Nicholas Hill was one of the most intriguing and particular personalities of England during the reign of James I. Details of his life are scarce. He is the author of Philosophia Epicurea Democritiana Theophrastica proposita simpliciter, non edocta that was first published in Paris in 1601 and appeared posthumously in a “purged” edition in Geneva in 1619 (Hill 2007).
His work was considered as one of the first modern philosophical works containing an open discussion of the theories of Democritus and Epicurus and an affirmation of the heliocentric theory. There is also a significative and direct convergence between Hill and Giordano Bruno regarding the dimensions of the universe formulated in De immenso. The topics of the Philosophia Epicurea are discussed in 509 sentences or aphorisms – as Hill defines them – in which a number of Greek philosophical terms are disseminated. The work is introduced by a preface dedicated to his son and a series of 15 questions. To a hierarchical and subordinate view of reality, he opposes an alternative image of the world that shows strong traces of the complex model of interpretation of reality developed by Paracelsus.
Nicholas Hill was born in London and died in Rotterdam c. 1610–1620. He was educated at Merchant Taylor’s School and studied at St John’s College in Oxford. Hill matriculated in 1587, graduated and was elected fellow in 1590, but within a year he had been deprived. According to some historians, above all John Aubrey, biographer and member of the Royal Society, the philosopher was “an intimate acquaintance” of the mathematician and geographer Robert Hues, a member of the Raleigh-Northumberland circle, which included the mathematicians Thomas Harriot and Walter Warner. According to Hues, Hill was in the retinue of Henry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland, patron of science, and natural philosopher, during the 1590s. In 1603 he was involved in an abortive Catholic conspiracy against James I and joined himself with Mr. Basset, who, after Queen Elizabeth’s death, pretended some right to the crown. After the conspiracy collapsed, the author of the Philosophia Epicurea left England and resided in Rotterdam, with his son Laurence. According to an account of Hues, recorded by Obadiah Walker, Master of University College, Oxford, Hill’s son died and he committed suicide. Aubrey reports in his Brief Lives that he was not only a natural philosopher and a practicer of alchemical secrets but also a great Lullianist and a passionate scholar of ars memoriae. Ben Jonson refers to the philosopher in one of his epigrams as “an Englishman who maintained Democritus’ opinions,” and, in a quite ironical tone, as the English atomist par excellence. In the second section of the second part of the Anatomy of Melancholy, A Digression of Ayre, added in 1638, Robert Burton lists the defenders of the earth’s motion, the infinity of space, and the plurality of the worlds: among them there is Hill. In 1622 Tobias Adami in his preface to Tommaso Campanella’s Apologia pro Galileo lists the English philosopher among the supporters of the Copernican theory. Following Bruno, Hill maintained the universe is infinite and alive. Space and time are infinite and homogeneous: prime matter is formed of atoms, indivisible, solid particles of various shapes, whose motions and interrelations are governed by a force – vis – which radiates in a manner analogous to light. Atoms in Hill scheme are the “end of divine actions in nature” (aph. 116) and the simplest of all truths is: “natura est deus in rebus” or “nature is God in things.” The philosopher is convinced that the infinite creativity of God cannot but express itself in a physical universe that will itself be infinite, since only such a physically infinite and infinitely varied universe suits an infinite creating power. In many passages of the Philosophia Epicurea, the judgement pronounced by Hill above all toward Scholastic theology is implacable: it was primarily the conjunction between Aristotelian philosophical theory and the Christian religion that had compromised the understanding not only of the essence of God but also, as a consequence, of the natural world. According to the Paracelsian astronomy, the interior and exterior correspond, and they are considered in the supreme science the expression of the same substance contained in the unity God-nature. The impressive presence in the Philosophia Epicurea of a terminology typical of the original synthesis of Paracelsian medicine, which the Danish Peder Sorensen had already used in Idea medicinae philosophiae (1571), indicates a precise choice of field. In his alchemical atomism and in the revival of the great Renaissance philosophical themes by the works of Francesco Patrizi and Giordano Bruno, there is a clue that allows to attribute a more precise historical meaning to the philosophical positions expressed in the Philosophia Epicurea. According to Trevor-Roper, Hill was probably the author of a second treatise, manuscript, titled De infinitate et aeternitate mundi. A part of this manuscript poem in Bodleian library has been published (Plastina and Provvidera 2000) and a new manuscript of 64 pages, in toto, recently found, might be the complete text of the Hill’s work.
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