- Lettres Latines, and: Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), introduction à la vie savante
In the volumes under review, Sylvie Taussig has translated, annotated, and written an introduction to the Latin letters of Pierre Gassendi. These letters appear in the final volume of his Opera omnia; the volume also includes letters written to Gassendi, which Taussig does not translate. The Opera excludes Gassendi's personal correspondence with his closer friends, much of it originally in French and long available in serviceable editions. The Latin letters were for a readership far wider than their addressees; even the Latin letters written to those close to him were often public statements on issues and debates of the day.
Gassendi's Latin letters fall into three major groups. The first group demonstrates the collective labor of a community of scholars, and documents Gassendi's advance from mere aspirant to an important node in the republic of letters. The letters show Gassendi striving to persuade others to conform to this community's norms and to heal the rifts within it. We see Gassendi getting help with Greek, collecting and distributing astronomical observations, and working to reconcile [End Page 227] hostile parties, such as Galileo and the Jesuit Christoph Scheiner, or Descartes and the artisan Ferrier. He writes a poem upon the death of Wilhelm Schickard, a model for combining philology and astronomical interests; he tells Galileo to be philosophical about his blindness in one eye; he considers lexical and metrological tools; he discusses vegetarianism with van Helmont — while stressing the purposeful nature of living things. These letters make up the practical work that accompanied his philosophical views: not individual intellection, but collective empirical activity alone could attain those truths about nature and history available to human beings. Historians of science and scholarship will find these early letters crucial for understanding the relationship between the late Renaissance and mid-seventeenth-century learning, in doctrines, empirical methods, and social organization.
An explicit ethical drive dominates the second group of letters, almost all written to Gassendi's protector Prince Louis-Emmanuel de Valois, the governor of Provence from 1637; these letters constitute what Taussig calls a "course of philosophy," designed to form the prince into a more philosophical person and leader. The letters detail Gassendi's project of restoring and correcting Epicurus by refuting the long tradition of denouncing him, by placing him in the history of philosophy, and by explaining his doctrines and standards for judging. Rebutting at length the oft-repeated claim that Epicurus repudiated all the liberal arts, Gassendi claims that Epicurus sought rather to orient those arts toward their proper propaedeutic role in aiding us in living better — a theme central to much early modern consideration of the sciences. This course, Taussig claims, "has as much importance for studying his Epicureanism as the apparently more accomplished treatises" (Intro., 210). She's right. These letters should be central for understanding debates about the purposes and methods of early modern philosophy, and its relation to its predecessors.
With the third group of letters, roughly demarcated by the end of his course for Valois, we return to a less-focused correspondence like that of the younger Gassendi. Now an authority well known for his Life of Peiresc and his observations of Mercury, Gassendi in his letters of the 1640s and 1650s includes discussions of the vacuum and circulation of the blood, and numerous criticisms of Descartes. His collective astronomical and scientific labor continues: he corresponds with Hevelius on instrumentation and observation, encourages the Jesuit Honoré Fabry to publish, and discusses Hobbes with Sorbière. His letters to Valois are full of news of political events, religious conflict, and war.
Taussig's often-eloquent translation of the letters appears in one volume; her seven thousand notes, numbered consecutively, appear in a second volume in miniscule...