First title page. Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University (photograph by the author)

WILKINS, John, The Discovery of a World in the Moone. Or, A Discourse Tending to Prove That ‘Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World in That Planet [eBook via]. London: Printed by E[dward]. G[riffin]. for Michael Sparke and Edward Forrest, 1638.

Original condemned citation: A Discovery of a new world, or a discourse tending to prove that ’tis probable there may be another habitable world in the moon, with a discourse concerning the probability of a passage thither. London: Printed by John Norton for John Maynard, 1640; first condemned in French: Le Monde dans la Lune [Divisé en deux livres. Le premier, prouvant que la Lune peut estre un monde. Le second, que la Terre peut estre une planette.] [Translated by Sieur de La Montagne]. Rouen: Jacques Cailloué, 1655.

Condemned: April 25, 1701.

§4: Books by non-Catholics dealing in any way with religion (unless in total agreement with Catholic dogma).

§7: Books engaged in any kind of superstition, fortune-telling, magic, spirit-conjuring, or other similar occult topics.

This particular text is the first of this project that I was able to physically handle and review in its first edition. Many thanks are due to the public fellowship grants of Harvard’s Houghton Library for granting and facilitating this access. The frontispiece images (both above and below) are unfiltered photographs that I took while working in Houghton Library’s reading room; see the digitized version ( linked above for the full text online.

Tis reported of Aristotle that when hee saw the bookes of Moses he commended them for such a majesticke stile as might become a God, but withall he censured that manner of writing to be very unfitting for a Philosopher because there was nothing proved in them, but matters were delivered as if they would rather command than perswade belief. (1638: 24)

The Discovery of a World in the Moone was first published in the same year that Harvard College was given its namesake, and first opened to students — two years after its original charter in 1636. Its author, English polymath John Wilkins (1614-1672), published this philosophical treatise on the possible nature of our nearest neighbor in space when he was only 24 years old. A graduate of Oxford and a founder of the highly influential Royal Society, Wilkins was also an Anglican clergyman; from 1668 until his death four years later he was the Bishop of Chester. Notably, Wilkins was also a brother-in-law of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, having married the latter’s widowed youngest sister in 1656.

At the time of Wilkins’ first publications (in the 1630s and ’40s), England was amidst great political turmoil and societal flux. Expansion was in the air as its American colonies in New England were by now established and growing quickly. The reign of King Charles I of the House of Stuart (1625-1649) would soon end in his execution by beheading at the culmination of the English Civil War. Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (and his son, briefly) would then rule the English Commonwealth or Interregnum until Charles’ son and heir, Charles II, was invited to return from exile and restore the monarchy around 1660. In brief, England had, after many centuries and unlike most other European nations of the era, experimented with alternative forms of governance besides monarchy, all the while witnessing a boom in scientific and other humanistic literature by members of its increasingly literate population.

An article from the UK’s Independent in 2004, titled “Cromwell’s moonshot: how one Jacobean scientist tried to kick off the space race,” details the profundity of Wilkins’ early theoretical works of astronomy (including 1640’s A Discourse Concerning a New Planet).  “Wilkins lived in…the ‘honeymoon period’ of scientific discovery,” writes Science Editor Steve Conner, “between the astronomical revelations of Galileo and Copernicus, who showed a universe with other, possibly habitable worlds…” And as an English Protestant — that is, exempt from the intellectual and dogmatic shackles of the Vatican — he could both freely pursue his ideas on the cosmos and then publish them to a receptive, relatively open-minded audience. All this he did without compromising whatsoever, it should be noted, his role as a theologian and active clergyman.

Perhaps the most durable of Wilkins ideas expressed in this book is that of freethinking itself, the idea that it is best to revise our beliefs based on new and compelling evidence as it is discovered. “Certainely there are yet many things left to discovery,” he wrote, “and it cannot be any inconvenience for us, to maintaine a new truth or rectifie an ancient errour” (Ibid.: 33).

In terms of the exploration of space, Wilkins never got beyond the theoretical, of course. But his blacklisting by the Index marked him for the ages as a revolutionary thinker. And he was in good company — in 1620 Nicholas Copernicus’ world-changing theory of a heliocentric solar system (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium), without which Wilkins’ theories would be unimaginable, itself was banned by the Index all the way until 1822.

Second title page. Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University (photograph by the author)

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