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  • Robert Hooke at 371
  • Rhodri Lewis (bio)

Writing in his manuscript treatise "An Idea of Education", John Aubrey struck the Baconian attitude that to study with the greatest profitability a "few books, but well chosen, thoroughly digested with practice and observation, does the business". Of those with whom Aubrey had discussed this, Thomas Hobbes and William Petty confided in him their belief "that had they read as much as other men, they should have known no more than other men". Further, Aubrey held that "neither are Sir Ch. Wren or Mr. R. Hooke great readers" (Aubrey 1972, 86). We recognize such claims as being of a piece with the Royal Society's motto, nullius in verba—or, roughly, "take no-one's word for it"; real knowledge came from the experimental study of nature, not through reliance on established authorities. But that the Royal Society only made bold to proclaim this on the authority of Horace is one clue that its modern students should not take these disavowals of conventional learning at face value. As historians have come to realize, the natural philosophers assembled within the Royal Society's orbit were every bit as concerned with what they might learn from books as they were with investigating the book of nature. A case in point (indeed, an instance of the fingerpost) is Robert Hooke, whose broad ranging scholarly, scientific and philosophical interests are everywhere attested in Aubrey's "Idea", and whose personal library was both sizeable and diverse. To give a by no means systematic (or exhaustive) survey of the areas in which he was active, Hooke was a physicist, engineer, microscopist, meteorologist, horologist, chronologer, geologist, astronomer, psychologist, surveyor, architect, alchemist, mathematician, musicologist, logician, grammarian and bibliophile. When praising him, Aubrey knew whereof he spoke: Hooke was one of his closest friends and, during Aubrey's increasingly frequent spells of impecuniosity, Hooke lent him support. [End Page 558] When in London, Aubrey also made use of Hooke's Gresham College address. A marker of their intimacy is that Aubrey was able to jot down physiognomic details of Robert's niece, housekeeper and sometime lover (Grace Hooke) amongst his astrological notes. She had, Aubrey noted, "a hairy Mold, on her left pappe" (Bodleian Library, Oxford, Ms. Aubrey 23, fol. 56r).

Hooke was also a well-known patron of London coffeehouse culture. When Thomas Shadwell sought to parody the Fellows of the Royal Society in general, and Hooke in particular, in his The Virtuoso (1676), Hooke attended a performance and recorded the unease with which he imagined himself being regarded by the audience: "Damned Dogs. Vindica me Deus. People almost pointed" (Hooke 1935, 235). Yet, as this hints, perhaps the most important of Hooke's activities were in the service of the infant Royal Society, chiefly as its curator of experiments, from its beginnings in the early 1660s, to his death, forty years later. Hooke's contribution to its activities was immense, but in his quarrels with Henry Oldenburg, the Society's first Secretary, the seeds were sown of the neglect and misunderstanding that still, to some extent, characterize the way he is discussed today. On this view, Hooke was a bad-tempered (if gifted) professional in a world of gentleman amateurs. He was ambitious and, as his ambitions were thwarted, he became both proprietorial and prone to claim the ideas of others for his own; the most famous instances of this are his disputes with Newton over optics and celestial mechanics. Once Newton had been deified, the Newtonians used these disputes to present Hooke as an embittered heretic of the sort that any church finds it useful to have in its early history. But this low estimation of Hooke's value was by no means confined to Newtonians: writing in his biography of John Ray, for example, Charles Raven could dismiss Hooke as "jealous of Oldenburg, resentful of patronage and exploitation but too vain to refuse occasions for it" (Raven 1950, 145). Happily, the growth of intellectual, and scientific, history in the twentieth century began to occasion a reassessment of Hooke's legacy, and the first scholarly biography of Hooke was published in the 1950s ('Espinasse 1956). Nevertheless, as late as...


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