Posts tagged ‘Aristotle’

July 13, 2018

The Good Migrant: Scots who lived by their brains

Handsome, funny, cultured, considerate, sociable, well-read – his library contained over 1000 books mainly in Greek and Latin, a few volumes in French and Italian and lots in Dutch; only two were in the English language – a folio Bible printed in Edinburgh in 1610 and a King James Bible. Learned, definitely, and gifted with a superb memory. That was Gilbert Jack – once regarded as young iconoclast from Aberdeen. He died aged 50 of a stroke which paralysed him down one side and left him unable to speak during the remaining two months of his life. His death came as a great blow to the academic world for Gilbert Jack aka Jacchaeus, long-time professor at Leyden University, was an inspirational teacher of Aristotelian metaphysics.

Now I don’t begin to understand metaphysics. The more I’ve tried the greater my brain hurts but I think, but don’t take my word for it, it is a branch of philosophy that explores what lies beyond the here and now of the world- what’s out there but invisible to us; beyond the physical existence – such as God. The word metaphysics comes from the Greek metá meaning beyond or after and physiká, physics. In the 18th century the giant of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, argued against metaphysics, dismissing it as sophistry and illusion.

Gilbert Jack metaphysicsI don’t remember when I came across Gilbert Jack of Aberdeen. His name came up when I was scraning for something else. And not only his name but countless names of fellow Scots who became major figures in universities across Europe in the study of philosophy and medicine. I’ve thrown in medicine because the development of medicine in Scotland grew out of the close interaction between universities and colleges across Scotland and abroad and in any case Gilbert Jack was also an MD, having taken his medical degree at Leyden at the same time he was teaching there; his dissertation was on epilepsy – De Epilepsia.

The importance attached to education in Scotland led to this small nation punching well above its weight in the supply of talent to the world. In the centuries before the Scottish Enlightenment there was no less exchange of intellectual ideas across Europe which included Scots. Born in Aberdeen c1578 Gilbert Jack attended Aberdeen Grammar School before going to Aberdeen’s second university, Marischal College. He appears to have continued his studies at St Andrews before going on to Herborn in Hesse and Helmstädt in Lower Saxony and finally on 25 May 1603 to Leyden, the Netherland’s oldest university .

Within a year of arriving at Leyden, this brilliant intellect, a young iconoclast from Aberdeen, he’s been described as, was made professor of philosophy and logic and for the next 25 years he dominated Aristotelian metaphysics at the university (in his own time Aristotle’s ideas were not themselves described as metaphysics but first philosophy.) However, some of his ideas proved too challenging for Leyden and he was temporarily suspended from the university in 1619 for promoting the notion of predestination rather than free will – but I could be wrong.

Jack wrote up his ideas and proved as able an author as teacher. His first published works came out as 9 volumes in 1612: Institutiones Physicae, Juventutis Lugdunensis Studiis potissimum dicatae which sold well and republished followed by Primae Philosophiae Institutiones and Institutiones Medicae. These works provided textbooks for students elsewhere studying metaphysics and his fame spread. He was sought out and befriended by fellow academics and was invited to take up the chair in moral philosophy at Oxford University but he turned down the offer, preferring to stay at Leyden where he was content and where he had done the bulk of his work.

Today, Gilbert Jack would be regarded as a high flyer; celebrated by his contemporaries as a fine scholar, a grafter, popular lecturer and all-round good man. When he died on 17 April 1628 he left a widow and ten children to mourn him along with the world of academia. His fellow professor at Leyden, Adolf van Vorst, gave his funeral oration in Latin in which he praised his colleague for his contribution to philosophy, his attachment to Leyden and for being a thoroughly nice person.

Sadly forgotten in Aberdeen he was, nonetheless, celebrated as a philosopher and physician in the Netherlands; its most famous metaphysicians. Gilbert Jack was but one of so many Scots who went abroad and contributed to the banks of knowledge and learning enjoyed by succeeding generations but who are largely unknown at home here in Scotland: William Makdowell or MacDowell from Roxburgh, professor of philosophy at Groningen; Mark Duncan, also Roxburgh at Saumur in France; John Murdison at Leiden; Walter Donaldson a graduate of King’s in Aberdeen who went to Heidelberg, Frankfurt and Sedan; fellow Aberdonian Duncan Liddell, mathematician, astronomer and physician educated at the Grammar School followed by King’s College then built his life at Gdansk in Polish Prussia and Brandenburg University in Frankfurt with fellow Scot, John Craig, professor of logic and maths (and briefly physician to James VI); Andrew Melville from Baldovy by Montrose at Geneva; Adam Steuart professor of philosophy at Saumur, Sedan and Leiden; John Cameron, theologian at Saumur, Bergerac, Bordeaux and Montauban; Robert Baron, Professor of Theology Marischal – one of the six Aberdeen Doctors – influences in the dispute between supporters of the National Covenant and Episcopacy and who taught at Marischal and King’s universities whose Metaphysica generalis was posthumously published in 1654. A mere handful of examples from a vast haul of home-nurtured talent which grew here and abroad.

Punching above our weight is what Scotland has done consistently over hundreds of years. Of course much of that has been to do with people escaping poverty and using education as a means of improving their lives. Scots became migrants, many to the Continent, though not exclusively by any means, and benefitted from and contributed to the invaluable exchange of ideas once possible before passport barriers were erected. Just as well these bright people lived when they did and not in today’s febrile, hostile, anti-migrant world.