Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Work of the Royal Society
By John Evelyn (16201706)
From the Address to the Reader in Silva
THOSE who perfectly comprehend the scope and end of that noble institution, which is to improve natural knowledge, and enlarge the empire of operative philosophy, not by an abolition of old, but by the real effects of the experimentalcollecting, examining, and improving their scattered phenomena, with a view to establish even the received methods and principles of the schools, as far as were consistent with truth and matter of fact, thought it long enough that the world had been imposed upon by that notional and formal way of delivering divers systems and bodies of philosophy, falsely so called, beyond which there was no more country to discover; which being brought to the test and trial, vapours all away in fume and empty sound.
This structure then being thus ruinous and crazy, it is obvious what they were to doeven the same which skilful architects do every day before usby pulling down the decayed and sinking wall, to erect a better and more substantial in its place. They not only take down the old, reject the useless and decayed, but sever such materials as are solid, and will serve again; bring new ones in, prepare and frame a model suitable to so magnificent a design: this Solomon did in order to the building of the material temple, and this is here to be pursued in the intellectual: nay, here was abundance of rubbish to be cleared, that the area might be free; and then was the foundation to be deeply searched, the materials accurately examined, squared, and adjusted before it could be laid: nor was this the labour of a few; less than a much longer time, more cost and encouragement than any which the Society has yet met withal, could not in season be sufficient effectually to go through so chargeable a work, and highly necessary.
A long time it was they had been surveying the decays of what was ready now to drop in pieces. Whatever show the outside made with a noise of elements and qualities, occult and evident, abhorrence of vacuum, sympathies, antipathies, substantial forms, and prime matter courting form; epicycles, Ptolemean hypothesis, magisterial definitions, peremptory maxims, speculative and positive doctrines, and alti-sonant phrases, with a thousand other precarious and unintelligible notions (all which they have been turning over to see if they could find anything sincere and useful among this pedantic rubbish, but in vain), here was nothing material, nothing of moment, mathematical or mechanical, and which had not been miserably sophisticated, on which to lay the stress; nothing in a manner whereby any further progress could be made, for the raising and ennobling the dignity of mankind in the sublimest operations of the rational faculty, by clearing the obscurities, and healing the defects of most of the physiological hypotheses, repugnant, as they hitherto seemed to be, to the principles of real knowledge and experience.
Now, although it was neither in their hopes or in their prospect to consummate a design requiring so mighty aids, environed as they have been with these prejudices, yet have they not desisted from the enterprise; but rather than so noble and illustrious an undertaking should not proceed for want of some generous and industrious spirits to promote the work, they have themselves submitted to those mean employments of digging in the very quarry; yea, even of making bricks where there was no straw but what they gleaned, and lay dispersed up and down; nor did they think their pains yet ill bestowed, if, through the assiduous labour and train of continual experiments they might at last furnish and leave solid and uncorrupt materials to a succeeding and more grateful age, for the building up a body of real and substantial philosophy, which should never succumb to time, but with the ruins of nature and the world itself.
In order to this how many, and almost innumerable, have been their trials and experiments through the large and ample field of art and nature! we call our journals, registers, correspondence, and transactions to witness; and may, with modesty, provoke all our systematical methodists, natural historians, and pretenders, hitherto extant from the beginning of letters to this period, to show us so ample, so worthy, and so useful a collection. It is a fatality and an injury to be deplored, that those who give us hard words will not first vouchsafe impartially to examine these particulars, since all ingenious spirits could not but be abundantly satisfied, that this illustrious assembly has not met so many years purely for speculation only; though I take even that to be no ignoble culture of the mind, or time misspent, for persons who have so few friends, and slender obligations to those who should patronise and encourage them: but they have aimed at greater things, and greater things produced. By emancipating and freeing themselves from the tyranny of opinion, delusory and fallacious shows, they receive nothing upon trust, but bring all things to the Lydian touch; make them pass the fire, the anvil, and the file, till they come forth perfectly repurged, and of consistence. They are not hasty in pronouncing from a single or incompetent number of experiments the ecstatic [Greek], and offer hecatombs; but, after the most diligent scrutiny, and by degrees, and wary inductions honestly and faithfully made, record the truth and event of trials, and transmit them to posterity. They resort not immediately to general propositions upon every specious appearance, but stay for light and information from particulars, and make report de facto, and as sense informs them. They reject no sect of philosophers, no mechanic helps, except no persons of men, but cheerfully embracing all, cull out of all, and alone retain what abides the test; that, from a plentiful and well-furnished magazine of true experiments they may in time advance to solemn and established axioms, general rules and maxims; and a structure may indeed lift up its head, such as may stand the shock of time, and render a solid account of the phenomena and effects of nature, the aspectable1 works of God, and their combinations; so as, by causes and effects, certain and useful consequences may be deduced. Therefore they do not fill their papers with transcripts out of rhapsodies, mountebanks, and compilers of receipts and secrets, to the loss of oil and labour; but, as it were, eviscerating nature, disclosing the resorts and springs of motion, have collected innumerable experiments, histories, and discourses, and brought in specimens for the improvement of astronomy, geography, navigation, optics, all the parts of agriculture, the garden, and the forest, anatomy of plants and animals, mines and ores, measures and equations of time by accurate pendulums and other motions, hydro- and hygro-statics,2 divers engines, powers, and automata, with innumerable more luciferous particulars subservient to human life, of which Dr. Glanvil has given an ample and ingenious account in his learned essay, and since in the posthumous works of Dr. Hooke, lately published by the most obliging Mr. Waller, already mentioned.
This is, reader, what they have done, and they are but part of the materials which the Society have hitherto amassed and prepared for this great and illustrious work; not to pass over an infinity of solitary and loose experiments subsidiary to it, gathered at no small pains and cost: for so have they hitherto borne the burden and heat of the day alone, sapping and mining to lay the foundation deep, and raise a superstructure to be one day perfected by the joint endeavours of those who shall in a kinder age have little else to do but the putting and cementing of the parts together, which, to collect and fit have cost them so much solicitude and care. Solomon indeed built the glorious temple, but David provided the materials. Did men in those days insolently ask, What had he done in all the time of that tedious preparation? I beseech you what obligation has the Royal Society to render an account of their proceedings to any who are not of the body, especially when they carry on the work at their own expense amidst so many contradictions? It is an evil spirit and an evil age, which, having sadly debauched the minds of men, seeks with industry to blast and undermine all attempts and endeavours that signify, to the illustration of truth, the discovery of imposture and its sandy foundation.