Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Value of Natural Philosophy
By Robert Boyle (16271691)
From Usefulness of Natural Philosophy
THE NATURAL philosophy wont to be taught in schools, being little other than a system of the opinions of Aristotle and some few other writers, is not, I confess, Pyrophilus, very difficult to be learned; as being attainable by the perusal of a few of the more current authors. But, Pyrophilus, that experimental philosophy which you will find treated of in the following essays is a study, if duly prosecuted, so difficult, so changeable, and so toilsome that I think it requisite, before I propose any particular subjects to your inquiries, to possess you with a just value of true and solid physiology; and to convince you that, by endeavouring to addict you to it, I invite you not to misspend your time or trouble on a science unable to merit and requite it. In order, Pyrophilus, to the giving you this satisfaction, give me leave to mind you that it was a saying of Pythagoras, worthy so celebrated a philosopher, that there are two things which most ennoble man, and make him resemble the gods; to know the truth, and to do good. For, Pyrophilus, that diviner part of man, the soul, which alone is capable of wearing the glorious image of its author, being endowed with two chief faculties, the understanding and the will, the former is blest and perfectionated by knowledge, and the latters loveliest and most improving property is goodness. A due reflection upon this excellent sentence of him to whom philosophers owe that modest name, should, methinks, Pyrophilus, very much endear to us the study of natural philosophy. For there is no human science that does more gratify and enrich the understanding with variety of choice and acceptable truths; nor scarce any, that does more enable a willing mind to exercise a goodness beneficial to others.
To manifest these truths more distinctly, Pyrophilus, and yet without exceeding that brevity my avocations and the bounds of an essay exact of me, I shall, among the numerous advantages accruing to men from the study of the book of nature, content myself to instance only in a couple that relate more properly to the improving of mens understandings, and to mention a few of those many by which it increases their power.
The two great advantages which a real acquaintance with nature brings to our minds are, first, by instructing our understandings, and gratifying our curiosities; and next, by exciting and cherishing our devotion.
And for the first of these; since, as Aristotle teacheth, and was taught himself by common experience, all men are naturally desirous to know; that propensity cannot but be powerfully engaged to the works of nature, which, being incessantly present to our senses, do continually solicit our curiosities; of whose potent inclining us to the contemplation of natures wonders, it is not, perhaps, the inconsiderablest instance, that, though the natural philosophy hitherto taught in most schools hath been so litigious in its theory, and so barren as to its productions, yet it hath found numbers of zealous and learned cultivators, whom sure nothing but mens inbred fondness for the object it converses with, and the end it pretends to, could so passionately devote to it.
And since that (as the same Aristotle, taught by his master Plato, well observes) admiration is the parent of philosophy, by engaging us to enquire into the causes of things at which we marvel, we cannot but be powerfully invited to the contemplation of nature, by living and conversing among wonders, some of which are obvious and conspicuous enough to amaze even ordinary beholders, and others admirable and abstruse enough to astonish the most inquisitive spectators.
The bare prospect of this magnificent fabric of the universe, furnished and adorned with such strange variety of curious and useful creatures, would suffice to transport us both with wonder and joy if their commonness did not hinder their operations. Of which truth Mr. Stepkins, the famous oculist, did not long since supply us with a memorable instance; for (as both himself and an illustrious person that was present at the cure, informed me) a maid of about eighteen years of age, having by a couple of cataracts that she brought with her into the world, lived absolutely blind from the moment of her birth, being brought to the free use of her eyes, was so ravished at the surprising spectacle of so many and various objects as presented themselves to her unacquainted sight, that almost everything she saw transported her with such admiration and delight that she was in danger to lose the eyes of her mind by those of her body, and expound that mystical Arabian proverb which advises to shut the windows that the house may be light.