose shining qualities and achievements have been set off by the convenient foil of his rival's defects of temper and fortune. It may perhaps be possible to derive a larger lesson from the consideration of his life's work than the trite moral conveyed by his exhibition in the character of the captive in the car of triumphant genius. In Newton the epoch was idealized; in Hooke it was simply reflected. We can study more conveniently the varying impulses and undefined aspirations of a period of transition and progress in the versatility which obeyed than in the steady purpose which transformed and dominated them. The greatest men are of all time; the lesser are an epitome of their age. They pass with it; but they teach in passing.
Hooke believed himself to be the disciple of Bacon; but his real instructors were men of a widely different and far less pretentious stamp. Experimental science does not date, even in England, from the "Chancellor of England and of Nature." Roma ante Romulum fuit. The Egremont Castle of traditional knowledge shook, it is true, to its foundations at the formidable blast of this new Sir Eustace, and the Peripatetic usurper heard in it his knell. But the fortress was already dismantled; a numerous and unrelenting foe had silently taken possession of its outworks and bastions, and, stone by stone, was busy turning the materials of the ancient stronghold to account in the construction of habitations of more modern aspect and accommodation.
Among the multifarious forms of activity stirred into life by the ferment of the Italian Renaissance, perhaps the least questionable in its results was that leading to the love and study of nature. Two men of singular genius, Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci, led the way; and their example was followed by the astronomers, anatomists, physicians, and botanists, with whom, in the following century, Italy abounded. Mathematics were at the same time cultivated with signal success; and the learned enthusiasm which, a hundred years earlier, had hailed the unearthing of a long-forgotten codex by Poggio or Filelfo, now greeted the solution of a problem by Cardano, or the discovery of a formula by Ferri or Tartaglia. Nor did these abstract inquiries remain long unfruitful. The questions which had busied the brain of Archimedes at the siege of Syracuse began to emerge from the neglect of wellnigh eighteen centuries, and the "mechanical powers" of lever, pulley, screw, and inclined plane were once more, as our neighbors say, the order of the day. The movement was now no longer limited to the sub-Alpine peninsula. Simon Stevin, of far-away Bruges, and Michael Varro, of Geneva, deserve to be named, with Benedetti, of Venice, and Del Monte, of Pesaro, as the precursors of Galileo, whose strongest title to fame is that he first brought natural investigations under the rigid but salutary yoke of the sciences of number and of space.
In England the same impulse made itself felt, although, amid the religious troubles of the time, its effects were at first obscure and intermittent. It is, however, much to the credit of our national sagacity and boldness that, within a few years of the publication of Copernicus's great work, three Englishmen were found to advocate doctrines so novel, so startling, and so repugnant to ordinary experience as those contained in it. The introduction into England of the new views in astronomy was, in all probability, due to the notorious Dr. John Dee, the favored soothsayer of Elizabeth and Leicester, whose reputation as a mathematician has been eclipsed by his fame as a magician. His career aptly illustrates an old proverb, exhibiting the evil effects on later life of a bad name gratuitously bestowed in youth. The suspicions roused by his ingenious contrivance of an automaton-scarabaeus, which, during a performance of the "Pax" of Aristophanes, visibly mounted upward carrying a man and a basket on its back, seem to have tickled his inordinate vanity, and, more than thirty years later, he hired a certain Edward Kelly to instruct him in occult arts at a salary of fifty pounds a year. Himself a dupe, he was the fitter to dupe others; and succeeded for a time in imposing his pretensions on several of the greatest personages in Europe. At length he and his spiritualistic pedagogue were compelled to retire to the castle of Trebonia, in Bohemia, where Kelly's supposed mastery of the great alchemistic secret procured them such affluence that, according to the popular belief, Dee's young son was accustomed to play at quoits with gold produced by means of the "philosophical powder of projection." Finally, the confederates quarreled; Dee was recalled to England by Elizabeth, and receiving, after the manner of that princess, more promises than pay, died in poverty in the fifth year of her successor. He left, for the benefit of posterity, a detailed record of his supernatural communications; and the magic crystal which he professed to have received from the hand of an angel may still be seen, together with Robert Burns's punch-bowl, and a casket carved out of Shakespeare's walnut-tree, among the curiosities preserved in the British Museum.
It is, however, as an astronomer, not as a spiritualist, that we have to do with him. In 1547, four years after the promulgation of the Copernican theory, he visited the Low Countries for scientific purposes, and subsequently lectured and studied at the Universities of Paris and Lou vain. We may safely conclude that he there acquired the convictions which led him to instigate, and patronize with a preface, the publication of John Field's "Ephemeris" for 1557, juxta Copernici et Heinholdi canones. This performance has earned for Field the title of the "Proto-Copernican of England," justly due, no doubt, to the first English astronomer who adopted, ex professo, the heliocentric theory of the solar system. But, in a book which appeared probably a few months earlier, the same views were upheld as unhesitatingly, if not so systematically. Its author was more ingenious than fortunate. What is most certainly known of his life is its unhappy end. Robert Recorde was an eminent physician as well as an able mathematician. In his medical capacity he is believed to have been attached to the households of Edward VI. and Mary, and he undoubtedly died in a debtor's prison, the year of Elizabeth's accession. He has the merit of having introduced algebra—or, as he termed it, "Cossike Practice"—into England in a book named "The Whetstone of Witte," represented by Scott as constituting the sole literary possession of old Trapbois the miser, and as inspiring, by its very title, the young Lord of Glenvarloch with such a lively aversion that not even the desolation of a night in Alsatia could induce him to seek solace in its pages. The same writer's "Castle of Knowledge" might have proved a more efficacious remedy for ennui. It is an astronomical dialogue, the progress of which is enlivened by some touches of quaint satire. We take from it the following extract, noteworthy as (so far as we know) the first printed reference in the English language to the memorable innovation of the Canon of Frauenburg:
Scholar. Nay, sir, in good faith, I desire not to hear such vain phantasies, so far against common reason, and repugnant to the consent of all the learned multitude of writers, and therefore let it pass for ever, and a day longer.Master. You are too young to be a good judge in so great a matter: it passeth far your learning, and tbeir's also that are much better learned than you, to improve (disprove) his supposition by good argument, and therefore you were best to condemn nothing that you do not well understand; but another time, as I said, I will so declare his supposition, that you shall not only wonder to hear it, but also peradventure be as earnest then to credit it, as you are now to condemn it.
The objurgations of Giordano Bruno, on the occasion of his visit to Oxford in 1583, made, we can infer, but little impression on the hardheaded English Peripatetics of the time, and the Copernican system seems to have receded rather than advanced in credit during the last twenty years of the century. "How prove you," asks Blundevile in his "Exercises" (published in 1594), "that there is but one world?" "By the authority," he unhesitatingly replies, "of Aristotle!" and the inertia of his ignorance is noways shaken by his own admission that Copernicus, "by help of his false supposition, hath made truer demonstrations of the motions and revolutions of the celestial sphere than ever were made before."
Already, however, the Aristotelian dictatorship was being undermined, where it could not be overthrown. William Gilbert of Colchester, physician to Queen Elizabeth (whom he only survived a few months), deserves to be called the founder of experimental science in England. In his treatise "De Magnete," published in 1600, he brought together a copious store of facts, the result of his own patient investigations, and connected them by a consistent theory, thus starting the science of electricity on a career still full of promise for the future. He was not only a Copernican, but anticipated Galileo in an important correction of the Copernican theory, pointing out the fallacy by which a so-called "third movement" was considered necessary to account for the parallelism of the earth's axis of rotation. In his youth he had studied on the Continent, and his works were there in great repute, while his own countrymen probably shared the half-contemptuous estimate of Bacon, who placed him but a degree higher than Paracelsus and the alchemists in the school of "fantastic philosophy."
With the opening of the new century, progress became more rapid. Harriot, the friend of Raleigh, made notable advances in algebra, and was among the earliest of telescopic observers; Napier published in 1614 his "Marvellous Canon of Logarithms"; and Harvey, whose theory of investigation was as sound as his practice was successful, began his immortal lectures "On the Motion of the Heart and Blood" in 1619. In the same year was born, at Toxteth, near Liverpool, a man whose name would assuredly have been as illustrious as it is now obscure, if a premature death had not cut short his labors before they had well begun. Jeremiah Horrocks belonged to a Lancashire family of little pretension and less means. His puritanism was signified by his entrance at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and his poverty by his admission as a sizar, May 18, 1632. A passion for astronomy early seized upon him, but his tastes met with neither encouragement nor cultivation at Cambridge, which at that time afforded no form of scientific training. Books were his sole instructors, and his slender resources the limit of his choice. Indeed, his short life was one continued struggle against the tyranny of material difficulties. After a residence of three years, he left the university, summoned home probably by domestic exigencies, and spent his remaining years in the daily treadmill of tuition, or some equally harassing occupation. He found time, however, for astronomical observations, and in 1636 his zeal for his favorite pursuit was still further quickened by meeting with a congenial spirit in William Crabtree, a clothier of Broughton, near Manchester, one of a remarkable group of north-country mathematicians, to whom Fate was as unkind in the untimeliness of their deaths as in the obscurity of their lives. Encouraged by his new friend, Horrocks quickly exchanged the guidance of Lansberg for that of Kepler, henceforward the object of his enthusiastic but by no means undiscriminating devotion. Even in the Rudolphine Tables he discovered inaccuracies, trifling, it is true, in comparison with the boastful blundering of the reactionary Belgian astronomer, but requiring, nevertheless, careful correction; and in the accomplishment of this task he convinced himself that a transit of Venus, which Kepler had failed to predict, would actually occur on November 24 (O. S.), 1639. He had by this time taken orders in the Church of England, and been appointed to the curacy of Hoole, then a desolate hamlet situated on a strip of land half reclaimed from the overflow of the Ribble, about five miles south of Preston. It was here that, first among astronomers of all ages, he observed the passage of Venus across the sun.
The 24th of November fell on a Sunday, and, as the critical moment approached, the eager star-gazer was summoned from his telescope to his pulpit, returning, however, just in time to witness, as the clouds parted at a quarter-past three, the punctual verification of his forecast in the projection of the dark body of the planet on the solar disk. An interval of half an hour before sunset gave him time to make a series of observations surprisingly accurate considering the primitive character of the apparatus available for their execution. A telescope bought for half a crown, and a circle of six inches in diameter, traced with a pair of compasses on a sheet of paper, stood to the young curate of Hoole in the stead of all the complicated and exquisitely delicate instruments which form the intermediaries between the senses of a modern astronomer and the phenomena he observes. Horrocks did not long survive this solitary triumph of his life. After many postponements, he at length saw a prospect of one day's extrication from his conflicting employments, and fixed January 4, 1641, for a visit of science and sympathy to his friend Crabtree. On the morning of the 3d, however, he suddenly expired, thus exchanging, in a moment, his promised post among the radiant ranks of those who constitute the pride of humanity for a place in the pathetic company of "the inheritors of unfulfilled renown."
The career of Horrocks affords, throughout its course, a singular example of precocity. He matriculated at thirteen, was ordained at twenty, and died before he had completed his twenty-second year. On him, if on any man, might safely be passed the usually somewhat problematical eulogium, "He had done great things had he lived." His mind was as quick to catch the differences of things like as it was capacious to gather the similarities of things unlike. To the imaginative fervor of Kepler he joined the technical skill of Tycho, and something of the experimental sagacity of Galileo. Short as was his life, and scanty his opportunities, he still left the imprint of his genius on astronomical theory. The movements of the moon had not yet been brought within the dominion of Kepler's Laws. Horrocks first pointed out that the apparent irregularities of our satellite could be harmonized into an orderly scheme, by supposing her to revolve in an ellipse of which the earth occupied one focus—the eccentricity of such ellipse being variable, and its major axis directly rotatory. Both these conditions Newton, in his investigation of the problem of three bodies, demonstrated to follow necessarily from the law of gravitation, thereby lending overwhelming corroboration to the views of his youthful predecessor. It has been unwisely said that Newton was indebted to Horrocks for the rudiments of his great generalization. No statement could be more misleading. The passage in his writings principally relied on for its support is indeed remarkable, as containing a description of an ingenious experiment, illustrative of the confound nature of the planetary movements, used afterward by Hooke, with a fuller understanding of the conditions of the problem; and some scattered indications may be found that the analogy between terrestrial gravity and the power exerted in the celestial mechanism was evident to him, as it had been to Gilbert, Bacon, and Galileo; but we are unable to discover that his idea of central forces was notably in advance of the crude notions current among his contemporaries.
Little as we know of Horrocks, we might easily have known nothing. His legacy to posterity barely escaped total annihilation. Some of his papers were destroyed in the civil war; some perished in the great fire of London; some were carried to Ireland, and there lost. A remnant only was preserved by the care of William Crabtree, and after his death (which followed quickly upon that of his friend) passed into the hands of Dr. Worthington, of Cambridge. Hevelius, the celebrated astronomer of Dantzic, eventually obtained possession of his "Venus in Sole visa," and published it in 1662, as an appendix to his own observations on the transit of Mercury. Whereupon the Royal Society, awakening to the merits of their countrymen, commissioned one of their most distinguished members to edit what could still be recovered of his writings, and even voted, we are told, five pounds toward the expense of printing. Dr. Wallis accomplished his task satisfactorily. The disjecta membra of the Horroxian manuscripts, organized into a tolerably consistent form under the title "Astronomia Kepleriana Defensa et Promota," were given to the public in 1672, together with those fragments of his correspondence with Crabtree which, disguised in the uncouth Latin of the Savilian professor, constitute all our knowledge of the life of Jeremiah Horrocks.
We have already seen that his scientific enthusiasm was not an isolated impulse. On all sides men were rising up eager to devote their best energies to physical inquiries; and society, whether fanatic or frivolous, animated them by its curiosity and rewarded them with its applause. The Long Parliament appointed, July 20, 1653, a committee "for the advancement of learning." Evelyn drew up, in 1059, an elaborate scheme for the foundation of a "philosophic-mathematic college." Cowley dismounted for a moment from his "Pindaric Pegasus" to make a "proposition for the advancement of experimental philosophy," whereby "the lost inventions, and, as it were, drowned lands of the ancients, should be recovered; all things of nature, delivered to us by former ages, weighed, examined, and proved; all arts which we now have improved, and others which we yet have not, discovered." Samuel Pepys was scarcely less interested in astronomy than in the playhouse, and gossiped with as much zest about the experiments at Gresham College as about the pageants of Whitehall. Charles I. thought of founding a scientific repository at Vauxhall; the Earl of Worcester actually bought tenements there for the purpose; Sir William Petty recommended a comprehensive plan for the "interpretation of nature whereof there is so little, and that so bad, extant in the world." This design, "breathed after" (as Evelyn says) by so many, was, at least in part, realized by the foundation of the Royal Society.
This celebrated institution had its origin in the meetings of the "Invisible College," of which Robert Boyle, John Wallis, and Dr. Wilkins—afterward Bishop of Chester and author of a novel project for traveling to the moon—were members. It was in 1045 that these, with several other no less eminent men, began to seek in the so-called "new philosophy" a refuge from the turmoil of civil war, their scientific symposia being sheltered either in Gresham College or the less dignified retreat of the "Bull's Head" tavern, in Cheapside. Their fortunes were destined to expand. Fifteen years later they constituted themselves a society for the promotion of experimental science, and were incorporated by royal charter, July 15, 1602.
Thus the "Solomon's House" of the "New Atlantis" received a "local habitation" in Bishopsgate Street, and' Bacon's splendid fable was brought to the test of actual, if only partial, embodiment in a living institution. Nothing can be more evident than the enormous influence exercised by the "incomparable Verulam" over the founders of the Royal Society. Not only were his praises celebrated among them, but his precepts were, as far as possible, obeyed by them. Their foreign correspondents acted the part of the "merchants of light" appointed to enrich the Island of Bensalem with the knowledge of other lands. The "mystery-men," "dowry-men," "pioneers," and "compilers" of Solomon's House had all their representatives among the "learned knot," who designed
"To make themselves a corporation,
And know all things by demonstration."
Their offices, it is true, were not so sharply defined, nor the division of labor so strictly enforced, as in the ideal "College of the Six Days' Works"; but the actual never fails to blur the dividing lines of the imaginary. What it is important to observe is that Bacon's "prophetic scheme" did in truth kindle the fancy of the generation which succeeded him, and that his maxims swayed their purposes. What it is equally important to observe is that, in so far as they followed his method in its larger bearings, they were on the track of discovery, and already began to pick up stragglers from the great army of discoverable truths; but the moment they descended to particulars, and took him, as it were, at his word, they found themselves in a cul-de-sac. It was as if an astronomer, not content with imparting a means of taking the longitude, should attempt to prescribe rules for managing the ship, and the sailors, finding that flapping sails and fouled rigging invariably followed upon a literal compliance, should finally come to the conclusion to steer their course on scientific principles, but handle the ropes as nautical experience might suggest.
What, then, is the truth as regards the vexed question of Bacon's influence on the progress of science? We take it to be this: His capacious imagination enabled him to grasp, and his vast powers enabled him to guide, a movement which he had not originated. He caught up the floating ideas of his time, spread them abroad by his eloquence, sank them deep by his enthusiasm, gave them universality and consistence by his sagacity, and thus not unworthily earned the title of the "Father of the Inductive Philosophy." It must be confessed, indeed, that the great "Secretary of Nature" was entirely deficient in what we may call official training. His lucid thoughts and splendid diction were not coupled with exact knowledge or scientific experience. He was innocent of mathematics. He was grossly ignorant of astronomy. He knew nothing of Kepler. He despised Galileo. He passed over in silence the most fruitful discovery in physiological, and the most striking invention in numerical, science that had been made since the world began, although both were made in his own time. He ranked among the "idols" besetting the human mind that orderly instinct which recommends, prima facie, the harmonious simplicity of the Copernican hypothesis in preference to the outrageous complexity of the Ptolemaic system. He cumbered his phraseology and confused his argument by the adoption into physical reasoning of the metaphysical abstractions of the schools, and weakened his philosophy by the rejection of their deepest wisdom.
Bacon was in truth the English representative of that abortive but brilliant school of thought to which belonged Ramus, Patricius, and Bruno. His relations were far closer with the Cosentine than with the Lyncean Academy. As far as he was the disciple of any man, he was the disciple of Telesius, its founder. Although his name was commonly associated with that of the Tuscan astronomer as inventor of the philosophy of nature, he was in reality the English Campanella rather than the English Galileo. He was Campanella with a sounder understanding, a deeper insight, and a larger humanity. To Campanella's prophetic zeal he united incomparable practical sagacity. He not only preached a millennium of universal knowledge, but endeavored to guide men's halting footsteps toward the goal, and to bridge the gulf between the future toward which he pointed and the present to which he belonged. Hence his profound and persistent design was to establish a method, not to found a school. The message that he had it in him to deliver related to men's works, not to their thoughts. His speculative teaching not only was subordinate to his physical precepts, but was suggested by them, and displays the characteristic defects due to such an origin.
Thus his intellectual progeny divided itself into two classes—those who developed the philosophical principles implied rather than professed in his writings, and those who adopted, or endeavored to adopt, the scientific method of which the "Novum Organum" exhibits the majestic torso. Among the first we reckon Hobbes, Locke, and Hume in this country, and abroad, Bayle, Condillac, and the Encyclopedists—all of whom, while setting themselves problems which Bacon had ignored, and solving them, for the most part, after a fashion which Bacon would have repudiated, carried out, nevertheless, to their extreme conclusions doctrines in some degree countenenced by his great name. To the second class belonged Boyle, Hooke, Wren, and the other early members of the Royal Society. These men inherited the labors and the spirit of those who had worked while Bacon taught—of Harriot, Gilbert, Napier, and Harvey; but they were born while the air still vibrated to the mighty words of Verulam. They then enrolled themselves under the banner which he had unfurled, and silently followed the examples which he had condemned. They identified him with a system which he had disowned, and with acclamation proclaimed him leader of a movement which he had emphatically declared to be unfruitful. While professing to follow where he led, they in truth carried his authority captive with them along the paths they themselves chose. This, indeed, was the result, not of insubordination, but of necessity. They were compelled to seek a modus vivendi between the conflicting claims of Nature and her interpreter, and they found the conciliation that they sought not very far from the modest courses of their predecessors.
It is not too much to say that what was distinctive in Bacon's system was impracticable, and that what was practicable was already common property. The essential novelty on which he relied for the infallibility of his mode of interrogating Nature was his method of exclusions. But this ingenious invention implied an impossible preliminary, and rested on a monstrous assumption. The preliminary to its successful operation was the compilation of what he called a "Natural History"; that is, an exhaustive catalogue of all natural phenomena, constituting a vast repository of materials for induction. Until this should be accomplished, he laid down dogmatically that no progress worthy the human race was possible, and declared the history without the method to be infinitely more serviceable to science than the method without the history, The assumption was that the infinite complexity of visible and sensible objects is formed by the varying combinations of a limited number of "simple natures" (such as neat, weight, color, etc.), just as words and sentences in endless diversity are compounded out of a few elementary signs. And as, by learning six-and-twenty letters, we get at the secret of written language, so we have only to construct a complete alphabet of Nature, in order to read her riddles with ease and certainty. Thus the second step in the process was nothing less than to frame a synopsis of all the modes of action in the universe. The peculiar efficacy of the "Exclusiva" now becomes apparent. All "natures" save one being excluded by a series of skillful experiments from causal connection with the phenomenon under investigation, the residual element is negatively, but conclusively, proved to be the "true cause" or "form" sought for.
It was from this special invention, and not from the general application of inductive rules, that Bacon's "Organ" derived its peculiar efficacy. This was the new art of discovery likened by him to a pair of compasses, armed with which the least skillful hand might be guided to define a perfect circle. This was the universal nostrum—the elixir vitæ of science—which had the one drawback common to all methods professing to transcend nature—that its operation was clogged with an impossible condition. It is easy enough for us, from our present point of view, to see that the method of exclusions was tainted with a logical vice. It implied a petitio principii; it presupposed, while promising to impart, universal knowledge. It was not so easy—it was perhaps impossible—for Bacon, for his contemporaries, and even for his immediate successors, to see this. They did not in fact perceive any impossibility in a scheme for tabulating the universe. On the contrary, they looked forward confidently to the time when it should be accomplished. The preparation of a universal history of nature was a purpose always present to the minds of the founders of the Royal Society, and some preliminary steps toward its execution were even attempted by them. Bishop Sprat has left on record the "queries and directions, what things are needful to he observed," composed with this view. Some of these inquiries sound, to our instructed ears, rather comical. We take the following specimens:
Whether there be a fountain in Sumatra which runneth pure balsam?
"Whether in the island of Sambrero there be found a vegetable with a worm for its root, diminishing more and more, according as the tree groweth in greatness?
"What ground there may be for that relation concerning horns taking root and growing about Goa?"Whether there be a tree in Mexico, that yields water, wine, vinegar, , milk, honey, wax, thread, and needles?
The answer to this last query, furnished to them by one of their "merchants of light," was, that "the Cokos tree yields all this and more."
The disproportionate importance attached to this species of information by the revivers of science is curiously illustrated by the fact that the funds of the Royal Society having been exhausted in printing Willughby's "History of Fishes," they were obliged to decline undertaking the publication of Newton's "Principia." Indeed, one of their most ingenious members was as fully convinced as Bacon had been, that the true highway to that knowledge which is power lay in this direction. Of this remarkable person it is now time to give some account.—Edinburgh Review.
[To be continued.]
- "Novum Organum," lib. ii., Aph. xxxix.
- "The Castle of Knowledge," p. 165. London, 1556. Quoted also by Professor De Morgan, "Companion to the British Almanac for 1837," p. 36.
- "Companion to the British Almanac for 1837," p. 43.
- "De Mundo nostro sublunari," lib. i., cap. xi., p. 165, published (posthumously) in 1651.
- There is no positive evidence in support of the tradition that Horrocks was born in 1619. The fact that he was in orders and held a curacy in 1639 throws a doubt upon his age, as men are not ordained at twenty.
- Weld, "History of the Royal Society," vol. L, p. 51.
- MS. verses signed "W. G.," quoted by Weld, "History of the Royal Society," vol. i., p. 79.
- "Works," vol. i., p. 394, Spedding's edition.
- Ibid., vol. ii., p. 16.
- "Novum Organum," lib. i., p. 121.
- The sixth division of the Second Book of the "Novum Organum" was to have been entitled "De synopsi omnium naturarum in universo"; but this part of the work was never executed.
- "The History of the Royal Society of London," 1667, p. 158.