Sunday, 11 October 2015

John Locke: sight and insight.

Here are portraits of two very great friends - young William Molyneux, Irish astronomer and natural scientist and John Locke, the famous philosopher and man of letters. They lived in an age of enquiry and  debate - widely spread through the printed word - and shared their  interests and studies in natural philosophy.      You feel that as such close friends, who relied almost entirely on correspondence between Dublin and England, with only the one meeting in August 1698, they would want to be looking at each other.  But here they are, side by side, having sat for these portraits in 1696.

William Molyneux, attribut.  Sir Godfrey Kneller; and John Locke, by Michael Dahl  c. 1696
© National Portrait Gallery
 Locke wrote to Molyneux in May 1697:

"Though the honour you do me in the value you put upon my shadow be a fresh mark of that friendship which is so great an happiness to me, yet I shall never consider my picture in the same house with you, without great regret at my so far distance from you my self.  But I will not continue to importune you with my complaints of that kind; 'tis an advantage greater that I could have hoped, to have the conversation of such a friend, though with the sea between; and the remaining little scantling of my life would be too happy if I had you in my neighbourhood."

Their friendship began in 1692, when Molyneux read Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding.  He praised it for its 'more profound Truths, established on Experience and Observations' in the dedication of his work on optics,  Dioptrica Nova, and sent a copy of this to Locke,  who recognised a kindred spirit.  "For meeting with but few men in the world whose acquaintance I find much reason to covet, I make more than ordinary haste into the familiarity of a rational enquirer after, and lover of truth, whenever I can light on any such.  There are beauties of the mind, as well as of the body, that take and prevail at first sight;…"  Locke wrote in September, and asked Molyneux for his detailed advice in preparing the second edition of his Essay.

The friends finally met, face to face, when William visited Locke at Oates, Essex, in August 1698.   William  died soon after, in October 1698 aged only forty-two.  The leading Irish scientist of his day, his 'globe and cube problem' has yet to be satisfactorily resolved.

Quotations from The Correspondence of John Locke  edited E. S. de Beer, the Clarendon Edition, Oxford University Press

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