The Bickerstaff-Partridge Papers, by Jonathan Swift

A vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq; against what is objected to him by Mr. Partridge in his almanack for the present year 1709.

By the said Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq;

Written in the year 1709.

Mr. Partridge hath been lately pleased to treat me after a very rough manner, in that which is called, his almanack for the present year: Such usage is very undecent from one gentleman to another, and does not at all contribute to the discovery of truth, which ought to be the great end in all disputes of the learned. To call a man fool and villain, and impudent fellow, only for differing from him in a point meer speculative, is, in my humble opinion, a very improper style for a person of his education. I appeal to the learned world, whether in my last year’s predictions I gave him the least provocation for such unworthy treatment. Philosophers have differed in all ages; but the discreetest among them have always differed as became philosophers. Scurrility and passion, in a controversy among scholars, is just so much of nothing to the purpose, and at best, a tacit confession of a weak cause: My concern is not so much for my own reputation, as that of the Republick of Letters, which Mr. Partridge hath endeavoured to wound through my sides. If men of publick spirit must be superciliously treated for their ingenious attempts, how will true useful knowledge be ever advanced? I wish Mr. Partridge knew the thoughts which foreign universities have conceived of his ungenerous proceedings with me; but I am too tender of his reputation to publish them to the world. That spirit of envy and pride, which blasts so many rising genius’s in our nation, is yet unknown among professors abroad: The necessity of justifying myself will excuse my vanity, when I tell the reader that I have near a hundred honorary letters from several parts of Europe (some as far as Muscovy) in praise of my performance. Besides several others, which, as I have been credibly informed, were open’d in the post-office and never sent me. ’Tis true the Inquisition in Portugal was pleased to burn my predictions, and condem the author and readers of them; but I hope at the same time, it will be consider’d in how deplorable a state learning lies at present in that kingdom: And with the profoundest veneration for crown’d heads, I will presume to add, that it a little concerned His Majesty of Portugal, to interpose his authority in behalf of a scholar and a gentleman, the subject of a nation with which he is now in so strict an alliance. But the other kingdoms and states of Europe have treated me with more candor and generosity. If I had leave to print the Latin letters transmitted to me from foreign parts, they would fill a volume, and be a full defence against all that Mr. Partridge, or his accomplices of the Portugal Inquisition, will be able to object; who, by the way, are the only enemies my predictions have ever met with at home or abroad. But I hope I know better what is due to the honour of a learned correspondence in so tender a point. Yet some of those illustrious persons will perhaps excuse me from transcribing a passage or two in my own vindication. The most learned Monsieur Leibnits thus addresses to me his third letter: Illustrissimo Bickerstaffio Astrologiae instauratori, etc. Monsieur le Clerc, quoting my predictions in a treatise he published last year, is pleased to say, Ita nuperrime Bickerstaffius magnum illud Angliae fidus. Another great professor writing of me, has these words: Bickerstaffius, nobilis Anglus, Astrologorum hujusce Saeculi facile Princeps. Signior Magliabecchi, the Great Duke’s famous library-keeper, spends almost his whole letter in compliments and praises. ’Tis true, the renowned Professor of Astronomy at Utrecht, seems to differ from me in one article; but it is in a modest manner, that becomes a philosopher; as, Pace tanti viri dixerim: And pag.55, he seems to lay the error upon the printer (as indeed it ought) and says, vel forsan error typographi, cum alioquin Bickerstaffius ver doctissimus, etc.

If Mr. Partridge had followed this example in the controversy between us, he might have spared me the trouble of justifying myself in so publick a manner. I believe few men are readier to own their errors than I, or more thankful to those who will please to inform me of them. But it seems this gentleman, instead of encouraging the progress of his own art, is pleased to look upon all attempts of that kind as an invasion of his province. He has been indeed so wise to make no objection against the truth of my predictions, except in one single point, relating to himself: And to demonstrate how much men are blinded by their own partiality, I do solemnly assure the reader, that he is the only person from whom I ever heard that objection offered; which consideration alone, I think, will take off all its weight.

With my utmost endeavours, I have not been able to trace above two objections ever made against the truth of my last year’s prophecies: The first was of a French man, who was pleased to publish to the world, that the Cardinal de Noailles was still alive, notwithstanding the pretended prophecy of Monsieur Biquerstaffe: But how far a Frenchman, a papist, and an enemy is to be believed in his own case against an English Protestant, who is true to his government, I shall leave to the candid and impartial reader.

The other objection is the unhappy occasion of this discourse, and relates to an article in my predictions, which foretold the death of Mr. Partridge, to happen on March 29, 1708. This he is pleased to contradict absolutely in the almanack he has published for the present year, and in that ungentlemanly manner (pardon the expression) as I have above related. In that work he very roundly asserts, That he is not only now alive, but was likewise alive upon that very 29th of March, when I had foretold he should die. This is the subject of the present controversy between us; which I design to handle with all brevity, perspicuity, and calmness: In this dispute, I am sensible the eyes not only of England, but of all Europe, will be upon us; and the learned in every country will, I doubt not, take part on that side, where they find most appearance of reason and truth.

Without entering into criticisms of chronology about the hour of his death, I shall only prove that Mr. Partridge is not alive. And my first argument is thus: Above a thousand gentelmen having bought his almanacks for this year, merely to find what he said against me; at every line they read, they would lift up their eyes, and cry out, betwixt rage and laughter, “They were sure no man alive ever writ such damn’d stuff as this.” Neither did I ever hear that opinion disputed: So that Mr. Partridge lies under a dilemma, either of disowning his almanack, or allowing himself to be “no man alive”. But now if an uninformed carcase walks still about, and is pleased to call itself Partridge, Mr. Bickerstaff does not think himself any way answerable for that. Neither had the said carcase any right to beat the poor boy who happen’d to pass by it in the street, crying, “A full and true account of Dr. Partridge’s death, etc.”

Secondly, Mr. Partridge pretends to tell fortunes, and recover stolen goods; which all the parish says he must do by conversing with the devil and other evil spirits: And no wise man will ever allow he could converse personally with either, till after he was dead.

Thirdly, I will plainly prove him to be dead out of his own almanack for this year, and from the very passage which he produces to make us think him alive. He there says, “He is not only now alive, but was also alive on the very 29th of March, which I foretold he should die on”: By this, he declares his opinion, that a man may be alive now, who was not alive a twelvemonth ago. And indeed, there lies the sophistry of this argument. He dares not assert, he was alive ever since that 29th of March, but that he is now alive, and was so on that day: I grant the latter; for he did not die till night, as appears by the printed account of his death, in a letter to a lord; and whether he is since revived I leave the world to judge. This indeed is perfect cavilling, and I am ashamed to dwell any longer upon it.

Fourthly, I will appeal to Mr. Partridge himself, whether it be probable I could have been so indiscreet, to begin my predictions with the only falsehood that ever was pretended to be in them; and this in an affair at home, where I had so many opportunities to be exact; and must have given such advantages against me to a person of Mr. Partridge’s wit and learning, who, if he could possibly have raised one single objection more against the truth of my prophecies, would hardly have spared me.

And here I must take occasion to reprove the above mention’d writer of the relation of Mr. Partridge’s death, in a letter to a lord; who was pleased to tax me with a mistake of four whole hours in my calculation of that event. I must confess, this censure pronounced with an air of certainty, in a matter that so nearly concerned me, and by a grave judicious author, moved me not a little. But tho’ I was at that time out of town, yet several of my friends, whose curiosity had led them to be exactly informed (for as to my own part, having no doubt at all in the matter, I never once thought of it) assured me, I computed to something under half an hour: which (I speak my private opinion) is an error of no very great magnitude, that men should raise a clamour about it. I shall only say, it would not be amiss, if that author would henceforth be more tender of other men’s reputations as well as his own. It is well there were no more mistakes of that kind; if there had, I presume he would have told me of them with as little ceremony.

There is one objection against Mr. Partridge’s death, which I have sometimes met with, though indeed very slightly offered, That he still continues to write almanacks. But this is no more than what is common to all that profession; Gadbury, Poor Robin, Dove, Wing, and several others, do yearly publish their almanacks, though several of them have been dead since before the Revolution. Now the natural reason of this I take to be, that whereas it is the privilege of other authors to live after their deaths; almanack-makers are alone excluded, because their dissertations treating only upon the minutes as they pass, become useless as those go off. In consideration of which, Time, whose registers they are, gives them a lease in reversion, to continue their works after their death.

I should not have given the publick or myself the trouble of this vindication, if my name had not been made use of by several persons, to whom I never lent it; one of which, a few days ago, was pleased to father on me a new sett of predictions. But I think those are things too serious to be trifled with. It grieved me to the heart, when I saw my labours, which had cost me so much thought and watching, bawl’d about by common hawkers, which I only intended for the weighty consideration of the gravest persons. This prejudiced the world so much at first, that several of my friends had the assurance to ask me whether I were in jest? To which I only answered coldly, that the event would shew. But it is the talent of our age and nation, to turn things of the greatest importance into ridicule. When the end of the year had verified all my predictions, out comes Mr. Partridge’s almanack, disputing the point of his death; so that I am employed, like the general who was forced to kill his enemies twice over, whom a necromancer had raised to life. If Mr. Partridge has practised the same experiment upon himself, and be again alive, long may he continue so; that does not in the least contradict my veracity: But I think I have clearly proved, by invincible demonstration, that he died at farthest within half an hour of the time I foretold, and not four hours sooner, as the above-mentioned author, in his letter to a lord, hath maliciously suggested, with design to blast my credit, by charging me with so gross a mistake.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:31