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Gassendi [Gassend], Pierre

1. Dates
Born: Champtercier (southeastern France), 22 January 1592
Died: Paris, 24 October 1655
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 63
2. Father
Occupation: Peasant/Small Farmer
Gassendi was the son of Antoine Gassend and Francoise Fabry. His father was, by one account, a farmer on his own land, and by another (which is not necessarily inconsistent) a peasant.
No information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French
Death: French
4. Education
Schooling: Aix; Avignon, D.D.
His uncle, Thomas Fabry the village priest was in charge of the early education of Gassendi. He then attended school at Digne from 1599 to 1606 (except for one year at Ruez). After a two year stay at home he returned to his formal schooling at the University at Aix. He studied philosophy under P. Philibert Fesaye and two years later studied theology under Professor Raphaelis. He returned to Digne in 1612 to become Principal of the College of Digne. He held this position for two years after which he received his doctorate in theology at Avignon. I assume a B.A. or its equivalent.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
In 1612 he took four minor orders of the Church. He was appointed canon at the Church in Digne in 1614. Two years later he celebrated his first mass.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Primary: Asn, Natural Philosophy
Subordinate: Physics
From as early as 1625 until his death Gassendi occupied himself with rehabilitation of the philosophy of Epicurus. He began his research as part of a plan to dislodge Aristoteleanism as the source of authority and to replace it with Epicurean philosophy. In 1649 he published his Animadversiones containing a portion of his work on Epicurus. His years of research would appear again in 1653 as a revision of the earlier work and again in his Opera omnia. Gassendi was careful not to make Epicurean philosophy fall into the same trap as Aristotelian philosophy. He maintained a healthy skepticism that cautioned against equating information of the world with certain and complete knowledge of the true nature of things.
His first work, which made him well-known in scientific circles, Exercitationes paradoxicae (1624) was based on his lectures at Aix and aimed against the scholastics.
In addition to his Epicurean research, Gassendi wrote about the elements of astronomy and his own observations, falling bodies, and Descartes' Meditations.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Church Life, Patronage
Secondary: Schoolmastering, Academia
From 1612-1614 he was the Principal at the College of Digne. He was also appointed canon of the church in Digne. He held the canonry until 1634 when he became Dean of the chapter. This was an important benefice, which he held for the rest of his life; it insured Gassendi against need. Gassendi was ordained a priest in 1616 or 17.
In 1617 he won the chairs of theology and philosophy at Aix. He accepted the chair of philosophy but ceded the chair of theology to his former professor, Fesaye. Despite his dissatisfaction with Aristotelian doctrines he gave his students a thorough exposition of the scholastic teachings. He held this position for six years.
When the Jesuits took over Aix, forcing him out, Gassendi returned to Digne where he attended to his ecclesiastical duties. In 1623-4 he was in Grenoble on a mission for the Digne chapter.
In 1624-5 he went to Paris on another excursion for the chapter. He returned to Digne. He spent some of his time in Aix (as for example the winter of 1627-8) with Peiresc.
In 1628 he made a trip to the Netherlands with Francois Luillier, and then stayed on in Paris until 1632, living for the most part with Luillier.
He returned to Digne in 1632, where he continued to have duties. During the following years he was frequently in Aix with Peiresc until Peiresc died in 1637. Gassendi stayed in Provence until the mission to Paris in 1641.
He travelled to Paris in 1641 to attend to ecclesiastical duties stemming from his nomination to the Agence du Clerge in 1639. I gather that he stayed on in Paris.
After several years of research and writing, he returned to an academic post at the College Royale. Cardinal Alphonse Richelieu was influencial in the appointment of Gassendi to the professorship in mathematics in 1645. He did not hold this position long; ill health forced him to leave Paris in 1648 for Digne and Provence.
He returned to Paris in 1653 to stay with Montmor until Gassendi's death.
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, Scientist, Government Official, Eccesiastic Official
From 1628 until his death, Francois Luillier, maitre des comptes, was a friend and patron to Gassendi. Rochot calls his a wealthy financier; Joy calls him a wealthy lawyer. With that title, I'll settle for governmental official. He had purchased the position. In 1628 Gassendi travelled to the Netherlands with Luillier, stayed with him in Paris after they returned, and later lived with him in 1641 when he was in Paris on ecclesiastical business. Gassendi dedicated De vita et moribus Epicuri to him.
Gassendi met Mersenne during his first stay in Paris. Mersenne set him on the task of writing against Fludd, and to Mersenne he dedicated the work.
Peiresc was a constant source of support to Gassendi. Gassendi lived in the home of Peiresc for the last year of the latter's life. Gassendi was so distraught after Peiresc's death that he stopped writing for about four years. I find it of great interest that Peiresc and Luillier (and later Valois and Luillier) did not appear to think of themselves as being in competition; they even corresponded about their mutual client.
One year after Peiresc's death Gassendi met Louis Emmanuel de Valois, Governor of Provence, who showed interest in his work. Gassendi accompanied him on an official tour in 1640. The year previous Valois supported Gassendi's nomination to the Agence du Clerge. Rochot discusses their relation (pp. 84-6). Valois was a man of no particular learning himself who nevertheless, from the moment he arrived in Provence, saw the support of Gassendi as a vital office. As usual, no one gives any real insight into his motives. Nevertheless, Valois and Gassendi corresponded with great frequency. There are 350 letters from Valois, and there would be more had the two not often been living in the same city. They remained in touch until Valois' death. Valois made possible the experiment of dropping an object from the mast of a galley and was present at the experiment.
Gassendi dedicated his Institutio astronomica to Cardinal Richelieu in appreciation for his position at the College Royale obtained by Richelieu's influence.
On his last trip to Paris Gassendi took up residence in the home of Montmor where he (Gassendi) died in 1655.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Cartography
Gassendi corrected the geographical coordinates of the Mediterranean Sea.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
He was introduced into the circle of the brothers DuPuy who met at the library of President du Thou. Undoubtedly he was among the corresponding members of Mersenne's group. Towards the end of his life he belonged to the Montmor academy. Among his many friends or correspondents were Beeckman, Galileo, Snel, Mydorge, Patin, Bouchard, Naudé, Sorbière, du Perier of Aix, Diodati, and Gautier.
  1. Howard Jones, Pierre Gassendi, 1592-1655: An Intellectual Biography, (1981). B1886. J66 1981 Lillian U. Pancheri, "Pierre Gassendi, a forgotten but important man in history of physics," American Journal of Physics, 46, 5, (May 1978), 455-464.
  2. Bernard Rochot, Les travaux de Gassendi sur Epicure et sur l'atomisme, 1619-1658, (Paris, 1944).
  3. Dictionnaire de biographie francaise 15, 617-19.
  4. Lynn Joy, Gassendi the Atomist, (Cambridge, 1987).
  5. Centre international de synthèse, Pierre Gassendi, sa vie et son oeuvre, (Paris, 1955).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Armand Beaulieu, "L'énigmatique Gassendi: Prévôt et savant," La vie des sciences, 9 (1992), 205-9.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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