Posthumous portrait of Boyle from the early eighteenth century, attributed to Jonathan Richardson, Royal Society of Chemistry, London.
When we hear the word “virtuoso” today, we think of great musicians, often violinists or pianists. In the seventeenth century, however, the word was often used for scientists. Indeed, the word “scientist” didn’t even exist until the 1830s. Early members of the Royal Society, including Boyle, often saw themselves as “virtuosi,” leading the dramatist Thomas Shadwell to write a successful satirical play about them, The Virtuoso.
Boyle as Christian Virtuoso
Boyle applied the term to himself in his final theological work, The Christian Virtuoso. The pages were printed in the winter of 1690-91, almost exactly one year before his death, but he had started writing it decades earlier, and a large amount of additional material that Boyle had originally intended to include was published several decades after his death in 1744.
The subtitle of his book nicely encapsulates Boyle’s understanding of his own Christian vocation: “SHEWING, That by being addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man is rather Assisted, than Indisposed, to be a Good Christian.” His labors were not in vain. So strongly did he convey his message, that when the great Cotton Mather wrote The Christian Philosopher [PDF link] (1721), the first American effort to engage the new science of the previous century, he originally intended to name his own book The Christian Virtuoso. Mather’s Puritan soul was irresistibly drawn to Boyle’s deep piety, and his opening words echo Boyle’s: “The Essays now before us will demonstrate that [natural] Philosophy is no Enemy, but a mighty and wondrous Incentive to Religion, which will carry with it a most sensible Character, and victorious Evidence of a reasonable Service” (The Christian Philosopher, ed. Solberg, p. 7, italics Mather’s).
Perhaps to make sure that no one had somehow missed it, Boyle restated his position on natural theology one more time in The Christian Virtuoso: “’tis not by a slight Survey, but by a diligent and skilful Scrutiny, of the Works of God, that a Man must be, by a Rational and Affective Conviction, engag’d to acknowledge with the Prophet [Isaiah 28:29], that the Author of Nature is Wonderful in Counsel, and Excellent in Working” (Christian Virtuoso, I, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 11, p. 297). He also introduced a new line of thinking, elegantly linking the character of the Christian virtuoso with the actual practice of science. The Christian virtuoso was to be known for personal honor and trustworthiness; devotion to one’s work as a divinely ordained vocation, even a religious duty; and independence of mind sufficient to rely on what he (elsewhere) called “the visible testimony of Nature her self” (Hydrostatical Paradoxes, in Works, vol. 5, p. 198), not mere human opinion. Also, the virtuoso ought to place the pursuit of truth over personal gain and sensual pleasure, openness and generosity over secrecy. (I follow the analysis of Steven Shapin, cited below.)
Above all, Boyle believed that the Christian virtuoso benefitted from the hard work of explicating natural phenomena, which “does insensibly work in him a great and ingenuous Modesty of Mind” (Christian Virtuoso, I, in Works, vol. 11, p. 322). The cultivation of humility was vital, since “the higher degree of knowledge” that the scientist attains “seems more likely to puff him up, than to make him humble” (Christian Virtuoso, II, in Works, vol. 12, p. 490). It’s not that he sought no credit for his own discoveries—like most scientists of any era, Boyle wanted his fair and appropriate share. It’s rather that he wanted all scientists “to mind more the Advancement of Natural Philosophy than that of their own Reputations” (Certain Physiological Essays, in Works, vol. 2, pp. 13-14). How little some things change in 300 years! He actually found the experimental life itself to be conducive to modesty. As he said at the end of a lengthy and detailed description of inconclusive experiments about bubbles in ice, “I shall not think I have altogether mis-spent my time, especially if so many past Experiments, both new, and not altogether impertinent, by their not having taught us enough about so despicable a subject as a Bubble, shall, as they justly may[,] teach us Humility” (New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold, in Works, vol. 4, p. 319).
Robert Boyle died in the home of his beloved sister, Katherine, shortly after midnight on the final day of 1691. She had died herself just eight days before, and it is probably true that grief hastened his passing, although he was never robust and had been in declining health for several years. Laid to rest close to her in the chancel of their parish church, St Martin-in-the-Fields, the precise location of his grave is no longer known, because when the church was rebuilt thirty years later the old tombs were removed. The humility suggested by this fate is entirely fitting to the character of one of the greatest scientists who has ever lived.
In two weeks, look for an epilogue to this series, in which I will pretend to be Robert Boyle, presenting his own life and work to Christians today. If that intrigues you, join us: there simply was no finer example of a Christian scientist than Robert Boyle.
References and Suggestions for Further Reading
This material is adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38. Additional information is from Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, ed. Winton U. Solberg (University of Illinois Press, 1994), and Steven Shapin, “Who was Robert Hooke?”, in Robert Hooke: New Studies, ed. Michael Hunter and Simon Schaffer (The Boydell Press, 1989), pp. 253-85. Other quotations are from The Works of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), 14 vols., ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis.