Friday 14 March 2014

Men of Yore: John Wilkins

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

John Wilkins

John Wilkins (1 January 1614 – 19 November 1672) was an English clergyman, natural philosopher and author, as well as a founder of the Invisible College and one of the founders of the Royal Society, and Bishop of Chester from 1668 until his death. 
John Wilkins, bishop of Chester, was born at Fawsley, Northamptonshire, and educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford. 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. 
In 1648 he became warden of Wadham College, Oxford. Under him the college was extraordinarily prosperous, for, although a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, he was in touch with the most cultured royalists, who placed their sons in his charge. In 1659 Richard Cromwell appointed him master of Trinity College, Cambridge. At the Restoration in 1660 he was deprived, but appointed prebendary of York and rector of Cranford, Middlesex. In 1661 he was preacher at Gray's Inn, and in 1662 vicar of St. Lawrence Jewry, London.  
He became vicar of Polebrook, Northamptonshire, in 1666, prebendary of Exeter in 1667, and in the following year prebendary of St Paul's and bishop of Chester. Possessing strong scientific tastes, he was the chief founder of the Royal Society and its first secretary. He died in London on the 19th of November 1672. 
The chief of his numerous works is an Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (London, 1668), in which he expounds a new universal language for the use of philosophers, and is the most advanced work on artificial language in its time. He is remembered also for a curious work entitled The Discovery of a World in the Moon (1638, 3rd ed., with an appendix "The possibility of a passage thither", 1640.) Other works are A Discourse concerning a New Planet (1640); Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger (1641), a work of some ingenuity on the means of rapid correspondence and in fact the first book on cryptography printed in English; and Mathematical Magick (1648). 
On His Personality/Character:
As to Wilkins' character, Aarsleff writes in [1]:-
Throughout his life, he gained and retained the friendship and respect of men of the most diverse political and religious persuasions. No doubt such personal qualities as charm, ready conversation, and energy played their part in his success, but a deeper reason would seem to lie in his commitment to beliefs that transcended the exclusive interests of any particular faction. From the first to the last, all his writings advocate scientific and religious views that by the time of his death had proved that they represented the temper of the times. The new science had triumphed ...
Hooke, who had worked closely with Wilkins, wrote the following fine tribute to him in the Preface to Micrographia (1665):-
There is scarce one invention, which this nation has produced in our age, but it has some way or other been set forward by his assistance. ... He is indeed a man born for the good of mankind, and for the honour of his country. in the sweetness of whose behaviour, in the calmness of his mind, in the unbounded goodness of his heart, we have an evident instance, what the true and primitive unpassionate religion was, before it was soured by particular factions.
John Wilkins is one of the men throughout the ages that has acted as a positive intermediary between people with different views (be they royalist vs. republican, or religious vs. agnostic).  He encouraged them to communicate with each other and therefore encouraged them to work together, to find common ground that they could both agree on.  This is in total juxtaposition to proverbial shit-stirrers who enjoy provoking enmity between groups of people (be it in the office or on the international scene).  People of different views can live in a degree of harmony so long as they are willing to work together rather than against each other.  To this end he attempted to develop a universal language that all people throughout the world could use for communication.  Related to this universal language is his idea on universal measures, which was later developed in France as the metric system (kilogrammes, litres, metres etc).
Another aspect of his character was his focus on practical science, and his efforts to promote experimental science over purely academic science which dominated academia during his day.

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