Page:A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen, vol 6.djvu/161

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.


COLIN MACLAURIN. 531


mon-place, and the sublimity of his subject showed at once the nature of his studies and the depth of his erudition. At that time the philosophy of Newton was comparatively unknown, and even men the most distinguished in science were slow to comprehend the great and important truths it contained. None but those profoundly skilled in geometry could fully comprehend his doctrines, and that of itself excluded many from the study ; whilst others were bound in the trammels of the scholastic jargon of Aristotle, or the imaginary vortices of Des Cartes. When, therefore, young Maclaurin chose the " Power of Gravity" as the subject of his thesis, it was a presupposition that he was fully acquainted with the fundamental doctrines of Newton's discoveries, and upon this occasion he acquitted himself to the wonder and delight of his auditors. He afterwards illustrated the same subject in a most beautiful manner, in the last two books of his account of the philosophical discoveries of Sir Isaac. There is only one instance more, in the whole range of literature, that we are acquainted with, of such extraordinary and precocious talent where a predisposition for mathemati- cal science was any thing like so strong, and that is in the person of Pas- cal, whom Bayle calls the divine nearly at the same age, though not ex- ceeding that of our youthful philosopher. He, too, by the force of his irresist- ible genius, in secret and by stealth, may be said to have invented a system of geometrical science, which, to keep him in ignorance of, his father had sacri- ficed both fame and fortune. It might be invidious to compare the philosophic acquirements of these great men in after life, further than their mutual fondneiS for classic literature, in which they both proved themselves elegant writers. They had both a strong sense of religion on their minds, and to those who have perused their works, their most anxious desire must appear to have been to ap- ply the theoretical propositions which were known, or they themselves had demonstrated, so as to promote the real benefit of mankind.

Maclaurin having made such an extraordinary progress in the study of geometry, and having, with little trouble, conquered difficulties which, in general, are looked upon as so formidable, passed at once to the higher branches of that science, and, instead of being deterred from exertion by the intricacy of the demonstrations which necessarily met him at every step as he proceeded in the investigation of difficult propositions, his energies seemed to acquire new life and vigour to enable him to surmount every obstacle in his way. Nothing delighted him more than to be engaged in difficult and curious problems, and this much is certain, that in his sixteenth year he had already invented many of the finest propositions afterwards published under the title of Geometria Organica.

At the beginning of the session in 1714, immediately subsequent to taking his degree, he entered himself as a student of divinity, but he only attended the college for one year longer, when, becoming disgusted at the dissensions that at that time had crept into the church, he relinquished all ideas of becoming a clergyman, and, happily for science, determined to devote himself to the study of mathematics and philosophy. He quitted the university and retired to his uncle's house, at Kilfinnan, in a sequestered part of the country. That good man having, at all times, acted as a father to him, he determined to wait with patience until some secular employment should occur. In this happy seclusion, he continued his favourite researches, still cultivating his mind by a perusal of the best classic authors, for which he had naturally the most refined taste. The sublime scenery amidst which he lived, would, at proper intervals, invite him to wander through the lofty mountains and lonely glens, to consider the number- less natural curiosities with which they abound ; and here his fancy being warm- ed by the grand scenes which presented themselves, he would sometimes break