Ray's motivation

Sense of Wonder

John Ray tells us in the preface of his Cambridge Catalogue how he, a lecturer in Greek, had begun to study plants in 1650, the year after the execution of King Charles I.

“ I had been ill, physically and mentally, and had to rest from study and ride or walk. There was leisure to contemplate by the way what lay constantly before the eyes and were so often trodden thoughtlessly under foot, the various beauty of plants, the cunning craftsmanship of nature. First the rich array of spring-time meadows, then the shape, colour and structure of particular plants fascinated and absorbed me: interest in botany became a passion."

Ray was attracted to what we now call Botany by a sense of wonder at God’s creation. He went on to pioneer accurate description.

Delight in Observation

In 1620 Francis Bacon had written of the need for observation and experiment:

“ ...the true philosophers whose concern is not so much to know what ancient authors think as to gaze with their own eyes on the nature of things and to listen with their own ears to her voice; who prefer quality to quantity, and usefulness to pretension: to their use, in accordance with God’s glory, we dedicate this little book and all our studies."

In late 17th century various people were following Bacon’s advice to study by observation and induction. Many of them were Puritans, and a group of them came together to form the Royal Society in London. In the field of Biology, or ‘natural history’, John Ray was the leading practitioner of the new observational science.

Ray wrote in 1660 in the preface to his ‘Cambridge Catalogue’:

“ We would urge men of University standing to spare a brief interval from other pursuits for the study of nature and of the vast library of creation so that they can gain wisdom in it at first hand and learn to read the leaves of plants and the characters impressed on seeds and flowers and seeds. Surely we can admit that even if, as things are, such studies do not greatly conduce to wealth or human favour, there is for a free man no occupation more worthy and delightful than to contemplate the beauteous works of nature and honour the infinite wisdom and goodness of god."

In 1691 Ray made a similar point:

“ Let it not suffice us to be Book-learned, to read what others have written, and to take upon Trust more Falsehood than Truth: But let us ourselves .examine things as we have opportunity, and converse with Nature as well as Books. Let us endeavour to promote and encrease this Knowledge, and make new Discoveries, not so much distrusting our own Parts, or despairing of our own Abilities, as to think that our Industry can add no thing to the Invention of our Ancestors, or correct any of their Mirakes. Let us not think that the bounds of Science are fixed like Hercules’s Pillars, and inscribed with a Ne plus ultra. Let us not think we have done, when we have learnt what they have delivered to us. The Treasures of Nature are inexhaustible.”
Wisdom of God p.172


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