Proteus, according to the poets, was Neptune's herdsman; an old man, and a most extraordinary prophet, who understood things past and present, as well as future; so that besides the business of divination, he was the revealer and interpreter of all antiquity, and secrets of every kind. He lived in a vast cave, where his custom was to tell over his herd of sea-calves at noon, and then to sleep. Whoever consulted him, had no other way of obtaining an answer, but by binding him with manacles and fetters; when he, endeavouring to free himself, would change into all kinds of shapes and miraculous forms; as of fire, water, wild beasts, &c.; till at length he resumed his own shape again.
This fable seems to point at the secrets of nature, and the states of matter. For the person of Proteus denotes matter, the oldest of all things, after God himself; that resides, as in a cave, under the vast concavity of the heavens. He is represented as the servant of Neptune, because the various operations and modifications of matter are principally wrought in a fluid state. The herd, or flock of Proteus, seems to be no other than the several kinds of animals, plants, and minerals, in which matter appears to diffuse and spend itself; so that after having formed these several species, and as it were finished its task, it seems to sleep and repose, without otherwise attempting to produce any new ones. And this is the moral of Proteus's counting his herd, then going to sleep.
This is said to be done at noon, not in the morning or evening; by which is meant the time best fitted and disposed for the production of species, from a matter duly prepared, and made ready beforehand, and now lying in a middle state, between its first rudiments and decline; which, we learn from sacred history, was the case at the time of the creation; when by the efficacy of the divine command, matter directly came together, without any transformation or intermediate changes, which it affects; instantly obeyed the order, and appeared in the form of creatures.
And thus far the fable reaches of Proteus, and his flock, at liberty and unrestrained. For the universe, with the common structures and fabrics of the creatures, is the face of matter, not under constraint, or as the flock wrought upon and tortured by human means. But if any skilful minister of nature shall apply force to matter, and by design torture and vex it, in order to its annihilation, it, on the contrary, being brought under this necessity, changes and transforms itself into a strange variety of shapes and appearances; for nothing but the power of the Creator can annihilate, or truly destroy it; so that at length, running through the whole circle of transformations, and completing its period, it in some degree restores itself, if the force be continued. And that method of binding, torturing, or detaining, will prove the most effectual and expeditious, which makes use of manacles and fetters; that is, lays hold and works upon matter in the extremest degrees.
The addition in the fable that makes a Proteus a prophet, who had the knowledge of things past, present, and future, excellently agrees with the nature of matter; as he who knows the properties, the changes, and the processes of matter, must of necessity understand the effects and sum of what it does, has done, or can do, though his knowledge extends not to all the parts and particulars thereof.