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Samuel Clarke

Samuel Clarke (October 11, 1675 - May 17, 1729) was an English philosopher.

The son of Edward Clarke, an alderman who represented the city of Norwich in parliament, was educated at the free school of Norwich and at Caius College, Cambridge. The philosophy of Rene Descartes was the reigning system at the university; Clarke, however, mastered the new system of Isaac Newton, and contributed greatly to its extension by publishing a Latin version of the Traité de physique of Jacques Rohault (1620-1675) with valuable notes, which he finished before he was twenty-two. The system of Rohault was founded entirely upon Cartesian principles, and was previously known only through the medium of a crude Latin version. Clarke's translation (1697) continued to be used as a text-book in the university till supplanted by the treatises of Newton, which it had been designed to introduce. Four editions were issued, the last and best being that of 1718. It was translated into English in 1723 by his brother Dr John Clarke, dean of Sarum.

Clarke afterwards devoted himself to the study of Scripture in the original, and of the primitive Christian writers. Having taken holy orders, he became chaplain to John Moore, bishop of Norwich, who became his friend and patron. In 1699 he published two treatises: Three Practical Essays on Baptism, Confirmation and Repentance and Some Reflections on that part of a book called Amyntor, or a Defence of Milton's Life, which relates to the Writings of the Primitive Fathers, and the Canon of the New Testament. In 1701 he published A Paraphrase upon the Gospel of St Matthew, which was followed, in 1702, by the Paraphrases upon the Gospels of St Mark and St Luke, and soon afterwards by a third volume upon St John. They were subsequently printed together in two volumes and have since passed through several editions. He intended to treat in the same manner the remaining books of the New Testament, but his design was unfulfilled.

Meanwhile he had been presented by Bishop Moore to the rectory of Drayton, near Norwich. As Boyle lecturer, he dealt in 1704 with the Being and Attributes of God, and in 1705 with the Evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion. These lectures, first printed separately, were afterwards published together under the title of A Discourse concerning the Being and Attributes of God, the Obligations of Natural Religion, and the Truth and Certainly of the Christian Revelation, in opposition to Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza, the author of the Oracles of Reason, and other Deniers of Natural and Revealed Religion.

In 1706 he wrote a refutation of Dr Henry Dodwell's views on the immortality of the soul, and this drew him into controversy with Anthony Collins. He also translated Newton's Optics, for which the author presented him with £500. In the same year through the influence of Bishop Moore, he obtained the rectory of St Benet's, Paul's Wharf, London. Soon afterwards Queen Anne appointed him one of her chaplains in ordinary, and in 1709 presented him to the rectory of St James's, Westminster. He then took the degree of doctor in divinity, defending as his thesis the two propositions: Nullum fidei Christianae dogma, in Sacris Scripturis traditum, est rectae rationi dissentaneum, and Sine actionum humanarum libertate nulla potest esse religio. During the same year, at the request of the author, he revised William Whiston's English translation of the Apostolical Constitutions.

In 1712 he published a carefully punctuated and annotated edition of Caesar's Commentaries, with elegant engravings, dedicated to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. During the same year he published his celebrated treatise on The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. It is divided into three parts. The first contains a collection and exegesis of all the texts in the New Testament relating to the doctrine of the Trinity; in the second the doctrine is set forth at large, and explained in particular and distinct propositions; and in the third the principal passages in the liturgy of the Church of England relating to the doctrine of the Trinity are considered. Whiston says that, some time before publication, a message was sent to him from Sidney Godolphin "that the affairs of the public were with difficulty then kept in the hands of those that were for liberty; that it was therefore an unseasonable time for the publication of a book that would make a great noise and disturbance; and that therefore they desired him to forbear till a fitter opportunity should offer itself,"--a message that Clarke entirely disregarded. The ministers were right in their conjectures; the work not only provoked a great number of replies, but occasioned a formal complaint from the Lower House of Convocation. Clarke, in reply, drew up an apologetic preface, and afterwards gave several explanations, which satisfied the Upper House.

In 1715 and 1716 he had a discussion with Gottfried Leibniz relative to the principles of natural philosophy and religion, which was at length cut short by the death of his antagonist. A collection of the papers which passed between them was published in 1717 (cf. GV Leroy, Die philos. Probleme in dem Briefwechsel Leibniz und Clarke, Giessen, 1893). In 1719 he was presented by Nicholas 1st Baron Lechmere, to the mastership of Wigston's hospital in Leicester. In 1724 he published seventeen sermons, eleven of which had not before been printed. In 1727, on the death of Sir Isaac Newton, he was offered by the court the place of master of the mint, worth on an average from £1200 to £1500 a year. This secular preferment, however, he absolutely refused. In 1728 was published "A Letter from Dr Clarke to Benjamin Hoadly, F.R.S., occasioned by the controversy relating to the Proportion of Velocity and Force in Bodies in Motion," printed in the Philosophical Transactions. In 1729 he published the first twelve books of Homer's Iliad. This edition, dedicated to William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, was highly praised by Bishop Hoadly. On Sunday, the 11th of May 1729, when going out to preach before the judges at Serjeants' Inn, he was seized with a sudden illness, which caused his death on the Saturday following.

Soon after his death his brother, Dr John Clarke, published, from his original manuscripts, An Exposition of the Church Catechism, and ten volumes of sermons. The Exposition is composed of the lectures which he read every Thursday morning, for some months in the year, at St James's church. In the latter part of his life he revised them with great care, and left them completely prepared for the press. Three years after his death appeared also the last twelve books of the Iliad, published by his son Samuel Clarke, the first three of these books and part of the fourth having, as he states, been revised and annotated by his father.

In disposition Clarke was cheerful and even playful. An intimate friend relates that he once found him swimming upon a table. At another time Clarke on looking out at the window saw a grave blockhead approaching the house; upon which he cried out, "Boys, boys, be wise; here comes a fool." Dr Warton, in his observations upon Pope's line, "Unthought-of frailties cheat us in the wise," says, "Who could imagine that Locke was fond of romances; that Newton once studied astrology; that Dr Clarke valued himself on his agility, and frequently amused himself in a private room of his house in leaping over the tables and chairs?"


Clarke, though in no way an original thinker, was eminent in theology, mathematics, metaphysics and philology, but his chief strength lay in his logical power. The materialism of Hobbes, the pantheism of Spinoza, the empiricism of Locke, the determinism of Leibniz, Collins' necessitarianism, Dodwell's denial of the natural immortality of the soul, rationalistic attacks on Christianity, and the morality of the sensationalists--all these he opposed with a thorough conviction of the truth of the principles which he advocated. His fame as theologian and philosopher rests to a large extent on his demonstration of the existence of God and his theory of the foundation of rectitude. The former is not a purely a priori argument, nor is it presented as such by its author. It starts from a fact and it often explicitly appeals to facts. The intelligence, for example, of the self-existence arid original cause of all things is, he says, "not easily proved a priori," but "demonstrably proved a posteriori from the variety and degrees of perfection in things, and the order of causes and effects, from the intelligence that created beings are confessedly endowed with, and from the beauty, order, and final purpose of things." The propositions maintained in the argument are:

  1. That something has existed from eternity
  2. that there has existed from eternity some one immutable and independent being
  3. that that immutable and independent being, which has existed from eternity, without any external cause of its existence, must be self-existent, that is, necessarily existing
  4. what the substance or essence of that being is, which is self-existent or necessarily existing, we have no idea, neither is it at all possible for us to comprehend it
  5. that though the substance or essence of the self-existent being is itself absolutely incomprehensible to us, yet many of the essential attributee of his nature are strictly demonstrable as well as his existence, and, in the first place, that he must be of necessity eternal
  6. that the self-existent being must of necessity be infinite and omnipresent
  7. must be but one
  8. must be an intelligent being
  9. must be not a necessary agent, but a being endued with liberty and choice
  10. must of necessity have infinite power
  11. must be infinitely wise, and
  12. must of necessity be a being of infinite goodness, justice, and truth, and all other moral perfections, such as become the supreme governor and judge of the world.

In order to establish his sixth proposition, Clarke contends that time and space, eternity and immensity, are not substances, but attributes-the attributes of a self-existent being. Edmund Law, Dugald Stewart, Lord Brougham, and many other writers, have, in consequence, represented Clarke as arguing from the existence of time and space to the existence of Deity. This is a serious mistake. The existence of an immutable, independent, and necessary being is supposed to be proved before any reference is made to the nature of time and space. Clarke has been generally supposed to have derived the opinion that time and space are attributes of an infinite immaterial and spiritual being from the Scholium Generate, first published in the second edition of Newton's Principia (1714). The truth is that his work on the Being and Attributes of God appeared nine years before that Scholium. The view propounded by Clarke may have been derived from the Midrash, the Kabbalah, Philo, Henry More, or Cudworth, but not from Newton. It is a view difficult to prove, and probably few will acknowledge that Clarke has conclusively proved it.

His ethical theory of "fitness" is formulated on the analogy of mathematics. He held that in relation to the will things possess an objective fitness similar to the mutual consistency of things in the physical universe. This fitness God has given to actions, as he has given laws to Nature; and the fitness is as immutable as the laws. The theory has been unfairly criticized by Jouffroy, Amédée Jacques, Sir James Mackintosh, Thomas Brown and others. It is said, for example, that Clarke made virtue consist in conformity to the relations of things universally, although the whole tenor of his argument shows him to have had in view conformity to such relations only as belong to the sphere of moral agency. It is true that he might have emphasized the relation of moral fitness to the will, and in this respect JF Herbart improved on Clarke's statement of the case. To say, however, that Clarke simply confused mathematics and morals by justifying the moral criterion on a mathematical basis is a mistake. He compared the two subjects for the sake of the analogy.

Though Clarke can thus be defended against this and similar criticism, his work as a whole can be regarded only as an attempt to present the doctrines of the Cartesian school in a form which would not shock the conscience of his time. His work contained a measure of rationalism sufficient to arouse the suspicion of orthodox theologians, without making any valuable addition to, or modification of, the underlying doctrine.


See W Whiston's Historical Memoirs, and the preface by Benjamin Hoadly to Clarke's Works (4 vols., London, 1738-1742). See further on his general philosophical position J Hunt's Religious Thought in England, passim, but particularly in vol. ii. 447-457, and vol. iii. 20-29 and 109-115, &c.; Rob. Ziinmermann in the Denkschriften d. k. Akademie der Wissenschaften, Phil. Hist. Classe, Bd. xix. (Vienna, 1870); H Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics (6th ed., 1901), p. 384; A Bain's Moral Science (1872), p. 562 foIl., and Mental Science (1872), p. 416; Sir L Stephen's English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (3rd ed., 1902), c. iii.; JE le Rossignol, Ethical Philosophy of S. Clarke (Leipzig, 1892).

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.