An Account of the whole Work; of the Extent and general Order of it.
SINCE I was first inclin’d to the Contemplation of Nature, and took pleasure to trace out the Causes of Effects, and the dependance of one thing upon another in the visible Creation, I had always, methought, a particular curiosity to look back into the first Sources and ORIGINAL of Things; and to view in my mind, so far as I was able, the Beginning and Progress of a RISING WORLD.
And after some Essays of this Nature, and, as I thought, not unsuccessful, I carried on my enquiries further, to try whether this Rising World, when form’d and finisht, would continue always the same; in the same form, structure, and consistency; or what changes it would successively undergo, by the continued action of the same Causes that first produc’d it; And, lastly, what would be its final Period and Consummation. This whole Series and compass of things taken together, I call’d a COURSE OF NATURE, or a SYSTEM OF NATURAL PROVIDENCE; and thought there was nothing belonging to the External World more fit or more worthy our study and meditation, nor any thing that would conduce more to discover the ways of Divine Providence, and to show us the grounds of all true knowledge concerning Nature. And therefore to clear up the several parts of this Theory, I was willing to lay aside a great many other Speculations, and all those dry subtleties with which the Schools, and the Books of Philosophers, are usually fill’d.
But when we speak of a Rising World, and the Contemplation of it, we do not mean this of the Great Universe; for who can describe the Original of that? But we speak of the Sublunary World, This Earth and its dependencies, which rose out of a Chaos about six thousand years ago; And seeing it hath fain to our lot to act upon this Stage, to have our present home and residence here, it seems most reasonable, and the place design’d by Providence, where we should. first imploy our thoughts to understand the works of God and Nature. We have accordingly therefore design’d in this Work to give an account of the Original of the Earth, and of all the great and general changes that it hath already undergone, or is hence forwards to undergo, till the Consummation of all things. For if
from those Principles we have here taken, and that Theory we have begun in these two first Books, we can deduce with success and clearness the Origin of the Earth, and those States of it that are already past; Following the same Thred, and by the conduct of the same Theory, we will pursue its Fate and History through future Ages, and mark all the great Changes and Conversions that attend it while Day and Night shall last; that is, so long as it continues an Earth.
By the States of the Earth that are already past, we understand chiefly Paradise and the Deluge; Names well known, and as little known in their Nature. By the Future States we understand the Conflagration, and what new Order of Nature may follow upon that, till the whole Circle of Time and Providence be compleated. As to the first and past States of the Earth, we shall have little help from the Ancients, or from any of the Philosophers, for the discovery or description of them; We must often tread unbeaten paths, and make a way where we do not find one; but it shall be always with a Light in our hand, that we may see our steps, and that those that follow us may not follow us blindly. There is no Sect of Philosophers that I know of that ever gave an account of the Universal Deluge, or discover’d, from the contemplation of the Earth, that there had been such a thing already in Nature. ’Tis true, they often talk of an alternation of Deluges and Conflagrations in this Earth, but they speak of them as things to come; at least they give no proof or argument of any that hath already destroyed the World. As to Paradise, it seems to be represented to us by the Golden Age; whereof the Ancients tell many stories, sometimes very luxuriant, and sometimes very defective: For they did not so well understand the difference betwixt the New-made Earth and the Present, as to see what were the just grounds of the Golden Age, or of Paradise: Tho’ they had many broken Notions concerning those things. As to the Conflagration in particular, This hath always been reckon’d One amongst the Opinions or Dogmata of the Stoicks, That the World was to be destroy’d by Fire, and their Books are full of this Notion; but yet they do not tell us the Causes of the Conflagration, nor what preparations there are in Nature, or will be, towards that great Change. And we may generally observe this of the Ancients, that their Learning or Philosophy consisted more in Conclusions, than in Demonstrations; They had many truths among them, whereof they did not know themselves the premisses or the proofs: Which is an argument to me, that the knowledge they had, was not a thing of their own invention, or which they came to by fair reasoning and observations upon Nature, but was delivered to them from others by Tradition and Ancient fame, sometimes more publick, sometimes more secret: These Conclusions they kept in mind, and communicated to those of their School, or Sect, or Posterity, without knowing, for the most part, the just grounds and reasons of them.
’Tis the Sacred writings of Scripture that are the best monuments of Antiquity, and to those we are chiefly beholden for the History of the first Ages, whether Natural History or Civil. ’Tis true, the Poets, who were the most ancient Writers amongst the Greeks, and serv’d them both for Historians, Divines, and Philosophers, have deliver’d some things concerning the first Ages of the World, that have a fair resemblance of truth, and some affinity with those accounts that are
given of the same things by sacred Authors, and these may be of use in due time and place; but yet, lest any thing fabulous should be mixt with them, as commonly there is, we will never depend wholly upon their credit, nor assert any thing upon the authority of the Ancients which is not first prov’d by natural Reason, or warranted by Scripture.
It seems to me very reasonable to believe, that besides the precepts of Religion, which are the principal subject and design of the Books of holy Scripture, there may be providentially conserv’d in them the memory of things and times so remote, as could not be retriev’d, either by History, or by the light of Nature; and yet were of great importance to be known, both for their own excellency, and also to rectifie the knowledge of men in other things consequential to them: Such points may be, Our great Epocha or the Age of the Earth, The Origination of mankind, The first and Paradisiacal state, The destruction of the Old World by an universal Deluge, The longevity of its inhabitants, The manner of their preservation, and of their peopling the Second Earth; and lastly, The Fate and Changes it is to undergo. These I always lookt upon as the Seeds of great knowledge, or heads of Theories fixt on purpose to give us aim and direction how to pursue the rest that depend upon them. But these heads, you see, are of a mixt order, and we propose to our selves in this Work only such as belong to the Natural World; upon which I believe the trains of Providence are generally laid; And we must first consider how God hath order’d Nature, and then now the Oeconomy of the Intellectual World is adapted to it; for of these two parts consists the full System of Providence. In the mean time, what subject can be more worthy the thoughts of any serious person, than to view and consider the Rise and Fall, and all the Revolutions, not of a Monarchy or an Empire, of the Grecian or Roman State, but of an intire World.
The obscurity of these things, and their remoteness from common knowledge will be made an argument by some, why we should not undertake them; And by others, it may be, the very same thing will be made an argument why we should; for my part I think There is nothing so secret that shall not be brought to Light, within the compass of Our World; for we are not to understand that of the whole Universe, nor of all Eternity, our capacities do not extend so far; But whatsoever concerns this Sublunary World in the whole extent of its duration, from the Chaos to the last period, this I believe Providence hath made us capable to understand, and will in its due time make it known. All I say, betwixt the first Chaos and the last Completion of Time and all things temporary, This was given to the disquisitions of men; On either hand is Eternity, before the World and after, which is without our reach: But that little spot of ground that lies betwixt those two great Oceans, this we are to cultivate, this we are Masters of, herein we are to exercise our thoughts, to understand and lay open the treasures of the Divine Wisdom and Goodness hid in this part of Nature and of Providence.
As for the difficulty or obscurity of an argument, that does but add to the pleasure of contesting with it, when there are hopes of victory; and success does more than recompence all the pains. For there is no sort of joy more grateful to the mind of man, than that which ariseth from the invention of Truth; especially
when ’tis hard to come by. Every man hath a delight suited to his Genius, and as there is pleasure in the right exercise of any faculty, so especially in that of Right-reasoning; which is still the greater, by how much the consequences are more clear, and the chains of them more long: There is no Chase so pleasant, methinks, as to drive a Thought, by good conduct, from one end of the World to the other; and never to lose sight of it till it fall into Eternity, where all things are lost as to our knowledge.
This Theory being chiefly Philosophical, Reason is to be our first Guide; and where that falls short, or any other just occasion offers itself, we may receive further light and confirmation from the Sacred writings. Both these are to be lookt upon as of Divine Original, God is the Author of both; He that made the Scripture made also our Faculties, and ’twere a reflection upon the Divine Veracity, for the one or the other to be false when rightly us’d. We must therefore be careful and tender of opposing these to one another, because that is, in effect, to oppose God to himself. As for Antiquity and the Testimonies of the Ancients, we only make general reflections upon them, for illustration rather than proof of what we propose; not thinking it proper for an English Treatise to multiply citations out of Greek or Latin Authors.
I am very sensible it will be much our interest, that the Reader of this Theory should be of an ingenuous and unprejudic’d temper; neither does it so much require Book-learning and Scholarship, as good natural sence to distinguish True and False, and to discern what is well prov’d, and what is not. It often happens that Scholastick Education, like a Trade, does so fix a man in a particular way, that he is not fit to judge of any thing that lies out of that way; and so his Learning becomes a clog to his natural parts, and makes him more indocile, and more incapable of new thoughts and new improvements, than those that have only the Talents of Nature. As Masters of exercise had rather take a Scholar that never learn’d before, than one that hath had a bad Master; so generally one would rather chuse a Reader without art, than one ill-instructed; with learning, but opinionative and without judgment: yet it is not necessary they should want either, and Learning well plac’d strengthens all the powers of the mind. To conclude, just reasoning and a generous love of Truth, whether with or without Erudition, is that which makes us most competent Judges what is true; and further than this, in the perusal and examination of this Work, as to the Author as much candor as you please, but as to the Theory we require nothing but attention and impartiality.