Monday, 28 May 2012

Facile Credo

Here's the epigraph to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner:
Facile credo, plures esse Naturas invisibiles quam visibiles in rerum universitate. Sed horum omnium familiam quis nobis enarrabit? et gradus et cognationes et discrimina et singulorum munera? Quid agunt? quae loca habitant? Harum rerum notitiam semper ambivit ingenium humanum, nunquam attigit. Juvat, interea, non diffiteor, quandoque in animo, tanquam in tabulâ, majoris et melioris mundi imaginem contemplari: ne mens assuefacta hodiernae vitae minutiis se contrahat nimis, et tota subsidat in pusillas cogitationes. Sed veritati interea invigilandum est, modusque servandus, ut certa ab incertis, diem a nocte, distinguamus. - T. Burnet, Archaeol. Phil., p. 68

[English translation: I easily believe, that there are more invisible Entities in the universe than visible ones. But who can describe how they are grouped together? and their ranks and relationships and distinguishing features and qualities? What they do? In which places do they live? The mind of man has always circled about knowledge of these things, without ever attaining it. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that on occasion it is good for us to imagine, as if it were pictured upon a tablet, the image of a greater and better world; lest the intellect, habituated to the banalities of everyday life, contract itself too and be overwhelmed with trivia. But at the same time we must be vigilant for truth, and maintain a proper proportion, so that we may distinguish certainty from uncertainty, day from night. (Thomas Burnet (1635-1715), Archaeologiae Philosophicae (1692) p. 68)]
Thomas Burnet (1634-1715) was one of the most eminent theologians and writers on what was then called ‘natural philosophy’ of his generation. Born in Yorkshire, he studied at Cambridge University. In 1685 he became a master as Charterhouse School in London. He was most celebrated in his own day for his two part Telluris Theoria Sacra (published in Latin in 1681 and 1689; an English translation, The Sacred Theory of the Earth, appeared in 1684 and 1689). The book was an attempt systematically to harmonize geological knowledge of the Earth with scripture: for example, after calculating that the total water in the Earth’s oceans and icecaps is insufficient to account for Noah’s flood, Burnet deduces that the Earth must be hollow, and filled with water. His Archaeologiae philosophicae: sive Doctrina Antiqua de Rerum Originibus or 'The Ancient Doctrine Concerning the Origin of Things' (published originally in Latin in 1692; portions were later translated into English during Burnet's life, the whole things appearing in English after his death in 1729) was more controversial. Burnet had just, that year, become Chaplain to the British King William III; but the speculations contained in this book—not least, that the fall of man was a symbolic rather than a literal or historical event—created such outrage that he was forced to resign his position at court (a contemporary judged that Burnet ‘had very ill Principles, contrary to the Religion we profess’). The passage Coleridge appends to the beginning of The Ancient Mariner is not quoted verbatim, but boiled down from a page-long passage in Book 1, chapter 7: ‘De Hebraeis, eorumque Cabalâ’ [Of the Jews and their Kabbala’].  Here is that passage, as interesting -- indeed, more interesting -- for what Coleridge omits as what he quotes. After a lengthy demolition job on the credibility and coherence of the 'Cabala', Burnet goes on:

This much for the Jewish Cabala.  I am not sorry that I have dwelt so long on this Argument, since whatsoever used to be produced from the Jews, concerning the Knowledge of divine and natural Things depends upon it.  For the Jews set forth nothing under the name of Wisdom, but the Law and the Cabala; and the Mysteries which lie hid in the Law are explained by the Virtue and Help of the Cabala.  Nor have I written these things to confute that Doctrine, for that cannot be confuted which is hidden in Darkness; but my Design was to propose, either that a Method should be found out to make it clear and intelligible, or else that it should be condemned to eternal Shades.  In the mean Time, I gave this Caution, lest the unwary should be hurt by it; and have endeavoured to the utmost of my Ability, that it should not lead any into Errors, through cross, obscure, and winding Paths. 

The first Part of Wisdom is to cease from Folly, and the first Step to Truth, is to take heed of Errors, for the avoiding which in the Study of Wisdom, it ought always with us to have the Force of a Law, wholly to rely on no Authority, but what is Divine, and on no Reason but what is clear and distinct. We often fall into Errors from a too vehement Desire of increasing our Knowledge, or from an hasty assent of the Mind before due Examination; or sometimes it proceeds from a Desire of knowing those Things, the Nature of which will not admit of an Examination; that is, which we can never reach by our own Strength, nor by any Light given to us by Nature, or imparted by Revelation. Of this Kind are the Speculations about the Angelical World, and its Furniture, into how many principal Kinds and subaltern Ranks the Celestial Hierarchy are distributed; what their Employments are, and in what Mansions they dwell. I can easily believe, that there are more Invisible than Visible Beings in the Universe; and that there are more Orders of Angels in the Heavens, than variety of Fishes in the Sea; but who will declare to us the Family of all these, and acquaint us with the Agreements, Differences, and peculiar Talents which are to be found among them? It is true, Human Wit has, always desired a Knowledge of these Things, though it has never yet attained it. The Heathen Divines have very much philosophized about the invisible World of Souls, Genii, Manes, Demons, Heroes, Minds, Deities, and Gods, as we may see in Jambilicus’s Treatise on the Mysteries of the Aegyptians, and in Psellus and Pletho on the Chaldean Rites, and every where in the Platonic Authors. Some Christian Divines have imitated these also, with Reference to the Orders of Angels; and the Gnostics have feigned many Things in this Matter, under the Names of Eons and Gods. Moreover, the Cabalists in their Jetzirah (or World Angels) range Myriads of Angels under their Leaders Sandalphon and Metatron, as they who are Conversant in those Studies very well know. But of what Value are all these Things? Has this Seraphic Philosophy any Thing sincere or solid in it? I know that St. Paul [Col. i:16] speaks of the Angelic World, and has taken Notice of many Orders and Distinctions among them; but this in general only; he does not philosophize about them; he disputes not, nor teaches any thing in particular concerning them; nay, on the contrary, he reproves those [Col. ii:8] as puft up with vain Science, who rashly thrust themselves forwards to seek into these unknown and unsearchable Things.  I will own that it is very profitable, sometimes to contemplate in the Mind, as in a Draught, the Image of the greater and better World; lest the Soul being accustomed to the Trifles of this present Life, should contract itself too much and altogether rest in mean Cogitations; but, in the mean Time, we must take Care to keep to the Truth, and observe Moderation, that we may distinguish certain from uncertain Things, and Day from Night.  For it is the Part of a wise Man not only to know those Things which are to be known, but also to distinguish and discern those Things which cannot be known. [Thomas Burnet, De Rerum Originibus: or an Inquiry into the Doctrine of the Philosophers of all Nations concerning the Original of the World; made English from the Latin Original: by Mr Mead and Mr Foxton (London 1736), 85-88]
Omitting the line about how 'there are more Orders of Angels in the Heavens, than variety of Fishes in the Sea' seems odd in the epigraph to so nautical a poem; but more substantial is the way St Paul is cut from the whole.

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