Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Man swimmeth by nature"

From Nicholas Orme, Early British Swimming, 55 BC - AD 1719, With the First Swimming Treatise in English, 1595:
The fishes in the sea, whose continual life is spent in the water, in them doth no man deny swimming to be the only gift which nature hath bestowed upon them. And shall we think it then artificial in a man, which in it doth by many degrees excel them - as diving down to the bottoms of the deepest waters and fetching from thence whatsoever is there sunk down, transporting things to and fro at his pleasure, sitting, tumbling, leaping, walking - and at his ease performeth many fine feats in the water which far exceeds the natural gifts bestowed on fishes? Nay, so fit is the constitution of man's body that whoso doth but with himself thoroughly consider of it cannot but accord with me in this, that a man of all creatures under the circumference of heaven naturally excelleth in swimming.

As for example, a shaft shot in the water, when it riseth again hangeth perpendicularly downward with the head, and the upper parts and feathers swim above the water. Even so is it with man, who although the lower parts of his body be earthly and heavy, yet above is the life of lives, the vital spirits, the external and internal senses. To be short, the life spirits of every man exceedeth the lives of all beasts, for that they only retain the vegetable and sensual powers, the one whereby they grow and increase and the other whereby they hear, feel, see, smell and taste. But in man is all these, whose least part exceedeth the greatest quantity of the other in the highest degree: a reasonable soul. So that he hath not only in great measure the other helps which nature hath provided for this purpose, but he hath wisdom by art to perfect that in himself which by nature is left imperfect. And having plain rules of art how by motion to keep up the heavy parts of his body, which by reason of their heaviness are naturally carried down, it cannot otherwise be but that swimming must naturally come to a man, and in swimming he must excel all creatures whatsoever.
The illustration and the quotation are both from A Short Introduction for to Learn to Swim, translated by Christopher Middleton from Digby's De Arte Natandi. (Thanks to Caleb for sending me an announcement about this talk, which I could not attend but which led me (as so many good things do!) to the library.)

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