Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Authority of the Ancients
By Bishop John Wilkins (16141672)
From A Discourse Concerning a New Planet
IN weighing the authority of others, it is not their multitude that should prevail, or their skill in some things that should make them of credit in everything; but we should examine what particular insight and experience they had in those things for which they are cited. Now it is plain, that common people judge by their senses, and therefore their voices are altogether unfit to decide any philosophical doubt, which cannot well be examined or explained without discourse and reason. And as for the ancient fathers, though they were men very eminent for their holy lives, and extraordinary skill in divinity, yet they were most of them very ignorant in that part of learning which concerns this opinion; as appears by many of their gross mistakes in this kind; as that concerning the antipodes, etc.; and therefore it is not their opinion neither, in this business, that to an indifferent seeker of truth will be of any strong authority.
But against this it is objected. That the instance of the antipodes does not argue any special ignorance in these learned men; or that they had less skill in such human arts than others; since Aristotle himself, and Pliny, did deny this as well as they.
1. If they did, yet this does make more to the present purpose: for if such great scholars, who were so eminent for their knowledge in natural things, might yet notwithstanding be grossly mistaken in such matters as are now evident and certain, why then we have no reason to depend upon their assertions or authorities, as if they were infallible.
2. Though these great naturalists, for want of some experience, were mistaken in that opinion, while they thought no place was habitable but the temperate zones: yet it cannot be from hence inferred that they denied the possibility of antipodes: since these are such inhabitants as live opposite unto us in the other temperate zone: and it were an absurd thing to imagine that those who lived in different zones can be antipodes to one another; and argues that a man did not understand, or else had forgotten that common distinction in geography, wherein the relation of the worlds inhabitants unto one another are reckoned up under these three heads; antaci, periæci, and antipodes. But to let this pass; it is certain that some of the fathers did deny the being of any such, upon other more absurd grounds. Now if such as Chrysostom, Lactantius, etc., who were noted for great scholars; and such too as flourished in these latter times, when all human learning was more generally professed, should notwithstanding be so much mistaken in so obvious a matter: why then may we not think that these primitive saints, who were the penmen of Scripture, and eminent above others in their time for holiness and knowledge, might yet be utterly ignorant of many philosophical truths, which are commonly known in these days? It is probable that the Holy Ghost did inform them only with the knowledge of those things whereof they were to be the penmen, and that they were not better skilled in points of philosophy than others. There were, indeed, some of them who were supernaturally endowed with human learning; yet this was, because they might thereby be fitted for some particular ends, which all the rest were not appointed unto; thus Solomon was strangely gifted with all kind of knowledge in a great measure; because he was to teach us by his experience the extreme vanity of it, that we might not so settle our desires upon it, as if it were able to yield us contentment. So too the apostles were extraordinarily inspired with the knowledge of languages, because they were to preach unto all nations. But it will not hence follow, that, therefore, the other holy penmen were greater scholars than others. It is likely that Job had as much human learning as most of them, because his book is more especially remarkable for lofty expressions, and discourses of nature; and yet it is not likely that he was acquainted with all those mysteries which later ages have discovered; because when God would convince him of his own folly and ignorance, he proposes to him such questions as being altogether unanswerable, which notwithstanding, any ordinary philosopher in these days might have resolved. As you may see at large in the thirty-eighth chapter of that book.
The occasion was this: Job having before desired that he might dispute with the Almighty concerning the uprightness of his own ways, and the unreasonableness of those afflictions which he underwent, does at length obtain his desire in this kind; and God vouchsafes, in this thirty-eighth chapter, to argue the case with him. Where he does show Job how unfit he was to judge of the ways of providence, in disposing of blessings and afflictions; when he was so ignorant in ordinary matters, being not able to discern the reason of natural and common events. As why the sea should be so bounded from overflowing the land? What is the breadth of the earth? What is the reason of the snow or hail? What was the cause of the rain or dew, of ice and frost, and the like? By which questions, it seems, Job was so utterly puzzled, that he is fain afterwards to humble himself in this acknowledgment: I have uttered that I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
So that it is likely these holy men had not these human arts by any special inspiration, but by instruction and study, and other ordinary means; and therefore Moses his skill in this kind is called the learning of the Egyptians. Now, because in those times all, sciences were taught only in a rude and imperfect manner; therefore it is likely that they also had but a dark and confused apprehension of things, and were liable to the common errors. And for this reason is it, why Tostatus (speaking of Joshuas bidding the moon stand still as well as the sun) says, Quod forte erat imperitus circa astrorum doctrinam, sentiens ut vulgares sentiunt: that perhaps he was unskilful in astronomy, having the same gross conceit of the heavens, as the vulgar had. From all which it may be inferred, that the ignorance of such good men and great scholars concerning these philosophical points can be no sufficient reason why, after examination, we should deny them, or doubt their truth.