Page images

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 which we have received from 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, 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

* 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 naturâ, or Natural Philosophy. III. Doctrina de homine, or Human Philosophy. The common stem from which they ramify is denominated philosophia prima, primitive, summary, or uni-. versal philosophy.

infinite variety it presents to us will at all times, I trust, prevent the pursuit from becoming 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 enquiries 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 in which we stand 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 probably existed as a remnant of patriarchal tradition, must be admitted; 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

*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."

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

De nihilo, tum, quod sequimur, jam rectius inde

Admit this truth, that nought from nothing springs,
And all is clear.

And it was thus long afterwards reiterated by Persius as the common doctrine of his day :

[ocr errors]


De nihilo nil, in nihilum nil posse reverti.+

Nought springs from nought, and can to nought 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

*De Rer. Nat. i. 157.

Sat. iii. 83.

The passage is quoted from M. Anquetil du Perron's Latin version. The reader may find various similar extracts in Sir William Jones's Works, vol. vi. 4to edit.

« PreviousContinue »