From Puritanism to the Age of Reason: A Study of Changes in Religious Thought within the Church of England, 1660 to 1700

By G. R. Cragg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
THE IMPACT OF THE NEW SCIENCE

IT is seldom that mankind inherits a new heaven and a new earth, but in the seventeenth century a new understanding of man, of the nature of his physical life and of the character of his home in space, became gradually available. Over large areas of society the old outlook remained, of course, practically unchanged, and even in circles into which the new knowledge penetrated it was often accepted with reluctance and sometimes violently opposed. Nevertheless, the discoveries of the great sixteenth-century pioneers-- Copernicus, Vesalius and Gesner--were available to intelligent men, and Bacon had revealed the significance of the scientific method. His work marked the beginning of the 'new philosophy' in England, even though its results were appropriated with what may seem to us astonishing hesitation. Gradually, however, the authority of Aristotle--the symbol of the scholastic method--was broken, and the discoveries of the later seventeenth century filled in the details of the new world picture whose outlines an earlier period had supplied. By the end of the century, a man like Bentley could assume the validity of the Copernican interpretation of the universe; he could draw largely on the discoveries of Newton; he could quote Gilbert on the circulation of the blood and Boyle on 'the weight and spring of the air'; he could produce evidence supplied by the researches of Redi, Malpighi, Swammerdam, and Leeuwenhoek.1

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1
Richard Bentley, Confutation of Atheism, Eight Sermons Preached at the Honourable Robert Boyle's Lecture, in the First Year, MDCXCII ( London, 1693--my references are to the 5th edition, Cambridge, 1724), pp. 253f., 108, 252, 154f.

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