Wolfe, Christian

, baron of the Roman empire, privy-counsellor to the king of Prussia, and chancellor of the university of Hall in Saxony, was born at Breslau, Jan. 24, 1679. To the college of this city he was indebted for his first studies: after having passed his lessons in philosophy, he applied himself assiduously to the | mathematics. The “Elementa Arithmeticse, vulgaris et literalis,” by Henry Horch, were his earliest guides; by a frequent perusal of these, he was at length enabled to enrieh them with additional propositions of his own. So rapid a progress did him great honour; whilst the different disputes, in which he was engaged with the canons of Breslau, laid the permanent foundation of his increasing fame. In 1699, he repaired to the university of Jena, and chose John Philip Treuner for his master in philosophy, and George Albert Hamberger for the mathematics; whose lessons he received with so happy a mixture of attention and advantage, that he became afterwards the able instructor of his fellow-students.

From Philip Muller, and Frederic Beckman, he received his knowledge of theology: a treatise written by Tschirnhausen, entitled “Medicina Mentis & Corporis, 17 engaged him for some time; in consequence of which, in 1702, he had a conference with the author, to clear up some doubts concerning particular passages. The detail into which Tschirnhausen had the complaisance to enter with this’ young philosopher, enabled him to model the whole on a more extensive plan. Having finished that part of his education which he was destined to receive at Jena, he went to Leipsic in 1702; and, having obtained a permission to give lectures, he began his new employment, and, in 1703, opened with a dissertation called” Philosophia practica universalis, methodo mathematica conscripta;“which first attempt served greatly to enhance the reputation of his talents. Wolfe chose, for the foundation of his lessons, the method followed by Tschirnhausen, His philosophy bore as yet a very strong resemblance to that of Descartes, as may be seen in his dissertation” De loquela," which he published in 1703. Leibnitz, to whom he sent it, told him, that he plainly perceived, that his hypothesis concerning the union of the soul and body was not hitherto sufficiently just and explicit. These objections made him review the whole, which afterwards went through several material alterations.

Two dissertations which he published at the end of 1703^ the first, “De rods dentatis,” and the second, “De Algorithmo infinitesimali differential!,” obtained him the honourable appellation of assistant to the faculty of philosophy at Leipsic. The universities of Giessen and Hall having invited him to be their professor in mathematics, | he accepted of the offer of the last, and went thither in 1707. The same year he was admitted into the society at Leipsic, which was at that time engaged in the publication of the “Acta eruditorum.” After having inserted in this work many important pieces relating to physic and the mathematics, he undertook, in 1709, to teach all the various branches of philosophy, and began with a little logical Latin treatise, which made its appearance afterwards in the German language, under the title of * Thoughts on the Powers of the human Understanding." While he was carrying on these great pursuits with assiduity and ardour, the king of Prussia rewarded him with the post of counsellor to the court on the decease qf Bodinus in 1721, and augmented the profits of that office by very considerable appointments: he was also chosen a member of the Royal Society of London and Prussia.

In the midst of this prosperity he raised a storm against himself. He had, on the 12th of July, 1721, delivered a Latin oration, the subject of which was the morality of the Chinese: he loaded their philosophy with applause, an-d endeavoured to prove how similar its principles were to those which he, had advanced in. doctrines of his own. The divines at Hall were so exasperated at this attempt to undervalue their tenets, that on the day following every pulpit resounded with censures of Wolfe, and^the opposition to him continued till 1722, when the faculty of theology were determined strictly to examine each production of our extraordinary philosopher. Daniel Strathler, whose province was to scrutinize the “Essay on Metaphysics,” published a refutation of it. Wolfe made his complaints to the academic council, who issued out an order, that no one should presume to write against him: but the facultyhaving sent their representation to the court, which were all backed by the most strenuous assertions, that the doctrine which Wolfe taught, particularly on the subject of liberty and necessity, was dangerous to the last degree, an order at length arrived, Nov. 18, 1723, not only displacing Wolfe, but commanding him (under pain of being severely punished if he presumed to disobey) to leave Hall and the States in twenty-four hours at the farthest.

Wolfe retired now to Cassel, where he obtained the professorship of mathematics and philosophy in the university of Marbourg, with the title of counsellor to the court ^f the landgrave of Hesse, to which a profitable pension | was annexed. Here he reassumed his labours with redoubled ardour; and it was in this retreat that he published the best parts of his numerous works. In 1725 he was declared an honorary professor of the academy of sciences at St. Petersburgh, and, in 1733, was admitted into “that at Paris. The king of Sweden also declared him one of the council of regency: the pleasing situation of his new abode, and the multitude of honours which he had received, were too alluring to permit him to accept of many advantageous offers; amongst which was the post of president 6f the academy at St. Petersburgh. The king of Prussia, who was now recovered from the prejudices he had been made to conceive against Wolfe, wished to re-establish him in the university of Hall in 1733, and made another attempt to effect it in 173.9. Wolfe met these advances with all that respectful deference which became him, but took the liberty to insinuate, that he did not then believe it right for him to comply. At last, however, he submitted; and the prince offered him, in 1741, an employment which threw every objection that he could make aside. Wolfe, still mindful of his benefactors, took a gracious leave of the king of Sweden; and returned to Hall, invested with the characters of privy-counsellor, vice-chancellor,” and professor of the law of nature and of nations. After the death of Ludwig, the king raised him to the dignity of chancellor of the university, and the elector of Bavaria created him a baron of the empire (whilst he was exercising the vicarship of it), from his own free unbiassed inclination.

He died at Hall in Saxony, of the gout in his stomach, April 9, 1754, in his seventy-sixth year; after having composed in Latin and German more than sixty distinct pieces. The chief of his mathematical compositions is his “Elementa Matheseos Universse,” the best edition of which is that of 1732, 5 vols. 4to, printed at Geneva; which does not, however, comprise his Mathematical Dictionary in the German language, nor many other distinct works on different branches of the mathematics. His “System of Philosophy” is contained in 23 vols. 4to.

Brucker says, that Wolfe “possessed a clear and methodical understanding, which by long exercise in mathematical investigations was particularly fitted for the employment of digesting the several branches of knowledge into regular systems; and his fertile powers of invention | enabled him to enrich almost every field of science, in which he laboured, with some valuable additions. The lucid order which appears in all his writings enables his reader to follow his conceptions, with ease and certainty, through the longest trains of reasoning. But the close connection of the several parts of his works, together with the vast variety and extent of the subjects on which he treats, renders it impracticable to give a summary of his doctrines.A French critic remarks that all the German works of this author are “extremely well written, and he has also been very happy in finding words, in that language, answering to the Latin philosophical terms which had till then been adopted; and as this renders a small dictionary necessary for understanding his phrases, he has placed one at the end of such books as require it. As to his Latin works, they are very ill written; his words are ill chosen, and frequently used in a wrong sense; his phrases too perplexed and obscure, and his style in general too diffuse.” An abridgment of his great Latin work, “On the Law of Nature and Nations,” has been published in French, three small vols. 12mo, by Formey; to which is prefixed, a life of Wolfe, and a chronological list of all his writings. He was, doubtless, one of the most learned philosophers and mathematicians Germany has produced; but his eulogy seems to us to be carried too far, when he is compared to Descartes and Leibnitz for his genius and writings, in both which he was certainly much inferior to them. 1


Life by Formey. —Moreri. —Dict. Hist. Brucker. —Saxii Onomast.