Nevertheless, the conception of the world developed by Buffon was not materialist. In the beginning there had clearly been an 'impulsive force' which could only have been produced by 'the hand of God'.40 In a similar vein, he occasionally interrupted the narrative of the Histoire naturelle with his 'Views', in which he stepped back from the text and brought together the main points of his analyses, always taking care to place God at the summit. Thus, in his 'First View', Buffon defined as he saw it the relationship between God and nature. 'Nature', he wrote, is the system of laws drawn up by the Creator for the existence of things and the inheritance of human beings. Nature is not a thing, for that thing would be everything; nature is not a being, for that being would be God. We may see it rather as a vital force, vast, encompassing all, animating all, and which, being subordinate to the power of the supreme being, began to act only at his command, and continues to act only with his support and his consent.41
This wonderful text is no doubt indicative of Buffon's state of mind when he began writing his Histoire naturelle. Yet, as some contemporary critics have observed, his thinking may well have evolved as his work progressed.42 He opened his last work, Les Epoques de la nature (1778), with a commentary on Genesis. But after citing the first verse ('In the beginning God created heaven and earth'), he made what he felt was a vital modification to this text. The verse should read rather 'In the beginning God created THE MATTER of heaven and the earth'.43 Thus, between the act of creation and the earth's final formation, hundreds of thousands - even millions - of years could have elapsed.44 Indeed, the reader might even wonder about the true necessity of such a first act, and consequently, of God himself.
Even earlier, in the Encyclopedie edited by Diderot and d'Alembert, several authors had suggested similar ideas.45 Some years later, in his Systeme de la Nature ou des Loix du monde Physique et du monde moral (1771), Baron Paul Henri d'Holbach was not afraid to expound publicly his materialist theses, diffusing them widely under a pseudonym.46 In the course of his exposition, he even appeared to respond to Buffon, who had left the creation ofmatter in the hands of God. 'Thus when someone wants to know where matter comes from', wrote d'Holbach, 'we will reply that it has always existed. And if someone asks how matter came to move, we will reply that simply for the same reason it has moved since all eternity'.47
All the same, despite its renown, the Systeme de la Nature was more a materialist manifesto than a scientific work. The majority of Enlightenment scientists were much more prudent than d'Holbach. When they had doubts, they took
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