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John Wilkins Edit Profile

clergyman , author , natural philosopher

John Wilkins was an Anglican clergyman, natural philosopher and author, and was one of the founders of the Royal Society. He was Bishop of Chester from 1668 until his death.


He was probably born in 1614 at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, though some sources say Fawsley; his father Walter Wilkins (died 1625) was a goldsmith and his mother Jane Dod was daughter of John Dod, a well-known conforming Puritan.

His mother, Jane Dod, had four children in her marriage to Walter Wilkins, an Oxford goldsmith who died in 1625.


In 1648 he became warden of Wadham College, Oxford.

Wilkins was educated at a school in Oxford run by Edward Sylvester, and matriculated at New Inn Hall. He then moved to Magdalen Hall, Oxford where his tutor was John Tombes, and graduated with a B. A. degree in 1631, an M. A. degree in 1634. He studied astronomy with John Bainbridge.


Wilkins’s career coincides with the most eventful period in modern English history–the years just before the Long Parliament to the decade after the Restoration and the formation of the Royal Society.

He was trusted by Cromwell, whom he advised on the need for a national church and episcopacy against presbytery.

After the return of Charles II in 1660, he submitted to the Act of Uniformity and soon enjoyed the favor of the restored monarchy.

Still, only the most unforgiving royalists ever questioned his integrity.

Owing to the omnipotence, benevolence, and wisdom of God, both the universe and man are so admirably contrived that man can ensure the welfare of his soul by the mature exercise of the faculty of reason, which is the defining quality of his nature.

Similarly, man is endowed with a natural principle that makes him seek moral good “as a rational voluntary free agent, ” owing to his steady inclination “to seek his own well-being and happiness, ” so that “nothing properly is his duty, but what is really his interest, ” which is another argument “that the author of his being must be infinitely wise and powerful. ”

Man’s natural desire for happiness is as certain as the descent of heavy bodies, an example that Wilkins also used to illustrate that fixed laws that rule nature.

Both man and nature are governed by laws that ensure the harmony of religion and science.

Consistent with these arguments, Wilkins stated the deistic principle that the salvation of the heathen is not a problem for man to decide; since “God has not thought fit to tell us how he will be pleased to deal with such persons, it is not fit for us to tell Him how he ought to deal with them. ”

In his writings, Wilkins often used the wise testimony of the ancients to support the knowledge and arguments advanced by the new science.

Whether we call some of his writings scientific and others religious is a matter of emphasis; they all have the same aim: to guide man’s conduct toward moral virtue, religious devotion, and ultimately the hope of salvation.

The pursuit of happiness, even comfort, in this world is man’s legitimate interest. But reason alone is not sufficient.

Adam in the state of innocence could not be happy, though in Paradise, without a companion. ”

This is a theme Wilkins stresses again and again; it is the foundation of his constant advocacy of conciliation, moderation, and tolerance, often in contexts that refer to “all that confusion and disorder, which seem to be in the affairs of these times. ”

The instrument that ensures the benefits of social intercourse is language: “Every rational creature, being of an imperfect and dependent happiness, is therefore naturally endowed with an ability to communicate his own thoughts and intentions; that so by mutual services, it might the better promote itself in the prosecution of its own well-being. ”

As useful knowledge, both natural and moral, is a function of cooperation, so successful cooperation is a function of communication; the improvement of natural knowledge and language is the response to the “two general curses inflicted on mankind, ” after the fall of Adam, “the one upon their labors, the other upon their language. ”

After the anniversary meeting of the Royal Society on 30 November 1667 (in which the annual election of officers also took place), Pepys recorded that some members went out for dinner, he himself choosing to sit next to Wilkins “and others whom I value. ”

To treat them otherwise is to fall into “Pygmalion’s phrenzy. ”

Wilkins’ view of useful knowledge determined his attitude toward the three chief sources of authority: the Bible, antiquity, and books.

On scientific matters, he was also fond of citing contradictory scriptural passages, just as he criticized those among his contemporaries “who upon the invention of any new secret, will presently find out some obscure text or other to father it upon, as if the Holy Ghost must needs take notice of every particular which their partial fancies did over-value. ”

13He treated classical authors in much the same way as the Bible, using citations to suit his purposes both for and against his own principles, those in the latter category being dismissed as contrary to reason and experience.

But he rejected outright the superior authority of antiquity: “In such learning as may be increased by fresh experiments and new discoveries, it is we are the fathers, and of more authority than former ages, because we have the advantage of more time than they had. ”

He was aware that the vast public structures of the Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans might be used to argue against the inferiority of their mechanical knowledge; he answered that if we have nothing of the sort nowadays, the reason does not lie in our knowledge, for “mechanical discoveries are much more exact now, ” but rather in the fact that “we have not either the same motives to attempt such works, or the same means to effect them as the ancients had. ”

By this he meant that great wealth and power, then concentrated in the hands of a few, were now more widely diffused.

The belief in the leveling and ennobling effect of the new knowledge found expression in Wilkins’ attitude toward “bookish” men and mere bookish learning.

Antiquity having slighted the mere manual and practical arts as “base and common, ” such studies had come to be neglected for hundreds of years, with grave consequences for the well-being of man.

Wilkins was eager to overcome the prejudice that studies pertaining to the mind deserve greater respect than those that deal with material things.

It was in this spirit that he devoted his Mathematical Magick to practical mechanical devices and labor-saving inventions “whereby nature is in any way quickened or advanced in her defects, ” for these are in fact “so many essays, whereby men do naturally attempt to restore themselves from the first general curse inflicted upon their labors. ”

Though he defended the universities on several occasions, Wilkins was aware that they must justify their teaching in terms of real use and benefit to mankind, a view that made him one of the principal advocates of university reform at Oxford and Cambridge.

Wilkins’ scientific writings constitute a single, well-conceived educational program to reach a larger audience outside the confines of traditional learning, both to promote natural philosophy and to lend dignity to the practical arts.

He announced this program in the opening of his first publication, saying that it was his desire to “raise up some more active spirit to a search after other hidden and unknown truths: since it must needs be a great impediment unto the growth of sciences, for men still to plod on upon beaten principles, as to be afraid of entertaining anything that may seem to contradict them. ”

In this task of popular education, Wilkins’ importance can hardly be overestimated.

Was the moon inhabited?

Could man find a means of flying to it?

Was it much like the earth with mountains and oceans?

Was the earth a planet?

Could man navigate under water, lift heavy weights with little effort, or communicate effectively by other means than ordinary speech?

The very titles were catchy–he did not shun the title Mathematical Magick, although it was certainly against his principles to suggest that there was any magic in the study of natural philosophy.

His more serious purpose was to gain acceptance for the new science, to bring the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Gilbert, Mersenne, and others to the attention of his countrymen.

Against the authority of the Bible, antiquity, and book learning, he answered that “we must labor to find out what things are in themselves, by our own experience, and a thorough examination of their natures, not what another says of them. ”

Natural religion will prevail; disorder, strife, and sectarianism will vanish when disputes are resolved by giving “soft words but hard arguments. ”

There is no important principle in Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society that had not earlier been argued by Wilkins.

“The universal disposition of this age, ” wrote Sprat, “is bent upon a rational religion. ”

Without such social attainments, Wilkins’ sphere of activity would hardly have reached so far beyond his humble origins. Early Career.

Wilkins was born at the North-amptonshire house of his maternal grandfather, the puritan divine John Dod, who was known for an exposition of the Ten Commandments.

A few years later he was ordained and became vicar of Fawsley.

At this time he is reported to have become chaplain to William Fiennes, first viscount Saye and Seale, who was then a supporter of the Puritans and later sat in the Westminster Assembly.

He took the degree on 19 December the same year.

No doubt he spent most of them in Oxford and London.

It was in London that he participated in the meetings that were devoted, as John Wallis recorded, to “what has been called the New Philosophy or Experimental Philosophy, ” these meetings having been convened at the suggestion of Theodore Haak.

For a better view of Wilkins’ early career, we have his writings and some reasonable conjectures about his associations. Although published two years apart, the Discovery (1638) and the Discourse (1640) can be considered a single work.

Addressed to the common reader, the primary aim was to make known and to defend the new world picture of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo by showing its agreement with reason and experience against subservience to Aristotelian doctrines and literal biblical interpretation.

Kepler and especially Galileo’s Siderius nuncius (1610) and Matthias Bernegger’s Latin translation (1635) of the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems are frequently cited, along with a wealth of other references from the literature that had appeared within the last generation.

The work is polemical, but unlike Campanella’s Apologia pro Galileo (1622), which is cited with approval, it constantly turns the reader’s attention to the positive arguments that may be drawn from rational interpretation of observable phenomena.

The central argument was borrowed from Galileo: the moon is not a shining disk or whatever else men have imagined, but a world with natural features much like the earth.

And if so, then the moon might also be inhabited, although Wilkins does not find sufficient grounds to say what sort of beings the inhabitants are, thus neatly avoiding the touchy question of whether they are descendants of Adam.

Further, if the moon shares natural features with the earth, then the argument could be extended to form a uniformitarian view of the constitution of the entire universe, thus breaking down the Aristotelian doctrine of fixed, hierarchical spheres that obey laws other than those of the sublunar world.

In the 1640 edition of the Discovery, Wilkins added the sensational idea that it might be possible to contrive a way of flying to the moon, thus taking up a suggestion already known in England from Francis Godwin’s Man in the Moone (1638).

In the latter part of the second work, Wilkins supports his argument for the movement of the earth by reference to William Gilbert’s suggestion that the earth is a lodestone.

Bacon had argued against Gilbert on that point.

They suggest that Wilkins found his occasion in the controversy that grew up in the wake of Philip van Lansberge’s Commentationes in motum terrae diurnum et annuum (1630).

This work was opposed by Libertus Fromondus both in Anti-Aristarchus, live orbis-terrae immobilis (1631) and in Vesta, live Ant-Aristarchi vindex adversus Jac.

Lansbergium (1634), in which he defended the proscription of Copernican doctrine first issued by the congregation of cardinals in 1616 and reiterated in 1633.

With a wide and mature command of the literature, Wilkins was engaged in international controversy.

There can be no doubt that he succeeded in his aim of gaining acceptance for Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo in England. 28We may wonder why Wilkins, still only in his middle twenties, took up the controversy with so much energy and conviction.

Both had been professors at Gresham College before coming to Oxford.

It mentions such old tricks as baking secret messages into loaves of bread, but Wilkins’ chief interest was cryptography, of which he gives a wealth of examples, all ready for use.

Thus Mercury is not merely a practical guide in the use and decoding of ciphers, but a broadly based discussion of the means of communication, or what today would be called semiotics.

In other words, like Mersenne, Wilkins rejected the natural-language doctrine then advocated by Robert Fludd.

Wilkins ridiculed cabalistic interpretations of the sort that was again to occupy him in controversy with John Webster, who attacked the universities for neglecting Jacob Boehme’s mystical linguistic doctrines.

It outlines the principles he was later to follow in his final work.

At the end of Mercury, Wilkins notes that though his work can be used to serve unlawful purposes, it can also be used to uncover them.

29After dealing with communication and the second curse on mankind in Mercury, Wilkins next turned to the remedies for the first curse, inflicted upon man’s labors.

This pattern shows how closely Wilkins, with most of his contemporaries, related his concerns to the biblical story of man’s terrestrial life.

His Mathematical Magick (1648) is divided in two parts: “Archimedes or Mechanical Powers” and “Daedalus or Mechanical Motions. ”

The book’s aim was “real benefit, ” both for gentlemen in the improvement of their estates, as in the draining of mines and coalpits, and for “common artificers” in gaining a “right understanding of the grounds and theory” of the arts they practice.

It is therefore a short book, a compendium of knowledge otherwise only available in large, expensive volumes in Latin rather than the vernacular, “for which these mechanical arts of all other are most proper. ”

The first part deals with the balance, lever, wheel, pulley, wedge, and screw in that order, all illustrated with line drawings and pictures.

Then follow chapters that show how the combination of these devices may produce “infinite strength” so as to “pull up any oak by the roots with a hair, lift it up with a straw, or blow it up with one’s breath, ” all illustrated with rather sensational pictures.

The second part treats a miscellaneous collection of strange devices and possibilities, such as flying machines, moving and speaking statues, artificial spiders, the imitation of sounds made by birds and man, a land vehicle driven by sails, a submarine, Archimedes’ screw, and perpetual motion.

Automata were a legitimate scientific interest.

There is little theory here, even scant hope of practical success, but much excitement.

Learned fancies were being shared with a lay audience.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that Wilkins was being frivolous.

Even in the 1660’s the Royal Society was not averse to the pursuit of such projects.

There was as yet no clear distinction between what we consider good science and technology as opposed to fruitless speculation.

The same scientific success that brought about the disenchantment of the universe also raised technological hopes that entered the realm of magic.

Wilkins knew that wonder is the chief impulse to serious study and experiment. A closer look at the sources of Mathematical Magick yields interesting information both about Wilkins’ orientation and about the dating.

It can easily be seen that many of the line drawings and illustrations are taken from other works along with the principles and devices they illustrate.

The most recent work cited is John Greaves’s description of the Egyptian pyramids, Pyradomographia (1646).

Following Pappus, Guidobaldo had reduced all these devices to the same working principle as the lever–with the exception of the wedge, which he also discussed in terms of the inclined plane without making a clear choice between the two.

Thus the reader of Mathematical Magick would not have gained a sense of the long controversy over the proper understanding of these devices, revived in 1634 by Mersenne’s Les méchaniques de Galilée. From Mersenne, Wilkins also borrowed his account of the “glossocomus” or “engine of many wheels, ” with the analysis and illustration that show how it works like a series of interlocking levers.

In addition he cited works other than the Tractatus mechanicus from the Cogitata : on the bending and power of bows,

on the flattening of a bullet fired against a wall, and on the submarine. Wilkins’ debt to Mersenne is so heavy that it deserves closer attention.

Mersenne is cited in the Discovery, the Discourse, and in Mathematical Magick.

He is not mentioned in Mercury, but the general subject of this work forms the very core of Mersenne’s own enquiries: the phenomena of communication, language, and the possibility of creating a philosophical language.

It would be correct to say that Wilkins’ scientific writings together present a popular version of Mersenne.

The affinity of interests and orientation was too close to stem from common reliance on the same literature.

The plurality of worlds was the only subject that separated them, but for Wilkins this was only a tentative suggestion of no systematic importance, confined to the Discovery and not repeated.

Both were opposed to magic and the irrational, and for this reason they opposed the belief in the magical and occult powers of words, a doctrine then chiefly associated with Jacob Boehme and Robert Fludd.

It is conventional and man-made– “a man is born without any of them, but yet capable of all, ” Wilkins said.

If this were not so, then it would not be possible to maintain that reason and experience together form the exclusive source of scientific knowledge.

Thus the nature of language is the crucial problem in the epistemology of the new science.

Between mid-summer of 1639 and August 1640, Boswell lived in London, and it was during this period that Haak initiated his lively correspondence with Mersenne at the encouragement of Boswell, “with whom Haak seems to have enjoyed a long-lasting and close acquaintance, ” beginning in 1638.

As was to be expected, it is evident that the contents of Mersenne’s letters became widely known in London, just as these contacts were in part responsible for Mersenne’s close English ties during the early 1640. Having already cited Mersenne in his first two publications, Wilkins may have written Mercury on a hint from Mersenne transmitted through Haak.

On these grounds Mersenne repeatedly argued that only God can know the essences of things and their true causes.

Wilkins stated the same principle in 1649: “In our natural enquiries after the efficient causes of things, when our reason is at a stand, we are fain sometimes to sit down and satisfy ourselves in the notion of occult qualities, and therefore much more should be content to be ignorant of the final cause of things, which lie more deep and obscure than the other. ”

On this central doctrine, Mersenne and Wilkins disagreed with Bacon’s goal of penetrating into “the nature of things. ”

This principle severely limits the extent to which Bacon can be said to have guided and informed the new science in England.

Bacon in fact played a small role in Wilkins’ thought, in no way comparable to Mersenne’s role.

Mersenne and Wilkins also admired Gilbert on points that Bacon did not accept.

As Mathematical Magick shows, Wilkins also followed Mersenne in taking an interest in automata; they focused attention on interesting problems.

In all their conduct and affairs, both Mersenne and Wilkins showed admirable openness and tolerance, of men as well as of opinions.

No attempt to assess Wilkins’ importance can ignore these problems.

Fludd and Mersenne do not go together.

The groups they represent are not separated by their interest in a philosophy of nature, but they are set apart by their basic methods and principles, and it is this latter criterion that is crucial.

The ubiquitous presence of Hartlib and others shows nothing except a shared interest in natural philosophy and its results, although this presence has been the chief prop of the Rosicrucian argument.

The wide tolerance of men like Mersenne and Wilkins should not be construed to mean positive approval.

It has been argued that Continental influences reached England through The Hague, owing to the presence there of the exiled Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, who for well-known reasons made some political use of such men as Hartlib and John Dury (Durie) as well as their contacts with circles that may, at least in part, be called Rosicrucian.

On these grounds it has been argued that John Wallis’ account of the first London scientific meetings in 1645 “seems to give a curiously ’Palatinate’ coloring to the origins of the Royal Society. ”

The weakness of this argument is obvious: it ignores the fact that The Hague was the home of a very different intellectual group that had lively contacts with London.

It was through these contacts that Mersenne became more widely known in England.

A strong royalist and a Laudian, he was successful in preventing Dutch intervention in the Civil War during the 1640’s.

Huygens’ correspondence shows that he was on intimate terms with Boswell, 43 and they shared many scholarly interests, including musicology.

As secretary to Prince Frederic Henry of Orange, Huygens was Boswell’s main contact with the court.

He corresponded with both Descartes and Mersenne, as did Boswell although those letters are lost.

Huygens regularly transmitted mail from Mersenne in Paris to recipients in Holland, including Descartes; Boswell occasionally did likewise.

At the beginning of this book, Wilkins tells the reader that it was occasioned by a reading of Francis Godwin’s Nuncius inanimatus, or The Mysterious Messenger (1629), which he had mentioned in the Discovery.

It is tempting to think that his renewed interest in speedy and secret communication was related to the fact that Haak had sent Mersenne a copy of Godwin’s little book, soon receiving the well-founded judgment that it “was indeed very animated because it teaches us nothing, saying not a word about its secret of communication.

What is the use of writing, ’I know such and such things, ’ but not tell; that is to make fun of the readers. ”

In line with this critique, Wilkins’ purpose in Mercury was precisely to remove linguistic mystification and the secrecy of ciphers by bringing the technique out in the open.

It is no wonder that Wilkins kept informed about Mersenne, so that soon after its publication in 1644 he made the Cogitata physico-mathematica the main source of his Mathematical Magick.

It was at this time, in 1645, that Haak called the first London meetings, which not only discussed scientific subjects but also performed experiments.

Wallis’ list of the topics shows no Rosicrucian inclination, and the meetings themselves were most likely suggested by the success of Mersenne’s Academia Parisiensis.

It was the group around Huygens and Boswell at The Hague that exerted a decisive influence in England.

The chief foreign vehicle of this influence was Mersenne, its chief beneficiary was Wilkins.

The Royal Society is in large measure the record of the nature and success of this influence. 48The Oxford Years.

In 1648 Wilkins entered upon the second stage of his career.

Oxford had come under increasingly severe strains during the 1640’s.

The crisis came to a head after the victorious Parliamentary forces under Fairfax entered the town.

Within the next year the Parliamentary Visitors came to Oxford, ejected the old warden of Wadham College, and appointed Wilkins, who took charge on 13 April 1648.

It proved a wise choice.

It is universally acknowledged that Wadham was a distinguished college during Wilkins’ wardenship.

Among the new fellows of Wadham who came to Oxford from Cambridge were Seth Ward and Lawrence Rooke, “who was much addicted to experimental philosophy. ”

They met at various places, including Wadham, where Wilkins created a laboratory.

They included the nucleus of the future Royal Society: John Wallis, Jonathan Goddard, William Petty, Ralph Bathurst, Thomas Willis, and Robert Boyle.

Not long after, Boyle took up residence in Oxford. The meetings were also attended by some of the able students who came to Wadham.

He would hardly have been disturbed that his circle was in low repute among the Aristotelians, Galenists, and “those of the old stamp, that had been eminent for school and polemical divinity, and disputations and other polite parts of learning, [who] look upon them very inconsiderably, and their experiments as much below their profound learning and the professors of them. ”

This was precisely what reform was about and why so many sought Wilkins’s advice and encouragement.

Created at no small expense, the expansion and layout of this formal garden was one of Wilkins’ first innovations.

It was exquisitely executed with various mechanical wonders, a Doric temple, and, on a mound, a statue of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.

There were not only scientific instruments, but also a “hollow statue which gave a voice and uttered words” and transparent, elaborately adorned apiaries built in the shape of castles and palaces, but constructed so as to make it possible to take out the honey without destroying the bees. 53 In those days science and ingenuity were visual.

In the midst of this busy life, Wilkins was also a member of several influential university committees, including the delegacy to which the governance of the university was entrusted by its chancellor, Oliver Cromwell, on 16 October 1652.

In this work, Wilkins successfully sought to regain for the university and the colleges their lost autonomy, to mediate between contending factions, and to maintain order and discipline.

He especially defended the university against the attacks of radical religious factions, both on the governance of the university and its curriculum.

One such attack was Webster’s Academiarum examen (1654), which Wilkins and Ward answered the same year in Vindicae academiarum.

It opened with a letter by Wilkins, outlining and rejecting the three main charges.

Further, the university did not intend to direct its teachings according to the mystical linguistic doctrines of Boehme and “the highly illuminated fraternity of the Rosicrucians. ”

In the spring of 1656, Wilkins married Cromwell’s sister, Robina French, which is said to have strengthened his hand with the Lord Protector in the interests of the university.

In 1659 Wilkins made a sudden change of the sort that energetic men, confident of their powers, are prone to make when they, after success in one place, see an opportunity to apply their talents in new territory.

He took possession in late summer, resigning from the wardenship of Wadham on 3 September 1659.

His tenure lasted barely a year.

After the king’s return to England in May 1660, Henry Ferne was made master, having successfully pressed a claim on the basis of a promise made by Charles I.

In a letter of July 1660, “numerously signed, ” the fellows of Trinity both offered their congratulations on the restoration and requested the reconfirmation of Wilkins, “appointed at their earnest petition, on the death of Dr. Arrowsmith, in 1658. ”

During his brief association with Cambridge, Wilkins entered the circle of a group of men with whom he, in spite of some differences, had so much in common that he came to be considered one of them.

At the time of the Act of Uniformity a few years later, Richard Baxter wrote a succinct description of these men.

He divided the conformists into three groups: the zealots, those who submitted for a variety of personal and other reasons, and

Wilkins’ departure from Cambridge was felt as a loss by many, one of them being Isaac Barrow, whom Wilkins helped to the geometry professorship at Gresham College in 1662, the year before Barrow assumed the Lucasian chair at Cambridge.

With an uncertain future behind him, Wilkins now gravitated to London and the culmination of his career as the energetic center of the Royal Society. The Royal Society and The Last Years.

In 1660 began the third and last stage of Wilkins’ career.

He did not have to wait long for ecclesiastical preferment.

After attending a lecture by Wren on 28 November 1660, the group gathered to discuss a plan for the founding of “a college for the promoting of physico-mathematical experimental learning. ”

65 Wilkins was still styled president in the first months of the new year, but on 6 March 1661 Sir Robert Moray was chosen president, no doubt owing to his close associations with the king, whose favor was eagerly and successfully sought during the first years.

The rest is a familiar story.

He was occasionally called vice-president, although the statutes made no provision for such an office.

While secretary, he attended practically every meeting and at most of them he was busy doing something: providing recent information, proposing experiments, being put in charge of this and that, appointed to special committees, asked for advice, engaged in fund-raising, and preparing suitably interesting doings for the king’s visits.

This was one of the several subjects of Mathematical Magick that occupied the society during the 1660’s.

At the beginning of 1668, Wilkins once more became involved in church affairs.

After the fall of Clarendon, during the closing months of the previous year, the way was open for an attempt to bring at least some groups of nonconformists into communion with the church, a policy Wilkins had long supported in accordance with the promise made by the king in the Declaration of Breda shortly before his return to England.

Richard Baxter was approached, but he found himself unable to accept the initial terms of negotiation and requested instead that “two learned peaceable divines” be nominated “to treat with us, till we agreed on the fittest terms. ”

One of them was Wilkins, who drew up a proposal that was revised during further deliberations.

Although he discounted this rumor, he added that Wilkins was “a mighty rising man, as being a Latitudinarian, and the Duke of Buckingham’s great friend. ”

In the midst of all his activities during the 1660’s, Wilkins had also found time to prepare his greatest work, An Essay Towards a Real Character and a philosophical Language, which with the official imprimatur of the Royal society was presented to it on 7 May 1668.

The Essay is the largest and most complete work in a long tradition of speculation and effort to create an artificial language that would, in a contemporary phrase, “repair the ruins of Babel. ”

The universal use of a single language, for example, Latin, would meet this problem, but as Latin lost ground during the early half of the seventeenth century, especially in scientific writings, the need for other solutions was felt with greater urgency.

As knowledge grew, in large measure aided by the introduction of common, conceptual, nonverbal symbols (much like Arabic numerals), there seemed to be new hope for the idea of a different sort of language, generally traced back to Ramon Lull, which would refer directly to what knowledge and thought are about, rather than using the imperfect medium of ordinary languages.

There was wide agreement with Bacon that in these languages words were a perpetual source of philosophical error, being “framed and applied according to the conceit and capacities of the vulgar sort. ”

The traditional model for such a language, often cited in the seventeenth century, was the language Adam spoke when he named the animals in his perfect state of knowledge before the fall.

It was, for instance, seriously believed by some that it could be found by a sort of etymological distillation from all existing languages of the hitherto hidden but original elements of the Adamic language, on the assumption that this language was Hebrew, that Hebrew was the source of all other languages, and that these elements expressed the natures or essences of things.

This was the mystical way, repeatedly rejected by Mersenne as nonsense; only God can know the essences of things. But granting that man can grasp the order of creation by sense experience and reason, it would seem possible for man to comprehend and codify this knowledge in an artificial language based on the study of things.

It would be philosophical and scientific without error.

On the practical level, it could be expressed in written or spoken symbols or both.

Unlike a universal language, in which knowledge was still tied to the “cheat or words, ” to use another contemporary phrase, it would deal directly with things.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, a wealth of texts toyed with the possibility of a philosophical language, most of them on the level of groping speculation which never reached articulate statement of basic principles.

In addition to these texts, there were many rumors about men who were working on such projects.

They were typically surrounded by great secrecy, and there were several instances of offers to reveal the secret, for great sums of money.

The philosophical language was the exact equivalent of the philosopher’s stone.

Leibniz brought more conviction, energy, and intelligence to this problem; yet even he never spelled out its full meaning.

Wilkins based his plan on a few basic principles.

He assumed that “as men do generally agree in the same principle of reason, so do they likewise agree in the same internal notion or apprehension of things. ”

Now, if the common notions of men could be tied to common marks, written or spoken, then mankind would be “freed from that curse in the confusion of tongues, with all the unhappy consequences of it. ”

These marks would “signify things, and not words, ” conjoined “with certain invariable rules for all such grammatical derivations and inflexions, and such only, as are natural and necessary, ” all contrived so “as to have such a dependence upon, and relation to, one another, as might be suitable to the nature of the things and notions which they represented. ”

Thus the various marks, with their modifications, would follow an ordered and rational analysis of knowledge.

The advantage would be immense, for “besides [being] the best way to helping the memory by a natural method, the understanding likewise would be highly improved; and we should, by learning the character and the names of things, be instructed likewise in their natures. ”

Wilkins decided, somewhat arbitrarily he admitted, on forty basic genera, which with “differences” and “species” would produce the marks that would give an inventory of the world, so to speak.

Thus “world” is a genus (in the “effable” language represented by da), which by addition of the second difference, denoting “celestial” (with the effable sign d) produces the notion “heaven” (dad).

“Earth” has the same elements, but to it must be added the mark for the seventh species, denoting this “globe of sea and land. ”

For them, once the Babelistic confusion of ordinary words and false concepts was stripped away, man would regain the Adamic nakedness of pure and complete knowledge.

With pure intellect thus restored, the need for memory would vanish; the small traces of it still required would be caused by the last imperfections in the system, much as friction cannot be entirely overcome. The Essay was tainted by its ancestry.

In Mercury, Wilkins had outlined some of its principles, although only for the creation of a universal language.

He then briefly outlined the plan Wilkins executed.

“Such a language as this, ” Ward said, “where every word were a definition and contained the nature of the thing, might not unjustly be termed a natural language, and would afford that which the cabalists and Rosicrucians have vainly sought for in the Hebrew, and in the names as signed by Adam. ”

The evidence shows that it was soon after and with the help of Ward that Wilkins began work on his philosophical language, as he openly admits in the “Epistle to the Reader” in the Essay.

In rather awkward fashion Wilkins straddled two traditions that in the minds of most observers could not be brought together.

Mersenne had clearly outlined the plan of such a language, but stayed clear of the mystical implications; and, in the evesnt, he seems not to have had faith in its practically, although he took an interest in its theoretical aspects, much as he did in automata.

In the Essay Wilkins also modified his optimistic statements with great diffidence about the entire plan and avowals of its tentative, incomplete execution, inviting the Royal Society to appoint a committee to examine it and make suggestions for its improvement.

It was fortunate for his reputation that the Essay came at the end of Wilkins’ career.

The publication of the Essay put the Royal Society in a difficult situation.

Written by one or its best-known members, encouraged and published under its auspices, it caused a crisis of prestige.

It had been much talked about before publication, and it was soon distributed both in England and on the Continent.

Yet none of the scientific members of the society had much, if any, faith in it, with the exception of Hooke, who mastered it and continued to take great interest in it.

Following Wilkins’ wishes, the society immediately set up a committee to report on the Essay, but within in the society this committee was never heard from again.

It was, however, decided that the society’s “respository” under Hooke would be organized according to the Essay.

In its outward relations, the society talked up the Essay with much exaggeration.

Thus after Christiaan Huygens had voiced his doubts to Moray, the latter quickly wrote back that the character was easy to master; the king had already done so and everyone was now following his example. 85Outside the Royal Society, a group of men (some of whom were fellows) continued to seek to improve and perfect the philosophical language, but with the exception of Hooke, these were men without scientific prestige in the society. 86 Having himself already written on similar plans, Leibniz soon learned about the Essay; he admired it greatly, although he still found it short of his own requirements.

In 1680 he wrote of this admiration to Haak, but added that something “much greater and more useful could be made of it, insofar as algebraic characters are superior to chemical signs.

But so far as the Royal Society was concerned, the Essay was quietly forgotten. The Essay did have one important effect; it set John Ray to work on botanical classification.

Wilkins had lost all his belongings in the Great Fire of London, including part of the as yet unpublished manuscript of the Essay.

But eager to finish it, he enlisted the help of Francis Willoughby and John Ray in October 1666.

This proved impossible, and when it became known that a bill for comprehension was ready, Parliament refused to accept it.

But Wilkins had Buckingham’s patronage, and when the see of Chester fell vacant in August, he was soon appointed and duly consecrated on 14 November 1668.

In a diocese known for its large number of Dissenters, he was an lenient to nonconformists as his predecessor had been severe, many being brought into communion with the church owing to his “soft interpretation of the terms of conformity”, while others who did not conform were still allowed to preach.

Early in 1669, Pepys heard that Wilkins, “my friend shall be removed to Winchester and be Lord Treasurer. ”

They prepared the zoological and botanical tables.

But he admitted at the same time that the project did not suit him.

It is a good question whether Wilkins knew of this criticism, which went to the heart of the matter; the Essay did not, as he had intended, follow the “method of nature. ”

Suffering from “fits of the stone, ” he unsuccessfully sought a cure at Scarborough Spa during the summer of 1672.

On 10 August 1672, Lord Berkeley, recently arrived from Dublin.

was nobly entertained by Wilkins at dinner in the bishop’s palace at Chester.

On 30 October Wilkins was in London, where he attended, for the last time, a meeting of the Royal Society. But the attacks persisted.

Hooke and others administered medication, but to no avail.

At his death he is reported to have said that he was “prepared for the great experiment. ”

The funeral sermon was preached by William Lloyd at the Guildhall Chapel on 12 December; “though it proved a wet day, yet his corpse was very honorably attended there were above forty coaches with six horses, besides a great number of others. ”

He was buried in the church of St. Lawrence Jewry.


  • Wilkins is one of the few persons to have headed a college at both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. He was a polymath, although not one of the most important scientific innovators of the period.

    His personal qualities were brought out, and obvious to his contemporaries, in reducing political tension in Interregnum Oxford, in founding the Royal Society on non-partisan lines, and in efforts to reach out to religious nonconformists.

    He was one of the founders of the new natural theology compatible with the science of the time.

    He is particularly known for An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668) in which, amongst other things, he proposed a universal language and a decimal system of measures which was later developed to become the metric system.

    Wilkins lived in a period of great political and religious controversy, yet managed to remain on working terms with men of all political stripes; he was key in setting the Church of England on the path toward comprehension for as many sects as possible, "and toleration for the rest. "



With the Cambridge Platonists, he shared the outlook that was just then coming to be known as latitudinarianism: a commitment to tolerance and comprehension in church affairs, respect for learning, and the principle that the right understanding of religion, both revealed and natural, is essentially governed by reason.

The age is full of testimonies that are echoed in Gilbert Burnet’s Summary of Wilkins’ character: “He was naturally ambitious, but was the wisest clergyman I ever knew.

There is an illuminating contemporary account in Edward Fowler, The Principles and Practices of Certain Moderate Divines of the Church of England (Greatly Misunderstood) Truly Represented and Defended (London, 1670).

The new science had triumphed, and the liberal Anglican theology known as latitudinarianism was, thanks to him, on the rise under such men as John Tillotson, Edward Stillingfleet, and Simon Patrick. Both in print and action, Wilkins was committed to a set of principles and beliefs–generally known as natural theology–which he was the first fully to formulate and advocate in England.

He never questioned the importance of the Bible and revelation as sources of faith, and in this respect his thought differs from what later became known as deism.

Man is also naturally “a sociable creature having only these two advantages to his protection, Society and Reason .

With his last work, An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, then in the press, Wilkins stated that “man was certainly made for society, he being of all creatures the least armed for defence, and of all creatures in the world the young ones are notable to do anything to help themselves and were it not for speech man would be a very mean creature. ”

Using arguments that today are perhaps best known from Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Wilkins repeatedly rejected scriptural authority in natural philosophy, a principle to which all the new scientists were committed; if theology is allowed interference with philosophy, then the status of the latter is endangered as an independent source of the wisdom of the creator.

He soon transferred to Magdalen Hall, where his tutor was the Baptist divine John Tombes.

In spite of the dramatic outward differences of their lives, they offer a beautiful example of the unifying, even irenic effect of the new science, in accordance with their mutual aim. 41If with Wilkins’ contemporaries we grant that he was the chief promoter of the new science in England–not only by virtue of his writings, but also owing to his personal encouragement of individuals and his success in the shaping of scientific organization before and after the official formation of the Royal Society–then his alliance with Mersenne has far-reaching consequences for the belief that the Rosicrucian enlightenment was the seed-bed of the sort of natural philosophy that it was the aim of the Royal Society to promote.

This situation was intensified by the frothy presence of extreme Anabaptist agitators who acknowledged no authority but their own private revelations.

I see no reason at all for the opinion, heard in the eighteenth century and repeated by John Tulloch, that Wilkins “was a Calvinist of a somewhat strict type” (Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England in the Seventeenth Century, 2 vols.


In his own time Wilkins’ stature and influence were very considerable.

He was committed to a policy of tolerance that allowed compromise both in political and ecclesiatical affairs, based on the conviction that natural and revealed religion together with the new science proved a benevolent, providential order which, if rightly understood, ensured that mankind could live happily and peacefully, even prosperously, in this world.

For this reason, his influence was divided between such men as Hooke, Boyle, and Ray on the one hand, Tillotson, Stillingfleet, and Patrick on the other.

In this sense he shaped the temper of England in the latter half of the seventeenth century and left a signficant impresssion on the eighteenth.

His influence was acknowledged by John Ray both in the Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation 1691) and A Persuasive to a Holy life (1700), with the telling subtitle, “From the Happiness which Attends It Both in This World and in the World to come. ”

In science, Hooke’s tribute in the Micrographia leaves no doubt of Wilkins’ importance, although he did not make any direct contribution to science.

Even those, like Anthony à Wood, whose party loyalties made them caustic critics of men with similar careers, were sparing in their criticism of Wilkins.

Wilkins’ basic stylistic doctrine is already stated in the last section of Ecclesiastes, or a Discourse Concerning the Gift of Preaching as It Falls Under the Rules of Art.

This section, “Concerning Expression, ” says that “obscurities in the discourse is an argument of ignorance in the mind.

The greatest learning is to be seen in the gresatest plainness.

The more clearly we understand anything ourselves, the more easily we can expound it to others.

His use by Wilkins at this time is noteworthy because he was also, along with especially Hugo Grotius, an authority with William Chillingworth in the Religion of Protestants (1638).

See the excellent study by Robert R. Orr, Reason and Authority, the Thought of William Chillingworth (Oxford, 1967).

There are other suggestive similarities between Chilling-worth and Wilkins.

Thus Principles and Duties, p. 27, cites the last section in bk.

II of Grotius’ De veritate religionis Christianae for the very same purpose as Chillingworth in Religion, ch. 6, sect. 51. 13.

Discourse, I , 172. 14.

Mathematical Magick comprises II , 89–260, but the dedication to the prince elector Palatine and “To the Reader. ”

are placed at the very front of vol. 1.

In “Praefatio ad lectorem” of the Quoestiones in Genesim, Mersenne had recalled the same Horatian passage for precisely the same purpose, against Aristotelian authority and in favour of our own experience of phenomena; Wilkins cited this work in the Discovery and in the Discourse.

It is not clear whether Wilkins made two journeys during 1648–1649 or whether one of them occurred earlier or, less likely, later.

Charles Louis spent most of the years between 1644 and his return (May 1649) in England.

In 1644 he was invited to attend the sessions of the Westminster Assembly (Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials [London, 1732], p. 108).

Wilkins was formally accepted by the Assembly on 25 September 1643. 28.

It is hard to accept Grant McColley’s argument that Campanella’s Apologia is the main source of both the Discovery and the Discourse.


Campanella, The Defence of Galiteo, tr.

by Grant McColley, in Smith College Studies in History. 22, nos. 3–4 (April–July 1937), intro.


“The Ross-Wilkins Controversy, ” in Annals of Science, 3 (1938), 153–189.

All these items have much useful information, although they are committed to a view of conflict between science and religion that is now outmoded.

Hartlib’s “Ephemerides” indicate that Campanella was in London during 1635.

cit. , p. 4268).

It is remarkable that Wilkins’ defense on the question of biblical authority uses the same arguments as Galileo in the Letter to the Grand Duchess, which was presumably not known to Wilkins. 29.

Like his two previous books, Mercury cites a wealth of sources, both ancient and modern, with some fifty in the latter category.

Among the most important are Johannes Trithemius, De polygraphia and stenographia, Herman nus Hugo, De origine scribendi (1617), and Gustaphus Selenus, De cryptographia (1624), the name is a pseudonym for the learned Duke August of Braunschweig-Lüneburg.

In 1630 John Pell had written “‘A Key to Unlock the Meaning of Johannes Trithemius’ in His Steganography; Which Key Mr. Pell the Same Year Imparted to Mr. Samuel Hartlib. ”

Oxford, on 7 July 1637; and Richart West, who matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, on 15 February 1633; both presumably knew Wilkins at Oxford, which adds a little to the sparse information we have of Wilkins’ life during those years.

Another poem is by Sir Francis Kynaston, the center of a literary coterie at court.

who in 1635 founded Musaeum Minerva, an academy for young noblemen.

Wilkins was clearly getting known in wider circles. 30.

Among other recent works are Pierre Gassendi, Vita Peireskii (1641), A. Kircher, De magnete (1643), and Mario Bettini, Apiaraia universae philosophia mathematicae, quibus paradoxa et nova pleraque machinamenta ad usus eximios traducta et facillimis demonstrationibus confirmata exhibentur, 2 vols.

(Bologna, 1641–1642). 31.

Wilkins mentions Guidobaldo among his chief sources.

It includes, on a reduced scale, the line drawings and illustrations of the original.

In the final pages of Mathematical Magick, Wilkins discussed Arichimedes’ screw with reference to Guidobaldo’s De cochlea (1615).

This device also interested Mersenne. 32.

The only point on which Wilkins may be indebted to Galileo is the subject “concerning the proportion of slowness and swiftness in mechanical motions” (Mathematical Magick, II, 146–148), which shows similarity with chapters 1 and 5 of Les méchaniques (see Rochot, ed. , pp. 23–25, 32–34), but it is possible that Wilkins could also have found this in some other source.

In that work Galileo did not deal with the wedge, but explained the rest on the principle of the lever.

The Mersenne work in question is Tractatus mechanicus theoricus et practicus (96 pp. )

contained in the Cogitata physico-mathematica, which was ready from the press on 1 April 1644.

This collective volume also contains other pieces to which Wilkins refers.

Mersenne explained the screw in terms of the inclined plane, the balance and the wheel in terms of the lever, and the pulley and the wedge in terms that combined the lever and the inclined plane.

This book gave an account of the mechanics of Hero of Alexandria, of which the full text was not known until the late nineteenth century.

First published in the late sixteenth century, both his Automata and Pneumatics were very influential, clearly seen, for instance, in Salomon de Caus, Les raisons des forces mouvantes avec diverses machines tant utilles que plaisantes.

Of Water Works, is a popular exposition of Hero’s Pneumatics, with illustrations from the Italian edition, showing how to make mechanical chirping birds and the like, all subjects that also fascinated Mersenne and Wilkins, who was clearly much indebted to this tradition stemming from Hero.

In the former, Mersenne, like Wilkins, referred to the submarine constructed by Cornelis Drebbel, who was also known for his work on other devices, including the perpetuum mobile; the name recurs elsewhere in Mersenne.

He was ordained and became vicar of Fawsley in 1637, but soon resigned and became chaplain successively to Lord Saye and Sele, Lord Berkeley, and Prince Charles Louis, nephew of Charles I and afterwards elector palatine of the Rhine.

Already in 1634, Mersenne had asked in question 21 of the Questions inooyes, pp. 84–89, “Peut-on faire des navires, et des bateaux qui nagent entre deux eaux. ”

The same work opened with one of Wilkins’ favorite topics, “A sçavoir si l’art de voller est possible, ” a problem that recurs in the Cogitata (e. g. , Tractatus mechanicus, p. 41).

Belonging to the year of the king’s execution, this sermon argued that, “we may infer, how all that confusion and disorder, which seems to be in the affairs of these times, is not so much in the things themselves, .

as in our mistake of them” (p. 65); it is characteristic of Mersenne and Wilkins that moral and religious arguments jostle statements of scientific principle.

Boswell was one of the literary executors of Bacon’s estate, possessing among other things the important writings edited by Isaac Gruter, Francisci Baconi de Verulamio scripta in naturali et universali philosophiâ (Amsterdam, in 1651, Gruter published another manuscript in Boswell’s possession, William Gilbert.

De mundo nostro sublunari philosophia nova, often known as “Physiologia nova. ”

Bacon used this work in some of his writings, though without citation.

The most likely source of this information is surely Boswell.

Boswell also had a collection of John Dee’s papers, some of which he intended to publish himself.

This was known to Hartlib, who recorded it in the “Ephemerides” in 1639; he said there and later repeated (see Davies, p. 77) that Boswell attributed “all his proficiency in learning whatever it be, to the goodness” of Dee’s Preface to Euclid.

There is no compelling reason to believe that respect for that Preface means commitment to cabalistic doctrines; it is perhaps wiser to accept Leibniz’ opinion that Edward Kelley was an impostor who abused Dee.

Boswell was secretary to Lord Herbert of Cherbury in 1620 while the latter was ambassador at Paris.

There are references to Boswell in De Briefwisseling van Constantijn Huygens.

The Mersenne Correspondance is of primary importance.

Yet, postulating that it followed a natural method, Wilkins believed that it could be mastered in one month. This belief reveals something about the Essay’s ancestry, for this was precisely the claim being made by mystical projectors, who, however, had the good reason for their claim that they assumed a strict interpretation of the macrocosom-microcosm harmony.


Quotations: Wilkins wrote on 6 September 1653: “I should exceedingly rejoice in your being stayed in England this winter, and the advantage of your conversation at Oxford, where you will be a means to quicken and direct our enquiries. ”


Briggs was a strong Copernican and scorned astrology as “a system of groundless conceits, ” a view that was shared by his Savilian colleague in the astronomy chair, 1621–1643, John Bainbridge, who in London had belonged to the circle of Briggs and Nathaniel Carpenter.


He was a lover of mankind, and had a delight indoing good.

Quotes from others about the person

  • “Gilbert Burnet called him "the wisest clergyman I ever knew. He was a lover of mankind, and had a delight in doing good. "”


In 1656, he married Robina French née Cromwell, youngest sister of Oliver Cromwell, who had been widowed in 1655 when her husband Peter French, a canon of Christ Church, Oxford, had died. Wilkins thereby joined a high stratum of Parliamentary society, and the couple used rooms in Whitehall Palace.

Robina French née Cromwell

Isaac Barrow