Robert Greene’s biography from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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Greene, Robert (c.1678–1730), natural philosopher, the son of Robert Greene, a mercer of Tamworth, Staffordshire, and his wife, Mary Pretty of Fazeley, was educated at Clare College, Cambridge, to which he was admitted as a sizar on 8 October 1694. He graduated BA in 1700, MA in 1703, and DD in 1728. Having been awarded a fellowship by the college in 1703 and ordained in London in 1705, Greene thereafter devoted his life to teaching and writing in defence of the Christian religion and of what he considered a form of natural philosophy that was not antagonistic to true religion. His conscientiousness, if not his effectiveness, as a tutor is evident in the formidable curriculum outlined in his pamphlet Encyclopaedia, or, A Method of Instructing Pupils (1707).

Though a student of Richard Laughton, the famed pro-Newtonian ‘pupil-monger’, Greene adopted very different political, scientific, and religious views from the whig, latitudinarian Laughton. At a time when the university was deeply divided in its response to the changes wrought by the revolution of 1688, Greene sided with the tories. Such a political stance is evident in his fulsome dedication of The Principles of Natural Philosophy (1712) to Robert Harley as one ‘Rais'd by the Providence of Almighty God for the Support and Patronage of our most Holy Faith’. Greene's theological position was consistent with his political attachment to the tory party as a protector of the established church: the goal of this work, as of its predecessor, A Demonstration of the Truth and Divinity of the Christian Religion (1711), was to undermine the claims of those theologians who down-played the role of the church as an interpreter of revelation by focusing on forms of natural religion that could be arrived at through the use of reason. As he wrote in A Demonstration, ‘Reason has usurp'd by its Artifice and Cunning, and its subtle and plausible insinuations, an unwarrantable Power and Authority’ (p. 188). Similarly in the preface to The Principles he decried the influence of ‘those Divines in our present Age, who are too fond of what they call Rational, who put too great a stress upon their reasonings from Nature’.

For Greene the defence of revealed religion involved the developing of an alternative system of natural philosophy to put in the place of the dominant mechanical philosophy, which he viewed as promoting materialism. Though respectful of Isaac Newton personally, he feared that his work, too, could lend aid to the rationalists and materialists. For, as he wrote in the preface to his third and most encyclopaedic major work, The Principles of the Philosophy of the Expansive and Contractive Forces (1727), the Newtonian system was ‘much the same [as the Cartesian] as to the Principles of a Similar and Homogeneous Matter’. Hence Greene sought to replace it with what he termed a ‘truly English, a Cantabrigian, and a Clarensian one … I shall venture to call the Greenian’ (p. iv). As its title suggests, the aim of this work was to argue that matter could be resolved into a range of forces, thus reinforcing Greene's basic contention that matter was neither passive nor homogeneous as the mechanists and materialists maintained. Greene carried further the intent of his previous book ‘wherein’, as Roger Cotes reported to Newton before it was published, ‘I am informed he undertakes to overthrow the Principles of your Philosophy’ (Turnbull, 5.166). However, along with Newton, Greene dismissed John Locke, arguing that his empiricist theory of the mind favoured the materialists and reduced mankind to ‘no Degree above an Oyster, unless that he has more senses’ (Philosophy of … Forces, 628).

Greene served as vicar of Everton, Bedfordshire, and Tetworth, Huntingdonshire, from 1723, but his central focus remained the university, where he served as proctor in 1727. He died on 16 August 1730 while on a visit to his birthplace. He left an elaborate will, the provisions of which confirmed his reputation for eccentricity—among its more bizarre stipulations was that his body should be dissected and the skeleton hung in the library of King's College, Cambridge. Greene also wanted monuments to his memory to be placed in the chapels of Clare College and King's College, in the university church, and at Tamworth. It appears that none of his wishes was complied with and ultimately, most of his estate went to Clare College.

John Gascoigne


will of Robert Greene, Clare College, Cambridge, Archives · will, Notts. Arch. · GM, 1st ser., 53 (1783), 657 [will] · GM, 1st ser., 61 (1791), 725 · [M. D. Forbes], ed., Clare College, 1326–1926, 2 vols. (1928–30) · The correspondence of Isaac Newton, ed. H. W. Turnbull and others, 7 vols. (1959–77) · C. Middleton, letter to Harley, 6 Sept 1730, BL, Loan 29/167 · Venn, Alum. Cant. · DNB

Wealth at death  

house at Tamworth plus £200 bank stock to Clare College: will, Notts. Arch.; Clare College, Cambridge

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John Gascoigne, ‘Greene, Robert (c.1678–1730)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 19 Nov 2005]

Robert Greene (c.1678–1730): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/11419

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