Jerome Cardan - A Biographical Study
by William George Waters
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When Cardan went to study at Pavia in 1519 this tradition was unshaken. It was not until the advent of Vesalius that the doom of the ancient system was sounded. Then, when Anatomy sprang to the front as the potent ally of Medicine, the science of healing entered upon a fresh stage, but this new force did not make itself felt soon enough to seduce Cardan from the altars of the ancients to the worship of new gods. As long as he lived he was a follower of the great masters, though at the same time his admiration of the teaching of Vesalius was enthusiastic and profound. His love of truth and sound learning forbade him to give unreflecting adhesion to the precepts of any man, however eminent, and when he found that Galen was a careless commentator on Hippocrates,[264] and failed to elucidate the difficulties with which he professed to deal, he did not spare his censure.[265] In the De Subtilitate he speaks of him as "Verbosus et studio contradicendi taedulus ut alterum vix ferre queas, in reliquo gravis jactura artium posita sit, quam nostrae aetatis viri restituere conati sunt."[266] But as Galen's name is quoted as an authority on almost every page of the Consilia Medica, it may be assumed that Cardan's faith in his primary theories was unshaken. In his Commentaries on Hippocrates, Galen professes a profound respect for his master, but the two great men must be regarded as the leaders of rival schools; indeed it could hardly be otherwise, seeing how vast was the mass of knowledge which Galen added to the art during his lifetime.

Hippocrates, by denying the supernatural origin of disease, by his method of diagnosis, by the importance he attached to air and diet, by his discriminating use of drugs, and by the simplicity of his system generally, had placed Medicine on a rational basis. In the six hundred years' space which elapsed before the appearance of Galen, Medicine was broken up into many rival schools. The Dogmatici and the Empirici for many years wrangled undisturbed, but shortly after the Christian era the Methodici entered the field, to be followed later on by the Eclectici and a troop of other sects, whose wranglings, and whose very names, are now forgotten. In his History of Medicine, Dr. Bostock gives a sketch of the attitude of Galen towards the rival schools. "In his general principles he may be considered as belonging to the Dogmatic sect, for his method was to reduce all his knowledge, as acquired by the observation of facts, to general theoretical principles. These principles he indeed professed to deduce from experience and observation,[267] and we have abundant proofs of his diligence in collecting experience and his accuracy in making observations; but still, in a certain sense at least, he regards individual facts and the details of experience as of little value, unconnected with the principles which he laid down as the basis of all medical reasoning. In this fundamental point, therefore, the method pursued by Galen appears to have been directly the reverse of that which we now consider as the correct method of scientific investigation; and yet, such is the force of actual genius, that in most instances he attained the ultimate object in view, although by an indirect path. He was an admirer of Hippocrates, and always speaks of him with the most profound respect, professing to act upon his principles, and to do little more than expound his doctrines and support them by new facts and observations. Yet in reality we have few writers whose works, both as to substance and manner, are more different from each other than those of Hippocrates and Galen, the simplicity of the former being strongly contrasted with the abstruseness and refinement of the latter."

The antagonism between these two great men was not perhaps more marked than might have been expected, considering that an interval of six hundred years lay between them. However loyal he may have been to his master, Galen, with his keen, catholic, and subtle intellect, was bound to fall under the sway of Alexandrian influence while he studied in Alexandria as the pupil of Heraclianus. The methods of the contemporary school of philosophy fascinated him; and, in his endeavour to bring Medicine out of the chaotic welter in which he found it, he attempted—unhappily for the future of science—to use the hyper-idealistic Platonism then dominant in Alexandria, rather than the gradual and orderly induction of Hippocrates, as a bond of union between professional and scientific medicine; a false step for which not even his great services to anatomy and physiology can altogether atone. Yet most likely it was this same error, an error which practically led to the enslavement of Medicine till the seventeenth century, which caused Cardan to regard him, and not Hippocrates, as his master. The vastness and catholicity of Galen's scheme of Medicine must have been peculiarly attractive to a man of Cardan's temper; and that Galen attempted to reconcile the incongruous in the teleological system which he devised, would not have been rated as a fault by his Milanese disciple.

Galen taught as a cardinal truth the doctrine of the Hippocratic elements, heat, cold, moisture, and dryness, and a glance at the Consilium which Cardan wrote out on Archbishop Hamilton's illness, will show how completely he was under the sway of this same teaching. The genius of Hippocrates was perhaps too sober and orderly to win his entire sympathy; the encyclopaedic knowledge, the literary grace, and the more daring flights of Galen's intellect attracted him much more strongly. Hippocrates scoffed at charms and amulets, while Galen commended them, and is said to have invented the anodyne necklace which was long known and worn in England. There is no need to specify which of the masters Cardan would swear by in this matter. The choice which Cardan made, albeit it was exactly what might have been anticipated, was in every respect an unfortunate one. He put himself under a master whose teaching could have no other effect than to accentuate the failings of the pupil, whereas had he let his mind come under the more regular discipline of Hippocrates' method, it is almost certain that the mass of his work, now shut in dusty folios which stand undisturbed on the shelves for decade after decade, would have been immeasurably more fruitful of good. With all his industry in collecting, and his care in verifying, his medical work remains a heap of material, and nothing more valuable. Learning and science would have profited much had he put himself under the standard of the Father of Medicine, and still more if fate had sent him into being at some period after the world of letters had learned to realize the capabilities of the inductive system of Philosophy.

It may readily be conceded that Cardan during his career turned to good account the medical knowledge which he had gathered from the best attainable sources, and that he was on the whole the most skilful physician of his age. He likewise foreshadowed the system of deaf mute instruction. A certain Georgius Agricola, a physician of Heidelberg who died in 1485, makes mention of a deaf mute who had learnt to read and write, but this statement was received with incredulity. Cardan, taking a more philosophic view, declared that people thus afflicted might easily be taught to hear by reading, and to speak by writing; writing was associated with speech, and speech with thought, but written characters and ideas might be connected without the intervention of sounds.[268] This view, put forward with all the authority of Cardan's name, would certainly rouse fresh interest in the question, and, whether stimulated by his words or not, an attempt to teach deaf mutes was made by Pedro de Ponce, a Spanish Dominican, about 1560. But it would not be permissible to claim for Cardan any share in the epoch-making discoveries in Medicine. Galen as an experimental physiologist had brought diagnosis to a level unattained before. His methods had been abandoned by his successors, and practice had in consequence suffered deterioration, but Cardan, studying under the revived Galenism, called into life by the teaching of Vesalius, went to deal with his cures under conditions more favourable than those offered by any previous period of the world's history. His cure of Archbishop Hamilton's asthma, over which Cassanate and the other doctors had failed, was due to a more careful diagnosis and a more judicious application of existing rules, rather than to the working of any new discoveries of his own. Viewed as a soldier in the service of Hygeia, how transient and slender is the fame of Cardan compared with that of Linacre, Vesalius, or Harvey! Were his claims to immortality to rest entirely on his contribution to Medicine, his name would have gone down to oblivion along with that of Cavenago, Camutio, Della Croce, and the multitude of jealous rivals who, according to his account, were ever plotting his downfall. But it was rescued from this fate by his excellence as a mathematician, by the interest clinging to his personality, by the enormous range of his learning, by his picturesque reputation as a dreamer of dreams, and a searcher into the secrets of the hidden world. In an age when books were few and ill-composed, his works became widely popular; because, although he dealt with abstruse subjects, he wrote—as even Naude admits—in a passably good style, and handled his subject with a lightness of touch which was then very rare. This was the reason why men went on reading him long after his works had ceased to have any scientific value; which induced writers like Burton and Sir Thomas Browne to embroider their pages freely with quotations from his works, and thus make his name familiar to many who have never handled a single one of his volumes.

It is somewhat strange to find running through the complex web of Cardan's character a well-defined thread of worldly wisdom and common-sense; to find that a man, described by almost every one who has dealt with his character as a credulous simpleton, one with disordered wits, or a down-right madman, should, when occasion demanded, prove himself to be a sharp man of business. When Fazio died he left his son with a number of unsettled law-suits on hand, concerning which he writes: "From my father's death until I was forty-six, that is to say for a space of twenty-three years, I was almost continually involved in law-suits. First with Alessandro Castillione, surnamed Gatico, with respect to certain plantations, and afterwards with his kinsfolk. Next with the Counts of Barbiani, next with the college, next with the heirs of Dominico de Tortis, who had held me in his arms when I was baptized. Out of all these suits I came victorious. It was indeed a matter for surprise that I should have got the better of Alessandro Castillione, seeing that his uncle sat as judge. Moreover, he had already got a decision against me, a decision which, as the jurisconsults declared, helped my case as the trial went on, and I was able to force him to pay me all the money which was in dispute. A like good fortune attended me while my claims were considered by the heads of the Milanese College, and finally rejected by several votes. Then afterwards, when they had decided to admit me, and when they tried to subject me to certain rules which placed me on a footing inferior to their own, I compelled them to grant me full membership. In the case of the Barbiani, after long litigation and many angry words and much trouble, I came to terms with them; and, having received the sum of money covenanted by agreement, I was entirely freed from vexation of the law."[269] Writing generally of his monetary dealings, Cardan says: "Whenever I may have incurred a loss, I have never been content merely to retrieve the same, I have always contrived to seize upon something extra."[270] Or again: "If at any time I have lost twenty crowns, I have never rested until I have succeeded in getting back these and twenty more in addition."[271]

Cardan left in his Dicta Familiaria and Praeceptorum ad filios Libellus a long list of aphorisms and counsels, many of which give evidence of keen insight and busy observation of mankind, while some are distinguished by a touch of humour rare in his other writings. He bids his children to be careful how they offend princes, and, offence being given, never to flatter themselves that it has been pardoned; to live joyfully as long as they can, for men are for the most part worn out by care; never to take a wife from a witless stock or one tainted with hereditary disease; to refrain from deliberating when the mind is disturbed; to learn how to be worsted and suffer loss; and to trust a school-master to teach children, but not to feed them. One of the dicta is a gem of quaint wisdom. "Before you begin to wash your face, see that you have a towel handy to dry the same." If all the instances of prodigies, portents, visions, and mysterious warnings which Cardan has left on record were set down in order, a perusal of this catalogue would justify, if it did not compel, the belief that he was little better than a credulous fool, and raise doubts whether such a man could have written such orderly and coherent works as the treatise on Arithmetic, or the book of the Great Art. But Cardan was beyond all else a man of moods, and it would be unfair to figure as his normal mental condition those periods of overwrought nervousness and the hallucinations they brought with them. In his old age the nearness of the inevitable stroke, and the severance of all earthly ties, led him to discipline his mind into a calmer mood, but early and late during his season of work his nature was singularly sensitive to the wearing assaults of cares and calamities. In crises of this kind his mind would be brought into so morbid a condition, that it would fall entirely under the sway of any single idea then dominant; such idea would master him entirely, or even haunt him like one of those unclean spectres he describes with such gusto in the De Varietate. What he may have uttered when these moods were upon him must not be taken seriously; these are the moments to which the major part of his experiences of things supra naturam may be referred. But there are numerous instances in which he describes marvellous phenomena with philosophic calm, and examines them in the true spirit of scepticism. In his account of the trembling of the bed on which he lay the night before he heard of Gian Battista's marriage, he goes on to say that a few nights after the first manifestation, he was once more conscious of a strange movement; and, having put his hand to his breast, found that his heart was palpitating violently because he had been lying on his left side. Then he remembered that a similar physical trouble had accompanied the first trembling of the bed, and admits that this manifestation may be referred to a natural cause, i.e. the palpitation. He tells also how he found amongst his father's papers a record of a cure of the gout by a prayer offered to the Virgin at eight in the morning on the first of April, and how he duly put up the prayer and was cured of the gout, but he adds: "Sed in hoc, auxiliis etiam artis usus sum."[272] Again with regard to the episode of the ignition of his bed twice in the same night, without visible cause, he says that this portent may have come about by some supernatural working; but that, on the other hand, it may have been the result of mere chance. He tells another story of an experience which befell him when he was in Belgium.[273] He was aroused early in the morning by the noise made outside his door by a dog catching fleas. Having got out of bed to see to this, he heard the sound as of a key being softly put into the lock. He told this fact to the servants, who at once took up the tale, and persuaded themselves that they had heard many noises of the same kind, and others vastly more wonderful; in short, the whole house was swarming with apparitions. The next night the noise was repeated, and a second observation laid bare the real cause thereof. The scratching of the dog had caused the bolt to fall into the socket, and this produced the noise which had disquieted him. He writes in conclusion: "Thus many events which seem to defy all explanation have really come to pass by accident, or in the course of nature. Out of such manifestations as these the unlettered, the superstitious, the timorous, and the over-hasty make for themselves miracles."[274] Again, after telling a strange story of a boy who beheld the image of a thief in the neck of a phial, and of some incantations of Josephus Niger, he concludes: "Nevertheless I am of opinion that all these things were fables, and that no one could have had any real knowledge thereof, seeing that they were nothing else than vain triflings."[275]

In a nature so complex and many-sided as Cardan's, strange resemblances may be sought for and discovered, and it certainly is an unexpected revelation to find a mental attitude common to Cardan, a man tied and bound by authority and the traditions of antiquity, and such a daring assailant of the schools and of Aristotle as Doctor Joseph Glanvil. The conclusions of Cardan as to certain obscure phenomena recently cited show that, in matters lying beyond sensual cognition, he kept an open mind. In summing up the case of the woman said to have been cured by the incantations of Josephus Niger, he says that she must have been cured either by the power of the imagination, or by the agency of the demons. Here he anticipates the arguments which Glanvil sets forth in Sadducismus Triumphatus. Writing on the belief in witchcraft Glanvil says, "We have the attestation of thousands of eye and ear witnesses, and these not of the easily-deceivable vulgar only, but of wise and grave discerners; and that when no interest could oblige them to agree together in a common Lye. I say, we have the light of all these circumstances to confirm us in the belief of things done by persons of despicable power and knowledge, beyond the reach of Art and ordinary Nature. Standing public Records have been kept of these well-attested Relations, and Epochas made of those unwonted events. Laws in many Nations have been enacted against those vile practices; those amongst the Jews and our own are notorious; such cases have often been determined near us by wise and reverend Judges, upon clear and convictive Evidence; and thousands of our own Nation have suffered death for their vile compacts with Apostate spirits. All these I might largely prove in their particular instances, but that 'tis not needful since these did deny the being of Witches, so it was not out of ignorance of these heads of Argument, of which probably they have heard a thousand times; but from an apprehension that such a belief is absurd, and the things impossible. And upon these presumptions they condemn all demonstrations of this nature, and are hardened against conviction. And I think those that can believe all Histories and Romances; That all the wiser would have agreed together to juggle mankind into a common belief of ungrounded fables, that the sound senses of multitudes together may deceive them, and Laws are built upon Chimeras; That the greatest and wisest Judges have been Murderers, and the sagest persons Fools, or designing Impostors; I say those that can believe this heap of absurdities, are either more credulous than those whose credulity they reprehend; or else have some extraordinary evidence of their perswasion, viz.: That it is absurd and impossible that there should be a Witch or Apparition."[276] Cardan's argument in the case of the sick woman, that it would be difficult if not impossible to invent cause for her cure, other than the power of imagination or Demoniac agency, if less emphatic and lengthy than Glanvil's, certainly runs upon parallel lines therewith, and suggests, if it does not proclaim, the existence of such a thing as the credulity of unbelief; in other words that those who were disposed to brush aside the alternative causes of the cure as set down by him, and search for others, and put faith in them, would be fully as credulous as those who held the belief which he recorded as his own.


[248] De Varietate, p. 314.

[249] De Vita Propria, ch. xxxvii. p. 115.

[250] "Musicam, sed hanc anno post VI. scilicet MDLXXIV. correxi et transcribi curavi."—De Vita Propria, ch. xlv. p. 176.

[251] This is on p. 164.

[252] Page 266.

[253] Judicium de Cardano.

[254] Page 57.

[255] "Ita nostra aetate, lapsi sunt clarissimi alioqui viri in hoc genere. Budaeus adversus Erasmum, Fuchsius adversus Cornarium, Silvius adversus Vesalium, Nizolius adversus Maioragium: non tam credo justis contentionum causis, quam vanitate quadam et spe augendae opinionis in hominibus."—Opera, tom. i. p. 135.

[256] He writes in this strain in De Vita Propria, ch. xiv. p. 49, in De Varietate Rerum, p. 626, and in Geniturarum Exempla, p. 431.

[257] On the subject of dissimulation Cardan writes: "Assuevi vultum in contrarium semper efformare; ideo simulare possum, dissimulare nescio."—De Vita Propria, ch. xiii. p. 42. Again in Libellus Praeceptorum ad filios (Opera, tom. i. p. 481), "Nolite unquam mentiri, sed circumvenire [circumvenite?]."

[258] Discoverie of Witchcraft, ch. xi.

[259] Donato Lanza, the druggist, who had been his first introducer to Sfondrato, was equally perverse. After Cardan had cured him of phthisis, he jumped out of a window to avoid arrest, and fell into a fish-pond, and died of the cold he took.—Opera, tom. i. p. 83.

[260] Opera, tom. i. p. 136.

[261] De Vita Propria, ch. x. p. 32.

[262] The Materia Medica of Mesua, dating from the eleventh century, was used by the London College of Physicians in framing their Pharmacopoeia in 1618.

[263] In 1443 a copy of Celsus was found at Milan; Paulus AEgineta was discovered a little later.

[264] Opera, tom. ix. p. 1.

[265] De Immortalitate Animorum (Lyons, 1545), p. 73. De Varietate, p. 77. Opera, tom. i. p. 135.

[266] De Subtilitate, p. 445.

[267] "Galen's great complaint against the Peripatetics or Aristotelians, was that while they discoursed about Anatomy they could not dissect. He met an argument with a dissection or an experiment. Come and see for yourselves, was his constant cry."—Harveian Oration, Dr. J.F. Payne, 1896.

[268] Opera, tom. x. p. 462.

[269] De Vita Propria, ch. xxviii. p. 73.

[270] Ibid., ch. xxiii. p. 64.

[271] De Utilitate, p. 309. He also writes at length in the Proxenata on Domestic Economy.—Chapter xxxvii. et seq. Opera, tom. i. p. 377.

[272] De Vita Propria, ch. xxxvii. p. 118.

[273] De Varietate, p. 589.

[274] De Varietate, p. 589.

[275] Ibid., p. 640.

[276] Sadducismus Triumphatus (Ed. 1682), p. 4.


WHEN dealing with Cardan's sudden incarceration in 1570, in the chronicle of his life, it was assumed that his offence must have been some spoken or written words upon which a charge of impiety might have been fastened. Leaving out of consideration the fiery zeal of the reigning Pope Pius V., it is hard to determine what plea could have been found for a serious charge of this nature. Cardan's work had indeed passed the ecclesiastical censors in 1562; but in the estimation of Pius V. the smallest lapse from the letter of orthodoxy would have seemed grave enough to send to prison, and perhaps to death, a man as deeply penetrated with the spirit of religion as Cardan assuredly was. One of his chief reasons for refusing the King of Denmark's generous offer was the necessity involved of having to live amongst a people hostile to the Catholic religion; and, in writing of his visit to the English Court, he declares that he was unwilling to recognize the title of King Edward VI., inasmuch as by so doing he might seem to prejudice the rights of the Pope.[277] In spite of this positive testimony, and the absence of any utterances of manifest heresy, divers writers in the succeeding century classed him with the unbelievers. Dr. Samuel Parker in his Tractatus de Deo, published in 1678, includes him amongst the atheistical philosophers; but a perusal of the Doctor's remarks leaves the reader unconvinced as to the justice of such a charge. The term Atheism, however, was at this time used in the very loosest sense, and was even applied to disbelievers in the apostolical succession.[278] Dr. Parker writes, "Another cause which acted, together with the natural disposition of Cardan, to produce that odd mixture of folly and wisdom in him, was his habit of continual thinking by which the bile was absorbed and burnt up; he suffered neither eating, pleasure, nor pain to interrupt the course of his thoughts. He was well acquainted with the writings of all the ancients—nor did he just skim over the heads and contents of books as some do who ought not to be called learned men, but skilful bookmongers. Every author that Cardan read (and he read nearly all) he became intimately acquainted with, so that if any one disputing with him, quoted the authority of the ancients, and made any the least slip or mistake, he would instantly set them right." Dr. Parker is as greatly amazed at the mass of work he produced, as at his powers of accumulation, and maintains that Cardan believed he was endowed with a faculty which he calls repraesentatio, through which he was able to apprehend things without study, "by means of an interior light shining within him. From which you may learn the fact that he had studied with such enduring obstinacy that he began to persuade himself that the visions which appeared before him in these fits and transports of the mind, were the genuine inspirations of the Deity." This is evidently Dr. Parker's explanation of the attendant demon, and he ends by declaring that Cardan was rather fanatic than infidel.

Mention has been made of the list of his vices and imperfections which Cardan wrote down with his own hand. Out of such a heap of self-accusation it would have been an easy task for some meddlesome enemy to gather up a plentiful selection of isolated facts which by artful combination might be so arranged as to justify a formal charge of impiety. The most definite of these charges were made by Martin del Rio,[279] who declares that Cardan once wrote a book on the Mortality of the Soul which he was wont to exhibit to his intimate friends. He did not think it prudent to print this work, but wrote another, taking a more orthodox view, called De Immortalitate Animorum. Another assailant, Theophile Raynaud, asserts that certain passages in this book suggest, if they do not prove, that Cardan did not set down his real opinions on the subject in hand. Raynaud ends by forbidding the faithful to read any of Cardan's books, and describes him as "Homo nullius religionis ac fidei, et inter clancularios atheos secundi ordinis aevo suo facile princeps." Of all Cardan's books the De Immortalitate Animorum is the one in which materials for a charge of impiety might most easily be found. It was put together at a time when he had had very little practice in the Greek tongue, and it is possible that many of his conclusions may be drawn from premises only imperfectly apprehended. Scaliger in his Exercitations seizes upon one passage[280] which, according to his rendering, implied that Cardan reckoned the intelligence of men and beasts to be the same in essence, the variety of operation being produced by the fact that the apprehensive faculty was inherent in the one, and only operative upon the other from without. But all through this book it is very difficult to determine whether the propositions advanced are Cardan's own, or those of the Greek and Arabian writers he quotes so freely: and this charge of Scaliger, which is the best supported of all, goes very little way to convict him of impiety. In the De Vita Propria there are several passages[281] which suggest a belief akin to that of the Anima Mundi; he had without doubt made up his mind that this work should not see the light till he was beyond the reach of Pope or Council. The origin of this charge of impiety may be referred with the best show of probability to his attempt to cast the horoscope of Jesus Christ.[282] This, together with a diagram, is given in the Commentaries on Ptolemy, and soon after it appeared it was made the occasion of a fierce attack by Julius Caesar Scaliger, who declared that such a scheme must be flat blasphemy, inasmuch as the author proved that all the actions of Christ necessarily followed the position of the stars at the time of His nativity. If Scaliger had taken the trouble to glance at the Commentary he would have discovered that Cardan especially guarded himself against any accusation of this sort, by setting down that no one was to believe he had any intention of asserting that Christ's divinity, or His miracles, or His holy life, or the promulgation of His laws were in any way influenced by the stars.[283] Naude, in recording the censures of De Thou, "Verum extremae amentiae fuit, imo impiae audaciae, astrorum commentitiis legibus verum astrorum dominum velle subjicere. Quod ille tamen exarata Servatoris nostri genitura fecit," and of Joseph Scaliger, "impiam dicam magis, an jocularem audaciam quae et dominum stellarum stellis subjecerit, et natum eo tempore putarit, quod adhuc in lite positum est, ut vanitas cum impietate certaret,"[284] declares that it was chiefly from the publication of this horoscope that Cardan incurred the suspicion of blasphemy; but, with his free-thinking bias, abstains from adding his own censure. He rates Scaliger for ignorance because he was evidently under the impression that Cardan was the first to draw a horoscope of Christ, and attacks Cardan chiefly on the score of plagiary. He records how divers writers in past times had done the same thing. Albumasar, one of the most learned of the Arabs, whose thema natalium is quoted by Roger Bacon in one of his epistles to Clement V., Albertus Magnus, Peter d'Ailly the Cardinal of Cambrai, and Tiberius Russilanus who lived in the time of Leo X., all constructed nativities of Christ, but Cardan makes no mention of these horoscopists, and, according to the view of Naude, poses as the inventor of this form of impiety, and is consequently guilty of literary dishonesty, a worse sin, in his critics' eyes, than the framing of the horoscope itself.

That there was in Cardan's practice enough of curiosity and independence to provoke suspicion of his orthodoxy in the minds of the leaders of the post-Tridentine revival, is abundantly possible; but there is nothing in all his life and works to show that he was, according to the standard of every age, anything else than a spiritually-minded man.[285] It would be hard to find words more instinct with the true feeling of piety, than the following taken from the fifty-third chapter of the De Vita Propria,—"I love solitude, for I never seem to be so entirely with those who are especially dear to me as when I am alone. I love God and the spirit of good, and when I am by myself I let my thoughts dwell on these, their immeasurable beneficence; the eternal wisdom, the source and origin of clearest light, that true joy within us which never fears that God will forsake us; that groundwork of truth; that willing love; and the Maker of us all, who is blessed in Himself, and likewise the desire and safeguard of all the blessed. Ah, what depth and what height of righteousness, mindful of the dead and not forgetting the living. He is the Spirit who protects me by His commands, my good and merciful counsellor, my helper and consoler in misfortune."

Two or three of Cardan's treatises are in the materna lingua, but he wrote almost entirely in Latin, using a style which was emphatically literary.[286] His Latin is probably above the average excellence of the age, and if the classic writers held the first place in his estimation—as naturally they would—he assuredly did not neglect the firstfruits of modern literature. Pulci was his favourite poet. He evidently knew Dante and Boccaccio well, and his literary insight was clear enough to perceive that the future belonged to those who should write in the vulgar tongue of the lands which produced them.[287]

Perhaps it was impossible that a man endowed with so catholic a spirit and with such earnest desire for knowledge, should sink into the mere pedant with whom later ages have been made acquainted through the farther specialization of science. At all events Cardan is an instance that the man of liberal education need not be killed by the man of science. For him the path of learning was not an easy one to tread, and, as it not seldom happens, opposition and coldness drove him on at a pace rarely attained by those for whom the royal road to learning is smoothed and prepared. For a long time his father refused to give him instruction in Latin, or to let him be taught by any one else, and up to his twentieth year he seems to have known next to nothing of this language which held the keys both of letters and science. He began to learn Greek when he was about thirty-five, but it was not till he had turned forty that he took up the study of it in real earnest;[288] and, writing some years later, he gives quotations from a Latin version of Aristotle.[289] In his commentaries on Hippocrates he used a Latin text, presumably the translation of Calvus printed in Rome in 1525, and quotes Epicurus in Latin in the De Subtilitate (p. 347), but in works like the De Sapientia and the De Consolatione he quotes Greek freely, supplying in nearly every case a Latin version of the passages cited. These treatises bristle with quotations, Horace being his favourite author. "Vir in omni sapientiae genere admirandus."[290] As with many moderns his love for Horace did not grow less as old age crept on, for the De Vita Propria is perhaps fuller of Horatian tags than any other of his works. It would seem somewhat of a paradox that a sombre and earnest nature like Cardan's should find so great pleasure in reading the elegant poco curante triflings of the Augustan singer, were it not a recognized fact that Horace has always been a greater favourite with serious practical Englishmen than with the descendants of those for whom he wrote his verses.

It was a habit with Cardan to apologize in the prefaces of his scientific works for the want of elegance in his Latin, explaining that the baldness and simplicity of his periods arose from his determination to make his meaning plain, and to trouble nothing about style for the time being; but the following passage shows that he had a just and adequate conception of the necessary laws of literary art. "That book is perfect which goes straight to its point in one single line of argument, which neither leaves out aught that is necessary, nor brings in aught that is superfluous: which observes the rule of correct division; which explains what is obscure; and shows plainly the groundwork upon which it is based."[291]

The De Vita Propria from which this extract comes is in point of style one of his weakest books, but even in this volume passages may here and there be found of considerable merit, and Cardan was evidently studious to let his ideas be presented in intelligible form, for he records that in 1535 he read through the whole of Cicero, for the sake of improving his Latin. His style, according to Naude, held a middle place between the high-flown and the pedestrian, and of all his books the De Utilitate ex Adversis Capienda, which was begun in 1557, shows the nearest approach to elegance, but even this is not free from diffuseness, the fault which Naude finds in all his writings. Long dissertations entirely alien from the subject in hand are constantly interpolated. In the Practice of Arithmetic he turns aside to treat of the marvellous properties of certain numbers, of the motion of the planets, and of the Tower of Babel; and in the treatise on Dialectic he gives an estimate of the historians and letter-writers of the past. But here Cardan did not sin in ignorance; his poverty and not his will consented to these literary outrages. He was paid for his work by the sheet, and the thicker the volume the higher the pay.[292]

When he made a beginning of the De Utilitate Cardan was at the zenith of his fortunes. He had lately returned from his journey to Scotland, having made a triumphant progress through the cities of Western Europe. Thus, with his mind well stored with experience of divers lands, his wits sharpened by intercourse with the elite of the learned world, and his hand nerved by the magnetic stimulant of success, he sat down to write as the philosopher and man of the world, rather than as the man of science. He was, in spite of his prosperity, inclined to deal with the more sombre side of life. He seems to have been specially drawn to write of death, disease, and of the peculiar physical misfortune which befell him in early manhood. Like Cicero he goes on to treat of Old Age, but in a spirit so widely different that a brief comparison of the conclusions of the two philosophers will not be without interest. Old age, Cardan declares to be the most cruel and irreparable evil with which man is cursed, and to talk of old age is to talk of the crowning misfortune of humanity. Old men are made wretched by avarice, by dejection, and by terror. He bids men not to be deceived by the flowery words of Cicero,[293] when he describes Cato as an old man, like to a fair statue of Polycleitus, with faculties unimpaired and memory fresh and green. He next goes on to catalogue the numerous vices and deformities of old age, and instances from Aristotle what he considers to be the worst of all its misfortunes, to wit that an old man is well-nigh cut off from hope; and by way of comment grimly adds, "If any man be plagued by the ills of old age he should blame no one but himself, for it is by his own choice that his life has run on so long." He vouchsafes a few words of counsel as to how this hateful season may be robbed of some of its horror. Our bodies grow old first, then our senses, then our minds. Therefore let us store our treasures in that part of us which will hold out longest, as men in a beleaguered city are wont to collect their resources in the citadel, which, albeit it must in the end be taken, will nevertheless be the last to fall into the foeman's hands. Old men should avoid society, seeing that they can bring nothing thereto worth having: whether they speak or keep silent they are in the way, and they are as irksome to themselves when they are silent, as they are to others when they speak. The old man should take a lesson from the lower animals, which are wont to defend themselves with the best arms given them by nature: bulls with their horns, horses with their hoofs, and cats with their claws; wherefore an old man should at least show himself to be as wise as the brutes and maintain his position by his wisdom and knowledge, seeing that all the grace and power of his manhood must needs have fled.[294]

In another of his moral treatises he has formulated a long indictment against old age, that hateful state with its savourless joys and sleepless nights. Did not Zeno the philosopher strangle himself when he found that time refused to do its work. The happiest are those who earliest lay down the burden of existence, and the Law itself causes these offenders who are least guilty to die first, letting the more nefarious and hardened criminals stand by and witness the death of their fellows. There can be no evil worse than the daily expectation of the blow that is inevitable, and old age, when it comes, must make every man regret that he did not die in infancy. "When I was a boy," he writes, "I remember one day to have heard my mother, Chiara Micheria—herself a young woman—cry out that she wished it had been God's will to let her die when she was a child. I asked her why, and she answered: 'Because I know I must soon die, to the great peril of my soul, and besides this, if we shall diligently weigh and examine all our experiences of life, we shall not light upon a single one which will not have brought us more sorrow than joy. For afflictions when they come mar the recollection of our pleasures, and with just cause; for what is there in life worthy the name of delight, the ever-present burden of existence, the task of dressing and undressing every day, hunger, thirst, evil dreams? What more profit and ease have we than the dead? We must endure the heat of summer, the cold of winter, the confusion of the times, the dread of war, the stern rule of parents, the anxious care of our children, the weariness of domestic life, the ill carriage of servants, lawsuits, and, what is worst of all, the state of the public mind which holds probity as silliness; which practises deceit and calls it prudence. Craftsmen are counted excellent, not by their skill in their art, but by reason of their garish work and of the valueless approbation of the mob. Wherefore one must needs either incur God's displeasure or live in misery, despised and persecuted by men.'"[295] These words, though put into his mother's mouth, are manifestly an expression of Cardan's own feelings.

Cardan was the product of an age to which there had recently been revealed the august sources from which knowledge, as we understand the term, has flowed without haste or rest since the unsealing of the fountain. He counts it rare fortune to have been born in such an age, and rhapsodizes over the flowery meadow of knowledge in which his generation rejoices, and over the vast Western world recently made known. Are not the artificial thunderbolts of man far more destructive than those of heaven? What praise is too high for the magnet which leads men safely over perilous seas, or for the art of printing? Indeed it needs but little more to enable man to scale the very heavens. With his mind thus set upon the exploration of these new fields of knowledge; with the full realization how vast was the treasure lying hid therein; it was only natural that a spirit so curious and greedy of fresh mental food should have fretted at the piteous brevity of the earthly term allowed to man, and have rated as a supreme evil that old age which brought with it decay of the faculties and foreshadowed the speedy and inevitable fall of the curtain. Cicero on the other hand had been nurtured in a creed and philosophy alike outworn. The blight of finality had fallen upon the moral world, and the physical universe still guarded jealously her mighty secrets. To the eyes of Cicero the mirror of nature was blank void and darkness, while Cardan, gazing into the same glass, must have been embarrassed with the number and variety of the subjects offered, and may well have felt that the longest life of man ten times prolonged would rank but as a moment in that Titanic spell of work necessary to bring to the birth the teeming burden with which the universe lay in travail. Here is one and perhaps the strongest reason of his hatred of old age; because through the shortness of his span of time he could only deal with a grain or two of the sand lying upon the shores of knowledge. Cicero, with his more limited vision, conscious that sixty years or so of life would exhaust every physical delight, and blunt and mar the intellectual; ignorant both of the world of new light lying beyond the void, and of the rapture which the conquering investigator of the same must feel in wringing forth its secrets, welcomed the gathering shades as friendly visitants, a mood which has asserted itself in later times with certain weary spirits, sated with knowledge as Vitellius was sated with his banquets of nightingales' tongues.

Cardan with all his curiosity and restless mental activity was hampered and restrained in his explorations by the bonds which had been imposed upon thought during the rule of authority. These bonds held him back—acting imperceptibly—as they held back Abelard and many other daring spirits trained in the methods of the schoolmen, and allowed him to do little more than range at large over the fields of fresh knowledge which were destined to be reaped by later workers trained in other schools and under different masters. Learning was still subject to authority, though in milder degree, than when Thomas of Aquino dominated the mental outlook of Europe, and the great majority of the men who posed as Freethinkers, and sincerely believed themselves to be Freethinkers, were unconsciously swayed by the associations of the method of teaching they professed to despise. Their progress for the most part resembled the movement of a squirrel in a rotatory cage, but though their efforts to conquer the new world of knowledge were vain, it cannot be questioned that the restrictions placed around them, while nullifying the result of their investigations, stimulated enormously the activity of the brain and gave it a formal discipline which proved of the highest value when the real literary work of Modern Europe began. The futilities of the problems upon which the scholastic thinkers exercised themselves gave occasion for the satiric onslaught both of Rabelais and Erasmus. "Quaestio subtilissima, utrum Chimaera in vacuo bombinans possit comedere secundas intentiones; et fuit debatuta per decem hebdomadas in Consilio Constantiensi," and "Quid consecrasset Petrus, si consecrasset eo tempore, quo corpus Christi pendebet in cruce?" are samples which will be generally familiar, but the very absurdity of these exercitations serves to prove how strenuous must have been the temper of the times which preferred to exhaust itself over such banalities as are typified by the extracts above written, rather than remain inactive. The dogmas in learning were fixed as definitely as in religion, and the solution of every question was found and duly recorded. The Philosopher was allowed to strike out a new track, but if he valued his life or his ease, he would take care to arrive finally at the conclusion favoured by authority.

Cardan may with justice be classed both with men of science and men of letters. In spite of the limitations just referred to it is certain that as he surveyed the broadening horizon of the world of knowledge, he must have felt the student's spasm of agony when he first realized the infinity of research and the awful brevity of time. His reflections on old age give proof enough of this. If he missed the labour in the full harvest-field, the glimpse of the distant mountain tops, suffused for the first time by the new light, he missed likewise the wearing labour which fell upon the shoulders of those who were compelled by the new philosophy to use new methods in presenting to the world the results of their midnight research. Such work as Cardan undertook in the composition of his moral essays, and in the Commentary on Hippocrates put no heavy tax on the brain or the vital energies; the Commentary was of portentous length, but it was not much more than a paraphrase with his own experiences added thereto. Mathematics were his pastime, to judge by the ease and rapidity with which he solved the problems sent to him by Francesco Sambo of Ravenna and others.[296] He worked hard no doubt, but as a rule mere labour inflicts no heavier penalty than healthy fatigue. The destroyer of vital power and spring is hard work, combined with that unsleeping diligence which must be exercised when a man sets himself to undertake something more complex than the mere accumulation of data, when he is forced to keep his mental powers on the strain through long hours of selection and co-ordination, and to fix and concentrate his energies upon the task of compelling into symmetry the heap of materials lying under his hand. The De Subtilitate and the De Varietate are standing proofs that Cardan did not overstrain his powers by exertion of this kind.

Leaving out of the reckoning his mathematical treatises, the vogue enjoyed by Cardan's published works must have been a short one. They came to the birth only to be buried in the yawning graves which lie open in every library. At the time when Spon brought out his great edition in ten folio volumes in 1663, the mists of oblivion must have been gathering around the author's fame, and in a brief space his words ceased to have any weight in the teaching of that Art he had cultivated with so great zeal and affection. The mathematician who talked about "Cardan's rule" to his pupils was most likely ignorant both of his century and his birthplace. Had it not been for the references made by writers like Burton to his dabblings in occult learning, his claims to read the stars, and to the guidance of a peculiar spirit, his name would have been now unknown, save to a few algebraists; and his desire, expressed in one of the meditative passages of the De Vita Propria, would have been amply fulfilled: "Non tamen unquam concupivi gloriam aut honores: imo sprevi, cuperem notum esse quod sim, non opto ut sciatur qualis sim."[297]


[277] De Vita Propria, ch. xxix. p. 76.

[278] Dugald Stewart, Dissertations, p. 378.

[279] The writer, a Jesuit, says in Disquisitionum Magicarum (Louvanii, 1599), tom. i.:—"In Cardani de Subtilitate et de Varietate libris passim latet anguis in herba et indiget expurgatione Ecclesiasticae limae." Del Rio was a violent assailant of Cornelius Agrippa.

[280] "Quoniam intellectus intrinsecus est homini, belluis extrinsecus collucet: unus etiam satisfacere omnibus, quae in una specie sunt potest, hominibus plures sunt necessarii: tertia est quod hominis anima tanquam speculum est levigata, splendida, solida, clara: belluarum autem tenebrosa nec levis; atque ideo in nostra anima lux mentis refulget multipliciter confracta, inde ipse Intellectus intelligit. Ceteris autem potentiis, ut diximus, nullus limes prescriptus est: at belluarum internis facultatibus tantum licet agnoscere, quantum per exteriores sensus accesserit."—De Imm. Anim., p. 283.

[281] "Deum debere dici immensum: omnia quae partes habent diversas ordinatas animam habere et vitam."—p. 167.

[282] In the last edition of De Libris Propriis he calls it "Christique nativitas admirabilis."—Opera, tom. i. p. 110.

[283] Ptolemaei de Astrorum Judiciis, p. 163.

[284] Praefatio in Manilium.

[285] A proof of his liberal tone of mind is found in his appreciation of the fine qualities of Edward VI. as a man, although he resented his encroachments as a king upon the Pope's rights.

[286] In the De Vita Propria, ch. xxxiii. p. 106, he fixes into his prose an entire line of Horace, "Canidia afflasset pejor serpentibus Afris."

[287] "At Boccatii fabulae nunc majus virent quam antea: et Dantis Petrarchaeque ac Virgilii totque aliorum poemata sunt in maxima veneratione."—Opera, tom. i. p. 125.

[288] Ibid., tom. i. p. 59.

[289] De Vita Propria, ch. xii.-xiii. pp. 39, 44.

[290] Opera, tom. i. p. 505.

[291] De Vita Propria, ch. xxvii. p. 72.

[292] "Eo tantum fine, quemadmodum alicubi fatetur, ut plura folia Typographis mitteret, quibuscum antea de illorum pretio pepigerat; atque hoc modo fami, non secus ac famae scriberet."—Naudaeus, Judicium.

[293] In De Consolatione (Opera, tom. i. p. 604) he writes:—"Quantum diligentiae, quantum industriae Cicero adjecit, quo conatu nixus est ut persuaderet senectutem esse tolerandam."

[294] De Utilitate, book ii. ch. 4.

[295] De Consolatione (Opera, tom. i. p. 605).

[296] Opera, tom. i. p. 113. On the same page he adds:—"Fui autem tam felix in cito absoluendo, quam infelicissimus in sero inchoando. Coepi enim illum anno aetatis meae quinquagesimo octavo, absolvi intra septem dies; pene prodigio similis."

[297] De Vita Propria, ch. ix. p. 30.


Adda, battle, 7

Alberio, Antonio, 4

Alciati, Cardinal, 212, 233

Algebra, 65, 73, 98, 235

Appearance of Cardan, 19

Apuleius, 231, 256, 264

Archinto, Filippo, 40, 41, 46, 54

Aristotle, 16, 105, 108, 224, 240, 256, 288

Arithmetic, 54, 61, 71, 91, 290

Astrology, 5, 54, 259

Avicenna, 224, 268

Bandarini, Altobello, 35-38, 163

Bandarini, Lucia (Cardan's wife), 35, 37, 39, 40, 57, 67, 163

Bayle, 1, 154, 245

Bologna, 193, 195, 201-205, 207, 212, 220, 224

Borgo, Fra Luca da, 76, 92, 96, 97

Borromeo, Carlo, 193, 194, 202, 210, 233

Borromeo, Count, 55, 259

Browne, Sir T., 56, 154, 210, 267

Brissac, Marquis, 54, 122, 131

Camutio, 170, 171, 256, 264

Cantone, Otto, 9, 11

Cardano, Aldo, 164, 165, 170, 172, 203, 212, 243

Cardano, Fazio, 1, 2, 10, 15, 22, 68, 69, 162, 238, 245, 267

Cardano, Gasparo, 103, 130, 132

Cardano, Gian Battista, 40, 102, 103, 164-180, 199, 261

Cardano, Niccolo, 21

Cassanate, G., 117-122, 126, 225, 266

Cavenago, Ambrogio, 58, 59, 60, 266

Cheke, Sir J., 139, 258

Chiara (Cardan's daughter), 148, 213

Chiromancy, 110

Cicero, 259, 290-291, 294

Colla, Giovanni, 73, 76, 81, 83, 85, 93, 97

Consolatione, De, 57, 62, 117, 164, 288

Croce, Francesco della, 47, 61

Croce, Luca della, 58-60, 266

D'Avalos, Alfonso, 57, 61, 63, 84, 85, 88, 89

Deaf mutes, 274

Demons, 115, 147, 155, 229

Denmark, King of, 100, 144, 282

Diet, Cardan's, 251: for the Archbishop of St. Andrews, 128

Diseases, Cardan's, 5, 7, 31, 33, 251

Doctorate of Padua, 23, 30

Dreams, Cardan's, 20, 34, 48, 104, 235

Edinburgh, 113, 125, 126

Edward VI., 132-139, 282

English, the, 141

Erasmus, 148, 163, 226, 295

Familiar spirit of Cardan, 227, 229, 258

Familiar spirit of Fazio Cardano, 12, 227

Ferrari, Ludovico, 54, 73, 94-96, 98, 211

Ferreo, Scipio, 54, 73, 76, 77, 97

Fioravanti, 189, 190, 192, 197

Fiore Antonio, 73, 76, 77, 79, 80, 82, 97

Gaddi, Franc., 47

Galen, 55, 170, 239, 240, 260-268, 270-273

Gallarate, 1, 39, 102, 258

Gambling, 22, 27, 28, 32, 42, 62, 163

Geniturarum Exempla, 4, 136

Geometry, 70

Glanvil, Jos., 279-281

Greek, study of, 232, 288

Hamilton, James, Earl of Arran, 120, 121, 124

Hippocrates, 59, 223, 255, 260, 268, 270-273, 296

Horace, 287, 289

Horoscope of Cardan, 5, 248

Horoscope of Aldo Cardano, 165

Horoscope of Cheke, 258

Horoscope of Christ, 55, 221, 257, 285, 286

Horoscope of Edward VI., 133, 259

Horoscope of Gian Battista Cardano, 258

Horoscope of Ranconet, 259

Horoscope of the Archbishop of St. Andrews, 130, 258

Immortalitate Animorum, De, 61, 284

Imprisonment of Cardan, 219, 231

Index, Congregation of the, 197

Juan Antonio, 79, 81-83

Lanza, Donato, 58, 257

Latin, study of, 12, 279, 282

Lawsuits, 31, 48, 267, 275

Leonardo Pisano, 74-76, 97

Libris Propriis, De, 160, 213, 235

Lyons, 121

Mahomet the Algebraist, 74

Mahomet Ben Musa, 75, 98

Margarita, 6, 21, 163, 249

Medicine, state of, 267

Micheria Chiara (Cardan's mother), 1, 3, 27, 39, 41, 42, 46, 292

Milan, College of, 31, 38, 41, 47, 52, 57, 61, 62, 145, 276

Moroni, Cardinal, 65, 210, 217-220

Music, 163, 235, 256

Naude, Gabriel, 96, 155, 156, 165, 246-249, 253, 254, 256, 264, 290

Niger, Josephus, 228, 279

Northumberland, Duke of, 133, 136, 138, 139

Orontius, 123

Osiander, A., 72

Paciolus, Luca, 74

Padua, University, 23-30

Paracelsus, 163, 269

Paris, 119, 121

Parker, Dr. S., 282, 283

Pavia, University, 18, 22, 53, 63, 65, 100, 116, 170, 183, 195, 269

Paul III., Pope, 54, 65, 100

Peckham, John, 16, 236

Petreius, 65

Petrus, 158, 159

Pharnelius [Fernel], 123, 260

Phthisis, cure of, 118, 256

Pius IV., 193, 197, 220, 221, 233

Pius V., 220-223, 225, 282

Plat Lectureship, 46, 64, 66, 70

Porro, Branda, 170, 171, 204, 256, 264

Portents, 38, 40, 64, 161, 166, 173, 175, 184, 205-207, 216, 219, 231, 238, 278

Precepts for Children, 164, 276

Ptolemaei de Astrorum Judiciis, 147, 154, 159, 235, 256, 285

Ranconet, A., 123, 130, 132, 145, 259

Ranke, Von, 220, 223

Rectorship at Padua, 23, 26-28

Rigone, 176, 182

Rome, 224, 233, 242

Rosso, Galeazzo, 14, 106

Sacco, 10, 30, 32, 67, 110, 258, 267

Sacco, Bartolomeo, 172, 174, 176

Saint Andrews, Abp. of, 112, 113, 118-122, 124, 126, 131, 146-148, 257, 265, 257

Sapientia, De, 57, 117, 260

Scaliger, J.C., 61, 148-157, 237 254, 284-286

Scot, Reginald, 159, 163, 256, 265

Scotland, 111-116, 141

Scoto, Ottaviano, 51, 147

Scotus, Duns, 113-141

Seroni, Brandonia, 168, 170, 172, 176-180, 231

Seroni, Evangelista, 168, 177, 182

Sessa, Duca di, 175, 182, 199, 200

Sfondrato, Francesco, 58, 59, 61

Shetlands, 113

Socrates, 228, 230

Subtilitate, De, 104-117, 149, 158, 221, 228

Suisset (Swineshead), 113, 141

Sylvestro, Rodolfo, 211, 219, 231, 234

Sylvius, 123

Tartaglia, Niccolo, 73, 75-99, 236

Thuanus [de Thou], 155, 221, 237 244, 278

Tiboldo, G., 265

Troilus and Dominicus, story of, 241, 243

Utilitate, De, 4, 184, 290

Varietate, De, 104-117, 154, 158, 159, 227, 249

Vesalius, 100, 101, 123, 261, 270

Vicomercato, Antonio, 62

Visconti, Ercole, 183, 188, 192

Vita Propria, De, 9, 45, 161, 235, 237, 244, 246, 249, 250, 284, 285, 289

Weir, Johann, 209, 210

William, the English boy, 139-141, 186, 187

Transcriber's notes

Page 299 Faizo corrected to Fazio Typographical errors in equations corrected.

a with macron a e with macron e u with macron u o with macron o m with tilde m


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