Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 6. Philosophy in English universities; Revival of Aristotelianism in the 16th Century; Everard Digby

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. The Beginnings of English Philosophy

§ 6. Philosophy in English universities; Revival of Aristotelianism in the 16th Century; Everard Digby

For more than two centuries after Ockham’s death, only one writer of importance can be reckoned among English philosophers. That writer was John Wyclif, in whose case a period of philosophical authorship—on scholastic lines—preceded his theological and religious activity, and to whose writings reference has been made in a previous volume. After him comes a blank of long duration. The leaders of the renascence, both in philosophy and in science, belonged to the continent; and, although their ideas affected English scholarship and English literature, philosophical writings were slow to follow. And the theological controversies of the reformation led to no new enquiry into the grounds of knowledge and belief. On the universities, the teaching of Aristotle retained its hold, at least as regards logic, even after the introduction of the new “humanistic” studies. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, Aristotelianism experienced an academic revival, though its supporters, in all cases, were suspected of papistical leanings. John Case of St. John’s college, Oxford (B.A. 1568), gave up his fellowship on this ground (it is said), married and was allowed by the university to give lectures on logic and philosophy in his house. In 1589, he took the M.D. degree and, in the same year, became a canon of Salisbury. He died in 1600. Between 1584 and 1599, he published seven books—text-books of Aristotelianism—dealing with logic, ethics, politics and economics. His Speculum moralium questionum in universam ethicen Aristotelis (1585) was the first book printed at Oxford at the new press presented by the earl of Leicester, chancellor of the university. John Sanderson, fellow of Trinity college, Cambridge (B.A. 1558), was appointed logic reader in the university in 1562, but, in the same year, was expelled from his fellowship for suspicious doctrine. He became a student at Douay in 1570, was ordained priest in the Roman Catholic church and was appointed divinity professor in the English college at Rheims. He died in 1602. The only work of his that is known is Institutionum Dialecticarum libri quatuor, printed at Antwerp in 1589, and at Oxford in 1594. About the year 1580, a vigorous controversy regarding the merits of the old logic and the new was carried on between two fellows of Cambridge colleges, Everard Digby and William Temple. They were both younger in academic standing than Sanderson or Case, but they published earlier. Digby took his B.A. in the beginning of 1571, and became fellow of St. John’s early in 1573, shortly before Francis Bacon entered Trinity college as an undergraduate. He began to give public lectures on logic soon after this date. It is possible—we have no evidence on the point—that Bacon attended these lectures. If he did, they may have been the means of arousing his interest in the question of method, and they may also, at the same time, have awakened the spirit of criticism in him and led to that discontent with the philosophy of Aristotle which, according to his own account, he first acquired at Cambridge.

Digby’s career was chequered. He was suspected of “corrupt religion,” and he made enemies in his own society by his contempt for the authorities. In the end of December, 1587, on the nominal ground of an irregularity in his payments for commons, he was deprived of his fellowship by Whitaker, master of the college and a stern puritan. But Digby seems to have had friends in high place. He appealed to Burghley the chancellor and to archbishop Whitgift. By their order a commission was appointed to enquire into the grounds of his dismissal, and, as a result, Digby was restored 28 May, 1588. But, by the end of the same year, he seems to have been got rid of—how, we do not know. Probably, the real ground of objection to him—his lukewarm protestantism—made it prudent for him to leave the university. Digby was famous in his day for his eloquence as a lecturer, his skill in the disputations of the schools and his learning. His learning, however, is much less than appears from the mere array of authorities which he cites. These are often taken from Reuchlin’s De arte cabbalistica (1517), the fictitious personages of this work being sometimes referred to as actual authors. Digby wrote in the true scholastic spirit; for him, Aristotle’s doctrines were authoritative, and to disagree with them was heresy. At the same time, his own Aristotelianism was coloured by a mystical theology for which he was largely indebted to Reuchlin. Digby’s chief work, Theoria analytica, viam ad monarchiam scientiarum demonstrans, was published in 1579. This was followed next year by two books—a criticism of Ramus entitled De duplici methodo, and a reply to Temple’s defence of the Ramist method. He was also the author of a small treatise De arte natandi (1587), and of an English Dissuasive from taking away the lyvings and goods of the Church (1589).