Thus with the YearThe opening of the Book of Nature in the seventeenth century is one of the oldest historiographical stories ever told. The early scientists, it says, could preserve a sense of compatibility between theological/philosophical inquiries and their own natural philosophy by presenting their work as a reading of God's other book--the Book of Nature rather than the Bible. There are problems with this story, of course, but it seems indubitable that establishing such a compatibility was a real issue for Galileo, Bacon, and the other early scientific revolutionaries. (assuming there was even a Revolution to begin with).
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature's works to mee expung'd and ras'd,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
- Milton, Paradise Lost
The Saturnian once more took up the little mites, and Micromegas addressed them again with great kindness, though he was a little disgusted in the bottom of his heart at seeing such infinitely insignificant atoms so puffed up with pride. He promised to give them a rare book of philosophy, written in minute characters, for their special use, telling all that can be known of the ultimate essence of things, and he actually gave them the volume ere his departure. It was carried to Paris and laid before the Academy of Sciences; but when the old secretary came to open it, the pages were blank.
"Ah!" said he. "Just as I expected."
- Voltaire, Micromegas
But what of the blank book? We find in Milton Satan's feigned (?) anguish at being deprived of the reading of the "Book of Universal Knowledge"--at being presented with a blank, erased, substitute. And in Voltaire the book of eternal truths turns out to have been blank. The two authors use the image for different reasons: Milton, to show the darkness and ignorance that descends upon him who is deprived of the light of God, and Voltaire perhaps to make fun of philosophers and theologians (with their "Vain Wisdom," also a target of Milton's). In short, it's not the same book.
The image itself, however, plays the same role: it is fundamentally a statement of a kind of methodological skepticism or relativism. The premise of the Book of Nature is that it can be read reliably--that
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,Like the Scripture, the Book of Nature is fixed and infallible, and thus provides a guarantee of epistemic certainty to the scientist/reader. And likewise, a book handed down from on high and purported to contain all the eternal verities would in itself be a guarantee of those verities, the long-lost source for absolute truth.
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
The blankness of the book exposes its unreliability. If some sleight of hand can substitute blank, erased pages for the genuine article, the Book of Nature can no longer be trusted--absent a direct divine intervention, the epistemological gaze is permanently occluded. And just as the existence of the book of eternal verities guarantees them, its blankness (of course) means no such verities exist. The erasure of the book of knowledge is a dramatization of the disappearance or at least the elusiveness of the object of study.
Thus the implications of this image could have opened up a fruitful debate in the eighteenth century--a connection between the continuing project of science and the increasingly sophisticated literary formalisms being worked out and debated at the time. It could have spawned a study of hermeneutics well before its twentieth-century revival. But the gradual disappearance of any real use of the Book of Nature as a grounding justification for science, after its rivals ceased to matter, precluded any serious discussion of the rhetorical roots of the scientific enterprise. Already in Milton's time the Book of Nature had the faintly musty smell of old leather bindings.