All in all, the seventeenth century was one of the peak periods in the history of science. See it in its arching gamut, from Bacon calling men to labor for the advancement of learning, and Descartes marrying algebra to geometry; through the improvement of telescopes, microscopes, barometers, thermometers, air pumps and mathematics; through Kepler’s planetary laws, Galileo’s swelling firmament, Harvey’s charting of the blood, Guericke’s obstinate hemispheres, Boyle’s skeptical chemistry, Huygens’ multifarious physics, Hooke’s polymorphous tentatives, and Halley’s cosmetary predictions, culminating in Leibniz’ notational calculus and Newton’s cosmic synthesis: what previous century had equaled that performance? The modern mind, said Alfred North Whitehead, has “been living upon the accumulated capital of ideas provided for it by the genius of the seventeenth century” in science, literature, and philosophy. 89
The influence of science spread in widening arcs. It affected industry by supplying the physics and chemistry for new ventures in technology. In education it compelled a lessening of emphasis on the humanities—on literature, history, and philosophy; for the development of industry, commerce, and navigation demanded practical knowledge and minds. Literature itself felt the new influence: the scientist’s pursuit of order, precision, and clarity suggested similar virtues in poetry and prose, and accorded well with the classic style exemplified by Molière, Boileau, and Racine, by Addison, Swift, and Pope. The Royal Society, according to its historian, required of its members “a close, naked, natural way of speaking, . . . bringing all things as near to mathematical plainness as they can.” 90
The triumphs of mathematics and physics, giving period to comets and laws to stars, affected philosophy and religion. Descartes and Spinoza accepted geometry as the ideal of philosophy and exposition. There seemed no need, henceforth, to posit in the universe anything but matter and motion. Descartes saw all the world, except the human and divine mind, as a machine; Hobbes challenged the exception, and formulated a materialism in which even religion would be a tool of the state for manipulating human machines. The new physics, chemistry, and astronomy seemed to show a universe operating according to invariable laws; this cosmos allowed no miracles, therefore answered no prayers, therefore needed no God. Perhaps He could be kept to give the world machine an inaugural push; but thereafter he might retire to be an Epicurean-Lucretian deity, mindless of the world and men. Halley was said to have assured a friend of Berkeley that “the doctrines of Christianity” were now “inconceivable.” 91 Boyle, however, saw in the revelations of science additional evidence of the existence of God. “The world,” he wrote, “behaves as if there were diffused throughout the universe an intelligent being”; and in a sentence recalling Pascal he added, “The soul of man [is] a nobler and more valuable being than the whole corporeal world.” 92 Dying, Boyle left a fund to finance lectures that would demonstrate the truth of Christianity against “notorious infidels, viz., atheists, theists, pagans, Jews, and Mohammedans,” to which he added a proviso that the lectures must not mention the controversies among Christians. 93
Many scientists agreed with Boyle, and many believing Christians joined in praising science. “In these last hundred years,” said Dryden at the close of the century, “almost a new Nature has been revealed to us—more errors . . . have been detected, more useful experiments have been made, more noble secrets in optics, medicine, anatomy, and astronomy have been discovered, than in all these doting and credulous ages from Aristotle to us.” 94 This was a wild but significant exaggeration, revealing the conviction of the “moderns” that they had won the battle of the books with the “ancients.” In any case men could not but see that the sciences were increasing human knowledge while religions quarreled and statesmen warred. Science now rose to a new status of honor among human enterprises; indeed, by the end of this epoch it was already being hailed as the harbinger of Utopia and the savior of mankind. “The application of science to nature,” said Fontenelle in 1702, “will constantly grow in scope and intensity, and we shall go on from one marvel to another. The day will come when man will be able to fly by fitting on wings to keep him in the air; the art will increase, . . . till one day we shall be able to fly to the moon.” 95 Everything was progressing except man.