Pierre Gassendi's Opera Omnia: A Masterpiece of the Scientific Englightment

Pierre Gassendi's Opera Omnia: A Masterpiece of the Scientific Englightment

GASSENDI, Pierre (1592-1655).  Opera omnia: in sex tomos divisa, edited by Henri-Louis Habert de Montmor [ca. 1600-1670]. Lyon: Laurent Anisson and Jean Baptiste Devenet, 1658.  6 volumes bound in 3 heavy folio volumes, 36 cm. Volume One: Books 1 and 2. [lvi] 752 [14] pp.; [viii] 860 [10] pp. Volume Two: Books 3 and 4. [xliv] 662 [2] pp.; [viii] 536 pp.; Volume Three: Books 5 and 6. [xiii] 740 [34] pp; [xii]  545 [3] pp. Engraved portrait; woodcut diagrams and tables.  Titles in red and black, engraved portrait by Robert Nanteuil in Volume 1, numerous woodcut diagrams and tables, especially in Book 4.  Text printed chiefly in double columns. Bound in contemporary vellum with gilt arms of Johann Jodocus Schmidmair von Schwartzenbruck; library numbers inked out on spines, embossed stamp and ink deaccession stamps on titles. Vol. 5, leaf Dd4 margin torn and repaired, generally sound otherwise; bright pages firmly bound with wide, clean margins.

First collected edition of Gassendi’s works, including many texts first published here.  

Chief among these is his important Epicurean treatise on logic, physics, and ethics, the Syntagma philosophicum, which occupies the first two of these six volumes.  Volumes 3 and 4 collect his scientific writings, most notably his important astronomical works.  Volumes 5 and 6 present additional material relevant to the study of astronomy, including his lives of Brahe, Copernicus, Regiomontanus and other notables, and his correspondence with Brahe, Campanella, Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes, Galileo, Grotius, Hevelius, Kepler, Kircher, Peiresc, Schickard, and other celebrated scientists of the day.

Born in Provence, Gassendi was one the leading lights of the scientific revolution. As Richard Popkin notes in his history of skepticism, Gassendi had “an extremely important intellectual career, whose development, perhaps more than that of René Descartes, indicates and illustrates … ‘the making of the modern mind.’” Introducing an atomism drawn from Epicurus into the mainstream of European thought, Gassendi offered an empiricist alternative to Aristotelianism and Cartesanism, and was the first to articulate the mind-body problem. Molière and Cyrano de Bergerac numbered among his students; Newton, Boyle and Barrow were among those who expressed their debt to Gassendi. His  argument with Descartes over ontology and epistemology represented one of the great intellectual feuds of the day, a battle between giants. Edward Gibbon praised Gassendi’s work by styling him “le meilleur philosophe des littérateurs, et le meilleur littérateur des philosophes.”

It is as an observational astronomer that Gassendi is best celebrated today.  The large lunar crater Gassendi is named in his honor.  He was the first person to describe the transit of a planet across the Sun. Kepler had predicted the event, but it was Gassendi who first observed it in 1631, with a telescopic apparatus borrowed from Galileo that projected images on a sheet of paper.

Besides his work on the transit of Mercury, volume Four of the Opera Omnia collects Gassendi’s general treatises on astronomy as well as his analyses of Copernicus and Brahe, and his careful observations of a wide range of phenomena, including eclipses, comets, lunar coronas, planetary distances and orbits, parhelia, and other celestial topics.  The volumes also present Gassendi’s contributions to other realms of science, including his reports on measuring the speed of sound, the rotation of the earth, the creation of vacuum, and the principle of inertia. Recent scholarship has focused on Gassendi’s correspondence, collected in volume Six, as an important source for understanding intellectual networks during the scientific revolution.

This is a handsome example of a rare and important work, represented in only a handful of institutional collections (the vast majority of listings in OCLC are microforms or facsimile reprints). The gilt arms embossed on the cover are those of Johann Jodocus Schmidmair von Schwartzenbruck (1611-1647), but given his dates we think it more likely that the book was acquired by his wife, Anna-Maria or possibly his son, Johann Friedrich Schmidmair von Schwartzenbruck (1624–1669).

Bibliographical References: Turner & Gomez, Pierre Gassendi, 116; Carli & Favaro, Bibliographia Galileiana, 260; Houzeau & Lancaster, Bibliographie générale de l'astronomie 3404; Brunet Manuel du libraire, II : 1499; Krivatsky Catalogue of 17th Century Books, 4572

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