John Arbuthnot

John Arbuthnot was a Scottish physician, satirist and polymath in London. He is best remembered for his contributions to mathematics, his membership in the Scriblerus Club (where he inspired both Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels book III and Alexander Pope's Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry, Memoirs of Martin Scriblerus, and possibly The Dunciad), and for inventing the figure of John Bull.In his mid-life, Arbuthnot, complaining of the work of Edmund Curll, among others, who commissioned and invented a biography as soon as an author died, said, "Biography is one of the new terrors of death," and so a biography of Arbuthnot is made difficult by his own reluctance to leave records. Alexander Pope noted to Joseph Spence that Arbuthnot allowed his infant children to play with, and even burn, his writings. Throughout his professional life, Arbuthnot exhibited a strong humility and conviviality, and his friends complained that he did not take credit for his own work.Arbuthnot went to London in 1691, where he is supposed to have supported himself by teaching mathematics (which had been his formal course of study). He lodged with William Pate, whom Swift knew and called a "bel esprit." He published Of the Laws of Chance in 1692, translated from Christiaan Huygens's De ratiociniis in ludo aleae. This was the first work on probability published in English. The work, which applied the field of probability to common games, was a success, and Arbuthnot became the private tutor of one Edward Jeffreys, son of Jeffrey Jeffreys, an MP. He remained Jeffreys's tutor when the latter attended University College, Oxford in 1694, and he there met the variety of scholars then teaching mathematics and medicine, including Dr John Radcliffe, Isaac Newton, and Samuel Pepys. However, Arbuthnot lacked the money to be a full-time student and was already well educated, although informally. He went to the University of St Andrews and enrolled as a doctoral student in medicine on 11 September 1696. The very same day he defended seven theses on medicine and was awarded the doctorate.Arbuthnot praised mathematics as a method of freeing the mind from superstition.Arbuthnot was one of the founding members of the Scriblerus Club, and was regarded by the other wits of the group as the funniest, but he left fewer literary remains than the other members. His satires are written with an ease, a humanity, and an apparent sympathy. Swift and Arbuthnot had similar styles in language (both preferred direct sentences and clear vocabulary) with a feigned frenzy of lists and taxonomies, and sometimes their works are attributed to each other. The treatise on political lying, for example, has been attributed to Swift in the past, although it was definitely Arbuthnot's. Generally, Arbuthnot's writings are not as vicious or nihilistic as Swift's, but they attack the same targets and both refuse to hold up a set of positive norms for their readers.Because of Arbuthnot's own insistence on not being recognized, it is difficult to speak definitively of his literary significance. We know that he was at the heart of many of the greatest satires of his age, that he was a conduit and source for a great many of the finest literary accomplishments of a half century of writing, but Arbuthnot was zealous that he not receive credit.

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