THE INTERPRETATION OF NATUREJanuary 31, 2022
LXXI. The sciences we possess have been principally derived from the Greeks; for the addition of the Roman, Arabic, or more modern writers, are but few and of small importance, and such as they are, are founded on the basis of Greek invention. But the wisdom of the Greeks was professional and disputatious, and thus most adverse to the investigation of truth. The name, therefore, of sophists, which the contemptuous spirit of those who deemed themselves philosophers, rejected and transferred to the rhetoricians—Gorgias, Protagoras, Hippias, Polus—might well suit the whole tribe, such as Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, Theophrastus, and their successors—Chrysippus, Carneades, and the rest. There was only this difference between them—the former were mercenary vagabonds, travelling about to different states, making a show of their wisdom, and requiring pay; the latter more dignified and noble, in possession of fixed habitations, opening schools, and teaching philosophy gratuitously. Both, however (though differing in other respects), were professorial, and reduced every subject to controversy, establishing and defending certain sects and dogmas of philosophy, so that their doctrines were nearly (what Dionysius not unaptly objected to Plato) the talk of idle old men to ignorant youths. But the more ancient Greeks, as Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Democritus, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, Philolaus, and the rest (for I omit Pythagoras as being superstitious), did not (that we are aware) open schools, but betook themselves to the investigation of truth with greater silence and with more severity and simplicity, that is, with less affectation and ostentation. Hence in our opinion they acted more advisedly, however their works may have been eclipsed in course of time by those lighter productions which better correspond with and please the apprehensions and passions of the vulgar; for time, like a river, bears down to us that which is light and inflated, and sinks that which is heavy and solid. Nor were even these more ancient philosophers free from the national defect, but inclined too much to the ambition and vanity of forming a sect, and captivating public opinion, and we must despair of any inquiry after truth when it condescends to such trifles. Nor must we omit the opinion, or rather prophecy, of an Egyptian priest with regard to the Greeks, that they would forever remain children, without any antiquity of knowledge or knowledge of antiquity; for they certainly have this in common with children, that they are prone to talking, and incapable of generation, their wisdom being loquacious and unproductive of effects. Hence the external signs derived from the origin and birthplace of our present philosophy are not favorable.
LXXII. Nor are those much better which can be deduced from the character of the time and age, than the former from that of the country and nation; for in that age the knowledge both of time and of the world was confined and meagre, which is one of the worst evils for those who rely entirely on experience—they had not a thousand years of history worthy of that name, but mere fables and ancient traditions; they were acquainted with but a small portion of the regions and countries of the world, for they indiscriminately called all nations situated far toward the north Scythians, all those to the west Celts; they knew nothing of Africa but the nearest part of Ethiopia, or of Asia beyond the Ganges, and had not even heard any sure and clear tradition of the regions of the New World. Besides, a vast number of climates and zones, in which innumerable nations live and breathe, were pronounced by them to be uninhabitable; nay, the travels of Democritus, Plato, and Pythagoras, which were not extensive, but rather mere excursions from home, were considered as something vast. But in our times many parts of the New World, and every extremity of the Old, are well known, and the mass of experiments has been infinitely increased; wherefore, if external signs were to be taken from the time of the nativity or procreation (as in astrology), nothing extraordinary could be predicted of these early systems of philosophy.
LXXIII. Of all signs there is none more certain or worthy than that of the fruits produced, for the fruits and effects are the sureties and vouchers, as it were, for the truth of philosophy. Now, from the systems of the Greeks, and their subordinate divisions in particular branches of the sciences during so long a period, scarcely one single experiment can be culled that has a tendency to elevate or assist mankind, and can be fairly set down to the speculations and doctrines of their philosophy. Celsus candidly and wisely confesses as much, when he observes that experiments were first discovered in medicine, and that men afterward built their philosophical systems upon them, and searched for and assigned causes, instead of the inverse method of discovering and deriving experiments from philosophy and the knowledge of causes; it is not, therefore, wonderful that the Egyptians (who bestowed divinity and sacred honors on the authors of new inventions) should have consecrated more images of brutes than of men, for the brutes by their natural instinct made many discoveries, while men derived but few from discussion and the conclusions of reason.
The industry of the alchemists has produced some effect, by chance, however, and casualty, or from varying their experiments (as mechanics also do), and not from any regular art or theory, the theory they have imagined rather tending to disturb than to assist experiment. Those, too, who have occupied themselves with natural magic (as they term it) have made but few discoveries, and those of small import, and bordering on imposture; for which reason, in the same manner as we are cautioned by religion to show our faith by our works, we may very properly apply the principle to philosophy, and judge of it by its works, accounting that to be futile which is unproductive, and still more so if, instead of grapes and olives, it yield but the thistle and thorns of dispute and contention.
LXXIV. Other signs may be selected from the increase and progress of particular systems of philosophy and the sciences; for those which are founded on nature grow and increase, while those which are founded on opinion change and increase not. If, therefore, the theories we have mentioned were not like plants, torn up by the roots, but grew in the womb of nature, and were nourished by her, that which for the last two thousand years has taken place would never have happened, namely, that the sciences still continue in their beaten track, and nearly stationary, without having received any important increase, nay, having, on the contrary, rather bloomed under the hands of their first author, and then faded away. But we see that the case is reversed in the mechanical arts, which are founded on nature and the light of experience, for they (as long as they are popular) seem full of life, and uninterruptedly thrive and grow, being at first rude, then convenient, lastly polished, and perpetually improved.
LXXV. There is yet another sign (if such it may be termed, being rather an evidence, and one of the strongest nature), namely, the actual confession of those very authorities whom men now follow; for even they who decide on things so daringly, yet at times, when they reflect, betake themselves to complaints about the subtilty of nature, the obscurity of things, and the weakness of man’s wit. If they would merely do this, they might perhaps deter those who are of a timid disposition from further inquiry, but would excite and stimulate those of a more active and confident turn to further advances. They are not, however, satisfied with confessing so much of themselves, but consider everything which has been either unknown or unattempted by themselves or their teachers, as beyond the limits of possibility, and thus, with most consummate pride and envy, convert the defects of their own discoveries into a calumny on nature and a source of despair to every one else. Hence arose the New Academy, which openly professed scepticism, and consigned mankind to eternal darkness; hence the notion that forms, or the true differences of things (which are in fact the laws of simple action), are beyond man’s reach, and cannot possibly be discovered; hence those notions in the active and operative branches, that the heat of the sun and of fire are totally different, so as to prevent men from supposing that they can elicit or form, by means of fire, anything similar to the operations of nature; and again, that composition only is the work of man and mixture of nature, so as to prevent men from expecting the generation or transformation of natural bodies by art. Men will, therefore, easily allow themselves to be persuaded by this sign not to engage their fortunes and labor in speculations, which are not only desperate, but actually devoted to desperation.
LXXVI. Nor should we omit the sign afforded by the great dissension formerly prevalent among philosophers, and the variety of schools, which sufficiently show that the way was not well prepared that leads from the senses to the understanding, since the same groundwork of philosophy (namely, the nature of things), was torn and divided into such widely differing and multifarious errors. And although in these days the dissensions and differences of opinions with regard to first principles and entire systems are nearly extinct, yet there remain innumerable questions and controversies with regard to particular branches of philosophy. So that it is manifest that there is nothing sure or sound either in the systems themselves or in the methods of demonstration.
LXXVII. With regard to the supposition that there is a general unanimity as to the philosophy of Aristotle, because the other systems of the ancients ceased and became obsolete on its promulgation, and nothing better has been since discovered; whence it appears that it is so well determined and founded, as to have united the suffrages of both ages; we will observe—1st. That the notion of other ancient systems having ceased after the publication of the works of Aristotle is false, for the works of the ancient philosophers subsisted long after that event, even to the time of Cicero, and the subsequent ages. But at a later period, when human learning had, as it were, been wrecked in the inundation of barbarians into the Roman empire, then the systems of Aristotle and Plato were preserved in the waves of ages, like planks of a lighter and less solid nature. 2d. The notion of unanimity, on a clear inspection, is found to be fallacious. For true unanimity is that which proceeds from a free judgment, arriving at the same conclusion, after an investigation of the fact. Now, by far the greater number of those who have assented to the philosophy of Aristotle, have bound themselves down to it from prejudice and the authority of others, so that it is rather obsequiousness and concurrence than unanimity. But even if it were real and extensive unanimity, so far from being esteemed a true and solid confirmation, it should even lead to a violent presumption to the contrary. For there is no worse augury in intellectual matters than that derived from unanimity, with the exception of divinity and politics, where suffrages are allowed to decide. For nothing pleases the multitude, unless it strike the imagination or bind down the understanding, as we have observed above, with the shackles of vulgar notions. Hence we may well transfer Phocion’s remark from morals to the intellect: “That men should immediately examine what error or fault they have committed, when the multitude concurs with, and applauds them.” This then is one of the most unfavorable signs. All the signs, therefore, of the truth and soundness of the received systems of philosophy and the sciences are unpropitious, whether taken from their origin, their fruits, their progress, the confessions of their authors, or from unanimity.
LXXVIII. We now come to the causes of errors, and of such perseverance in them for ages. These are sufficiently numerous and powerful to remove all wonder, that what we now offer should have so long been concealed from, and have escaped the notice of mankind, and to render it more worthy of astonishment, that it should even now have entered any one’s mind, or become the subject of his thoughts; and that it should have done so, we consider rather the gift of fortune than of any extraordinary talent, and as the offspring of time rather than wit. But, in the first place, the number of ages is reduced to very narrow limits, on a proper consideration of the matter. For out of twenty-five centuries, with which the memory and learning of man are conversant, scarcely six can be set apart and selected as fertile in science and favorable to its progress. For there are deserts and wastes in times as in countries, and we can only reckon up three revolutions and epochs of philosophy. 1. The Greek. 2. The Roman. 3. Our own, that is the philosophy of the western nations of Europe: and scarcely two centuries can with justice be assigned to each. The intermediate ages of the world were unfortunate both in the quantity and richness of the sciences produced. Nor need we mention the Arabs, or the scholastic philosophy, which, in those ages, ground down the sciences by their numerous treatises, more than they increased their weight. The first cause, then, of such insignificant progress in the sciences, is rightly referred to the small proportion of time which has been favorable thereto.
LXXIX. A second cause offers itself, which is certainly of the greatest importance; namely, that in those very ages in which men’s wit and literature flourished considerably, or even moderately, but a small part of their industry was bestowed on natural philosophy, the great mother of the sciences. For every art and science torn from this root may, perhaps, be polished, and put into a serviceable shape, but can admit of little growth. It is well known, that after the Christian religion had been acknowledged, and arrived at maturity, by far the best wits were busied upon theology, where the highest rewards offered themselves, and every species of assistance was abundantly supplied, and the study of which was the principal occupation of the western European nations during the third epoch; the rather because literature flourished about the very time when controversies concerning religion first began to bud forth. 2. In the preceding ages, during the second epoch (that of the Romans), philosophical meditation and labor was chiefly occupied and wasted in moral philosophy (the theology of the heathens): besides, the greatest minds in these times applied themselves to civil affairs, on account of the magnitude of the Roman empire, which required the labor of many. 3. The age during which natural philosophy appeared principally to flourish among the Greeks, was but a short period, since in the more ancient times the seven sages (with the exception of Thales), applied themselves to moral philosophy and politics, and at a later period, after Socrates had brought down philosophy from heaven to earth, moral philosophy became more prevalent, and diverted men’s attention from natural. Nay, the very period during which physical inquiries flourished, was corrupted and rendered useless by contradictions, and the ambition of new opinions. Since, therefore, during these three epochs, natural philosophy has been materially neglected or impeded, it is not at all surprising that men should have made but little progress in it, seeing they were attending to an entirely different matter.
LXXX. Add to this that natural philosophy, especially of late, has seldom gained exclusive possession of an individual free from all other pursuits, even among those who have applied themselves to it, unless there may be an example or two of some monk studying in his cell, or some nobleman in his villa. She has rather been made a passage and bridge to other pursuits.
Thus has this great mother of the sciences been degraded most unworthily to the situation of a handmaid, and made to wait upon medicine or mathematical operations, and to wash the immature minds of youth, and imbue them with a first dye, that they may afterward be more ready to receive and retain another. In the meantime, let no one expect any great progress in the sciences (especially their operative part), unless natural philosophy be applied to particular sciences, and particular sciences again referred back to natural philosophy. For want of this, astronomy, optics, music, many mechanical arts, medicine itself, and (what perhaps is more wonderful), moral and political philosophy, and the logical sciences have no depth, but only glide over the surface and variety of things; because these sciences, when they have been once partitioned out and established, are no longer nourished by natural philosophy, which would have imparted fresh vigor and growth to them from the sources and genuine contemplation of motion, rays, sounds, texture, and conformation of bodies, and the affections and capacity of the understanding. But we can little wonder that the sciences grow not when separated from their roots.
LXXXI. There is another powerful and great cause of the little advancement of the sciences, which is this; it is impossible to advance properly in the course when the goal is not properly fixed. But the real and legitimate goal of the sciences is the endowment of human life with new inventions and riches. The great crowd of teachers know nothing of this, but consist of dictatorial hirelings; unless it so happen that some artisan of an acute genius, and ambitious of fame, gives up his time to a new discovery, which is generally attended with a loss of property. The majority, so far from proposing to themselves the augmentation of the mass of arts and sciences, make no other use of an inquiry into the mass already before them, than is afforded by the conversion of it to some use in their lectures, or to gain, or to the acquirement of a name, and the like. But if one out of the multitude be found, who courts science from real zeal, and on his own account, even he will be seen rather to follow contemplation, and the variety of theories, than a severe and strict investigation of truth. Again, if there even be an unusually strict investigator of truth, yet will he propose to himself, as the test of truth, the satisfaction of his mind and understanding, as to the causes of things long since known, and not such a test as to lead to some new earnest of effects, and a new light in axioms. If, therefore, no one have laid down the real end of science, we cannot wonder that there should be error in points subordinate to that end.
LXXXII. But, in like manner, as the end and goal of science is ill defined, so, even were the case otherwise, men have chosen an erroneous and impassable direction. For it is sufficient to astonish any reflecting mind, that nobody should have cared or wished to open and complete a way for the understanding, setting off from the senses, and regular, well-conducted experiment; but that everything has been abandoned either to the mists of tradition, the whirl and confusion of argument, or the waves and mazes of chance, and desultory, ill-combined experiment. Now, let any one but consider soberly and diligently the nature of the path men have been accustomed to pursue in the investigation and discovery of any matter, and he will doubtless first observe the rude and inartificial manner of discovery most familiar to mankind: which is no other than this. When any one prepares himself for discovery, he first inquires and obtains a full account of all that has been said on the subject by others, then adds his own reflections, and stirs up and, as it were, invokes his own spirit, after much mental labor, to disclose its oracles. All which is a method without foundation, and merely turns on opinion.
Another, perhaps, calls in logic to assist him in discovery, which bears only a nominal relation to his purpose. For the discoveries of logic are not discoveries of principles and leading axioms, but only of what appears to accord with them. And when men become curious and importunate, and give trouble, interrupting her about her proofs, and the discovery of principles or first axioms, she puts them off with her usual answer, referring them to faith, and ordering them to swear allegiance to each art in its own department.
There remains but mere experience, which, when it offers itself, is called chance; when it is sought after, experiment. But this kind of experience is nothing but a loose fagot; and mere groping in the dark, as men at night try all means of discovering the right road, while it would be better and more prudent either to wait for day, or procure a light, and then proceed. On the contrary, the real order of experience begins by setting up a light, and then shows the road by it, commencing with a regulated and digested, not a misplaced and vague course of experiment, and thence deducing axioms, and from those axioms new experiments: for not even the Divine Word proceeded to operate on the general mass of things without due order.
Let men, therefore, cease to wonder if the whole course of science be not run, when all have wandered from the path; quitting it entirely, and deserting experience, or involving themselves in its mazes, and wandering about, while a regularly combined system would lead them in a sure track through its wilds to the open day of axioms.
LXXXIII. The evil, however, has been wonderfully increased by an opinion, or inveterate conceit, which is both vainglorious and prejudicial, namely, that the dignity of the human mind is lowered by long and frequent intercourse with experiments and particulars, which are the objects of sense, and confined to matter; especially since such matters generally require labor in investigation, are mean subjects for meditation, harsh in discourse, unproductive in practice, infinite in number, and delicate in their subtilty. Hence we have seen the true path not only deserted, but intercepted and blocked up, experience being rejected with disgust, and not merely neglected or improperly applied.
LXXXIV. Again, the reverence for antiquity, and the authority of men who have been esteemed great in philosophy, and general unanimity, have retarded men from advancing in science, and almost enchanted them. As to unanimity, we have spoken of it above.
The opinion which men cherish of antiquity is altogether idle, and scarcely accords with the term. For the old age and increasing years of the world should in reality be considered as antiquity, and this is rather the character of our own times than of the less advanced age of the world in those of the ancients; for the latter, with respect to ourselves, are ancient and elder, with respect to the world modern and younger. And as we expect a greater knowledge of human affairs, and more mature judgment from an old man than from a youth, on account of his experience, and the variety and number of things he has seen, heard, and meditated upon, so we have reason to expect much greater things of our own age (if it knew but its strength and would essay and exert it) than from antiquity, since the world has grown older, and its stock has been increased and accumulated with an infinite number of experiments and observations.
We must also take into our consideration that many objects in nature fit to throw light upon philosophy have been exposed to our view, and discovered by means of long voyages and travels, in which our times have abounded. It would, indeed, be dishonorable to mankind, if the regions of the material globe, the earth, the sea, and stars, should be so prodigiously developed and illustrated in our age, and yet the boundaries of the intellectual globe should be confined to the narrow discoveries of the ancients.
With regard to authority, it is the greatest weakness to attribute infinite credit to particular authors, and to refuse his own prerogative to time, the author of all authors, and, therefore, of all authority. For truth is rightly named the daughter of time, not of authority. It is not wonderful, therefore, if the bonds of antiquity, authority, and unanimity, have so enchained the power of man, that he is unable (as if bewitched) to become familiar with things themselves.
LXXXV. Nor is it only the admiration of antiquity, authority, and unanimity, that has forced man’s industry to rest satisfied with present discoveries, but, also, the admiration of the effects already placed within his power. For whoever passes in review the variety of subjects, and the beautiful apparatus collected and introduced by the mechanical arts for the service of mankind, will certainly be rather inclined to admire our wealth than to perceive our poverty: not considering that the observations of man and operations of nature (which are the souls and first movers of that variety) are few, and not of deep research; the rest must be attributed merely to man’s patience, and the delicate and well-regulated motion of the hand or of instruments. To take an instance, the manufacture of clocks is delicate and accurate, and appears to imitate the heavenly bodies in its wheels, and the pulse of animals in its regular oscillation, yet it only depends upon one or two axioms of nature.
Again, if one consider the refinement of the liberal arts, or even that exhibited in the preparation of natural bodies in mechanical arts and the like, as the discovery of the heavenly motions in astronomy, of harmony in music, of the letters of the alphabet (still unadopted by the Chinese) in grammar; or, again, in mechanical operations, the productions of Bacchus and Ceres, that is, the preparation of wine and beer, the making of bread, or even the luxuries of the table, distillation, and the like; if one reflect also, and consider for how long a period of ages (for all the above, except distillation, are ancient) these things have been brought to their present state of perfection, and (as we instanced in clocks) to how few observations and axioms of nature they may be referred, and how easily, and as it were, by obvious chance or contemplation, they might be discovered, one would soon cease to admire and rather pity the human lot on account of its vast want and dearth of things and discoveries for so many ages. Yet even the discoveries we have mentioned were more ancient than philosophy and the intellectual arts; so that (to say the truth) when contemplation and doctrinal science began, the discovery of useful works ceased.
But if any one turn from the manufactories to libraries, and be inclined to admire the immense variety of books offered to our view, let him but examine and diligently inspect the matter and contents of these books, and his astonishment will certainly change its object: for when he finds no end of repetitions, and how much men do and speak the same thing over again, he will pass from admiration of this variety to astonishment at the poverty and scarcity of matter, which has hitherto possessed and filled men’s minds.
But if any one should condescend to consider such sciences as are deemed rather curious than sound, and take a full view of the operations of the alchemists or magii, he will perhaps hesitate whether he ought rather to laugh or to weep. For the alchemist cherishes eternal hope, and when his labors succeed not, accuses his own mistakes, deeming, in his self-accusation, that he has not properly understood the words of art or of his authors; upon which he listens to tradition and vague whispers, or imagines there is some slight unsteadiness in the minute details of his practice, and then has recourse to an endless repetition of experiments: and in the meantime, when, in his casual experiments, he falls upon something in appearance new, or of some degree of utility, he consoles himself with such an earnest, and ostentatiously publishes them, keeping up his hope of the final result. Nor can it be denied that the alchemists have made several discoveries, and presented mankind with useful inventions. But we may well apply to them the fable of the old man, who bequeathed to his sons some gold buried in his garden, pretending not to know the exact spot, whereupon they worked diligently in digging the vineyard, and though they found no gold, the vintage was rendered more abundant by their labor.
The followers of natural magic, who explain everything by sympathy and antipathy, have assigned false powers and marvellous operations to things by gratuitous and idle conjectures: and if they have ever produced any effects, they are rather wonderful and novel than of any real benefit or utility.
In superstitious magic (if we say anything at all about it) we must chiefly observe, that there are only some peculiar and definite objects with which the curious and superstitious arts have, in every nation and age, and even under every religion, been able to exercise and amuse themselves. Let us, therefore, pass them over. In the meantime we cannot wonder that the false notion of plenty should have occasioned want.
LXXXVI. The admiration of mankind with regard to the arts and sciences, which is of itself sufficiently simple and almost puerile, has been increased by the craft and artifices of those who have treated the sciences, and delivered them down to posterity. For they propose and produce them to our view so fashioned, and as it were masked, as to make them pass for perfect and complete. For if you consider their method and divisions, they appear to embrace and comprise everything which can relate to the subject. And although this frame be badly filled up and resemble an empty bladder, yet it presents to the vulgar understanding the form and appearance of a perfect science.
The first and most ancient investigators of truth were wont, on the contrary, with more honesty and success, to throw all the knowledge they wished to gather from contemplation, and to lay up for use, into aphorisms, or short scattered sentences unconnected by any method, and without pretending or professing to comprehend any entire art. But according to the present system, we cannot wonder that men seek nothing beyond that which is handed down to them as perfect, and already extended to its full complement.
LXXXVII. The ancient theories have received additional support and credit from the absurdity and levity of those who have promoted the new, especially in the active and practical part of natural philosophy. For there have been many silly and fantastical fellows who, from credulity or imposture, have loaded mankind with promises, announcing and boasting of the prolongation of life, the retarding of old age, the alleviation of pains, the remedying of natural defects, the deception of the senses, the restraint and excitement of the passions, the illumination and exaltation of the intellectual faculties, the transmutation of substances, the unlimited intensity and multiplication of motion, the impressions and changes of the air, the bringing into our power the management of celestial influences, the divination of future events, the representation of distant objects, the revelation of hidden objects, and the like. One would not be very wrong in observing with regard to such pretenders, that there is as much difference in philosophy, between their absurdity and real science, as there is in history between the exploits of Cæsar or Alexander, and those of Amadis de Gaul and Arthur of Britain. For those illustrious generals are found to have actually performed greater exploits than such fictitious heroes are even pretended to have accomplished, by the means, however, of real action, and not by any fabulous and portentous power. Yet it is not right to suffer our belief in true history to be diminished, because it is sometimes injured and violated by fables. In the meantime we cannot wonder that great prejudice has been excited against any new propositions (especially when coupled with any mention of effects to be produced), by the conduct of impostors who have made a similar attempt; for their extreme absurdity, and the disgust occasioned by it, has even to this day overpowered every spirited attempt of the kind.
LXXXVIII. Want of energy, and the littleness and futility of the tasks that human industry has undertaken, have produced much greater injury to the sciences: and yet (to make it still worse) that very want of energy manifests itself in conjunction with arrogance and disdain.
For, in the first place, one excuse, now from its repetition become familiar, is to be observed in every art, namely, that its promoters convert the weakness of the art itself into a calumny upon nature: and whatever it in their hands fails to effect, they pronounce to be physically impossible. But how can the art ever be condemned while it acts as judge in its own cause? Even the present system of philosophy cherishes in its bosom certain positions or dogmas, which (it will be found on diligent inquiry) are calculated to produce a full conviction that no difficult, commanding, and powerful operation upon nature ought to be anticipated through the means of art; we instanced above the alleged different quality of heat in the sun and fire, and composition and mixture. Upon an accurate observation the whole tendency of such positions is wilfully to circumscribe man’s power, and to produce a despair of the means of invention and contrivance, which would not only confound the promises of hope, but cut the very springs and sinews of industry, and throw aside even the chances of experience. The only object of such philosophers is to acquire the reputation of perfection for their own art, and they are anxious to obtain the most silly and abandoned renown, by causing a belief that whatever has not yet been invented and understood can never be so hereafter. But if any one attempt to give himself up to things, and to discover something new; yet he will only propose and destine for his object the investigation and discovery of some one invention, and nothing more; as the nature of the magnet, the tides, the heavenly system, and the like, which appear enveloped in some degree of mystery, and have hitherto been treated with but little success. Now it is the greatest proof of want of skill, to investigate the nature of any object in itself alone; for that same nature, which seems concealed and hidden in some instances, is manifest and almost palpable in others, and excites wonder in the former, while it hardly attracts attention in the latter. Thus the nature of consistency is scarcely observed in wood or stone, but passed over by the term solid without any further inquiry about the repulsion of separation or the solution of continuity. But in water-bubbles the same circumstance appears matter of delicate and ingenious research, for they form themselves into thin pellicles, curiously shaped into hemispheres, so as for an instant to avoid the solution of continuity.
In general those very things which are considered as secret are manifest and common in other objects, but will never be clearly seen if the experiments and contemplation of man be directed to themselves only. Yet it commonly happens, that if, in the mechanical arts, any one bring old discoveries to a finer polish, or more elegant height of ornament, or unite and compound them, or apply them more readily to practice, or exhibit them on a less heavy and voluminous scale, and the like, they will pass off as new.
We cannot, therefore, wonder that no magnificent discoveries, worthy of mankind, have been brought to light, while men are satisfied and delighted with such scanty and puerile tasks, nay, even think that they have pursued or attained some great object in their accomplishment.
89 We should not neglect to observe that natural philosophy has, in every age, met with a troublesome and difficult opponent:
I mean superstition, and a blind and immoderate zeal for religion. For we see that, among the Greeks, those who first disclosed the natural causes of thunder and storms to the yet untrained ears of man were condemned as guilty of impiety toward the gods. Nor did some of the old fathers of Christianity treat those much better who showed by the most positive proofs (such as no one now disputes) that the earth is spherical, and thence asserted that there were antipodes.
Even in the present state of things the condition of discussions on natural philosophy is rendered more difficult and dangerous by the summaries and methods of divines, who, after reducing divinity into such order as they could, and brought it into a scientific form, have proceeded to mingle an undue proportion of the contentious and thorny philosophy of Aristotle with the substance of religion.
The fictions of those who have not feared to deduce and confirm the truth of the Christian religion by the principles and authority of philosophers, tend to the same end, though in a different manner. They celebrate the union of faith and the senses as though it were legitimate, with great pomp and solemnity, and gratify men’s pleasing minds with a variety, but in the meantime confound most improperly things divine and human. Moreover, in these mixtures of divinity and philosophy the received doctrines of the latter are alone included, and any novelty, even though it be an improvement, scarcely escapes banishment and extermination.
In short, you may find all access to any species of philosophy, however pure, intercepted by the ignorance of divines. Some in their simplicity are apprehensive that a too deep inquiry into nature may penetrate beyond the proper bounds of decorum, transferring and absurdly applying what is said of sacred mysteries in Holy Writ against those who pry into divine secrets, to the mysteries of nature, which are not forbidden by any prohibition. Others with more cunning imagine and consider, that if secondary causes be unknown, everything may more easily be referred to the Divine hand and wand, a matter, as they think, of the greatest consequence to religion, but which can only really mean that God wishes to be gratified by means of falsehood.
Others fear, from past example, lest motion and change in philosophy should terminate in an attack upon religion. Lastly, there are others who appear anxious lest there should be something discovered in the investigation of nature to overthrow, or at least shake, religion, particularly among the unlearned. The last two apprehensions appear to resemble animal instinct, as if men were diffident, in the bottom of their minds and secret meditations, of the strength of religion and the empire of faith over the senses, and therefore feared that some danger awaited them from an inquiry into nature. But any one who properly considers the subject will find natural philosophy to be, after the Word of God, the surest remedy against superstition, and the most approved support of faith.
She is, therefore, rightly bestowed upon religion as a most faithful attendant, for the one exhibits the will and the other the power of God. Nor was he wrong who observed, “Ye err, not knowing the Scriptures and the power of God,” thus uniting in one bond the revelation of his will and the contemplation of his power. In the meanwhile, it is not wonderful that the progress of natural philosophy has been restrained, since religion, which has so much influence on men’s minds, has been led and hurried to oppose her through the ignorance of some and the imprudent zeal of others.
90 In the habits and regulations of schools, universities, and the like assemblies, destined for the abode of learned men and the improvement of learning, everything is found to be opposed to the progress of the sciences; for the lectures and exercises are so ordered, that anything out of the common track can scarcely enter the thoughts and contemplations of the mind.
If, however, one or two have perhaps dared to use their liberty, they can only impose the labor on themselves, without deriving any advantage from the association of others; and if they put up with this, they will find their industry and spirit of no slight disadvantage to them in making their fortune; for the pursuits of men in such situations are, as it were, chained down to the writings of particular authors, and if any one dare to dissent from them he is immediately attacked as a turbulent and revolutionary spirit.
Yet how great is the difference between civil matters and the arts, for there is not the same danger from new activity and new light. In civil matters even a change for the better is suspected on account of the commotion it occasions, for civil government is supported by authority, unanimity, fame, and public opinion, and not by demonstration. In the arts and sciences, on the contrary, every department should resound, as in mines, with new works and advances.
This is the rational, though not the actual view of the case, for that administration and government of science we have spoken of is wont too rigorously to repress its growth.
91 And even should the odium I have alluded to be avoided, yet it is sufficient to repress the increase of science that such attempts and industry pass unrewarded; for the cultivation of science and its reward belong not to the same individual.
The advancement of science is the work of a powerful genius, the prize and reward belong to the vulgar or to princes, who (with a few exceptions) are scarcely moderately well informed. Nay, such progress is not only deprived of the rewards and beneficence of individuals, but even of popular praise; for it is above the reach of the generality, and easily overwhelmed and extinguished by the winds of common opinions. It is not wonderful, therefore, that little success has attended that which has been little honored.