John Wilkins

A Discourse Concerning a New World (1640)

John Wilkins' A discourse concerning a new world
Click here to see a flat image of the right hand page

  The first detailed treatment for a non-Latinate English readership of the “new astronomy” of Copernicus and Galileo, including an account of Galileo’s important telescope discoveries.

As a man who fully understood what would later be styled “a picture is worth more than a thousand words”, all of Wilkins’ books are well, and often visionarily illustrated.

The frontispiece of the Discourse packs so much in: on the left is Copernicus with a little model of his sun-centred cosmology in his hand. And facing him is the still-alive Galileo, holding his telescope. A bird – perhaps the allegorical eagle which was the only creature said to be able to look at the sun -rises up to the heavens. And in this heaven, all the planets rotate around the sun, which proclaims, in Latin, that he is the source of all light, heat, and motion. Especially interesting, however are the stars : shining of different brightnesses and scattered through 3-dimensional space (as suggested by Thomas Digges in 1576), rather than all being arranged in a sphere of their own. These scattered stars depict the idea of a universe receding to infinity, as the receding star fields as seen through the telescope suggested. So was the universe infinite, and our own sun just another star?

These, and other ideas, are discussed in the book’s main text, along with the seriously considered possibility of intelligent life on other worlds, and even the theological implications of the same. Were these “aliens” saved or damned for instance? The book ends, at Proposition 14, with a visionary desire to build a “flying Chariot”, or space vehicle, by which to fly to the moon, make contact with its “selenite” (from Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon) inhabitants, and even to “have commerce with them”.

And why not? For by 1640, great sailing ships of various nations were routinely undertaking longer voyages to China, India, the Caribbean and elsewhere -voyages sometimes taking many months each way, and returning with opulent cargoes.

John Wilkins did not put his name on the title page of the Discourse when it came out first in 1638, then in 1640. This was not because he feared persecution, but being only 24 and then 26 years old respectively, he probably did not wish to appear extravagant or eccentric, thereby damaging his prospects of academic and clerical promotion. For in 1640, scholars were expected to display a solemn gravitas of mind that revered the “ancients” and was unenthusiastic about the “moderns” and Wilkins’ transparent delight in novelty might have been reckoned unsound. But the book did him no harm. His authorship soon became widely known, and his career rose steadily. Then in 1648 he became Warden of Wadham, and Bishop of Chester after the Restoration in 1668. For Wilkins was a man of great charm and charisma, and one suspects that people fell under his spell!
Text kindly provided, especially for this exhibition, by Allan Chapman