INTRODUCTION

1. Robert Percy Smith (born 1770) entered Eton College in 1782, and graduated B.A. (1794) and M.A. (1797) from Cambridge University.  In 1803 he became Advocate-General of Bengal, in seven years securing a fortune that would allow him a lengthy retirement.  He returned to London in 1810 and served two terms in parliament (1812-1818, 1820-1826).  He died at London in 1845. NOTE 1
2. It was at Cambridge that Smith produced his most significant poetry.  His Mare liberum won him Sir William Browne's medal for the best Latin ode in 1791. In addition, he wrote three philosophical poems for the Cambridge Tripos competition in Latin poetry, Cartesii principia (1790), Platonis principia (1791), and Newtoni systema mundanum (1792).  All of these were original and ambitious pieces of work. NOTE 2  They reflect in particular Smith's interest in large philosophical issues such as the nature and order of the universe and the place of human beings within it.  In all three, he muses on the order of nature, our short time on earth, and our attempts at making sense of things while we are here. NOTE 3  Smith's poetry is especially influenced by the thought of Lucretius.  The poems on Plato, Newton, and Descartes reflect Lucretius' atomism, but Smith appears to embrace Lucretius' stoicism as well: in “Epitaph on his Dog at Cheam” he suggests that the simple life of a beast that “contentedly trotted Along the path which fate allotted” is an example for us all. NOTE 4
3.
There is some controversy about whether or not Smith has a similar allegiance to the philosophy of Descartes.  On the one hand, Smith appears to see Descartes as something of an heir to Lucretius.  Descartes and Lucretius both hold that nature is to be explained in terms of matter and laws of nature, and Cartesii principii reflects this. NOTE 5  Near the end of the poem Smith echoes Lucretius in praising Descartes for helping us to transcend our fear of death. NOTE 6  In some cases Smith goes so far as to use the language of Lucretius to explicate Descartes' views: for example in his employment of flammantia moenia mundi at line 64. NOTE 7  Smith also suggests that Descartes' science is just an extension of the work of Lucretius, with Descartes simply updating the already-developed view to account for data that only became available in the 16th and 17th Centuries. NOTE 8  On the other hand, there are signs that Smith thinks that Descartes' system goes fundamentally awry.  Near the end of the poem, for example, Smith suggests that Descartes is presumptuous (and wrong) to think that he has once and for all arrived at knowledge of reality.  He then echoes the theme of “Epitaph on his Dog at Cheam” in concluding that our “incomprehensible greed” for truth instead yields anxiety and discontent.  Some have even argued that Cartesii principii amounts to a dismissal of Descartes' system.  In his Ad Fratrem, Walter Savage Landor (a great admirer of Smith) writes, NOTE 9

Maius opus moveo: tamen imperfecta relinquam
Caepta libens illi pepulit qui lumine claro
Somnia Cartesi, vix intrans limina, quique
Explicuit pavidis Neutoni scrinia Musis.
Candida Lucreti perstringere pectora nollem,
Nam genus humanum formidine solvere divum
Nisus inextincta est olea studioque fideli.

[“I am undertaking greater work; nevertheless I should gladly abandon my imperfect undertakings in deference to the man who banished Descartes’ dreamings with his brilliant light, scarce crossing the threshold, and opened up Newtons writing-desk for the timid Muses. I would not wish to reproach Lucretius lucid intelligence, for with unextinguished [midnight] oil and unflagging zeal he strove to free mankind from fear of the gods.” ]

The verdict here is unambiguous: Smith banished Descartes' dreamings with his brilliant light.  According to Landor, those aspects of Descartes' system that are already in De Rerum Natura are not especially original, and those that are new are to be rejected.
4.
Whatever his ultimate stance towards Cartesianism, Smith knows the system quite well.  He accurately presents a number of Descartes' views: that there is no empty space, and thus that the universe of bodies is fully dense; that God is the cause of all motion; that the order of the universe is immutable, and thus that strictly speaking there are no miracles; and that natural phenomena are to be explained by appeal to matter and its motions, and not by appeal to mythical figures like Phaethon and Venus.  Smith appears to hold that Descartes has not established these results and that, even if true, they are not very fruitful.
5. In 1850, five years after his father's death, Robert Vernon Smith assembled Early Writings of Robert Percy Smith: with a few verses in later years.  The text below is taken from this collection.  For more on Robert Percy Smith, see also the D. N. B. life, Stuart Johnson Reid, The life and times of Sydney Smith (London, 1896), 4 - 14, and Leicester Bradner, Musae Anglicanae: A History of Anglo-Latin Poetry 1500 - 1925 (London, 1940, repr. New York, 1966), 304 - 308.

 


NOTES

 

NOTE 1 For more on the biography of Smith, see the D. N. B. biography and “An Article in the Morning Chronicle by Lord Morpeth,” in Robert Vernon Smith (ed.), Early Writings of Robert Percy Smith: with a few verses in later years (Chiswick, England, 1850), iii-vii.4.

NOTE 2 Currently the Tripos competition at Cambridge is a matter of translating set passages.

NOTE 3 See also Leicester Bradner, Musae Anglicanae: A History of Anglo-Latin Poetry 1500 - 1925 (London, Oxford University Press, 1940), 304 - 308.

NOTE 4 See “Epitaph on His Dog at Cheam,” in Early Writings of Robert Percy Smith, 71f.

NOTE 5 Lucretius is an atomist and so holds that the fundamental bodies that compose things are indivisible.  (See De Rerum Natura I.540-545, 613-624).  Descartes agrees with Lucretius that all natural phenomena are to be explained in terms of bodies and their motions, but he is not officially an atomist, holding that bodies are infinitely divisible and, so to speak, divisible all the way down.  (See Principia Philosophiae, Part II, sections 34-35, AT 8A:59f.  I use “AT” to refer to the pagination in Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, Ouevres de Descartes, Volumes I-XII (Paris: Vrin, 1996).

NOTE 6 See for example De Rerum Natura III.975-1091.

NOTE 7 See De Rerum Natura I.73.

NOTE 8 See for example Smith's references to tides, heliocentrism, and the four moons of Jupiter.

NOTE 9 Walter Savage Landor, Ad Fratrem ll. 69ff. from Simonidea (1806); the poem is edited by Dana F. Sutton (ed.), The Complete Latin Poetry of Walter Savage Landor (Lewiston - Lampeter, 1999) I.106 - 113, from which the present translation is taken.