Vossius, Gerardus Joannes
Gerardus Joannes Vossius (1577–1649), a professor at Leiden University and the Athenaeum illustre in Amsterdam, was a philosopher in a limited sense only: he was a polymath who wrote about history, poetry, culture, theology, and philosophy in a very systematic, encyclopedic, and eclectic way. As such, he was not so much an original thinker as an author who made topics easily accessible for fellow scholars, students, and well-educated patricians and merchants. Vossius made an important contribution to philosophy, by publishing his De theologia gentili sive Physiologia christiana (1642), a much acclaimed introduction to the natural knowledge of God.
KeywordsNatural Knowledge Original Thinker Coherent Frame Dutch Republic Opus Omnia
In the early spring of 1577, Gerardus Joannes Vossius was born in Heidelberg as the son of a merchant-preacher. In 1583, the family settled in Dordrecht, where both his parents died. Vossius stayed in Dordrecht and attended the Latin school. At the age of 18, he was granted a scholarship that enabled him to study artes and theology at the Leiden University (he matriculated on 21 September 1595 and obtained his MA on 13 March 1598). First he served as a teacher and rector at his former school in Dordrecht, but in 1615, he was nominated regent of the Leiden “States College,” the academic institute where future ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church received their theological training. In 1619, the quarrels on predestination and grace that shook the foundations of the Dutch Republic came to an end. Vossius was dismissed on the grounds that he was a “modern” theologian who advocated the “Arminian,” i.e., Remonstrant theology. The scholar’s stance in this opaque controversy is not easy to fathom. Although he pictured himself in a letter to Franciscus Gomarus as a rather unflagging orthodox believer who managed to keep his distance from innovative Arminian theology, he actually endorsed a view on grace and free will that, to say the least, positioned him as an outsider in the Contra-Remonstrant camp. Just like his friend Hugo Grotius, Vossius refused to wholeheartedly endorse harsh Contra-Remonstrant views, which he saw as a one-sided interpretation of the authoritative Church Father Augustine, who in his anti-Pelagian polemics had bequeathed a legacy to the Church which had caused much internal strife throughout the centuries. Nonetheless, in 1622, Vossius overcame all difficulties by gaining a professorship in eloquence at Leiden University. His task was to teach Latin language and literature, and world history. In 1631, he moved to the newly created Athenaeum Illustre in Amsterdam, after attempts to offer him a professorship in Cambridge had come to nothing. As the first rector of the Athenaeum, he taught history and political science. With his colleague Caspar Barlaeus (1584–1648), who took care of the courses in philosophy and rhetoric, he maintained a lifelong friendship. It was during the Amsterdam period that he wrote and published most of his works, which cover a broad spectrum of disparate disciplines: history, rhetoric, linguistics, and literary, cultural, religious, and philosophical subjects. In the international world of scholarship, he distinguished himself as a prolific letter writer. His vast correspondence encompasses 3,388 letters, 1,296 of them written by Vossius himself and 2,092 addressed to him. He married twice, in 1602 with Elisabeth van den Corput, daughter of a minister, and after her death with Elisabeth du Jon, daughter of Franciscus Junius (Sr.). Of his ten children, only Isaac Vossius (1618–1689) would survive him. His brother-in-law was the philologist, theologian, and writer on art Franciscus Junius Jr. (1591–1677); they worked together on books of art theory. On 17 March 1649, Vossius died of an erysipelas infection that had forced him to stay in bed for 5 days. Quite symbolically, another story claims that the scholar met his fate when he climbed an unstable ladder, reaching for a book on the upper shelves of his library, and had some hefty folio volumes come down on him.
At first sight, it seems strange to rank Vossius among the philosophers of the seventeenth century, for he hardly wrote on philosophy or philosophical topics in the modern sense of the word, and his few works on the subject were certainly not original. However, as an author of systematically ordered surveys and reference works, he elaborated on many subjects regarding poetry, culture, theology, and philosophy. He often wrote about the “character” and “arrangement” of the subjects he treated, terms that are used in the title of some of his works, for example, De artis poeticae natura ac constitutione (1647). As such, he was not so much an original thinker, let alone an innovator, but rather an industrious polymath, who systematically applied traditional distinctions, divisions, and arrangements to the subjects he discussed, in an attempt to create a didactically sound program of learning. He unfolded a topic by dividing it into subtopics, dealt with its history, listed its main representatives, and went into many aspects related to it. Thus he tried to make the topics accessible for scholars, teachers, and students in an “encyclopedic” way. “Encyclopedic” has to be understood in two senses here: knowledge was analyzed and presented in an array of items as a (modern) encyclopedia does, treating all relevant details related to a particular subject, and it was synthesized as a part of the “entire circle of learning and education” as in the original meaning of the Greek “ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία.” Thus Vossius’s books, which together form the ideal curriculum of universal humanist learning, amply contributed to the erudition and conversational skills of the Dutch patricians, notably the elite of officeholders and merchants in a metropolis like Amsterdam, where Vossius concluded his impressive career. Not long after that, at the end of the seventeenth century, the wish to encompass all human knowledge in a more or less coherent frame lost its appeal. Trying to assess Vossius’s work as a historiographer, Wickenden reached the verdict that he was “not a fount of inspiration, but a quarry of materials.”
Beyond any doubt, Vossius made an important, albeit indirect, contribution to philosophy, by publishing his De theologia gentili sive Physiologia christiana (1642). In this work, he not only traced the origins of pagan mythology and cults, including those of the Far East and the newly discovered Americas, but he also delivered a detailed description of the natural world, God’s creation, and thus composed an introduction to the natural knowledge of God. In the mythographical part, Vossius tied pagan deities to Biblical figures and historical heroes and explained supernatural phenomena in a rational way. His approach was purely literary: as in other works, he relied on previous authoritative works.
Vossius wrote three books on philosophy proper: the theses he defended for his academic promotion in 1598 (Universalis philosophiae ἀκρωτηριάσμος), briefly treating grammar, rhetoric, poetics, logic, metaphysics, physics, astronomy, and ethics, the posthumously published De philosophia et philosophorum sectis (1657), which discusses the philosophic currents and schools in antiquity, giving their main characteristics, and De logica (1658).
In De artium et scientiarum natura ac constitutione libri quinque (first published in 1697 in the Opera omnia), Vossius draws up an overview of humanistic knowledge. In this work, he takes logic not as a part of philosophy, but as an essential instrument for a philosopher. He defines philosophy in the medieval tradition as “knowledge of all things through causes, as far as a man can understand them by the light of nature” (cf. the scholastic definition: “philosophy is the science of all things through the highest causes, obtained by natural reason”). The work contains a summary of Aristotle’s works about logic. Vossius’s practical attitude is demonstrated by his division of philosophy into “philosophia naturalis” (including “prima philosophia” and metaphysics), leading to “sapientia,” and “philosophia activa” (including ethics, politics, and eloquence) that should lead to “prudentia.”
Heritage, Innovative Aspects, and Legacy
That Vossius does not rank as an innovative philosopher also comes to the fore in many of his works on other subjects where he upheld the preponderance of Aristotelian thought in the academic curriculum. In this respect, however, he was not very rigorous. His main goal was to collect all human knowledge and divide it into clear-cut pieces. In his opinion, knowledge should be assembled and conveyed in a coherent and clear way, by means of ramification and eclectic procedures, in accordance with his concept of philosophy as knowledge by understanding the causes of phenomena. As an omnivorous reader, Vossius also stressed the paramount importance of a critical approach to the written sources. In his view of history, he was certainly original, stressing the use of historiography as an independent discipline that should also serve as the basis of other disciplines of knowledge and science. The historian should first of all aim at a thorough knowledge of those facts that were useful for a comfortable and happy life. Furthermore, historical knowledge helped to understand the true character of the outside world and was – as a consequence – an auxiliary tool for philosophical understanding. But historical facts must be collected not only for their practical relevance or the insight they provide into natural phenomena but also for their use in ethics: history served as an arsenal for ethical rules. Historical research, therefore, should be accompanied with philosophical reflection.
Vossius applied the same approach to poetics: a literary genre can only be understood by delving into its origin and by dissecting it into several parts and aspects. In this way, Vossius distinguished himself as a predecessor of German positivism that equally claimed that insight in a phenomenon’s causes implied understanding it. For Vossius, the ethical aspect was highly important in all spheres of knowledge, including those of poetics, music, and painting. Works of literature and of art should inspire high moral standards, instead of corroding them. He developed his views on this particular topic in his rhetorical works, where he expressly stated that the virtuous impression one makes on one’s audience is of paramount importance. Understandably enough, most of his work has to do with ethics as the preeminent branch of philosophy. Furthermore, it is important to note that in all of his works, Vossius comes to the fore as an eclecticist, assembling knowledge from everywhere to an encyclopedic whole. In chapter V “De graphice” of his De quatuor artibus popularibus (1650), for instance, he founds the theoretical section about “the nature and constitution” of painting on ancient authorities such as Aristotle, Philostratus, Horace, Pliny, and Philo and on “topoi specific to the history of painting and art theory,” as Colette Nativel has shown. His division of the popular arts is based on categories taken from Aristotle’s Politica, whereas in De philosophia, many human activities, including painting, physics, and medicine, are explained as philosophical arts.
Vossius’s significance for philosophy can be illustrated by his De theologia gentili, because it informed the later discussion on natural religion and Deism to a large extent. Vossius’s legacy, however, is not easy to assess, because as a polymath, he stuffed his books with observations that others had already made before him; this encyclopedic way of collecting information served the goal of “Bildung” (education) and helped to understand the world. In this way, his oeuvre marks the end of Renaissance thought. Paul Sellin dubbed his introduction to the art of poetry, the Poeticae institutiones (1647), “the last of the Renaissance monsters.” Vossius wholeheartedly endorsed the idea that it was within everybody’s reach to “learn” to write poetry or to produce a painting. This rather formal, mechanical conception of art was at first acclaimed by contemporaries. Later on, it also exerted great influence, for instance, on French dramatic theory, but around 1800, it was superseded by Romantic ideas on “divine” inspiration. Hence the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge found his poetics “thoroughly worthless.” But it seems rather unfair to conclude in such a negative vein. In the international scholarly world of the Late Renaissance, Vossius continued to exert a thorough influence that stretched well into the eighteenth century. His later fame was greatly stimulated by the careful way in which the eminent printing firm Blaeu in Amsterdam published many of his works, especially the Opera omnia.
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