Page images
PDF
EPUB
[graphic]

ON

THAT the son of a blacksmith in an obscure English village should almost by his single unassisted efforts have created for himself a name among the highest in the history of European philosophy; and that by the variety and excellence of his writings upon the fluctuating sciences of Natural History he should have acquired a reputation so fresh, after the lapse of a century and a half, that at this very day he should be designated as the man "who saw the finger of God in the whole framework of Animated Nature," are circumstances which it is a peculiarly instructive and pleasing task for the biographer to illustrate. It is not however of scenes of stirring interest, which arrest our attention by an irresistible appeal to our passions or our feelings, that the life of such a man consists; on the contrary, the very success that attended his pursuits implies a tranquil tenour of existence, of which little can be told beyond the effect produced by his powerful mind upon his con

temporaries and posterity: his writings, not his acts, are the really important events of his career, and almost everything which the historian finds to tell.

John Ray, or, as he originally wrote it, Wray, was born on the 29th of November, 1627 (Ó.S.), at the village of Black Notley in the county of Essex. His father followed the humble occupation of blacksmith, and it is said that his smithy is still remaining by the side of a lane leading to the village church. But as some acres of land have descended with it to the present proprietor, and as the circumstance of his having been able to afford his son a College education and subsequently to leave his widow in competency, seem to indicate the possession of means greater than a mere blacksmith can be supposed to have acquired, it is not improbable that Mr. Ray was a substantial yeoman who combined the occupation of a smith with that of a small farmer, as is sometimes done to this day in the midland counties of England.

Of Ray's early history nothing is recorded except that he was educated at the charity-school of Braintree, a town about two miles from his birthplace; that he had an indifferent preceptor, whom he soon outstripped in learning; and that he loved reading, and wandering in the fields, better than the youthful pastime of his schoolfellows. He appears moreover to have possessed that greatest of all blessings to a child, a kind, sensible, and right-hearted mother, who took care to instil into his youthful mind those high principles of honour which proved a sure guide to him in after life, and in vindication of which he sacrificed his temporal interests, while he secured imperishable fame.

Unaided at school by judicious instruction, unsustained by the sympathy of congenial spirits, for we can scarcely suppose his parents to have been able to appreciate talents such as his, and struggling with all those disadvantages to which a lad without books and with an ignorant master is exposed in a country school, he nevertheless evinced such proficiency in his studies as to excite the attention of those who, seeing in him the germ of future

eminence, advised his father to yield to the manifest bias of his son's inclinations, and to enable him to win his way in the world by means more congenial to his disposition than the forge and anvil.

Accordingly we find him at the age of sixteen entered as a Sizar of Catherine Hall, Cambridge (June 28th, 1644). At this time useful and solid learning had only just begun to displace the idle disputations of the schools, which had hitherto formed the occupation of the Cambridge students. At the most, to use his own words, they contented themselves with a knowledge of the Tongues, a little skill in Philology, or History perhaps, and Antiquity, to the neglect of that which seems more material, I mean Natural History and the works of the Creation;" making little account of "real Experimental Philosophy, and those ingenious sciences of the Mathematics. Ray, whose life had been passed among the wild scenes of nature, was soon dissatisfied with the endless arguments about nothing in which his fellowcollegians were employed, and in which truth was a secondary object only, the first consideration being scholastic triumph.

The noble discoveries of the weight and elastic force of air, and of the restless circulation of the blood, the invention of telescopes and microscopes, and several other things, which were at this time novelties in philosophy, seemed calculated to reveal the most hidden secrets of nature and to recast the whole framework of Natural History; and Ray burned to exchange the metaphysical subtleties of Catherine Hall, for a position in which such subjects formed a part of the College learning. After nearly two years' penance he found the means of accomplishing his desire by removing to Trinity College, where science had already fixed her throne, secure within those sacred walls from the assaults of the intellectual bigots of those days, who then, as now, viewed all advances in human knowledge with alarm; and who would fain have compelled posterity to feed upon the same intellectual trash with which they had themselves been nourished, "fearful lest the world

should discover they had passed their own lives in following the mere shadow of philosophy; and that in the place of Juno they had embraced a cloud.'

Once established among young men of congenial pursuits, the talents of Ray unfolded themselves with a rapidity which even his college companions viewed with admiration. The mind, which had been cramped and stifled by the unnatural position in which it had been so long confined, at once expanded, like a beauteous flower which cold and nipping winds have long restrained within its calyx, till a few days' warmth and gentle moisture renovate its energies, and cause it to burst forth into all its natural perfection.

His tutor was Dr. Duport, a distinguished Greek scholar, afterwards Dean of Peterborough, and his most intimate friend was the good and simple minded Isaac Barrow, who had entered Trinity shortly before himself, and who was elected Junior Fellow along with Ray, on the 8th of September, 1649. With such a master for his learning, such a companion for his pleasures, and such talents for his resource, it is no wonder that Ray should have gained further steps in his college rank more quickly than happens to many men; nor that a Senior Fellowship, and the offices of Greek Lecturer, Mathematical Lecturer, Humanity Reader, and others, should have successively rewarded his industry in the course of the next ten years.

During this period he was mentally preparing the materials of those important works on which his reputation was to be based, and performing with assiduity the various duties to which his college life compelled him. As a tutor he gained the friendship of several young men of rank, especially of Mr. Francis Willughby, with whom his fame and fortune eventually became almost identified. As a preacher he acquired much reputation for the excellence of his discourses; in which he showed that the true way to enchain the attention and interest the feelings of men of sense, is by appealing to their reason rather than to their passions or their zeal. At this time the practices of the Puritans had entered

the Universities more than their doctrines; and accordingly the sermons of the day were too often unmeaning rhapsodies or enthusiastical harangues, rather than sincere discourses upon the evidences and doctrines of true religion. Never to fancies of this kind did Mr. Ray give way; if his good sense had not been sufficient to convince him of the errors of the popular style, his conscience, that constant monitor which never for one moment deserted him, would have told him that he but ill performs his duty to his fellow-man who allows his judg ment of what is for their eternal welfare to be swayed by a consideration of what may be agreeable to their inclinations. His celebrated work, 'On the Wisdom of God displayed in the Works of the Creation,' which was not published till towards the close of his life, is said to have been founded upon the sermons which he was at this time in the habit of delivering; and, if so, we may well imagine the truth of Archbishop Tenison's account of Ray's reputation at Cambridge for preaching solid and useful divinity. That such sermons should have been little acceptable to those fanatics who considered all religion to consist in a firm adhesion to controversial points, mistaking the shadow of godliness for the substance, and making up for the weakness of their arguments by the vehemence of their gesticulation, may be easily believed. But it was impossible that the merits of Mr. Ray should be overlooked by the young and rising spirits in the University, who, finding more diversion than instruction in the declamations of the ordinary class of preachers, must have turned with delight to the discourses of Mr. Ray, in which the religion of nature and the universal evidence of the power and goodness of God were made the foundation of every theological discussion. The reasons he himself assigns for making choice of such a line of argument deserve to be quoted as a specimen not only of his style, but also of the plain good sense which formed the peculiar feature of all his writings :

"The belief of a Deity being the foundation of all religion (religion being nothing but a devout worshipping of God, or an inclination of mind to serve and wor

« PreviousContinue »