Gassendi or Gassend Pierre
Gassendi Or Gassend Pierre, an eminent French philosopher and scholar, was born of humble parentage December 24, 1595, at Champtercier, a village near Digne, in Provence. He died at Paris October 24, 1655. From his earliest years he was noted for sweetness of disposition, quickness of apprehension, keenness of obseracation, and precocity of genius. As a child he would meander in the fields on clear nights to admire the beauty, variety, and order of the starry hosts, and would thus excite the anxieties of his family, till his habits and occupations became familiar to them. At four years of age he made sermons for the entertainment of his childish companions, at ten he delivered a Latin address to the bishop of his diocese, and at sixteen he had already adopted the motto of his life sapere aude — dare to be wise. He was early sent to school, and, fortunately, fell at Digne into the hands of a teacher able to appreciate and develop his wonderful powers. His father was with difficulty induced to permit his attendance at the University of Aix, along with the sons of a relative, and at that relative's expense. He was required to return after a two years' course. At Aix he was under the care of Fesave, a learned Minorite, who introduced him into the thorny labyrinths of philosophy. At the expiration of the appointed time Gassendi returned to the plow, but left it to teach rhetoric at the age of sixteen in the academy of Digne. At nineteen he was appointed on the death of Fesaya, to give instructions in philosophy at the University of Aix; but he devoted himself chiefly to the study of theology, as he had selected the Church for his career. In 1616, however, he was simultaneously elected to the chairs of theology and philosophy, and he accepted the latter. The authority of Aristotle had been long declining among the learned, and, in common with many of his precursors and contemporaries, Gassendi employed himself in the confutation of the peripatetic dogmas. The controversial views thus promulgated were snystemsatized in his Exercitationum Paradox carusm adversus Aristotelaos libri septem. Before publishing the work he submitted it to the judgment of Nicholas Peiresc and the prior of Valetta. By them he was persuaded to complete his design of entering the Church; and, after receiving his doctorate of divinity, was through their influence predaunted to a canonry at Digne. A portion of the Paradoxes was published in 1624, but the last five books were withheld by the advice of his friends, and his labors in this direction were arrested by the discovery that the subject had been sufficiently discussed by Francisco Patrizzi.
These writings, petulant in character, and full of youthful cavils and superficial objections, provoked opposition, which was not mitigated by Gassendi's manifest predilection for the opinions of Epicurus. The young philosopher had been born at the close of the religious wars of France, and had entered upon life amid the turmoil and strife of the regency of Anne of Austria, during a period when many speculative minds sought relief from controversy, and from the agitation of religious and political dissensions, in the careless scepticism and easy morality which had been rendered attractive by Montaigne. Ecclesiastical duties having summoned him to Paris, he profited by the occasion to augment his multifarious learning, and to form the acquaintance of the learned in the capital. It was probably at this time that he was brought into intimacy with Des Cartes, an intimacy which was interrupted and shaken by his Observations on the Philosophical Meditations, and by the disingenuous conduct of Des Cartes in regard to them. Gassendi was induced to accept in 1645 the professorship of mathematics in the Royal College of France; but the exertion of lecturing, in conjunction with his other studious avocations, undermined his health, and compelled him to seek its restoration by a return to his native air. During this period he gave to the world the treatise De Vita et Joribus Epicuri (Lugduni. 1647), and his edition of the Tenth Book of Diogenes Laertius (1649), with copious annotations, in which he collected and arranged the abundant literary materials which he had gathered for the illustration of the philosophy and the philosopher of the Garden. In 1653 Gassendi returned to Paris, and, after publishing the lives of Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Purbach, Regiomontanus, and Peiresc, devoted himself assiduously to the completion and perfection of his scheme of speculation, though these last results of his labors did not appear till after his death in the Syntagma Philosophiae Epicureae. His health finally gave way in 1654, and, after much suffering from pulmonary disease, he died, having survived his illustrious rival Des Cartes five years.
The complete works of Gassendi were collected and published in 1658, in 6 volumes, fol., by his friends Louis de Montmor and Francois Henry, with a biography by Sorbiere prefixed. The most important of these works have been already mentioned, but they were accompanied by numerous essays on various topics of mathematics, astronomy, natural history, etc. These it is unnecessary to notice, though all branches of contemporaneous investigation engaged the attention of Gassendi, and his reputation was higher and less assailable in science than in philosophy. The range of his inquiries in the latter department is illustrated by his early refutation of the mystical doctrines of Robert Fludd, in the Examen Philosophiae Fluddanae, by his Disquisitio Metaphysica, in opposition to Des Cartes, and by his life-long labors in resuscitating the Epicurean doctrine, especially in its physical developments. His zealous attachment to the daring imaginations of Epicurus, and his ardent rehabilitation of the character of the "Graius homo" who first forced the barriers of nature
"et extra Processit longe flammantia moenia mundi" —
invited misapprehension, and were obnoxious to grave criticism. To repel misconception, he appended to the Syntagma Philosophiae Epicureae a series of elaborate essays, in which he repudiated and refuted the infidel tenets ascribed to Epicurus. This late defense, however consonant with the whole tenor of his own life, was inadequate to preclude unfavorable presumptions, particularly on the part of those predisposed to welcome them. Nor was his intimate association with Hobbes, La Mothe le Vayer, and other notable skeptics of the time, calculated to inspire confidence in his orthodoxy. But there is no reason to suppose that the piety of Gassendi was less sincere than it was habitual, or that he ever questioned the validity of the religion which he professed. It was an age of paradox, and of promiscuous and vague, but earnest inquiry. His early resistance to the Aristotelians may have attracted his favor to the ethical as well as the physical scheme which was most strongly contrasted with the positions of the peripatetic school. The temper of the period, too, after long theological controversy and a century of religious war, desired the conciliation or the relegation of polemical asperities, and cherished a careless scepticism or an uninquiring faith. The morals of Epicurus were contemplated by Gassendi in their original innocence and purity, divested of the corruptions which vitiated them in their later and more familiar applications, and adorned with that chaste simplicity which won the earnest and repeated commendations of the Stoic Seneca.
Philosophy of Gassendi. — Neither the desire nor the design of founding a sect was entertained by Gassendi. He left no school, though he made his mark on the scientific and speculative development of Europe. He was distinguished by quick perception, accurate observation, remarkable penetration and discrimination, various research, and manifold accomplishment. He was enthusiastic in the discovery of new facts, eager in the exposure of inveterate error, but he had no taste for system- mongering, and was free from the weaknesses of personal ambition. He aimed rather at rejuvenating ancient knowledge than at inatugurating new fancies. The cardinal principle of Epicurus was accepted and expounded by Gassendi in such a manner as to harmonize with the simplicity, temperance, and purity of his life. Pleasure is the summum bonum — the final object, the highest motive of human action, the crown of human aspirations; but this pleasure is the pleasure of the good man; the perfect state of the pagan; the present and eternal bliss of the Christian. It is neither to be attained nor sough jby personal indulgences, nor by concession to appetites; but only by the punctilious discharge of every duty, in expectation of that serenity of a conscience at ease, which is the most abiding and the most assuring reward of virtue. Such a theory is liable to great abuses, and is certain to be ultimately abused. An easy conscience is easily mistaken for a conscience at ease, and happiness is identified with pleasure when pleasure ceases to be identical with happiness. Pleasure, in its vulgar sense, thus becomes at once the aim of life and the means of securing that aim; and pleasure, in its philosophic sense, which implies the concord of desire with duty, is totally forgotten or ignored. Thus all the vices of the Epicurean style are introduced. But it is as uncritical as it is uncharitable to stigmatize the philosopher instead of the philosophy for the perverseness or the perverse tendency of hi. doctrine. In the most defecated Epicureanism there is assuredly an intricate confusion which eventuates in grievous error. Violence is habitually done to words, and a greater violence is done to thoughts. There is a continual paronomasia and paragnomesia — a play upon terms and upon conceptions — which dazzles, bewilders, and misleads; but the perilous thesis may be held in conjunction with the purest intentions and the most rigorous observance of moral rectitude. So it was held by Gassendi. It must be admitted that the Hedonic theory is not more incompatible with Christianity than the utilitarianism of William Paley, Jeremy Bentham, or John Stuart Mill. The mental philosophy of Gassendi corresponded with his ethical assumptions. He espoused sensationalism, though in no rigid or consistent form. He was the legitimate precursor of Locke in both the statement and the vacillation of his views. While recognizing sensation and reflection as the origin of our ideas, he was by no means inclined to pure materialism. This incoherence of language and doctrine was not peculiar to him. It characterizes the whole school of Locke, and may be ascribed in part to the ambiguity of the terms employed, is part to the indistinctness and undistinguished character of the phenomena commented on. There was a similar inconsequence in the physical system of Gassendi. He received from Epicurus, or, rather, from Lucretius, the doctrine of atoms, of a vacuum, and of the regular operation of natural forces; but he did not admit the accidental collision and casual implication of primary particles, nor did he exclude the divine will and the divine intelligence from the order of creation. In his separate tenets as in his general intellectual habit, he presented a strong contrast to his more famous and more methodical contemporary, Des Cartes. Positions apparently materialistic were maintained by him in conjunction with a faithful adherence to both natural and revealed religion; and he offered the strange spectacle of a sincere and preposterous Epicureas who was equally sincere as a Christian and as an ordained teacher of Christianity. Des Cartes, on the other hand, with principles essentially idealistic, combined thee postulates of the infinite tenuity and divisibility of matter, of a plenum, and of the vertiginous evolution of the universe, with practical but unavowed Pyrrhonism. There was point, but there was also inadequacy and injustice in the reciprocated antonomasias with which these philosophers discredited each other's system in the O anime! applied by Gassendi to Des Cartes, and in the O caro! with which Des Cartes retorted upon Gassendi. No doubt the controversial attitude of Gassendi betrayed him into exaggerated and unguarded expression; but his physical system, though borrowed from Epicurus, may be so limited and explained as to offer no offense to religious faith.
It should be remembered that his speculations were hazarded in the infancy of physical science; that his aptitudes, studies, and aims were chiefly scientific; that the materials, processes, and instruments of science were as yet rude, cumbrous, and unshapen; that, even after the lapse of two centuries, the scientific method and scientific conclusions often appear irreconcilable with religion and revelation. The certain harmony of the book of nature and the Book of God may, indeed, be asserted 'a priori to be a necessity, and was so asserted by Lord Bacon; but this harmony is still very indistinct. The Epicurean creed was an extravagant and premature attempt at scientific procedure, yet it has been recently recognized by high scientific authority to be essentially scientific in form and aim, however conjectural and arbitrary in development. In character as in purpose, it is curiously analogous to the most recent speculations of scientific infidelity. The sublimated Epicureanism of Gassendi was, in like manner, as imperfect anticipation of modern scientific reasoning. It resembles the heterogeneous schemes of those who too hastily combine problematical science with old religious dogmatism. Though it proved itself imcapable of instituting a school, it was a potent influence in stimulating, directing, and moulding the scientific spirit which illumined the latter half of the 17th century, and inaugurated the brilliant era of modern science. Dalton's atomic theory is not the only dream of present scientific belief which may be traced back to Gassendi. Hobbes and Locke, Barrow and Newton, were largely indebted to the impetus communicated by him, if not to his teachings; and it is uceedless to acknowledge our continued and manifest obligations to those great names. On the subject of Gassendi, there is little to be consulted beyond the several editions of his works, the historians of modern philosophy, and the lives of the philosopher by Sorbiebre (Paris; 1658) and by Bongerel (Paris, 1737), with M. de Levarde's Historical and Critical Epistle to the latter biographer. (G.F.H.)