ENGLISH MAKEOVER OF CONTINENTAL PHYSICS - A Compendium of the Aristotelian: & Cartesian Physics
Quarto in modern half tan calf over marbled boards, an eighteenth century presentation inscription from the actor/ playwright George Alexander Stevens mounted on the first original endpaper: ‘Presented to William Massey by his esteemed Friend Geo. Alex Stevens Esq.r 18 Jan.ry 1773’. Roberts begins with a manuscript title page, adding lines from Thomas Creech's translation of Lucretius which are not present in the original: ‘But above all ‘tis Pleasentest to gett/ The Top of High Philosophy...’ (Lucretius’s depiction of ataraxia at the beginning of Book II of De Rerum Natura) and dates the page to 29th September, 1701. Roberts’s Lincoln’s Inn bookplate engraved in 1703 is mounted on the following page with a neo-Latin epigram and his calligraphic signature flourished below.
A 12 page ‘Short and Succinct View of the Theory of Philosophy’ precedes the wide-ranging ‘Compendium’, the text being written on pencil-ruled paper and running to 98 quarto pages, c35,000 words. In general Roberts follows Schweitzer’s text quite closely, reformulating the Swiss theologian’s Latin in attractive, supple English. So Schweitzer’s passage on sexual attraction is rendered as: ‘The Animall spirits being putt into an Extraordinary Fermentation, It Irritates and provokes in such an Impetuous Manner to a Mutuall Coition as it an AEtna rag’d within Their Breast and wanted Vent’. To this passage Roberts adds an asterisk and a Miltonian marginal note: ‘*Miltons Paradise Lost 8: Book’ - a reference to Raphael’s advice to Adam that his attraction to Eve must transcend her sexual attractiveness. Most frequently introduced in support of Schweitzer by Roberts are lines from Thomas Creech’s recently published translation of Lucretius. 10 lines of Creech’s Lucretius are brought in early on to counter systematic doubt of ‘some madd Sceptic [who] may doubt of the Existence of all things’. As Lucretius puts it in Creech’s version: ‘He that says, Nothing can be knowne, o’re throw/ His own Opinion...’ In the main section of the book, the Compendium, Schweitzer deals with Metaphysics; the nature of matter, mechanics, and then his highly conservative vision of ‘Speciall Physics’ - ‘the Universality of Natural Bodies created by God… thus Beautifully ordered preserved and governed By Aristotle’. This takes a question and answer format, numbered in Schweitzer’s original although this numbering is dispensed with by Roberts who cannot resist rebutting Catholic assumption, glossing Schweitzer’s discussion of how ‘One Body can’t be att the same time in more proper and nearest places for this Body and Place would be Double to one another as Tho: Anglus, (altho Roman Catholick) acknowledges*’ with his own marginal note ‘I suppose the Reason of this Expression is because they say that our Saviours Body is Physically and substantially in Heaven and Earth and in every Place where the Priest Consecrates the Bread, and in every part of the Consecrated bread, soe that if the bread be divided into a thousand part this body is in every part wholly, which certainly is very absurd, and against Reason.’ (p28) And in a discussion of the impossibility of ‘More Worlds then one’ (p31) Roberts adduces the impossibility of transubstantiation as part of the evidence against this ‘for in Transubstantiation, they suppose Colour and Quantity, without Matter. Smell and taste without Substance’. It is in his use of additional authorities that Roberts is most individual in his response to Schweitzer’s text, using Creech’s translations of both Lucretius and Manilius’s Astronomicon, for example, into his discussion of starlight (p43). Both authorities are harnessed to Schweitzer’s comparisons of the earth and planets (p.45) By way of novelty Edward Howard’s proof of the earth’s spherical nature is cited (p48) from his Remarks on Descartes, published in 1700 but once again it is Lucretius who explains that ‘Sea Water is salt from Salt mix’d with itt. Which sweetens by Procolation in the Pores of the Earth. as Sweet Fountaines rise from the Salt Sea’ (Lucretius 2: lib’ (p53). Lucretius helps explain the admixture of elements in the air (p61) and the existence of frost; he is used to explain the nutrition that arises from the blood: ‘so an Animall grows, or is Enervated. But as Lucretius says in his 2d book. - when every Veine/Receive noe more, then what glys off againe/ Those can encrease noe More.’ It is in Schweitzer’s section on the Animal senses that Roberts draws most intensely on Lucretius, adding to his discussion of sight, a page and a quarter of sequential quotation (pp79-80), with only a little less intensity in the use of the poet as regards hearing, smell and taste. When Schweitzer turns to Virgil for authority, Roberts uses Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s 2nd Georgic; though offering his own translation of Jacob Zabarella. In reference to sleep and dreaming Roberts himself translates Schweitzer’s lines from the Latin poet Claudian on ‘the weary’d Hunter’ who ‘To th’Woods returns again with full Career/ And still pursues the flying, Trembling Deer;/ The Lawyer thinks of some Letigious Warr,/ Of Noisy Suits and pleadings at the Barr..’ which prompts his second Miltonic marginal note ‘v. Miltons Paradise lost T: lib: pag: 122’ - a reference to Eve’s dream of Satan tempting her.
Very little can be found about the writer of this translation, John Roberts beyond the internal evidence that he was practising as a lawyer in London’s Lincoln’s Inn around 1700. He was presumably the Shropshire-born John Roberts who was admitted to the Inn on 30th July 1698 as ‘John Roberts, son and heir app. of John Roberts, of Ellesmere, Salop. gen.’ who married Anne Warkhouse in 1706 - see letter from the BL laid in. Johann Heinrich Schweitzer’s Compendium appeared in two British editions of 1687 and 1694 but there is no sign of the publication of Robert’s translation, nor of other scribal copies of this manuscript. Schweitzer (1646-1705) studied at German-speaking universities before taking on professorial roles at the University of Zurich in the 1680s and 1690s in Greek and Hebrew. Laid into this manuscript is a letter from the British Library in response to a 1970s request for more information about it. Lucretius became a key influence on the emergence of early modern atomism in the 17th century; Thomas Creech’s translation achieved huge success around 1700 and Robert’s decision to use it so extensively is highly interesting.