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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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There is nothing in the geology of the seventeenth
century to correspond to the spectacular discoveries
of astronomy. Geology was only part of “natural Phi-
losophy,” and not an important part. It is true that
Agricola had done important work on stratification, on
ores, minerals, and metals, and that the basic principles
of modern stratigraphy were formulated by Nicholaus
Steno in 1669. But geology, in the modern sense,
marked time, indeed lagged behind other sciences.
More than most of the others, geology was retarded
by Genesis. A new astronomy could readily emerge,
since Moses had committed himself only upon the
creation of the sun and moon but had said nothing
about their nature. Our modern idea of “geological
time” was impossible to ages of men who believed in
the miraculous creation of the world in time, and
divine order in inorganic and organic species. Earth
sciences and human sciences were handicapped by the
tendency of generations to read cosmic processes into
earth and man, and to find inevitable similarities be-
tween the body of earth and the body of man. It was
not that all our ancestors were “fundamentalists.”
Scholars read the Bible in various languages and inter-
preted it broadly. There were ethical, allegorical,
analogical, cabbalistical expositions. Yet the fact re-
mained that the earth had been created in time and
called into existence by miracle.

The problems they encountered may be seen in their
theories of fossils, a subject closely associated with that
of the origin of mountains. Unhampered by Genesis,
the Greeks had surmised that marine fossils were re-
mains of animals, indicating immense age and showing
the vicissitudes of sea and land. Our orthodox ancestors
could not accept this, since Moses taught that sea and
land had been separated on the third day, animal life
not produced until the fourth. Fossils, men argued,
were not organic but lusus naturae, or results of the
influence of the planets, twisting stones into grotesque
shapes. This remained the orthodox theory until well
into the seventeenth century. Tertullian had suggested
the influence of the Flood; marine remains had been
deposited as the waters receded. This too was widely
accepted and remained orthodox. Both before and after
Leonardo da Vinci and Girolamo Fracastoro suggested
the true explanation, orthodox thought remained con-
sistent with the Mosaic account.

In the “Digression of Air” in the Anatomy of Melan-
(1621), Robert Burton wished that he could de-
termine “whether Mount Athos, Pelion, Olympus, Ossa,


Caucasus, Atlas, be so huge as Pliny, Solinus, Mela
relate.... The pike of Teneriffe how high it is....
Are they 1250 paces high... or seventy-eight miles
perpendicularly high?” Actually the highest peak of
Teneriffe is 12,190 feet, but as late as the seventeenth
century it was “a hill whose head touched heaven,”
from which poets coined grand figures. The adherents
of a smooth round earth had little trouble in explaining
monstrosities resulting from the various sins of man.
Traditionalists largely followed one of two schools of
thought, a classical idea that there had been vicissitudes
of sea and land, which had changed places; or a collat-
eral belief, implied by Milton in his account of the
Creation in Paradise Lost (VII, 288-90):
So high as heav'd the tumid hills, so low
Down sunk a hollow bottom broad and deep,
Capacious bed of waters.
Here again we find the ancient belief that the work
of the Great Geometer had been based upon symmetry
and proportion.

Change in what we now consider geological atti-
tudes was slow. With the exception of a few such men
as Agricola and Steno, there were few major geological
figures. Compared with astronomy, geology marked
time. This becomes clear to anyone who has combed
English literature seeking scientific allusions and found
almost no reference to geology until the later seven-
teenth century, with the exception of the broad basic
concepts that have been mentioned, all implicit in
classical or early patristic thinking. A “new astronomy”
had been heralded by dramatic moments, such as the
appearance of novae, which disproved the belief, held
for centuries, that the heavens were eternal and
immutable. As John Donne put it in a poem to the
Countess of Huntingdon:

Who vagrant transitory Comets sees,
Wonders, because they'are rare; But a new starre
Whose motion with the firmament agrees,
Is miracle; for there no new things are.
Galileo had announced in the Sidereus Nuncius (1610)
the discovery of myriads of stars, of the nature of the
Milky Way, of the moon and of what he at first believed
to be four new planets. These discoveries were spec-
tacular, unexpected. From them imagination took fire.
But not yet did imagination respond, as in the eight-
eenth century, to the idea of long, leisurely processes
of earth-development.

In England, until well into the seventeenth century,
when men read works about geological ideas, they read
books written on the continent, not at home. A Collec-
tion of Discourses of the Virtuosi of France,
in 1664 and 1665, was originally French but much at
home in England in both the original and in translation.
One discourse (Conference CLXXXIX) was particu-
larly concerned with mountains. In form this is a con-
ference among six speakers who uphold various points
of view. One speaker, who insisted that mountains were
original, based his belief less upon Moses than upon
Galileo, who had observed mountains not only in the
moon but in Mars. Throughout the dialogue we find
a concern less with metaphysics than with an implicit
aesthetics. Since God created the world in perfection,
we should expect “agreeable variety” as “its principal
ornament.” Another speaker, upholding the diluvian
theory, believed that the original earth had been a
Circle of Perfection. “'Tis certain that God gave the
Earth that Spherical Form” and that it remained
smooth and round until the Flood. The speakers in A
Collection of Discourses
had much to say of the Bible
but they were also aware of discoveries of Kepler,
Gilbert, and Galileo. A shift was occurring to what
came to be known as “physico-theology.”

The most widely used book treating the ideas we
have been considering was the Geographia generalis
of Bernhardus Varenius, published in England in 1650
and 1664, revised by Newton in 1672, then appearing
as Cosmography and Geography in 1682. For nearly
a century it was consulted in Latin and in translation,
and its science kept up to date. Literary historians have
pointed out that it was a handbook of poets from
Milton to James Thomson. In his lengthy treatment
of the original earth, Varenius followed the Sphaera
(1620) of Joseph Blancanus, though he also
introduced ideas that had come into thinking during
the intervening decades. Few writers had been as con-
sistent as Blancanus in their belief in the symmetry
and proportion God had given the earth, in which the
highest mountain exactly corresponded to the lowest
depth of the sea. The original earth had emerged on
the third day as a smooth sphere. Had it been affected
only by natural law, it would have remained in that
form, but the miraculous hand of God had scooped
out the channel of the sea and created the Alps and
other mountains. If left to its own nature, the world
would perish as it had begun, in water. But God would
not permit such natural metamorphosis: the world
would perish by fire. Following Blancanus, but im-
proving upon him in various ways, Varenius found the
origin of terrestrial mountains in water. To the general
reader, particularly the poet, the most impressive parts
of the Geographia generalis were sections in which
Varenius sent his imagination over the globe, calling
a catalogue of the ranges and peaks in every continent,
as they rise, sometimes in majesty, sometimes in terror.
Theology still clouded Varenius' eyes to some extent
in his mountain-passages, though even the three dec-


ades since Blancanus had made him basically more

There was one seventeenth-century creator of a new
world, however, who feared neither God nor man. In
his Principles of Philosophy (1644), René Descartes
momentarily paid tribute to a divine Mechanic who
had set in motion a mechanical universe, but, genuflec-
tion over, his great clock ticked on, and we see what
Blancanus had vaguely surmised, a cosmos emerging
by natural principles. The irregularities of the Carte-
sian world and universe, however, were not results of
emergence from water. Descartes posited a theory of
the origin of planets from fiery matter cast off by the
sun, a universe of cosmical vortices. From the “lumi-
nous dust” of the “first element,” and the heat and light
of the “second element” was produced a “third ele-
ment” of earth and water-particles. As the planet
cooled, a layer of liquid was contained within the crust,
the elements in the order of specific gravity. The sun's
heat caused cracks in the crust so that the earth was
ruptured and collapsed upon the inner globe. A result
of the collapse was great irregularities, some rising
above the liquid, some falling below: mountains, earth
hollows, the bed of the sea. At the center still remained
fire, causing earthquakes and volcanoes. Such was the
self-consistent Cartesian world-scheme, a mechanistic
world in a mechanistic universe. Complex enough to
satisfy scientists, its vortices were simple and graphic
enough to be grasped by an amateur such as
Fontenelle's Marchioness in the Plurality of Worlds
(1686), who thanked God for the vortex in which she
had been placed. Most of all, so far as literary influence
was concerned, here was a world-scheme with the
drama earlier schemes had lacked, a universe offering
imagination the spectacular that had been found in the
“new astronomy,” so far lacking in a “new geology.”