Enigma, Seeking A Eureka
- by Bruce E. McKinney
MORE THAN A YEAR AGO, I was contacted by a collector in Rhode Island. (He is now a member of the Rare Book Hub community of book specialists.) The collector had acquired from a used bookdealer in Pennsylvania a tantalizing document: a hefty, anonymous manuscript (quarto format), mostly in French, in a deluxe gold-tooled binding, with marble endpapers, high-quality watermarked paper, and valuably dated on the title-leaf “1691”. Overall condition fair, with damage to the boards and hinges; binding, strong and stable; watermarked paper with some water damage, but high-quality writing paper. Over 30 dense chapters, the book’s sophisticated content addressed complex moral and theological subjects.
The collector, a deep reader of historical material, promptly recognized the book’s concealed writer as very probably a significant figure of the Enlightenment era. “When I first examined even digital images of the book,” he mentioned in a War And Peace of email messages, “I felt what the old-style collectors of yore call fingerspitzengefuhl, an electrical current from the book into the fingertips. I knew it was something special.” The seller’s asking price, $65,000, was well beyond the collector’s means. But when negotiations concluded, and the present owner blithely bid $5,000, the seller sprang: SOLD! he proclaimed. And the old book changed hands. And there the story begins.
An anonymous manuscript in deluxe binding.
Title-leaf date, 1691. 944 unsigned leaves. 30 chapters.
A scribal copy, with heavy marginalia.
Very probably by a writer of the Enlightenment era.
The collector’s new acquisition is a long and dense 944 leaves, in an orderly scribal hand, with a heavy overlay of marginal notes in a quick cursive script. The old book’s decorative spine displays useful information; it reads, "ESSAIS / PHILOSOP. / TO. V." (“TO. V” being abbreviated spine copy for Tome V, or Book V; contrarily, it originally may have been, “VO. V”, or Volume V). Further information appears on the book’s title-leaf; it reads, "Essais / Philosophiques / To. S” (“To. S” being Tome 5, or Book, 5, with the “S” being a calligraphic, display-style “5”). The title-leaf’s red oval library stamp (Diocesan Library, Valence, France) offers a paper trail; the stamp is physical evidence of the book’s earlier provenance and revealed something of its history and travels. Was this item deaccessioned by the religious library in Valence? If so, how did it end up in the verdant hills of Pennsylvania? The section header on the first leaf of the book’s content (the body text) offers yet further information: “Essay philosophiques / Livre 3 / De la meta-phisique / preface / aus athees."
The collector, who’s been studying the manuscript with close, loving care for almost two years, noticed some curious inconsistencies: the spine’s “VO. V.” (Volume V), or possibly “TO. V.” (Book V), didn’t accord too well with “TO. S” (Tome 5) on the title-leaf. And, more obviously, why did the manuscript’s opening section begin abruptly with “Livre 3” (Book 3)? Why were Books 1 and 2 not collated with the rest of the leaves? These inconsistencies, bearing on the physical features of this prettily bound 1691 manuscript, presaged many more to come.
The full text of the manuscript is written in French, with some occasional Latin passages. The script is in two hands. The long, 944-leaf text, along with the title-leaf and table of contents (at the back of the manuscript), is written in a neat scribal hand ~ a professional copyist had been engaged. The manuscript’s many marginal notes, being mostly marginal glosses to assist reader interpretation, appear to have been penned rapidly, in cursive. In view of the ambitious range of subjects, the manuscript appears to attempt a comprehensive system, or theory, of theology and related moral issues. The opening section, for example, offers readers a systematic, disputational attack on the “athees” (atheists); the structure of the argument follows the conventional organization and logical rigor of the Classical questiones disputatae, with a detailed proof, on rational grounds, of the existence of God (Locke’s “deus”, yes, lower-cased) and a description of the divine attributes (immutability, omnipotence, etc.). The author of the text does not rely solely on Biblical truths (revelation), but borrows supplementary lines of argument and demonstration from his contemporaries in other disciplines (e.g., the “geometers”). The text is richly allusive, abounding in references to notable 17th-century philosophers and theologians, such as Arnauld and Malebranche, whose bitter (published) disputes merit honorable mention by the manuscript’s writer. Hobbes also makes an appearance. (In assisting with our grasp of the manuscript’s content, Rare Book Hub has engaged several consulting specialists, in California, Florida, France, New Jersey, New York. We hope to keep them around! Watch for Donald Farnsworth’s handsomely illustrated essay, Renaissance Paper, which discusses the paper of this 1691 manuscript, forthcoming on Farnsworth’s website <magnoliapaper.com>.)
Back to the 1691 book. While this old timer certainly looks like a conventional product of its century, the present owner has some new ideas. The owner, may we add, is an autodidact. Irrepressibly intelligent and hard-working, he’s the sort of collector who does not accept no as a period, but merely as an incidental comma that lives its life close to but. A hard-wired possibilist, he has slowly developed a hypothesis about his manuscript, based on its physical properties, its date, and the recorded writings, coterie, and movements of the one individual who is the book’s most attractive candidate for authorship: the great John Locke (Somerset, England, 1632 – Essex, England, 1704).
Dr John Locke, a medical man by training and a groundbreaking philosopher, was one of the century’s most ‘radical’ thinkers. He evolved a first comprehensive theory of the mind, and he completely upended standing theories of ‘innate ideas’. His emphasis on ‘empirical’ knowledge, generating from the senses, introduced new views on perception and the learning process. Locke’s liberal views on governance, tolerance, and education, should be included in all school syllabi (everywhere).
Because Locke’s iconic Essay Concerning Human Understanding (title-page date, 1690) consists of 4 books in one volume, the new owner of the 1691 manuscript postulates that his book could be the ‘lost’, unrecorded fifth book, as his book’s spine and title-leaf might suggest. It is also possible, as one of our specialist consultants has mentioned, that the owner’s book is Volume V (not To. V, or Book V) in a dedicated series of Locke’s unpublished and unlocated post-1690 “essais philosophiques”. In either case, the 1691 book appears to be an energetic continuation of Locke’s thinking and theorizing set down after the great Essay of 1690. The 1691 manuscript takes on subjects (mostly moral and theological) which Locke’s signature work of 1690, limited mainly to epistemological matters of knowing and understanding, had not engaged. (Some of Locke’s contemporaries were displeased by the Essay’s limited range.)
The owner has found evidence in Locke’s cordial correspondence, early 1690s, with his talented Irish friend, William Molyneux (Dublin, 1656-Dublin, 1698), which indeed mentions a new set of writings from Locke on theological and moral material; perhaps these post-1690 texts became the core of the owner’s 1691 manuscript. The developing hypothesis from the owner’s side is that his obviously special, but unrecorded and unpublished, manuscript is the fifth book of Locke’s four-book published Essay (London, 1690), and that the bound manuscript of 1691 continues Locke’s investigations into the human mind by delving into related fields of morality and theology. While speculative, to date, we find the hypothesis not without legs.
Of course, in an attribution of this scale, there are daunting problems ~ dating, chronology, graphology, provenance, locations, etc. And, not least, this problem: Why was this 1691 book written in French? Locke’s important Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1690) was originally penned and published in Locke’s native language (English). But, as the owner has informed us, prior to the 1690 English edition of Locke’s great work, he published in 1688, in French, a convenient 50-page abstract of the entire work (a preview, an “epitome”); quite interestingly, the title of that redacted version of the great Essay of 1690 included the words “Essais Philosophiques”. So this particular detail from Locke’s publication history appears to have some bearing on the 1691 manuscript as being a significant new addition to the John Locke corpus.
The owner of the 1691 manuscript has also mentioned correspondence between Sir Isaac Newton and Locke, in the early 1690s. Their exchanges discuss the value of foreign translation as a protective shield for a controversial author. Locke’s writings were considered radical in some circles, even heretical and certainly anti-monarchical (seditious). Having one’s work accessible in French was a form of authorial concealment; it also kept sensitive work beyond the long and mighty reach of the English crown. And, of course, circulating even a condensed version of one’s major work among the cognoscenti of the French Enlightenment was a considerable boost to any writer’s exposure. (This early cross-cultural accessibility of Locke’s important work was not merely a protective measure, may we add: it also served to expand Locke’s authorial footprint into the European book market.)
Another problem, of a different order, is the identity of the copyist of the 1691 manuscript. As one of our specialist consultants suggested, the work’s scribal copyist was very probably Locke’s usual French translator and confrere, Pierre Coste, who had in fact translated Locke’s Essay (London, 1690) for a French edition in 1700 (Amsterdam: Henri Schelte). Coste had even lodged with Locke for a time at the Masham estate in Oates, Essex, during their collaboration on the French translation project. As one can see upon viewing our high-quality scan of the entire manuscript (see link at the end of this article), the newly discovered 1691 bound manuscript is not a fair printer’s copy, not in the least, but rather a rough, preliminary set up by the Locke-Coste collaborative team of what may be possible. It valuably shows process, the evolution of thought, the constructing of philosophical text.
The 1691 book was not quite completed; the closing section, Chapter 30, appears to be incomplete, and a few leaves of manuscript in the second half of the book are ‘troubled’, messy, the content unfinalized. It is likely that the entire manuscript was not completed and polished owing to the content’s rather vast undertaking; namely, to produce a set of writings, moral and theological, which would complement the epistemological thrust of Locke’s great Essay (1690), thus achieving a comprehensive theory, or system, of the mind, the universe, and its God. Locke was also in failing health at this time, he would die of longstanding respiratory illness (asthma) in 1704, but a few years after the 1691 writings.
While some features of this case accord with certain facts and with reasonable speculation and deductions, there is much delving yet to do. The manuscript’s owner and several specialists who have examined the old book at the Rare Book Hub offices in San Francisco say that the case for Locke is both attractive and promising. And all of us are encouraged by the following words of John Harrison and Peter Laslett, the current authorities on John Locke’s library:
“There must be large numbers of other volumes, which Locke possessed, scattered amongst libraries, public and private, throughout the world. Amongst them are, we believe, many things which scholars would rejoice to see again, things like the copy of the French translation of his Essay which Locke seems to have corrected and presented to Damaris Masham [Oates, Essex], and which was lost to view in 1883.”
(The Library of John Locke, Oxford University Press, 1965, Preface, vi-vii.)
Harrison and Laslett have encouraged scholars to alert them, and the curators of the Locke repository at The Bodleian Library, Oxford, to all new findings and discoveries. Even a possible new Locke surfacing should be announced to the scholarly community and properly assessed. (Well, here we are!)
The present owner of the 1691 manuscript has compiled an archive of textual coordinates and correlations which go some way in demonstrating a close textual connection between his 1691 manuscript and other writings by John Locke, both the published philosophical writings and extensive personal correspondence. The lists are much too long to be mere coincidence. The owner is hospitable to direct inquiries from scholars, curators, collectors ~ all serious students of Locke are welcome. We need to hear from you, supporters and contrarians alike.
That Locke could be the author of this curious find is still difficult to fathom, perhaps. But if the attribution wins favor among Lockean authorities, this 1691 manuscript would be one of the most notable finds in Locke studies in many decades, with a high market valuation. Meanwhile, the answer most likely awaits within the writings themselves, as well as the physical properties of the manuscript (handwriting, paper, watermark, binding). In searching the Internet, and consulting selected authorities, we have found no indication, to date, that any of the 30 essays in the 1691 manuscript were published; nor have we found evidence ruling out Locke’s authorship.
The Rare Book Hub and the present owner of the 1691 manuscript invite your response and your assistance. To access a professional scan of the entire manuscript, board-to-board, visit < www.rarebookhub.com/system/2018BM.html > ; or click on Biblio Mystery at the foot of the Rare Book Hub homepage < rarebookhub.com/ >. We urge you to take a look, discuss it with friends and associates, and come back to us. There is a Comment box at the end of this article. For detailed inquiries, especially those of a commercial nature (serious buyers only, please), contact us at <email@example.com > Telephone (U.S./Canada Toll Free): 877.323.RARE.
Whatever the outcome, this is why we love history and the books it has given us.
Note: Rare Book Hub is seeking to engage a translator, someone familiar with French manuscripts of the 17th Century. Interested parties may contact us via the editorial mailbox.
- Bruce McKinney & The John Locke Project Team.
Rare Book Hub thanks collector, Maureen E. Mulvihill, Rare Book Hub member & guest writer, for considerable contribution to this article.
The Rare Book Hub, San Francisco. April, 2018.