On Seeing a Large Library: A Meditation by Joseph Hall

In his Table Talk, the renowned English Bishop, Joseph Hall (†1656) meditates on objects from every day experience. From a fly accidentally burning itself in a candle to a crow pulling the wool out of a sheep’s back Hall, like Solomon, sees every moment as an opportunity sent by a divine hand for the sake of returning one’s attention to the pursuit of wisdom. In one of his meditations Hall explains how he marveled at a large library, an experience to which most of us book worms can relate.

What a world of thought is here packed up together! I know not whether this sight doth more dismay, or comfort me. It dismays me to think that here is so much that I cannot know; it comforts me to think that this variety affords so much assistance to know what I should. There is no truer word than that of Solomon: ‘There is no end of making many books.’ This sight verifies it. There is no end: indeed it were a pity there should. God hath given to man a busy soul; the agitation whereof cannot but, through time and experience, work out many hidden truths. To suppress these would be injurious to mankind, whose minds, like so many candles, should be kindled by each other. Our deliberate thoughts are more accurate; these we commit to paper. What a happiness is it, that without the aid of necromancy, I can here call up any of the ancient worthies of learning, whether human or divine, and confer with them upon all my doubts; that I can at pleasure summon whole synods of reverend fathers and acute doctors from all the coasts of the earth, to give their well-studied judgments in all doubtful points which I propose. Nor can I cast my eye casually upon any of these silent masters, but I must learn somewhat. It is a wantonness to complain of choice. No law binds us to read all; but the more we can take in and digest, the greater will be our improvement.

Blessed be God, who hath set up so many clear lamps in his church; none but the willfully blind can plead darkness. And blessed be the memory of those his faithful servants, who have left their blood, their spirits, their lives in these precious papers; and have willingly wasted themselves into these enduring monuments, to give light to others!

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“God is an Infinite Sphere”: A (Very) Brief History

I saw a tweet a few days back that was a quotation from the English Puritan, George Swinnock’s The Blessed and Boundless God, in which Swinnock notes, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” This quotation, Swinnock admits, comes from an unknown “heathen” author. Though Swinnock does not name the source or the book, he is most likely quotting from the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, that is, The Book of the Twenty-Four Philosophers. The second principle head of this work states: DEVS EST SPHAERA INFINITA CVIVS CENTRVM EST VBIQUE, CIRCVMFERENTIA NVSQVAM, which translates, “God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The metaphor of God as a sphere was bequeathed to English theologians of the 17th century both by the Liber XXIV Philosophorum itself and by Medieval authors who quoted from it. Nicholas of Cusa was one Late Medieval author who made use of this phrase. In his De Docta Ignorantia I.23, Cusa argues that the metaphor of an infinite sphere is appropriate to describe the existence of God (Sicut sphaera infinita est penitus in actu et simplicissima, ita maximum est penitus in actu simplicissime).  English theologians, like Cusa, found this metaphor to be quite useful. Joseph Hall, for example, states in a sermon, “O God, thou art an intelligible sphere, whose centre is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere but in thyself.” Another Puritan, Peter Sterry, states, “God is that Sacred Circle of All-Being, of Infinitness, of Eternity, whose Center is everywhere, in the smallest Point of Things; whose Circumference is no where bounded” (The Appearance of God to man… London, 1710, p. 300).

There is no record or evidence of the Liber XXIV Philosophorum before the Medieval period. Swinnock, like his European predecessors would have thought that the book was composed by the famed Hermes Tristmegistus. Modern historians reject that claim, yet they are divided over the exact lineage of the book. Some argue that it was composed in Antiquity from various quotations taken from Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus and others. Kurt Flasch, however, argues that there is little evidence for this composition in the text itself. No matter the date of composition, the author of the book was clearly influenced by Aristotle and later Neoplatonic authors. From the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, then, comes the idea of God as an infinite sphere, an idea that would fascinate Late Medieval authors as well as Puritans and also those early modern authors who would seek to wed theology to mathematics.