Isaac Barrow

English Christian theologian, and mathematician (*1630 – †1677)

Isaac Barrow (October 16304 May 1677) was an English Christian theologian, and mathematician who is generally given credit for his early role in the development of infinitesimal calculus; in particular, for the discovery of the fundamental theorem of calculus.

Virtue is not a mushroom, that springeth up of itself in one night when we are asleep, or regard it not; but a delicate plant, that groweth slowly and tenderly, needing much pains to cultivate it, much care to guard it, much time to mature it, in our untoward soil, in this world's unkindly weather.


  • The Mathematics which effectually exercises, not vainly deludes or vexatiously torments studious Minds with obscure Subtilties, perplexed Difficulties, or contentious Disquisitions; which overcomes without Opposition, triumphs without Pomp, compels without Force, and rules absolutely without Loss of Liberty; which does not privately overreach a weak Faith, but openly assaults an armed Reason, obtains a total Victory, and puts on inevitable Chains; whose Words are so many Oracles, and Works as many Miracles; which blabs out nothing rashly, nor designs anything from the Purpose, but plainly demonstrates and readily performs all Things within its Verge; which obtrudes no false Shadow of Science, but the very Science itself, the Mind firmly adheres to it, as soon as possessed of it, and can never after desert it of its own Accord, or be deprived of it by any Force of others: Lastly the Mathematics, which depend upon Principles clear to the Mind, and agreeable to Experience; which draws certain Conclusions, instructs by profitable Rules, unfolds pleasant Questions; and produces wonderful Effects; which is the fruitful Parent of, I had almost said all, Arts, the 47 unshaken Foundation of Sciences, and the plentiful Fountain of Advantage to human Affairs.
    • "Ration before the University of Cambridge on being elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics," (1660), reported in: Mathematical Lectures, (1734), p. 28
  • Virtue is not a mushroom, that springeth up of itself in one night when we are asleep, or regard it not; but a delicate plant, that groweth slowly and tenderly, needing much pains to cultivate it, much care to guard it, much time to mature it, in our untoward soil, in this world's unkindly weather.
    • As quoted in Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895) by Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, p. 612
  • Smiling always with a never fading serenity of countenance, and flourishing in an immortal youth.
    • Isaac Barrow, Duty of Thanksgiving, Works, Volume I, p. 66; reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 921-24

Mathematical Lectures (1734)

Mathematics is the fruitful Parent of, I had almost said all, Arts, the unshaken Foundation of Sciences, and the plentiful Fountain of Advantage to Human Affairs.
  • For to pass by those Ancients, the wonderful Pythagoras, the sagacious Democritus, the divine Plato, the most subtle and very learned Aristotle, Men whom every Age has hitherto acknowledged as deservedly honored, as the greatest Philosophers, the Ring-leaders of Arts; in whose Judgments how much these Studies [mathematics] were esteemed, is abundantly proclaimed in History and confirmed by their famous Monuments, which are everywhere interspersed and bespangled with Mathematical Reasonings and Examples, as with so many Stars; and consequently anyone not in some Degree conversant in these Studies will in vain expect to understand, or unlock their hidden Meanings, without the Help of a Mathematical Key: For who can play well on Aristotle’s Instrument but with a Mathematical Quill; or not be altogether deaf to the Lessons of natural Philosophy, while ignorant of Geometry? Who void of (Geometry shall I say, or) Arithmetic can comprehend Plato’s 218 Socrates lisping with Children concerning Square Numbers; or can conceive Plato himself treating not only of the Universe, but the Polity of Commonwealths regulated by the Laws of Geometry, and formed according to a Mathematical Plan?
    • pp. 26-27
  • Mathematics is the fruitful Parent of, I had almost said all, Arts, the unshaken Foundation of Sciences, and the plentiful Fountain of Advantage to Human Affairs. In which last Respect, we may be said to receive from the Mathematics, the principal Delights of Life, Securities of Health, Increase of Fortune, and Conveniences of Labour: That we dwell elegantly and commodiously, build decent Houses for ourselves, erect stately Temples to God, and leave wonderful Monuments to Posterity: That we are protected by those Rampires from the Incursions of the Enemy; rightly use Arms, skillfully range an Army, and manage War by Art, and not by the Madness of wild Beasts: That we have safe Traffick through the deceitful Billows, pass in a direct Road through the tractless Ways of the Sea, and come to the designed Ports by the uncertain Impulse of the Winds: That we rightly cast up our Accounts, do Business expeditiously, dispose, tabulate, and calculate scattered 248 Ranks of Numbers, and easily compute them, though expressive of huge Heaps of Sand, nay immense Hills of Atoms: That we make pacifick Separations of the Bounds of Lands, examine the Moments of Weights in an equal Balance, and distribute every one his own by a just Measure: That with a light Touch we thrust forward vast Bodies which way we will, and stop a huge Resistance with a very small Force: That we accurately delineate the Face of this Earthly Orb, and subject the Oeconomy of the Universe to our Sight: That we aptly digest the flowing Series of Time, distinguish what is acted by due Intervals, rightly account and discern the various Returns of the Seasons, the stated Periods of Years and Months, the alternate Increments of Days and Nights, the doubtful Limits of Light and Shadow, and the exact Differences of Hours and Minutes: That we derive the subtle Virtue of the Solar Rays to our Uses, infinitely extend the Sphere of Sight, enlarge the near Appearances of Things, bring to Hand Things remote, discover Things hidden, search Nature out of her Concealments, and unfold her dark Mysteries: That we delight our Eyes with beautiful Images, cunningly imitate the Devices and portray the Works of Nature; imitate did I say? nay excel, while we form to ourselves Things not in being, exhibit Things absent, and represent Things past: That we recreate our Minds and delight our Ears with melodious Sounds, attemperate the inconstant Undulations of the Air to musical Tunes, add a pleasant Voice to a sapless Log and draw a sweet Eloquence from a rigid Metal; celebrate our Maker with an harmonious Praise, and not unaptly imitate the blessed Choirs of Heaven: That we approach and examine the inaccessible Seats of the Clouds, the distant Tracts of Land, unfrequented Paths of the Sea; lofty Tops of the Mountains, low Bottoms of the Valleys, and deep Gulphs of the Ocean: That in Heart we advance to the Saints themselves above, yea draw them to us, scale the etherial Towers, freely range through the celestial Fields, measure the Magnitudes, and determine the Interstices of the Stars, prescribe inviolable Laws to the Heavens themselves, and confine the wandering Circuits of the Stars within fixed Bounds: Lastly, that we comprehend the vast Fabrick of the Universe, admire and contemplate the wonderful Beauty of the Divine 249 Workmanship, and to learn the incredible Force and Sagacity of our own Minds, by certain Experiments, and to acknowledge the Blessings of Heaven with pious Affection.
    • p. 27-30
  • These Disciplines [mathematics] serve to inure and corroborate the Mind to a constant Diligence in Study; to undergo the Trouble of an attentive Meditation, and cheerfully contend with such Difficulties as lie in the Way. They wholly deliver us from a credulous Simplicity, most strongly fortify us against the Vanity of Scepticism, effectually restrain from a rash Presumption, most easily incline us to a due Assent, perfectly subject us to the Government of right Reason, and inspire us with Resolution to wrestle against the unjust Tyranny of false Prejudices. If the Fancy be unstable and fluctuating, it is to be poised by this Ballast, and steadied by this Anchor, if the Wit be blunt it is sharpened upon this Whetstone; if luxuriant it is pared by this Knife; if headstrong it is restrained by this Bridle; and if dull it is roused by this Spur. The Steps are guided by no Lamp more clearly through the dark Mazes of Nature, by no Thread more surely through the intricate Labyrinths of Philosophy, nor lastly is the Bottom of Truth sounded more happily by any other Line. I will not mention how plentiful a Stock of Knowledge the Mind is furnished from these, with what wholesome Food it is nourished, and what sincere Pleasure it enjoys. But if I speak farther, I shall neither be the only Person, nor the first, who affirms it; that while the Mind is abstracted and elevated from sensible Matter, distinctly views pure Forms, conceives the Beauty of Ideas, and investigates the Harmony of Proportions; the Manners themselves are sensibly corrected and improved, the Affections composed and rectified, the Fancy calmed and settled, and the Understanding raised and excited to more divine Contemplation. All which I might defend by Authority, and confirm by the Suffrages of the greatest Philosophers.
    • p. 31: Prefatory Oration
  • An accomplished mathematician, i.e. a most wretched orator.
    • p. 32
  • Now as to what pertains to these Surd numbers (which, as it were by way of reproach and calumny, having no merit of their own are also styled Irrational, Irregular, and Inexplicable) they are by many denied to be numbers properly speaking, and are wont to be banished from arithmetic to another Science, (which yet is no science) viz. algebra.
    • p. 44
  • It may be observed of mathematicians that they only meddle with such things as are certain, passing by those that are doubtful and unknown. They profess not to know all things, neither do they affect to speak of all things. What they know to be true, and can make good by invincible arguments, that they publish and insert among their theorems. Of other things they are silent and pass no judgment at all, choosing rather to acknowledge their ignorance, than affirm anything rashly. They affirm nothing among their arguments or assertions which is not most manifestly known and examined with utmost rigour, rejecting all probable conjectures and little witticisms. They submit nothing to authority, indulge no affection, detest subterfuges of words, and declare their sentiments, as in a court of justice, without passion, without apology; knowing that their reasons, as Seneca testifies of them, are not brought to persuade, but to compel.
    • p. 64
  • They [mathematicians] only take those things into consideration, of which they have clear and distinct ideas, designating them by proper, adequate, and invariable names, and premising only a few axioms which are most noted and certain to investigate their affections and draw conclusions from them, and agreeably laying down a very few hypotheses, such as are in the highest degree consonant with reason and not to be denied by anyone in his right mind. In like manner they assign generations or causes easy to be understood and readily admitted by all, they preserve a most accurate order, every proposition immediately following from what is supposed and proved before, and reject all things howsoever specious and probable which can not be inferred and deduced after the same manner.—Barrow, Isaac.
    • p. 66
  • The Definition in the Elements, according to Clavius, is this: Magnitudes are said to be in the same Reason [ratio], a first to a second, and a third to a fourth, when the Equimultiples of the first and third according to any Multiplication whatsoever are both together either short of, equal to, or exceed the Equimultiples of the second and fourth, if those be taken, which answer one another.... Such is Euclid’s Definition of Proportions; that scare-Crow at which the over modest or slothful Dispositions of Men are generally affrighted: they are modest, who distrust their own Ability, as soon as a Difficulty appears, but they are slothful that will not give some Attention for the learning of Sciences; as if while we are involved in Obscurity we could clear ourselves without Labour. Both of 300 which Sorts of Persons are to be admonished, that the former be not discouraged, nor the latter refuse a little Care and Diligence when a Thing requires some Study.
    • p. 388

Geometrical Lectures (1735)

: Explaining the Generation, Nature and Properties of Curve Lines. Read in the University of Cambridge and published as Lectiones Opticae et Geometricae (1669) by Isaac Barrow D.D., revised corrected and amended by Sir Isaac Newton. Translated from the Latin Edition by Edmund Stone, F.R.S., source
  • I... chose rather to publish... in puris Naturalibus, or as they were produced as first, than be at the Trouble of reducing them into any other Form... I could not bear the Pains of reading over again a great Part of these Things; either from my being tired with them, or not caring to undergo the Pains and Study in new modelling them. But I have done in this as weakly Mothers, who give up their Offspring to the Care of their Friends, either to Nurse and bring up, or abandon to the wide World. One of which is Mr. Isaac Newton, my Collegue, a Man of great Learning and Sagacity, who revised my Copy and noted such Things as wanted Correction, and even gave me some of his own, which you will see here and there interspersed with mine, not without their due Commendations. The other is Mr. John Collins (who may be deservedly called the Mersennas of our Nation, Born to promote this Science, both with his own Labours, and those of others. Who with much Trouble took care of the Edition.
    • Preface
  • Among these Ways, or any other whatever, of generating Magnitudes, the Primary and Chief is, that perform'd by local Motion, which all of them must in some Sort suppose, because without Motion, nothing can be generated or produced and therefore this must first be considered. The following Axiom of Aristotle concerning Motion is famous... He that is ignorant of Motion, must necessarily know nothing of Nature... in Nature every Thing created is produc'd by Motion, or certainly not without Motion.
  • What Mathematicians Chiefly consider in Motion is the Mode of Lation or Manner of bearing, and the Quantity of the motive Force. ...But because the Quantity of motive Force cannot be known without Time, we must say something concerning its Nature.
  • Now pray tell me what Time is? ...Time (to speak abstractedly) is the continuance of any Thing in its own Being. But some Things continue longer in their Beings than others... Time absolutely... is Quantity, as admitting in some Manner the chief Affections of Quantity: Equality, Inequality, and Proportion...
  • But perhaps you may ask, whether Time was not before the World was created? And if Time does not flow in the Extramundane Space, where nothing is: A mere Vacuum? I answer, that since there was Space before the World was created, and that there now is an Extramundane, infinite Space, (where God is present)... Time existed before the World began, and does exist together with the World in the Extramundane Space, because 'tis possible that some Thing might have existed long before the World was made; and there may now be something in the Extramundane Space, capable of such a Continuance: Some Sun might have given Light long before; and at present this, or some other like it, may diffuse Light thro' Imaginary Spaces. Time therefore does not imply an actual Existence, but only the Capacity or Possibility of the Continuance of Existence; just as Space expresses the Capacity of a Magnitude contain'd in it.
  • But you may perhaps wonder why I explain Time without Motion, and will say, does not Time imply Motion? I answer no, as to its absolute and intrinsic Nature; any more than it does Rest. The Quantity of Time, in itself, depends not on either of them; for whether Things move on, or stand still; whether we sleep or wake, Time flows perpetually with an equal Tenor.
  • As Magnitudes themselves are absolute Quantums Independent on all Kinds of Measure, tho' indeed we cannot tell what their Quantify is, unless we measure them; so Time is likewise a Quantum in itself, tho' in Order to find the Quantity of it, we are obliged to call in Motion to our Assistance as a Measure... and thus Time as measurable signifies Motion; for if all Things were to continue at Rest, it would be impossible to find out by any Method whatsoever how much Time has elaps'd; and the several Ages wou'd roll on imperceptibly and undistinguish'd. Do I say we shou'd not perceive how Time flows? No indeed, nor any Thing else, but remain like Stocks or Stones in a continual Insensibility. We perceive nothing, unless so far as we may be instigated by some Change affecting the Senses, or that our Souls are mov'd and excited by the internal Operation of the Mind. We esteem the Quantities and different Degrees of Things according to the Extension or Intension of Motions striking upon us either interiorly or exteriorly. So that the Quantity of Time so far as we can observe; depends upon the Extension of Motion.
  • It cannot be justly inferr'd... We do not perceive the Thing, therefore there is no such Thing, that is a false Illusion, a deceitful Dream, that wou'd cause us to join together two remote Instants of Time. But nevertheless this is very True... That is, for as much Motion as there was, so much Time seems to have been elapsed; nor, when we mention such a Quantity of Time, do we merely mean any Thing else, than the Performance of so much Motion, to the continued successive Extension of which we imagine the Permanency as Things is co-extended.
  • As a Line, I say, is looked upon to be the Trace of a Point moving forward, being in some sort divisible by a Point, and may be divided by Motion one Way, viz. as to Length; so Time may be conceiv'd as the Trace of a Moment continually flowing, having some Kind of Divisibility from an Instant, and from a successive Flux, inasmuch as it can be divided some how or other. And like as the Quantity of a Line consists of but one Length following the Motion; so the Quantity of Time pursues but one Succession stretched out as it were in Length, which the Length of the Space moved over shews and determines. We therefore shall always express Time by a right Line; first, indeed, taken or laid down at Pleasure, but whose Parts will exactly answer to the proportionable Parts of Time, as its Points do to the respective Instants of Time, and will aptly serve to represent them. Thus much for Time.

Quotes about Isaac Barrow

  • J.M. Child... has made a searching study of Barrow and has arrived at startling conclusions on the historical question relating to the first invention of the calculus. He places his conclusions in italics in the first sentence as follows Isaac Barrow was the first inventor of the Infinitesimal Calculus... Before entering upon an examination of the evidence brought forth by Child it may be of interest to review a similar claim set up for another man as inventor of the calculus... Fermat was declared to be the first inventor of the calculus by Lagrange, Laplace, and apparently also by P. Paul Tannery, than whom no more distinguished mathematical triumvirate can easily be found. ...Dinostratus and Barrow were clever men, but it seems to us that they did not create what by common agreement of mathematicians has been designated by the term differential and integral calculus. Two processes yielding equivalent results are not necessarily the same. It appears to us that what can be said of Barrow is that he worked out a set of geometric theorems suggesting to us constructions by which we can find lines, areas and volumes whose magnitudes are ordinarily found by the analytical processes of the calculus. But to say that Barrow invented a differential and integral calculus is to do violence to the habit of mathematical thought and expression of over two centuries. The invention rightly belongs to Newton and Leibniz.
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