Burgersdijk, Frank Pieterszoon

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(in Latin, Burgersdicius, Franco Petri)

(b. De Lier, near Delft, Netherlands, 3 May 1590; d. Leiden, Netherlands, 19 February 1635),

natural philosophy. For the original article on Burgersdijk see DSB, vol. 2.

Burgersdijk’s reputation in the seventeenth century rested on his systematic manuals. They derived their pedagogical significance from their efficient adaptation of the Corpus Aristotelicum to the standards of humanist method. Burgersdijk’s neo-Aristotelianism is related to the Contra-Remonstrant movement in the Dutch republic.

Education. According to his biographer Meursius, Burgersdijk’s father had some knowledge of Latin. His mother was a relative of Hugo Blotius, the librarian of the Roman emperor Rudolph II. Between 1606 and 1610 Burgersdijk attended the Latin school at Amersfoort and at Delft. In 1610 he went to Leiden University in order to study theology. In that center of humanist learning Burgersdijk received a complete humanist formation, attending lectures on Latin, Greek, Roman history, and rhetoric, besides the lectures of Gilbertus Jacchaeus on ethics and logic and of Bertius on physics. Due to his “deep affection towards philosophy” and his progress in that discipline, “the most learned people deemed him fit to obtain a doctorate in the liberal arts and philosophy.” Burgersdijk took his degree on 29 March 1620, only two days before he delivered his inaugural address.

Since his matriculation, Burgersdijk had unwaveringly adhered to the Contra-Remonstrant or Gomarist faction. He attended the lectures of the theologians Franciscus Gomarus and Gijsbert Voet. The latter became the informal leader of strict Calvinism between 1640 and 1676, the year of his death. In 1614 Burgersdijk took part in a series of disputations adversus Pontificos organized by Festus Hommius, the later secretary of the National Synod of Dordt (1618–1619), which settled the fate of the Arminian party in the state and the church. In the same year 1614 he left Leiden in order to make a grand tour. After some months, however, he decided to stay at the Protestant Academy of Saumur, where he continued his studies of theology with Gomarus, who had left Leiden in 1611 because of the ascendancy of the more lenient party in the Reformed Church. After the five years in France spent “without the hope of office” in the Netherlands, as Burgersdijk observed in the preface of this Idea philosophiae moralis (An outline of moral philosophy), he returned to the republic, where he was appointed professor of logic at Leiden University in one of the vacancies caused by the purges after the Synod of Dordt. In November 1620, the month Jacchaeus received permission to resume his lectures on physics, ethics was added to Burgersdijk’s teaching assignment. Some months afterward Burgersdijk became an ordinary professor of philosophy. In 1623 he completed his theological education by defending a disputation titled “The Clarity of the Bible and Its Interpretation.”

Success as Philosophy Teacher. Notwithstanding his staunch Calvinism and his theological education, Burgersdijk’s teaching contributed to raising the status of philosophy at the Dutch universities. Through his manuals covering the whole of philosophy he transformed the lingering propaedeutic discipline generally neglected by the students in the “higher faculties”—theology, law and medicine—into a discipline independent of theology and philology. It is therefore highly significant that only a month after the delivery of his inaugural address he presided over a disputation rejecting the doctrine of the double truth and defending the inalienable rights of philosophy with respect to theology. Burgersdijk adopted Thomas Aquinas’s view of the relationship between these disciplines by observing that both sciences deal with the same object. The philosopher and the theologian, however, argue from different principles: the light of natural reason versus the light of revelation. The final conclusion of the disputation is neat: although theological dogma may exceed the limits of human reason, philosophy may be free from error. That is why the pagan Aristotle was the greatest philosopher. On this line of argument Burgersdijk fully acknowledged the authority of Iberian neo-Scholasticism and of other Roman Catholic philosophers. Therefore, the suggestion of Max Wundt (1939) and Paul Dibon (1954) that Burgersdijk attempted to create a Calvinist philosophy is to be rejected. The predominance of this attitude toward the discipline in the republic also facilitated the quick acceptance of Cartesianism. Apparently René Descartes’s Catholicism formed no obstacle to the introduction of his ideas into the Reformed universities.

School Reform. The recommendations of the Synod of Dordt included the call for a reform of the Latin schools. In 1625 new regulations were promulgated. In final year some ethics, physics, and geography might be taught and Burgersdijk was asked to raise the medieval “barbaric” Latin of Johannes de Sacro Bosco’s De sphaera to humanist standards by making “astronomy” perspicuous and easy to understand. This schoolbook commissioned by the states of Holland is not to be taken as an illustration of Burgersdijk’s conservatism. Its aim was to make the pupils familiar with the “first principles” of the subject, which had to be dealt with more fully at the university, as is observed in the introduction of the compendium.

In 1628, after the death of Jacchaeus, Burgersdijk exchanged moral philosophy for physics, but well before that date he lectured on physics. In 1624 a first series of fifteen disputations dealing with the Aristotelian corpus of natural philosophy was held, and in 1627 the next series was organized. Although his funeral orator, Petrus Cunaeus, recorded that several of the deceased’s friends were amazed by this step, for “moral philosophy conveyed by Socrates from heaven to earth is the most excellent part of philosophy,” he noted the humanist ambition of Burgersdijk “to uncover the truth hidden in nature in such a manner that from the dark a clear light will radiate” (Cunaeus, 1640, p. 232). He therefore made the Aristotelian philosophy taught “by public authority” in the schools more perspicuous by clearing away “its obscurities,” which were further augmented by later “scholastic” commentators such as Aquinas and John Duns Scotus. Hence, Burgersdijk’s key notions are method and system, order being a necessary condition for a science.

Works on Physics. Physics is the focal point of Burgersdijk’s entire philosophical undertaking. This discipline is its most noble part, because it leads humanity from the manifold things in nature that humans perceive by the senses to its hidden causes and finally to God. To physics Burgersdijk devoted two manuals. The Idea— his first manual published—is conceived as a “guide” to be used in disputation, presenting the subject matter of the course in natural philosophy in definitions and short theses. By referring only to the so-called new authorities such as Zabarella, Pereira, Toletus, and the commentators of Coimbra, Burgersdijk stated as his goal to open the debate on the “text of Aristotle.” In the more extensive Collegium the same doctrinal tradition is elaborated in a synthetic

order. The first section of the series of thirty-four disputations deals with basic topics such as “the subject of the science”: the natural body, its principles—matter, privation and form—and the final and efficient causes. This section continues with the properties of natural body— magnitude, place, motion—and time and reflects Aristotle’s Physics. The second section deals with more specific and concrete topics, such as the heavens in disputation ten and the stars in disputation eleven. The Collegium, further, deals with the elements, the origin and destruction of things, the atmospheric phenomena and what we should now call chemistry and mineralogy. Here the corresponding parts of the Corpus Aristotelicum are De Coelo and the Metereology. With disputation twenty begins Burgersdijk’s treatment of the soul, its functions and faculties: nutrition, generation, embryology, the senses, the intellect, and the will. These themes Aristotle dealt with briefly in his books on generation, parts of animals and the soul. In contrast with the Idea, which deals with “the world” after place and time, the Collegium ends with De mundo, because the world is the composition of all bodies and an insight into the more simple bodies is a prerequisite for understanding it.

It is obvious that the structure of Burgersdijk’s manuals on physics is not simply a matter of didactic convenience, but mirrors the complexity of nature, which requires a study by means of the golden principles of Zabarellian method. These new ideas on the order of nature, however, conceal a framework of the traditional concepts of scholastic physics: motion arising from an internal principle, generation and corruption, the beginning and the end of motion, and locomotion, which was produced by the principles of the natural body. What is more, Burgersdijk did not take much notice of important discoveries such as the sine law of light’s reflection made some years before by his colleague Willebrord Snellius, which prepared the way for the mathematical calculation of natural phenomena.

Burgersdijk, however, acknowledged a primitive form of the circulation of the blood discovered by William Harvey in 1628. Other examples of his readiness to accept new observations are his acknowledgment of the appearance of new stars, notwithstanding Aristotle’s doctrine of the incorruptibility of the heavens, and his acceptance of the plausibility of the Copernican hypothesis. If the diurnal motion is attributed to the celestial bodies and not to the earth, the speed of the diurnal motion observed by his fellow Dutchman Philippus van Lansbergen would imply that Saturn in five minutes traverses more than 900 German miles and the fixed stars more than 643,000 miles.

This is, according to Burgersdijk, hardly conceivable.

Burgersdijk never pondered the theoretical implications of these observations. Apparently he unconsciously realized that these new discoveries could not be readily integrated into the traditional Aristotelian framework of physics. Within a generation after his early death in 1635 the majority of Dutch scholars embraced Cartesianism. Other scholars, such as Martin Schoock (1614–1669) and Gisbert van Isendoorn (1601–1657), retained in their manuals the Aristotelian heritage. Reducing the significance of its concepts, however, they gradually turned toward empiricism.



Problema utrum quod est verum in theologica possit esse falsum in philosophia aut vice versa. Edited by Petrus Doornyck. Leiden, Netherlands: Jacob Mark, 1620.


Bos, Egbert P., and H. A. Krop, eds. Franco Burgersdijk

(1590–1635): Neo-Aristotelianism in Leiden. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1993. Lists the editions of his manuals. Bunge, Wiep van. From Stevin to Spinoza: An Essay on Philosophy in the Seventeeth-Century Dutch Republic, 27–33. Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston: E.J. Brill, 2001.

Cunaeus, Petrus. “Oratio XVI habita in funere Franconis

Burgersdicii.” In Orationes varii argumenti, pp. 227–239. Leiden, Netherlands: Iaac Commelinus, 1640.

Dibon, Paul. La philosophie néerlandaise au siècle d’or. Vol. 1.

Paris and New York: Elsevier, 1954.

Feingold, M. “The Ultimate Pedagogue: Franco Petri

Burgersdijk and the English Speaking Academic Learning.” In Franco Burgersdijk (1590–1635): Neo-Aristotelianism in Leiden, edited by Egbert P. Bos and H. A. Krop, 151–165. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1993.

Meursius, Johannes. Athenae Batavae, sive de urbe Leidensi &

Academia. Leiden, Netherlands: Andries Clouck, Bonaventura and Abraham Elsevier, 1625, pp. 339–342. Petry, M. J. “Burgersdijk’s Physics.” In Franco Burgersdijk

(1590–1635): Neo-Aristotelianism in Leiden, edited by Egbert

P. Bos and H. A. Krop, 83–118. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1993.

Ruestow, Edward G. Physics at Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Leiden: Philosophy and the New Science in the University, pp. 14–33. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1973. Wundt, Max. Die deutsch Schulmetaphysik des 17 Jahrhunderts.

Tübingen, Germany: Mohr (Siebeck), 1939.

Henri Krop

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