Saturday, 29 May 2010

Britain was once the home of a genius called John Aubrey

My posting about the actor Roy Dotrice playing the 17th Century Englishman, John Aubrey, prompted me to 'look up' that remarkable man, Aubrey.

What I didn't know about him was that he :

* was born in Wiltshire to a 'well-off' gentry family.

* was for many years an only child, educated at home with a private tutor and was 'melancholy' in his solitude.

* had a father who preferred 'field sports' to 'learning'.

* read such books as came his way and studied geometry in secret.

* was educated at the Malmesbury Grammar School under Robert Latimer, who had taught Thomas Hobbes.

* entered Trinity College, Oxford, in 1642, where his studies were interrupted by the English Civil War.

* spent much of his time, after the War, in the country and in 1649 he first 'discovered' the megalithic remains at Avebury, which he later mapped and discussed in work 'Monumenta Britannica'.

* showed Avebury to King Charles II at the King's request in 1663.

* inherited large estates from his father but also complicated debts.

* was blessed with charm, generosity of spirit and enthusiasm and went on to become acquainted with many of the most celebrated writers, scientists, politicians and aristocrats of his day.

* claimed that his memory was 'not tenacious', but from the early 1640s he kept thorough notes of observations in natural philosophy, his friends' ideas, and antiquities.

* began to write 'Lives' of scientists in the 1650s.

* became a member of the Royal Society in 1663.

* lost estate after estate due to lawsuits, till in 1670 he parted with his last piece of property and ancestral home and from this time was dependent on the hospitality of numerous friends.

* had little inclination for systematic work, and he wrote the 'Lives' in the early morning while his hosts were sleeping off the effects of the night before in texts that were, as Aubrey entitled them, 'Schediasmata', 'pieces written extempore, on the spur of the moment'.

* valued the evidence of his own eyes above all and he took great pains to ensure that, where possible, he noted not only the final resting places of people, but also of their portraits and papers.

What Aubrey said about Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher :

'He was 40 yeares old before he looked on Geometry, which happened accidentally, being in a Gentleman's Library, Euclid's Elements lay open, and 'twas the 47 El. Libri 1 [Pythagoras' Theorem].
He read the proposition. By God, say'd he, (he would now and then sweare an emphaticall Oath by way of emphasis), "this is impossible!".
So he reads the Demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a Proposition, which proposition he read. That referred him back to another, which he also read. 'Et sic deinceps' [and so on], that at last he was demonstratively convinced of that trueth. This made him in love with Geometry' .

Robert Boyle, the scientist :

'He is very tall and straight, very temperate, and vertuouse, and frugall: a batcheler; keepes a Coach; sojournes with his sister, the Lady Ranulagh.
His greatest delight is Chymistrey. He has at his sister's a noble laboratory, and severall servants,Prentices to him, to look to it.
He is charitable to ingeniose men that are in want, and foreigne Chymists have had large proofe of his bountie, for he will not spare for cost to get any rare Secret'.

Robert Hooke, the scientist :

'He is but of midling stature, something crooked, pale faced, and his face but little below, but his head is large; his eye full and popping, and not quick; a grey eye. He has a delicate head of hair, brown, and of an excellent moist curl. He is and ever was very temperate, and moderate in diet, etc. As he is of prodigious inventive head, so is a person of great virtue and goodness. Now when I have said his Inventive faculty is so great, you cannot imagine his Memory to be excellent, for they are like two Bucketts, as one goes up, the other goes downe. He is certainly the greatest Mechanic this day in the World.

Mr Hooke sent, in his next letter [to Sir Isaac Newton] the whole of his Hypothesis, scil that the gravitation was reciprocall to the square of the distance: ... This is the greatest Discovery in Nature that ever was since the World's Creation. It was never so much as hinted by any man before. I wish he had writt plainer, and afforded a little more paper.

William Harvey, the scientist :
' He bid me to goe to the Fountain-head, and read Aristotle, Cicero, Avicenna, and did call the Neoteriques shitt-breeches. He did not care for chymistrey, and was wont to speake against them with an undervalue'.
I have heard him say, that after his 'Booke of the Circulation of the Blood' came-out, that he fell mightily in his Practize, and that 'twas beleeved by the vulgar that he was crack-brained'.

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