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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/July 1876/Of the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 9‎ | July 1876


ABOUT three hundred and fifty years ago, Henry Cornelius Agrippa wrote a very curious book, "De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum" (Of the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences). Few people read it now. Yet it has its interest, as an exponent of the state of science at that day, aside from the attractions which are given it by the quaint, sarcastic style of the author.

Here it is, a very old edition, in the black-letter of the sixteenth century. The text has numerous peculiarities. The letter "ā," with a dash over it, represents "an;" there are two kinds of "r's;" the double "e's" and double "o's," respectively, are put on a single type. The emphasized words are printed in Roman characters, whereof the font contains no "w," and that letter is made by placing two "v's" together. The book is numbered by folios, instead of pages. The printer tells us that his edition is translated from the original Latin, compared with an Italian version. Let us transcribe some of Agrippa's remarks—altering the spelling to suit our modern rules.

Above all sciences, he favors geometry: "In fine, all the cunning that is in Painting, in the Measuring the world, in ground tilth and trimming, in the Art of war, in founding of metals, in the art of working Images in earth, in Image-making, in forging, in building and in metals, for the most part, cometh from geometry." He says, however, of the geometricians: "Yet such is their ambition, that they will never rest upon the precepts of their preceptors; but believing in such things to find out more than their Masters, do bring themselves into so great madness that all the Helleborus in the world sufficeth not to purge it." He instances as the fruits of this science, "all the cunning working of tools and artificial instruments, Magnaries, Machanopocetickes, Poliorcetickes, . . . . Testudines, Cuniculines, . . . . Exosters, Sambukes." Between paragraphs, the reader can consult the dictionary or encyclopædia.

We are told in cap. 23, "Of the Arte Opticke," that "there are sundry and divers opinions of the manner of seeing. For Plato supposeth the sight to be made according to the clearness: to wit, that which cometh from the eyes: the Light running to an outward air, that Light which is carried from the bodies being brought against it; but that which is about the midst of the air, doth cause that it spreadeth, and turneth back to the virtue of the Sight, being spread abroad, and like unto Fire. Galene and Plato are of one opinion; but Hipparchus saith, that the beams spreading abroad from the eyes unto bodies, touching them as it were with a certain feeling, or groping, do give that which they receive to the Sight. And the Epicures affirm that the similitudes of things not corporal, but according to the quality through the alteration of the air, which is in compass, doth come from visible things unto the sight. But Porphirius saith that, neither the Beams, neither the similitudes, nor any other thing, is the cause of seeing, but the soul alone, that knoweth herself visible, and that is one of all things, which knoweth herself in all things that are. The geometricians and perspectivians, approaching somewhat near to Hipparchus, do affirm that there be certain Figures made of the meeting together of the beams, which are sent out through the eyes, from whence the sight doth comprehend in one, many visible things, but they most certain of all, wheresoever the beams shall meet together. Certes, Alchindus saith otherwise of the Sights: but it seemeth to Augustine that the power of the Soul doth bring somewhat to effect in the eyes, the which is not yet perceived of the Students of Wisdom."

Although we have advanced much since the time of Cornelius Agrippa, still, even in this glorious nineteenth century there is here and there a thing "the whiche is not yet perceyved of the Studentes of Wisedome."

The following is a good example of our author's peculiar style: "Notwithstanding, I learned in time past in Italy, that there was in pictures and images an authority greatly to be esteemed; for whereas there was an obstinate strife between the Augustine Friars and the vulgar Canons, before the pope, concerning the habit or apparel of S. Augustine, that is to say, whether he did wear a black weed upon a white Coat, or a white weed upon a black Coat; and finding nothing in the Scriptures which made to the ending of this strife, the Roman judges thought good to prefer the whole matter to Painters and Image-makers, and that which they could avouch out of ancient Pictures and Images should be holden for a Definitive sentence. I being grounded upon this example, when some time I with exceeding great diligence searched for the Original of the Friars' cowl, and could find nothing for that matter in the Scriptures, at length I went me to the Painters, and for this thing I sought in the Cloisters, and in the cells of the Friars, where for the most part the histories of both Testaments are painted; and when I could not find in all the Old Testament none of the Patriarchs, none of the Priests, none of the Prophets, none of the Levites, nor yet Helias himself, whom the Carmelitans would have to be their Patron, with a cowl: taking the New Testament in hand, I found there Zacharie, Symeon, John Baptist, Joseph, Christe, the Apostles, the Disciples, the Scribes, the Pharisees, the High Priest Annas, Caiphes, Herode, Pilate, and many other, I saw in no place a Friar's cowl: and again diligently examining everything from the beginning, immediately in the fore part of the History the Devil was painted with a Cowl, to wit, he which went to tempt Christ in the Desert. I rejoiced exceedingly that I had found that in the pictures which until that time I could not see in writing, that is to say, that the Devil was the first author of a cowl: of whom afterwards, I suppose, that other Monks and Friars took up the fashion under divers colors; or, perhaps, have retained it as a thing left to them by inheritance."

Such passages as the last, which abound in the book, were not calculated to win for the writer the affection of the clergy. Through their influence, Agrippa was imprisoned for some time, and his pension from the Emperor of Austria was withdrawn.

"Seeing glasses" he classifies as follows: "The hollow, the embossed, the plain, the Columnarie, the Piromidal, the Turbinal, the bunched, the round, the cornered, the inversed, the eversed, the regular, the unregular, the massy, and the clear." He describes their properties, and says: "And I know how to make Glasses, in which, when the sun shineth, all things that are lightened of his beams may very plainly be seen a great space off, as three or four miles." Were these "glasses" on the principle of the telescope? The invention of that instrument is generally assigned to Galileo, about 1590; whereas Agrippa's book was published at Antwerp in 1530.

Astronomy he pronounces "altogether false, and fuller of trifling toys than the fables of the Poets"—declaring that the laws of the science, as then asserted, were only a mass of idle conjectures.

Of magic he says: "The things which the deluded and bewitched persons do imagine, have no truth of action and being, save only things imagined. For the end of this skill is not to do, simply, but to stretch out Imaginations even unto appearance."

The chapter on alchemy is a curiosity. One passage reads: "Finally, of that only blessed thing alone, besides which there is no other thing, yet to be found in every place, the subject of the most holy stone of the Philosophers, I mean, that is to say, I have almost rashly uttered the name of the thing, whereby I should be a sacrilege and forsworn, yet I will speak it with circumlocution, but somewhat more obscure, that none but young beginners in the Art and they which be trained up in the mysteries thereof may understand it. It is a thing, which hath substance, and not overmuch fiery, nor altogether earthly, nor simply watery, nor a most sharp nor most blunt quality, but indifferent, and light in touching, and after a sort tender, or at the least not hard, not unpleasant, but after a sort sweet in taste, sweet in smell, delectable to the sight, pleasant and jocund to the hearing, large to the imagination: I may say no more, and yet there be things greater than these." The description is scarcely definite enough to enable us to find the philosopher's stone.

The 102d chapter is "A Digression in prayse of the Asse"—after which follows the conclusion of the work, in which he salutes his readers, "O ye asses." Perhaps some modern authors would like to follow his example in this respect.

The printer, in his preface to this edition, remarks: "Sapience proceedeth of perfect Reason, joyned vvith Learning, and knovvledge, which if it be true, then consequently it follovveth, that Artes and Sciences are good. And although this Authour sharply inveyeth against them, (vvhich to the rude multitude for that cause may seeme naught and noysome) yet his intent is not to deface the vvorthiness of Artes and Sciences, but to reprove and detect their euill vses, and declare the excellencie of his vvit in disprouing them, for a shevve of learning."

Henry Cornelius Agrippa was one of the most learned men of his time, and wrote voluminously upon scientific and philosophical subjects. The "Edinburgh Encyclopædia" says of him: "As a soldier and a physician, a lawyer and a lecturer, a metaphysician and a theologian, the versatility of his genius enabled him to attain the highest distinction." He wrote a "Dissertation on Original Sin," a work on "Occult Philosophy," a "History of the Government of Charles V.," and various other treatises. The book from which we have quoted so largely is undoubtedly the most complete summary of the condition of science at that day to be found in any one volume.

Is it probable that our present accepted theories will seem as curious to the reader of three hundred and fifty years hence as those of Agrippa's day appear to us? Will the customs, the manners, and the laws of the world improve as rapidly in the future as they have in the past? If so, who would not wish to fall into such a trance as that of the Seven Sleepers—and wake, to find the rest of life all too short to enjoy the stupendous novelty?