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ART. VIII.—The Sacred Theory of the Earth: containing an
Account of the Original of the Earth, and of all the General Changes which it hath already undergone, or is to undergo, till the Consummation of all Things. The two first Books concerning the Deluge, and concerning Paradise. The two Last Books concerning the Burning of the World, and concerning the New Heavens and New Earth. Folio, 1691.
WHERE WAST THOU WHEN I LAID THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE EARTH? DECLARE, IF THOU HAST UNDERSTANDING, WHO LAID THE MEASURES THEREOF, IF THOU KNOWEST; OR WHO HATH STRETCHED THE LINE UPON IT? WHEREUPON ARE THE FOUNDATIONS THEREOF FASTENED, OR WHO LAID THE CORNER-STONE THEREOF? WHEN THIE MORNING STARS SANG TOGETHER, AND ALL THE SONS OF GOD SHOUTED FOR JOY.
It is something like these magnificent questions which this book undertakes to answer and explain; and though the investigations of succeeding philosophers may have proved the system, in which these answers are conveyed, incorrect in particulars and untenable as a whole, yet the undying and embalming charms which imagination, liveliness of fancy, and eloquence of diction can bestow, will ever preserve it for the entertainment and instruction of posterity. They, who are indifferent to science, will find, in this Theory of the Earth, a philosophical romance which delights by its admirable contrivances, its vigorous language, its noble descriptions of the stupendous objects of nature, its new views of ages and of scenes, which, though they never rolled over this habitable globe, easily might, and which if they did not, one cannot help wishing they had. All that is grand and awful in mundane commotions, in a deluge, or in a conflagration, of a world, is here described, by a pencil that puts the picture before the eyes. Those blissful ages, when storms and winds, and changes of seasons, were unknown in a globe of perpetual spring, when centuries, were as years, and the human frame rejoiced in the purity and pellucidness of the atmosphere, which fed instead of corroding it, are here not only presented to the imagination, but almost proved to the understanding. And with a pen of equal power, are sketched the close of the world, the moment when the foundations of the earth sink, its joints and ligatures burst asunder, the mountains melt, and the sea is evaporated.
Our readers will probably remember, that this book called forth the admiration of Addison, and that he dedicated one of the Spectators to it, and wrote a Latin ode in its praise.' The Theory itself was originally published in Latin, and the
present work is a translation, or rather a recomposition, written with great spirit, though in the opinion of some, the author felt more at home, and expressed his ideas with greater freedom and richness, in the dead language, than in his vernacular tongue. Such as it is, however, we are confident our readers will receive pleasure from the account of it, which we shall proceed to give, after having said a few words concerning the writer himself.
Dr. Burnet was the Master of the Charter House, and must be distinguished from the celebrated Bishop of that name, whose contemporary he was. He was educated at Cambridge, and became a fellow of Christ College in that University. In standing, he was a good deal junior to Dr. Cudworth, the master of that college, but soon became signally attached to him, and formed one of a very high, but singular band of philosophers, who illuminated Cambridge at that time, with More and Cudworth at their head. After travelling with, successively, the sons of two of the most considerable noblemen of the time, and being universally admired for the depth of his learning, and the ingenuity and polish of his conversation, he became settled as the Master of the Charter-House. In this retreat, he gave birth to some publications, which met with a bigoted interpretation from some quarters, and raised a most unjust clamour of infidelity against as pious and sincere a believer, as ever adorned the ranks of Christianity. This cry is said, however, to have lost him the See of Canterbury.—The act of his life, however, for which we, as Englishmen and freemen, owe him most gratitude, is the resistance, which, in his station of Master of the Charter-House, he made to James II., who was attempting to force an individual on that establishment, without taking the oaths of abjuration. In spite of considerable opposition, he effectually succeeded in excluding him, under circumstances which would have appalled or corrupted almost any other man of his rank and station. He thus gave the first example of resistance to the wild and arbitrary schemes of that infatuated monarch, and prepared the way for the happy deliverance from his tyrannical attempts which soon after took place. Dr. Burnet had the more merit in this adherence to the constitution, for he had been distinguished with considerable marks of favour by Charles II., and might have been supposed in his gratitude to have lost sight of the cause of freedom." But Dr. Burnet knew precisely where loyalty ended and servility began, and thus set an example to all men, who spend their time in the retreats of learning and science, not to forget the duties of the man and the citizen in the pursuits of the scholar. But to return to the Theory of the Earth, which is his chief and most remarkable work, and highly deserving of our attention, though the manner in which it has been handled by the scientific reader, who only looked for truth
and philosophy, and found what modern discoveries enabled him to refute, treated the theory with some mixture of contempt, has of late thrown it into unmerited neglect.
It would be impossible, in an article of this compass, to touch upon all the subjects which this book embraces, or even to trace the author through the general arguments which he has used in defence of his hypothesis ; nor is it indeed necessary ; for while we confess the ingenuity and plausibility of his reasoning, we are very far indeed from being believers in its truth, and will not spend any time and space in refuting exploded errors. We shall, however, give some account of the theory, which is not only curious in itself, but will enable the reader to relish the beauties of the extracts in a more complete and satisfactory manner. We do not in this case, as in many others, aim at superseding the necessity of perusing the original work; but, on the contrary, are most desirous that it should again become, as it was once, an object of general attraction to all those who love lively and ingenious reasoning. It is at present only to be found in an unwieldy form; but were it published in a cheaper and more commodious volume, we cannot but feel confident that its piety, its eloquence, and its imagination would place it as a clas. sical book by the side of Paley's Natural Theology.
In this theory, Burnet begins by laying it down, that Chaos was a dark fluid mass, composed of a mixture of every substance in the earth, without form or order. This contained the materials and ingredients of all bodies, and was in fact the elements of Air, Water, and Earth mingled together, without any order of higher or lower, heavier or lighter. When gravity began to act, the first change that would happen would be, that the heaviest parts would sink towards the centre, and the rest would float above. These heavier parts would by degrees harden and consolidate, and thus make the central nut of the Earth. The rest of the mass would also be divided by the action of gravity, into two orders of bodies, the one consisting of all kinds of liquids, the other volatile, like air. Thus the liquid mass would form a broad ring, encircling the central nut of solid matter, and over that would be another more expansive ring of air. The liquid ring would form for itself, by the separation of the watery and the oily parts, a cream which would swim on its surface. -And in the vast tracts of air, an immense number of the niore light and active particles of matter would be floating about, but would at length sink and form a sediment. This sediment falling upon the oily and creamy surface of the watery ring, would soon incorporate with it, harden, and form a solid crust. For these particles, at first scattered over regions of air, which of course filled the space that the Chaos had occupied, and would consequently be of great extent when they fell together, and came to be collected and amassed, would constitute a body of a very considerable thickness and solidity. That part of the air which still remained volatile, would form the atmosphere, and the crust of which we have been speaking, the habitable surface of the globe, and the bed of vegetation. So that the earth would be formed something like an egg, where the yolk corresponds to the central body, the exterior crust to the shell, and the abyss of liquid which lies beneath to the white. This is the mere skeleton of the theory. It would be impossible for us to do more, than to allude to the variety of arguments, and the crowds of authorities he brings to support every part of it. One grand convenience of this system is, that it renders the difficulties relating to the deluge of very easy solution, though it is very true that this is only shifting the burthen upon the hypothesis. It will be readily seen, that should the action of any causes whatever impair the exterior rind of the earth, and cause it to give way, itself and all upon it must be precipitated into the liquid ring beneath. And this Burnetsupposes actually to have taken place at the deluge, in consequence of the combined effects of the water below the rind, which sucked and exuded through it, and the heat of the sun which broke it into clefts and fissures. It would be idle here to insist upon the objections to all this arrangement; it has been already done by Keil, in his answer to this book, and is repeatedly done by every geological writer, who thinks it worth his notice.-We will only say to Burnet, in his own words, “ This is to cut the knot, when we cannot loose it. They shew us the naked arm of Omnipotency; such arguments as these come like lightning, one does not know what armour to put on against them, for they pierce the more, the more they are resisted: we will not therefore oppose any thing to them that is hard and stubborn, but by a soft answer deaden their force by degrees.” We will now proceed to our extracts, and first for the dedication to the king, which, like all Burnet's writings, is a fine mixture of playfulness and magnificence. This is the commencement.
“SIR,-New-found lands and countries accrue to the Prince, whose subject makes the first discovery; and having retrieved a world that had been lost for some thousands of years, out of the memory of man and the records of time, I thought it my duty to lay it at your Majesty's feet. It will not enlarge your dominions, it is past and gone; nor dare I say it will enlarge your thoughts; but I hope it may gratify your princely curiosity to read the description of it, and see the fate that attended it.
“ We have still the broken materials of the first world, and walk upon its ruins; while it stood, there was the seat of Paradise, and the scenes of the golden age; when it fell, it made the deluge; and this unshapen earth we now inhabit, is the form it was found in when the waters had retired and the dry land appeared. These things, Sir, I propose and presume to prove in the following treatise, which I willingly submit to your Majesty's judgement and censure; being very well satisfied, that if I had sought a patron in all the list of kings, your contemporaries, or in the roll of your nobles of either order, I could not have found a more competent judge in a speculation of this nature. Your Majesty's sagacity, and happy genius for natural history, for observations and remarks upon the earth, the heavens, and the sea, is a better preparation for inquiries of this kind, than all the dead learning of the schools.”
But to come to the book itself. In this pleasing passage, the author betrays the peculiar disposition, which led hiin to spend his thoughts upon the early times of the world, to trace its birth, to watch its infancy. He has a parental feeling for the globe, and after the formation of his theory, always, we doubt not, viewed it with somewhat of the tender feelings of a father.
“ Neither is it perhaps such an intricate thing as we imagine at first sight, to trace a Chaos into an habitable world; at least there is a particular pleasure to see things in their origin, and by what degrees and successive changes they rise into that order and state we see them in afterwards, when completed. I am sure, if ever we would view the paths of divine wisdom, in the works and in the conduct of nature, we must not only consider how things are, but how they came to be so. It is pleasant to look upon a tree in the summer, covered with its green leaves, decked with blossoms, or laden with fruit, and casting a pleasing shade under its spreading boughs; but to consider how this tree, with all its furniture, sprang from a little seed; how nature shaped it, and fed it, in its infancy and growth; added new parts, and still advanced it by little and little, 'till it came to this greatness and perfection; this, methinks, is another sort of pleasure, more rational, less common, and which is properly the contemplation of divine wisdom in the works of nature. So to view this earth, and this sublunary world, as it is now, complete, distinguished into the several orders of bodies of which it consists, every one perfect and admirable in its kind ; this is truly delightful, and a very good entertainment of the mind : but to see all these in their first seeds, as I may so say; to take in pieces this frame of nature, and melt it down into its first principles; and then to observe how the divine wisdom wrought all these things out of confusion into order, and out of simplicity into that beautiful composition we now see them in; this, methinks, is another kind of joy, which pierceth the mind more deep, and is more satisfactory.”
From the sketch we have given of the theory, it will be seen that it naturally follows, that the earth was plane and even; that there were no mountains, and no vast extents of water; such streams as did exist were made by a particular contrivance,