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Isaac Barrow, equally eminent as mathematician and divine, was born in London in 1630. He received his early education at Charter-house school, where it is said he was distinguished chiefly for the neglect of his studies and for his pugnacity. Later he was sent to Felstead school and in 1643 he was entered at Peter-house, Cambridge, under his uncle Isaac Barrow, then a fellow of that college and later Bishop of St. Asaph. On the ejection of his uncle in 1645 he removed to Trinity College where he became a bachelor of arts in 1648, fellow in 1649, and master of arts in 1652.
He had already given much study to theology and the classics, and now turned his attention to the comparatively new science, in his country at least, of astronomy. Being disappointed in obtaining the vacant professorship of Greek, he went abroad in 1655 and travelled during four years through France and Italy, to Smyrna and Constantinople, back to Venice, and home through Germany and Holland. Soon after his return he took orders and received the appointment to the chair of Greek in Cambridge. From 1663 to 1669 he held the Lucasian professorship, in which Sir Isaac Newton became his successor. To Barrow belongs the honor of first recognizing Newton's ability when still an undergraduate. After holding a small living in Wales for three years he was elected Master of Trinity College in 1672. To Barrow, while holding this office, is due the foundation of the celebrated library which is one of the chief ornaments of the university. In 1675 he was nominated vice-chancellor of the university. He died two years later at the early age of forty-seven, having achieved by his numerous able and important works, and the force of his noble personality, a reputation which time has not impaired.
As a theologian Barrow's fame rests chiefly on his sermons, which are remarkable as specimens of clear, exhaustive and vigorous discussions. The sermon on “Slander" furnishes an example of his great talents as a preacher and divine.
ENERAL declamations against vice and sin are indeed G excellently useful, as rousing men to consider and look about them; but they do often want effect, because they only raise confused apprehensions of things, and indeterminate propensions to action, which usually, before men thoroughly perceive or resolve what they should practise, do decay and vanish. As he that cries out “Fire!” doth stir up people, and inspireth them with a kind of hovering tendency every way, yet no man thence to purpose moveth until he be distinctly informed where the mischief is; then do they who apprehend themselves concerned, run hastily to oppose it: so till we particularly discern where our offences lie (till we distinctly know the heinous nature and the mischievous consequences of them), we scarce will effectually apply ourselves to correct them. Whence it is requisite that men should be particularly acquainted with their sins, and by proper arguments be dissuaded from them. In order whereto I have now selected one sin to describe, and dissuade from, being in nature as vile, and in practice as common, as any other whatever that hath prevailed among men. It is slander, a sin which in all times and places hath been epidemical and rife, but which especially doth seem to reign and rage in our age and country. There are principles innate to men, which ever have, and ever will, incline them to this offence. Eager appetites to secular and sensual goods; violent passions, urging the prosecution of what men affect; wrath and displeasure against those who stand in the way of compassing their desires; emulation and envy towards those who happen to succeed better, or to attain a greater share in such things; excessive self-love; unaccountable malignity and vanity are in some degrees connatural to all men, and ever prompt them to this dealing, as appearing the most efficacious, compendious, and easy way of satisfying such appetites, of promoting such designs, of discharging such passions. Slander thence hath always been a principal engine whereby covetous, ambitious, envious, ill-natured, and vain persons have striven to supplant their competitors and advance themselves; meaning thereby to procure, what they chiefly prize and like, wealth, or dignity, or reputation, favor and power in the court, respect and interest with the people. But from especial causes our age peculiarly doth abound in this practice; for, besides the common dispositions inclining thereto, there are conceits newly coined, and greedily entertained by many, which seem purposely levelled at the disparagement of piety, charity, and justice, substituting interest in the room of conscience, authorizing and commenting for good and wise, all ways serving to private advantage. There are implacable dissensions, fierce animosities, and bitter zeals sprung up; there is an extreme curiosity, niceness, and delicacy of judgment; there is a mighty affectation of seeming wise and witty by any means; there is a great unsettlement of mind, and corruption of manners, generally diffused over people; from which sources it is no wonder that this flood hath so overflown that no banks can restrain it, no fences are able to resist it; so that ordinary conversation is full of it, and no demeanor can be secure from it. If we do mark what is done in many (might I not say, in most?) companies, what is it but one telling malicious stories of, or fastening odious characters upon another? What do men commonly please themselves in so much as in carping and harshly censuring, in defaming and abusing their neighbors? Is it not the sport and divertissement of many to cast dirt in the faces of all they meet with? to bespatter any man with foul imputations? Doth not in every corner a Momus lurk, from the venom of whose spiteful or petulant tongue no eminency of rank, dignity of place, or sacredness of office, no innocence or integrity of life, no wisdom or circumspection in behavior, no good-nature or benignity in dealing and carriage can protect any person? Do not men assume to themselves a liberty of telling romances, and framing characters concerning their neighbors, as freely as a poet doth about Hector or Turnus, Thersites or Draucus? Do they not usurp a power of playing with, or tossing about, of tearing in pieces their neighbor's good name, as if it were the veriest toy in the world? Do not many, having a form of godliness (some of them demurely, others confidently, both without any sense of, or remorse for, what they do), backbite their brethren? Is it not grown so common a thing to asperse causelessly that no man wonders at it, that few dislike, that scarce any detest it? that most notorious calumniators are heard, not only with patience, but with pleasure; yea, are even held in vogue and reverence as men of a notable talent, and very serviceable to their party? so that slander seemeth to have lost its nature and not to be now an odious sin, but a fashionable humor, a way of pleasing entertainment, a fine knack, or curious feat of policy; so that no man at least taketh himself or others to be accountable for what is said in this way? Is not, in fine, the case become such, that whoever hath in him any love of truth, any sense of justice or honesty, any spark of charity towards his brethren, shall hardly be able to satisfy himself in the conversations he meeteth; but will be tempted, with the holy prophet, to wish himself sequestered from society, and cast into solitude; repeating those words of his, “Oh, that I had in the wilderness a lodging-place of wayfaring men, that I might leave my people, and go from them: for they are . . . an assembly of treacherous men, and they bend their tongues like their bow for lies " ? This he wished in an age so resembling ours, that I fear the description with equal patness may suit both: “Take ye heed ” (said he then, and may we not advise the like now?) “everyone of his neighbor, and trust ye not in any brother: for every brother will utterly supplant, and every neighbor will walk with slanders. They will deceive everyone, his neighbor, and will not speak the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity.”
Such being the state of things, obvious to experience, no discourse may seem more needful, or more useful, than that which serveth to correct or check this practice: which I shall endeavor to do (1) by describing the nature, (2) by declaring the folly of it: or showing it to be very true, which the wise man here asserteth, “He that uttereth slander is a fool.” Which particulars I hope so to prosecute, that any man shall be able easily to discern, and ready heartily to detest this practice.