Sound advice from the 17th century

For a long time now I’ve been interested in the ways in which the worlds of Restoration experimental philosophy and Restoration trade and other economic activities came into contact. The early Fellows of the Royal Society were adamant that their research programme would be useful (no matter what any of their contemporary detractors thought!) – and I would argue that many of the Fellows wanted science to be useful more specifically in terms of enriching themselves and their country financially. I haven’t yet got around to arguing this in any detail but if I ever finish with Hooke, that’s what I’m going to do. In the meantime, let me introduce you to one of my favorite Fellows, the merchant, linguist, and secret writer of unorthodox religious treatises, Francis Lodwick. Lodwick and Hooke got to know each other in the 1670s and became close friends, meeting (with others) at Jonathan’s coffee-house in Exchange Alley on an almost daily basis throughout the 1690s. Lodwick was Hooke’s companion on one of the last outings recorded in his diary, when they visited some Chinese for tea and attempted to learn a few of the Chinese characters. Hooke wrote ‘I could learn little: 8 or 10 characters pronouncd all alike but of Differing signification’.

It was Lodwick’s interest in language that led to his involvement with the Royal Society. He had written two linguistic treatises, and the reform of language was a subject that occupied many of the Fellows throughout the early years of the Society. But Lodwick was not a typical Fellow. He had not attended university, and more importantly, unlike many of the Fellows who were gentlemen of independent means, he earned his living as a cloth merchant. There were only a very few merchants and tradesmen who became Fellows of the Royal Society in this period – but among them some very interesting figures including John Houghton, Joseph Moxon and John Graunt. I would like to write more about how their business and philosophical pursuits influenced each other, but for now I’ll confine myself to one example, which is Francis Lodwick’s aphorisms.

The aphorism, or short pithy sentence, had been recommended by the father of the new philosophy in England, Francis Bacon. Broadly speaking, Bacon believed that by presenting their readers with ‘a knowledge broken’ (ie. short points instead of a narrative), writers avoided giving the impression of a finished, complete work and instead provided preparatory materials for readers to think about. Ideally, the readers would then continue working on the questions raised. Bacon himself used this method in some of his writing.

Bacon had also, in The Advancement of Learning (1605), remarked that
‘wisdom touching negotiation or business hath not been hitherto collected into writing . . . there be no books of it, except some few scattered advertisements, that have no proportion to the magnitude of this subject’. Possibly encouraged by his Royal Society colleagues, I think that Lodwick was responding to these Baconian stimuli when he composed his own aphorisms, or ‘short sentences’ as he called them. Many of them give advice about the best way to conduct oneself in public, and more specifically in business – who to trust, how to maintain one’s image, how to speak about others, how best to elicit information, how to respond to loss in a philosphical manner. Other aphorisms advise about carrying on a law-case, maintaining good health, and how to get the most out of books (he recommends taking notes – good advice!). The sentences present a fascinating picture of the social world inhabited by Hooke and his associates. There is a sense of watchfulness in much of the advice, and an emphasis above all on maintaining a good reputation. Here are some examples:

Be sparing of laughter
Be sparing of Admiration
Laughter is healthfull moderatly used but consider the time and place thereto fit’
‘privacy with som trusty frind and thy equall may admit it
. . .
make not thyself a foole in the play
. . .
Downright Questions of any man in matters concerning his Intrest obtaineth alike denyall
If you desire to Know matters of that Nature, if it be in matters of his art Commend his Knowledg and skill therein, and pretend also som Knowledge therein; This will move him at som mistake of thine to correct thee
. . .
All pretended frinds are not really Such
. . .
Let not matters of trade be table discourse except it be to gaine information
But then mannage it wisely and as with a careless heed
Be most upon the inquiring part yet not so much as fully to discover your desire
Intermix somtimes other discourses between to take of jelousie [ie. to prevent suspicion]’
Having before hand marshalled your questions to your proposed end, aske them not in that order to prevent discovery of your designe
Be sure to keepe yourself sober and so on your guard, yet not so openly as that others may note it

In discourse with your opposite be sparing and heedfull for he wayeth thy words

There are 333 aphorisms in total so I’ve just given a short selection here. The text was never published in Lodwick’s day, and only survives in a single manuscript written in Lodwick’s distinctive hand, now at the British Library. But how much of this might Lodwick have discussed with Hooke and their other friends? In theory, the wariness inherent in conversation about matters of trade should not have been present in philosophical conversations – after all, the ideal was a community in which everyone shared ideas and information equally and freely. In reality, things weren’t quite as straightforward. Hooke was clearly an expert at getting information out of people, and on one occasion the Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed accused him of doing, in a coffeehouse conversation, something very similar to what Lodwick recommended – pretending knowledge of a matter in order to elicit information. Flamsteed wrote angrily to one of his friends:
‘hee [ie. Hooke] makes questions to those hee knows are skilfull in them, & theire answers serve him for assertions on the next occasion.’

So it seems as though, far from being confined to mercantile circles, Lodwick’s advice might have been useful to a range of people, including those who traded in matters of fact. In the spirit of Francis Bacon I will leave my readers to make up their own minds about this, and conclude with one further piece of advice that is likewise universally applicable:

Wine enlargeth the spirits and openeth the vaines and pores; let it not therefore be the forerunner of Venus especially with an unsound recipient’.


If you’re interested, you can find all the aphorisms printed alongside Lodwick’s other works in an excellent though rather expensive volume: Francis Lodwick, On Language, Theology, and Utopia ed. Felicity Henderson and William Poole (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011).

For more on the controversy between Flamsteed and Hooke see another excellent volume: Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998), pp. 554 ff.

4 thoughts on “Sound advice from the 17th century

  1. My favourite Royal Society tradesman is the printer publisher Joseph Moxon. He got himself elected to RS membership to gain access to their printing contracts only to discover that being a member barred him from receiving such contracts.

  2. Pingback: On Giant’s Shoulders #66: Contagious History! « Contagions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s