Burnet, Dr. Thomas

, a most ingenious and learned writer, was born at Croft, in Yorkshire, about the year 1635. His first education was at the free-school of North-­Alverton, in that county, from whence he was removed in June 1651, to Clare-hall in Cambridge, where he had Dr. Tillotson for his tutor. Dr. Cud worth was at that time master of Clare-hall, but removed from it to the mastership of Christ’s college, in 1654; and thither our author followed him. Under his patronage he was chosen fellow in 1657, commenced M. A. in 1658, and became senior | proctor of the university in 1661; but it is uncertain how long after ward she continued his residence there. He was afterwards governor to the young earl of Wiltshire, son of the marquis of Winchester, with whom he travelled abroad ^ and gave such satisfaction, that, soon after his return to England, he was invited and prevailed on by the first duke of Ormond, to travel in the same capacity with the young earl of Ossory, his grace’s grandson and heir-apparent. These honourable connections introduced him into what may properly be called the world: in which he afterwards confirmed the reputation he already had for talents ad learning, by the publication of his “Telluris theoria sacra, orbis nostri originem & mutationes generales, quas olim subiit et subiturus est, complectens.” This Sacred Theory of the Earth was originally published in Latin, in 2 vols. 4to, the two first books concerning the deluge, and paradise, 1681; the two last, concerning the burning of the world, and the new heavens and new earth, in 1689. The uncommon approbation this work met with, and the particular encouragement of Charles II. who relished its beauties, induced the author to translate it into English. Of this translation he published the two first books in 1684, folio, with an elegant dedication to the king; and the two last in 1689, with a no less elegant dedication to queen Mary. “The English edition,” he tells us, “is the same in substance with the Latin, though, he confesses, not so properly a translation, as a new composition upon the same ground, there being several additional chapters in it, and several new moulded.

On May 19, 1685, he was made master of the Charterhouse, by the interest of the duke of Ormond; and soon after commenced LL. D. At what time he entered into orders is not exactly known; but it is plain that he was a clergyman at his election to this mastership, from the objection then made against him by some of the bishops who were governors, namely, “that he generally appeared in a lay-habit,” which was over-ruled by his patron the duke of Ormond, by asserting in his favour, that he had no living or other ecclesiastical preferment; and that his life and conversation were in all respects suitable to the clerical character. In the latter end of 1686, Dr. Burnet’s integrity, prudence, and resolution, were fully tried in his new station, upon the following occasion: one Andrew Popham, a Roman Catholic, came to the Charter-house, | with a letter from king James to the governors, requiring them to choose and admit him the said Andrew Popham a pensioner thereof, “without tendering any oath or oaths unto him, or requiring of him any subscription, recognition, or other act or acts, in conformity to the doctrine and discipline of the church of England as the same is now established; and notwithstanding any statute, order, or constitution, of or in the said hospital; with which, says his majesty, we are graciously disposed to dispense in his behalf.” On the meeting of the governors, the king’s letter was read, and the lord chancellor Jefferies moved, that without any debate they should proceed to vote whether Andrew Popham should be admitted a pensioner of the hospital, according to the king’s letter. The master, Dr. Burnet, as the junior, was to vote first, but he told the governors, that he thought it was his duty to acquaint their lordships with the state and constitution of that hospital; and, though this was opposed by some, yet, after a little debate, he proceeded to observe, that to admit a pensioner into the hospital without his taking the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, was not only contrary to the constitution of the ho&pital, but to an express act of parliament for the better establishment thereof. One of the governors asked what this was to the purpose? The duke of Ormond replied, that he thought it much to the purpose; for an act of parliament was not so slight a thing as not to deserve a consideration. After some other discourse, the question was put, whether Popham should be admitted? and passed in the negative. A second letter from the king was afterwards sent; to which the governors, in a letter addressed to his majesty, humbly replied, and gave their reasons why they could not admit Andrew Popham as a pensioner of the hospital. This not satisfying king James, he ordered chancellor Jefferies to find out a way how he might compel their submission, and the master was particularly threatened to be summoned before the ecclesiastical commissioners. But his subsequent quarrels with the universities, and the commotions which followed, prevented any farther proceeding on the part of the king. This was the first stand made against the dispensing power of that reign, by any society in England, and was of great importance to the public, A relation of the Charter-house proceedings upon this occasion was published by Dr. Burnet in 1689. | After the revolution, he was introduced to court by his tutor and friend, archbishop Tillotson, and was made chaplain to the king, and soon after, clerk of the closet. He was now considered as in the high road to great preferment, and had certainly a fine prospect before him; when he ruined all by some unadvised strokes of his pen. In 1692 he published “Archæologiæ philosophiæ; sive doctrina antiqua de rerum originibus,” 4to, with a dedication to king William, whose character he diws with great strength of genius and art, and in that beautiful style which was peculiar to himself. But neither the high rank and authority of his patron, nor the elegance and learning displayed throughout the work, could protect the author from the clamours raised against him for allegorizing in a very indelicate manner the scripture account of the fall of Adam and Eve. In consequence of which, as appears from a Latin letter written by himself to Walters, a bookseller at Amsterdam, dated Sept. 14, 1694, he desires to have the most offensive parts omitted in the future editions of that work. He had expressed himself to the same purpose, some time before the date of this letter, in a Latin epistle, “Ad virum clarissimum circa nuper editum de Archæologiis Philosophicis libellum;” where he says, that he cheerfully wished that any passages which have given offence to the pious and wise, and particularly the dialogue between Eve and the Serpent, may be expunged. The person to whom this letter is addressed, and also a second afterwards upon the same subject, was generally understood to be archbishop Tillotson. Both the letters are subjoined to the second edition of “Archæologiæ philosophicæ,” printed in 1728, in 8vo, and in both he acknowledges sacred scripture, whether literally or mystically understood, to be given us from heaven, as the rule of our faith, the guide of our life, and the refuge of our salvation; and professes to pay to it all possible respect, honour, and veneration.

But all this proved insufficient; and the storm raised against him was rather increased than abated, by the encomium which Mr. Charles Blount, the deistical author of the “Oracles of Reason,” thought proper to bestow upon his work. Blount, in a letter to his friend Gildon, tells him, that “according to his promise, he has sent him a translation of the seventh and eighth chapters, and also the appendix, of the great and learned Dr. Burnet’s” Arehseologiae | philosophic^," &c. a piece which he thinks one of the most ingenious he ever read, and full of the most acute as well as learned observations. The* seventh and eighth chapters, here translated for Mr. Gildon’s use, were, unfortunately, the most objectionable in the whole work; and being immediately adopted by an infidel writer, gave such support to the complaints of the clergy, that it was judged expedient, in that critical season, to remove him from his place of clerk of the closet. He withdrew accordingly from court; anc if Mr. Oldmixon can be credited, ac-. tually missed the see of Canterbury, upon the death of Tillotson, on account of this very work, which occasioned him to be then represented by some bishops as a sceptical writer. He then retired to his studies in the Charter-house, without seeking, or perhaps desiring, any farther preferment; for he does not appear to have been a man of ambition; and there he lived, in a single state, to a good old age, dying Sept. 27, 1715.

In 1727, two other learned and elegant Latin works of our author were published in 8vo; one, “De fide et officiis Christianorum,” the other, “De statu mortuorum et resurgentium.” Burnet had himself caused to be struck off at the press a few, copies of each of these works, for the use of himself and some private friends; but did not intend them for the public, there being some points discussed in them against the scripture account of future punishment, which he thought not so proper to be communicated openly. Yet, surreptitious copies from proofsheets getting into the world, and the works being mangled and full of faults, Mr. Wilkinson, of Lincoln’s-inn, Burnet’s particular friend, and who was in possession of all his papers, thought it proper to publish a copy of them corrected by the doctor himself; as he did in 1727. To the second edition, in 1733, of “De statu mortuorum et resurgentium,” is added an appendix, “De futura Judaeorum restauratione:” it appearing to the editor from Burnet’s papers, that it was designed tq be placed there. He is said also to have been the author of three small pieces without his name, under the title of “Remarks upon an Essay concerning human understanding;” the two first published in 1697, the last in 1699; which “Remarks” were answered by Mrs. Catherine Trotter, afterwards Mrs. Cockburn, then but twenty-three years of age, in her Defence of Mr. Locke’s Essay, printed in May, 1702. | These pieces, however, were not among the acknowledged works of Dr. Burnet.

Of the Sacred Theory of the Earth, which is the principal of all his productions, the substance is this: between the beginning and end of the world, he supposes several intermediate periods, in which he conceives that nature undergoes various changes. Those which resp’ect this terraqueous globe, he believes to have been recorded in the sacred Scriptures. From these compared with profane history, he attempts to prove, that the primaeval earth as it rose out of chaos, was of a different form and structure from the present, and was such, that from its dissolution would naturally arise an universal deluge. Such a change in the state of the globe, he infers from the general aspect of its surface in the present day; and he argues, that since it is the nature of fluids to form a smooth surface, the earth, which was at first a chaotic mass in a fluid state, as it gradually became solid by the exhalation of the lighter particles of air and water, would still retain its regular superficies, so that the new earth would resemble an egg. The earth, in this paradisaical state, he supposes to be capable of sending forth its vegetable productions without rain, and to enjoy a perpetual serene and cloudless atmosphere. In process of time, he conceived that the surface of the earth, by the continual action of the rays of the sun, would become so parched, as to occasion vast fissures, through which the waters of the great abyss, contained within the bowels of the earth, would be sent forth by means of elastic vapours, expanded by heat, and acting with irresistible force upon their surface; whence a universal deluge would ensue, and in the violent concussion, lofty mountains, craggy rocks, and other varieties in the external form of the earth, would appear. Our theorist also conjectures, that the earth, in its original state, owed its universal spring to th*e coincidence of the plane of the ecliptic with that of the equator; and supposes that, at the deluge, the pole of the ecliptic changed its position, and became oblique to the plane of the equator. From similar causes he conceives that the final conflagration will be produced. This theory is well imagined, supported with much erudition, and described with great elegance of diction; but it can only be considered as an ingenious fiction, which rests upon no other foundation than mere conjecture. | Yet it would be endless to transcribe all the encomiums passed on it. Mr. Addison, in 1699, wrote a Latin ode in its praise, which has been prefixed to many editions of it. An able writer, Dr. Warton, in his “Essay on Pope,” has not scrupled, from this single work, to rank Dn Burnet with the very few, in whom the three great faculties of the understanding, viz. judgment, imagination, and memory, have been found united. According to him, there have existed but few transcendant geniuses, who have been singularly blessed with this rare assemblage of different talents; and Burnet, in his Theory, he thinks has displayed an imagination very nearly equal to that of Milton.

But, notwithstanding these encomiums on Burnet, it cannot be Affirmed that his Theory is built upon principles of mathematics and sound philosophy; on the contrary, men of science were displeased at him for presuming to erect a theory, which he would have received as true, with* out proceeding on that foundation. Flamstead is reported to have told him, somewhat peevishly, that “there went more to the making of a world, than a fine-turned period,” and that “he was able to overthrow the Theory in one sheet of paper.” Others attacked it in form. Mr. Erasmus Warren, rector of Worlington, in Suffolk, published two pieces against it soon after its appearance in English, and Dr. Burnet answered them; which pieces, with their answers, have been printed at the end of the later editions of the Theory. Mr. John Keill, Savilian professor of geometry in Oxford, published also an Examination of it in 1698, to which Dr. Burnet replied; and then Mr. Keill defended himself. Burnet’s reply to Keill is subjoined to the later editions of his Theory; and KeilPs Examination and Defence, together with his “Remarks and Defence upon Whiston’s Theory,” were reprinted together in 1734, 8vo. It is universally allowed that Keill has solidly confuted the Theory; and it is to be lamented that he did it in the rough way of controversy; yet there are many passages in his confutation, which shew, that he at the same time entertained the highest opinion of the Author. “I acknowledge him (says he) to be an ingenious writer; and if he had taken a right method, and had made a considerable progress in those sciences that are introductory to the study of nature, I doubt not but he would have made a very acute philosopher. It was his unhappiness to begin at first with the Cartesian philosophy; and not having a sufficient stock of | geometrical and mechanical principles to examine it rightly, he too easily believed it, and thought that there was but little skill required ‘in those sciences to become a philosopher; and therefore, in imitation of Mons. Des Cartes, he would undertake to shew how the world was made; a task too great, even for a mathematician.

Many, perhaps, may wonder that a nook fundamentally wrong, should run through so many editions, and be so much read; but the reason is plain. No man reads Homer’s Iliad for history, any more than he reads Milton’s Paradise Lost for divinity; though it is possible there may be true history in the one, as it is certain there is some true divinity in the other. Such works are read, purely to entertain and amuse the fancy; and it is not the story that is sought after, but the greatness of imagery, and nobleness of sentiments, with which they abound. Why may not Burnet’s Theory of the Earth be read with the same view? It is not true in philosophy; but it is full of vast and sublime conceptions, presents to the imagination new and astonishing scenes, and will therefore always furnish a high entertainment to the reader, who is capable of being pleased as well as instructed. This even Keill himself allows: “For, as 1 believe (says he) never any book was fuller of errors and mistakes in philosophy, so none ever abounded with more beautiful scenes and surprising images of nature. But I write only to those who might perhaps expect to find a true philosophy in it; they who read it as an ingenious romance, will still be pleased with their entertainment.1


Originally written for this Dictionary, by Dr. Ralph Heathcote. See also Biog. Brit. Brucker’s Hist, of Philosophy. Ward’s Gresham Professors. Nichols’s Bowyer.