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Descartes and Harvey

VIGNEUL Marville, in his Melanges de Literature, Vol. II. page 348, has ventured to publish the following two literary anecdotes.

“One Claudian Mamert, who flourished in the fifth century, has composed a treatise on the soul; in which are found the greater part of those principles which Descartes made use of to establish his new system. It is also said, that his opinion concerning the souls of brutes is to be found in St. Augustine.
“It is said, that the religious of St. Vanne’s have discovered, in St. Ambrose, the doctrine of the circulation of the blood, which has been thought to be a modern discovery by Harvey.”

I am fearful this anecdote was dictated in the uncharitable spirit of criticism; perhaps, to deprive our great physician of the honour of its discovery.

Since this article has been written, I have found, in a letter addressed to Bayle, the passage alluded to in St. Augustine. The opinion of Descartes on the fouls of Animals is found in St. Augustine, de quantitate animæ, chap. 30.

“Quod autem tibi visum est non esse animam; incorpore viventis animantis, quamquam videatur absurdum, non tamen doctissimi homines, quibus id placuit desuerunt, neque nunc arbitror Deesse.”

To discover the passage in St. Ambrose, or as some say Servetus, to which Harvey stands indebted for his great discovery, is desirable. Voltaire positively assures us, that Servetus made the discovery long before our countryman, who is considered abroad, not as the first who discovered the circulation of the blood, but the first who demonstrated it.

Upon such vague reports little is to be relied. Sometimes when our assiduity has discovered the passages alluded to, they are only found to contain some fancied resemblance; and frequently no resemblance at all. It is thus that Law, the translator of the mystical Behmen, imagined that the great Newton took the first conceptions of his philosophy from the German Cobler’s nonsense.


Editor’s Notes

The following text is included as an Addendum in the 1793 edition of the Curiosities. It was incorporated into the body of the piece for the 1798 fouth edition, before the article was dropped when D’Israeli revised the work for the 1807 fifth ed.:

This much talked of passage in Servetus, is said to be found in the preface of the second edition of the book for which he was so cruelly condemned. That book, I think, has for title “Christianismi Restitutio,” Sixty years afterwards Harvey clearly demonstrated the circulation of the blood. This, if not a discovery, very much resembles one.