Sivut kuvina
PDF
ePub

to have perished: forty to have changed their magnitude by becoming either much larger or much smaller; and ten new stars to have supplied the place of those that are lost.* Some of these changes may perhaps be accounted for by supposing a proper motion in the solar or siderial systems by which the relative positions of several of the heavenly bodies have varied. But this explanation, though it may apply to several of the cases, will by no means apply to all of them ; in many instances it is unquestionable, that the stars themselves, the supposed habitations of other kinds or orders of intelligent beings, together with the different planets by which it is probable they were surrounded, and to which they may have given light and fructifying seasons, as the sun gives light and fruitfulness to the earth, have utterly vanished, and the spots which they occupied in the heavens have become blanks. What has thus befallen other systems will assuredly befall our own; of the time and the manner we know nothing, but the fact is incontrovertible; it is foretold by revelation, it is inscribed in the heavens, it is felt throughout the earth. Such is the awful and daily text; what then ought to be the comment?

LECTURE II.

ON THE ELEMENTARY AND CONSTITUENT PRINCIPLES OF THINGS.

Our study for the present lecture is the first or simplest principles of bodies, so far as we have hitherto been able to obtain any degree of knowledge upon this recondite inquiry, and the means by which they are combined or separated from each other, so as to produce different kinds and orders of sensible objects.

A very slight contemplation of nature is sufficient to show us that matter under every visible form and modification, when regarded in its general mass, is perpetually changing; alternately living, dying, and reviving; decomposing into elements that elude our pursuit; and recombining into new shapes and energies and modes of existence. The purest and most compact metals become tarnished or converted into a calx or oxide on its surface, and the most durable and crystallized rocks crumble into granules ; and the matter constituting these oxides and granules, by an additional series of operations, is still farther decomposed, till every vestige of their late character is lost, and the elementary principles of which they consisted are appropriated to other purposes, and spring to view under other forms and faculties. The same process takes place in the organized world. The germ becomes a seed, the seed a sapling, the sapling a tree; the embryo becomes an infant, the infant a youth, the youth a man: and having thus ascended the scale of maturity, both, in like manner, begin the downward path to decay; and, so far as relates to the visible materials of which they consist, both at length moulder into one common elementary mass, and furnish fresh fuel for fresh generations of animal or vegetable existence; so that all is in motion, all is striving to burst the bonds of its present state; not an atom is idle; and the frugal economy of nature makes one set of materials answer the purpose of many, and moulds it into every diversified figure of being and beauty and happiness.

It has hence been said, that matter is necessarily corruptible, and is perpetually changing from its intrinsic nature, and that the physical and moral evils of life are mainly attributable to this perverse and incorrigible propensity. Such was the doctrine of many of the most eminent schools of ancient philosophy, both of Greece and Asia, and such continues to be the doctrine of various schools of the present day; a doctrine which has not unfrequently been considered as of the utmost importance, and as forming the best defence of the benevolence of the Supreme Architect; who, we are told, notwith

• See Dr. Herschel's Observations compared with Flamsteed's, Phil. Trans. vol. Ixxiii. art. 17

standing all the pains and calamities, the tumults and disorders of nature, has made the most of matter that it would admit of; and has tempered it not only with a positive predominancy of good over evil, but with as much and as real good as could possibly be infused into it:

To argue thus is to revive the theory of pure Platonism, far too extensively introduced into the Christian world, as I hinted in our last lecture, upon the first conversion of the Grecian philosophers, who had been chiefly students in the Platonic school; and to suppose the existence of matter as an independent and eternal principle. “God,” says the sublime but mistaken founder of this school, “ wills, as far as it is possible, every thing good and nothing evil;"* “but it cannot be that evil should be destroyed, for there must always be a something contrary to good,”ť a kúumuros émeBupla, “ an in. nate propensity to disorder," in that eternal and independent principle of matter out of which all visible things are created.

How much more consolatory, as well as agreeable to right reason, is the view taken of this abstruse subject in the pages of genuine, unsophisticated, and unphilosophized revelation, in which the present is represented as a state, not of actual necessity, but of preordained probation; willed, in infinite wisdom, by the great First Cause, to promote the best ultimate happiness of man: and matter as a substance produced out of nothing by his almighty fiat! It was one of the express objects of the preceding lecture to prove, not only that matter does exist, in opposition to those who have thought it expedient to deny the being of a sensible and material world, but that it could not exist by any other means; and that, while there is no self-contradiction or absurdity in contending that matter, and that ten thousand other substances than matter, may be produced out of nothing by the energy of an infinite and omnipotent intelligence, there is so pure and perfect an absurdity in endeavouring to account for its existence upon every other theory which has hitherto been invented, that right reason should induce us to embrace the former opinion with the same promptitude with which we fly from every opinion that opposes it.

Matter, then, is the production of an almighty intelligence, and as such is entitled to our reverence; although, from a just abhorrence of many ancient, and not a few modern errors, it has too often been regarded in a low and contemptible light. Though not essentially eternal, as was contended for by all the schools of Greece and Asia, nor essentially intelligent, as was contended for by several of them, it evinces in every part and in every operation the impress of a divine origin, and is the only pathway vouchsafed to our external senses by which we can walk

Through nature up to nature's God;' that God whom we behold equally in the painted pebble and the painted flower-in the volcano and in the cornfield-in the wild winter storm and in the soft summer moonlight. Although, when contemplated in its aggregate mass, and especially in its organized form, it is perpetually changing, it is every where perfect in its kind, and even at present bears indubitable proofs of being capacified for incorruptibility. In its elementary principles it is maintained by the best schools of both ancient and modern times to be solid and unchangeable; and, even in many of its compound forms, it discovers an obvious approach to the same character. The firm and mighty mass that constitutes the pyramids of Egypt has resisted the assaults of time and of tempests for, perhaps, upwards of four thousand years, and by many critical antiquaries is supposed to have triumphed over the deluge itself. While there is little doubt that the hard and closely crystallized granitic mountains of every country in which they occur,“ the everlasting hills,” to copy a correct and beautiful figure from the pages of Hebrew poetry, are coeval with the creation, and form at this moment, as they formed at first, the lowest depths, as well as the topmost peaks of the globe. That they are in • Theæet. t. L p. 176.

ffbid.

Phileb. See also Brucher, Hist. Phil. lib. II. cap. vill. 01.

every instance considerably attenuated and wasted away admits, indeed, of no doubt; but to have borne the brunt of so long and incessant a warfare, without actually being worn down to the level of the circumjacent plains, affords no feeble proof of an almost imperishable nature, and a proof Open to the contemplation of the most common capacities.

There are various examples of the Macedonian stater or gold coin, struck in the reign of Philip, at this time preserved in the rich cabinet of the Flo. rence gallery,* which, though they have continued in existence for at least 2200 years, do not not appear to have lost any thing of their weight. Bar thelemi, making a trivial mistake in the weight of the drachma, which he calculated at 66.55 grains English, suspected that these had sustained upor the average a loss of about seven-eighths of a grain during this long period: but as M. Fabbroni has since satisfactorily proved that the drachma was not more than 66.8 grains, and as this is the actual weight of several staters in this cabinet, we have a demonstration that they have sustained no diminution whatever.

Yet, in its liquid and gaseous state, matter often exhibits still more extratraordinary instances of indestructibility or resistance to decomposition; and it should be especially remarked, that its indestructibility or indecomposable power appears to hold a direct proportion to its subtility, its levity, its activity, its refined ethereal or spiritualized modification of being.

Water is as much a compound as any of the earths, yet we have strong reason for believing that for the most part it exists unchangeably from age to age; and that its integrity has been not essentially interfered with from the commencement of the world. Its constituent parts are by no means broken into, but continue the same, whether under a solid form, as that of ice; under its usual form, as that of a liquid; or under an elastic form, as that of vapour: it is the same in the atmosphere as on the earth; it falls down of the very same nature as it ascends, and the electric flash itself appears, generally speaking, to have no other influence upon it than that of hastening its precipitation. It is only to be decomposed, that we know of, by a very concentrated action of the most powerful chemical agents; and even this, whether by art or by nature, upon a very limited scale.

A similar identity appears to exist in atmospheric air, which is, probably, at least as indestructible as water; for its composition, when purged of the heterogeneous substances which are often combined with it, is the same in the deepest valleys as on the highest cliffs ; at the equator, and at the poles ; the earth's surface, and the height of 21,000 feet* above it: in many of which situations, and especially the more elevated, it is impossible for it ever to be generated; since the constituent parts of which it is composed are not found to exist in a separate state for its production. It is capable, indeed, of decomposition; but, like water, becomes decomposed with great difficulty, and probably consists at this moment, as to its general mass, of the very identic particles that formed it on its first emerging from a state of chaos.

Of the composition of the subtler gases we know nothing. The specific weight of several of them has been ascertained, and the constituent principles of one or two of them, as nitrogen and hydrogen, have been guessed at, but nothing more ; for the boldest experiments of chemistry have hitherto been exerted in vain to effect their decomposition. While as to those which are more immediately connected with the principle of animal life, and upon which many schools of modern philosophy have supposed it altogether to depend, as caloric, and the electric and voltaic fluids, the last of which seems in truth to be only a peculiar modification of the second, together with other substances or qualities which in subtilty and activity have a considerable resemblance to them, as light and the magnetic aura, we are not only wholly incapable of decomposing them by any process whatever, but even of determining them to be ponderable, or to possess any of the other common properties of matter, as extent and solidity. Whence we are, in fact, incapable

See Nicholson's Journal, vol. xxxii. p. 25.
† See Thomson's Chem. vol. iv. 64, as also Phil. Mag. xxi. 225.

of ascertaining whether they be matter at all, whether mere qualities of matter, or whether some other more subtle and spiritualized substances,* intermixing themselves under different combinations with the material mass, and giving birth to many of its most extraordinary properties and phenomena.

The question is entered upon at some length by Professor Bezelius, in his “ Explanatory Statement,” published in the Memoirs of the Academy of Stockholm for 1812, in which he endeavours to support the probability that the electric fluids and caloric are material as well as the fluid of light; but, to do this, he is compelled to alter the common definition of matter, and to contend that matter does not necessarily possess gravitation or aggregation.t

The materiality of light has been attempted to be proved by its effects on solutions of muriate of ammonia and prussiate of potash, when placed in a situation to be crystallized. The crystallization of these salts may be directed at pleasure by the introduction of light at one or the other side of the vessels containing such solutions. Camphor displays a like affinity for light. All this, however, shows merely that light possesses an influence of some kind; but it by no means establishes that such influence is a material one. I

Is it inquired to what important point these abstruse speculations lead ? may reply, among others, to the following:

First, to a probability, if not to a proof, that matter, under peculiar modifications, is capable of making an approximation to something beyond itself, as ordinarily displayed; and hereby of becoming fitted, whenever necessary, for an intercourse and union with an immaterial principle.

And, secondly, to a clearer view of the coincidence of natural phenomena with one of the most glorious discoveries of revelation. For notwithstanding that matter, under every visible shape and texture, is at present, in a greater or less degree, perpetually changing and decomposing, the moment we perceive that this is not a necessary effect, dependent upon its intrinsic nature, but a beneficial power superadded to it for the mere purpose of rendering it a more varied and more extensive medium of being, beauty, and happiness—the moment we find ground for believing, that in its elementary principles it is essentially solid and unchangeable; and that even in many of its compounds it is almost as much exempted from the law of change-we are prepared to contemplate a period in some distant futurity, in which, the great object for which it has been endowed with this superadded power being accomplished, the exemption may extend equally to every part and to every compound : a period in which there will be new heavens and a new earth, and whatever is now corruptible will put on incorruption.

But what, after all, is matter in its elementary principles, as far as we are capable of following them up? Can it be divided and subdivided to infinity? or is there a limit to such divisibility, beyond which the process cannot possibly proceed ? and if so, are the ultimate bodies into which it is capable of dissolving still susceptible of developement, or, from their attenuation, re. moved beyond all power of detection?

These are questions which have agitated the world in almost all ages, and have laid a foundation for a variety of theories, of too much consequence to be passed over in a course of physical investigation.

'The tenet of an infinite divisibility of matter, whether in ancient or modern times, appears to have been a mere invention for the purpose of avoiding one or two self-contradictions supposed to be chargeable upon the doctrine of its ultimate and elementary solidity ; but which, I much fear, will be found to have given birth to far more self-contradiction than it has removed. The mode of reasoning, however, by which this tenet was arrived at in ancient Greece, was essentially different from that by which it has been arrived at in our own day.

It being, as we observed in our last lecture, an uncontroverted maxim among all the Greek philosophers, of every sect and school whatever, that nothing could proceed from nothing, matter was of course conceived to have

* See Young's Lectures, vol. fi. p. 742, lec. IX. + See Nicholson's Journal, vol. xxxiv. p. 164, 165 ) * See Accun's Elements of Crystallography, and Tilloch's Phil. Mag. vol. xli. p. 367.

existed eternally, or it could not have existed at all. But it appeared obvious to most of them, that matter is as certainly unintelligent as they conjectured it is certainly eternal. The existence of intelligence, however, is still more demonstrable throughout nature than the existence of matter itself; and hence such philosophers were driven to the acknowledgment of an intelligent principle distinct from a material substance; and from the union of these two powers they accounted for the origin of the world: matter being merely passive and plastic, and put into form and endowed with the qualities and properties of body by the energy of the intelligent agent. But if form and corporeal properties have been communicated to it, it must, before such communication, and in its first or primal state, have been destitute of form; and that it was thus destitute is incontrovertible, continued the same schools of philosophy, because form presupposes the existence of intelligence, and must be, under every shape and modification, the product of an intelligent energy; for it is impossible that matter could have had a power of assuming one mode of form rather than another mode : since, if capable of assuming any kind, it must have been equally capable of assuming every kind, and, of course, of exhibiting intelligent effects without an intelligent cause, which would be utter nonsense.

Such is the general train of reasoning that seems to have operated upon the minds of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, in impelling them to the belief that matter, in its primary state, to adopt the words of Cicero, in which he ex. plains the Platonic doctrine, “is a substance without form or quality, but capable of receiving all forms, and undergoing every kind of change; in doing which, however, it never suffers annihilation, but merely a solution of its parts, which are in their nature infinitely divisible, and move in portions of space which are also infinitely divisible.**

But if we abstract from maiter form and quality, and at the same time deny it intelligence, what is there left to constitute it an eternal substance of any kind? and by what means could pure incorporeal intelligence endow it with form?

These difficulties are insuperable; and, though attempted to be explained in different ways by each of these philosophers, they press like millstones upon their different systems, and are perpetually in danger of drowning them. Pythagoras compared the existence of matter, in its primary and amorphous state, to pure arithmetical numbers, before they are rendered visible by arithmetical figures. Unity,” says he, “and one (the former of which he denominated monad) are to be distinguished from each other; unity is an abstract conception, resembling primary or incorporeai matter in its general aggregate ; one appertains to things capable of being numbered, and may be compared to matter rendered visible under a particular form.” So again, “ Number is not infinite any more than matter; but it is never, theless the source of that infinite divisibility into equal parts which is the property of all bodies.”+

Numbers, however, were not more generally had recourse to by Pythagoras, to typify elementary matter under different modifications, than they are in the present day by the most elaborate chemists, to express its particular combinations: “As in all well-known compounds," observes Sir Humphry Davy," the proportions of the elements are in certain definite ratios to each other, it is evident that these ratios may be expressed by numbers.”I In consequence of which they are so expressed in various places by himself, and by many French, Swedish, and English chemists, the hint having been first suggested, I believe, by Higgens or Dalton. And hence the doctrine of numbers is well known to have been very largely and very repeatedly had recourse to under the Pythagorean system, and to have been used in explanation, not only of the endowment of different portions of matter with different forms, but of the harmony with which the different natures of matter and

* Acad. Quæst. lib. i. cap. 8.

† Anon. Photii, lib. c. Nicomac. apud Phot. Themist. in Phys. lib. iii. sect. 25, p. 67. See also EnBeld's Brucker, i. b. ü. ch. 12, p. 383.

Davy, Elem. i. p. 112.

« EdellinenJatka »