Between the earth and a hard place : John Ray’s inquiry into the dissolution of the world in Miscellaneous Discourses (1692)

As a fellow of the Royal Society and the author of several botanical treatises, including the Methodus plantarum nova (1682) and the three volumes of the Historia generalis plantarum (1686, 1688, 1704), John Ray (1627-1705) is sometimes presented as “the father of natural history” (as his blue plaque in Black Notley, Essex, proudly proclaims). But he is also the author of the Miscellaneous Discourses, a curious book in which he combines biblical scholarship and natural philosophical reasoning to inquire into the future dissolution of the world. That the world will come to an end, no man can deny. It is a belief shared by both the ancient philosophers and the doctors of the Church. Yet, Ray also argues that this should not necessarily concern us since the world will not be “annihilated or destroyed” but “only renewed and purified”. In this presentation I will aim at showing how Ray distances himself from Baconian philosophy by using the book of God’s word (i.e. divinity) to study the book of God’s works (i.e. philosophy). But I also propose to analyse Ray’s thorough inquiry into the dissolution of the world from a more phenomenological perspective by focusing on his remarkably comprehensive catalogue of possible natural disasters – a catalogue ranging from landslides and flooding to the “extinction of the sun”, and from “the eruption of the central fire” to “the dryness of the earth in the torrid zone”.

Mickaël Popelard (Université de Caen Normandie)