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BOOK OF NATURE.
ON MATTER, AND A MATERIAL WORLD.
In the comprehensive range of science proposed to be treated of in the SURREY INSTITUTION, the department to which I shall have the honour of beseeching your attention will be that of NATURAL PHILOSOPHY, OF PHYSICS, in the most extensive sense of these terms: that branch of science which makes use of the individual principles and discoveries of every other branch within the range of nature, as the architect makes use of the bricks, the mortar, the wood, and the marble of different artizans, and builds up the whole into a perfect edifice; which takes a bird's-eye view, as it were, of a picturesque and spreading landscape from some commanding eminence; and, without having laboured in the details of arranging the ground, of cultivating the soil, of planting the woods, of winding the rivers, of enriching the scenery with flocks, herds, bridges, and buildings, points out the general connexion of part with part, and the harmony which flows from their combined effect. This, indeed, is to employ these terms in a somewhat wider sense than has been assigned to them in modern times; for even the Natural Philosophy of Lord Bacon, though it embraces the two divisions of special physic and metaphysic, as he calls them, does not extend to the doctrine of "the nature and state of man,” which is transferred to another division of general science ;* yet that the study of physics, or natural philosophy, had this more extended meaning among the Greeks and Romans, is clear, since the poem of Empedocles on "Nature," and that of Lucretius, on "the Nature of Things," the two most complete physiological works of which we have any account in antiquity, were expressly formed upon this comprehensive scale; and hence the philosophy of geology and mineralogy, the philosophy of botany and zoology, the philosophy of human understanding, the philosophy of society and whatever relates to it, or general and synthetical surveys of these different departments of science, are as equally branches of physics, or the nature of things, as equally part of the BOOK OF nature, as any separate branch which is more ordinarily so arranged.
Thus explained, the scope of the study before us is almost universal,
Advancement of Learning, b. ii. p. 52. 56. vol. i. 4to. General science is here divided into three classes: I. Doctrina de numine, or Divine Philosophy. II. Doctrina de natura, or Natural Philosophy. III. Doctrina de homine, or Human Philosophy. The common stem from which they ramify is denominated philosophia prima, primitive, summary, or universal philosophy.
and only a small portion of it can be engaged in during a single series, I shall endeavour to advance in it as I am able; and the infinite variety it presents to us will at all times, I trust, prevent the pursuit from proving dull or uninteresting. Could it indeed be completed as it ought, it would constitute the PHILOSOPHIA PRIMA, or universal science of the great author I have just adverted to.
My sole object, however, is to communicate information so far as I may be able; to exhaust nothing, but to touch upon many things; to give a desire for learning, rather than to consummate the learning that may be desirable; to run over the vast volume of nature, not in its separate pages, but in its table of contents, so that we may hereafter be the better prepared for studying it more minutely, and for feeling in some measure at home upon the various subjects it presents to us.
Yet, after all, lectures alone can do but little, whatever the energy or perspicuity with which they may be delivered. They may, perhaps, awaken a latent propensity, or enkindle a transient inclination; but unless the new-born flame be fed and fostered, unless it be nourished by study, as well as excited by hearing, it will perish as soon as lighted up; or, if it continue, will only blaze forth in a foppery of knowledge far more contemptible than the grossest ignorance.
Let us then enter upon our respective duties with equal ardour. The path of science is open to every variety of age, and almost to every variety of education. Thousands at this moment behind are pressing forward, and will surpass those that are before; and the richest and most gratifying reward I can ever receive will be, to find that many to whom this course of study is delivered will hereafter be able to communicate to me the same proportion of information, which it is my duty to suppose I can at present communicate to them.
One of the first inquiries that can ever press upon the mind must relate to the nature of MATTER, and the origin of the world around us : what is this common substance from which every thing visible has proceeded, and to which every thing visible is reducible? has it existed from all eternity? or has it been called into being by the voice of an Omnipotent Creator? and in either case, has it uniformly exhibited its present harmony and arrangement, or has there been a period in which it was destitute of form and order, a waste and shapeless chaos?
These are questions which have tried the wisdom of man in all ages; and, I may add, which in all ages have proved its littleness, and the need we stand in of illumination from a superior source. Such, upon one or two points, we have received; upon the rest we are still ignorant; and, but for what we have received, we should have been still ignorant upon the whole.
If we search into the systems of all the ancient schools of philosophy, amidst an infinite variety of jarring opinions in other respects, we find them, perhaps without an exception, concurring in a belief of the eternity of matter, or that general substance which constitutes the visible world around us; which was sometimes conceived to be intelligent in many of its corpuscles, and unintelligent in the rest, as was taught by Democritus ; sometimes intelligent as a whole, though unintelligent in its separate parts, as taught both by Aristotle and Plato; and sometimes unintelligent in all its parts and particles, whether united or disjoined, which formed the dogma of Epicurus. Under some modification or other, however, the doctrine of the eternity of matter appears to have been universal
among the philosophers of ancient nations. That a loose and floating idea of its creation by the energy of a pure intelligence is occasionally to be met with, and which probably existed as a remnant of patriarchal tradition, must be adınitted; for the Tuscans were generally allowed to have entertained such an idea, and we find it frequently adverted to and opposed by the leaders of the different schools, but in no instance does it seem to have been embodied or promulgated as a doctrine of philosophy.
The grand motive for this general belief appears to have been a supposed absurdity in conceiving that any thing could be created out of nothing. The Epicureans, and many other schools of philosophers, who borrowed it from them, perpetually appeal to this position. It was current, however, among many of the philosophers of Greece at a much earlier period; for Democritus expressly asserted, according to Diogenes Laertius, "that nothing could spring from nothing, or could ever return to nothing." Epicurus, in the few fragments of his that have reached us, echoed the tenet in the following terms: "Know first of all, that nothing can spring from non-entity." It was thus given by Aristotle: "To suppose what has been created has been created from nothing, is to divest it of all power, for it is a dogma of those who pretend thus to think, that every thing must still possess its own nature." From the Greeks it passed to the Romans, and appears as follows in Lucretius:
ubi viderimus nihil posse creari
Admit this truth, that naught from nothing springs,
And it was thus long afterwards reiterated by Persius, as the common doctrine of his day :*-----
De nihilo nil, in nihilum nil posse reverti. Į
Naught springs from uaught, and can to naught return.
The Greeks themselves, however, seem to have received it from the East, and to have become acquainted with it as a branch of gymnosophy; for it constitutes, even in the present day, a distinct doctrine of Brahminical religion, and is thus urged in univocal terms in the Yajur Veid, in the course of an address to Brahm, or the Supreme Being: "The ignorant assert that the universe, in the beginning, did not exist in its author, and that it was created out of nothing. O ye, whose hearts are pure! how could something arise out of nothing?"
This reasoning seems, indeed, to have spread almost universally, and perhaps from the same quarter; for we find many of the Jewish theologians, and not a few of the Christian fathers, too much influenced by Platonic principles, giving countenance to the same doctrine, though probably not to the full extent of the Platonic school. Thus the author of the Book
*This, and two or three subsequent passages in the present lecture, are given summarily from an ampler and more recondite view of the subject in the author's prolegomena to his translation of "THE NATURE OF THINGS."
† De Rer. Nat. i. 157.
Sat. iii. 83.
The passage is quoted from M. Anquetil De Perron's Latin version. The reader may find various similar extracts in Sir William Jones's works, vol. vi. 4to. edit.
of Wisdom, a book written in Greek instead of in Hebrew, and hereby proving his own ara as well as the school in which he had studied, expressly asserts that "The almighty hand of the Lord created the world out of unfashioned (amorphous) matter," aμopp bàn; while Athenagoras, Tatian, Thcophilus of Antioch, Athanasius, and Gregory Nazianzen appear to have concurred in the same opinion; and Justin Martyr affirms it to have been the general creed of his own era: "For that the word of God," says he "formed the world out of unfashioned matter, Moses distinctly asserts, Plato and his adherents maintain, and ourselves have been taught to believe."
This is one specimen of the very common attempt in the writings of the fathers, to blend the narrative and doctrines of Moses with the principles of Platonism, which, in truth, had been embraced by many of them before their conversion. The text of Moses, when accurately examined, will be found, if I mistake not, to lead us to a very different conclusion. This text consists of the first and second verses of the book of Genesis, and is as follows: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth; and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep (or abyss); and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.' Now in this passage we seem to have a statement of three distinct facts, each following the other in a regular series: first, an absolute creation of the heaven and the earth, which, we are expressly told, took place foremost, or in the beginning; next, the condition of the earth when it was thus primarily created, being amorphous and waste, or, in the words before us, "without form and void ;" and, thirdly, the earliest creative effort to reduce it from this shapeless and void or waste condition into a state of order and productiveness-"the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." And hence, to maintain from the Mosaic narration that the heaven or the earth existed in a waste and amorphous mass antecedently to the first act of creation, is to derange the series of such narration, and to put that process first which Moses has put second.
I enter not here into the correctness of the general rendering, nor into the exact import of the word 72,"created;" for whatever be the rendering, the same consecutive order of events must be adhered to, and the same conclusion must follow. I am perfectly ready, however, to admit that does by no means at all times import an absolute creation out of nothing, but, like create in our own language, that it occasionally denotes the formation of one thing out of another; yet when we are told that, if Moses had really intended to express an absolute creation of the earth out of nothing, he would have used some other word, which should have limited us to this idea, I confidently put it to any critic, what word he could have employed specially appropriated to such a purpose, and limited to such a sense, at the time he wrote; or even what word, thus restrained, he could select in our own day, from any spoken language throughout the world? Words are not invented for an exclusive expression of solitary facts, but for general use. The creation of the world, or of any thing whatever, out of nothing, is a fact of this kind; and noʻlanguage ever had or ever will have a term precisely struck out for the purpose of representing such an idea, and exclusively appropriated to it; and assuredly there could be no such word at the time Moses first spoke of the fact, and communicated the doctrine; as, antecedently to this, it could not have been called for.
* Cap. xi, 17.
And it will not be questioned, I think, that there is more sound sense and judgment in employing, as on the present occasion, a well understood term, that comes nearest to the full extent of the idea intended to be conveyed, than to invent a new word for the purpose that nobody has ever heard of, and, consequently that nobody can comprehend the meaning of, till the very term that is thus objected to, or some other word from the vulgar dialect, shall be had recourse to as its interpreter. Yet although, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the word is occasionally used synonymously with our own terms," to make, produce, or cause to be," to import a formation froin a substance already in existence, we have sufficient proof that it was also understood of old to import emphatically, like our own word" create," an absolute formation out of nothing. Maimonides expressly tells us, that it was thus understood in the passage before us, as well as in all others that have a reference to it, by the ancient Hebrews; while Origen affirms, that such was its import among many of the Christian fathers, whatever might be the opinion of the rest, and forcibly objects to the passage just quoted from the Book of Wisdom, as a book not admitted into the established canon of Scripture.
Still, however, the doctrine of a creation of something out of nothing was generally held to be a palpable absurdity; and a variety of hypotheses were invented to avoid it, of which the three following appear to have been the chief; each of them, however, if I mistake not, plunging us into an absurdity ten times deeper and more inextricable. The first is that of an absolute and independent eternity of matter, to which I have already referred; the second, that of its emanation from the essence of the Creator; the third, that of idealism, or the non-existence of a material world.
I have already remarked, tha the FIRST of these was modified under the plastic hands of different philosophers of antiquity into a great variety of shapes; and hence, in some form or other, is to be traced through most of the Grecian schools, whether of the Ionic or Italic sector, in other words, whether derived from Thales or from Pythagoras. In no shape, however, is it for a moment capable of standing the test of sober inquiry. We may regard matter as essentially and eternally intelligent, or as essentially and eternally unintelligent; as essentially intelligent in its several parts, or as essentially intelligent as a whole. The dilemma is equal in all these cases. Matter cannot be intelligent as a whole, without being intelligent in every atom, for a concourse of unintelligent atoms can never produce intelligence; but if it be intelligent in every atom, then are we perpetually meeting with unintelligent compounds resulting from intelligent elements. If, again, matter be essentially eternal, but at the same time essentially unintelligent, both separately and collectively, then, an intelligent principle being traced in the world, and even in man himself, we are put into possession of two co-eternal independent principles, destitute of all relative connexion and common medium of action.
The SECOND HYPOTHESIS to which I have adverted is not less crowded with difficulties and absurdities; but it has a more imposing appearance, and has hence, in many periods and among many nations, been more popular, and was perpetually leading away a multitude of the philosophers from the preceding system. According to this hypothesis, the universe is an emanation or extension of the essence of the Creator. Now, under this belief, however modified, the Creator himself is rendered material; or, in other words, matter itself, or the visible substance of the world is rendered