Samuel Clarke


Born: 11 October 1675 in Norwich, England
Died: 17 May 1729 in London, England


Samuel Clarke's parents were Hannah Parmenter and Edward Clarke. Hannah was the daughter of a Norwich merchant while Edward was a cloth manufacturer. Samuel was educated in Norwich, attending the Norwich Free Grammar School from 1685 to 1690, then entering Caius College, Cambridge in 1691. At Cambridge he [2]:-

... was noted for the range of his interests and his attempt to span all fields of knowledge in an age when science, and learning more generally, were increasingly becoming the province of the expert.

He studied Newton's works, going deeply into both the mathematics and physics, but he also studied divinity and classical studies. He graduated in 1695 offering parts of Newton's Principia for his final examinations. He became a Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge, as a result of his performance in defending a proposition from Newton's Principia in a disputation. He held this fellowship from 1696 to 1700. One of the tasks he undertook at this time was a Latin translation of Rohault's Traité de physique which was a physics text based on the physics of Descartes. Clarke added notes giving a Newtonian perspective to the text which was published in 1697. When he produced further editions in 1702 and 1710, Clarke went even further in producing a text based on Newtonian physics.

A chance meeting with Whiston, at that time chaplain to the Bishop of Norwich, in a Norwich coffee house led to their discussing Newton's work. Whiston introduced Clarke to the Bishop of Norwich and, when Whiston moved on in 1698 (eventually becoming Newton's assistant at Cambridge three years later), Clarke replaced him as chaplain to the Bishop of Norwich. The Bishop gave Clarke the charge of Drayton, near Norwich, and around this time Clarke married Katherine Lockwood, daughter of the rector of Little Maningham in Norfolk. They had seven children, five of whom reached adulthood.

Clarke was considered the greatest metaphysician in England when Locke died in 1704. In 1706 Newton asked Clarke to translate his Opticks into Latin. Clarke attracted great controversy with his religious views having few supporters. However he became rector of St Benet Paul's Wharf in 1706 and then of St James's, Westminster in 1709. Further religious controversy followed and Clarke had to make various declarations of orthodox belief which seemed to be just enough to save him, although it was noted that he had not recanted. Let us give a few details on his religious beliefs and at the same time show how mathematics became part of the way that he put forward his arguments.

In Clarke's early religious writings there was nothing to arouse controversy. The first was Three practical essays on baptism, confirmation, and repentance of 1699. He opposed high church ritual but he put himself somewhere in the middle of the range of views by also opposing the views of Calvin. He gained considerable fame as a philosopher when he delivered the Boyle lectures in 1704 and in an unprecedented move he was asked to give the Boyle lectures again in the following years since:-

... persons of such abilities in theology, philosophy, and mathematics, are not to be commonly found.

His lectures of 1704 put strong arguments for natural religion while those of 1705 dealt with religious revelation. He believed that one first had to demonstrate the logical validity of religious belief before building on top of that the Christian beliefs concerning Christ. This separation in arguments concerning God and Christ led to him taking views which were at odds with official Christian doctrine. Clarke himself believed that mathematical argument was the supreme form of logical reasoning and he explained in the preface of Demonstration of the being and attributes of God (1705) that he would argue:-

... as near to mathematical as the nature of such a discourse would allow.

In this work Clarke also used arguments based on Newton's Principia as the basis of an attempted proof that an intelligent designer was necessary both to create and to maintain the universe.

In 1709 Clarke went to Cambridge to undertake the public dispute necessary to receive the degree of doctor of divinity. In this disputation he again proved himself to be remarkably accomplished but some were left doubting that his views on the Trinity conformed with those of the mainstream. In The scripture-doctrine of the Trinity: wherein every text in the New Testament relating to that doctrine is distinctly considered (1712) he left nobody in doubt and argued that:-

... the Father alone is self-existent, underived, unoriginated, independent ... [However] the Son is not self-existent; but derives his Being and all his attributes from the Father ...

These views of course were close to those held by Newton, although he had been careful not to express them publicly. In making his position clear, Clarke had now made further advancement within the Church virtually impossible since he would have been asked to again subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles which required him to swear belief in the Trinity. As a consequence to would remain at St James's, Westminster, for the rest of his life.

After the death of Queen Anne in 1714, he became a close advisor to the Princess of Wales, who was to become Queen Caroline. He had weekly meetings with her and at her request he entered into dispute with Leibniz over the nature of space and time. Clarke defended Newtonian theory and corresponded with Leibniz making significant contributions to mechanics during the correspondence. Let us look briefly at the arguments put forward by Leibniz and at Clarke's reply (see [6], [9], [11] and [13] for interesting discusssions).

First Leibniz argued that Newton's description of space made God part of his own creation. Clarke replied:-

Infinite space is immensity but immensity is not God and therefore infinite space is not God.

Leibniz also argued that Newton portrayed God as having made an imperfect universe since, according to Newton, God had to continually adjust the planets in their orbits. But, argued Clarke, if the universe ran forever without God's intervention there would be no need for God:-

[W]hosever contends that the course of the world can go on without the continual direction of God, the Supreme Governor; his doctrine does in effect tend to exclude God out of the world.

He chose not to use the rather more risky argument put forward by Newton himself, namely:-

[I]f the world could go on to all eternity, then it might have gone on from all eternity, and that is all that the atheists contend for.

The final argument by Leibniz that we consider is that Newton's idea of action at a distance, without any mechanical explanation, was an appeal to the occult. Clarke, in his reply, managed to use the idea of action at a distance to support a belief in human freedom and moral choice. The death of Leibniz on 14 November 1716 in the middle of the correspondence rather handed victory to Clarke. He certainly chose to play it in that way, publishing the correspondence with a final reply of his own which summed up his position and gave him the final word.

When Newton died in 1727, Clarke was offered the position as master of the Royal Mint but he turned it down, stating that it was not consistent with his role as a clergyman. Although most of his publications were on religion and metaphysics, one of his last works was On the proportion of force to velocity in bodies in motion published a year before his death. He died in the rectory of his church of St James's, Westminster, and was buried five days later in the chancel of the church.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

February 2005


MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Clarke.html]