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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Buffon divined the epochs of nature


Some

of Buffon's theories have been disputed by his successors' science; as D'Alembert said of Descartes: "If he was mistaken about the laws of motion, he was the first to divine that there must be some." Buffon divined the epochs of nature, and by the intuition of his genius, absolutely unshackled by any religious prejudice, he involuntarily reverted to the account given in Genesis. "We are persuaded," he says, "independently of the authority of the sacred books, that man was created last, and that he only came to wield the sceptre of the earth when that earth was found worthy of his sway."

It has often been repeated, on the strength of some expressions let fall by Buffon amongst intimates, that the panorama of nature had shut out from his eyes the omnipotent God, creator and preserver of the physical world as well as of the moral law. Wrong has been done the great naturalist; he had answered beforehand these incorrect opinions as to his fundamental ideas. "Nature is not a being," he said; "for that being would be God;" and he adds, "Nature is the system of the laws established by the Creator." The supreme notion of Providence appears to his eyes in all its grandeur, when he writes, "The verities of nature were destined to appear only in course of time, and the Supreme Being kept them to Himself as the surest means of recalling man to Him when his faith, declining in the lapse of ages, should become weak; when, remote from his origin, he might

begin to forget it; when, in fine, having become too familiar with the spectacle of nature, he would no longer be moved by it, and would come to ignore the Author. It was necessary to confirm from time to time, and even to enlarge, the idea of God in the mind and heart of man. Now every new discovery produces this grand effect, every new step that we make in nature brings us nearer to the Creator. A new verity is a species of miracle; its effect is the same, and it only differs from the real miracle in that the latter is a startling stroke which God strikes instantaneously and rarely, instead of making use of man to discover and exhibit the marvels which He has hidden in the womb of Nature, and in that, as these marvels are operating every instant, as they are open at all times and for all time to his contemplation, God is constantly recalling him to Himself, not only by the spectacle of the moment, but, further, by the successive development of His works."

Buffon was still working at eighty years of age; he had undertaken a dissertation on style, a development of his reception speech at the French Academy. Great sorrows had crossed his life. Married late to a young wife whom he loved, he lost her early; she left him a son, brought up under his wing, and the object of his constant solicitude. Just at the time of sending him to school, he wrote to Madame Daubenton, wife of his able and learned co-operator: "I expect Buffonet on Sunday. I have arranged all his little matters he will have a private room, with a closet for his man-servant; I have got him a tutor in the school-house itself, and a little companion of his own age. I do not think that he will be at all unhappy." And, at a later date, when he is expecting this son who has reached man's estate, and has been travelling in Europe: "My son has just arrived; the empress and the grand-duke have treated him very well, and we shall have some fine minerals, the collection of which is being at this moment completed. I confess that anxiety about his return has taken away my sleep and the power of thinking."


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