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The 'Living Library' of John Smith (1618-52)

Kepler, Harmonices mundi [D.1.9]

John Smith was one of those brilliant 17th century thinkers, now associated with the intellectual revolution of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon. As one of the earliest Cambridge scholars to engage with the new thinking, Smith’s vast collection of books, a selection of which are on display here, is of immense significance. Smith’s career at the College was, however, brief. Following his appointment as a fellow and mathematics teacher in 1644, Smith’s promising career was cut short by his death from Tuberculosis in 1652.

Although this untimely demise limited Smith’s intellectual footprint in terms of publications, his reputation as a thinker and philosopher is assured on account of his posthumously published Select Discourses (1660) and Smith’s known involvement with a group of philosophers now known as the Cambridge Platonists. Their agenda to transcend puritanical dogma with ‘a rational religion’ founded on the language of Platonic philosophy and the new sciences proved highly influential both within and beyond the confines of 17th-century theology. Motivated by his wish to reduce the imagery of religion to ‘clear and distinct ideas’ Smith is remembered for his forward-looking embrace of the then cutting edge philosophies of Descartes. Smith’s intellectually diverse interests are clearly evident in his bequest of 630 books to Queens’ which, on its arrival at the college would have changed the entire complexion of its library.

In addition to humanist learning (Proclus, Plotinus, Plutarch) and the newer 17th-century philosophies (Descartes, Galileo, Harvey, Kepler) Smith’s thirst for knowledge encompassed Egyptian medicine, geography, law, history, mathematics, travel and many other subjects. It was in recognition of Smith’s scholarship that his pupil Simon Patrick paid special tribute to Smith’s ‘Vastness of Learning’ and ‘piercing understanding’. In a self-conscious reuse of a phrase originally applied in antiquity to the neo-platonist philosopher Longinus, Patrick lauded his teacher as ‘a living library’ and a walking study. Smith was not, however, ‘a library locked up, nor a book clasped, but stood open, for any to converse with that had a mind to learn’. (This exhibition was on display in Queens' Old Library during Michaelmas term, 2013).

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