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Robert Boyle’s funeral Sermon


Robert Boyle’s funeral Sermon

We offer here some excerpts from the Sermon delivered by the Bishop of Sarum, Gilbert Burnet, at the funeral of Robert Boyle. The Sermon was first published in 1692 with the title A Sermon at the Funeral of the Honourable Robert Boyle. The text begins with a description of what makes a man a good man, and which are the consequences of this attitude, namely the gifts of God to a good man: Wisdom, Knowledge, and Joy. Then the Author of the Sermon describes the life of Robert Boyle and his personal way to live these three characteristics. This text is a witness of the wide popularity Boyle had, as a scientist and as a believer. Although highly dependent on the language of the time, this Sermon is a nice example of the spiritual climate in which scientific activity was carried out at the end of the XVIII century.

frontespizioBut as there is a dark side of Humane Nature, so there is likewise a bright one, the flights and compass of awakened Souls is no less amazing. The vast croud of Figures that lie in a very narrow corner of the Brain, which a good memory, and a lively imagination, can fetch out in great order, and with much beauty: the strange reaches of the Mind in abstracted Speculations, and the amazing progress that is made from some simple Truths into Theories, that are the admiration as well as the entertainment of the thinking part of mankind; The sagacity of apprehending and judging, even at the greatest distance; The elevation that is given to Sense, and the Sensible powers, by the invention of Instruments; and which is above all, the strength that a few thoughts do spread into the mind, by which it is made capable of doing or suffering the hardest things; the Life which they give, and the Calm which they bring, are all so unaccountable, that take all together, a Man is a strange huddle, of Light and Darkness, of Good and Evil, and of Wisdom and Folly. […]


The gifts of God to a good man

The first of these is Wisdom […]. Wisdom in gross, is the forming true Principles, the laying good Schemes the imploying proper Instruments, and the chusing fit seasons for doing the best and noblest things that can arise out of humane nature. This is the defence as well as the glory of Mankind: Wisdom gives life to him that hath it, it is better than strength, and better than weapons of war; it is, in one word, The Image of God, and the Excellency of Man. It is here called the Gift of God; the seed of it is laid in our Nature, but there must be a proper disposition of body, a right figure of brain, and a due temper of blood to give it scope and materials. These must also be cultivated by an exact education; so that when all these things are laid together, it is plain in how many respects Wisdom comes from God. There are also particular happy flights, and bright minutes, which open to men great Landskips, and give them a fuller prospect of things, which do often arise out of no previous Meditations, or chain of thought, and these are flashes of light from its Eternal sourse, which do often break in upon pure minds. They are not Enthusiasms, nor extravagant pretentions, but true views of things which appear so plain and simple, that when they come to be examined, it may be justly thought that any one could have fallen upon them, and the simplest are always the likest to be the truest. In short, a Pure mind is both better prepared for an enlightning from above, and more capable of receiving it. […]

Knowledge comes next: This is that which opens the mind, and fills it with great Notions; the viewing the Works of God even in a general survey, gives insensibly a greatness to the Soul. But the more extended and exact, the more minute and severe, the Enquiry be, the soul grows to be thereby the more inlarged by the variety of Observation that is made, either on the great Orbs and Wheels that have their first motion, as well as their Law or moving, from the Author of all; or on the composition of Bodies, on the Regularities, as well as the Irregularities of Nature; and that Mimickry of its heat and motion that Artificial Fires so produce and shew. This Knowledge goes into the History of past Times, and Remote Climates; and with those livelier Observations on Art and Nature, which give a pleasant entertainment and amusement to the mind, there are joined in some, the severer studies, the more laborious as well as the less-pleasant study of  Languages, on design to understand the sense, as well as the discoveries of former Ages: and more particularly to find out the true sense of the sacred Writings. These are all the several varieties of the most useful parts of Knowledge; and these do spread over all the powers of the Soul of him that is capable of them, a sort of nobleness; that makes him become thereby another kind of Creature than otherwise he ever could have been: He has a larger size of Soul, and vaster thoughts, that can measure the Spheres, an enter into the Theories of the Heavenly Bodies; that can observe the proportion of Lines, and Numbers, the composition and mixtures of the several sorts of Beings. This World, this Life, and the mad Scene we are in, grow to be but little and inconsiderable things, to one of great views and noble Theories: and he who is upon the true scent of real and useful Knowledge, has always some great thing or other in prospect; new Scenes do open to him, and these draw after them Discoveries, which are often made before, even those who made them were either aware, or in expectation of them: These by an endless Chain are still pointing at, or leading into further Discoveries. […] This knowledge, though it may seem to be merely the effect of thought, of labour, and industry, yet it is really the gift of God. The capacity of our Powers, and the disposition of our Minds are in a great measure born with us: The circumstances and accidents of our lives depends so immediately upon Providence, that in all these respects, Knowledge comes, at least in the preparations of it, from God. […]

The third gift that God bestows on the Good man, is joy, and how can lit be otherwise, but that a good, a wise and knowing Man, should rejoyce both in God and in himself; in observing the works and ways of God, and in feeling the testimony of a good conscience with himself. He is happy in the situation of his own mind, which he possesses in a calm contented evenues [sic] of Spirit. He has not the agitations of Passions, the ferment of Designs and Interests, nor the disorders of Appetite which darken the Mind, and create to it many imaginary Troubles, as well as it encreases the Sense of the real Ones which may lye upon ones Person or Affairs. He rejoyces in God when he sees so many of the hidden beauties of his Works, the wonderful fitness and contrivance, the curious disposition, and the vast usefulness of them, to the general good of the whole. These things afford him so great a variety of Thought, that he can dwell long on that noble exercise without flatness or weariness. He reioyces in all that he does, his imployments are much diversified, for the newness of his discoveries which returns often, gives him as often a newness of joy. His views are great, and his designs are noble; even to know the works of God the better, and to render them the more useful to Mankind. He can discover in the most despised Plant, and the most contemptible Mineral that which may allay the miseries of humane Life, and render multitudes of men easie and happy. Now to one that loves Mankind, and that adores the Author of our Nature, every thing that may tend to Celebrate his praises, and to sweeten the lives of Mortals, affords a joy that is of an exalted and generous kind.


Robert Boyle’s life and character

I ought to call on all that were so happy, as to know him well, to observe his temper and course of life, and charge them to sum up and lay together the many great and good things that they saw in him, and from thence to remember always to how vast a Sublimity the Christian Religion can raise a mind, that does both throughly believe it, and is entirely governed by it. I might here also call up the Multitudes, the vast Multitudes of those who have been made both the wiser and the easier, the better and the happier by his means […]. He was most constant and serious in his secret Addresses to God; and indeed it appeared to those, who conversed most with him in his Enquiries into Nature, that his main design in that, on which as he had his own Eye most constantly, so he took care to put others often in mind of it, was to raise in himself and others vaster Thoughts of the Greatness and Glory, and of the Wisdom and Goodness of God. This was so deep in his trought, that he concludes the Article of his Will, which relates to that Illustrious Body, the Royal Society, in these Words, Wishing them also a happy success in their laudable Attempts, to discover the true Nature of the Works of God; and praying that they and all other Searchers into physical Truths, may Cordially refer their Attainments to the Glory of the Great Author of Nature, and to the Comfort of Mankind. As he was a very Devout Worshipper of God, so he was a no less Devout Christian. He had possessed himself with such an amiable view of that Holy Religion, separated from either superstitious Practices or the sourness of Parties, that as he was fully perswaded of the Truth of it, and indeed wholly possessed with it, so he rejoyced in every discovery that Nature furnisht him with, to Illustrate it, or to take off the Objections against any part of it. […]

That which comes next to be considered, is the share that this good Man had in those Gifts of God, Wisdom, Knowledge, and Joy. […] He had too unblemish’d a candor to be capable of those Arts and Practices that a false and decitful World may call Wisdom. He could neither lie nor equivocate; but could well be silent, and by practising that much, he cover'd himself upon many uneasy Occasions. He made true Judgments of Men and Things. His Advices and Opinions were solid and sound; and if Caution and Modesty gave too strong a Biass, his Invention was fruitful to suggest good Expedients. […]

His Knowledge was of so vast an Extent, that if it were not for the variety of Vouchers in their several sorts, I should he afraid to say all I know. He carried the study of the Hebrew very far into the Rabbinical Writings, and the other Oriental Languages. He had read so much of the Fathers, that he had formed out of it a clear Judgement of all the eminent Ones. He had read a vast deal on the Scriptures, and had gone very nicely through the whole Controversies of Religion; and was a true Master in the whole Body of Divinity. He run the whole Compass of the Mathematical Sciences; and though he did not set himself to spring new Game, yet he knew even the abstrusest Parts of Geometry. Geography in the several parts of it, that related to Navigation or Travelling, History and Books of Travels were his Diversions. He went very nicely through all the parts of Physick, only the tenderness of his Nature made his less able to endure the exactness of Anatomical Dissections, especially of living Animals […]. But his peculiar and favourite Study, was Chymistry; in which he engaged with none of those ravenous and am[b]itious Designs, that draw many into them. His Design was only to find out Nature, to see into what Principles things might be resolved, and of what they were compounded, and to prepare good Medicaments for the Bodies oi Men. […]

As for Joy, he had indeed nothing of Frolick and Levity in him, he had no Relish for the idle and extravagant Madness of the Men of pleasure; he did not waste his Time, nor dissipate his spirits into foolish Mirth, but he possessed his own soul in Patience, full of that solid Joy which his Goodness as well as his Knowledg afforded him: He who had neither Designs nor Passions, was capable of little Trouble from any concerns of his own: He had about him all the Tenderness of good Nature, as well as the softness of Friendship, these gave him a large share of other Mens concerns; for he had a quick sense of the Miseries of Mankind. He had also a feeble Body, which needed to be look'd to the more, because his Mind went faster than that his Body could keep pace with it; yet his great Thoughts of God, and his Contemplation of his Works, were to him Sources of Joy, which could never be exhausted. The Sense of his own Integrity, and of the Good he found it did, afforded him the truest of all Pleasures, since they gave him the certain Prospect of that Fulness of Joy, in the Sight of which he lived so long, and in the Possession of which he now lives, and shall live for ever.


Gilbert Burnet’s funeral sermon, 1692, in M. Hunter (ed.), Robert Boyle by himself and his friends (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 35-57.