1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cardan, Girolamo
CARDAN [Ital. Cardano], GIROLAMO [Geronymo or Hieronimo] (1501–1576), Italian mathematician, physician and astrologer, born at Pavia on the 24th of September 1501, was the illegitimate son of Facio Cardano (1444–1524), a learned jurist of Milan, himself distinguished by a taste for mathematics. He was educated at the university of Pavia, and subsequently at that of Padua, where he graduated in medicine. He was, however, excluded from the College of Physicians at Milan on account of his illegitimate birth, and it is not surprising that his first book should have been an exposure of the fallacies of the faculty. A fortunate cure of the child of the Milanese senator Sfondrato now brought him into notice, and the interest of his patron procured him admission into the medical body. About this time (1539) he obtained additional celebrity by the publication of his Practica arithmeticae generalis, a work of great merit for the time, and he became engaged in a correspondence with Niccolo Tartaglia, who had discovered a solution of cubic equations. This discovery Tartaglia had kept to himself, but he was ultimately induced to communicate it to Cardan under a solemn promise that it should never be divulged. Cardan, however, published it in his comprehensive treatise on algebra (Artis magnae sive de regulis Algebrae liber unus) which appeared at Nuremberg in 1545 (see Algebra: History). Two years previously he had published a work even more highly regarded by his contemporaries, his celebrated treatise on astrology. As a believer in astrology Cardan was on a level with the best minds of his age; the distinction consisted in the comparatively cautious spirit of his inquiries and his disposition to confirm his assertions by an appeal to facts, or what he believed to be such. A very considerable part of his treatise is based upon observations carefully collected by himself, and seemingly well calculated to support his theories so far as they extend. Numerous instances of his belief in dreams and omens may be collected from his writings, and he especially valued himself on being one of the five or six celebrated men to whom, as to Socrates, had been vouchsafed the assistance of a guardian daemon.
In 1547 he was appointed professor of medicine at Pavia. The publication of his works on algebra and astrology at this juncture had gained for him a European renown, and procured him flattering offers from Pope Paul III. and the king of Denmark, both of which he declined. In 1551 his reputation was crowned by the publication of his great work, De Subtilitate Rerum, which embodied the soundest physical learning of his time and simultaneously represented its most advanced spirit of speculation. It was followed some years later by a similar treatise, De Varietate Rerum (1557), the two making in effect but one book. A great portion of this is occupied by endeavours, commonly futile, to explain ordinary natural phenomena, but its chief interest for us consists in the hints and glimpses it affords of principles beyond the full comprehension of the writer himself, and which the world was then by no means ready to entertain. The inorganic realm of Nature he asserts to be animated no less than the organic; all creation is progressive development; all animals were originally worms; the inferior metals must be regarded as conatus naturae towards the production of gold. The indefinite variability of species is implied in the remark that Nature is seldom content with a single variation from a customary type. The oviparous habits of birds are explained by their tendency to favour the perpetuation of the species, precisely in the manner of modern naturalists. Animals were not created for the use of man, but exist for their own sakes. The origin of life depends upon cosmic laws, which Cardan naturally connects with his favourite study of astrology. The physical divergencies of mankind arise from the effects of climate and the variety of human circumstances in general. Cardan’s views on the dissimilarity of languages are much more philosophical than usual at his time; and his treatise altogether, though weak in particular details, is strong in its pervading sense of the unity and omnipotence of natural law, which renders it in some degree an adumbration of the course of science since the author’s day. It was attacked by J. C. Scaliger, whom Cardan refuted without difficulty.
The celebrity which Cardan had acquired led in the same year (1551) to his journey to Scotland as the medical adviser of Archbishop Hamilton of St Andrews. The archbishop was supposed to be suffering from consumption, a complaint which Cardan, under a false impression, as he frankly admits, had represented himself as competent to cure. He was of great service to the archbishop, whose complaint proved to be asthmatical; but the principal interest attaching to his expedition is derived from his account of the disputes of the medical faculty at Paris, and of the court of Edward VI. of England. The Parisian doctors were disturbed by the heresies of Vesalius, who was beginning to introduce anatomical study from the human subject. Cardan’s liberality of temper led him to sympathize with the innovator. His account of Edward VI.’s disposition and understanding is extremely favourable, and is entitled to credit as that of a competent observer without bias towards either side of the religious question. He cast the king’s nativity, and indulged in a number of predictions which were effectually confuted by the royal youth’s death in the following year.
Cardan had now attained the summit of his prosperity, and the rest of his life was little but a series of disasters. His principal misfortunes arose from the crimes and calamities of his sons, one of whom was an utter reprobate, while the tragic fate of the other overwhelmed the father with anguish. This son, Giovanni Battista, also a physician, had contracted an imprudent marriage with a girl of indifferent character, Brandonia Seroni, who subsequently proved unfaithful to him. The injured husband revenged himself with poison; the deed was detected, and the exceptional severity of the punishment seems to justify Cardan in attributing it to the rancour of his medical rivals, with whom he had never at any time been on good terms. The blow all but crushed him; his reputation and his practice waned; he addicted himself to gaming, a vice to which he had always been prone; his mind became unhinged and filled with distempered imaginations. He was ultimately banished from Milan on some accusation not specified, and although the decree was ultimately rescinded, he found it advisable to accept a professorship at Bologna (1562). While residing there in moderate comfort, and mainly occupied with the composition of supplements to his former works, he was suddenly arrested on a charge not stated, but in all probability heresy. Though he had always been careful to keep on terms with the Church, the bent of his mind had been palpably towards free thought, and the circumstance had probably attracted the attention of Pius V., who then ruled the Church in the spirit, as he had formerly exercised the functions, of an inquisitor. Through the intercession, as would appear, of some influential cardinals, Cardan was released, but was deprived of his professorship, prohibited from teaching and publishing any further, and removed to Rome, where he spent his remaining years in receipt of a pension from the pope. It seems to have been urged in his favour that his intellect had been disturbed by grief for the loss of his son—an assertion to which his frequent hallucinations lent some countenance, though the existence of any serious derangement is disproved by the lucidity and coherence of his last writings. He occupied his time at Rome in the composition of his commentaries, De Vita Propria, which, along with a companion treatise, De Libris Propriis, is our principal authority for his biography. Though he had burned much, he left behind him more than a hundred MSS., not twenty of which have been printed. He died at Rome on the 21st of September 1576.
Alike intellectually and morally, Cardan is one of the most interesting personages connected with the revival of science in Europe. He had no especial bent towards any scientific pursuit, but appears as the man of versatile ability, delighting in research for its own sake. He possessed the true scientific spirit in perfection; nothing, he tells us, among the king of France’s treasures appeared to him so worthy of admiration as a certain natural curiosity which he took for the horn of a unicorn. It has been injurious to his fame to have been compelled to labour, partly in fields of research where no important discovery was then attainable, partly in those where his discoveries could only serve as the stepping-stones to others, by which they were inevitably eclipsed. His medical career serves as an illustration of the former case, and his mathematical of the latter. His medical knowledge was wholly empirical; restrained by the authority of Galen, and debarred from the practice of anatomy, nothing more could be expected than that he should stumble on some fortunate nostrums. As a mathematician, on the other hand, he effected important advances in science, but such as merely paved the way for discoveries which have obscured his own. From his astrology no results could be expected; but even here the scientific character of his mind is displayed in his common-sense treatment of what usually passed for a mystical and occult study. His prognostications are as strictly empirical as his prescriptions, and rest quite as much upon the observations which he supposed himself to have made in his practice. As frequently is the case with men incapable of rightly ordering their own lives, he is full of wisdom and sound advice for others; his ethical precepts and practical rules are frequently excellent. To complete the catalogue of his accomplishments, he is no contemptible poet.
The work of Cardan’s, however, which retains most interest for this generation is his autobiography, De Vita Propria. In its clearness and frankness of self-revelation this book stands almost alone among records of its class. It may be compared with the autobiography of another celebrated Italian of the age, Benvenuto Cellini, but is much more free from vanity and self-consciousness, unless the extreme candour with which Cardan reveals his own errors is to be regarded as vanity in a more subtle form. The general impression is highly favourable to the writer, whose impetuosity and fits of reckless dissipation appear as mere exaggerations of the warmth of heart which imparted such strength to his domestic affections, and in the region of science imparted that passionate devotion to research which could alone have enabled him to persevere so resolutely and effect such marked advances in such multifarious fields of inquiry.
Cardan’s autobiography has been most ably condensed, and at the same time supplemented by information from the general body of his writings and other sources, by Henry Morley (Jerome Cardan, 1854, 2 vols). His capital treatises, De Subtilitate and De Varietate Rerum, are combined and fully analysed in vol. ii. of Rixner and Siber’s Leben und Lehrmeinungen berühmter Physiker am Ende des xvi. und am Anfange des xvii. Jahrhunderts (Sulzbach, 1820). Cardan’s works were edited in ten volumes by Sponius (Lyons, 1663). A biography was prefixed by Gabriel Naudé, whose unreasonable depreciation has unduly lowered Cardan’s character with posterity. (R. G.)