Chapter 1: 'Standing on the Sholders of Giants.'

It is possible to illustrate the momentous changes that had taken place in scientific and philosophical studies in the seventeenth century with an anecdote. As a child Stukeley had listened with interest to the regular philosophical discussions between his father and Mr Belgrave, 'an ingenious Gent.' who had studied at Oxford. Stukeley was troubled by one aspect of a conversation they had on astronomy, and listened particularly attentively to their conversation

when they were upon the Topic of the Earths motion -- which I perceivd Mr Belgrave was firmly persuaded of. but I thought it so improbable a Notion that I set my self to work to collect from Scripture & my own little Reasoning all the Arguments I could muster up & had them in a book so as that it made a little volume[,] drawing at the same time Schemes of the planetary orbs as I conceivd 'em upon to be, & would sometime[s] venture to argue with them upon that head.[1]

Though he was still young, Stukeley's incredulity regarding the Earth's rotation around the sun was not untypical for his day. Though Copernicus's demolition of the ancient astronomer Ptolemey's stationary Earth theory, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, had been published some hundred and fifty years earlier in 1543, it had still not been firmly accepted at a popular level. The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) had developed a compromise solution between the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, whereby all the other planets revolved around the Sun which in turn revolved around a stationary Earth, but the controversial work of two astronomers turned the tide in favour of Copernican heliocentrism: Tycho's one-time assistant, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and the Italian Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Yet despite their proof of the Copernican system, by the early eighteenth century it was still difficult to demonstrate the Earth's rotation from hard theory, and in 1719 the natural philosopher William Derham (1657-1735) still felt it necessary to begin the third edition of his Astro-Theology with a 'Preliminary discourse', explaining and defending the Copernican over the Ptolemaic system. Stukeley later burnt his own juvenile 'tract on the motion of the earth … when my conceptions of these matters were better formed'. This was to the anger of his father, who 'would often fetch it to read to Company, being pleasd with my attempt tho' I supposd not much convincd by my weak argumentation.'[2] Significantly, the astronomer Edmond Halley would many years later read a paper written by Stukeley, 'purporting an ocular demonstration of the earths rotation on its axis' at the Royal Society.[3] This story makes it clear that it is not possible to really understand Stukeley's intellectual career, or the many changes taking place in scientific and intellectual studies in his lifetime, without understanding the discoveries in science that occurred in the century and a half before his birth. These events were so great that this period has subsequently been labelled 'the scientific revolution'. Some of the fundamental discoveries were made in the field of astronomy -- discoveries which would culminate with the name of Newton.

New Learning and New Science

A new spirit of learning had entered English intellectual life early in the seventeenth century, overthrowing the Aristotelian scholasticism that had marked medieval learning. The major figure in this achievement was Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Grays Inn, he served as an MP and was, from 1618 to 1621, Lord Chancellor. In a number of important books and essays Bacon laid out his criticisms of both Aristotelian scholastic method and the Renaissance Hermetic and Neoplatonic philosophies which were so influential upon contemporaries such as Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and Robert Fludd (1574-1637). In his Great Instauration (1620) and the unfinished New Atlantis (1627) Bacon presented a modern natural philosophic programme based on systematic observation by the senses, the collection of facts, and the use of experimental method. In 1626 in Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Natural History he put these empirical proposals into practice. Bacon believed that the process of gathering objects and knowledge would lead the natural philosopher through hypotheses and generalizations to specific axioms and natural laws. As expressed in the Great Instauration, the 'Ladder of the Intellect' would lead from specific phenomena to the 'summary laws of nature.'[4] To achieve this, Bacon expected the natural philosopher to examine the natural world at first hand rather than rely on earlier authorities. Bacon's subject matter was thus nature and the natural world, and his intellectual objective was the clear understanding of its operation: for natural history since Pliny had covered all subjects of nature including cosmology, astronomy, meteorology, geography, chorography, and mineralogy. In his most substantial work of published theory, the Novum Organum ('New Instrument') which formed part of the Great Instauration, Bacon wrote that natural history should be used 'either for the sake of the knowledge of the particular things which it contains, or as the primary material of philosophy and the stuff and subject-matter of true induction'.[5] For Bacon, the study of natural history was an important end in its own right, without any call to immediate utility. Bacon expected his process of collection to be a collaborative one, with individual efforts contributing to the greater system of data collection. The synthesis for this collaborative programme would be achieved by establishing appropriate institutions and publishing their discoveries in plain language. 'Salomon's House', Bacon's conception of an ideal scientific research institute was outlined in his New Atlantis, a Utopian travel fiction set in the South Seas. Salomon's House has been seen as an inspiration behind the foundation of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge which first met in 1660, and many of that circle's earliest members considered themselves dedicated Baconians.[6] The Royal Society had its practical origins in the Oxford Philosophical Club which had convened at the University during the Commonwealth, and its early members included the aristocratic 'chemist' Robert Boyle (1627-1691), the Warden of Wadham College John Wilkins (1614-1672), the mathematician and astronomer Seth Ward (1617-1689) and the astronomer and architect Christopher Wren (1632-1723).[7] The receipt of royal charters in 1662 and 1663, together with its semi-permanent lodgings at Gresham College in London, gave the Royal Society a greater permanence and cachet than the many more informal clubs and societies which met in the capital's fashionable coffee-houses at that time, and it became the focal point of English natural philosophic endeavour.[8]

The Royal Society's Fellows included men with a wide interest in intellectual subjects, and from various backgrounds. They included physicians, lawyers, antiquaries and noblemen, Christians, Jews and foreigners. As its first secretary Henry Oldenberg wrote in 1663, it was the Society's 'business, in the first place, to scrutinize the whole of Nature and to investigate its activities and powers by means of observations and experiments, and then in course of time to hammer out a more solid philosophy'.[9] Oldenberg successfully sought correspondents to contribute to what he called 'a Universal History of Nature'.[10] This was a more ambitious undertaking than one unpaid secretary could ever effectively supervise, and through neglect and members' fascination with the extraordinary rather than the useful, the Society's museum of natural historical material ('the repository') failed to live up to its original promise as a complete source of natural historical information.[11] But nonetheless, the enthusiastic collection of multifarious objects by gentlemen virtuosi, as well as the popularity of publicly accessible collections of rarities such as the Tradescants' 'Ark' at Lambeth (which went on to form the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford), helped provoke new questions in natural history. Thus there developed in England a Baconian taxonomical programme that sought to understand, order and categorize the natural world. Collecting -- both of facts and objects -- became the order of the century. So, whilst we must acknowledge that seventeenth-century Baconianism had 'more varied roots' than Bacon's own writings, and that 'at best' he 'only gave a systematic statement of an approach that already existed',[12] Bacon nevertheless inspired generations of gentlemen scholars. Tellingly, Stukeley's first gift to the newly founded Society of Antiquaries in 1717 was a print of Bacon, whilst his friend Martin Folkes would bequeath the Royal Society a portrait of the Lord Chancellor in his will. To know Bacon, even as a visual icon, was to have pretensions to knowing modern natural philosophy.

One of the Royal Society's most important functions was the experiments and demonstrations in natural philosophical subjects which were observed at first hand by its members. This focus upon observed demonstration was a significant feature, since it placed importance upon the replication and confirmation of observed phenomena. The Society's first demonstrator was Boyle's former assistant, the polymath scholar Robert Hooke (1635-1703), who held a permanent paid position. The stunning illustrations to Hooke's Micrographia (1665) are a telling example of both the profits available from the empirical observation of nature, and the potential achievements of the new science itself. And, through the polemical as well as other practical publications which the Society sponsored, such as Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal-Society of London (1667) and Joseph Glanvill's Plus Ultra (1668), as well as its own periodical containing papers and letters, the Philosophical Transactions, the Society established and promoted itself as the representative of scientific study in England. It is thus significant that Newton's first scientific paper, 'An Hypothesis Explaining the Properties of Light' (1675), in which he made his assertion of the 'aether' and outlined his earliest, uncertain, suggestion of the law of universal gravitation, was submitted to the Royal Society. It was also a young Royal Society Fellow, the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742), who encouraged Newton to complete the Principia, and who helped finance its publication. It was here that Newton answered the most pressing question in early modern physics. From Aristotle to Copernicus, it had been believed that the planets revolved (first around the Earth, then around the Sun) in perfect circles within 'crystalline' or 'celestial' spheres made from a material different to the mundane four elements of earth, wind, fire and water.[13] By his celestial observations, however, Kepler had rejected the idea of solid planetary 'spheres'. But if there were no spheres, how could the stable, regular motions of the planets be explained? A gap existed between the recognition of the physical movements of the heavens and the absence of a mathematics to explain them.[14] Both Kepler and the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) failed to produce reliable, testable theories, and Newton's early renown rested on his apparent mathematical achievement of this feat in the Principia Mathematica through the theory of universal gravitation, as well as his three laws of motion. This achievement was compounded by his other major work, Opticks, published in 1704 during Stukeley's first year at Cambridge. It was not until Newton developed this universal theory that it was shown -- at least to the satisfaction of his supporters -- how the planets, with only the occasional intervention from God, maintained their regular orbits. In his biography of Newton, Stukeley recounted the story of the falling apple that had led Newton to first consider his ground-breaking theory of universal gravitation. Using Stukeley's own words we can witness the significance of Newton's greatest discovery. On visiting Newton's home in London, Stukeley recorded how,

after dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea [sic] under the shade of some appletrees; only he & myself. qmidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. why sh[oul]d that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; [it was] occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. why sh[oul]d it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths center? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefor dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple. that there is a power like that we here call gravity wh[ich] extends its self thro' the universe.

& thus by degrees, he began to apply this property of gravitation to the motion of the earth, & of the heavenly bodys: to consider thir distances, their magnitudes, thir periodical revolutions: to find out, that this property, conjointly with a progressive motion impressed on them in the beginning, perfectly solv'd thir circular courses; kept the planets from falling upon one another, or dropping all together into one center. & thus he unfolded the Universe. this was the birth of those amazing discoverys, whereby he built philosophy on a solid foundation, to the astonishm[en]t of all Europe.[15]

Yet Newton did not carry all before him. The precise manner in which gravity operated on matter remained troubling, and Newton spent years pondering how planetary bodies influenced one another by gravity, and why the whole system did not collapse upon itself. When it was suggested to him in the early 1690s that gravity was essential to matter, he responded, 'Pray, do not ascribe that notion to me; for the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know.'[16] After a conversation with Newton in Cambridge, the Oxford astronomer David Gregory recorded, 'There is need continually of a miracle to prevent the Sun and the fixed stars coming together because of gravity.'[17] This weak link in Newton's system lead to the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibnitz's famous remark, using the mechanical philosophy's popular metaphor of the clock: 'According to this Newtonian doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it perpetual motion.'[18] For others, the astronomical discoveries of the 'new science' simply provided inadequate proof, and, with Descartes's powerful counter theories, they felt that the medieval world system had been replaced by a controversy still waiting in Stukeley's day to be satisfactorily solved. The Cambridge critic Dr John Edwards (1637-1716) lambasted the Newtonian System for its 'Occult Qualities' of action at a distance. He concluded bluntly in 1714 that 'all is Uncertain and Unsatisfactory in our Natural Philosophy.'[19] Despite its successes and self confidence, then, the chief tenets of the 'scientific revolution' were by no means fully established or uncontroversial.

God and Natural Philosophy

If Baconianism, Newtonianism and the Royal Society were three of the most significant influences upon the development of science in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England, then a fourth requiring full and equal consideration is religion. As we have seen, Baconian scientific methodology advocated a split from the earlier, uncritical Aristotelianism of the scholastics. However, in the Middle Ages Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology had become thoroughly assimilated through the apologetics of the medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas, so that at least one cautious seventeenth-century religious commentator, writing as 'S. P.' (possibly Simon Patrick, later the bishop of Ely), feared that since 'philosophy and divinity are so interwoven by the schoolmen … it cannot be safe to separate them; new philosophy will bring in new divinity.'[20] It was this very fear which had led the Catholic Church to its persecution of both the former Dominican friar and philosopher Giordano Bruno (who was burnt at the stake in 1600), and the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. Though English Protestants considered themselves well above such Papist extremes, Newton's critic Dr Edwards castigated his contemporaries for their practice of 'coining … New Systems in Divinity.' He observed how 'this vain Apprehension possesses them, that, because in this Learned Age some parts of Humane Knowledge are censur'd, and the very Principles of some Arts, especially those that relate to Natural Philosophy, have undergone a great Alteration; therefore they may venture to advance some unheard-of doctrines in Divinity, to new model our Religion, to mend the Gospel, and to present us as it were with a New Christianity'.[21] Bacon had attempted to defend his new method from any such criticism by arguing that 'we do not presume by the contemplation of nature to attain to the mysteries of God.'[22] But it was impossible that a science based upon the empirical study of a world considered to be divine handiwork would not inevitably lead to questions relating to the very nature of the divine itself.

So it was that despite the sincere efforts of most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural philosophers to defend their researches and writings against possible accusations of heterodoxy, the progress of the natural sciences became inextricably linked with threats of atheism, deism and the general security of the Church establishment. This recognition of the dangers both of excessive extremism and over conservatism was an important characteristic of theological debate in the early modern Anglican Church. Indeed, Anglicans prided themselves on their ability to steer a safe course between the perilous rocks of early modern theological disputation. The preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer begins with the observation, 'It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her Publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it.' During the Commonwealth and Restoration periods, Low Churchmen had successfully fostered this 'latitudinarian' policy which attempted to steer a path of compromise capable of accommodating the broad latitudes of belief of the English Protestant religious community. Ultimately, this latitudinarian viewpoint became closely associated with the new science, with Whig politics and with Cambridge University in particular. In essence, the Low Church viewpoint, whilst favouring compromise, emphasized natural rather than revealed religion, focusing attention on the essential laws revealed in God's creation -- the so-called 'argument from design'. But Joseph Glanvill, a clergyman and original FRS, observed that some contemporaries suspected the new philosophy of being 'a Latitudinarian designe to propagate new notions in divinity.'[23] For despite its high profile, latitudinarianism was not a dominant ideology in the Church of England. Rather, it was largely among Church leaders that the latitudinarian compromise was pursued, leading to tension with the lower ranks of clergy (an important fact when we come to consider Stukeley's ordination and the support he received from the Latitudinarian primate, Archbishop William Wake). John Brooke has calculated that the majority of Anglican clergy between 1689 and 1720 were High Churchmen antagonistic to the new science and to those fellow clergymen who supported it, but these few but vocal supporters were successful in allying the Anglican Church with Newtonian natural philosophy.[24] However, this is not to say that Newton's personal religious views were by any means fully aligned with those of the Anglican Church, nor that his work could not be used for unorthodox ends. The Oxford scholar, antiquary and nonjuror Thomas Hearne (1678-1735) is but one example of those who perceived (and misread) Newton's wayward religious beliefs, a subject I shall return to at length in Part II. Hearne observed in 1732 that 'Sir Isaac Newton, tho' a great Mathematician, was a man of very little Religion, in so much that he is ranked with the Heterodox men of the age.'[25] Whilst Newton was certainly not orthodox, he definitely was religious, and this fact must not be lost sight of.

The perceived threats to state religion from atheism, deism, and heterodoxy in general became increasingly important arenas of debate in early modern England, especially following the popularization of the new science and the mechanical philosophy through the second half of the seventeenth century. We have already seen Leibnitz's use of the clock metaphor in his criticism of the Newtonian system, but such mechanical metaphors had material dangers. Using analogies with machines and clock mechanisms, Descartes's theories as expounded in his Principia Philosophiae (1644) could be used to reduce natural effects to the mathematical science of motion. In the seventeenth century, the neatly expressed laws of planetary motion Kepler established, Boyle and Hooke's principles of gas and pressure, and the inverse-square rule of gravity behind Newton's Principia Mathematica (its title a deliberate allusion to Descartes' book), all contributed to the picture of an ordered universe that could be understood by mathematical laws. This picture, however, led to such works as the French physician Julien Offray de la Mettrie's L'homme machine, which appeared in English in 1748 as Man a Machine. Jonathan Swift satirized this view in Gulliver's Travels in 1726. On discovering Gulliver's pocket-watch, the Emperor of Lilliput's officers reported, 'He put this engine to our ears, which made an incessant noise like that of a watermill. And we conjecture it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships: but we are more inclined to the latter opinion'.[26] Swift may have been alluding here to Boyle's anecdote of Jesuit priests presenting a watch to the king of China, who 'took it to be a living creature.' Boyle recorded that 'he could not have brought an argument to convince the Chinese monarch, that it was not endowed with life.'[27] So in spite of Boyle and Newton's strong religious beliefs, a potentially materialist argument arose from their philosophy and inevitably raised perplexing questions regarding the role played by a Deity in a mechanically run universe. If God was allowed to have first placed a clockwork universe in motion, his subsequent role could be reduced to nothing more than that of passive observer. Referred to by Boyle as a 'Self-moving engine', such a universe could invite unwanted interpretations of a both deistic and atheistic bent.[28] This troubling fact was as much true of Newton's Principia as it was of Descartes's, as Leibnitz pointed out.

In spite of these disputes, it was generally accepted that the order and regulation perceived throughout the natural world proved the existence of God. The utilization of evidence from nature to this end may be clearly seen in the work of two important English naturalists, John Ray (1627-1705) and Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712). John Ray was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge who became a fellow and university lecturer in Greek and mathematics. His Catalogus Plantorum Circa Cantabrigiam Nascentium (1660) was the first local register of plants of a district to be published in England, and it was to this book that Stukeley would make 'great additions' during the 'herbarizing' walks he made with fellow Cambridge physic students. Ray's opposition to the Stuart Restoration of 1660 cost him his Cambridge fellowship, and he subsequently travelled on the continent, compiling a three volume History of Plants. Assisted by his philosophical friends, Ray's interest was largely with description and classification rather than speculative science.[29] Grew was also a Cambridge graduate, and a physician. He studied vegetable anatomy, being interested in the supposed analogy between plant and animal structures. He believed that since both 'came at first out of the same Hand, [they] were therefore the Contrivance of the same Wisdom'.[30] His major work was The Anatomy of Plants (1682). But Grew and Ray also wrote books specifically drawing divine proofs from their knowledge of the natural world. Ray's The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1692) and Grew's Cosmologica Sacra, Or a Discourse of the Universe, as it is the Creature and Kingdom of God (1701) became classic and influential examples of the argument from design. Ray declared in his preface that

The Particulars of this Discourse, serve not only to demonstrate the Being of a Deity, but also to illustrate some of his principal Attributes; as namely, his infinite Power and Wisdom. The vast multitude of Creatures, and those not only small, but immensly great: The Sun and Moon, and all the Heavenly Ho[st], are Effects and Proofs of his Almighty Power. The Heavens declare the Glory of God, and the Firmament sheweth his Handy-work …[31]

He then proceeded to illustrate from a variety of examples how the natural world witnessed in all its aspects the presence of a Creator. At one point he explicitly criticized the mechanical philosophy of Descartes and his ilk, reflecting 'I should rather think Animals to be endow'd with a lower Degree of Reason, than that they are meer Machines'.[32] Although Ray's subject and theme in The Wisdom of God was, as he acknowledged, an old one, the importance of the book lay in its bringing the argument from design to a wider and more popular audience. As Stukeley asked rhetorically in the early 1720s, 'How can we fail to entertain just Notions of the Supreme Being, when we look over the Cutts of Dr Grews Anatomy of Plants … Who that turns over the Learned Works of the Industrious & Sagacious Mr Ray, is not wrapt up in amazement at such a multiplicity of Tribes & Genders & Species of Phytological Furniture with which the Earth is bedeckt'.[33] Even in 1758 William Borlase would observe that the 'principal use' of the study of natural history was 'that it leads us directly to Religion; it shews us every where the plain footsteps of design and intelligence, and points out to us all the attributes of GOD.'[34] Ray and his eighteenth-century successors could thus move easily and readily from the contemplation of nature to the contemplation of the divine, a trope that would be maintained well into the Victorian era and beyond. But the wisdom of God was witnessed not only in the world of plants and animals. In the Philosophical Transactions, for example, John Arbuthnot showed how the roughly equal numbers of men and women in the human population was a clear indication 'of an Overseeing Providence … had this thing been left wholly to chance the World had long agoe been quite depopulated & returned to its Original Desert.'[35] For the devout observer, God's wisdom could be discovered everywhere.

Yet in spite of the devouts' defence of God and their avowed fear of atheists, it is hard to name more than a handful of men ever actually accused of atheism. It was for this reason that Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) were both roundly attacked, as in their published works they directly expressed ideas which provided the most clear-cut targets for the anti-atheists. Spinoza, for example, was described in 1705 as 'the most celebrated Patron of Atheism in our Time'.[36] Michael Hunter has suggested that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries' fear of atheism 'expressed anxiety about the implications of that general secularization in the thought of the period.'[37] It was the perceived threat of heterodoxy that led men like Boyle to attempt a 'religious compromise, in which they were convinced that science could play a part through the humble pursuit of God's works.'[38] Boyle established by his will a series of annual sermons with the expressed intention of proving the truth of Christianity 'against notorious Infidels, viz. Atheists, Deists, Jews and Mahotmens, not descending to Controversies that are among the Christians themselves.'[39] The first man to deliver these influential Boyle Lectures as they are known was a young Cambridge graduate, Richard Bentley (1662-1742). In 1692, through a correspondence with Newton himself, Bentley drew on Newtonian theories to show the clear presence of God's hand in the working of nature and hence to confound the atheists. His Lectures were published the following year as The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism Demonstrated. Though the first edition of the Principia contained only one reference to God as creator, Newton told Bentley that when he had written the book, 'I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe of a Deity & nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose.'[40] The 'General Scholium' which Newton added to the 1713 edition of Principia made his belief in this position much clearer. There he observed how 'This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being … He is Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from Eternity to Eternity; his presence from Infinity to Infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done.'[41] As we shall see in the next chapter, Bentley became the controversial new Master of Trinity College and 1700, and his protégé, the astronomer Roger Cotes (1682-1716), edited the second edition of Principia. In his preface to the book, Cotes wrote, 'He must be blind who from the most wise and excellent contrivances of things cannot see the infinite Wisdom and Goodness of their Almighty Creator, and he must be mad and senseless, who refuses to acknowledge them.'[42] Furthermore, in Opticks Newton had already observed how both the 'wonderful Uniformity in the Planetary System' and 'the Uniformity in the Bodies of Animals … can be the effect of nothing else than the Wisdom and Skill of a powerful ever living Agent'.[43] It was now clear to any reader that in Newton's natural philosophy God formed an integral, active operator in the system of nature. Order and motion in the universe had depended at all time upon the regular involvement of God's hand.

But whilst the argument for the 'wisdom of God' provided at the time a good defence against atheism, and one whose continued importance in the eighteenth century may be seen in the unflagging popularity of William Derham's Boyle Lectures of 1711 and 1712,[44] it could also be used to support a radical, freethinking position. This posited that whilst the Universe had been created by God, he had taken no further active part in human affairs, and was knowable through natural reason alone, unaided by Revelation. Rather than atheists who did not believe in the existence of God at all, supporters of this argument -- known as 'theists', 'deists' or 'pantheists' -- accepted God's reality. They were educated men such as Charles Blount (1654-1693) and John Toland (1670-1722), men not afraid to promote their ideas in print, and we shall return to their works in more detail in chapters 6 and 7. For Newton's sometime protégé and successor in the Lucasian chair, William Whiston (1667-1752), deism was the 'last Refuge' of 'some Irreligious Persons' following 'that surprizing and overbearing Light, which Sir Isaac Newton's wonderful discoveries have afforded; whereby they have perceived that Natural Religion, with its Foundations, were now become too certain to bear any farther Opposition.'[45] Whiston dated the origin of what he called in 1717 'the present gross Deism' to Bentley's inaugural Boyle Lectures of 1692. Whilst Bentley had, in Whiston's opinion, succeeded in proving through Newtonian philosophy that the Universe was divinely created, this had not of itself affirmed the truth of Christianity. As Whiston accepted the proven authority of the argument from design, so he believed 'he who will now be an Atheist, must neither understand the Principles either of Physicks or Astronomy.'[46] The anonymous author of the publisher's remark 'to the Reader' at the beginning of Bentley's The Present State of Trinity College (1710) also observed how Bentley had proved the 'Being of God' through 'the excellent Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica' and asked: 'Have not all Writers upon that Subject Copied after his Boyle's Lectures? And have not the Atheists been silent since that time, and shelter'd themselves under Deism?'[47] In 1713, however, one nonjuror bishop wrote to a friend expressing his belief that 'It is their Newtonian philosophy wch hath Made Not onely so many Arians but Theists, and that Not onely among ye laity but I fear among our devines.'[48]

For although Newton and his followers had proved to their own satisfaction the existence of God through natural philosophy, what sort of god had they proved, exactly? As Whiston pointed out, the Newtonian philosophical system did not by itself affirm a Christian God. Thus Whiston and Newton sought to validate a strictly Christian God through the fulfillment of Scripture prophecy and miracles.[49] It was partly for this reason that both these men took an interest in ancient history and chronology. And as I shall show, Stukeley would look to his own knowledge of ancient writings and his antiquarian interests in order to reveal the authority and antiquity of Christianity. Essentially, he would attempt the same project as Whiston and Newton, but would use different, physical, archaeological evidence -- a source that would ultimately enable him to prove the existence of an ancient, Christian Holy Trinity. It is at this point that the ancients finally enter our narrative, and all the uncertainties and enigmas that are attendant upon them.

Ancients and Moderns

In spite of the accompanying fears of atheism and deism, the progress of science was such that by the seventeenth century some writers were wondering -- almost scandalously -- whether the moderns had not out-done the ancients in their knowledge and achievements. The Renaissance, the 'rebirth' of European thought and culture, had been built upon the rediscovery of the achievements of ancient civilization. In the early modern world, from architecture, philosophy and literature to science and medicine, the ancient writers of Greece and Rome (as well as the Hermetic tradition of ancient Egypt) were held as the benchmarks of all human knowledge and endeavour. But some 'moderns' had other ideas. Thomas Sprat, first historian of the Royal Society, was one, whilst the physician Everard Maynwaring, a graduate of St John's College, Cambridge, was another. In 1667 he asserted: 'I cannot but admire the folly of many, though ingenious men, to dote upon Antiquities so much, and bind up themselves so strictly to the Canons of our Predecessors; as if nature were clearly and th[o]roughly unvailed to them, that nothing remains for us to do'. Whilst he admitted his great veneration for ancient physicians, 'but they were men, and knew but in part: we see their failings, and the generation to come will see ours; there is yet much work to do in the unravelling of nature; great secrets yet to be discovered'.[50] Even before Maynwaring, Bacon had cleverly turned his contemporaries' uncritical reverence for the supposed superior knowledge of the ancients on its head. He had pointed out that it was the 'moderns' who were the real ancients, enjoying as they did the accumulated knowledge of time, for 'the old age of the world is to be accounted the true antiquity'.[51]

Nonetheless, the ancients versus moderns argument reappeared in the last decade of the seventeenth century. The controversy was propelled an essay published in 1690 by the statesman Sir William Temple (1628-1699), titled 'Upon Ancient and Modern Learning'. A defence of the classical canon, it was met by the Cambridge scholar William Wotton's reasoned response of 1694, Reflections Upon Ancient and Modern Learning. The whole controversy was given a satirical edge, a name and perhaps an exaggerated historical importance through a humourous essay, 'The Battle of the Books', published in 1697 by Temple's secretary, Jonathan Swift. Though at first a literary debate, the parameters widened to include science and natural philosophy. The 'battle' has sometimes been represented as one of opposing camps, but the situation was far more complex, though this is not the place to enter upon a detailed critique. Nevertheless, it is necessary to point out the danger in dividing the response to ancient and modern learning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into two strictly confrontational camps. Historians have sometimes written too easily of 'ancients' and 'moderns' as if the two positions were mutually exclusive. Stukeley as a 'modern' with a strong interest in ancient knowledge and history illustrates the ambivalent forces lined up in the 'battle'. There is also the added obstacle facing any contemporary historian in fully comprehending the extent to which the classical and biblical worlds possessed an authenticity and authority in the early modern period that is largely impossible for us to share today. As the term 'ancients' also included the early Christian writers and Biblical figures, the legitimacy of ancient authorities was paramount in the early modern experience. Whilst traditional arguments concerning the antiquity of the Earth and the human race were being undermined from the seventeenth century onwards, the ancients remained our true and original ancestors. What ancient historians such as Herodotus failed to inform the early modern reader either could not be known, or could only be filled from the information in the Bible. This was the dominant early modern world view of the past. As Stukeley's friend the clergyman and future bishop of Gloucester William Warburton (1698-1779) observed, ancient texts could give a much superior account of the ancient, and 'the learned reader acquiesces in antiquity; the sensible reader prefers the evidence of a contemporary [i.e. ancient] writer to the conjecture of a modern traveller.'[52] No less importantly, the ancient Greeks and Romans continued to retain a lustre and influence in the period through their undisputed artistic, literary and philosophic legacy, which was itself enjoying a revived popularity in England through the fashionableness of the Grand Tour, as well as through English commercial interests in the Levant and the Near East. As Wotton concluded at the end of his Reflections, the route to perfecting human learning 'must be by joining Ancient and Modern Learning together, and by studying each as Originals'.[53] Even La Mettrie in such a clearly 'modern' work as Man a Machine concluded his discourse with the observation, 'Ancient philosophy will always hold its own among those who are worthy to judge it, because it forms … a system that is solid and well articulated like the body, whereas all these scattered members of modern philosophy form no system.'[54]

An interest in the new science, therefore, by no means precluded appreciation and study of ancient arts and learning. William Harvey (1578-1657), the English physician who discovered that blood circulates around bodies -- a seemingly clear example of the modern's anatomical superiority over the ancients -- strongly supported the ancient writers, and according to Aubrey he described the followers of the new science as 'shitt-breeches'.[55] Harvey recognized the worth of those who had preceded his discovery, whilst others claimed that this was simply lost knowledge which the ancients had known. There is also the apparent paradox by which Newton defended his new world system by representing it as a return to the views of the ancients, whilst at the same time the moderns hailed him as the exemplar of their superiority over the ancients.[56] In a famous remark made in 1676, Newton modestly declared in a letter to Hooke: 'you defer too much my ability for searching into this subject … If I have seen further [than the ancients] it is by standing on the sholders of Giants.'[57] Likewise, Stukeley accepted the great achievements of the ancients, and the significance of their learning as the foundation of modern science. Newton's remark to Hooke had clearly become common property, for Stukeley observed how the ancients

as far outstrip us in Capacity as in Years. Some will not allow a thought so derogatory to Modern Learning, for say they, a child set upon a Gyants shoulders can see further than he, but they observe not their argument proves too much & that by their own comparison, they grant a concession they are not aware of, vizt. that the Gyant represents the Antients, the Child our Selves.[58]

But this conviction did not prevent Stukeley from recognizing the great achievements of the moderns and the progress he expected to result from further research.[59] At numerous points in his writings he has no hesitation in ascribing even greater scientific discoveries to the future, and he generally considered his scientific and antiquarian projects as foundations only to be improved upon by those coming after him. There did exist room for progress. Perhaps fundamentally though, he ascribed the moderns' achievements in advancing science to their close examination of the natural world -- the very thing Bacon had hoped for. As Stukeley wrote in a botanic lecture presented to the Society of Apothecaries in 1723, ''tis my belief what we can most glory in beyond [the Ancient's] abilitys, we owe to a better knowledge of the vegetable world.'[60] On this footing, and with our intellectual context established, it is now time to turn to the early education and career of Stukeley himself.

[1] Bod. MS Eng. misc. c. 533 f. 9v; this resort to Scripture as a counter-argument is an early indication of his future studies.

[2] Bod. MS Eng. misc. e. 667/1 and Bod. MS Eng. misc. c. 533 f. 10r.

[3] Stukeley CCCC MS 623 f. 9.

[4] Vickers (1987) p. 3.

[5] Quoted in ibid. pp. 25-6.

[6] See Boas Hall (1981) and Boas Hall (1991) p. 10.

[7] McClellan (1985) p. 50.

[8] Hunter (1981) pp. 33-6; McClellan (1985) p. 50.

[9] Quoted in Hunter (1981) p. 37.

[10] Hunter (1981) p. 67.

[11] See Hunter (1985).

[12] Hunter (1981) pp. 14-5.

[13] Westfall (1977) pp. 4-5.

[14] Westfall (1980) pp. 6-7.

[15] Stukeley Roy. Soc. MS. 142 ff. 15-6.

[16] Newton to Bentley, quoted in DNB.

[17] Quoted in Casini (1984) p. 16.

[18] 'Mr Leibnitz's First Paper', quoted in Alexander (1956) p. 11.

[19] Edwards (1714) p. 77.

[20] 'S. P.' A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude Men (London 1662), quoted in Southgate (1989) p. 253.

[21] Edwards (1714) p. ii.

[22] From The Advancement of Learning, quoted in Quinton (1980) p. 22.

[23] In a letter of 1669 to Oldenberg, quoted in Gascoigne (1984) p. 8.

[24] Brooke (1991) p.160. Latitudinarianism rose to dominance after the Glorious Revolution, largely due to the High Churchmen's commitment to the divine right of kingship and thus their natural opposition to William and Mary's accession after the expulsion of James II; see Olson (1990) p. 118.

[25] Hearne, 24 August 1732, Collections Vol. 11, pp. 100-1.

[26] Swift (1726) p. 70.

[27] Quoted in Shapin (1996) p. 37.

[28] See Brooke (1991) p. 143.

[29] See Raven (1942), esp. p. 149.

[30] Quoted in DNB; Grew was briefly Secretary of the Royal Society following the death of Oldenberg.

[31] Ray (1704) unpaginated preface.

[32] Ibid. p. 61.

[33] Stukeley FM MS 1130 Stu (1) f. 30.

[34] Borlase (1758) p. iv.

[35] Stukeley FM MS 1130 Stu (1) ff. 125-6.

[36] Clarke, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God: More Particularly in Answer to Mr Hobbs, Spinoza, and their Followers (London, 1705) p. 50.

[37] Hunter (1990) pp. 444, 445.

[38] Hunter (1981) p. 27.

[39] Quoted in Emerson (1987) p. 26, from A Defence of Natural and Revealed Religion Being a Collection of the Sermons (1739) edited by Sampson Letsome and John Nickell.

[40] Newton to Bentley, 10 December 1692, quoted in Hunter (1981) p. 184.

[41] Newton, (1729) Vol. 2, pp. 388-90.

[42] Ibid. Vol. 1, 'Mr Cotes's Preface.'

[43] Newton (1721) pp. 378-9.

[44] These were published in 1713 as Physico-Theology and were still in print in 1768, by which time they had reached a thirteenth edition.

[45] Whiston (1717) p. 242.

[46] Ibid. pp. 45-6; p. 242.

[47] Bentley (1710) 'Publisher's Remarks to the Reader'.

[48] George Hickes (1642-1713) to the lawyer Roger North (1651-1734), quoted in Force (1990) p. 53.

[49] Whiston (1717) p. 242. See Force (1985) p. 66. Whiston's Boyle Lectures delivered in 1707 were published as The Accomplishment of Scripture Prophecy (London 1708), and Force suggests that the topic may well have been suggested by Newton himself. Force (1985) pp. 70-6.

[50] Everard Maynwaring, Tabidorum Narratio: A Treatise of Consumptions (London, 1667) pp. 25, 26.

[51] In Novum Organum (1620), quoted in Spadafora (1990) p. 22.

[52] William Warburton, Works (1788) Vol. 2, p. 689, quoted in Marshall and Williams (1982) pp. 7-8.

[53] Wotton (1694) p. 358.

[54] La Mettrie (1748) p. 160.

[55] Quoted in Conrad et al (1995) p. 331.

[56] McGuire and Rattansi (1966) pp. 126-7.

[57] Quoted in Merton (1985) who shows the long duration and use of the metaphor prior to Newton.

[58] Stukeley Bod. MS Eng. misc. c. 323 f. 7.

[59] Spadafora (1990) offers an extensive study of the idea of 'progress' in eighteenth-century Britain, which he argues 'was so crucial a concept and … so closely interwoven with so many major intellectual trends of the time that we cannot understand eighteenth-century thought without understanding it' (p. xiii).

[60] Stukeley RCP MS 340/14.

© 2023 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL -

Privacy Statement

  • University of Oxford
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • JISC