Letters concerning the English Nation/Letter XIV

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LETTER XIV.

ON

DES CARTES

AND

Sir Isaac Newton.

A Frenchman who arrives in London, will find Philosophy, like every Thing else, very much chang'd there. He had left the World a plenum, and he now finds it a vacuum. At Paris the Universe is seen, compos'd of Vortices of subtile Matter; but nothing like it is seen in London. In France, 'tis the Pressure of the Moon that causes the Tides; but in England 'tis the Sea that gravitates towards the Moon; so that when you think that the Moon should make it Flood with us, those Gentlemen fancy it should be Ebb, which, very unluckily, cannot be prov'd. For to be able to do this, 'tis necessary the Moon and the Tides should have been enquir'd into, at the very instant of the Creation.

You'll observe farther, that the Son, which in France is said to have nothing to do in the Affair, comes in here for very near a quarter of its Assistance. According to your Cartesians, every Thing is perform'd by an Impulsion, of which we have very little Notion; and according to Sir Isaac Newton, 'tis by an Attraction, the Cause of which is as much unknown to us. At Paris you imagine that the Earth is shap'd like a Melon, or of an oblique Figure; at London it has an oblate one. A Cartesian declares that Light exists in the Air; but a Newtonian asserts that it comes from the Sun in six Minutes and a half. The several Operations of your Chymistry are perform'd by Acids, Alkalies and subtile Matter; but Attraction prevails even in Chymistry among the English.

The very Essence of Things is totally chang'd. You neither are agreed upon the Definition of the Soul, nor on that of Matter. Descartes, as I observ'd in my last, maintains that the Soul is the same Thing with Thought, and Mr. Locke has given a pretty good Proof of the contrary.

Descartes asserts farther, that Extension alone consitutes Matter, but Sir Isaac adds Solidity to it. How furiously contradictory are these Opinions!

Non nostrum inter vos tantas componere lites. Virgil, Eclog. III.

'Tis not for us to end such great Disputes.

This famous Newton, this Destroyer of the Cartesian System, died in March Anno 1727. His Countrymen honour'd him in his Life-Time, and interr'd him as tho' he had been a King who had made his People happy.

The English read with the highest Satisfaction, and translated into their Tongue, the Elogium of Sir Isaac Newton, which Mr. de Fontenelle, spoke in the Academy of Sciences. Mr. de Fontenelle presides as Judge over Philosophers; and the English expected his Decision, as a solemn Declaration of the Superiority of the English Philosophy over that of the French. But when 'twas found that this Gentleman had compar'd Des Cartes to Sir Isaac, the whole Royal Society in London rose up in Arms. So far from acquiescing with Mr. Fontenelle's Judgment, they criticis'd his Discourse. And, even several (who however were not the ablest Philosophers in that Body) were offended at the Comparison; and for no other reason but because Des Cartes was a Frenchman.

It must be confess'd that these two great Men differ'd very much in Conduct, in Fortune, and in Philosophy.

Nature had indulg'd Des Cartes a shining and strong Imagination, whence he became a very singular Person both in private Life, and in his Manner of Reasoning. This Imagination could not conceal it self even in his philosophical Works, which are every where adorn'd with very shining, ingenious Metaphors and Figures. Nature had almost made him a Poet; and indeed he wrote a Piece of Poetry for the Entertainment of Christina Queen of Sweden, which however was suppress'd in Honour to his Memory.

He embrac'd a Military Life for some Time, and afterwards becoming a complete Philosopher, he did not think the Passion of Love derogatory to his Character. He had by his Mistress a Daughter call'd Froncine, who died young, and was very much regretted by him. Thus he experienc'd every Passion incident to Mankind.

He was a long Time of Opinion, that it would be necessary for him to fly from the Society of his Fellow Creatures, and especially from his native Country, in order to enjoy the Happiness of cultivating his philosophical Studies in full Liberty.

Des Cartes was very right, for his Cotemporaries were not knowing enough to improve and enlighten his Understanding, and were capable of little else than of giving him Uneasiness.

He left France purely to go in search of Truth, which was then persecuted by the wretched Philosophy of the Schools. However, he found that Reason was as much disguis'd and deprav'd in the Universities of Holland, into which he withdrew, as in his own Country. For at the Time that the French condemn'd the only Propositions of his Philosophy which were true, he was persecuted by the pretended Philosophers of Holland, who understood him no better; and who, having a nearer View of his Glory, hated his Person the more, so that he was oblig'd to leave Utrecht. Des Cartes was injuriously accus'd of being an Atheist, the last Refuge of religious Scandal: And he who had employ'd all the Sagacity and Penetration of his Genius, in searching for new Proofs of the Existence of a God, was suspected to believe there was no such Being.

Such a Persecution from all Sides, must necessarily suppose a most exalted Merit as well as a very distinguish'd Reputation, and indeed he possess'd both. Reason at that Time darted a Ray upon the World thro' the Gloom of the Schools, and the Prejudices of popular Superstition. At last his Name spread so universally, that the French were desirous of bringing him back into his native Country by Rewards, and accordingly offer'd him an annual Pension of a thousand Crowns. Upon these Hopes Des Cartes return'd to France; paid the Fees of his Patent, which was sold at that Time, but no Pension was settled upon him. Thus disappointed, he return'd to his Solitude in North-Holland, where he again pursued the Study of Philosophy, whilst the great Galileo, at fourscore Years of Age, was groaning in the Prisons of the Inquisition, only for having demonstrated the Earth's Motion.

At last Des Cartes was snatch'd from the World in the Flower of his Age at Stockholm. His Death was owing to a bad Regimen, and he expir'd in the Midst of some Literati who were his Enemies, and under the Hands of a Physician to whom he was odious.

The Progress of Sir Isaac Newton's Life was quite different. He liv'd happy, and very much honour'd in his native Country, to the Age of fourscore and five Years.

'Twas his peculiar Felicity, not only to be born in a Country of Liberty, but in an Age when all scholastic Impertinencies were banish'd from the World. Reason alone was cultivated, and Mankind cou'd only be his Pupil, not his Enemy.

One very singular Difference in the Lives of these two great Men is, that Sir Isaac, during the long Course of Years, he enjoy'd was never sensible to any Passion, was not subject to the common Frailties of Mankind, nor ever had any Commerce with Women; a Circumstance which was assur'd me by the Physician and Surgeon who attended him in his last Moments.

We may admire Sir Isaac Newton on this Occasion, but then we must not censure Des Cartes.

The Opinion that generally prevails in England with regard to these new Philosophers is, that the latter was a Dreamer, and the former a Sage.

Very few People in England read Descartes, whofe Works indeed are now useless. On the other Side, but a small Number peruse those of Sir Isaac, because to do this the Student must be deeply skill'd in the Mathematicks, otherwise those Works will be unintelligible to him. But notwithstanding this, these great Men are the Subjest of every One's Discourse. Sir Isaac Newton is allow'd every Advantage, whilst Des Cartes is not indulg'd a single one. According to some, 'tis to the former that we owe the Discovery of a Vacuum, that the Air is a heavy Body, and the Invention of Telescopes. In a Word, Sir Isaac Newton is here as the Hercules of fabulous Story, to whom the Ignorant ascrib'd all the Feats of ancient Heroes.

In a Critique that was made in London on Mr. de Fontenelle's Discourse, the Writer presum'd to assert that Des Cartes was not a great Geometrician. Those who make such a Declaration may justly be reproach'd with flying in their Master's Face. Des Cartes extended the Limits of Geometry as far beyond the Place where he found them, as Sir Isaac did after him. The former first taught the Method of expressing Curves by Equations. This Geometry which, Thanks to him for it, is now grown common, was so abstruse in his Time, that not so much as one Professor would undertake to explain it; and Schotten in Holland, and Format in France, were the only Men who understood it.

He applied this geometrical and inventive Genius to Dioptricks, which, when treated of by him, became a new Art. And if he was mistaken in some Things, the Reason of that is, a Man who discovers a new Tract of Land cannot at once know all the Properties of the Soil. Those who come after him, and make these Lands fruitful, are at least oblig'd to him for the Discovery. I will not deny but that there are innumerable Errors in the rest of Des Cartes's Works.

Geometry was a Guide he himself had in some Measure fashion'd, which would have conducted him safely thro' the several Paths of natural Philosophy. Nevertheless he at last abandon'd this Guide, and gave entirely into the Humour of forming Hypotheses; and then Philosophy was no more than an ingenious Romance, fit only to amuse the Ignorant. He was mistaken in the Nature of the Soul, in the Proofs of the Existence of a God, in Matter, in the Laws of Motion, and in the Nature of Light. He admitted innate Ideas, he invented new Elements, he created a World; he made Man according to his own Fancy; and 'tis justly said, that the Man of Des Cartes is in Fact that of Des Cartes only, very different from the real one.

He push'd his metaphysical Errors so far, as to declare that two and two make four, for no other Reason but because God would have it so. However, 'twill not be making him too great a Compliment if we affirm that he was valuable even in his Mistakes. He deceiv'd himself, but then it was at least in a methodical Way. He destroy'd all the absurd Chimaera's with which Youth had been infatuated for two thousand Years. He taught his Cotemporaries how to reason, and enabled them to employ his own Weapons against himself. If Des Cartes did not pay in good Money, he however did great Service in crying down that of a base Alloy.

I indeed believe, that very few will presume to compare his Philosophy in any respect with that of Sir Isaac Newton. The former is an Essay, the latter a Masterpiece: But then the Man who first brought us to the Path of Truth, was perhaps as great a Genius as he who afterwards conducted us through it.

Des Cartes gave Sight to the Blind. These saw the Errors of Antiquity and of of the Sciences. The Path he struck out is since become boundless. Rohault's little Work was during some Years a complete System of Physicks; but now all the Transactions of the several Academies in Europe put together do not form so much as the Beginning of a System. In fathoming this Abyss no Bottom has been found. We are now to examine what Discoveries Sir Isaac Newton has made in it.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.