Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 3: What Nature Is - An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter 3: What Nature Is - Nathaniel Culverwell, An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature 
An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature, ed. Robert A. Greene and Hugh MacCallum, foreword by Robert A. Greene (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
What Nature Is
 The words being to be understood of Lumen Naturale[natural light], according to the mindes of the best and most interpreters; it will be very needful to enquire what Nature is, and here we will be sure not to speak one word for Nature, which shall in the least measure tend to the eclipsing of Grace; nay, nothing but what shall make for the greater brightening and amplifying of the free Grace and distinguishing goodnesse of God in Christ; and nothing but what an Augustin, or a Bradwardin1 those great Patrons of Grace would willingly set their seals unto.
Well then, as for Nature, though it be not far from any one of us, though it be so intimate to our very beings; though it be printed and engraved upon our essences, and not upon ours only, but upon the whole Creation; and though we put all the letters and Characters of it together as well as we can, yet we shall finde it hard enough, to spell it out, and read what it is; for as it is in corporeal vision, the too much approximation and vicinity of an object do’s stop up and hinder sight, so ’tis also many times in Intellectual Opticks; we see something better at a distance; the soul cannot so easily see its own face, nor so fully explain its own nature. We need some Scholiast or Interpreter, to comment upon our own beings, and to acquaint us with our own Idiomes; and I meet with many Authors that speak of the light of Nature, but I can scarce finde one that tells us what it is. Those famous and learned Triumviri;2 SELDEN, that has made it his work to write De Jure Naturali; and Grotius that has said somewhat of it in his book De Jure Belli & Pacis: and Salmasius that has toucht it in his late Treatise De Coma, and in his little Dialogue subordinate to it, in either of which, if he had pleased, he might have described it without a digression; yet none of these (as far as I can finde) give us the least adumbration of it; which notwithstanding was the rather to be expected from them, because the Philosophers had left it in such a cloudy and obscured manner, as if they had never seen Nature face to face, but only through a glasse darkly, and in a riddle. And as we reade of a Painter that represented Nature appearing to Aristotle with a veile and mask upon her face; so truly Aristotle himself painted her as he saw her, with her veile on, for he shews her only wrapt up and muffled in matter and forme, whereas methinks he that could set Intelligences to the wheele to spin out time and  motion, should have allowed them also some natural ability for performing so famous a task and imployment, which his head set them about. And truly why Angelical beings should be banished from the Common-wealth of Nature; nay, why they should not properly belong to Physicks as well as other particular beings; or why bodies only should engrosse and monopolize natural Philosophy, and why a soul cannot be admitted into it, unlesse it bring a certificate and commendamus from the body, is a thing altogether unaccountable, unlesse it be resolved into a meer Arbitrary determination, and a Philosophical kinde of Tyranny.
And yet Aristotles description of Nature3 has been held very sacred, and some of the Schoolmen do even dote upon it. Aquinas tells us in plain termes, Deridendi sunt, qui volunt Aristotelis definitionem corrigere4 [those who desire to correct Aristotle’s definition should be laughed at]. The truth is, I make no question but that Aristotles definition is very commensurate to what he meant by Nature; but that he had the true and adaequate notion of Nature, this I think Aquinas himself can scarce prove; and I would fain have him to explain what it is for a thing innotescere lumine Naturae5 [to become known by the light of nature], if Nature be only principium motus & quietis[the origin of motion and rest]. Yet Plutarch also in this point seems to compromise with Aristotle, and after a good, specious and hopeful Preface, where he saies that he must needs tell us what Nature is, after all this preparation he does most palpably restrain it to corporeal beings, and then votes it to be ἀρχὴκινήσεως, καὶἐρημίας6 [the origin of motion and the absence of it]. And Empedocles, (as he is quoted by him) will needs exercise his Poetry and make some Verses upon Nature, and you would think at the first dash that they were in a good lofty straine, for thus he sings—φύσιςοὐδενὸςἐστὶνἑκάστου, θνητω̑νοὐδῃτὶςοὐλομένηθανάτοιογενέθλη.7 ’Twas not of a mortal withering off-spring, nor of a fading Genealogy; but yet truly his Poetical raptures were not so high as to elevate him above a body, for he presently sinks into ὕλη, he falls down into matter, and makes Nature nothing else but that which is ingenerable and incorruptible in material beings; just as the Peripateticks speak of their materia prima. But Plato who was more spiritual in his Philosophy, chides some of his contemporaries, and is extreamly displeased with them, and that very justly, for they were degenerated into a most stupid Atheisme, and resolved all beings into one of these three Originals, that they were either διὰφύσιν, διὰτύχην, διὰτέχνην.8 They were either the workmanship of Nature, or of Fortune, or of Art. Now as for the first and chief corporeal beings, they made them the productions of Nature, that is, (say they) they sprung from eternity into being by their own impetus, and by their own vertue and efficacy, ἀπὸτινὸςαἰτίαςαὐτομάτης,9 like so many natural automata, they were the principles of their own being and motion, and this they  laid down for one of their axiomes. Τὰμῃνμέγιστακαὶκάλλισταἀπεργάζεσθαιφύσιν, καὶτυχὴντὰδῃσμικρότερατέχνην.10 All the Master-pieces of being, the most lovely and beautiful pictures were drawn by Nature, and Fortune; and Art only could reach to some poor rudiments, to some shadows, and weaker imitations, which you will be somewhat amazed at when you hear by and by what these τὰσμικρότερα[weaker imitations] were.
The foundation of being, that they said was Natural; the mutation and disposing of being, that they made the imployment of Fortune; and then they said the work of Art was to finde out Laws, and Morality, and Religion, and a Deity; these were the τὰσμικρότερα[weaker imitations] they spake of before.
But that Divine Philosopher does most admirably discover the prodigious folly of this opinion, and demonstrate the impossibility of it in that excellent discourse of his, in his 10 De Legibus. Where he does most clearly and convincingly shew, that those things, which they say were framed by Art; were in duration infinitely before that which they call Nature, that Ψυχὴἐστὶπρεσβυτέρασώματος:11 that spirituals have the seniority of corporeals. This he makes to appear by their (1) πρωτοκινησία (2) α ὐτοκινησία (3) ἀλλοκινησία, for these three though they be not expressely mentioned in him, yet they may very easily be collected from him.12 Souls they move themselves, and they move bodies too, and therefore must needs be first in motion; so that νου̑ς, καὶτέχνη, καὶνόμοςτω̑νσκληρω̑ν, καὶμαλακω̑ν, καὶβαρέωνκαὶκουφω̑νπρότεραἌνεἴη.13 Reason and Religion, Laws and Prudence must needs be before density and rarity, before gravity & levity, before all conditions and dimensions of bodies. And Laws and Religion they are indeed του̑νου̑γεννήματα14 [the products of the mind]; that is, the contrivances and productions of that eternal νου̑ς&λόγος[Mind and Reason] the wisdome of God himself.
So that all that Plato will allow to Nature, amounts to no more then this, that it is not δημιουργὸς15opifex rerum[the creator of things], but only Deiδημιουργου̑ντοςfamula & ministra[the handmaid and servant of the creating God]; As the eyes of a servant wait upon his master, and as the eyes of an handmaiden look up to her mistris, so wait her eyes upon the Lord her God.16 And he doth fully resolve and determine that God is the soul of the world, and Nature but the body; which must be took only in sensu florido, in a flourishing and Rhetorical sense: that God is the fountain of being, and Nature but the chanel; that he is the kernel of being, and Nature but the shell. Yet herein Plato was defective, that he did not correct and reform the abuse of this word Nature; that he did not scrue it up to an higher and more spiritual notion. For ’tis very agreeable to the choycest, and supremest being; and the Apostle tells us of ἡθει̑αφύσις17 [the divine nature]. So that ’tis time at length to draw the veile from Natures face, and to look upon her beauty.
 And first, ’tis the usual language of many, both Philosophers and others, to put Nature for God himself, or at least for the general providence of God; and this in the Schoolmens rough and unpolisht Latin, is stiled Natura naturans;18 thus Nature is took for that constant and Catholick Providence, that spreads its wings over all created beings, and shrouds them under its warme and happy protection. Thus that elegant Moralist Plutarch speaks more like to himself then in his former description. Πανταχου̑γὰρἡφύσιςἀκριβὴς, καὶφιλότεχνος, ἀνελλιπὴςκαὶἀπερίτμητος;19Nature is in all things accurate and punctual, ’tis not defective nor parsimonious, nor yet sprouting and luxuriant: and consonant to this is that sure axiome, Natura nihil facit frustra20 [nature does nothing in vain]. Thus God set up the world as a fair and goodly clock, to strike in time, and to move in an orderly manner, not by its own weights (as Durand would have it)21 but by fresh influence from himself, by that inward and intimate spring of immediate concourse, that should supply it in a most uniform and proportionable manner.
Thus God framed this great Organ of the world, he tuned it, yet not so as that it could play upon it self, or make any musick by vertue of this general composure, (as Durand fansies it) but that it might be fitted and prepared for the finger of God himself, and at the presence of his powerful touch might sound forth the praise of its Creatour in a most sweet and harmonious manner.
And thus Nature is that regular line,22 which the wisdome of God himself has drawn in being, τάξιςγὰρἢτάξεωςἔργονἡφύσις23 [for nature is order or a work of order], as he speaks, whereas that which they miscall’d Fortune, was nothing but a line fuller of windings and varieties; and as Nature was a fixt and ordinary kinde of Providence, so Fortune was nothing but a more abstruse, and mysterious, and occult kinde of Providence, and therefore Fortune was not blinde, as they falsely painted and represented her; but they themselves were blinde and could not see into her. And in this sense that speech of that grave Moralist Seneca is very remarkable, Providentia, fatum, natura, casus, fortuna sunt ejusdem Dei varia nomina24 [providence, fate, nature, chance, fortune are various terms for the same God].
But then secondly, Nature as ’tis scattered and distributed in particular beings, so ’tis the very same with essence it self, and therefore spirituals, as they have their essence, so they have their Nature too, and if we gloried in names, ’twould be easie to heap up a multitude of testimonies in which these two must needs be ἰσοδυναμου̑ντα[synonymous].
And thus Nature speaks these two things.
1) It points out Originem entis[the origin of being], ’tis the very Genius of Entity, ’tis present at the nativity of every being, nay ’tis being it self. There is no moment in which you can imagine a thing to be, and yet to be without its Nature.
 2) It speaks Operationem entis[the action of being], and ’tis a principle of working in spirituals, as well as principium motus & quietis[the origin of motion and rest] in corporeals. All essence bubbles out, flows forth, and paraphrases upon it self in operations. Hence it is that such workings as are facilitated by custome, are esteemed natural. Hence that known speech of Galen,Ἐπίκτητοιφύσειςτὰἔθη;25 Customes are frequently adopted and ingraffed into Nature. Hence also our usual Idiom calls a good disposition a good nature. Thus the Moralists expresse Vertues or Vices that are deeply rooted, by this terme πεφυσιωμένα26 [naturalized].
And so some, and Grotius amongst the rest, would understand that place of the Apostle, Does not even Nature it self teach you, of a general custome:27 but that word Αὕτηἡφύσις[nature itself] does plainly refuse that interpretation; and the learned Salmasius does both grant and evince, that it cannot be meant of custome there.28 And thus having seen what Nature is, ’twill be very easie in the next place to tell you what the Law of Nature is.