Letters on England
14. On Descartes And Sir Isaac Newton
A Frenchman who arrives in London, will find philosophy, like everything else,
very much changed there. He had left the world a plenum, and he now finds it a
vacuum. At Paris the universe is seen composed of vortices of subtile matter; but
nothing like it is seen in London. In France, it is the pressure of the moon that
causes the tides; but in England it is the sea that gravitates towards the moon; so
that when you think that the moon should make it flood with us, those gentlemen
fancy it should be ebb, which very unluckily cannot be proved. For to be able to
do this, it is necessary the moon and the tides should have been inquired into at
the very instant of the creation.
You will observe farther, that the sun, which in France is said to have nothing to
do in the affair, comes in here for very near a quarter of its assistance. According
to your Cartesians, everything is performed by an impulsion, of which we have
very little notion; and according to Sir Isaac Newton, it is by an attraction, the
cause of which is as much unknown to us. At Paris you imagine that the earth is
shaped like a melon, or of an oblique figure; at London it has an oblate one. A
Cartesian declares that light exists in the air; but a Newtonian asserts that it
comes from the sun in six minutes and a half. The several operations of your
chemistry are performed by acids, alkalies and subtile matter; but attraction
prevails even in chemistry among the English.
The very essence of things is totally changed. You neither are agreed upon the
definition of the soul, nor on that of matter. Descartes, as I observed in my last,
maintains that the soul is the same thing with thought, and Mr. Locke has given a
pretty good proof of the contrary.
Descartes asserts farther, that extension alone constitutes matter, but Sir Isaac
adds solidity to it.
How furiously contradictory are these opinions!
"Non nostrum inter vos tantas componere lites." VIRGIL, Eclog. III.
"'Tis not for us to end such great disputes."
This famous Newton, this destroyer of the Cartesian system, died in March, anno
1727. His countrymen honoured him in his lifetime, and interred him as though
he had been a king who had made his people happy.
The English read with the highest satisfaction, and translated into their tongue,
the Elogium of Sir Isaac Newton, which M. de Fontenelle spoke in the Academy
of Sciences. M. de Fontenelle presides as judge over philosophers; and the