Firmly entrenched and supported by the church, Ussher’s date seemed impregnable. However, some sceptics put forward their own versions. A French Calvinist and lawyer, La Peyrere in 1641 postulated that there had been people on Earth before Adam. This was heresy and of course was banned by Cardinal Richelieu, the prime minister of France. Essentially a pragmatic and fair man, Richelieu however realised the effect La Peyrerese’s manuscript might have in France. La Peyrere kept his freedom, but he bravely refused to desist from putting forth his theories which eventually invoked the wrath of the Catholic Church. He was arrested, interred and forced to recant his heretical views – in short he got off lightly.
Enter another player on this grand stage – a Jesuit missionary, Father Martino Martini, who was carrying out missionary work in China. On telling the Chinese that mankind had been destroyed by God in a great deluge, they greeted his pronouncements with great hilarity and disbelief. Their own history stretched well beyond the so-called date of the Flood, and they had records to prove it. A reversal of roles took place, with Martini realising that the ancient Chinese chronology posed a serious challenge to the authority of the bible. In 1654 he returned to Europe, where he published an account of Chinese history, receiving of course the usual disbelief and hostility which marked all other controversial ideas perpetuated at the time. However arrest and persecution was out of the question as Martini had returned to China to further his missionary work. Europe continued her dyed-in-the-wool approach, but slowly thinking was evolving, with a crucial intellectual shift away from biblical textual authority towards an enquiry based on scientific principles. Throughout Europe the cry was the same: rocks, not books were believed to hold the secrets of the past. And indeed they did, and still do, and so it was left to the natural philosophers to prove the age of the world.
One of the more interesting notions of the 17th Century was that the Earth had been created fully formed; flat, beautiful, unblemished, with no disease, famine, mountains or deserts to blemish her perfect face. A golden age had existed before the Flood, an age when all God’s blessings were poured out onto the world – in short a perfect God had created a perfect world. But now things were in decline – the Earth had become old and wrinkled, volcanoes and deserts were carbuncles and scars on the face of the Earth. The old prophecy that the world would last only 6000 years was being confirmed by nature. The thinking was that the Earth had run most of its days, and doomsday was not far off, perhaps only 350 years in the future (taking of course the date of 4004 BC as the day of creation).
Ironically this idea of an ageing Earth promoted the notion of a world in flux and constant state of change, and it was Rene Descartes who lead the break with the literal interpretation of the bible. Reason was the reason de etre. Paris, 1625, and our clever and sociable Descartes had become the leading light of Parisian intellectual life – a time when libertine free thinkers were making their mark. Caution was always necessary and a weather eye was kept open for gathering storm clouds in the direction or Rome. One Giulio Vanini, a ‘heretic’ doctor, had had his tongue cut out before being strangled and burned six years before for voicing some anti-religious views. Inevitably the storm broke and Descartes moved to Holland, a country which has always had a tradition of tolerance and liberalism which endures to this day. He began his philosophical treatise, The World, which was to be a complete revision of philosophy which he eventually published in 1641.
However it was a watered-down version of his original manuscript as it was a bad time for liberal thinkers. Galileo had recently been arrested and forced to recant his heretical views that the Earth went around the Sun. Descartes’ view of the world was essentially that a few simple laws governed the universe, and these laws were what created the complex world around us. The world had the same relationship to God as a clock had to the clock maker – once it had been carefully constructed and set in motion, there was little more involvement from the creator. His ultimate achievement was to remove God from the day to day running of the world. Until then the belief was that God was intimately involved in the day to day, minute to minute running of the world. God may have created the world, but it was then governed by the laws of nature.
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