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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary of the History of Ideas
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Within the christian tradition remarkably different
answers have been given to the question: What was
the extent of the damage wrought by the Fall of Man?
On some accounts it was confined to human nature;
on others, it was extended to other living beings, some-
times to the whole earth, and even to the cosmos at
large. Some held that the damage was caused at the


time of the Fall—once for all; and others that there
is a continuing process of decay of the created world.
Those issues were debated with unusual intensity in
the late sixteenth century and the first half of the
seventeenth century. The controversy is of importance
to the historian of ideas, because among its participants
were major writers in very diversified fields, literary,
theological, philosophical, and scientific; and because
the patterns of argument used in the debate have great
intrinsic interest, arguments attempting to display the
whole world (or large parts of it) as decayed, ruined,
or as fecund and virile. The citation of empirical “in-
stances,” appeal to authority and metaphysical reason-
ing were supplemented by a lush and often eloquent
use of metaphor, analogy, and imagery.

The controversy would scarcely have been possible,
if the biblical accounts of the Fall and its effects had
been free from ambiguity. What exactly was the
“curse” elicited by sin, on the Genesis account?
“Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee
...” (Genesis 3:18). But was it only the ground and
its cultivation that were affected—or the entire earth?
The Septuagint and the Vulgate took Genesis 3:17 to
mean “Cursed is the earth in thy work”—the whole
earth (ἡγη̂, terra). The Authorized Version (more cor-
rectly) has “Cursed is the ground for thy sake.” This
disparity added to possibilities for complex disputes.

The narrative of the Flood was a second obvious
source for the view that human sin had results not
limited to human affairs; though again the extent and
duration of these results were disputable. We shall see
that one of the last and most influential writings of
the main controversy—Thomas Burnet's Sacred Theory
of the Earth
(Latin, 1681; English, 1684) attributed to
the Flood nothing less than the formation of the chief
features of the earth's topography as we know it.

Claims that the world is decaying, or is in its old
age, could find some Old Testament support, if only
in a few much-quoted texts, such as Psalm 102:25-26:
“... the heavens are the work of thy hands. They
shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them
shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou
change them....”

To Saint Paul, the entire cosmos suffers and is in
need of redemption: “The whole creation groaneth and
travaileth in pain together” (Romans 8:22). The effects
of human sin are not “insulated” from the rest of the
world: it is too tightly integrated a unity. At least equal
support, however, could be drawn from the Bible by
writers who denied there had been any Cosmic Fall.
They could make a strong case for claiming that in
the dominant biblical view, nature continues to reflect
the divine goodness, wisdom, and creative power; that
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firma
ment sheweth his handywork” (Psalm 19:1), and that
the world is not in decline or decay. God works in
the world, and not only as judge or avenger. He
“maketh the clouds his chariot” and “walketh upon
the wings of the wind” (Psalm 104:3).

As will be apparent, the materials of the controversy
were drawn from several traditions—not only from the
biblical. Among Platonic themes, the Theory of Forms
could be invoked to express a sharp and congenial
contrast between the corruptible and defective objects
of the spatiotemporal world and the perfection of the
timeless archetypes and exemplars, the Forms them-
selves. In the cosmogony of the Timaeus, Plato's divine
Craftsman exerts his creative power upon a nature that
is recalcitrant in some degree. Although such a view
could not ultimately be reconciled with the Christian
doctrine of Creation, it had affinities with an account
of nature as “fallen” and inhospitable to value; and
these affinities were exploited.

Aristotelian materials were also prominent, espe-
cially the concepts of “privation” and of “contraries.”
We shall note how any lack of accord between what
a thing is observed to be and what it ideally ought
to be was to be taken by Goodman as a case of “priva-
tion,” and the mechanism by which Decay proceeded
was the conflict of contrary, discordant elements.

Lucretius, in Book II of De rerum natura, provided
a story of cosmic deterioration, which was often al-
luded to in later literature: “... The ramparts of the
great world will be breached and collapse in crumbling
ruin about us. Already it is far past its prime.” Once
nature yielded of its own accord “smiling crops and
lusty vines... which now can scarcely be made to
grow by our toil.... Everything is gradually decaying
and nearing its end, worn out by old age” (trans.
R. E. Latham, Baltimore, n.d.). From another point of
view, however, Lucretius' world-picture could not
have been more different from that of the Cosmic Fall
theorists. To him the universe was “certainly not cre-
ated for us by divine power: it is so full of imperfec-
tions” (Book V).

Cosmic Fall theories repeatedly drew upon the
imagery of a primeval Golden Age and a subsequent
decline, symbolized by successively “baser” metals. For
Christianity, this could not be a recurrent, cyclical
movement, but a single irreversible decline. The stages
were labeled in more than one way. “The Brasen-Age
is now, when Earth is worne,” wrote Fulke Greville
(Works, ed. A. B. Grosart, 4 vols., New York [1870],
III, 51f.). Philip Stubbes called this “... third and last
age...” indifferently “the yron or leaden age” (The
Anatomie of Abuses,

Martin Luther's Commentary on the Book of Genesis
(1545) claimed that “The world degenerates and grows


worse and worse every day.... The calamities inflicted
on Adam... were light in comparison of those in-
flicted on us” (on Genesis 3:17-19). The Flood was an
important crisis. “The whole face of nature was
changed by that mighty convulsion”; and the trees and
fruits of the present-day earth “are but miserable rem-
nants... of those former riches which the earth pro-
duced when first created” (2:11-12).

Calvin, in his Institutes (1536), argued that if we
fail to see God's glory in the created world, the failure
is due not to that world's decrepitude but to men's
own stupidity and inattentiveness. In his Commentary
upon the Book of Genesis
(1554), however, he wrote
that “The inclemency of the air, frost, thunder, un-
seasonable rains... and whatever is disorderly in the
world, are the fruits of sin” (3:19). Calvin denied that
“The earth was exhausted by the long succession of
time.... They think more correctly who acknowledge
that, by the increasing wickedness of man, the remain-
ing blessing of God is gradually diminished and im-
paired” (3:18). Calvin's conclusion is measured and
balanced: “The order of the world is indeed disturbed
by our vices... yet we perceive the order of nature
so far to prevail, that winter and summer annually
recur, that there is a constant succession of days and
nights,” and so on (8:22).

From the mid-sixteenth century, the idea of a con-
tinuing process of cosmic decay began to have an
increasing imaginative influence—an influence extend-
ing far beyond technical theology. Current scientific
observation could be interpreted as showing that not
only the “sublunary” domain was involved in decay,
but that the heavens too were not immune to corrup-
tion. For blemishes were observable on the moon; and
there appeared the ominous “new star” of 1572.

“The antique world,” wrote Edmund Spenser, in The
Faerie Queene
(1590-1609), “in its first flowring
youth,/ Found no defect in his Creatours grace.” But
the world today, he lamented, “being once amisse
growes daily wourse and wourse:” with all its “crea-
tures from their course astray/ Till they arrive at their
last ruinous decay” (II. vii. 16; V. Prologue i. 6).

In The First Anniversary (1611) and in his Sermons
John Donne gave powerful expression to the theme
of Decay. Donne saw man's mortality as due to the
Fall: and he spreads the pathos of mortality over
human life in general. “All our life is but a going out
to the place of execution.” Corruption and decay did
not stop at man. “The noblest part, man, felt it first;
and then/ Both beasts and plants, curst in the curse
of man” (The First Anniversary, lines 199-200). “God
hath put into [the world] a reproofe, a rebuke...
sensible decay and age.” Earth had been first created
as a smooth sphere: now it is “disfigured” with “warts
and pock-holes”—mountains and sea-depths. He in-
stances too disorder in the seasons and the untoward
appearing of new stars.

Despite his enthusiasm over the opening up of new
lands and new routes, Samuel Purchas was also con-
vinced that this is a decaying world, that no progress
can be permanent, and that improvements in the
human condition are merely providential interludes.

... the earth is accursed, whereby many things are hurtfull
to mans nature, and in those which are wholsome, there
is not such variety of kinds, such plentie in each variety,
such ease in getting our plenty, or such quality in what
is gotten.... Had not man sinned, there should not haue
needed the death of beasts to nourish his life, which without
such stay should haue beene immortall: the vse whereof
was after granted, rather to supply necessitie when the
Floud had weakened the Earth, then to minister a greater
abundance then before it had

(Purchas his Pilgrimage, 1613;
1626 ed., I, 14).

Sir Walter Ralegh's History of the World (1614)
presented the image of a nature whose energies are
all but exhausted: “Both the ages of men, and the
nature of all things Time hath changed”—and changed
for the worse.

Some interesting variations on (and hesitations over)
Cosmic Fall doctrine can be found in Greville's poems.
Sometimes Greville emphasizes the limits of change
and decay: “Poor Earth, that dost presume to judge
the skye;/ Cynthia is euer round, and neuer varies”
(Works, III, 64). “Eternall Truth... [is] Onely exilèd
from man's fleshly heart” (III, 126). Yet Greville can
also say: “For as the World by Time still more de-
clines,/ Both from the truth and wisedom of Creation:/
So at the Truth she more and more repines,/ As making
hast to her last declination” (II, 30), and “Thy word
incarnate, glorious heauen, darke hell/ Lye shadowed
vnder man's degeneration” (III, 142).

The most detailed dispute on the whole issue of a
Cosmic Fall is contained in the writings of Godfrey
Goodman and George Hakewill. Goodman's The Fall
of Man
... was published in 1616. Hakewill's defense
of an undecayed world, An Apologie... of the Power
and Providence of God
... appeared in 1627: its third
edition, 1635, included arguments by Goodman, and
further responses from Hakewill.

Goodman argued that to be aware of the vast extent
of decay and disorder brought about by the Fall was
essential to contrite and devout living. The world was
originally well constructed to serve and to delight man,
its centerpiece. Every feature of the world today that
thwarts this purpose can be known, for that very rea-
son, to be a result of the Fall. Nature as a whole is
“directed to man” (Fall, p. 14); thus when man breaks
“his owne bounds... it must necessarily follow, that


all the rest of the creatures, which were bound or knit
together in man, should likewise be inordinate” (p. 17).
To Goodman again there would have been no mortality
but for sin: “Obseruing the course and prouidence of
nature, man should be exempted from death” (p. 331).
Evil proliferates: while there is only one (precarious)
state of health, there are innumerable forms of ill-
health, countless ways to die. Man's intellectual powers
are diminished; his passions conflict with his will; con-
stant war is waged between man and the animals, and
among the animals themselves. The rest of nonhuman
nature is no less afflicted. Nature seems “more carefull
of thornes, then of the best fruits” (p. 225, margin).
“If God punish the earth with a great drought... it
argues the barrennesse of our nature, in respect of good
workes” (p. 92). Contrariwise, when we want it dry,
we are given harmfully wet weather—for instance, at
harvesttime. Man cannot feel at home in a world, the
greater part of which is wild and uninhabitable. Good-
man attributes an important share in the disturbance
of nature to the Flood: “This generall deluge was
indeed the generall confusion of nature” (p. 281). The
heavens are not exempt from decay: the sun's heat has
diminished. The 1572 “comet” showed that change was
occurring in the superlunary sphere where no change
should be.

The Fall of Man... is a remarkable compendium
of vilifying arguments and imagery. Because death
terminates life, Goodman argues, “Our life is a kind
of dying.” As in the example from Donne, Goodman
too spreads the emotion proper to dying over the
activities of living as well. The further spreading of
decay-and-senility language to the nonhuman world is
justified in terms of the pervasive analogy between
microcosm and macrocosm, and by the claim that
disorder at the teleological center of the world cannot
fail to infect all the rest, which is “bound or knit
together in man.”

Any skill that today requires study and labor to
acquire, “must” have been possessed by man, innately,
before the Fall, and required no laborious process of
learning. Goodman's instances range from abilities like
swimming (p. 88), to intellectual activity and human
communication in general (e.g., pp. 305, 299). If it is
possible to imagine ourselves as possessing an ability
in a more perfect manner than we do, we can infer
that, before the Fall, men did actually possess it in
that way. Today “we (that is, our souls) doe not receiue
the things themselves, but the species or images of
things” (p. 46). “Were it not, that man is falne,” we
should be able to reason infallibly; the soul dealing
“directly” with “intelligible objects” themselves (p. 48).

Goodman's view of the relations between God and
nature are complex. For all his constant emphasis on
the corruptions of nature, he does not deny that nature
is in God's control. “God... hath so ordained nature,
to worke His owne purpose” (p. 269). “Nature” and
“grace” are not set in opposition: “both of them pro-
ceed from one fountaine,” God being author of both
(p. 10). But Goodman, in fact, oscillates between seeing
nature (God-made, basically good) as God's obedient
instrument for man's correction, and seeing it as itself
horrifyingly involved in disorder and disintegration.

The decay of nature is not the work of specific and
constant divine interventions. From the very beginning,
there have been “contrary” elements in nature, capable
of conflict, privation, and corruption. Before the Fall
God prevented these destructive possibilities from
being realized; but since the Fall, he prevents them
no longer; although he does restrain the process from
leading directly to the annihilation of the world.

George Hakewill's Apologie opposes Goodman's po-
sition in argument, attitude, and tone. Instead of the
imagery of senescence and exhaustion, we find constant
reference to new birth, growth, and virility. The curve
of “decline” is repudiated. Hakewill combats Good-
man's view not only by opposing instance to instance
(he sees that appeal to cases cannot be decisive), but
by attacking his use of the microcosm-macrocosm
analogy, denying his general account of decay through
the conflict of contraries, and arguing that the Cosmic
Fall doctrine is incompatible with the demands both
of theology and morality.

On the last point: Hakewill claims that the doctrine
of decay tends not to be morally healthful, but “rather
to breed sloath then to quicken industrie” (Apologie,
p. 18). What is morally salutary is to contemplate God's
wisdom and goodness, as these are still amply displayed
in his creation. Not that Hakewill is an unbounded
optimist, or takes human sin lightly. God will end the
world, and there will be a final judgment. But to claim
that God will act in these ways is altogether different
from positing a running-down of the world. Both
Scripture and reason lead us to expect “that the world
shall bee by fire totally and finally dissolved and an-
nihilated” (Book IV, Sec. 4).

Hakewill denies that human nature is deteriorating
over the centuries. He compares the men of his own
day with the Romans. Were the Romans braver? No:
the corruption of their aggressive aims prevents us
commending them as brave. (Hakewill, i.e., makes it
a necessary condition of bravery that the action should
be in a good cause.) Men today are freer from various
kinds of lasciviousness, luxury, and vicious excess. We
have not become more vulnerable to diseases: some
diseases have in fact abated. There has been no general
decline in length of life. Cases of unusual longevity
among the ancients can be ascribed to special acts of


God for special purposes—such as the initial popu-
lating of the world. Whereas Goodman lamented a
decline of intellectual powers, Hakewill reminds us of
recent increases in knowledge and accomplishment, in
the arts, in philosophy, science, and technology. In
religion too Hakewill tells a story of progressive de-
liverance from superstition and idolatry, and from
inadequate conceptions of God: there has been progress
also in understanding the Christian faith.

With nonhuman nature, Hakewill again believes he
can break the pattern of decline. The earth is no less
fertile than in the past—though men may sometimes
blunder in their cultivation. Goodman had been quick
to point out areas where the land is becoming less
hospitable to man: Hakewill alleged that the contrary
pattern was no less prevalent—a compensatory resto-
ration and improvement of conditions in other regions.
The eroding of barren mountains is followed by the
appearance of a fertile alluvial plain, rich for the
plough and ready for new life. Hakewill is very willing
to acknowledge mutability; but he makes a very sharp
distinction between mutability and decay, a distinction
essential to his whole case. In place of Goodman's
pattern of steady change-for-the-worse, Hakewill thus
sought to establish a cyclical pattern—a pattern of
decay-and-restoration. Compensation or renewal can
be counted upon to follow injurious events. Certainly,
this pattern is not always empirically observable, but
where it is not, Hakewill has a parable to meet the
case. A human observer is like someone who studies
the “end of a peece of Arras” and “conceives perhaps
an hand or head which hee sees to be very unartificially
made.” But if he should uncover the whole, he “soone
findes that it carries a due and just proportion to the
body” (p. 96). The total pattern comes into view. So
it is with any apparent decay in nature: if we could
assume a synoptic view, that fragmentary pattern
would be seen as part of a larger design, a design that
involves “reciprocal compensation” (p. 28).

To consider finally the heavens: we are not entitled
to infer decay from the evidence of the telescope. What
the telescope reveals (e.g., spots on the moon) has
always been so, though we have not been able to see
it so clearly till now. The issue is not, in any case,
to be settled empirically. Hakewill argues that there
are no conflicting elements in the heavens that could
make deterioration possible. He takes the question: Are
the heavens in fact decaying? as equivalent to: Are
they “in a naturall course... capable of such a sup-
posed decay?” (p. 67). The heavens, furthermore, are
moved by angels, and for that reason cannot “erre or
faile in their motions.”

To oppose Goodman effectively, Hakewill had to
deny that the unhappy effects of human sin must nec-
essarily “infect” the cosmic environment, and he ar-
gued that these effects are contained and confined
within the little world of man. He claimed that, in
general, there is no close and reliable set of corre-
spondences between microcosm and macrocosm. The
analogy, he believed, is a seriously misleading one, and
to use it uncritically is to ignore important qualitative
differences among the constituents of the world.

It should be clear that Hakewill did not counter
Goodman's metaphysics with a “scientific” and anti-
speculative theory. Hakewill, like other more scientifi-
cally-minded opponents of Cosmic Fall theories after
him, certainly stressed the orderliness of nature. But
he depended very heavily upon authority, on appeals
to the supernatural and miraculous, and on eschato-
logical doctrine. Further, as Goodman relied on a
pervasive imagery of gloom, deterioration, and death,
so Hakewill bombarded his reader with a selective and
persuasive imagery of awakening life, vigorous growth,
and fecundity. His aim was to “free the world from
old age.” The elements “by continuall generation each
out of other renew their parts” (p. 109). The “slumber-
ing drowzie spirit of the Grecians began againe to be
revived and awakened” (p. 217). Medicine was “borne
againe” under Galen (p. 226); and so on, through topic
after topic.

If fecundity and growth are emphasized by Hake-
will, so equally is diversity, as a basic positive value.
Where his opponents tended to see diversified scenery
(e.g., mountain-and-plain) as a declension from an
original smoother, “perfect,” topography, the diversity
itself is seen by Hakewill as intrinsically good. The
debate over nature's alleged decay was thus, in impor-
tant measure, a contest between alternative criteria of
aesthetic value.

Among other authors of the early seventeenth cen-
tury who expressed views analogous to Goodman's was
Robert Burton (Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621). “The
virtue of all the vegetals is decayed,” he wrote: men
grow less in stature. Burton accepted the analogy be-
tween microcosm and macrocosm. He preferred nev-
ertheless to raise questions rather than offer systematic
answers on Goodman's lines. Some apparently dis-
ordered events may in fact be orderly, though not
properly understood by us. He muses over the existence
of marine fossils: Are these due to “Noah's Flood, as
Christians suppose, or is there a vicissitude of sea and

Drummond of Hawthornden (A Cypresse Grove,
1623) made liberal use of the imagery of cosmic decay.
Inconstancy, he believed, is unlimited throughout the
whole creation, the heavens included. In all growth


the upward curve of youthful life is followed by a
downward plunge to senility. Today universally the
wheel is on that downward swing.

The central theme is tersely expressed in George
Herbert's poem “Decay”:

I see the world grows old, when as the heat
Of thy great love, once spread, as in an urn
Doth closet up itself, and still retreat,
Cold sinne still forcing it, till it return,
And calling Justice, all things burn.
And to Henry Vaughan, man “drew the curse upon
the world, and Cracked/ The whole frame with his
fall” (“Corruption”).

John Swan's Speculum mundi (1635) draws a sharp
contrast between early times “when all things were
in their full strength,” and the present day, “... this
weak age.” Men today are “Pygmies”—“reeds com-
pared to the Cedars of those times.” The air is now
“corrupted”; and the “fruits of the earth of a feeble
nourishment” (4th ed. [1670], p. 457). The Flood
wrought damage through the action of “the salt waters
of the great deep,” and also by way of “vapours or
... Exhalations” (p. 458). Swan is not undiscriminating.
Hills and mountains, for example, are not held to be
the results of Cosmic Fall, but “were created in the
beginning” (p. 37). He testifies to the “delectation and
profit of the mountains, which do thereby... amplifie
the goodness of God in his works” (p. 39). On the other
hand, decay is active in the heavens: we read of dim-
ming heavenly bodies and ominous signs of their cor-

Not all Cosmic Fall theories were theories of a
continuing process of decay. Decay is denied, for in-
stance, in Jean F. Senault's L'Homme criminel (Man
Become Guilty, or the Corruption of Nature by Sinne,

1650). Nature's order was damaged at the time of man's
Fall: there was loss in beauty, fertility, harmony, and
in the proper subordination of animals to men: the sun's
light was diminished. But these were once-for-all
changes, not signs of a continuing decline or waning
of nature's powers. John Milton also rejected the lan-
guage of old age and decline. The poem Naturam non
pati senium
(1628) denied that nature's face withers,
“overgrown with furrowing wrinkles,” her womb
grown barren. Nor does “the never-ending hunger of
the years... harry the stars.”

In order to stress the enormity of the Fall of man,
in Paradise Lost, Milton did describe cosmic upheaval.
At the instant Eve plucked the apple, “Earth felt the
wound” (IX.782). Then the sun was ordered to molest
the earth with “cold and heat/ Scarce tollerable.”
Inclement seasonal change begins: “Else had the
Spring/ Perpetual smil'd on Earth with Vernant
Flours.” War starts among the animals; “... To graze
the Herb all leaving,/ Devourd each other; nor stood
much in awe/ Of man.” Although human morality goes
on deteriorating, and Milton speaks of the “growing
miseries which Adam saw/ Alreadie in part,” the
changes in nonhuman nature are not described in terms
of a continuous process of decay (X.650-719).

In his poem “Upon Appleton House” Andrew
Marvell claimed that the topography of the world
today is dramatically different from its appearance at
first creation. It is now a mere “heap,” “together
hurled;/ All negligently overthrown,/ Gulfes, Deserts,
Precipices, Stone.”

A most detailed and influential account of how the
world changed for the worse was Thomas Burnet's
Telluris theoria sacra (1681; Sacred Theory of the Earth,
1684). Burnet set out to prove that the topography
familiar to us was largely determined by the cataclysm
of the Flood. Originally the earth was “smooth” and
“regular.” “It had the Beauty of Youth and blooming
Nature, fresh and fruitful, and not a Wrinkle, Scar or
Fracture in all its Body.” Below the crust were the
“waters under the earth.” Because of mounting pres-
sure from vaporized water, the crust became weak-
ened, and eventually fractured. “When the appointed
time was come that All-wise Providence had design'd
for the Punishment of a sinful World, the whole Fab-
rick brake, and the Frame of the Earth was torn in
Pieces,” mountains and sea-depths being formed.
Burnet intended his account to be at once naturalistic
and theologically acceptable; but the possibility of such
a harmony looked less plausible as the implications of
the theory were worked out. He could not defend his
theory without being forced well away from any or-
thodox interpretation of Scripture.

If science and theory were in tension in Burnet, so
also were two criteria of aesthetic value. On the one
hand, the perfect earth was the smooth earth: all ir-
regularity was subsequent deformity. On the other
hand, the ruggedness and vastness of mountains had
a fascination for Burnet, as his eloquence makes clear:
terror and mystery often assume positive aesthetic
value, both in Burnet himself and in the many writers
who learned from him—among them Edward Young
and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Among authors who weakened the case for a Cosmic
Fall, Francis Bacon must have first mention. The de-
velopment of the new sciences required attitudes to,
and beliefs about, the relation between nature and man,
very different from those we have been recounting in
this article so far. Bacon rejected any adulation of
ancient authorities, and repudiated the myth of a


Golden Age in the remote past. For science to be
possible, men must come to understand nature, not
exclusively as a background to the human drama, or
as a participator in that drama, but in terms of its own
laws and its own life. Hakewill drew upon Bacon in
his polemic against Goodman; although Hakewill him-
self relied heavily upon appeals to authority.

John Wilkins (Discovery of a World in the Moone,
1638) suggested that the universe may well not be the
nursery of human beings alone. There may even be
life on other worlds, creatures on the moon perhaps;
though we cannot tell of what kind. It was becoming
increasingly hard to see the little world of man (as
Goodman saw it) as a center from which malign in-
fluence would be expected to pass to the rest of the

Cosmic Fall and Mutability themes appear in the
writings of Sir Thomas Browne (Religio medici, 1642,
written 1635; Hydriotaphia, 1658); but Browne did not
consistently identify himself with the view that the
world decays. In human affairs decay is acknowledged:
and he can claim that “while we look for incorruption
in the heavens, we finde they are but like the Earth”
(Hydriotaphia, Ch. V). Yet he also affirms that the world
is not in its old age or in progressive decline—though
its end is not very distant (Christian Morals, III, Sec.

The Cambridge Platonist, Henry More, makes very
evident a growing tendency to look to nature not for
signs of decay but rather for evidence of divine benefi-
cence, wisdom, and design. In his Antidote against
(1652), More adduces many instances of
“things as might be otherwise, and yet are far better
as they are.” The structure of animals “is far more
perfect then will merely serve for their bare existence”
(Antidote, in A Collection of Several Philosophical
[1662], p. 5). On the alleged inhospitability
of the world, More argued that it is necessary “there
should be sufficient difficulty and hardship for all sensi-
ble and intellectual creatures to grapple and contest
with” (Divine Dialogues [1668; 1743 ed.], p. 155).
“The inclination of the axis of the earth is so duly
proportionated for the making it as habitable as it can
be, that the wit of man cannot imagine any posture
better” (p. 162). The existence of wild animals is justi-
fied on two somewhat different scores—as a “ready
instrument of Divine wrath... and a great enricher
of the history of nature, which would be defective, did
it not run from one extreme to another” (p. 196). More
generally, in the biological world are “infinite examples
of a steddy... acting according to skill and design”
(pp. 22f.). Any appearance of malignity in nature is
due to an inadequate and partial view of a world that
in reality is glorious, diversified, and full.

The vitality and progress of the sciences in the
mid-seventeenth century were taken increasingly as
refuting claims about a general decay. Joseph Glanvill's
Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661) argued on these lines,
and so did, Henry Power's Experimental Philosophy
(1664). “This is the Age wherein all mens Souls are
in a kind of fermentation, and the spirit of Wisdom
and Learning begins to mount”—to mount, not to
decay (Exper. Phil., pp. 191f.). The earth is not physi-
cally the world's center, nor is there adequate reason
to believe that man is the raison d'être of the universe.
All nature is not directed to man, agreed John Spencer
(Discourse concerning Prodigies, 1663-65): nature has
its own laws, unvarying from the first creation of the

The replacing of a nature in decay by a well-
designed nature was furthered by John Ray's The Wis-
dom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation

(1691). Like Henry More, Ray argued that man is not
the sole center of value and significance, and that the
other creatures have a life of their own. As well as
wise contrivance, fecundity is one main criterion of
divine creative power; and because of God's fecundity,
we are entitled to infer, for instance, that “Every fixed
star has [its] Chorus of planets.” Decay is expressly
denied in Ray's Miscellaneous Discourses (ca. 1692);
and we are at the furthest remove, in these writings,
from Goodman's picture of a disordered and sin-
devastated world.

Cosmic Fall speculation (Burnet's in particular) was
described as the product of poetic imagination, an
“Ingenious Romance,” by John Keil in his Examination
of Dr. Burnet's Theory of the Earth
(1698). Keil found
no lack of mathematical and scientific muddle in
Burnet. Burnet's account of the cracking of the earth's
crust will not bear scrutiny: “The heat of the sun could
never reach so far into so thick a Crust as to be great
enough to raise water into Vapours (Examination...,
pp. 175, 147ff.); nor would there have been “so much
water in the Abyss as was sufficient to cover the face
of the whole Earth” (p. 175). Keil concludes: “...
never any Book was fuller of Errors and Mistakes in
Philosophy, so none ever abounded with more beautiful
Scenes and surprising Images of Nature” (pp. 175-76).

A succinct and forthright denial of any anthropo-
centrism can be found in Pierre Bayle. “If we had a
proper conception of the universe, we should readily
understand that the death or the birth of a Prince is
such a small event—considering the nature of things
as a whole—that it does not merit the concern of
Heaven” (Pensées diverses... à l'occasion de la Com

Celestial phenomena, that is to say, are not primarily
concerned with human weal or woe, nor are they to


be explained in terms of these. Bayle's arguments are
directed, not expressly against Cosmic Fall theory, but
against the whole climate of thought in which these
had flourished. One way of combatting the theory was
by affirming the integrity of man, and a fortiori the
integrity of nature. But equally well it could be coun-
tered, as here, by playing down the cosmic importance
of man and deploring his vanity.

In the eighteenth-century literature of ideas Cosmic
Fall controversy has not ceased. To take only one
example: Voltaire devotes some words to a criticism
of Flood-theories like Burnet's. Some writers, he says,
have believed that “the world we inhabit is a mere
ruin, and that such a fate befits guilty creatures like
ourselves.” But these writers are to be contrasted with
those more enlightened philosophers who “discern a
wonderful and necessary order in that seeming-

Voltaire realizes that there is enormous scope for
divergent interpretations of the same data, depend-
ing on one's presuppositions and predilections. “To
some, all seems disorder and vengeance; to others,
design and goodness” (Oeuvres complètes, Paris [1879],
22, 549).

But straightforward error is also involved in those
theories. Burnet and his fellow spirits, for instance,
have vastly exaggerated the present irregularity of the
earth's surface: considering the proportion of the
height of mountains to the size of the earth, there is
less irregularity than on the surface of an orange!

Essential to most theories of a Cosmic Fall was the
analogy between microcosm and macrocosm—between
the world of man and the greater world around him.
Only if there were some necessary correspondence
between the activities of man and events in the non-
human world would it be at all plausible that man's
Fall should have cosmic repercussions, or that the
pattern of man's growth, maturity, and senescence
would be doubled by the course of nature as a whole.
This is, of course, a stronger claim than the claim that
the creation of man was the culmination of God's work.
And one could hold the latter while denying the for-
mer. A view like Burnet's, on the other hand, which
tried to give a physical and natural explanation of the
Flood and its effects, was not dependent on the anal-
ogy between microcosm and macrocosm.

Denials of the analogy were sometimes specific and
direct, sometimes indirect and implicit. It could be
argued, for instance, that God's glory was more fittingly
manifested by his limiting the effects of sin to humanity
itself and not allowing a universal decay. The analogy
was indirectly challenged by any argument against
man's central importance in the scheme of things, and
by the increasing success of science in explaining events
by natural laws that make no reference at all to human

So long as the traditional distinction remained be-
tween the sublunary, corruptible realm and the sup-
posedly incorruptible heavens, advances in astronomy
(such as Galileo's observations of irregularities on the
moon in 1610) could furnish new disturbing data for
theories of a Cosmic Fall. But the same new science
was simultaneously making untenable that distinction
itself. When it had lost its authority, the Cosmic Fall
theories had lost also their most dramatic demon-
stration of decay.

The New Science did not oust teleology: on the
contrary, it gave a quite new popularity to the Argu-
ment from Design. In the writings of the Royal Society
scientist-theologians, nature was seen as a single well-
ordered system, mirroring the supremely intelligent
divine Mind. All apparent disorder and irregularity
could in the end be brought under the unity and sim-
plicity of Newtonian law. There was an immense spate
of writings that sought to exhibit the marvelous fitness
and benevolent contrivance in the relation of organism
and environment. But it is obvious how very different
were teleological views of this general kind from the
teleology which figured in the Cosmic Fall theories—
theories that tended to see all nature as a stage-
backcloth to the drama of man, and which proclaimed
a radical breakdown of order.

The topic of nature's inhospitability to man, which
we saw recurrent in the Cosmic Fall literature, re-
appeared in a variety of much later writings. One
thinks, for instance, of J. S. Mill's essay, “Nature”
(1874), T. H. Huxley's lecture, “Evolution and Ethics”
(1893), and of writers such as Giacomo Leopardi and
Thomas Hardy. (For an earlier eloquent statement one
may study “Philo's” contributions in David Hume's
Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, 1779.) But none
of these posits a prior harmonious and hospitable state
from which a Fall took place; and none is a defender
of Christian theism.

It is interesting and instructive to bring the Cosmic
Fall controversy into relation with the tradition of the
Great Chain of Being. Ideas central to that tradition
were invoked by both sides in the polemic. Argument
for the fallenness of nature was facilitated by the claim
that the whole of nature is a closely interconnected
hierarchical system; it is a chain all of whose links must
be intact, or else disaster ensues to the whole system.
The thought of the chain in its original perfection
provides an ironical counterpoint to Goodman's ac-
count of nature as it was in his day: only a grim car-
icature remains. (Compare also Sir Richard Barckley,
who specifically likened the cosmos to a disintegrating
chain—The Felicitie of Man, 1598.)


Opponents of Cosmic Fall theories, however, could
appeal to other elements of the Great Chain tradition.
That tradition saw the world as the work of divine
fecundity: diversity and variety were supreme values.
Better a world with all possible types of being (graded
in value from God downwards) than a world with little
variety, even though it contained other, high forms of
value. Now, one who made that sort of value-judgment
could easily be persuaded that the present-day earth
with its varied topography was preferable to the
smooth “perfection” of the imagined pre-Fall sphere.
If preferable, then there is no sign that a catastrophe
occurred: the world we see could be the world as God
made it. Again the higher the value placed upon the
infinite divine fecundity, the more difficult it was to
believe that such a deity would permit his world to
decay or to suffer “old age.” The doctrine would argue
against God's superabundant generosity and creative
power. The Craftsman of Plato's Timaeus was not
“grudging” in his creative work: likewise Hakewill
argued, God could not be “niggardly or sparing....”

The Great Chain tradition dealt with the problem
of evil in several familiar ways. What we call evil is
really imperfection—measured by distance from the
summit of the hierarchy of being. For a hierarchy to
be possible, there must be beings at all distances from
the summit. Again, only a synoptic view of the world
as a whole (which is beyond our capacities) could
reveal the necessary place of apparently evil events
in the good totality. On such a view there was no
need to resort to the idea of a Cosmic Fall or a Decay
of Nature, in order to account for the presence of

Although theories of a Cosmic Fall were primarily
and originally ventures in theology, they had implica-
tions, as we have seen, far outside the theological field.
It made a great difference to a person's aesthetic expe-
rience of nature, for instance, whether he saw nature
as a colossal ruin, a rapidly running-down world, or
as manifesting divine splendor undiminished. The Fall
of nature was widely admitted to involve an aesthetic
Fall. The aesthetic repercussions of the Cosmic Fall
were expressed not only in systematic statements like
Goodman's and Hakewill's, but in countless brief, fugi-
tive allusions in poetry and prose. The theory offered
a rich stock of imagery; imagery of barrenness, old age,
the proliferation of weeds and poisons, and fostered
a sense that the earth had once possessed a beauty of
which only a few hints now remained. So John Donne:
“... the worlds beauty is decai'd, or gone” (The First
); and Fulke Greville: “Beauty growne
sick; nature corrupt and nought” (Works, II, 52). Late
in the controversy, as we noted in Burnet, the aesthetic
quality of a ruined world became charged with an
interesting ambiguity—evoking awe and fascination as
well as dread.

Although rarely given prominence in twentieth-
century theological discussions, Cosmic Fall specula-
tion is not dead. One significant statement appeared
in N. P. Williams' The Ideas of the Fall and of Original
(1924). According to Williams, there occurred a
Fall in the “life-force” itself, “before the differentiation
of life into its present multiplicity of forms and the
emergence of separate species” (p. 523). This pre-
cosmic vitiation of the whole “life-force” was respon-
sible both for human evil and for the conflictful and
wasteful aspects of nonhuman nature.

In some versions responsibility is placed upon a
plurality of rebellious conscious beings other than man,
beings whose Fall precedes man's. C. C. J. Webb
thought it possible that “Superhuman evil wills exist
and have injuriously affected the environment of hu-
manity as a whole” (Problems in the Relations of God
and Man
[1911], p. 270). And in the mid-twentieth
century Dom Illtyd Trethowan could claim from a
Roman Catholic standpoint, that “sin... started with
the angels.” A result of their Fall, “... we may sup-
pose, was a disorganization of the material universe,
over which, according to a reasonable theory, the
angels had charge” (An Essay in Christian Philosophy
[1954], p. 128). Such theories are, of course, left with
a serious problem over how to maintain God's unquali-
fied omnipotence, and his perfect goodness and fairness
to his creatures—in permitting this “disorganization.”
But the problem may be ultimately no more or less
intractable, in this sort of theory, than in any other
Christian treatment of evil.

Although the details of the Cosmic Fall controversies
can appear remote and even grotesque to a reader
today, such a reader cannot fail to be reminded also
of certain deeply troubling issues of his own time. He
may not speculate whether a deity has permitted the
continuing process of decay of nature on account of
man's disobedience; but he is aware of the problems
of man's own despoliation of his planet, the rendering
extinct of animal species, industrial pollution of air and
water, open cast or strip mining, radioactive fallout.
The idiom of discussion is a predominantly secular one,
but there remain striking analogies in tone and attitude,
between the statement of the old anxieties and of the


Unless otherwise identified, translations are by R. W.

Godfrey Goodman, The Fall of Man; or the Corruption
of Nature
... (London, 1616). George Hakewill, An Apolo-
gie or Declaration of the Power and Providence of God in


the Government of the World (Oxford, 1627). Victor Harris,
All Coherence Gone (Chicago, 1949)—a study of the six-
teenth- and seventeenth-century debate, to which this arti-
cle is much indebted. Marjorie Nicolson, Mountain Gloom
and Mountain Glory
(Ithaca, N. Y., 1959).


[See also Chain of Being; Cycles; Design Argument; Evil;
Hierarchy; Macrocosm; Primitivism; Sin and Salvation;