A free enquiry into the vulgarly receiv'd notion of nature made in an essay address'd to a friend
Boyle, Robert, 1627-1691.
Page  44


II. BUT possibly the Definition of a Philosopher may ex∣empt us from the perplexities, to which the Ambiguous expressions of common Writers expose us. I there∣fore thought fit to to consider, with a somewhat more than ordinary at∣tention, the Famous Definition of Nature that is left us by Aristotle, which I shall recite rather in Latin than in English, not only because 'tis very familiarly known among Scho∣lars, in that Language, but because there is somewhat in it, that I confess seems difficult to me, to be without Circumlocution render'd intelligibly in English: Natura (says He) est Principium & causa Motus & Quietis ejus,* in quo inest, primo per se, & non secundum accidens. But though when I consider'd that according to Aristo∣tle,Page  45 the whole World is but a System of the Works of Nature; I thought it might well be expected, that the Definition of a thing, the most im∣portant in Natural Philosophy, should be clearly and accurately deliver'd; yet to me this celebrated Definition seem'd so dark, that I cannot brag of any assistance I received from it, to∣wards the framing of a clear and sa∣tisfactory Notion of Nature. For I dare not hope, that what, as to me, is not itself intelligible, should make me understand what is to be decla∣red or explicated by it. And when I consulted some of Aristotle's Inter∣preters upon the sense of this Defini∣tion, I found the more considerate of them so puzzled with it, that their Discourses of it seem'd to tend, rather to free the Maker of it from Tauto∣logy and Self-contradiction, than to manifect that the Definition itself is good and instructive, and such as af∣fords a fair account of the thing De∣fin'd. And indeed, though the immode∣rate Veneration they cherish for their Page  46 Master, engages them to make the best they can of the Definition given by him, even when they cannot ju∣stifie it without strain'd Interpretati∣ons, yet what every one seems to de∣fend in gross, almost every one of them censures in parcels; this Man attacking one part of the Definition, and that Man another, with Objecti∣ons so weighty, (not to call some of them so unanswerable) that if I had no other Arguments to urge a∣gainst it, I might borrow enough from the Commentators on it, to ju∣stifie my dislike of it.

However, we may hereafter have occasion to consider some of the main parts of this Definition, and in the mean while, it may suffice that we observe, that several things are com∣monly receiv'd as belonging to the Idea, or Notion of Nature, that are not manifestly or not at all compre∣hended in this Aristotelian Definition, which doth not declare, whether the Principle or Cause (which Expressi∣on already makes the sense doubtful) Page  47 here mention'd is a Substance, or an Accident; and if a Substance, whe∣ther Corporeal or Immaterial, nor is it clearly contain'd in this Definition, that Nature does all things most wisely, and still acts by the most com∣pendious ways without ever missing of her end, and that she watches against a vacuum for the welfare of the Universe, to omit divers other things, that you will find ascrib'd to her in the following Section: To which I now proceed.

That the great shortness of this Third Section may not make it too disproportionate in length, to the o∣thers, this Tract consists of; I shall in this place, though I doubt it be not the most proper that could be cho∣sen, endeavour to remove betimes the Prejudice, that some Divines and other Pious Men may perhaps enter∣tain, upon the account, as they think, of Religion, against the care I take, to decline the frequent use of that Word Nature, in the Vulgar Notion of it: Reserving to another and fit∣ter Page  48 place some other things, that may relate to the Theological scruples, if any occur to me, that our Free Inqui∣ry may occasion.

The Philosophical Reason that in∣clines me to forbear, as much as con∣veniently I can, the frequent use of the Word Nature, and the Forms of Speech that are deriv'd from it, is, That 'tis a Term of great Ambigui∣ty: On which score I have observ'd, that, being frequently and unwarily imploy'd, it has occasion'd much darkness and confusion in many Mens Writings and Discourses. And I little doubt, but that others would make the like Observations, if early Prejudices and universal Custom did not keep them from taking notice of it.

Nor do I think my self oblig'd, by the just Veneration I owe and pay Religion, to make use of a Term so inconvenient to Philosophy. For I do not find that for many Ages the Israelites, that then were the only People and Church of God, made Page  49 use of the Word Nature in the Vul∣gar Notion of it. Moses in the whole History of the Creation, where it had been so proper to bring in this first of second Causes, has not a word of Nature. And whereas Philosophers presume, that she, by her Plastick Power and Skill, forms Plants and Animals out of the Universal Mat∣ter; the Divine Historian ascribes the Formation of them to Gods im∣mediate Fiat. Gen. i. 11. And God said, let the Earth bring forth Grass, and the Herb yielding Seed, and the Fruit tree yielding Fruit after his kind, &c. And again, Vers. 24, God said, Let the Earth bring forth the living Creature after its kind, &c. Vers. 25, And God (without any mention of Nature) made the Beast of the Earth after his kind. And I do not remember, that in the Old Testament, I have met with any one Hebrew word that properly signifies Nature, in the sense we take it in. And it seems, that our English Tran∣slators of the Bible were not more Page  50 fortunate in that, than I; for, having purposely consulted a late Concor∣dance, I found not that Word Nature in any Text of the Old Testament. So likewise, though Iob, David and Solomon, and other Israelitish Wri∣ters, do, on divers occasions, many times mention the Corporeal Works of God, yet they do not take notice of Nature, which our Philosophers would have his great Vicegerent in what relates to them. To which, perhaps it may not be impertinent to add, that, though the late famous Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, has pur∣posely written a Book of numerous Problems touching the Creation, yet I do not remember that he imploys the Word Nature, in the receiv'd Notion of it, to give an account of any of Gods Mundane Creatures. And when St. Paul himself, who was no stranger to the Heathen Learning, writing to the Corinthi∣ans who were Greeks, speaks of the Production of Corn out of Seed sown, he does not attribute the pro∣duc'd Page  51 Body to Nature, but when he had spoken of a grain of Wheat,* or some other seed put into the ground, he adds, that God gives it such a Body as he pleaseth, and to every seed its own Body, i. e. the Body belonging to its kind. And a greater than St. Paul, speaking of the gaudiness of the Lil∣lies, (or, as some will have it, Tulips) uses this Expression, If God so cloath the grass of the Field, &c. Matt. vi. 28, 29, 30. The Celebrations that David, Iob, and other Holy Hebrews, mention'd in the Old Testament, make an occasion of the admirable Works they contemplated in the Universe, are address'd directly to God himself, without taking notice of Nature. Of this, I could multi∣ply Instances, but shall here, for bre∣vity's sake, be contented to name a few, taken from the Book of Psalms alone. In the hundredth of those Hymns, the Penman of it makes this, That God has made us, the ground of an Exhortation, To enter into his Page  52 Gates with Thanksgiving, and into his Courts with Praise, Psal. lxxix. 34. And in another, Let the Heaven and Earth praise God, [that is, give Men ground and occasion to Praise Him] congruously to what David else∣where says to the Great Creator of the Universe. All thy work's shall praise thee, O Lord, and thy Saints shall bless thee, Psal. cxlv. 10. And in another of the Sacred Hymns, the same Royal Poet says to his Maker, Thou hast cover'd me in my Mothers womb. I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made, mar∣vellous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well, Psal. cxxxix. 13, 14.

I have sometimes doubted, whe∣ther one may not on this occasion add, that, if Men will need takes in a Being subordinate to God, for the management of the World; it seems more consonant to the Holy Scrip∣ture, to depute Angels to that charge, than Nature. For I consider, that, as to the Coelestial Part of the Uni∣verse, Page  53 in comparison of which the Sublunary is not perhaps the ten-thousandth part; both the Heathen Aristotelian's, and the School Philo∣sophers among the Christians, teach, the Coelestial Orbs to be moved or gui∣ded by Intelligences, or Angels. And as to the lower or sublunary World, besides that the Holy Writings teach us, that Angels have been often im∣ploy'd by God for the Government of Kingdoms, (as is evident out of the Book of Daniel) and the Wel∣fare and Punishment of particular Persons; one of those Glorious Spi∣rits, is, in the Apocalypse, expresly styl'd the Angel of the Waters:* Which Title divers Learned Interpreters think to be given him, because of his Charge or Office, to oversee and pre∣serve the Waters. And I remember, that in the same Book there is menti∣on made of an Angel, that had Power,* Authority, or Iurisdiction, (〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉) over the Fire: And though the Excel∣lent Page  54Grotius gives another conjecture of the Title given the Angel of the Waters; yet in his Notes upon the next Verse save one,* he teaches, That there was an Angel appointed to pre∣serve the Souls that were kept under the Altar there-mention'd. And if we take the Angel of the Waters to be the Guardian or Conserver of them, (perhaps as the Romans (in whose Empire St. Iohn wrote) had special Officers to look to their Aque∣ducts and other Waters;) it may not be amiss to observe (upon the by) that he is introduc'd Praising his and his fellow-Spirits Great Cre∣ator: Which is an Act of Religion, that, for ought I know, none of the Naturists, whether Pagan or even Christians, ever mention'd their Na∣ture to have perform'd.

I know it may on this occasion be alledg'd, that subordinata non pug∣nant, and Nature being God's Vicege∣rent, her Works are indeed his. But that he has such a Vicegerent, it is Page  55 one of the main businesses of this Di∣scourse to call in Question, and till the Affirmative be solidly prov'd, (nay, and tho' it were so) I hope I shall be excus'd, if with Moses, Iob, and David, I call the Creatures, I admire in the visiible World, the Works of God, (not of Nature) and praise rather Him than Her, for the wisdom and goodness displayed in them: Since among the Israelites, till they were over-run and corrup∣ted by Idolatrous Nations, there was for many Ages a deep silence of such a Being, as we now call Nature. And I think it much more safe and fit, to speak as did those, who for so long a time were the peculiar Peo∣ple of God, than which the Heathen Poets and Philosophers, who were very prone to ascribe Divinity to his Creatures, and sometimes even to their own.

I mention these things, not with Design to ingage in the Controver∣sie, about the Authority or Use of the Scripture in Physical Speculati∣ons, Page  56 but to obviate or remove a pre∣judice, that (as I formerly intima∣ted) I fear may be taken up, upon the account of Theology or Religion, against my studiously unfrequent imploying the word Nature, in the vulgar sense of it; by shewing, that, Whether or no the Scriptures be not design'd to teach us higher and more necessary Truths than those that concern Bodies, and are discovera∣ble by the meer light of Reason; both its expressions and its silence give more countenance to our Hypo∣thesis, than to that of the Naturists.