whom one could reach through reason, because He was always at work 'in a perpetual present'.34 In this manner, the idea of divine providence that would be put into question in the eighteenth century was not only upheld, but in fact strengthened.35 It was clear that Leibniz's religious thought, relying on the latest advances in science, had not so much broken with Christian tradition as given it new force.

Nature alone

At a certain point, Leibniz (who was also a geologist) was asked to clarify his views on the duration of Creation.36 Had it really happened in the space of six days, as the Bible said? Leibniz did not see the question as being of vital importance: 'I do not dare determine if the six "days" of the Creation consisted of years, or of much longer periods', he explained to a correspondent in 1698. 'I would probably share the view of those who link Genesis only to the formation of the earth's sphere, and interpret the creation of the stars as their first appearance to our sight - if I could do so without transgressing the proper use of language.'37 However, with time, the question became much more complicated. At first the discovery of fossils seemed to support the biblical flood. But soon fossils were being discovered everywhere, leading to the idea that there had been not just one but many floods. Moreover, stories similar to that of Noah in the Book of Genesis were found to exist in a wide diversity of civilizations. There seemed no choice but to conclude that the sea had covered huge areas ofthe planet, perhaps the entire surface, for centuries -some even thought for hundreds of centuries.

The time came when the finest naturalists of the period were no longer satisfied with questioning the biblical chronology or various events described in the book of Genesis, but the act of creation itself. Buffon was a committed Newtonian who had greatly furthered his renown among French intellectuals by translating the mathematician's treatise on infinitesimal calculus.38 Buffon also chose to place his Théorie de la terre (1749), freely inspired by Newton's Principia, at the beginning ofhis Histoire naturelle (1749-67). In the beginning, he explained, the sun had been nothing but a simple star, with its incandescence maintained, according to the laws of gravity, by the comets that circled round it. But, he continued, 'sometimes the comets go so close to the sun that some inevitably fall into it'.39 At some point, one of them had detached part of the sun's matter, which was then projected into space and was acted on by the forces of universal gravitation. Little by little, this mass of liquid and gas cooled and became our earth.

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