Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 27.djvu/753
NEW CHAPTERS IN THE WARFARE OF SCIENCE. 731
He then notices the eclipse of August, 1672, and adds : "That year the college was eclipsed by the death of the learned president there, worthy Mr. Chauncey ; and two colonies, namely, Massachusetts and Plymouth, by the death of two governors, who died within a twelve- month after. . . . Shall, then, such mighty works of God as comets are be insignificant things ? "
Vigorous as his argument is, we see skepticism regarding " signs " continuing to invade the public mind ; and, in spite of his threaten- ings, about twenty years after, we find a remarkable evidence of this progress in the fact that this skepticism has seized upon no less a per- sonage than that colossus of orthodoxy, his thrice illustrious son, Cot- ton Mather himself ; and him we find, in 1726, despite the arguments of his father, declaring in his " Manuductio " : " Perhaps there may be some need for me to caution you against being dismayed at the signs of the heavens, or having any superstitious fancies upon eclipses and the like. ... I am willing that you be apprehensive of nothing por- tentous in blazing stars. For my part, I know not whether all our worlds, and even the sun itself, may not fare the better for them." *
Curiously enough, for this scientific skepticism in Cotton Mather, there was a cause identical with that which had developed supersti- tion in the mind of his father. The same provincial tendency to re- ceive implicitly any new idea from abroad wrought upon both, plung- ing one into superstition and drawing the other out of it. First among the more important reasonings against the prevailing superstition were those of Gassendi. Early in the seventeenth century, by strictly scientific process, he arrived at the conclusion that comets are outside the earth's atmosphere, and then made a strong argument from com- mon sense that there is nothing to prove them hostile to the happi- ness of mankind. f
But, toward the end of the same century, the subject was taken up by Pierre Bayle. He attacked the old theory from the side of philosophy. While professor at the University of Sedan he had ob- served the alarm caused by the comet of 1680, and he now brought all his reasoning powers to bear upon it. Thoughts deep and witty he poured out in volume after volume ; Catholics and Protestants were alike scandalized : Catholic France spurned him, and Jurieu, the great reformed divine, tried hard to have Protestant Holland do like- wise. Though Bayle did not touch immediately the mass of mankind, he wrought with power upon men who gave themselves the trouble of thinking. It was indeed unfortunate for the Church that theologians, instead of taking the initiative in this matter, left it to Bayle ; for, in tearing down the pretended scriptural doctrine of comets, he tore down much else : of all men in his time, no one so thoroughly pre- pared the way for Voltaire.
- See " Manuductio," pp. 54, 55.
f For Gassendi, see Miidler, ii, 397, and Champion, 93-95.