Thomas Sprat

The history of the Royal Society (1667)

Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society
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  It may seem strange to write the history of an organization that was only seven years old, although Sprat’s work is written in the spirit of the Latin historia, or an account. The book was also intended as an apologia for the new experimental science of the Royal Society, and a defence against those critics who said that nature and the human senses were too imperfect to aspire to true understanding, and that only deductive logic and intellectual reasoning, based upon first principles, could attain a true knowledge of things.

The whole spirit of the book, moreover, was deeply influenced by the writings of Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), especially his Novum Organum (1620) or “New Method” which advocated an experimental, observational and taxonomic approach to knowledge, rather than an exclusive reverence of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks.

Wadham’s own Thomas Sprat (later Bishop of Rochester, see portrait in Hall) saw Wadham and Warden Wilkins' “Philosophical [Experimental] Club”, which met in College during the 1650s, as the birthplace of what in 1660 would become the Royal Society. He tended, however, to underestimate the significance of Gresham College, Bishopsgate, London, where Sir Christopher Wren held the Astronomy Chair, and Hooke the Geometry Chair after 1665, and where the Wadham Group and others met when in London. For the Wadham and the Gresham groups worked closely together, and shared many members in common.

Sprat’s history, which was a polemic in favour of the experimental method of the Royal Society, even saw the practical technological advocacy of the Royal Society as having Biblical endorsement as in Genesis 4:22 where the sons of Tubal-Cain became instructors of “every artificer in brass and iron”, thereby making the devising and using of scientific instruments part of God's wider plan for humanity.

Central also to the Baconian approach to the Royal Society was the belief that knowledge should be open, public, progressive and accumulative: pure scientific research should also facilitate beneficial applications in useful discoveries and inventions that would help to advance the human condition, unlike the arid “dogmatizing” of the formal University Aristotelian philosophy. Sprat, like most early Fellows of the Royal Society, also saw science as strengthening religious belief by demonstrating the elegance, beauty, and logic of the Creation when examined with accurate instruments. This emphasis on the intellectual openness and liberty of the new science was summed up in the Royal Society motto “Nullius in Verba” on the Royal Society's Coat of Arms, which is prominently displayed on Wenceslaus Hollar’s engraved frontispiece of Sprat’s History. The motto is a contraction of the Latin text “Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri” (Horace, Epistles, I, i, 13-14) – ”not bound to swear allegiance to any master” – and which would have been familiar to every 17th century schoolboy.
Text kindly provided, especially for this exhibition, by Allan Chapman