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Modern History Sourcebook:
Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588):
From On the Nature of Things According to Proper Principles, 1565

During the sixteenth century, several writers challenged not just the science of the day, but more importantly its method. They rejected the unqualified authority of Scholasticism and what they saw to be its abstract reasoning ungrounded in observation. One of the most important of these Renaissance philosophers of nature was Bernardino Telesio (1509–1588). Below are the introductory words to his treatise, On the Nature of Things According to Proper Principles, the first two volumes of which were published in 1565.


On the Nature of Things According to Proper Principles, Book One, Prooemium

The arrangement of the world and the magnitude and nature of bodies contained in it are not to be sought by means of reason, as was done by the ancients, but should be perceived through sense and obtained from things themselves.

Those before us pored over the arrangement of the world and the nature of things contained in it. But although they were seen to explore it with great and constant care, they did not actually examine it. For how could the world be regarded as known by people whose writings all disagree with what is observed and are even self-contradictory? Therefore it is right to say it happened with them, that because they were much too confident of themselves and did not observe things themselves and the virtues of those things, they did not assign to the things the magnitude, character, and faculties which the things can be seen to have been given. But as if competing and fighting with God over wisdom, they dared to seek by reason the principles and causes of the world itself, and, wishing and believing they had found what they had not, dared to fashion the world according to their own thinking. Thus they assigned to the bodies from which the world is seen to be composed, neither the magnitude and position that they can be seen to have been given, nor the character and virtues with which they can be seen to have been furnished, but instead whatever reason says these bodies properly should have. It is not right for men to so charm themselves and for the mind to so elevate itself (as if placing oneself before nature and even God himself, claiming not merely God’s wisdom but his potency as well) as to give to things themselves that which cannot be observed in them and which should be obtained only from the things themselves. Yet we, not being as self-confident, being endowed with a less hasty temperament and more moderate spirit, and being lovers and cultivators of all human science (which must now be seen to have reached a new height as it examines what has been revealed by the sense and what can be obtained from the similarity of things perceived by the sense) have proposed to observe the world itself and each of its parts, and also the passions, actions, operations, and species of the parts and things contained in it. For the former, if looked at correctly, will manifest the magnitude proper to each, and the latter will show the character and virtues of each. So even if nothing divine, nothing worthy of admiration, nothing very penetrating will come with our looking, nevertheless this treatise will never contradict either things or itself. One can see that we followed nothing but sense and nature, which, always agreeing with itself, is always the same and always acts and operates in one and the same way. We do not, however, assert and contend, if any of what we posit does not comply with the sacred scriptures of the Catholic Church, that it should be held and not thoroughly rejected. For not only any human reasoning, but also the sense itself must be subject to the scriptures; if it does not agree with them, sense itself must assuredly be denied.


Latin source: Bernardino Telesio, De Rerum Natura, ed. Vincenzo Spampanato (Modena: A. F. Formiggini, 1910), 5–6. Translation © 2007 John P. McCaskey and Elena Lemeneva .

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This text is part of the Internet History Sourcebooks Project. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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Paul Halsall, September 2007

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