Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Discoveries of Secluded Men.

Those who are unaccustomed to the labours of the closet are unacquainted with the secret and silent triumphs obtained in the pursuits of studious men. That aptitude, which in poetry is sometimes called inspiration, in knowledge we may call sagacity; and it is probable that the vehemence of the one does not excite more pleasure than the still tranquillity of the other: they are both, according to the strict signification of the Latin term from whence we have borrowed ours of invention, a finding out, the result of a combination which no other has formed but ourselves.

I will produce several remarkable instances of the felicity of this aptitude of the learned in making discoveries which could only have been effectuated by an uninterrupted intercourse with the objects of their studies, making things remote and dispersed familiar and present.1

One of ancient date is better known to the reader than those I am preparing for him. When the magistrates of Syracuse were showing to Cicero the curiosities of the place, he desired to visit the tomb of Archimedes; but, to his surprise, they acknowledged that they knew nothing of any such tomb, and denied that it ever existed. The learned Cicero, convinced by the authorities of ancient writers, by the verses of the inscription which he remembered, and the circumstance of a sphere with a cylinder being engraven on it, requested them to assist him in the search. They conducted the illustrious but obstinate stranger to their most ancient burying-ground: amidst the number of sepulchres, they observed a small column overhung with brambles — Cicero, looking on while they were clearing away the rubbish, suddenly exclaimed, “Here is the thing we are looking for!” His eye had caught the geometrical figures on the tomb, and the inscription soon confirmed his conjecture. Cicero long after exulted in the triumph of this discovery. “Thus!” he says, “one of the noblest cities of Greece, and once the most learned, had known nothing of the monument of its most deserving and ingenious citizen, had it not been discovered to them by a native of Arpinum!”

The great French antiquary, Peiresc, exhibited a singular combination of learning, patient thought, and luminous sagacity, which could restore an “airy nothing” to “a local habitation and a name.” There was found on an amethyst, and the same afterwards occurred on the front of an ancient temple, a number of marks, or indents, which had long perplexed inquirers, more particularly as similar marks or indents were frequently observed in ancient monuments. It was agreed on, as no one could understand them, and all would be satisfied, that they were secret hieroglyphics. It occurred to Peiresc that these marks were nothing more than holes for small nails, which had formerly fastened little laminæ, which represented so many Greek letters. This hint of his own suggested to him to draw lines from one hole to another; and he beheld the amethyst reveal the name of the sculptor, and the frieze of the temple the name of the god! This curious discovery has been since frequently applied; but it appears to have originated with this great antiquary, who by his learning and sagacity explained a supposed hieroglyphic, which had been locked up in the silence of seventeen centuries.2

Learned men, confined to their study, have often rectified the errors of travellers; they have done more, they have found out paths for them to explore, or opened seas for them to navigate. The situation of the vale of Tempe had been mistaken by modern travellers; and it is singular, observes the Quarterly Reviewer, yet not so singular as it appears to that elegant critic, that the only good directions for finding it had been given by a person who was never in Greece. Arthur Browne, a man of letters of Trinity College, Dublin — it is gratifying to quote an Irish philosopher and man of letters, from the extreme rarity of the character — was the first to detect the inconsistencies of Pococke and Busching, and to send future travellers to look for Tempe in its real situation, the defiles between Ossa and Olympus; a discovery subsequently realised. When Dr. Clarke discovered an inscription purporting that the pass of Tempe had been fortified by Cassius Longinus, Mr. Walpole, with equal felicity, detected, in Cæsar’s “History of the Civil War,” the name and the mission of this very person.

A living geographer, to whom the world stands deeply indebted, does not read Herodotus in the original; yet, by the exercise of his extraordinary aptitude, it is well known that he has often corrected the Greek historian, explained obscurities in a text which he never read, by his own happy conjectures, and confirmed his own discoveries by the subsequent knowledge which modern travellers have afforded.

Gray’s perseverance in studying the geography of India and of Persia, at a time when our country had no immediate interests with those ancient empires, would have been placed by a cynical observer among the curious idleness of a mere man of letters. These studies were indeed prosecuted, as Mr. Mathias observes, “on the disinterested principles of liberal investigation, not on those of policy, nor of the regulation of trade, nor of the extension of empire, nor of permanent establishments, but simply and solely on the grand view of what is, and of what is past. They were the researches of a solitary scholar in academical retirement.” Since the time of Gray, these very pursuits have been carried on by two consummate geographers, Major Rennel and Dr. Vincent, who have opened to the classical and the political reader all he wished to learn, at a time when India and Persia had become objects interesting and important to us. The fruits of Gray’s learning, long after their author was no more, became valuable!

The studies of the “solitary scholar” are always useful to the world, although they may not always be timed to its present wants; with him, indeed, they are not merely designed for this purpose. Gray discovered India for himself; but the solitary pursuits of a great student, shaped to a particular end, will never fail being useful to the world; though it may happen that a century may elapse between the periods of the discovery and its practical utility.

Halley’s version of an Arabic MS. on a mathematical subject offers an instance of the extraordinary sagacity I am alluding to; it may also serve as a demonstration of the peculiar and supereminent advantages possessed by mathematicians, observes Mr. Dugald Stewart, in their fixed relations, which form the objects of their science, and the correspondent precision in their language and reasoning:— as matter of literary history it is highly curious. Dr. Bernard accidentally discovered in the Bodleian Library an Arabic version of Apollonius de Sectione Rationis, which he determined to translate in Latin, but only finished about a tenth part. Halley, extremely interested by the subject, but with an entire ignorance of the Arabic language, resolved to complete the imperfect version! Assisted only by the manuscript which Bernard had left, it served him as a key for investigating the sense of the original; he first made a list of those words wherever they occurred, with the train of reasoning in which they were involved, to decipher, by these very slow degrees, the import of the context; till at last Halley succeeded in mastering the whole work, and in bringing the translation, without the aid of any one, to the form in which he gave it to the public; so that we have here a difficult work translated from the Arabic, by one who was in no manner conversant with the language, merely by the exertion of his sagacity!

I give the memorable account, as Boyle has delivered it, of the circumstances which led Harvey to the discovery of the circulation of the blood.

“I remember that when I asked our famous Harvey, in the only discourse I had with him, which was but a little while before he died, what were the things which induced him to think of a circulation of the blood, he answered me, that when he took notice that the valves in the veins of so many parts of the body were so placed that they gave free passage to the blood towards the heart, but opposed the passage of the venal blood the contrary way, he was invited to think that so provident a cause as nature had not placed so many valves without design; and no design seemed more probable than that, since the blood could not well, because of the interposing valves, be sent by the veins to the limbs, it should be sent through the arteries and return through the veins, whose valves did not oppose its course that way.”

The reason here ascribed to Harvey seems now so very natural and obvious, that some have been disposed to question his claim to the high rank commonly assigned to him among the improvers of science! Dr. William Hunter has said that after the discovery of the valves in the veins, which Harvey learned while in Italy from his master, Fabricius ab Aquapendente, the remaining step might easily have been made by any person of common abilities. “This discovery,” he observes, “set Harvey to work upon the use of the heart and vascular system in animals; and in the course of some years, he was so happy as to discover, and to prove beyond all possibility of doubt, the circulation of the blood.” He afterwards expresses his astonishment that this discovery should have been left for Harvey, though he acknowledges it occupied “a course of years;” adding that “Providence meant to reserve it for him, and would not let men see what was before them, nor understand what they read.” It is remarkable that when great discoveries are effected, their simplicity always seems to detract from their originality: on these occasions we are reminded of the egg of Columbus!

It is said that a recent discovery, which ascertains that the Niger empties itself into the Atlantic Ocean, was really anticipated by the geographical acumen of a student at Glasgow, who arrived at the same conclusion by a most persevering investigation of the works of travellers and geographers, ancient and modern, and by an examination of African captives; and had actually constructed, for the inspection of government, a map of Africa, on which he had traced the entire course of the Niger from the interior.

Franklin conjectured the identity of lightning and of electricity, before he had realised it by decisive experiment. The kite being raised, a considerable time elapsed before there was any appearance of its being electrified. One very promising cloud had passed over it without any effect. Just as he was beginning to despair of his contrivance, he observed some loose threads of the hempen string to stand erect, and to avoid one another, just as if they had been suspended on a common conductor. Struck with this promising appearance, he immediately presented his knuckle to the key! And let the reader judge of the exquisite pleasure he must have felt at that moment when the discovery was complete! We owe to Priestley this admirable narrative; the strong sensation of delight which Franklin experienced as his knuckle touched the key, and at the moment when he felt that a new world was opening, might have been equalled, but it was probably not surpassed, when the same hand signed the long-disputed independence of his country!

When Leibnitz was occupied in his philosophical reasonings on his Law of Continuity, his singular sagacity enabled him to predict a discovery which afterwards was realised — he imagined the necessary existence of the polypus!

It has been remarked of Newton, that several of his slight hints, some in the modest form of queries, have been ascertained to be predictions, and among others that of the inflammability of the diamond; and many have been eagerly seized upon as indisputable axioms. A hint at the close of his Optics, that “If natural philosophy should be continued to be improved in its various branches, the bounds of moral philosophy would be enlarged also,” is perhaps among the most important of human discoveries — it gave rise to Hartley’s Physiological Theory of the Mind. The queries, the hints, the conjectures of Newton, display the most creative sagacity; and demonstrate in what manner the discoveries of retired men, while they bequeath their legacies to the world, afford to themselves a frequent source of secret and silent triumphs.

1 The remarkable clue to the reading of the hieroglyphic language of ancient Egypt perfected in our own times is a striking instance of this; as well as the investigations now proceeding in Babylonian inscriptions, which promise to enable us to comprehend a language that was once considered as hopelessly lost.

2 The curious reader may view the marks, and the manner in which the Greek characters were made out, in the preface to Hearne’s “Curious Discourses.” The amethyst proved more difficult than the frieze, from the circumstance, that in engraving on the stone the letters must be reversed.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37