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(A. D. 1596-1649.)
RENÉ DESCARTES, the father of modern philosophy, was a native of Touraine, in France, born in 1596, of an ancient and excellent family. When eight years old, he was placed in the Jesuit college of La Fléche, in Anjou, where he remained for eight and a half years.
The result of his studies was so to disgust him with the emptiness of the knowledge he had acquired that he refused to continue them. mained two years at home, and was then sent by his father to Paris, where he plunged for a time into the gayeties and dissipations of the capital. But he soon tired of so unsatisfactory a life, and shut himself up for two years, concealed. from all his friends, in a small Parisian house, where he devoted himself to mathematical studies and philosophical meditations. His retreat having been discovered at last, he was drawn from it, and put into the army. As the French were engaged at the time in no wars, he sought active service as a volunteer, first in Holland, under Prince Maurice of Nassau, against the Spaniards, and afterwards, at the beginning of the Thirty Years' War, in the army of the Emperor Ferdinand. While in Germany, during the winter of 1619-20, he was quartered in the town of Neuberg, on the Danube, and there, becoming absorbed again in meditations, he conceived the idea which he afterwards worked out in his famous philosophical “Method.” It was based on four rules: 1. Never to receive anything as true which did not show itself to be clearly so. 2. To divide all difficulties into as many parcels as possible, for distinct examination. 3. To proceed orderly in thought, from the simplest matters to the more complicated. 4. To make such complete enumerations and general reviews as to be sure to omit nothing. At the same time, he framed for himself what he called a provisional set of maxims of life and conduct.
These are given below.
Soon after his winter at Neuberg, Descartes quitted the army He then travelled for a time, before settling himself again, as he did, for several years, in Paris. In 1629 he went to Holland and resided mostly in that country for twenty years. Invited to Stockholm in 1649, by Queen Christina of Sweden, he died there a few months later.
His “Discours de la Méthode,” which gave a new direction to modern thought, was published in 1637, during his stay in Holland. It is on this that his fame principally rests, though he was author of other treatises, mathematical in the main.
PROVISIONAL RULES OF DESCARTES.
When one has resolved to rebuild his house from the foundation, it is not enough to knock the old structure down, collect stones and timber, call in an architect or make a plan for oneself: one must also, and indeed first, seek out some commodious lodging to dwell in till the new house is habitable. To this business I therefore forthwith addressed myself, and presently laid down my provisional system of conduct, which consisted of the following three or four maxims :
First, I would conform to the laws and customs of my country, holding fast by the religion which by God's grace had been taught me in childhood, and in other matters regulating myself by the customs of those about me, giving the preference always to such as lie midway betwixt either extreme.
My second maxim was, when I had once made up my mind, to go stoutly through with it. If you lose yourself in a wood, the best course is to take some one path and march in a straight line. If this does not carry you where you want to go to, it will at any rate sooner or later lead you out of the wood.
My third, to aim at conquering rather my desires than
my fortune ; reflecting that what I fail to attain after I have done my best must be regarded as simply impossible, and no more to be lamented over than that my body is not so hard as steel, or that I have not the convenience of wings.
Finally, for an occupation, without disputing the tastes of others, I myself will go on as before ; that is to say, I will employ my life in cultivating my reason, and advancing all I can in the knowledge of truth, using the method I have prescribed to myself.
SIR THOMAS BROWNE
(A. D. 1605–1682.)
THOMAS BROWNE, physician and author, was born in London, October 19, 1605. He received his education at Oxford, Montpellier, Padua, and Leyden. In 1637 he settled at Norwich, where he died, on his birthday, October 19, 1682. He had been knighted by King Charles II., eleven years before his death. His most famous work, “Religio Medici,” was published in 1643. "Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Inquiry into Vulgar Errors," appeared in 1646, and “Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial,” in 1658. His “Christian Morals was not published until after his death. It is an expansion of a "Letter to a Friend ” written previously, and was probably laid aside by the author for some careful revision. Neither his thought nor his style are represented at their best in it.
Mr. Saintsbury says of Sir Thomas Browne's writings: “The work of this country doctor is for personal savour, for strangeness, and for delight, one of the most notable things in English literature. .. His manner is exactly proportioned to his matter; his exotic and unfamiliar vocabulary to the strangeness and novelty of his thoughts. He can never be really popular; but for the meditative reading of instructed persons he is perhaps the most delightful of English prosemen.”
SELECTIONS FROM SIR THOMAS BROWNE'S “LETTER
TO A FRIEND."
Tread softly and circumspectly in this funambulous track and narrow path of goodness ; pursue virtue virtuously; be sober and temperate, not to preserve your body in a sufficiency to wanton ends, not to spare your purse,
not to be free from the infamy of common transgressors that way, and thereby to balance or palliate obscurer and closer vices, nor simply to enjoy health, by all which you may leaven good actions, and render virtues disputable; but, in one word, that you may truly serve God, which, every sickness will tell you, you cannot well do without health. . . . Sit not down in the popular seats and common level of virtues, but endeavour to make them heroical. Offer not only peace-offerings but holocausts unto God. To serve him singly to serve ourselves, were too partial a piece of piety, nor likely to place us in the highest mansions of glory.
He that is chaste and continent, not to impair his strength, or terrified by contagion, will hardly be heroically virtuous. .
Be charitable before wealth makes thee covetous, and lose not the glory of the mite. If riches increase, let thy mind hold pace with them; and think it not enough to be liberal, but munificent. Though a cup of cold water from some hand may not be without its reward, yet stick not thou for wine and oil for the wounds of the distressed ; and treat the poor as our Saviour did the multitude, to the relics of some baskets.
Trust not to the omnipotency of gold, or say unto it, Thou art my confidence; kiss not thy hand when thou beholdest that terrestrial sun, nor bore thy ear unto its servitude. A slave unto Mammon makes no servant unto God. Covetousness cracks the sinews of faith, numbs the apprehension of any thing above sense, and, only affected with the certainty of things present, makes a peradventure of things to come; lives but unto one world, nor hopes but fears another; makes our own death sweet unto others, bitter unto ourselves; gives a dry funeral, scenical mourning, and no wet eyes at the grave.