Concerning the time of the Conflagration, and the end of the World. What the Astronomers say upon this Subject, and upon what they ground their Calculations; The true notion of the Great Year, or of the Platonic, Year, stated and explained.
HAVING, in this first Section, laid a sure foundation as to the Subject of our Discourse; the truth and certainty of the Conflagration whereof we are to treat; we will now proceed to enquire after the Time, Causes, and Manner of it. We are naturally more inquisitive after the end of the World, and the time of that fatal revolution, than after the causes of it: for these, we know, are irresistible, whensoever they come, and therefore we are only sollicitous that they should not overtake us, or our near posterity. The Romans thought they had the fates of their Empire in the Books of the Sibyls, which were kept by the Magistrates as a Sacred Treasure. We have also our Prophetical Books, more sacred and more infallible than theirs, which contain the fate of all the Kingdoms of the Earth, and of that glorious Kingdom that is to succeed. And of all futurities, there is none can be of such importance to be enquired after, as this last scene and close of all humane affairs.
If I thought it possible to determine the time of the Conflagration from the bare intuition of Natural Causes, I would not treat of it in this place, but reserve it to the last; after we had brought into view all those Causes, weigh’d their force, and examin’d how and when they would concur to produce this great effect. But I am satisfied that the excitation and concurse of those Causes does not depend upon Nature only; and tho’ the Causes may be sufficient when all united, yet the union of them at such a time, and in such a manner, I look upon as the effect of a particular Providence: and therefore no foresight of ours, or inspection into Nature can discover to us the time of this conjuncture. This method therefore of Prediction from Natural Causes being laid aside as impracticable, all other methods may be treated of in this place, as being independent upon any thing that is to follow in the Treatise; and it will be an ease to the Argument to discharge it of this part, and clear the way by degrees to the principal point, which is, the Causes and Manner of the Conflagration.
Some have thought it a kind of impiety in a Christian to enquire after the end of the World; because of that check which our Saviour gave his Disciples, when, after his Resurrection, enquiring of him about the time of his Kingdom, He answer’d, Act. 1. 7. It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. And, before his death, when he was discoursing of the Consummation of all things, He told them expressly, that tho’ there should be such and such previous Signs as he had mentioned, yet, Mat. 24. 36. Of that day and hour knoweth no man. No, not the Angels that are in Heaven, but my Father only. Be it so, that the Disciples deserv’d a reprimand, for desiring to know, by a particular revelation from our Saviour, the state of future times; when many other things were more necessary for their instruction, and for their ministery. Be it also admitted, that the Angels, at that distance of time, could not see thorow all events to the end of the World; it does not at all follow from thence that they do not know it now; when, in the course of Sixteen hundred years, many things are come to pass, that may be marks and directions to them to make a judgment of what remains, and of the last period of all things. However there will be no danger in our enquiries about this matter, seeing they are not so much to discover the certainty, as the uncertainty of that period, as to humane knowledge. Let us therefore consider what methods have been used, by those that have been curious and busie to measure the duration of the World.
The Stoicks tell us, When the Sun and the Stars have drunk up the Sea, then the Earth shall be burnt. A very fair Prophecy: but how long will they be a drinking? For unless we can determine that, we cannot determine when this combustion will begin. Cicer. de Nat. D. l. 2.Many of the Ancients thought that the Stars were nourish’d by the vapours of the Ocean and of the moist Earth: and when that nourishment was spent, being of a fiery nature, they would prey upon the Body of the Earth it self, and consume that, after they had consum’d the Water. This is old-fashion’d Philosophy, and now, that the nature of those Bodies is better known, will scarce pass for currant. ’Tis true, we must expect some dispositions towards the combustion of the World, from a great drought and desiccation of the Earth: But this helps us nothing on our way; for the question still returns, When will this immoderate drought or dryness happen? and that's as ill to resolve as the former. Therefore, as I said before, I have no hopes of deciding the question by Physiology or Natural Causes; let us then look up from the Earth to the Heavens, To the Astronomers and the Prophets; These think they can define the age and duration of the World; The one by their Art, and the other by Inspiration.
We begin with the Astronomers: whose Calculations are founded either upon the Aspects and Configurations of the Planets, or upon the Revolutions of the Fixt Stars: or lastly upon that which they call Annus Magnus, or the Great Year, whatsoever that Notion proves to be when it is rightly interpreted. As to the Planets, Berosus tells us,Sen. Nat. qu. li. 3 c. 29. The Chaldeans suppose Deluges to proceed from a great conjunction of the Planets in Capricorn: and from a like conjunction in the opposite Sign of Cancer, the Conflagration will ensue. So that if we compute by the Astronomical Tables how long it will be to such a Conjunction, we find at
the same time how long it will be to the Conflagration. This doctrine of the Chaldeans some Christian Authors have owned, and followed the same principles and method.
If these Authors would deal fairly with Mankind, they should shew us some connexion betwixt these Causes and the Effects which they make consequent upon them. For ’tis an unreasonable thing to require a man's assent to a Proposition, where he sees no dependance or connexion of Terms; unless it come by Revelation, or from an infallible Authority. If you say, The Conflagration will be at the first great Conjunction of the Planets in Cancer, and I say it will be at the next Eclipse of the Moon, if you shew no more reason for your assertion than I do for mine, and neither of us pretend to revelation or infallibility, we may justly expect to be equally credited. Pray what reason can you give why the Planets, when they meet, should plot together, to set on Fire their Fellow-Planet, the Earth, who never did them any harm? But now there is a plausible reason for my opinion; for the Moon, when Eclips’d may think herself affronted by the Earth, interposing rudely betwixt her and the Sun, and leaving her to grope her way in the dark; She therefore may justly take her revenge as she can. But you’l say, ’tis not in the power of the Moon to set the Earth on Fire, if she had malice enough to do it. No, nor, say I, is it in the power of the other Planets, that are far more distant from the Earth than the Moon, and as stark dull lumps of Earth, as she is. The plain truth is, The Planets are so many Earths; and our Earth is as much a Planet as the brightest of them. ’Tis carried about the Sun with the same common stream, and shines with as much lustre to them, as they do to us: neither can they do any more harm to it, than it can do to them. ’Tis now well known, that the Planets are dark opake Bodies, generally made up of Earth and Water, as our Globe is; and have no force or action, but that of reverberating the light which the Sun casts upon them. This blind superstitious fear or reverence for the Stars, had its original from the ancient Idolaters; They thought them Gods, and that they had domination over humane affairs. We do not indeed worship them, as they did; but some men retain still the same opinion of their vertues, of their rule and influence upon us and our affairs, which was the ground of their worship. ’Tis full time now to sweep away these cobwebs of superstition, these reliques of Paganism. I do not see how we are any more concern’d in the postures of the Planets, than in the postures of the Clouds; and you may as well build an art of prediction or divination upon the one as the other. They must not know much of the Philosophy of the Heavens, or little consider it, that think the fate, either of single persons, or of the whole Earth, can depend upon the aspects or figur’d dances of those Bodies.
But you'! say, it may be, tho’ no reason can be given for such effects, yet experience does attest the truth of them. In the first place, I answer, no experience can be produc’d for this effect we are speaking of, the conflagration of the World. Secondly, experience fallaciously recorded, or wholly in favour of one side, is no proof. If a publick Register was kept of all Astrological Predictions, and of all the events that followed upon them, right or wrong, agreeing or disagreeing, I could willingly refer the cause to the determination of such a Register, and such
experience. But that which they call experience, is so stated, that if one prediction of ten, hits right or near right, it shall make more noise, and be more taken notice of, than all the nine that are false. Just as in a Lottery, where many Blanks are drawn for one Prize, yet these make all the noise, and those are forgotten. If any one be so lucky as to draw a good Lot, then the Trumpet sounds, and his Name is register’d, and he tells his good fortune to every body he meets: whereas those that lose, go silently away with empty Pockets, and are asham’d to tell their losses. Such a thing is the Register of Astrological experiences; they record what makes for their credit, but drop all blank instances, that would discover the vanity or cheat of their Art.
So much for the Planets. They have also a pretended calculation of the end of the World from the fixt Stars and the Firmament. Which in short is this: They suppose these Bodies, besides the hurry of their Diurnal motion from East to West, quite round the Earth in four and twenty hours, to have another retrograde motion, from West to East; which is more slow and leisurely; And when they have finish’d the Circle of this retrogradation, and come up again to the same place from whence they started at the beginning of the World, then this course of Nature will be at an end; and either the Heavens will cease from all motion, or a new set of motions will be put a foot, and the world begin again. This is a bundle of fictions tied up in a pretty knot. In the first place, there is no such thing as a solid Firmament, in which the Stars are fixt, as nails in a board. The Heavens are as fluid as our air, and the higher we go, the more thin and subtle is the ethereal matter. Then, the fixt Stars are not all in one Surface, as they seem to us, nor at an equal distance from the Earth, but are plac’d in several Orbs higher and higher; there being infinite room in the great Deep of the Heavens, every way, for innumerable Stars and Spheres behind one another, to fill and beautify the immense spaces of the Universe. Lastly, the fixt Stars have no motion common to them all, nor any motion singly, unless upon their own centres; and therefore, never leaving their stations, they can never return to any common station, which they would suppose them to have had at the beginning of the World. So as this period they speak of, whereby they would measure the duration of the World, is meerly imaginary, and hath no foundation in the true nature or motion of the celestial Bodies.
But in the third place, They speak of an ANNUS MAGNUS, a Great Year; A revolution so call’d, whatsoever it is, that is of the same extent with the length of the world. This notion, I confess, is more ancient and universal, and therefore I am the more apt to believe that it is not altogether groundless. But the difficulty is, to find out the true notion of this Great Year, what is to be understood by it, and then of what length it is. They all agree that it is a time of some grand instauration of all things, or a Restitution of the Heavens and the Earth to their former state; that is, to the state and posture they had at the beginning of the world; such therefore as will reduce the Golden age, and that happy state of nature wherein things were at first. If so, if these be the marks and properties of this Revolution, which is call’d the Great Year, we need not go so far to find the true notion and interpretation of it. Those that have read the first part of
this Theory, may remember that in the second Book we gave an account what the posture of the Earth was at the beginning of the world, and what were the consequences of that posture, A perpetual Spring and Equinox throughout all the Earth: And if the Earth was restor’d again to that posture and situation, all that is imputed to the Great Year, would immediately follow upon it, without ever disturbing or moving the fix’d Stars, Firmament, or Planets; and yet at the same time all these three would return or be restor’d to the same posture they had at the beginning of the world; so as the whole character of the Great Year would be truly fulfill’d, tho’ not in that way which they imagin’d; but in another, more compendious, and of easier conception. My meaning is this, If the Axis of the Earth was rectified, and set parallel with the Axis of the Ecliptick, upon which the Planets, Firmament and fix’d Stars are suppos’d to move, all things would be as they were at first; A general harmony and conformity of all the motions of the Universe would presently appear, such, as they say, was in the Golden Age, before any disorder came into the natural or moral World.
As this is an easie, so I do not doubt, but it is a true account of that which was originally call’d the Great Year, or the Great Instauration; which nature will bring to pass in this simple method, by rectifying the Axis of the Earth, without those operose revolutions, which some Astronomers have fansied. But however, this account being admitted, how will it help us to define what the Age and duration of the World will be? ’Tis true, many have undertaken to tell us the length of this Great Year, and consequently of the World; but, besides that their accounts are very different, and generally of an extravagant length, if we had the true account, it would not assure us when the World would end; because we do not know when it did begin, or what progress we have already made in the line of time. For I am satisfied, the Chronology of the World, whether sacred or prophane, is lost; till Providence shall please to retrieve it by some new discovery. As to prophane Chronology, or that of the Heathens, the Greeks and the Romans knew nothing above the Olympiads; which fell short many Ages of the Deluge, much more of the beginning of the World. And the Eastern barbarous Nations, as they disagreed amongst themselves, so generally they run the origine of the World to such a prodigious height, as is neither agreeable to Faith, nor Reason. As to Sacred Chronology, ’tis well known, that the difference there is betwixt the Greek, Hebrew, and Samaritan Copies of the Bible, makes the Age of the World altogether undetermin'd: And there is no way yet found out, how we may certainly discover which of the three Copies is most Authentick, and consequently what the Age of the World is, upon a true computation. Seeing therefore we have no assurance how long the World hath stood already, neither could we be assur’d how long it hath to stand, though, by this Annus Magnus, or any other way, the total sum, or whole term of its duration was truly known.
I am sorry to see the little success we have had in our first search after the end of the World, from Astronomical Calculations. But ’tis an useful piece of knowledge to know the bounds of our knowledge; that so we may not spend our time and thoughts about things that lie out of our reach. I have little or no hopes of resolving this point by the Light of Nature, and therefore it only remains now
to enquire, Whether Providence hath made it known by any sort of Prophecy or Revelation. Which shall be the Subject of the following Chapter.