1902 Encyclopedia > Pierre Gassendi

Pierre Gassendi
French philosopher and scientist

PIERRE GASSENDI (1592-1655), one of the most eminent French philosophers, was born of poor but respectable parentage at Champtercier, near Digne, in Provence, on the 22d January 1592. At a very early age he gave indications of remarkable mental powers, and at the instance of his uncle, the curé of his native village, he was sent to the college at Digne. He made rapid progress in his studies, showing particular aptitude for languages and mathematics, and it is said that at the age of sixteen he was invited to lecture on rhetoric at the college. He cannot have retained this post for any length of time, for soon afterwards he entered the university of Aix, to study philosophy under Fesaye. In 1612 he was called to the college of Digne to lecture on theology. Four years later he received the degree of doctor of theology at Avignon, and in 1617 he took orders as a priest. In the same year he was called to the chair of philosophy at Aix, and seems gradually to have withdrawn from theological study and teaching.

At Aix he lectured principally on the Aristotelian philosophy, conforming as far as possible to the orthodox methods. At the same time, however, he prosecuted his favourite studies, physics and astronomy, and by the discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, and others became more and more dissatisfied with the Peripatetic system. It was, indeed, the very period of violent revolt against the authority of Aristotle, and Gassendi shared to the full the practical and empirical tendencies of the age. He, too, began to draw up in form his objections to the Aristotelian philosophy, but did not at first venture to publish them. The portion shown to his friends Peiresc and Gautier, however, was so vehemently approved by them that in 1624, after he had left Aix for a canonry at Grenoble, he printed the first part of his Exercitationes paradoxical adversus Aristoteleos. A fragment of the second book was published later (1659), but the remaining five, requisite to complete the work, were never composed, Gassendi apparently thinking that after the Discussiones Peripatética} of Patricius little field was left for his labours.

The Exercitationes on the whole seem to have excited more attention than they deserved. They contain little or nothing beyond what had been already advanced against Aristotle by the more vigorous of the Humanists, by Valla and Vives, by Ramus and Bruno. The first book expounds clearly, and with much vigour, the evil effects of the blind acceptance of the Aristotelian dicta on physical and philosophical study; but, as is the case with so many of the anti-Aristotelian works of this period, the objections do not touch the true Aristotelian system, and in many instances show the usual ignorance of Aristotle's own writings. The second book, which contains the review of Aristotle's dialectic or logic, is throughout Ramist in tone and method.

After a short visit to Paris in 1628, Gassendi travelled for some years in Flanders and Holland with his friend Luillier. During this time he wrote, at the instance of Mersenne, his examination of the mystical philosophy of Robert Fludd (Epistolica dissertatio in qua prascipua principia philosophies Ro. Fluddi deteguntur, 1631), an essay on parhelia (Epístola de Parheliis), and some valuable observations on the transit of Mercury which had been foretold by Kepler. He returned to France in 1631, and two years later received the appointment of provost of the cathedral church at Digne. Some years were then spent in travelling through Provence with the duke of Angouléme, governor of the department. The only literary work of this period is the Life of Peiresc, which has been frequently reprinted, and was translated into English. In 1642 he was again engaged by Mersenne in controversy, on this occasion against the celebrated Descartes. His objections to the fundamental propositions of Descartes were published in 1642 ; they appear as the fifth in the series contained in the works of Descartes. In these objections Gassendi's already great tendency towards the empirical school of speculation appears more pronounced than in any of his other writings. In 1645 he wag invited by the archbishop of Lyons, brother of Cardinal Richelieu, to the chair of mathematics in the College Royal at Paris. He accepted this post, and lectured for many years with great success. In addition to some controversial writings on physical questions, there appeared during this period the first of the works by which he is best known in the history of philosophy. He evidently found himself more in harmony with Epicurus than with any other philosopher of antiquity, and had collected much information regarding the Epicurean system. In 1647 Luillier persuaded him to publish some of his works, which took the form of the treatise De Vita, Moribus, et Doctrina Epicuri libri octo. The work was well received, and two years later appeared his commentary on the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius (De Vita, Moribus, et Placitis Epicuri, seu Animadversiones in X. librum Diog. Laer.). In the same year the more important Syntagma philosophies Epicuri was published.

In 1648 Gassendi had been compelled from ill-health to give up his lectures at the College Royal. He travelled for some time in the south of France, spending nearly two years at Toulon, the climate of which suited him. In 1653 he returned to Paris and resumed his literary work, publishing in that year his well-known and popular lives of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe. The disease from which he suffered, lung complaint, had, however, established a firm hold on him. His strength gradually failed, and he died at Paris on the 24th October 1655, in the sixty-third year of his age.

His collected works, of which the most important is the Syntagma Philosophicum (Opera, i. and ii.), were published in 1655 by Montmort (6 vols, fob, Lyons). Another edition, also in 6 folio volumes, was published by Averanius in 1727. These volumes sufficiently attest the wide extent of his reading and the versatility of his powers. The first two are occupied entirely with his Syntagma Philosophicum ; the third contains his critical writings on Epicurus, Aristotle, Descartes, Fludd, and Lord Herbert, with some occasional pieces on certain problems of physics; the fourth, his Institutio Astronomica, and his Commentarii de Rebus Celestibus; the fifth, his commentary on the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius, the biographies of Epicurus, Peiresc, Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Peurbach, and Regiomontanus, with some tracts on the value of ancient money, on the Roman calendar, and on the theory of music, to all which is appended a large and prolix piece entitled Notitia Ecclesiw Diniensis; the sixth volume contains his correspondence. The Lives, especially those of Copernicus, Tycho, and Peiresc, have been justly admired. That of Peiresc has been repeatedly printed; it has also been translated into English. Gassendi was one of the first after the revival of letters who treated the literature of philosophy in a lively way. His writings of this kind, though too laudatory and somewhat diffuse, have great merit; they abound in those anecdotal details, natural yet not obvious reflexions, and vivacious turns of thought, which made Gibbon style him, with some extravagance certainly, though it was true enough up to Gassendi's time—" le meilleur philosophe des litterateurs, et le meilleur litterateur des philosophes."

Gassendi will always retain an honourable place in the history of physical science. He certainly added little original to the stock of human knowledge, but the clearness of his exposition and the manner in which he, like his greater contemporary, Bacon, urged the necessity and utility of experimental research, were of inestimable service to the cause of science. To what extent any place can be assigned him in the history of philosophy is more doubtful. His anti-Aristotelian writing has been already noticed. The objections to Descartes—one of which at least, through Descartes's statement of it, has become famous—have no speculative value, and in general are the outcome of the crudest empiricism. His labours on Epicurus have a certain historical value, but the inherent want of consistency in the philosophical system raised on Epicureanism is such as to deprive it of all genuine worth. Along with strong expressions of empiricism (nihil in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu) we find him holding doctrines absolutely irreconcilable with empiricism in any form. For while he maintains constantly his favourite maxim " that there is nothing in the intellect which has not been in the senses," and while he contends that the imaginative faculty, "phantasia," is the counterpart of sense, that, as it has to do witli material images, it is itself, like sense, material, and essentially the same both in men and brutes, he at the same time admits that the intellect, which he affirms to be immaterial and immortal—the most characteristic distinction of humanity—attains notions and truths of which no effort of sensation or imagination can give us the slightest apprehension (Op., ii. 383). He instances the capacity of forming "general notions;" the very conception of universality itself (ib., 384), to which he says brutes, who partake as truly as men in the faculty called "phantasia," never attain; the notion of God, whom he says we may imagine to be corporeal, but understand to be incorporeal; and lastly, the reflex action by which the mind makes its own phenomena and operations the objects of attention.

The Syntagma Philosophicum, in fact, is one of the eclectic systems which unite, or rather place in juxtaposition, irreconcilable dogmas from various schools of thought. It is divided, according to the usual fashion of the Epicurians, into logic (which, with Gassendi as with Epicurus, is truly canonic), physics, and ethics. The logic, which contains at least one praiseworthy portion, a sketch of the history of the science, is divided into theory of right apprehension (bene imaginari), theory of right judgment (bene proponere), theory of right inference (bene colligere), theory of right method (bene ordinare). The first part contains the specially empirical positions which Gassendi afterwards neglects or leaves out of account. The senses, the sole source of knowledge, are supposed to yield us immediately cognition of individual things; phantasy (which Gassendi takes to be material in nature) reproduces these ideas; understanding compares these ideas, which are particular, and frames general ideas. Nevertheless, he at the same time admits that the senses yield knowledge—not of things—but of qualities only, and holds that we arrive at the idea of thing or substance by induction. He holds that the true method of research is the analytic, rising from lower to higher notions; yet he sees clearly, and admits, that inductive reasoning, as conceived by Bacon, rests on a general proposition not itself proved by induction. He ought to hold, and in disputing with Descartes he did apparently hold, that the evidence of the senses is the only convincing evidence; yet he maintains, and from his special mathematical training it was natural he should maintain, that the evidence of reason is absolutely satisfactory. The whole doctrine of judgment, syllogism, and method is a mixture of Aristotelian and Bamist notions.

In the second part of the Syntagma, the physics, there is more that deserves attention ; but here, too, appears in the most glaring, manner the inner contradiction between Gassendi's fundamental principles. While approving of the Epicurean physics, he rejects altogether the Epicurean negation of God and particular providence. He states the various proofs for the existence of an immaterial, infinite, supreme Being, asserts that this Being is the author of the visible universe, and strongly defends the doctrine of the foreknowledge and particular providence of God. At the same time he holds, in opposition to Epicureanism, the doctrine of an immaterial, rational soul, endowed with immortality and capable of free determination. It is altogether impossible to assent to the supposition of Lange (Gesch. des Mater ialismus, 3d ed., i. 233), that all this portion of Gassendi's system contains nothing of his own opinions, but is solely introduced from motives of self-defence. The positive exposition of atomism has much that is attractive, but the hypothesis of the color vitalis, a species of anima mundi which is introduced as physical explanation of physical phenomena, does not seem to throw much light on the special problems which it is invoked to solve. Nor is his theory of the weight essential to atoms as being due to an inner force impelling them to motion in any way reconcilable with his general doctrine of mechanical causes.

In the third part, the ethics, over and above the discussion on freedom, which on the whole is indefinite, there is little beyond a milder statement of the Epicurean moral code. The final end of life is happiness, and happiness is harmony of soul and body, tranquillitas animi et indolentia corporis. Probably, Gassendi thinks, perfect happiness is not attainable in this life, but it may be in the life to come.

The Syntagma is thus an essentially unsystematic work, and clearly exhibits the main characteristics of Gassendi's genius. He was critical rather than constructive, widely read and trained thoroughly both in languages and in science, but deficient in speculative power and original force. Even in the department of natural science he shows the same inability steadfastly to retain principles and to work from them; he wavers between the systems of Brahe and Copernicus. That his revival of Epicureanism had an important influence on the general thinking of the 17th century may be admitted ; that it has any real importance in the history of philosophy cannot be granted.

Gassendi's life is given by Sorbière in the first collected edition of the works, by Bugerel, Vie de Gassendi, 1737 (2d éd., 1770), and by Damiron, Mémoire sur Gassendi, 1839. An abridgment of his philosophy was given by his friend, the celebrated traveller, Bernier (Abrégé de la Philosophie de Gassendi, 8 vols., 1678 ; 2d éd., 7 vols., 1684). The most complete surveys of his work seem to be those of Buhle (Geschichte der neuern Philosophie, iii., 1, 87-222), and Damiron (Mémoires pour servir à l'Histoire de Philosophie au Vjme Siècle.) See also Bitter, Geschichte der Philosophie, x. 543-571; Feuerbach, Gesch. d. neu. Phil, von Bacon bis Spinoza, 127-150. (R. AI). )

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