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Natural History and Experimental Philosophy as Preparative to Theology


The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation, 1691

In the text proposed here, John Ray – a 17th century English naturalist and priest, a “parson-naturalist”, i.e. a cleric who saw natural sciences as a continuation of religious work – vividly states that the study of nature is “preparative to divinity”, to the point the being only “book-learned” appears to him to be not enough at all. The text unveils a deep critical attitude – in the constructive sense – of the author. Also, interesting is the idea of the inexhaustible richness of nature (understood as the work of God), which thus deserves to be studied and contemplated again and again, along a dynamic process possibly enduring also in the “eternal life”.

Ray The Wisdom of God in creationWe content ourselves with the Knowledge of the Tongues, on a little Skill in Philology, or History perhaps, and Antiquity, and neglect that which to me seems more material, I mean, Natural History, and the Works of the Creation: I do not discommend, or derogate from those other Studies: I should betray mine own Ignorance and Weakness should I do so; I only wish they might not altogether jostle out, and exclude this. I wish that this might be brought in fashion among us; I wish Men would be equal and civil, as not to disparage, deride, and vilifie those Studies which themselves skill not of, or are not conversant in; no Knowledge can be more pleasant than this, none that doth so satisfie and feed the Soul; in comparison whereto that of Words and Phrases seems to me insipid and jejeune. That Learning (saith a wise and observant Prelate) which consists only in the Form and Pedagogy of Arts or the critical Notions upon Words and Phrases, hath in it this intrinsical imperfection that it is only so far to be esteemed, as it conduceth to the Knowledge of Things, being in itself but a kind of Pedantry, apt to infect a Man with such odd Humours of Pride and Affectation, and Curiosity, as will render him unfit for any great Employment. Words being but the Images of Matter, to be wholly given up to the study of these, what is it but Pygmalion's Frenzy, to fall in Love with a Picture or Image? As for Oratory, which is the best skill about Words, that hath by some wise Men been esteem'd, but a voluntary Art like to Cookery, which spoils wholesome Meats, and helps unwholesome, by the variety of Sauces, serving more to the Pleasure of Taste, than the Health of the Body.

It may be (for ought I know, and as some Divines have thought) part of our Business and Employment in Eternity, to contemplate the Works of God, and give him the Glory of his Wisdom Power, and Goodness, manifested in the Creation of them. I am sure it is part of the Business of a Sabbath-day, and the Sabbath is a Type of that Eternal Rest; for the Sabbath seems to have been first instituted for a Commemoration of the Works of the Creation, from which God is said to have rested upon the Seventh-Day. It is not likely that Eternal Life shall be a torpid and unactive state, or that it shall consist only in an uninterrupted and endless Act of Love; the other Faculties shall be employed as well as the Will, in Actions suitable to, and perfective of their Natures; especially the Understanding, the Supreme Faculty of the Soul, which chiefly differenceth us from brute Beasts, and makes us capable of Virtue and Vice, of Rewards and Punishments, shall be busied and employed in contemplating the Works of God, and observing the Divine Art and Wisdom manifested in the Structure and Composition of them; and reflecting upon their Great Architect the Praise and Glory due to him. Then shall we clearly see to our great satisfaction and admiration, the Ends and Uses of these Things which here were either too subtle for us penetrate and discover, or too remote and unaccessible for us to come to any distinct view of, viz the Planets, and fix'd Stars; those illustrious Bodies, whose Contents and Inhabitants, whose Stores and Furniture we have here so longing a desire to know, as also their mutual subserviency to each other. Now the Mind of Man being not capable at once to advert to more than one thing, a particular View and Examination of such an innumerable number of vast Bodies, and the great multitude of Species, both of animate and inanimate Beings, which each of them contains, will afford Matter enough to exercise and employ our Minds, I do not say, to all eternity, but to many Ages, should we do nothing else.

Let it not suffice us to be Book-learned, to read what others have written, and to take upon Trust more Falsehood than Truth: But let us ourselves examine things as we have opportunity, and converse with Nature as well as Books. Let us endeavour to promote and encrease this Knowledge, and make new Discoveries, not so much distrusting our own Parts, or despairing of our own Abilities, as to think that our Industry can add no thing to the Invention of our Ancestors, or correct any of their Mistakes. Let us not think that the bounds of Science are fixed like Hercules's Pillars, and inscribed with a Ne plus ultra. Let us not think we have done, when we have learnt what they have delivered to us. The Treasurers of Nature are inexhaustible. Here Is Employment enough, for the vastest Parts, the most indefatigable Industries, the happiest Opportunities, the most prolix and undisturb'd Vacancies.

Multa venientis aevi populus ignota nobis sciet: Multa seculis tunc futuris, cum memoria nostri exoleverit reservantur. Pusilla res mundus est, nisi in eo quod quaerat omnis mundus habeat [Seneca, Nat. Quaest. book. 7. chp. 31]. The People of the next Age shall know many Things unknown to us: Many are reserved for Ages then to come, when we shall be quite forgotten, no Memory of us remaining. The World would be a pitiful small Thing, indeed, if it did not contain enough for the Erlquiries of the whole World. Yet, and again, Epistle 64. Multum adhuc restat Operis, multumque restabit, nec ulli nato post mille saecula praecludetur occasio aliquid adhuc adjiciendi. Much Work still remains, and much will remain, neither to him that shall be born after a thousand Ages, will matter be wanting for new additions to what hath already been invented.

Much might be done, would we but endeavour, and nothing is insuperable to Pains and Patience. I know that a new Study at first seems very vast, intricate, and difficult; but after a little resolution and progress, after a Man becomes a little acquainted, as I may so say, with it, his Understanding is wonderfully cleared up and enlarged, the Difficulties vanish and the thing grows easie and familiar. And for our encouragement in this Study, observe what the Psalmist saith, Psalm 111 :2 «The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein» Which though it be principally spoken of the Works of Providence, yet may as well be verified of the Works of Creation. I am sorry to see so little count made of real Experimental Philosophy in this University; and that those ingenious Sciences of the Mathematicks are so much neglected by us: And therefore do earnestly exhort those that are young, especially Gentlemen, to set upon these Studies, and take some pains in them. They may possibly invent something of eminent Use and Advantage to the World; and one such Discovery would abundantly compensate the Expence and Travel of one Man's whole Life. However, it is enough to maintain and continue what is already invented: Neither do I see what more ingenious and manly Employment they can pursue, tending more to the Satisfaction of their own Minds, and the Illustration of the Glory of God. For he is wonderful in all his Works.

But I would not have any Man cross his natural Genius or Inclinations, or undertake such Methods of Study, as his Parts are not fitted to, or not serve those Ends to which his Friends upon mature Deliberation have designed him; but those who do abound with Leisure, or who have a natural Propension and Genius inclining them thereto, or those who by Reason of the Strength and Greatness of their Parts, are able to compass and comprehend the whole Latitude of Learning.

Neither yet need those who are designed to Divinity itself, fear to look into these Studies, or think they will engross their whole Time, and that no considerable Progress can be made therein, unless Men lay aside and neglect their ordinary Callings, and necessary Employments. No such matter. Our Life is long enough, and we might find Time enough, did we husband it well: « Vitam non accepimus brevem sed fecimus, nec inopes eius, sed prodigi sumus» , as Seneca [ De Brevitatae vitae , I, 1] saith, “We have not received a short Life, but have made it so; neither do we want time but are prodigal of it”. And did but young Men fill up that time with these Studies, which lies upon their Hands, which they are incumbered with, and troubled how to pass away, much might be done even so. I do not see but the Study of true Physiology, may be justly accounted a proper or Propaideia , Preparative to Divinity.

J. Ray, The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation, 7th ed. (London: Printed by R. Harbin, for William Innys, at the Prince’s-Arms in St Paul’s Church Yard, 1717), pp. 169-175.

Source for the English digital text: