Knickerbocker's History of New York/Book I/Chapter II

Chapter IIEdit

Having thus briefly introduced my reader to the world, and given him some idea of its form and situation, he will naturally be curious to know from whence it came, and how it was created. And, indeed, the clearing up of these points is absolutely essential to my history, inasmuch as if this world had not been formed, it is more than probable that this renowned island, on which is situated the city of New York, would never have had an existence. The regular course of my history, therefore, requires that I should proceed to notice the cosmogony or formation of this our globe.

And now I give my readers fair warning that I am about to plunge, for a chapter or two, into as complete a labyrinth as ever historian was perplexed withal; therefore, I advise them to take fast hold of my skirts, and keep close at my heels, venturing neither to the right hand nor to the left, lest they get bemired in a slough of unintelligible learning, or have their brains knocked out by some of those hard Greek names which will be flying about in all directions. But should any of them be too indolent or chicken-hearted to accompany me in this perilous undertaking, they had better take a short cut round, and wait for me at the beginning of some smoother chapter.

Of the creation of the world we have a thousand contradictory accounts; and though a very satisfactory one is furnished us by divine revelation, yet every philosopher feels himself in honor bound to furnish us with a better. As an impartial historian, I consider it my duty to notice their several theories, by which mankind have been so exceedingly edified and instructed.

Thus it was the opinion of certain ancient sages, that the earth and the whole system of the universe was the Deity himself;[10] a doctrine most strenuously maintained by Zenophanes and the whole tribe of Eleatics, as also by Strabo and the sect of peripatetic philosophers. Pythagoras likewise inculcated the famous numerical system of the monad, dyad, and triad; and by means of his sacred quaternary, elucidated the formation of the world, the arcana of nature, and the principles both of music and morals.[11] Other sages adhered to the mathematical system of squares and triangles; the cube, the pyramid, and the sphere; the tetrahedron, the octahedron, the icosahedron, and the dodecahedron.[12] While others advocated the great elementary theory, which refers the construction of our globe and all that it contains to the combinations of four material elements, air, earth, fire, and water; with the assistance of a fifth, an immaterial and vivifying principle.

Nor must I omit to mention the great atomic system taught by old Moschus before the siege of Troy; revived by Democritus of laughing memory; improved by Epicurus, that king of good fellows; and modernized by the fanciful Descartes. But I decline inquiring, whether the atoms, of which the earth is said to be composed, are eternal or recent; whether they are animate or inanimate; whether, agreeably, to the opinion of Atheists, they were fortuitously aggregated, or, as the Theists maintain, were arranged by a supreme intelligence.[13] Whether, in fact, the earth be an insensate clod, or whether it be animated by a soul,[14] which opinion was strenuously maintained by a host of philosophers, at the head of whom stands the great Plato, that temperate sage, who threw the cold water of philosophy on the form of sexual intercourse, and inculcated the doctrine of Platonic love--an exquisitely refined intercourse, but much better adapted to the ideal inhabitants of his imaginary island of Atlantis than to the sturdy race, composed of rebellious flesh and blood, which populates the little matter-of-fact island we inhabit.

Besides these systems, we have, moreover, the poetical theogony of old Hesiod, who generated the whole universe in the regular mode of procreation; and the plausible opinion of others, that the earth was hatched from the great egg of night, which floated in chaos, and was cracked by the horns of the celestial bull. To illustrate this last doctrine, Burnet, in his theory of the earth,[15] has favored us with an accurate drawing and description, both of the form and texture of this mundane egg, which is found to bear a marvelous resemblance to that of a goose. Such of my readers as take a proper interest in the origin of this our planet will be pleased to learn that the most profound sages of antiquity among the Egyptians, Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks, and Latins have alternately assisted at the hatching of this strange bird, and that their cacklings have been caught, and continued in different tones and inflections, from philosopher to philosopher, unto the present day.

But while briefly noticing long celebrated systems of ancient sages, let me not pass over, with neglect, those of other philosophers, which, though less universal than renowned, have equal claims to attention, and equal chance for correctness. Thus it is recorded by the Brahmins in the pages of their inspired Shastah, that the angel Bistnoo transformed himself into a great boar, plunged into the watery abyss, and brought up the earth on his tusks. Then issued from him a mighty tortoise and a mighty snake; and Bistnoo placed the snake erect upon the back of the tortoise, and he placed the earth upon the head of the snake.[16]

The negro philosophers of Congo affirm, that the world was made by the hands of angels, excepting their own country, which the Supreme Being constructed himself that it might be supremely excellent. And he took great pains with the inhabitants, and made them very black and beautiful; and when he had finished the first man, he was well pleased with him, and smoothed him over the face, and hence his nose, and the nose of all his descendants, became flat.

The Mohawk philosophers tell us, that a pregnant woman fell down from heaven, and that a tortoise took her upon its back, because every place was covered with water; and that the woman, sitting upon the tortoise, paddled with her hands in the water, and raked up the earth, whence it finally happened that the earth became higher than the water.[17]

But I forbear to quote a number more of these ancient and outlandish philosophers, whose deplorable ignorance, in despite of all their erudition, compelled them to write in languages which but few of my readers can understand; and I shall proceed briefly to notice a few more intelligible and fashionable theories of their modern successors.

And, first, I shall mention the great Buffon, who conjectures that this globe was originally a globe of liquid fire, scintillated from the body of the sun, by the percussion of a comet, as a spark is generated by the collision of flint and steel. That at first it was surrounded by gross vapors, which, cooling and condensing in process of time, constituted, according to their densities, earth, water, and air, which gradually arranged themselves, according to their respective gravities, round the burning or vitrified mass that formed their center.

Hutton, on the contrary, supposes that the waters at first were universally paramount; and he terrifies himself with the idea that the earth must be eventually washed away by the force of rain, rivers, and mountain torrents, until it is confounded with the ocean, or, in other words, absolutely dissolves into itself. Sublime idea! far surpassing that of the tender-hearted damsel of antiquity, who wept herself into a fountain; or the good dame of Narbonne in France, who, for a volubility of tongue unusual in her sex, was doomed to peel five hundred thousand and thirty-nine ropes of onions, and actually run out at her eyes before half the hideous task was accomplished.

Whistorn, the same ingenious philosopher who rivaled Ditton in his researches after the longitude (for which the mischief-loving Swift discharged on their heads a most savory stanza), has distinguished himself by a very admirable theory respecting the earth. He conjectures that it was originally a chaotic comet, which, being selected for the abode of man, was removed from its eccentric orbit; and whirled round the sun in its present regular motion; by which change of direction, order succeeded to confusion in the arrangement of its component parts. The philosopher adds that the deluge was produced by an uncourteous salute from the watery tail of another comet; doubtless through sheer envy of its improved condition; thus furnishing a melancholy proof that jealousy may prevail even among the heavenly bodies, and discord interrupt that celestial harmony of the spheres so melodiously sung by the poets.

But I pass over a variety of excellent theories, among which are those of Burnet, and Woodward, and Whitehurst; regretting extremely that my time will not suffer me to give them the notice they deserve; and shall conclude with that of the renowned Dr. Darwin. This learned Theban, who is as much distinguished for rhyme as reason, and for good-natured credulity as serious research, and who has recommended himself wonderfully to the good graces of the ladies, by letting them into all the gallantries, amours, debaucheries, and other topics of scandal of the court of Flora, has fallen upon a theory worthy of his combustible imagination. According to his opinion, the huge mass of chaos took a sudden occasion to explode, like a barrel of gunpowder, and in that act exploded the sun--which, in its flight, by a similar convulsion, exploded the earth, which in like guise exploded the moon--and thus, by a concatenation of explosions, the whole solar system was produced, and set most systematically in motion![18]

By the great variety of theories here alluded to, every one of which, if thoroughly examined, will be found surprisingly consistent in all its parts, my unlearned readers will perhaps be led to conclude that the creation of a world is not so difficult a task as they at first imagined. I have shown at least a score of ingenious methods in which a world could be constructed; and I have no doubt that had any of the philosophers above quoted the use of a good manageable comet, and the philosophical warehouse, chaos, at his command, he would engage to manufacture, a planet as good, or, if you would take his word for it, better than this we inhabit.

And here I cannot help noticing the kindness of Providence in creating comets for the great relief of bewildered philosophers. By their assistance more sudden evolutions and transitions are effected in the system of nature than are wrought in a pantomimic exhibition by the wonder-working sword of harlequin. Should one of our modern sages, in his theoretical flights among the stars, ever find himself lost in the clouds, and in danger of tumbling into the abyss of nonsense and absurdity, he has but to seize a comet by the beard, mount astride of its tail, and away he gallops in triumph like an enchanter on his hippogriff, or a Connecticut witch on her broomstick, "to sweep the cobwebs out of the sky."

It is an old and vulgar saying about a "beggar on horseback" which I would not for the world have applied to these reverend philosophers; but I must confess that some of them, when they are mounted on one of those fiery steeds, are as wild in their curvettings as was Phaeton of yore, when he aspired to manage the chariot of Phoebus. One drives his comet at full speed against the sun, and knocks the world out of him with the mighty concussion; another, more moderate, makes his comet a kind of beast of burden, carrying the sun a regular supply of food and faggots; a third, of more combustible disposition, threatens to throw his comet like a bombshell into the world, and blow it up like a powder magazine; while a fourth, with no great delicacy to this planet and its inhabitants, insinuates that some day or other his comet--my modest pen blushes while I write it--shall absolutely turn tail upon our world and deluge it with water! Surely, as I have already observed, comets were bountifully provided by Providence for the benefit of philosophers to assist them in manufacturing theories.

And now, having adduced several of the most prominent theories that occur to my recollection, I leave my judicious readers at full liberty to choose among them. They are all serious speculations of learned men--all differ essentially from each other--and all have the same title to belief. It has ever been the task of one race of philosophers to demolish the works of their predecessors, and elevate more splendid fantasies in their stead, which in their turn are demolished and replaced by the air-castles of a succeeding generation. Thus it would seem that knowledge and genius, of which we make such great parade, consist but in detecting the errors and absurdities of those who have gone before, and devising new errors and absurdities, to be detected by those who are to come after us. Theories are the mighty soap-bubbles with which the grown-up children of science amuse themselves while the honest vulgar stand gazing in stupid admiration, and dignify these learned vagaries with the name of wisdom! Surely Socrates was right in his opinion, that philosophers are but a soberer sort of madmen, busying themselves in things totally incomprehensible, or which, if they could be comprehended, would be found not worthy the trouble of discovery.

For my own part, until the learned have come to an agreement among themselves, I shall content myself with the account handed down to us by Moses; in which I do but follow the example of our ingenious neighbors of Connecticut; who at their first settlement proclaimed that the colony should be governed by the laws of God--until they had time to make better.

One thing, however, appears certain--from the unanimous authority of the before quoted philosophers, supported by the evidence of our own senses (which, though very apt to deceive us, may be cautiously admitted as additional testimony)--it appears, I say, and I make the assertion deliberately, without fear of contradiction, that this globe really was created, and that it is composed of land and water. It further appears that it is curiously divided and parceled out into continents and islands, among which I boldly declare the renowned island of New York will be found by any one who seeks for it in its proper place.


   [10] Aristot. ap, Cic. lib. i. cap. 3.

   [11] Aristot. Metaph. lib. i. c. 5.; Idem, de Coelo, 1. iii, c.
        I; Rousseau mem. sur Musique ancien. p. 39; Plutarch de Plac.
        Philos. lib. i. cap. 3.

   [12] Tim. Locr. ap. Plato. t. iii. p. 90.

   [13] Aristot. Nat. Auscult. I. ii. cap. 6; Aristoph. Metaph. lib.
        i. cap. 3; Cic. de Nat. Deor. lib. i. cap. 10; Justin Mart. orat.
        ad gent. p. 20.

   [14] Mosheim in Cudw. lib. i. cap. 4; Tim. de anim. mund. ap. Plat.
        lib. iii.; Mem. de l'Acad. des Belles-Lettr. t. xxxii. p. 19.

   [15] Book i. ch. 5.

   [16] Holwell, Gent. Philosophy.

   [17] Johannes Megapolensis. Jun. Account of Maquaas or Mohawk Indians.

   [18] Drw. Bot. Garden, part i. cant. i. 1. 105.