Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/September 1910/John Dee and his Fruitful Preface




IT may be necessary to introduce this "faithful student of the school of verity," for his contribution to human thought was of the kind that is easily absorbed in the sum total of the period, while the man himself remains little known to any but his contemporaries. The writer's introduction to him was through his "fruitful preface" to the first translation of Euclid's "Elements" into English printed in 1570. That long preface is an interesting document in the development of intellectual freedom as well as in the history of science. It was addressed not so much to learned men as to the author's countrymen at large, though there was an occasional side glance at the university pedants. It expresses ideas strikingly like those for which the name of Francis Bacon stands, though written when Bacon was a boy of nine years. In it the author makes a vigorous appeal to the men of the time to shake themselves free from the commentational habit of the middle ages—to consider that the Greeks and Romans, who were held in such reverence, had not achieved all that was to be achieved. "Master Dee" was fully aware of the state of opinion that must be contended against. He says:

Well, I am nothing affrayde of the disdayne of some such, as thinke Sciences and Artes to be but Seven. Perhaps those such may, with ignorance and shame enough, come short of them seven also: and yet nevertheless they can not prescribe a certaine number of Artes: and in each certain unpassable boundes, to God, Nature, and man's Industrie. New Artes dayly rise up: and there was no such order taken, that all Artes should in one age, or in one land, or of one man be made knowen to the world.

The immediate and ostensible purpose of the preface was to attract attention to the newly translated "Elements." The author begins:

Neither do I think it mete for so strange matter (as now is ment to be published) and to so strange an audience, to be bluntly, at first put forth without a peculiar Preface.

In his pride in the achievements of England in the reign of Elizabeth, John Dee was at one with his countrymen, and whether consciously or unconsciously he appealed to men through the motive dominant in that period when he explained at great length how the "wonderful applications of mathematics" might be used for the glorification of the country. At the same time, the author sounds in advance a distinct seventeenth century note in suggesting that the laws governing natural phenomena might be better understood by being treated mathematically, and foreshadows the modern "Præcisions and Approximations-mathematik" when he speaks of "allowing somewhat to the imperfection of Nature not answerable to the preciseness of demonstration."

The preface is framed for such

who well can, (and also will) use their outward senses to the glory of God, the benefite of their Country, and their own secret contentation, or honest preferment on this earthly Scaffold. To them I will orderly recite, describe and declare a great number of Artes, from our two Mathematicall fountaines, derived into the fields of Nature. Whereby such Sedes, and Rotes, as lye depe hyd in the ground of Nature, are refreshed, quickened, and provoked to grow, shote up, floure, and give frute, infinite, and incredible. . . . At this time I define an Arte to be a Methodicall complete doctrine, having abundancy of sufficient, and peculiar matter to deale with, by the allowance of the Metaphysicall Philosopher: the knowledge whereof, to humaine state is necessarye. And that I account, an Art Mathematicall derivative, which by Mathematicall demonstrative Method, in Numbers, or Magnitudes, ordereth and confirmeth his doctrine, as much and as perfectly, as the matter subject will admit.

It seems certain that John Dee had also a conscious belief in the value to science itself of the application of its principles. He invites his reader to "consider the infinite desire of knowledge, and incredible power of man's Search and Capacitye how, they jointly have waded farder by mixtying of speculation and practise." Compare with this a sentence by Ernst Haeckel written three centuries later:

We must welcome as one of the most fortunate steps in the direction of a solution of the great cosmic problems the fact that of recent years there is a growing tendency to recognize the two paths which alone lead thereto—experience and thought, or speculation to be of equal value, and mutually complementary.[1]

John Dee's long life covers a dramatic period in the history of the development of thought, and as the most widely known English scholar of his generation his education and wanderings are interesting. It was in 1526 that the books were burned in Oxford in the futile attempt to stop the new learning. In the following year John Dee was born of the ancient family of Dees of Radnorshire. His father, Rowland Dee, was by some accounts a vintner in London, by others he is described as gentleman sewer to Henry VIII. Whatever his occupation, he was a friend to the universities, and in 1542 sent his son to St. John's College, Cambridge. Here he remained, first as student, then as foundation fellow, until 1546. When in the same year Trinity College was founded by patent of Henry VIII., Dee was made one of the original fellows and was, as he says, assigned there to be the "under reader of the Greek tongue." At the same time he was occupied with mathematical and astronomical studies and on "going down" gave to Trinity his astronomical instruments.

At that time the men of the universities seemed not to aspire to know more than was to be learned from Plato and Aristotle. That John Dee had a mental appetite beyond the ability of Cambridge to satisfy appears from his account of his wanderings.

After I was Batchelor of Arts, I went beyond the seas (Anno 1547—May) to speak and confer with some learned men and chiefly Mathematicians. . . . Anno 1548 I was made Master of Artes. I became a student at Lovain 1548 midsummer, and there I made abode, till the 15th of July 1550. . . . From Lovaine I took my journey towards Paris Anno 1550, . . . where within a few days (at the request of some English Gentlemen, made with me to do somewhat there for the honour of my Country) I did undertake to read freely and publicly Euclid's Elements Geometrical. . . a thing never done publicly in any University of Christendome. My auditory in Rhemes College was so great. . . that the Mathematical Schooles could not hold them; for many were fain, without the schooles at the windows, to be auditors and spectators as they best could help themselves thereto. I did also dictate upon every proposition, besides the first exposition.[2]

John Dee was held in high esteem not only in Paris and Louvain, but at almost all the courts of Europe. He relates (and there is no reason to question the statement) that he might have served five Christian emperors, namely, "Charles V, Ferdinand, Maximilian, this Rudolph and this present Moscovite," but Queen Elizabeth "very graciously" took him into her service. Just what the service was that is referred to here is not evident, but the Queen called upon "Master Dee" for a great variety of services. At one time he instructed her in astrology, using the book which he had written for the Emperor Maximilian. Once he was sent for post-haste to prevent mischief to her majesty's person apprehended from a waxen image of her, found in Lincoln's Inn Fields with a pin stuck in its breast. In 1577 the queen sent for Dee to come to Windsor on account of a comet, and for three days she listened to his discourse and speculations on the subject. Five years earlier there had appeared a brilliant star in "Cassiopeiæ" that caused such consternation among the people that John Dee and Thomas Digges united in an attempt to give an explanation and bring to an end the terror of the people. As a result Dee printed in 1573 his "Parallactiæ commentationis praxeosque nucleum," but not content with that, he printed in the same year a work entitled "de Stella admiranda in Cassiopeiæ asterismo cœlitus demissa ab orbem usque Veneris." Knowing the superstitions of the times, Dee frequently urges the desirability of man's understanding nature. After enumerating various natural phenomena, he asks:

Is it not commodious for man to know the very true cause, and occasion naturall? Yea, rather, is it not greatly against the Souverainty of man's nature, to be so overshot and abused, with thinges (at hand) before his eyes?

In 1580 the queen desired to know her title to countries discovered in different parts of the world and Dee drew up for her two large rolls of description and maps which were approved by the queen and Lord Burleigh. Not only the queen, but explorers, men of affairs and the learned men of Europe sought him out. To him came Sir Humphry Gilbert and John Davis to talk of the Northwest Passage (John Dee himself wrote two works on navigation). The East India Company called upon him to improve the compass. Certain large landholders in England who had mines extending under their boundary lines came to him to settle their controversy. In 1582 Dee was urging the Queen to improve the calendar, and two years later she and her ministers requested him to make the necessary calculations. The Roman Church amended the calendar on the supposition that all that was done at the council of Nice with regard to chronology was correct and proposed the omission of ten days, but Dee's calculations led him to recommend the omission of eleven days. He agreed, however, to compromise for the sake of uniformity, providing the facts should be publicly announced. The plans were approved by the lay members of the committee, Thomas Digges, Henry Savile and Mr. Chambers, but opposed by the archbishop and bishops on the ground chiefly that the project of reforming the calendar emanated from the See of Rome. The reform was thus delayed one hundred and seventy years, but Dee's able treatise was preserved and was made use of when the change actually took place. The original has passed through the hands of many eminent mathematicians, and is now in the Ashmole collection at Oxford.

This treatise on the calendar, the "Fruitful Preface" and the memorial to Queen Mary in regard to a royal library are the most significant of his seventy-nine works, many of which were never printed. In the last-named Dee called the queen's attention to the fact that with the destruction of the cloisters there was no longer any place of safety for manuscripts, and that these were now being destroyed or scattered broadcast. He set forth the loss this would be to history and science, and proposed that a commission should be appointed to establish a royal library—he himself undertaking to procure copies of famous manuscripts at the Vatican. Whether because of his youth or because of the indifference of the Queen, he was not listened to, but in his own library at Mortlake he collected 4,000 books, of which he tells us "700 were ancient manuscripts in Greek, Latin and Hebrew."

John Dee early accepted the Copernican theory and was apparently among the first to understand and give due weight to the writings of Roger Bacon, to whom he refers as a "philosopher of this land native (the floure of whose worthy fame, can never dye nor wither)." It was to him doubtless that Dee owed his high valuation of experiment in science. He begs of his readers to

Esteeme one Drop of Truth (yea in Natural Philosophie) more worth, than whole Libraries of Opinions undemonst rated or not answering to Nature's Law, and your experience. . . . Words and arguments are no sensible certifying: nor the full and final frute of Sciences practisable.

That many of the opinions held by Dee were not common among even the learned of his countrymen is evident from the manner in which he exhorts them in his writings. He too held out a hand to "divine Plato," sometimes with an apology, but from his influence Dee had escaped farther than he himself perhaps knew. The amount of space given in the "Fruitful Preface" to the explanation of the uses of mathematics and the record of his varied activities give abundant proof that this scholar believed in making knowledge effective for the benefit of mankind. It is impossible to go through his writings without suspecting that here is one source of Bacon's ideas. John Dee preceded Francis Bacon at Cambridge by thirty years, and were there no positive proof of their acquaintance it would not be probable that a man known all over Europe for his learning and frequently called into service by the Queen and her ministers should remain unknown to a young courtier with the omnivorous intellect of a Francis Bacon. For many years Dee kept an intermittent diary on the margin of his almanac in which is found this note:

Aug. 11—1582. Mr. Bacon and Mr. Phillips of the court called.

Sir Nicholas Bacon was prominent at the court of Queen Elizabeth and his two sons, Anthony and Francis, were court favorites, while yet in their teens. As Sir Nicholas died in 1579 and Anthony Bacon was on the continent in 1582, the "Mr. Bacon of the court" could not well have been other than the young Francis. According to Bacon's own testimony, he wrote his first letter on the "Instauration of Philosophy" about 1583.

Looking at this "faithful student of the school of verity," this "old forworne mathematician," as he styles himself, we see a scholar familiar with the contributions of all men up to his time, a pilgrim to every shrine of knowledge; we see a councillor of kings, an adviser of explorers and men of affairs, a proud patriot, a profound believer in the ability of man to obtain sovereignty over the forces of nature, a courageous man throwing down the gauntlet to authority. But there is a reverse side to the picture. The desire to force the secrets of nature, of which he had a deep presentiment, became a ruling passion. In the midst of a discussion of "Statike (experiment of the Balance)" he breaks off with this prayer:

Oh that men wist what profit, (all manner of ways) by this Arte might grow, to the liable examiner and diligent practiser. Tho only, knowest all things precisely (0 God). . . who hast created all things in Number, Waight, and Measure: and hath wayed the mountains and hils in a Balance: who hast peysed in thy hand both Heaven and Earth, . . . and being farther advertised by thy merciful goodness that, three principall wayes, were, of thee, used in Creation of all thy creatures, namely, Number, Waight and Measure, and for as much as of Number and Measure, the two Artes (ancient, famous, and to humaine uses most necessary) are, all ready, sufficiently known and extant: This third key, we beseche thee (through thy accustomed goodness) that it may come to the nedefull and sufficient knowledge of such thy servants, as in thy workmanship would gladly finde thy true occasions. . . . Amen.

Mervaile nothing at this pang (godly friend, you Gentle and Zealous Student). An other day perchance, you will perceive, what occasion moved me.

Could John Dee have lived another century he might have found in the work of Isaac Newton some answer to his prayer. The very intensity of the longing to understand the mysteries of the universe was in part the cause of the errors into which he fell. His belief in astrology and in the value of the alchemical experiments on which he spent so much of his energy and substance may be accounted an error of the time rather than of the individual, but his long connection with Edward Kelley—charlatan and magician—is not easily reconciled with his intelligence. Kelley, at first an apothecary, became an avowed dealer in magic and seems, for a time, to have made a complete dupe of Dee, who in all good faith admitted him as a valued assistant in his researches and travels. Between the years 1582 and 1589 they were making alchemical experiments, peering into crystals, communing with spirits, etc.—part of the time in England, part of the time on the continent—chiefly at Prague. When in 1590 the real character of his masterful assistant became apparent, Dee experienced the keenest sorrow over misplaced confidence.

But for the time of his wardenship of Manchester College, 15961604, he spent the remaining years of his life at Mortlake in poverty and sadness. Queen Elizabeth, in passing to and from Richmond, often stopped to question and console him and sent her own physicians when he was ill. From the records of the time "Master" Dee seems to have made a deep impression on the people round about, both because of his learning and of his handsome presence. Aubrey speaks of him as a great peacemaker among his neighbors, and adds "a mighty good man was he." By some Dee was accounted a conjuror, and so oppressed was he by the charge that he petitioned James I. in 1604 that he might be tried and cleared of the horrible slander. After the king had inquired into the nature of his studies the petition was refused as unnecessary. Up to his death in 1608 Dee retained the profoundest interest in experiments. His magic crystal and cakes are preserved in the British Museum.

Though his actual contribution to science was not great, John Dee belonged to and had an important part in the transition from the commentatorial period of the middle ages to that time of bold originality and vivid reality—the time of Bacon, Kepler, Galileo and of their young contemporary, Descartes. His eyes at least were above the plane on which Francis Bacon stood. Forerunners such as Dee prepared the way for the stupendous achievements of the seventeenth century—that century made notable by the introduction of the most powerful mathematical methods and by the use of these methods to obtain an understanding of the laws that govern the phenomena of nature.

  1. "Riddle of the Universe," p. 18.
  2. Dee's "Compendious Rehearsal."