I, being sick of an Ague, have come out to Country for a change of Air. But in truth I am not so sick at all, and I embrace this circumstance with whole Heart, for it enables me to pursue, as is my true Vocation, still further Observations touching upon divers questions of Natural Philosophy.
The Duke, when he comes galloping through England between diplomatic missions to Vienna and Constantinople, makes light of my inquiries, and says mockingly how good it is that Philosophy now includes matters suitable for Ladies too. There was no room for the feminine sex in the Schools and their endless debates about the Quiddity of this and the Thisness of that, he laughs, but how fitting for a Duchess, with leisure to spare, to look with her magnifying Lens at the industry of Silkworms, at the fine detail of the leg of a Flea, or to place two such Lenses together within a Tube, and to look out at the Heavens, to chart the Eclipse of the Moon or to follow the path of a shooting Star.
But the Duke cannot see past his own Nose, I tell him, for in truth such matters were always of great concern to the Philosopher. For did Aristotle himself not wade in the Tides, searching for ever new forms of Corral, of Medusae and Polypi? Did he not describe the formation of Clouds and other Meteors, and the fatty exhalations of earth that we call Comets? No, ‘tis the Schools that shrank Philosophy down to the mere quarrel over Words, distorting the legacy of the great Aristotle, while neglecting altogether the work of Hippocrates, the Elder Pliny, Isidore of Seville. As if these too were not Philosophers! What these men possess, and the discoursers upon Quiddity lack, I believe, is Curiosity. Those discoursers suffer from Wind. They do not hunger for the World, nor have they Appetite for the astounding and infinite diversity of its Particulars.
When I arrived at the Estate yesterday I was delighted to learn that the servant child Tom had, with his parents’ encouragement, kept strong our Experiment in the culture and production of Silk since I helped him with it Summer last. My own Mother suffered not her servants to speak or play in her presence, nor in any way to show their fellow Humanity. Yet from the earliest age I could not help but take an interest in the knowledge they pass down from one generation to the next, which differs from the Learning of the natural Philosophers principally in this, that it be communicated not in books but in speech and in practice. The remedies Tom’s Mother offers for the Bee-Sting, for example, or even for a condition as mundane as the hic-Cough: is this not just as much a part of the totality of Learning, as are Observations made upon the elliptical Orbit of the Planets?
Meanwhile Tom’s Father turns up stones with mysterious unknown Writing upon them, during his long walks through the forest, and he has even shewn me his collection of Bones turned to Stone, among them monstrous horned Carapaces, and what look like the thigh bones of Oxen, but are far too large to belong to any known Beast of the Land. If we are ever to amass that great store of Observations, of which Lord Verulam only dreamt, that will help us to make truly sound Generalisations and to apply these efficaciously for the improvement of all Mankind, we will have to rely not just upon the Observations made by men of Learning --nay, for there are not nearly enough such Men--, but by everyone in a position to make ‘em, regardless of Sex or Station.
Now that I am here in the Country I will have time to return to my Correspondence, yea, to re-establish my lapsed Citizenship in the Republic of Letters, which has no Territory but in the Minds of Men. I am everywhere addicted to Contemplation, but it is only in quiet retreat that I have that much-needed Peace that enables me to turn my Thoughts into Words.
I will begin, this morning, with a brief report to Mr. Oldenburg on the Effluvia of the Loadstone, which I have been studying ever since I met that Irish impostor Valentine Greatrakes, who claimed for himself the Power to cure Illnesses by the bare Laying on of his Hands, but in fact was relying upon the hidden virtues of the Magnet. These virtues, I have now shewn, are no different from any other in Nature: they are to be explained not by hidden Affinities betwixt the Things of nature, nor by I-know-not-what action at a distance, but by the Emission of invisible Corpuscles that act directly upon surrounding Bodies, just as a heavy Hammer acts directly upon the Anvil that receives its Blows. Ah, but the absence of Mystery reveals in turn the greatest Mystery of all: the Order and Perfection of Nature itself! Who needs posit Ghosts and Sprites derrière les coulisses, when the Machine of this unending Natural Theatre is already wondrous enough!
My next letter will be to Freiherr Godfrey William von Leibnitz, of Hanover, who is surely my most faithful Correspondent of all, since our first meeting in the year 1676 following his entry into the Royal Society. I was in London at the time tending to some of the Duke’s debts, incurred by rash investments in the West Indies Sugar manufactury, while he meanwhile was waiting out a spell of inclement Weather for his transit home from Calais. Of course, as a woman I was not permitted to attend the closed Events of the day, but Leibnitz had wished to speak to me, I learned, about my Methods for the Production of Silk, so it was arranged that we would meet to walk through Hyde Park that very afternoon.
He confided in me his grand Plan to pay for many great projects --the establishment of learned academies in far-away Russia, the Illumination of the streets of Vienna by means of artificial Light-- all with Revenues derived from a system for Sericulture so intensive it would rival, in the city of Berlin alone, all the Silk of China. He was a Rêveur, that young man, and I happily told him everything I know, for I do not consider Knowledge a secret to be jealously guarded, and in any case I do not consider my own Technique for Breeding the Worms so as to yield perfect consistency in the quality of their threads any great Secret: I learnt it from Tom!
We spoke of many other things besides, of course. What a perfect Harmony of Minds I discovered with that man! I have never shunned the Company of his sex, but I have also never been infected with the disease of amorous Love. The Love however that is often called Platonick, it must be understood, is not devoid of Desire, but is rather a true and fitting Realisation of a Person’s deepest and truest Desire: to know lasting Union with another, lasting because it does not depend upon the fleeting states and vicissitudes of the Body.
So, as I’ve said, I must write to Leibnitz. But I hear Tom coming up the stairs just now. I expect he will want to show me this Stove he has been building, that regulates its own Heat, so he says. He calls it his own perpetual motion Machine! Truly, that boy has some ideas. I should like to see him a member of the Royal Society too someday. And afterward there is that tiresome Query from the Manx Physician, what’s-his-name, who wishes to solicit my opinion concerning the two-headed Calf lately turned up on that Island. And of course there are always more of the Duke’s affairs to tend to: the Sugar debts; the Hounds he wants returned to the breeder, who it seems have no taste for hunting down helpless Foxes.
And then there is the fiction I am composing, though I daren’t tell anyone yet, about a young Duchess who transits to the Moon by a clever use of Magnetism, and there conducts all manner of Observations touching upon Natural Philosophy. This Fiction, like all Fictions, engages the Fancy, so that the reader might be more readily led to the use of Reason. If only more of the writing of Philosophy could proceed in this wise, truly I believe we would see a great Increase in the numbers of Philosophers. I have just had this morning a new turn of events in the story, where the Heroine encounters a sort of Moon-Gnome who represents the figure of Mister Des-Cartes. I must write it out quickly before it sinks back down into the dark Morass of unfertilised Ideas. I am beginning to fear that the Letter to Leibnitz will have to wait until tomorrow.
I have no proper Learning in any subject, but I make do as best I can, through Correspondence and Communication with others, and by Force of my own Determination, in those subjects for which I have a natural Inclination. I lack such an Inclination in Mathematics, and in general in those fields of Learning that are concerned with Universal and Eternal things. My Mind’s Eye focuses as if spontaneously upon the variety of Things that come into being and pass away, the manifold of mortal, corruptible, astonishing Things. It is my most basic belief that these Things, too, are a veridical Reflection of the Wisdom of God, and that one may just as easily turn to them in order to discover the Divine Truths that do not change, as to the fixity of numbers and the relations between them. Here too, I say, is Philosophy.