Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barrow, Isaac (1630-1677)
BARROW, ISAAC (1630–1677), master of Trinity College, Cambridge, an eminent mathematician and classical scholar, and one of the greatest of the great Anglican divines and preachers of the Caroline period, was born in London, where his father, Thomas Barrow, was linendraper to King Charles I. He was a scion of an ancient Suffolk family; but his grandfather lived at Spiney Abbey, in the parish of Wickham in Cambridgeshire, and was a justice of the peace there for forty years. His mother was the daughter of Mr. Buggin, of North Cray, and died when Barrow was only four years old. His uncle was Isaac Barrow, bishop of St. Asaph [q. v.] His first school was the Charterhouse, where he made but little progress in his studies, and was chiefly distinguished for fighting and setting on other boys to fight. In fact, he was so troublesome in his early days that his father was heard to say that, if it pleased God to take any of his children, he could best spare Isaac. Charterhouse not proving a success, he was removed to Felstead school, where Martin Holbeach was the head master. Here he improved his ways, and in time so gained the confidence of his master that he made him ‘little tutor’ to a schoolfellow, Viscount Fairfax, of Emery, in Ireland. At the close of 1643 he was entered at St. Peter's College (Peterhouse), Cambridge, where his uncle Isaac, to whom he always had recourse for direction in his early life, was a fellow; but before he was qualified to come into residence, his uncle had been ejected, and he consequently went as a pensioner to Trinity. His father, who was at Oxford with the king when Barrow went to Cambridge, lost all in the royal cause. Barrow, therefore, would have been obliged to leave college for want of funds, had it not been for the kindness of the great Henry Hammond, who, either personally or by gatherings which he made from the faithful to support young men at the universities ‘as a seed-plot of the ministry,’ enabled him to pay the necessary expenses. Barrow showed his gratitude to Hammond by writing his epitaph. In 1647 Barrow was elected scholar of Trinity, though he refused to subscribe the covenant; and, in spite of his royalist opinions, he contrived to win the favour of the college authorities. ‘Thou art a good lad,’ said the puritan master, Dr. Hill, to him, patting him on the head; ‘'tis pitty thou art a royalist.’ Barrow did subscribe the ‘engagement,’ but afterwards applied to the commissioners, and ‘prevailed to have his name razed out of the list.’ He took his B.A. degree in 1648, and in 1649 was elected fellow of Trinity, his friend and contemporary, Mr. Ray, the great botanist, being elected at the same time. He had studied physic, and at one time thought of entering the medical profession; but on reconsideration ‘he thought that profession not well consistent with the oath he had taken when admitted fellow.’ In 1652 he took his M.A. degree, and in the following year was incorporated in the same degree at Oxford. In 1654 the professor of Greek at Cambridge, Dr. Dupont, an eminent man in his day, and, in spite of his position, a royalist, resigned his chair, and was most anxious that his old pupil, Barrow, should succeed him; and Barrow, we are told, ‘justified the character given of him by an excellent performance of his probation exercise, but not having interest enough to secure the election, Mr. Ralph Widdrington was chosen.’ It is said that he failed through being suspected of Arminianism, and that Widdrington, who was nearly related to men in power, gained the election by favouritism. But it must be remembered that Barrow was at this time only twenty-four years of age—a very young man to be placed in such a post—and that, great as his classical reputation was, he was still more highly thought of as a mathematician. Moreover, he was already laying the foundation of his after-eminence as a divine. In fact, according to one account, his mathematical studies all had reference to this; for ‘finding that to be a good theologian he must know chronology, that chronology implies astronomy, and astronomy mathematics, he applied himself to the latter science with distinguished success.’
Barrow was, however, clearly out of sympathy with the dominant party at Cambridge. When he delivered a fifth of November oration, in which ‘he praised the former times at the expense of the present,’ his brother fellows were so disgusted that they moved for his expulsion, and he was only saved by the intervention of his old friend the master, who screened him, saying, ‘Barrow is a better man than any of us.’ This want of sympathy with his surroundings determined him to travel; but his means were so straitened that he was obliged to sell his books in order to do so. He set forth in 1655, and first visited Paris, where he found his father in attendance upon the English court, and ‘out of his small stock made him a seasonable present.’ Thence he proceeded to Italy, visiting, among other places, Florence, where ‘he read many books in the great duke's library, and ten thousand of his medals.’ He was helped with means to continue his travels by Mr. James Stock, a London merchant whom he met at Florence, and to whom he afterwards dedicated his ‘Euclid's Data.’ On his voyage from Leghorn to Smyrna an incident occurred which showed that he had not altogether lost his fighting propensities. The vessel was attacked by an Algerine pirate; Barrow remained on deck, kept his post at the gun to which he was appointed, and fought most bravely, until the pirate, who had expected no resistance, sheered off. Barrow has described the conflict in Latin, both in prose and verse. At Smyrna he was kindly received by the English consul, Mr. Bratton, on whose death he wrote a Latin elegy. His reception by the English ambassador at Constantinople, Sir Thomas Bendish, was equally cordial; and he also began there an intimate friendship with Sir Jonathan Dawes. He spent his time at Constantinople in reading the works of St. Chrysostom, whom he preferred to any of the fathers. He resided more than a year in Turkey, and then gradually made his way home, taking on his road Venice, Germany, and Holland. He arrived in England in 1659, and at once received holy orders from Bishop Brownrigg.
Upon the Restoration his fortunes brightened. Widdrington resigned the Greek professorship, and this time there was no difficulty about electing Barrow to the chair. He began lecturing upon Aristotle's Rhetoric; but he is said to have been not very successful as a Greek lecturer. On the death of Mr. Rooke he was chosen professor of geometry at Gresham College, through the recommendation of Dr. Williams. Besides his own duties, he also officiated for Dr. Pope, the professor of astronomy, during his absence abroad. In 1662 a valuable living was offered to Barrow; but as a condition was annexed that he should teach the patron's son, he refused the offer, ‘as too like a simoniacal contract.’ In 1663 he preached the consecration sermon at Westminster Abbey when his uncle Isaac was made bishop of St. Asaph; and in the same year, again through the influence of his good friend Dr. Williams, he was appointed the first mathematical professor at Cambridge under the will of Mr. Lucas. He was also invited to take charge of the Cottonian Library, but, having tried the post for a while, he preferred to settle in Cambridge, and therefore declined it. According to the ideas of the time, there was no incompatibility in combining the duties of the Lucasian with those of the Gresham professorship; but Barrow was far too conscientious to undertake more than he could thoroughly perform. He therefore resigned his post at Gresham College, and confined himself to his Cambridge duties. But even these were too distracting for his sensitive conscience. He was afraid, as a clergyman, of spending too much time upon mathematics; ‘for,’ as we are quaintly told, ‘he had vowed at his ordination to serve God in the Gospel of his Son, and he could not make a bible out of his Euclid, or a pulpit out of his mathematical chair—his only redress was to quit them both.’ He resigned the Lucasian professorship in 1669 in favour of his still more distinguished pupil, Isaac Newton. He had the acuteness to perceive, and the generosity to acknowledge, the superior qualifications of his great successor. Newton had revised his ‘Lectiones Opticæ’ for the press, and, as Barrow ingenuously confessed, corrected some things and added others. But other circumstances led him to abandon mathematical for theological studies. The college statutes bound him to compose some theological discourses, these being necessary in order that a fellow may become ‘college preacher,’ and in that capacity hold ecclesiastical preferment. Accordingly, in 1669, he wrote his very valuable ‘Exposition of the Creed, Decalogue, and Sacraments,’ which, as he said, ‘so took up his thoughts that he could not easily apply them to any other matter.’ But this was not all. Barrow was a very sensitive and a very modest man; and the reception of his mathematical works by the public was not altogether encouraging. He had published in 1669 his ‘Lectiones Opticæ,’ which he dedicated to the executors of Mr. Lucas, ‘as the firstfruits of his institution,’ and he had found, as we have seen, in the pupil who revised them a better man than himself. He also published his ‘Lectiones Geometricæ; ’ but ‘when they had been some time in the world, having heard of very few who had read and considered them thoroughly, the little relish that such things met with helped to loose him more from those speculations, and heighten his attention to the studies of morality and divinity.’
Barrow was now left with nothing but his fellowship. His uncle had given him a small sinecure in Wales, and his friend Seth Ward, now bishop of Sarum, a prebend in Salisbury Cathedral; but the small income derived from these sources he always devoted to charitable purposes. Possibly it was at this time, when he seemed to have fallen between two, or rather several, stools, that he wrote a neat couplet, which has been often quoted as a proof of Charles II's neglect of his friends:—
Te magis optavit rediturum, Carole, nemo,
Et nemo sensit te rediisse minus.
Dr. Whewell's vindication of the king is unanswerable: ‘I do not,’ he writes, ‘know what his (Barrow's) sufferings were. Charles took the very best way of making himself acquainted with his merits, and of acknowledging them by appointing him his chaplain; and if he wanted to make him master of Trinity, which was certainly a most appropriate and valuable recognition of his merits, he must needs wait for a vacancy.’ That vacancy was not long in coming. In 1672–3 Dr. Pearson was appointed bishop of Chester, and Barrow succeeded him as master of Trinity. His patent to the mastership was with permission to marry, but this permission he caused to be erased, as contrary to the statutes. The appointment was the ‘king's own act,’ who said, when he made the appointment, that ‘he gave it to the best scholar in England.’ These were not words of course. Charles had frequently conversed with Barrow as his chaplain; and his comment upon his sermons is wonderfully apposite. He called him ‘an unfair preacher, because he exhausted every topic, and left no room for anything new to be said by any one who came after him.’ In the St. James's lectures on the ‘Classical Preachers in the English Church,’ where each preacher is ticketed with an epithet, Barrow is rightly termed ‘the exhaustive preacher.’ Charles had already shown his appreciation of Barrow by making him D.D. in 1670 by royal mandate.
Barrow enjoyed his new dignity for the brief space of five years, but he made his mark upon Trinity by commencing the magnificent library. The story runs thus. He proposed to the heads of the university to build a theatre, that the university church might be no longer profaned by the speeches &c. which were held there. He failed to move his brother heads, and went back piqued to his college, declaring that he would get handsomer buildings than any he had proposed to them; and so he gave the impetus to the building of the library, which was not completed at his death. He was vice-chancellor of Cambridge in 1675. In the spring of 1677 he went to London to assist, as master of Trinity, in the election of the Westminster scholars to Christ Church, Oxford, and Trinity, Cambridge; and on 13 April, ‘being invited to preach the Passion sermon at Guildhall chapel, he never preached but once more.’ He died on 4 May 1677, during the visit ‘in mean lodgings,’ Dr. Pope tells us, ‘over a saddler's shop near Charing Cross;’ but the master of Trinity of course had the means to lodge where he liked. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a monument surmounted by his bust was erected by his friends. His epitaph was written by his friend Dr. Mapletoft, who, like himself, had been a Gresham professor.
When it is remembered that Barrow was only forty-seven years of age when he died, it seems almost incredible that in so short a life he could have gained so vast and multifarious a store of knowledge. Scholar, mathematician, man of science, preacher, controversialist, he gained enough credit in every one of these departments to make the reputation of an ordinary man; while his blameless, unselfish, christian life would be worth studying if he had gained no intellectual reputation at all.
As a scholar, his many compositions in Latin prose and verse (he had almost a mania for turning everything into Latin verse), as well as in Greek verse, fully justify the confidence which Dr. Dupont showed in him.
As a mathematician he was considered by his contemporaries as second only to Newton, whose towering genius a little overshadowed that of his master; but on the other hand, his credit as a mathematician is enhanced by the fact that he was the first to recognise and develop the extraordinary talents of Newton, one of whose most famous discoveries he was on the verge of making. Dr. Whewell has well summed up his merits without exaggeration or detraction (to both of which Barrow's mathematical fame has been subject). ‘The principal part which Barrow plays in mathematical history is as one of the immediate precursors of Newton and Leibnitz in the invention of the differential calculus. … He was a very considerable mathematician, and was well acquainted with mathematical literature.’ Barrow himself was exceedingly modest in his estimate of his own mathematical powers, as indeed he was of all his powers. It was only in compliance with the judgment of his intimate friend, Mr. John Collins, that he was prevailed upon to publish most of his mathematical works. And when he did suffer them to be published it was with a stipulation that they should not be ‘puffed.’ ‘I pray,’ he wrote to Mr. Collins, ‘let there be nothing said of them in the Philosophical Reports beyond a short and simple account of them; let them take their fortune or fate pro captu lectoris; anything more will cause me displeasure, and will not do them any good.’ It was on his mathematics that his contemporary repute chiefly rested.
As to science and philosophy, he fully shared, in his early years, the newly awakened interest in these subjects, studying them, not at second hand, but in the works of such masters as Bacon, Des Cartes, and Galileo.
As a controversialist, his great ‘Treatise on the Pope's Supremacy’ (1680) would be enough to immortalise any man. He did not live to publish it, but on his deathbed gave Tillotson permission to do so, regretting with characteristic modesty that he had not had time to make it less imperfect. As a matter of fact, it is about as perfect a piece of controversial writing as is extant. He was the very man for the task; for ‘he understood popery both at home and abroad. He had narrowly observed it militant in England, triumphant in Italy, disguised in France, and had earlier apprehension than most others of the approaching danger.’ Besides this perfect knowledge of the subject, he had other qualifications no less essential for the work: his calm temperament and large-hearted christian charity prevented him from indulging in those anti-papal ravings which were only too common at the time. His logical mind at once detected the weak points in the papal arguments, while his nervous, lucid style set off his knowledge and his reasoning to the best advantage. His ‘Exposition of the Creed,’ though not directly controversial, will prove a most valuable weapon in the hands of a controversialist. The subject is treated from a different point of view from that taken by his predecessor at Trinity, Dr. Pearson; but though less known and read at the present time, his work does not suffer in the least by a comparison with that masterpiece.
But, after all, it is as a preacher that Barrow is best known; though, curiously enough, his fame in this capacity was posthumous rather than contemporary. He does not appear to have been either a very frequent or a very popular preacher; but his sermons now deservedly rank among the very finest specimens of the art. One of their merits has been already touched upon, but they have many others. Barrow had qualms of conscience lest his mathematics should interfere with his divinity, but in fact they greatly helped it. ‘Every sermon,’ it has been truly said, ‘is like the demonstration of a theorem.’ The clearness, directness, and thoroughness of mind which are so conspicuous in the sermons were no doubt strengthened by the habit which mathematical pursuits foster. Controversy he carefully avoided in his preaching, going straight to the broad facts of christian belief and moral duty. Nevertheless, no one can read his sermons without feeling that he is in the presence of a first-rate controversialist. He appeals, perhaps, too much to the reason and too little to the feelings. No one would ever think of applying the common epithet ‘beautiful’ to any of Barrow's sermons, and yet they are full of eloquence of the very highest order; and now and then he rises into a strain which can only be described as sublime. But what strikes one most in the sermons is their thorough manliness of tone: they are free from the slightest touch of affectation; there is no vestige of extravagance or bad taste in them. One can well understand how it is that men of the greatest eminence have admired them the most: how John Locke, e.g., regarded them as ‘masterpieces of their kind;’ how Bishop Warburton ‘liked them because they obliged him to think;’ how the great Earl of Chatham, ‘when qualifying himself in early life for public speaking, read Barrow's sermons again and again, till he could recite many of them memoriter;’ and how the younger Pitt, at the recommendation of his father, studied them frequently and deeply. We have to descend to men of a feebler frame of mind for depreciation of Barrow. One hardly knows whether to smile or be provoked to see Blair, once the admired preacher of the coldest and tritest of sermons, looking down as from an eminence upon Barrow, and, while admitting ‘the prodigious fecundity of his invention,’ complaining of his ‘genius often shooting wild and unchastened by any discipline or study of eloquence,’ and of his style being irregular and incorrect; or to find a Mr. Hughes, who gave to the world a sort of Bowdlerised edition of Barrow, thinking his sermons inferior to Sherlock's. The drawback to Barrow's sermons is their inordinate length—inordinate even for those days of long sermons. Everybody knows the story of his preaching in Westminster Abbey, and encroaching so long upon the time which the vergers utilised between sermons for lionising the church that they caused the organs to play ‘till they had blowed him down;’ and of the sermon that he wrote on the text, ‘He that uttereth slander is a liar’ (1678), from which he was prevailed upon to omit the half about slander, and yet the remaining half lasted an hour and a half; and again, of the famous Spital sermon (the only one he ever saw in print), ‘On the Duty and Reward of Bounty to the Poor’ (1671), which is said to have occupied three hours and a half in delivery, though it was not preached in full. But there seems to have been a little exaggeration in these stories—at any rate, in that relating to the Spital sermon; for the court of aldermen desired him to print it ‘with what further he had prepared to preach,’ which no doubt Barrow did. Now the sermon is extant, and it fills ninety-four octavo pages—long enough in all conscience, but yet not long enough to occupy four hours in delivery. Still, prolixity is unquestionably a fault of Barrow's sermons, as it is of his mathematical works also. Barrow took immense pains over the composition of his sermons, as his manuscripts prove. He is said to have written some of them four or five times over.
It remains to say a few words about Barrow's character and habits. He was, scholar-like, negligent of his dress and personal appearance to a fault. Once, when he preached for Dr. Wilkins at St. Lawrence, Jewry, the congregation were so disgusted with his uncouth exterior that all but a few rushed out of church. Among the few who remained was Richard Baxter, who had the decency to sit out, and the good taste to admire, the sermon. Barrow is said to have been ‘low of stature, lean, and of a pale complexion.’ He would never sit for his portrait; but his friends contrived to hold him in conversation while a Mr. Beale took it without his knowing what was going on. He was very fond of tobacco, which he called his panpharmacon, declaring that it ‘tended to compose and regulate his thoughts;’ and he was inordinately fond of fruit, which he took as a medicine. He was a very early riser, and was in the habit of walking out in the winter months before daybreak. This habit once brought him into danger, and also gave him the opportunity of showing his extraordinary strength and courage. He was visiting at a house where a fierce mastiff was kept, which was chained during the daytime, but allowed to run loose in the garden at night, as a protection against thieves. Barrow was walking in the garden before daybreak, when the mastiff attacked him; he caught the brute by the throat, threw him down, and would have killed him; but he reflected that this would be unjust, as the dog was only doing his duty. He therefore called aloud for help, keeping the dog pinned down until some one from the house heard his cries and released him. Barrow had a keen sense of humour and a readiness of repartee, as the following story will show. He was attending at court as the king's chaplain, when he met the famous Earl of Rochester, who thus accosted him: ‘Doctor, I am yours to the shoetie.’ Barrow: ‘My lord, I am yours to the ground.’ Rochester: ‘Doctor, I am yours to the centre.’ Barrow: ‘My lord, I am yours to the antipodes.’ Rochester (scorning to be foiled by a musty old piece of divinity, as he termed him): ‘Doctor, I am yours to the lowest pit of hell.’ Barrow (turning on his heel): ‘There, my lord, I leave you.’
Barrow's theological works were published soon after his death under the editorship of Dean Tillotson, in four volumes folio (1683–9), but not because Tillotson and Abraham Hill were left by his will his literary executors; for Barrow died intestate. In fact, he had nothing to leave except his books, which were so well chosen that they were sold for more than their prime cost, their value no doubt being enhanced by the fact that they had belonged to so famous a man. Barrow's papers would naturally revert to his father, who survived him for more than ten years; and according to Mr. Ward, the old man entrusted them to the care of Tillotson and Hill, with power to print such as they thought proper. Tillotson took immense pains over his editorial labours, which extended over ten years; but one part of those labours we could certainly have very well spared. He thought it necessary to alter many words which seemed to him incorrect or obsolete, and to subdivide the sermons, so that they differ both in matter and extent from the manuscript copies. Tillotson's edition was reissued in three folio volumes in 1716, 1722, and 1741. Editions were published by the Clarendon Press in 1818 and 1830, and another by the Rev. James Hamilton at Edinburgh in 1841–2. Mr. Hughes published a further edition in 1830, omitting Barrow's learned quotations, and adding summaries of the discourses. But by far the best, indeed the only complete edition, is that which was prepared for the syndics of the Cambridge University Press by the Rev. A. Napier in 1859. Here at last we have the true text restored from Tillotson's ‘improvements,’ the acquisition of Barrow's manuscripts by Trinity College enabling the accomplished editor to effect the restoration. There is a scholarly preface, which contains, among other things, the best bibliography of Barrow's theological works which is extant. An unpretending little work, entitled ‘The Beauties of Barrow,’ by B. S., Esq., barrister-at-law, 1846, is worth notice as giving, in 274 very short pages, well-chosen specimens of Barrow's style, which may be acceptable to the reader who has not time to wade through nine or ten octavo volumes. It is satisfactory to learn that Barrow's father received from Brabazon Aylmer, the bookseller, for the copyright of his son's theological works, 470l. It should be added that the sermons published under Barrow's name by Dr. (afterwards Bishop) Prince Lee were not, in the opinion of Dr. Whewell and Mr. Napier (two excellent judges), really Barrow's.
Whewell published an edition of Barrow's mathematical works in 1860. They include ‘Euclidis Elementa’ (1655); ‘Euclidis Data’ (1657); ‘Mathematicæ Lectiones’ (1664–6); ‘Lectiones Opticorum Phænomenωn’ (1669); ‘Lectiones Opticæ et Geometricæ’ (1669, 1670, 1674); ‘Archimedis Opera;’ ‘Apollonii Conicorum lib. iv.;’ ‘Theodosii Sphærica nova methodo illustrata et succincte demonstrata’ (1675); ‘Lectio in qua Theoremata Archimedis de sphæra et cylindro per methodum indivisibilium investigata … exhibentur’ (1678). All these were written in Latin, but some of them have been translated by Messrs. Kirby and Stephen and others. Barrow's Latin poems, ‘Opuscula,’ are included in the ninth volume of Mr. Napier's edition.