Thursday, February 22, 2007

Wren's New Worlds

I'm afraid this is a little arcane.

Christopher Wren, famous architect, had many scholarly accomplishments to his credit.

In 1657, at age 25, he was elected professor of astronomy at Gresham College, an educational institution of great antiquity in the City of London which has no students but provides free public lectures by recognized scholars.

His first duty was delivery of the Oratio Inauguralis, or inaugural oration. His was a good one. He started out with a disclaimer, warning listeners not to expect much in the way of eloquence, but rather “words which resound among rough places and rocks” and then gave heroic praise to his field in a memorable lecture. You can read the whole thing, in Latin and English translation, here.

Toward the end, he brought to the imaginations of his audience the ancient Roman dramatist, Seneca who prophesied discovery of lands beyond the Ultima Thule -- New Worlds, such as the American continents. He asked how Seneca might have continued the prediction, foreseeing:
a Time would come, when Men should be able to stretch out their Eyes, as Snails do, and extend them to fifty feet in length; by which means, they should be able to discover Two Thousand Times as many Stars as we can; and find this Galaxy to be Myriads of them; and every nebulous Star appearing as if it were the Firmament of some other World, at an incomprehensible Distance, buried in the vast Abyss of intermundious vacuum.
I saw this in a book I'm reading, and I marveled at the extravagance of it. And then marveled at the audacity, since this is not what Wren actually said.

I might be writing, then, a post about textual liberties -- poetic, hyperbolic, filial, outrageous -- or it could be one about rhetorical excesses, but I'm not. In the brief time I have, I'll leave it as one of discovery: my finding, via internet search, that Wren's Latin was less flowery, but not much less inventive, nor less interesting. Here's the whole paragraph:
Imagine, gentlemen, that you yourselves are hearing Seneca prophesying about the discovery of America in those well-known verses, and then you will comprehend how valuable it is to have been born in this century, if you reflect that this forecast has extended to our times, and to have been sung for the benefit of his detractors: “Ages will come in future years, in which the ocean will loosen nature’s bonds, the great earth will be flung open, and Tiphys will reveal new worlds, nor will Thule be the world’s end.” If he had been describing the starry population of the galaxy, some cloud of stars, this would rather be a firmament, not, perhaps, ours, but that of some very remote universe separated by vast interstellar distances; if he were to continue by calling Saturn a Proteus, more so than the moon, as it variously stretches its bodies into arms, now curves them into rings, now conceals them wholly, sometimes carrying its moon along with it; if by calling Jupiter a kind of earth whose night is banished by its four moons, daily creating eclipses; if he were to say that Mars shows a certain concave blotch, like a wound in a breast; if he said that Venus and Mercury imitated the moon when full, half, and new; if he were to say the sun, albeit the most pellucid source of light, is nonetheless varied by spots moving across it at fixed periods; if, finally, this same Seneca were to go on by saying that it the ability to inspect the moon closely has been conceded to posterity, so we may scrutinize it with our eyes, measure, and even draw in selenographic maps its bays, deserts, islands, ringed mountains, disk-shaped valleys, seas and skiffs, then I would readily believe that the philosophers of that age would have wanted to exchange the remainder of their lives with us, in order to spend the briefest time in our days enjoying these most delightful spectacles of the the telescope. But, excellent sirs, allow me for a brief space to be drawn gradually outside of myself; allow me (as it is said of Iamblicus) to be snatched and borne aloft into the aether by the powers of thought itself. For indeed this contemplation of the universe, stricken by which the mind discards the body’s sluggish burden and, mindful of its origin, acquires immortality as if by birthright.
Wren then says: "But where am I being carried in my amazement?" and begins his wrap-up by characterizing the astronomer's work and praising the founders of the College.

Here's Seneca's actual prophesy:
...veniet annis
Secula seris, quibus Oceanus
Vincula rerum laxet, et ingens
Pateat tellus, Tiphysque novos
Detegat orbes, nec sit terris
Ultima Thule.
(There will come a time in the later years when Ocean shall loosen the bonds by we have been confined. when an immense land shall be revealed and Tiphys shall disclose new worlds, and Thule wll no longer be the most remote of countries..)

Seneca, Medea
And here's where I expect Wren got the idea -- from Francis Bacon. (1561–1626). Essays, Civil and Moral; Of Prophecies:
I MEAN not to speak of divine prophecies; nor of heathen oracles; nor of natural predictions; but only of prophecies that have been of certain memory, and from hidden causes. ... A prophecy, as it seems, of the Roman empire. Seneca the tragedian hath these verses:
—— Venuent annis
Sæcula seris, quibus Oceanus
Vincula rerum laxet, et ingens
Pateat Tellus, Tiphysque novos
Detegat orbes; nec sit terris
Ultima Thule
—— a prophecy of the discovery of America.

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