Warfare of Science with Theology   Chapter IV: From ``Signs and Wonders'' to Law in the Heavens

The Invasion of Scepticism

Vigorous as Mather's argument is, we see scepticism regarding ``signs'' continuing to invade the public mind; and, in spite of his threatenings, about twenty years after we find a remarkable evidence of this progress in the fact that this scepticism has seized upon no less a personage than that colossus of orthodoxy, his thrice illustrious son, Cotton Mather himself; and him we find, in 1726, despite the arguments of his father, declaring in his Manuductio: ``Perhaps there may be some need for me to caution you against being dismayed at the signs of the heavens, or having any superstitious fancies upon eclipses and the like.... I am willing that you be apprehensive of nothing portentous in blazing stars. For my part, I know not whether all our worlds, and even the sun itself, may not fare the better for them.''

Curiously enough, for this scientific scepticism in Cotton Mather there was a cause identical with that which had developed superstition in the mind of his father. The same provincial tendency to receive implicitly any new European fashion in thinking or speech wrought upon both, plunging one into superstition and drawing the other out of it.

European thought, which New England followed, had at last broken away in great measure from the theological view of comets as signs and wonders. The germ of this emancipating influence was mainly in the great utterance of Seneca; and we find in nearly every century some evidence that this germ was still alive. This life became more and more evident after the Reformation period, even though theologians in every Church did their best to destroy it. The first series of attacks on the old theological doctrine were mainly founded in philosophic reasoning. As early as the first half of the sixteenth century we hear Julius Caesar Scaliger protesting against the cometary superstition as ``ridiculous folly.'' Of more real importance was the treatise of Blaise de Vigenere, published at Paris in 1578. In this little book various statements regarding comets as signs of wrath or causes of evils are given, and then followed by a very gentle and quiet discussion, usually tending to develop that healthful scepticism which is the parent of investigation. A fair example of his mode of treating the subject is seen in his dealing with a bit of ``sacred science.'' This was simply that ``comets menace princes and kings with death because they live more delicately than other people; and, therefore, the air thickened and corrupted by a comet would be naturally more injurious to them than to common folk who live on coarser food.'' To this De Vigenere answers that there are very many persons who live on food as delicate as that enjoyed by princes and kings, and yet receive no harm from comets. He then goes on to show that many of the greatest monarchs in history have met death without any comet to herald it.

In the same year thoughtful scepticism of a similar sort found an advocate in another part of Europe. Thomas Erastus, the learned and devout professor of medicine at Heidelberg, put forth a letter dealing in the plainest terms with the superstition. He argued especially that there could be no natural connection between the comet and pestilence, since the burning of an exhalation must tend to purify rather than to infect the air. In the following year the eloquent Hungarian divine Dudith published a letter in which the theological theory was handled even more shrewdly. for he argued that, if comets were caused by the sins of mortals, they would never be absent from the sky. But these utterances were for the time brushed aside by the theological leaders of thought as shallow or impious.

In the seventeenth century able arguments against the superstition, on general grounds, began to be multiplied. In Holland, Balthasar Bekker opposed this, as he opposed the witchcraft delusion, on general philosophic grounds; and Lubienitzky wrote in a compromising spirit to prove that comets were as often followed by good as by evil events. In France, Pierre Petit, formerly geographer of Louis XIII, and an intimate friend of Descartes, addressed to the young Louis XIV a vehement protest against the superstition, basing his arguments not on astronomy, but on common sense. A very effective part of the little treatise was devoted to answering the authority of the fathers of the early Church. To do this, he simplv reminded his readers that St. Augustine and St. John Damascenus had also opposed the doctrine of the antipodes. The book did good service in France, and was translated in Germany a few years later.

All these were denounced as infidels and heretics, yet none the less did they set men at thinking, and prepare the way for a far greater genius; for toward the end of the same century the philosophic attack was taken up by Pierre Bayle, and in the whole series of philosophic champions he is chief. While professor at the University of Sedan he had observed the alarm caused by the comet of 1680, and he now brought all his reasoning powers to bear upon it. Thoughts deep and witty he poured out in volume after volume. Catholics and Protestants were alike scandalized. Catholic France spurned him, and Jurieu, the great Reformed divine, called his cometary views ``atheism,'' and tried hard to have Protestant Holland condemn him. Though Bayle did not touch immediately the mass of mankind, he wrought with power upon men who gave themselves the trouble of thinking. It was indeed unfortunate for the Church that theologians, instead of taking the initiative in this matter, left it to Bayle; for, in tearing down the pretended scriptural doctrine of comets, he tore down much else: of all men in his time, no one so thoroughly prepared the way for Voltaire.

Bayle's whole argument is rooted in the prophecy of Seneca. He declares: ``Comets are bodies subject to the ordinary law of Nature, and not prodigies amenable to no law.'' He shows historically that there is no reason to regard comets as portents of earthly evils. As to the fact that such evils occur after the passage of comets across the sky, he compares the person believing that comets cause these evils to a woman looking out of a window into a Paris street and believing that the carriages pass because she looks out. As to the accomplishment of some predictions, he cites the shrewd saying of Henry IV, to the effect that ``the public will remember one prediction that comes true better than all the rest that have proved false.'' Finally, he sums up by saying: ``The more we study man, the more does it appear that pride is his ruling passion, and that he affects grandeur even in his misery. Mean and perishable creature that he is, he has been able to persuade men that he can not die without disturbing the whole course of Nature and obliging the heavens to put themselves to fresh expense. In order to light his funeral pomp. Foolish and ridiculous vanity! If we had a just idea of the universe, we should soon comprehend that the death or birth of a prince is too insignificant a matter to stir the heavens.''

This great philosophic champion of right reason was followed by a literary champion hardly less famous; for Fontenelle now gave to the French theatre his play of The Comet, and a point of capital importance in France was made by rendering the army of ignorance ridiculous.

Such was the line of philosophic and literary attack, as developed from Scaliger to Fontenelle. But beneath and in the midst of all of it, from first to last, giving firmness, strength, and new sources of vitality to it, was the steady development of scientific effort; and to the series of great men who patiently wrought and thought out the truth by scientific methods through all these centuries belong the honours of the victory.

For generations men in various parts of the world had been making careful observations on these strange bodies. As far back as the time when Luther and Melanchthon and Zwingli were plunged into alarm by various comets from 1531 to 1539, Peter Apian kept his head sufficiently cool to make scientific notes of their paths through the heavens. A little later, when the great comet of 1556 scared popes, emperors, and reformers alike, such men as Fabricius at Vienna and Heller at Nuremberg quietly observed its path. In vain did men like Dieterich and Heerbrand and Celich from various parts of Germany denounce such observations and investigations as impious; they were steadily continued, and in 1577 came the first which led to the distinct foundation of the modern doctrine. In that year appeared a comet which again plunged Europe into alarm. In every European country this alarm was strong, but in Germany strongest of all. The churches were filled with terror-stricken multitudes. Celich preaching at Magdeburg was echoed by Heerbrand preaching at Tubingen, and both these from thousands of other pulpits, Catholic and Protestant, throughout Europe. In the midst of all this din and outcry a few men quietly but steadily observed the monster; and Tycho Brahe announced, as the result, that its path lay farther from the earth than the orbit of the moon. Another great astronomical genius, Kepler, confirmed this. This distinct beginning of the new doctrine was bitterly opposed by theologians; they denounced it as one of the evil results of that scientific meddling with the designs of Providence against which they had so long declaimed in pulpits and professors' chairs; they even brought forward some astronomers ambitious or wrong-headed enough to testify that Tycho and Kepler were in error.

Nothing could be more natural than such opposition; for this simple announcement by Tycho Brahe began a new era. It shook the very foundation of cometary superstition. The Aristotelian view, developed by the theologians, was that what lies within the moon's orbit appertains to the earth and is essentially transitory and evil, while what lies beyond it belongs to the heavens and is permanent, regular, and pure. Tycho Brahe and Kepler, therefore, having by means of scientific observation and thought taken comets out of the category of meteors and appearances in the neighbourhood of the earth, and placed them among the heavenly bodies, dealt a blow at the very foundations of the theological argument, and gave a great impulse to the idea that comets are themselves heavenly bodies moving regularly and in obedience to law.