An Almanac For Moderns: Late March
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First to grasp biology as a science, Aristotle thought that he had also captured the secret of life itself. From the vast and original body of his observation, he deduced a cosmology like a pure Greek temple, symmetrical and satisfying. For two millenniums it housed the serene intelligence of the race.
Here was an absolute philosophy; nothing need be added to it; detraction was heretical. It traced the ascent of life from the tidal ooze up to man, the plants placed below the animals, the animals ranged in order of increasing intelligence. Beyond man nothing could be imagined but God, the supreme intelligence. God was all spirit; the lifeless rock was all matter. Living beings on earth were spirit infusing matter.
Still this conception provides a favorite text of poet or pastor, praising the earth and the fullness thereof. It fits so well with the grandeur of the heavens, the beauty of the flowers at our feet, the rapture of the birds! The Nature lover of today would ask nothing better than that it should be true.
Aristotle was sure of it. He points to marble in a quarry. It is only matter; then the sculptor attacks it with his chisel, with a shape in his mind. With form, soul enters into the marble. So all things are filled with soul, some with more, some with less. But even a jellyfish is infused with that which the rock possesses not. Thus existence has its origin in supreme intelligence, and everything has an intelligent cause and serves its useful purpose. That purpose is the development of higher planes of existence. Science, thought its Adam, had but to put the pieces of the puzzle together, to expose for praise the cosmic design, all beautiful.
The hook-nosed Averroes, the Spanish Arab born in Cordova in 1126, and one time cadi of Seville, shook a slow dissenting head. He did not like this simile of Aristotle’s, of the marble brought to life and form by the sculptor. The simile, he keenly perceived, would be applicable at best if the outlines of the statue were already preformed in the marble at it lay in the quarry. For that is precisely how we find life. The tree is preformed in the seed; the future animal already exists in the embryo. Wherever we look we find form, structure, adaptation, already present. Never has it been vouchsafed to us to see pure creation out of the lifeless.
And Galileo, also, ventured to shake the pillars of the Schoolmen’s Aristotelian temple. Such a confirmed old scrutinizer was not to be drawn toward inscrutable will. The stars, nearest of all to Aristotle’s God, should have moved with godlike precision, and Galileo, peering, found them erring strangely all across heaven. He shrugged, but was content. Nature itself was the miracle, Nature with all its imperfections. Futile for science to try to discover what the forces of Nature are; it can only discover how they operate.