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Letters On England - LETTER XIV - ON DESCARTES AND SIR ISAAC NEWTON Post by :igor888 Category :Nonfictions Author :Voltaire Date :January 2011 Read :2242

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Letters On England - LETTER XIV - ON DESCARTES AND SIR ISAAC NEWTON

A Frenchman who arrives in London, will find philosophy, like
everything else, very much changed there. He had left the world a
plenum, and he now finds it a vacuum. At Paris the universe is seen
composed of vortices of subtile matter; but nothing like it is seen
in London. In France, it is the pressure of the moon that causes
the tides; but in England it is 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 proved. For to be able to do this, it is necessary the
moon and the tides should have been inquired into at the very
instant of the creation.

You will observe farther, that the sun, 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, everything
is performed by an impulsion, of which we have very little notion;
and according to Sir Isaac Newton, it is by an attraction, the cause
of which is as much unknown to us. At Paris you imagine that the
earth is shaped 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 chemistry are
performed by acids, alkalies and subtile matter; but attraction
prevails even in chemistry among the English.

The very essence of things is totally changed. You neither are
agreed upon the definition of the soul, nor on that of matter.
Descartes, as I observed 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 constitutes 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 honoured him in his lifetime, and
interred him as though 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 M. de
Fontenelle spoke in the Academy of Sciences. M. 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 it was found that this
gentleman had compared Descartes to Sir Isaac, the whole Royal
Society in London rose up in arms. So far from acquiescing with M.
Fontenelle's judgment, they criticised 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 Descartes was a Frenchman.

It must be confessed that these two great men differed very much in
conduct, in fortune, and in philosophy.

Nature had indulged Descartes with 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 itself
even in his philosophical works, which are everywhere adorned 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
suppressed in honour to his memory.

He embraced 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
called Froncine, who died young, and was very much regretted by him.
Thus he experienced 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.

Descartes was very right, for his contemporaries 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 disguised and depraved in the
universities of Holland, into which he withdrew, as in his own
country. For at the time that the French condemned 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 obliged to leave Utrecht. Descartes was
injuriously accused of being an atheist, the last refuge of
religious scandal: and he who had employed 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 distinguished reputation, and indeed
he possessed both. Reason at that time darted a ray upon the world
through 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 offered him an annual pension of a thousand
crowns. Upon these hopes Descartes returned to France; paid the
fees of his patent, which was sold at that time, but no pension was
settled upon him. Thus disappointed, he returned 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 Descartes was snatched from the world in the flower of his
age at Stockholm. His death was owing to a bad regimen, and he
expired 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
lived happy, and very much honoured in his native country, to the
age of fourscore and five years.

It was his peculiar felicity, not only to be born in a country of
liberty, but in an age when all scholastic impertinences were
banished from the world. Reason alone was cultivated, and mankind
could 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 enjoyed, 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 assured 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 Descartes.

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, whose 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 skilled in
the mathematics, otherwise those works will be unintelligible to
him. But notwithstanding this, these great men are the subject of
everyone's discourse. Sir Isaac Newton is allowed every advantage,
whilst Descartes is not indulged a single one. According to some,
it is 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 ascribed all the feats of ancient heroes.

In a critique that was made in London on Mr. de Fontenelle's
discourse, the writer presumed to assert that Descartes was not a
great geometrician. Those who make such a declaration may justly be
reproached with flying in their master's face. Descartes 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 dioptrics,
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 obliged to him for the discovery. I will not deny but that
there are innumerable errors in the rest of Descartes' works.

Geometry was a guide he himself had in some measure fashioned, which
would have conducted him safely through the several paths of natural
philosophy. Nevertheless, he at last abandoned 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 it is justly said, that the man of Descartes is, in fact,
that of Descartes only, very different from the real one.

He pushed 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, it will not be making him too great a compliment if we
affirm that he was valuable even in his mistakes. He deceived
himself; but then it was at least in a methodical way. He destroyed
all the absurd chimeras with which youth had been infatuated for two
thousand years. He taught his contemporaries how to reason, and
enabled them to employ his own weapons against himself. If
Descartes 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.

Descartes gave sight to the blind. These saw the errors of
antiquity and of the sciences. The path he struck out is since
become boundless. Rohault's little work was, during some years, a
complete system of physics; 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.

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