October 21, 2004

Burnet’s Sacred Theory

Thomas Burnet’s Telluris Theoria Sacra, or, ‘The Sacred Theory of the Earth’, was, we are told, the most popular book on geological matters in 18th-century England, its sonorous prose combining natural philosophy, scriptural exegesis and outright speculation. Burnet (1635-1715) was motivated by a desire to understand and explain the origin of the world’s landscapes, its oceans and mountains. During his travels as a younger man, he had crossed the Alps and the Apennines, and ‘the sight of those wild, vast and indigested heaps of Stones and Earth’ affected him such that he was ‘not easie till I could give my self some tolerable account how that confusion came in Nature.’

Burnet believed in the truth of the Biblical Genesis (albeit not always literally), and central to his Theory was a novel and unorthodox interpretation of the story of the Flood. He conjectured that the antediluvian Earth had formed as a smooth, regular sphere wherein a relatively thin crust of earth rested eggshell-like upon a vast watery abyss. The Flood itself, he reckoned, had not been caused by forty days and nights of rain, but rather had occurred when ‘by Divine Providence […] the frame of the Earth broke and fell down into the Great Abysse.’

Image of the title-page of the 1691 2nd ed. of Burnet's 'Scared Theory'.

Besides being an important contribution to the on-going debate as to the origins of the natural world, Burnet’s Theory had a secondary, accidental influence on aesthetics. The book is suffused with its author’s ambivalent view of the natural world. He regards the post-diluvian Earth as a ‘broken globe’, a ‘great Ruine’, a ‘little dirty Planet’, ‘a World lying in its Rubbish’, yet his condemnations are often tinged with awe, as in the following description of the sea-bed & the ocean-floor…

…the Chanel of the Ocean, that vast and prodigious Cavity that runs quite round the Globe, and reacheth, for ought we know, from Pole to Pole, and in many places is unsearchably deep: When I present this great Gulf to my imagination, emptied of all its waters, naked and gaping at the Sun, stretching its jaws from one end of the Earth to another, it appears to me the most ghastly thing in Nature. What hands or instruments could work a Trench in the body of the Earth of this vastness, and lay Mountains and Rocks on the side of it, as Ramparts to enclose it?
The mountains of the Old World, an illustration from the 1691 edition of Burnet's 'Sacred Theory'.

Some authors have argued that Burnet’s text should be considered a formative influence in the development of the 18th-Century notion of ‘the sublime’ in nature, and that in his ambivalence, we can see the seed of the succeeding generations’ growing taste for natural grandeur.

The greatest objects of Nature are, methinks, the most pleasing to behold; and next to the great Concave of the Heavens, and those boundless Regions where the Stars inhabit, there is nothing that I look upon with more pleasure than the wide Sea and the Mountains of the Earth. There is something august and stately in the Air of these things, that inspires the mind with great thoughts and passions; We do naturally, upon such occasions, think of God and his greatness: and whatsoever hath but the shadow and appearance of INFINITE, as all things have that are too big for our comprehension, they fill and over-bear the mind with their Excess, and cast it into a pleasing kind of stupor and admiration.
The mountains of the New World, an illustration from the 1691 edition of Burnet's 'Sacred Theory'.
In the mean time let us pursue, in our own way, this […] Idea of the Earth […] as it is a broken Globe. Nature I know hath dissembled and cover’d this form as much as may be, and time hath helpt to repair some of the old breaches, or fill them up; besides, the changes that have been made by Art and Humane industry, by Agriculture, Planting, and Building Towns, hath made the face of the Earth quite another thing from what it was in its naked rudeness. […] But to discern the true form of the Earth, whether intire or broken, regular or disorder’d, we must in the first place take away all those ornaments or additions made by Art or Nature, and view the bare carcass of the Earth, as it hath nothing on it but Rocks and Mountains, Desarts and Fields, and hollow Valleys, and a wide Sea. Then secondly, we must in our imagination empty this Chanel of the Sea, take out all the Waters that hinder the sight of it, and look upon the dry Ditch, measure the depth and breadth of it in our mind, and observe the manner of its construction, and in what a wild posture all the parts of it lie […]. And lastly, we must take off the cover of all Subterraneous places and deep Caverns, to see the inside of the Earth; and lay bare the roots of Mountains, to look into those holes and Vaults that are under them, fill’d sometimes with Fire, sometimes with Water, and sometimes with thick Air and Vapours. The object being thus prepar’d, we are then to look fix’dly upon it, and to pronounce what we think of this disfigur’d mass, whether this Exteriour frame doth not seem to be shatter’d; and whether it doth more aptly resemble a new-made World, or the ruines of one broken.
A portrait of Burnet from the 1691 edition of his 'Sacred Theory'.

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Posted by misteraitch at October 21, 2004 03:23 PM | TrackBack