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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
A Lecture delivered at the Royal Institution.
I said, that Superstition was the child of Fear, and Fear the child of Ignorance; and you might expect me to say antithetically, that Science was the child of Courage, and Courage the child of Knowledge.
But these genealogies — like most metaphors — do not fit exactly, as you may see for yourselves.
If fear be the child of ignorance, ignorance is also the child of fear; the two react on, and produce each other. The more men dread Nature, the less they wish to know about her. Why pry into her awful secrets? It is dangerous; perhaps impious. She says to them, as in the Egyptian temple of old —“I am Isis, and my veil no mortal yet hath lifted.” And why should they try or wish to lift it? If she will leave them in peace, they will leave her in peace. It is enough that she does not destroy them. So as ignorance bred fear, fear breeds fresh and willing ignorance.
And courage? We may say, and truly, that courage is the child of knowledge. But we may say as truly, that knowledge is the child of courage. Those Egyptian priests in the temple of Isis would have told you that knowledge was the child of mystery, of special illumination, of reverence, and what not; hiding under grand words their purpose of keeping the masses ignorant, that they might be their slaves. Reverence? I will yield to none in reverence for reverence. I will all but agree with the wise man who said that reverence is the root of all virtues. But which child reverences his father most? He who comes joyfully and trustfully to meet him, that he may learn his father’s mind, and do his will; or he who at his father’s coming runs away and hides, lest he should be beaten for he knows not what? There is a scientific reverence, a reverence of courage, which is surely one of the highest forms of reverence. That, namely, which so reveres every fact, that it dare not overlook or falsify it, seem it never so minute; which feels that because it is a fact it cannot be minute, cannot be unimportant; that it must be a fact of God; a message from God; a voice of God, as Bacon has it, revealed in things; and which therefore, just because it stands in solemn awe of such paltry facts as the Scolopax feather in a snipe’s pinion, or the jagged leaves which appear capriciously in certain honeysuckles, believes that there is likely to be some deep and wide secret underlying them, which is worth years of thought to solve. That is reverence; a reverence which is growing, thank God, more and more common; which will produce, as it grows more common still, fruit which generations yet unborn shall bless.
But as for that other reverence, which shuts its eyes and ears in pious awe — what is it but cowardice decked out in state robes, putting on the sacred Urim and Thummim, not that men may ask counsel of the Deity, but that they may not? What is it but cowardice, very pitiable when unmasked; and what is its child but ignorance as pitiable, which would be ludicrous were it not so injurious? If a man comes up to Nature as to a parrot or a monkey, with this prevailing thought in his head — Will it bite me? — will he not be pretty certain to make up his mind that it may bite him, and had therefore best be left alone? It is only the man of courage — few and far between — who will stand the chance of a first bite, in the hope of teaching the parrot to talk, or the monkey to fire off a gun. And it is only the man of courage — few and far between — who will stand the chance of a first bite from Nature, which may kill him for aught he knows — for her teeth, though clumsy, are very strong — in order that he may tame her and break her in to his use by the very same method by which that admirable inductive philosopher, Mr. Rarey, used to break in his horses; first, by not being afraid of them; and next, by trying to find out what they were thinking of. But after all, as with animals, so with Nature; cowardice is dangerous. The surest method of getting bitten by an animal is to be afraid of it; and the surest method of being injured by Nature is to be afraid of it. Only as far as we understand Nature are we safe from it; and those who in any age counsel mankind not to pry into the secrets of the universe, counsel them not to provide for their own life and well-being, or for their children after them.
But how few there have been in any age who have not been afraid of Nature. How few have set themselves, like Rarey, to tame her by finding out what she is thinking of. The mass are glad to have the results of science, as they are to buy Mr. Rarey’s horses after they are tamed; but for want of courage or of wit, they had rather leave the taming process to someone else. And therefore we may say that what knowledge of Nature we have — and we have very little — we owe to the courage of those men — and they have been very few — who have been inspired to face Nature boldly; and say — or, what is better, act as if they were saying —“I find something in me which I do not find in you; which gives me the hope that I can grow to understand you, though you may not understand me; that I may become your master, and not as now, you mine. And if not, I will know; or die in the search.”
It is to those men, the few and far between, in a very few ages and very few countries, who have thus risen in rebellion against Nature, and looked it in the face with an unquailing glance, that we owe what we call Physical Science.
There have been four races — or rather a very few men of each four races — who have faced Nature after this gallant wise.
First, the old Jews. I speak of them, be it remembered, exclusively from an historical, and not a religious point of view.
These people, at a very remote epoch, emerged from a country highly civilised, but sunk in the superstitions of nature-worship. They invaded and mingled with tribes whose superstitions were even more debased, silly, and foul than those of the Egyptians from whom they escaped. Their own masses were for centuries given up to nature-worship. Now, among those Jews arose men — a very few — sages — prophets — call them what you will, the men were inspired heroes and philosophers — who assumed towards nature an attitude utterly different from the rest of their countrymen and the rest of the then world; who denounced superstition and the dread of nature as the parent of all manner of vice and misery; who for themselves said boldly that they discerned in the universe an order, a unity, a permanence of law, which gave them courage instead of fear. They found delight and not dread in the thought that the universe obeyed a law which could not be broken; that all things continued to that day according to a certain ordinance. They took a view of Nature totally new in that age; healthy, human, cheerful, loving, trustful, and yet reverent — identical with that which happily is beginning to prevail in our own day. They defied those very volcanic and meteoric phenomena of their land, to which their countrymen were slaying their own children in the clefts of the rocks, and, like Theophrastus’s superstitious man, pouring their drink-offerings on the smooth stones of the valley; and declared that, for their part, they would not fear, though the earth was moved, and though the hills were carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters raged and swelled, and the mountains shook at the tempest.
The fact is indisputable. And you must pardon me if I express my belief that these men, if they had felt it their business to found a school of inductive physical science, would, owing to that temper of mind, have achieved a very signal success. I ground that opinion on the remarkable, but equally indisputable fact, that no nation has ever succeeded in perpetuating a school of inductive physical science, save those whose minds have been saturated with this same view of Nature, which they have — as an historic fact — slowly but thoroughly learnt from the writings of these Jewish sages.
Such is the fact. The founders of inductive physical science were not the Jews; but first the Chaldæans, next the Greeks, next their pupils the Romans — or rather a few sages among each race. But what success had they? The Chaldæan astronomers made a few discoveries concerning the motions of the heavenly bodies, which, rudimentary as they were, still prove them to have been men of rare intellect. For a great and a patient genius must he have been, who first distinguished the planets from the fixed stars, or worked out the earliest astronomical calculation. But they seem to have been crushed, as it were, by their own discoveries. They stopped short. They gave way again to the primeval fear of Nature. They sank into planet-worship. They invented, it would seem, that fantastic pseudo-science of astrology, which lay for ages after as an incubus on the human intellect and conscience. They became the magicians and quacks of the old world; and mankind owed them thenceforth nothing but evil. Among the Greeks and Romans, again, those sages who dared face Nature like reasonable men, were accused by the superstitious mob as irreverent impious atheists. The wisest of them all, Socrates, was actually put to death on that charge; and finally, they failed. School after school, in Greece and Rome, struggled to discover, and to get a hearing for, some theory of the universe which was founded on something like experience, reason, common sense. They were not allowed to prosecute their attempt. The mud-ocean of ignorance and fear in which they struggled so manfully was too strong for them; the mud-waves closed over their heads finally, as the age of the Antonines expired; and the last effort of Græco-Roman thought to explain the universe was Neoplatonism — the muddiest of the muddy — an attempt to apologise for, and organise into a system, all the nature-dreading superstitions of the Roman world. Porphyry, Plotinus, Proclus, poor Hypatia herself, and all her school — they may have had themselves no bodily fear of Nature; for they were noble souls. Yet they spent their time in justifying those who had; in apologising for the superstitions of the very mob which they despised: just as — it sometimes seems to me — some folk in these days are like to end in doing; begging that the masses might be allowed to believe in anything, however false, lest they should believe in nothing at all: as if believing in lies could do anything but harm to any human being. And so died the science of the old world, in a true second childhood, just where it began.
The Jewish sages, I hold, taught that science was probable; the Greeks and Romans proved that it was possible. It remained for our race, under the teaching of both, to bring science into act and fact.
Many causes contributed to give them this power. They were a personally courageous race. This earth has yet seen no braver men than the forefathers of Christian Europe, whether Scandinavian or Teuton, Angle or Frank. They were a practical hard-headed race, with a strong appreciation of facts, and a strong determination to act on them. Their laws, their society, their commerce, their colonisation, their migrations by land and sea, proved that they were such. They were favoured, moreover, by circumstances, or — as I should rather put it — by that divine Providence which determined their times, and the bounds of their habitation. They came in as the heritors of the decaying civilisation of Greece and Rome; they colonised territories which gave to man special fair play, but no more, in the struggle for existence, the battle with the powers of Nature; tolerably fertile, tolerably temperate; with boundless means of water communication; freer than most parts of the world from those terrible natural phenomena, like the earthquake and the hurricane, before which man lies helpless and astounded, a child beneath the foot of a giant. Nature was to them not so inhospitable as to starve their brains and limbs, as it has done for the Esquimaux or Fuegian; and not so bountiful as to crush them by its very luxuriance, as it has crushed the savages of the tropics. They saw enough of its strength to respect it; not enough to cower before it: and they and it have fought it out; and it seems to me, standing either on London Bridge or on a Holland fen-dyke, that they are winning at last.
But they had a sore battle: a battle against their own fear of the unseen. They brought with them, out of the heart of Asia, dark and sad nature-superstitions, some of which linger among our peasantry till this day, of elves, trolls, nixes, and what not. Their Thor and Odin were at first, probably, only the thunder and the wind: but they had to be appeased in the dark marches of the forest, where hung rotting on the sacred oaks, amid carcases of goat and horse, the carcases of human victims. No one acquainted with the early legends and ballads of our race, but must perceive throughout them all the prevailing tone of fear and sadness. And to their own superstitions they added those of the Rome which they conquered. They dreaded the Roman she-poisoners and witches, who, like Horace’s Canidia, still performed horrid rites in graveyards and dark places of the earth. They dreaded as magical the delicate images engraved on old Greek gems. They dreaded the very Roman cities they had destroyed. They were the work of enchanters. Like the ruins of St. Albans here in England, they were all full of devils, guarding the treasures which the Romans had hidden. The Cæsars became to them magical man-gods. The poet Virgil became the prince of necromancers. If the secrets of Nature were to be known, they were to be known by unlawful means, by prying into the mysteries of the old heathen magicians, or of the Mohammedan doctors of Cordova and Seville; and those who dared to do so were respected and feared, and often came to evil ends. It needed moral courage, then, to face and interpret fact. Such brave men as Pope Gerbert, Roger Bacon, Galileo, even Kepler, did not lead happy lives; some of them found themselves in prison. All the medieval sages — even Albertus Magnus — were stigmatised as magicians. One wonders that more of them did not imitate poor Paracelsus, who, unable to get a hearing for his coarse common sense, took — vain and sensual — to drinking the laudanum which he himself had discovered, and vaunted as a priceless boon to men; and died as the fool dieth, in spite of all his wisdom. For the “Romani nominis umbra,” the shadow of the mighty race whom they had conquered, lay heavy on our forefathers for centuries. And their dread of the great heathens was really a dread of Nature, and of the powers thereof. For when the authority of great names has reigned unquestioned for many centuries, those names become, to the human mind, integral and necessary parts of Nature itself. They are, as it were, absorbed into it; they become its laws, its canons, its demiurges, and guardian spirits; their words become regarded as actual facts; in one word, they become a superstition, and are feared as parts of the vast unknown; and to deny what they have said is, in the minds of the many, not merely to fly in the face of reverent wisdom, but to fly in the face of facts. During a great part of the Middle Ages, for instance, it was impossible for an educated man to think of nature itself, without thinking first of what Aristotle had said of her. Aristotle’s dicta were Nature; and when Benedetti, at Venice, opposed in 1585 Aristotle’s opinions on violent and natural motion, there were hundreds, perhaps, in the universities of Europe — as there certainly were in the days of the immortal “Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum”— who were ready, in spite of all Benedetti’s professed reverence for Aristotle, to accuse him of outraging not only the father of philosophy, but Nature itself and its palpable and notorious facts. For the restoration of letters in the fifteenth century had not at first mended matters, so strong was the dread of Nature in the minds of the masses. The minds of men had sported forth, not toward any sound investigation of facts, but toward an eclectic resuscitation of Neoplatonism; which endured, not without a certain beauty and use — as let Spenser’s “Faërie Queen” bear witness — till the latter half of the seventeenth century.
After that time a rapid change began. It is marked by — it has been notably assisted by — the foundation of our own Royal Society. Its causes I will not enter into; they are so inextricably mixed, I hold, with theological questions, that they cannot be discussed here. I will only point out to you these facts: that, from the latter part of the seventeenth century, the noblest heads and the noblest hearts of Europe concentrated themselves more and more on the brave and patient investigation of physical facts, as the source of priceless future blessings to mankind; that the eighteenth century which it has been the fashion of late to depreciate, did more for the welfare of mankind, in every conceivable direction, than the whole fifteen centuries before it; that it did this good work by boldly observing and analysing facts; that this boldness towards facts increased in proportion as Europe became indoctrinated with the Jewish literature; and that, notably, such men as Kepler, Newton, Berkeley, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Descartes, in whatsoever else they differed, agreed in this, that their attitude towards Nature was derived from the teaching of the Jewish sages. I believe that we are not yet fully aware how much we owe to the Jewish mind, in the gradual emancipation of the human intellect. The connection may not, of course, be one of cause and effect; it may be a mere coincidence. I believe it to be a cause; one of course of very many causes: but still an integral cause. At least the coincidence is too remarkable a fact not to be worthy of investigation.
I said, just now — The emancipation of the human intellect. I did not say — Of science or of the scientific intellect; and for this reason:
That the emancipation of science is the emancipation of the common mind of all men. All men can partake of the gains of free scientific thought, not merely by enjoying its physical results, but by becoming more scientific men themselves.
Therefore it was, that though I began my first lecture by defining superstition, I did not begin my second by defining its antagonist, science. For the word “science” defines itself. It means simply knowledge; that is, of course, right knowledge, or such an approximation as can be obtained; knowledge of any natural object, its classification, its causes, its effects; or in plain English, what it is, how it came where it is, and what can be done with it.
And scientific method, likewise, needs no definition; for it is simply the exercise of common sense. It is not a peculiar, unique, professional, or mysterious process of the understanding: but the same which all men employ, from the cradle to the grave, in forming correct conclusions.
Every one who knows the philosophic writings of Mr. John Stuart Mill, will be familiar with this opinion. But to those who have no leisure to study him, I should recommend the reading of Professor Huxley’s third lecture on the origin of species.
In that he shows, with great logical skill, as well as with some humour, how the man who, on rising in the morning finds the parlour-window open, the spoons and teapot gone, the mark of a dirty hand on the window-sill, and that of a hob-nailed boot outside, and comes to the conclusion that someone has broken open the window, and stolen the plate, arrives at that hypothesis — for it is nothing more — by a long and complex train of inductions and deductions of just the same kind as those which, according to the Baconian philosophy, are to be used for investigating the deepest secrets of Nature.
This is true, even of those sciences which involve long mathematical calculations. In fact, the stating of the problem to be solved is the most important element in the calculation; and that is so thoroughly a labour of common sense that an utterly uneducated mart may, and often does, state an abstruse problem clearly and correctly; seeing what ought to be proved, and perhaps how to prove it, though he may be unable to work the problem out for want of mathematical knowledge.
But that mathematical knowledge is not — as all Cambridge men are surely aware — the result of any special gift. It is merely the development of those conceptions of form and number which every human being possesses; and any person of average intellect can make himself a fair mathematician if he will only pay continuous attention; in plain English, think enough about the subject.
There are sciences, again, which do not involve mathematical calculation; for instance, botany, zoology, geology, which are just now passing from their old stage of classificatory sciences into the rank of organic ones. These are, without doubt, altogether within the scope of the merest common sense. Any man or woman of average intellect, if they will but observe and think for themselves, freely, boldly, patiently, accurately, may judge for themselves of the conclusions of these sciences, may add to these conclusions fresh and important discoveries; and if I am asked for a proof of what I assert, I point to “Rain and Rivers,” written by no professed scientific man, but by a colonel in the Guards, known to fame only as one of the most perfect horsemen in the world.
Let me illustrate my meaning by an example. A man — I do not say a geologist, but simply a man, squire or ploughman — sees a small valley, say one of the side-glens which open into the larger valleys in the Windsor forest district. He wishes to ascertain its age.
He has, at first sight, a very simple measure — that of denudation. He sees that the glen is now being eaten out by a little stream, the product of innumerable springs which arise along its sides, and which are fed entirely by the rain on the moors above. He finds, on observation, that this stream brings down some ten cubic yards of sand and gravel, on an average, every year. The actual quantity of earth which has been removed to make the glen may be several million cubic yards. Here is an easy sum in arithmetic. At the rate of ten cubic yards a-year, the stream has taken several hundred thousand years to make the glen.
You will observe that this result is obtained by mere common sense. He has a right to assume that the stream originally began the glen, because he finds it in the act of enlarging it; just as much right as he has to assume, if he find a hole in his pocket, and his last coin in the act of falling through it, that the rest of his money has fallen through the same hole. It is a sufficient cause, and the simplest. A number of observations as to the present rate of denudation, and a sum which any railroad contractor can do in his head, to determine the solid contents of the valley, are all that are needed. The method is that of science: but it is also that of simple common sense. You will remember, therefore, that this is no mere theory or hypothesis, but a pretty fair and simple conclusion from palpable facts; that the probability lies with the belief that the glen is some hundreds of thousands of years old; that it is not the observer’s business to prove it further, but other persons’ to disprove it, if they can.
But does the matter end here? No. And, for certain reasons, it is good that it should not end here.
The observer, if he be a cautious man, begins to see if he can disprove his own conclusions; moreover, being human, he is probably somewhat awed, if not appalled, by his own conclusion. Hundreds of thousands of years spent in making that little glen! Common sense would say that the longer it took to make, the less wonder there was in its being made at last: but the instinctive human feeling is the opposite. There is in men, and there remains in them, even after they are civilised, and all other forms of the dread of Nature have died out in them, a dread of size, of vast space, of vast time; that latter, mind, being always imagined as space, as we confess when we speak instinctively of a space of time. They will not understand that size is merely a relative, not an absolute term; that if we were a thousand times larger than we are, the universe would be a thousand times smaller than it is; that if we could think a thousand times faster than we do, time would be a thousand times longer than it is; that there is One in whom we live, and move, and have our being, to whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. I believe this dread of size to be merely, like all other superstitions, a result of bodily fear; a development of the instinct which makes a little dog run away from a big dog. Be that as it may, every observer has it; and so the man’s conclusion seems to him strange, doubtful: he will reconsider it.
Moreover, if he be an experienced man, he is well aware that first guesses, first hypotheses, are not always the right ones; and if he be a modest man, he will consider the fact that many thousands of thoughtful men in all ages, and many thousands still, would say, that the glen can only be a few thousand, or possibly a few hundred, years old. And he will feel bound to consider their opinion; as far as it is, like his own, drawn from facts, but no further.
So he casts about for all other methods by which the glen may have been produced, to see if any one of them will account for it in a shorter time.
1. Was it made by an earthquake? No; for the strata on both sides are identical, at the same level, and in the same plane.
2. Or by a mighty current? If so, the flood must have run in at the upper end, before it ran out at the lower. But nothing has run in at the upper end. All round above are the undisturbed gravel-beds of the horizontal moor, without channel or depression.
3. Or by water draining off a vast flat as it was upheaved out of the sea? That is a likely guess. The valley at its upper end spreads out like the fingers of a hand, as the gullies in tide-muds do.
But that hypothesis will not stand. There is no vast unbroken flat behind the glen. Right and left of it are other similar glens, parted from it by long narrow ridges: these also must be explained on the same hypothesis; but they cannot. For there could not have been surface-drainage to make them all, or a tenth of them. There are no other possible hypotheses; and so he must fall back on the original theory — the rain, the springs, the brook; they have done it all, even as they are doing it this day.
But is not that still a hasty assumption? May not their denuding power have been far greater in old times than now?
Why should it? Because there was more rain then than now? That he must put out of court; there is no evidence of it whatsoever.
Because the land was more friable originally? Well, there is a great deal to be said for that. The experience of every countryman tells him that bare or fallow land is more easily washed away than land under vegetation. And no doubt, when these gravels and sands rose from the sea, they were barren for hundreds of years. He has some measure of the time required, because he can tell roughly how long it takes for sands and shingles left by the sea to become covered with vegetation. But he must allow that the friability of the land must have been originally much greater than now, for hundreds of years.
But again, does that fact really cut off any great space of time from his hundreds of thousands of years? For when the land first rose from the sea, that glen was not there. Some slight bay or bend in the shore determined its site. That stream was not there. It was split up into a million little springs, oozing side by side from the shore, and having each a very minute denuding power, which kept continually increasing by combination as the glen ate its way inwards, and the rainfall drained by all these little springs was collected into the one central stream. So that when the ground being bare was most liable to be denuded, the water was least able to do it; and as the denuding power of the water increased, the land, being covered with vegetation, became more and more able to resist it. All this he has seen, going on at the present day in the similar gullies worn in the soft strata of the South Hampshire coast; especially round Bournemouth.
So the two disturbing elements in the calculation may be fairly set off against each other, as making a difference of only a few thousands or tens of thousands of years either way; and the age of the glen may fairly be, if not a million years, yet such a length of years as mankind still speak of with bated breath, as if forsooth it would do them some harm.
I trust that every scientific man in this room will agree with me, that the imaginary squire or ploughman would have been conducting his investigation strictly according to the laws of the Baconian philosophy. You will remark, meanwhile, that he has not used a single scientific term, or referred to a single scientific investigation; and has observed nothing and thought nothing, which might not have been observed and thought by any one who chose to use his common sense, and not to be afraid.
But because he has come round, after all this further investigation, to something very like his first conclusion, was all that further investigation useless? No — a thousand times, no. It is this very verification of hypotheses which makes the sound ones safe, and destroys the unsound. It is this struggle with all sorts of superstitions which makes science strong and sure, and her march irresistible, winning ground slowly, but never receding from it. It is this buffeting of adversity which compels her not to rest dangerously upon the shallow sand of first guesses, and single observations; but to strike her roots down, deep, wide, and interlaced, into the solid ground of actual facts.
It is very necessary to insist on this point. For there have been men in all past ages — I do not say whether there are any such now, but I am inclined to think that there will be hereafter — men who have tried to represent scientific method as something difficult, mysterious, peculiar, unique, not to be attained by the unscientific mass; and this not for the purpose of exalting science, but rather of discrediting her. For as long as the masses, educated or uneducated, are ignorant of what scientific method is, they will look on scientific men, as the middle age looked on necromancers, as a privileged, but awful and uncanny caste, possessed of mighty secrets; who may do them great good, but may also do them great harm. Which belief on the part of the masses will enable these persons to instal themselves as the critics of science, though not scientific men themselves: and — as Shakespeare has it — to talk of Robin Hood, though they never shot in his bow. Thus they become mediators to the masses between the scientific and the unscientific worlds. They tell them — You are not to trust the conclusions of men of science at first hand. You are not fit judges of their facts or of their methods. It is we who will, by a cautious eclecticism, choose out for you such of their conclusions as are safe for you; and them we will advise you to believe. To the scientific man, on the other hand, as often as anything is discovered unpleasing to them, they will say, imperiously and e cathedrâ— Your new theory contradicts the established facts of science. For they will know well that whatever the men of science think of their assertion, the masses will believe it; totally unaware that the speakers are by their very terms showing their ignorance of science; and that what they call established facts scientific men call merely provisional conclusions, which they would throw away to-morrow without a pang were the known facts explained better by a fresh theory, or did fresh facts require one.
This has happened too often. It is in the interest of superstition that it should happen again; and the best way to prevent it surely is to tell the masses — Scientific method is no peculiar mystery, requiring a peculiar initiation. It is simply common sense, combined with uncommon courage, which includes uncommon honesty and uncommon patience; and if you will be brave, honest, patient, and rational, you will need no mystagogues to tell you what in science to believe and what not to believe; for you will be just as good judges of scientific facts and theories as those who assume the right of guiding your convictions. You are men and women: and more than that you need not be.
And let me say that the man of our days whose writings exemplify most thoroughly what I am going to say is the justly revered Mr. Thomas Carlyle.
As far as I know he has never written on any scientific subject. For aught I am aware of, he may know nothing of mathematics or chemistry, of comparative anatomy or geology. For aught I am aware of, he may know a great deal about them all, and, like a wise man, hold his tongue, and give the world merely the results in the form of general thought. But this I know: that his writings are instinct with the very spirit of science; that he has taught men, more than any living man, the meaning and end of science; that he has taught men moral and intellectual courage; to face facts boldly, while they confess the divineness of facts; not to be afraid of Nature, and not to worship Nature; to believe that man can know truth; and that only in as far as he knows truth can he live worthily on this earth. And thus he has vindicated, as no other man in our days has done, at once the dignity of Nature and the dignity of spirit. That he would have made a distinguished scientific man, we may be as certain from his writings as we may be certain, when we see a fine old horse of a certain stamp, that he would have made a first-class hunter, though he has been unfortunately all his life in harness. Therefore, did I try to train a young man of science to be true, devout, and earnest, accurate and daring, I should say — Read what you will: but at least read Carlyle. It is a small matter to me — and I doubt not to him — whether you will agree with his special conclusions: but his premises and his method are irrefragable; for they stand on the “voluntatem Dei in rebus revelatam”— on fact and common sense.
And Mr. Carlyle’s writings, if I am correct in my estimate of them, will afford a very sufficient answer to those who think that the scientific habit of mind tends to irreverence.
Doubtless this accusation will always be brought against science by those who confound reverence with fear. For from blind fear of the unknown, science does certainly deliver man. She does by man as he does by an unbroken colt. The colt sees by the road side some quite new object — a cast-away boot, an old kettle, or what not. What a fearful monster! What unknown terrific powers may it not possess! And the colt shies across the road, runs up the bank, rears on end; putting itself thereby, as many a man does, in real danger. What cure is there? But one: experience. So science takes us, as we should take the colt, gently by the halter; and makes us simply smell at the new monster; till after a few trembling sniffs, we discover, like the colt, that it is not a monster, but a kettle. Yet I think, if we sum up the loss and gain, we shall find the colt’s character has gained, rather than lost, by being thus disabused. He learns to substitute a very rational reverence for the man who is breaking him in, for a totally irrational reverence for the kettle; and becomes thereby a much wiser and more useful member of society, as does the man when disabused of his superstitions.
From which follows one result. That if science proposes — as she does — to make men brave, wise, and independent, she must needs excite unpleasant feelings in all who desire to keep men cowardly, ignorant, and slavish. And that too many such persons have existed in all ages is but too notorious. There have been from all time, goëtai, quacks, powwow men, rain-makers, and necromancers of various sorts, who having for their own purposes set forth partial, ill-grounded, fantastic, and frightful interpretations of nature, have no love for those who search after a true, exact, brave, and hopeful one. And therefore it is to be feared, or hoped, that science and superstition will to the world’s end remain irreconcilable and internecine foes.
Conceive the feelings of an old Lapland witch, who has had for the last fifty years all the winds in a sealskin bag, and has been selling fair breezes to northern skippers at so much a puff, asserting her powers so often, poor old soul, that she has got to half believe them herself — conceive, I say, her feelings at seeing her customers watch the Admiralty storm-signals, and con the weather reports in The Times. Conceive the feelings of Sir Samuel Baker’s African friend, Katchiba, the rain-making chief, who possessed a whole houseful of thunder and lightning — though he did not, he confessed, keep it in a bottle as they do in England — if Sir Samuel had had the means, and the will, of giving to Katchiba’s Negros a course of lectures on electricity, with appropriate experiments, and a real bottle full of real lightning among the foremost.
It is clear that only two methods of self-defence would have been open to the rain-maker: namely, either to kill Sir Samuel, or to buy his real secret of bottling the lightning, that he might use it for his own ends. The former method — that of killing the man of science — was found more easy in ancient times; the latter in these modern ones. And there have been always those who, too good-natured to kill the scientific man, have patronised knowledge, not for its own sake, but for the use which may be made of it; who would like to keep a tame man of science, as they would a tame poet, or a tame parrot; who say — Let us have science by all means, but not too much of it. It is a dangerous thing; to be doled out to the world, like medicine, in small and cautious doses. You, the scientific man, will of course freely discover what you choose. Only do not talk too loudly about it: leave that to us. We understand the world, and are meant to guide and govern it. So discover freely: and meanwhile hand over your discoveries to us, that we may instruct and edify the populace with so much of them as we think safe, while we keep our position thereby, and in many cases make much money by your science. Do that, and we will patronise you, applaud you, ask you to our houses; and you shall be clothed in purple and fine linen, and fare sumptuously with us every day. I know not whether these latter are not the worst enemies which science has. They are often such excellent, respectable, orderly, well-meaning persons. They desire so sincerely that everyone should be wise: only not too wise. They are so utterly unaware of the mischief they are doing. They would recoil with horror if they were told they were so many Iscariots, betraying Truth with a kiss.
But science, as yet, has withstood both terrors and blandishments. In old times she endured being imprisoned and slain. She came to life again. Perhaps it was the will of Him in whom all things live, that she should live. Perhaps it was His spirit which gave her life.
She can endure, too, being starved. Her votaries have not as yet cared much for purple and fine linen, and sumptuous fare. There are a very few among them who, joining brilliant talents to solid learning, have risen to deserved popularity, to titles, and to wealth. But even their labours, it seems to me, are never rewarded in any proportion to the time and the intellect spent on them, nor to the benefits which they bring to mankind; while the great majority, unpaid and unknown, toil on, and have to find in science her own reward. Better, perhaps, that it should be so. Better for science that she should be free, in holy poverty, to go where she will and say what she knows, than that she should be hired out at so much a year to say things pleasing to the many, and to those who guide the many. And so, I verily believe, the majority of scientific men think. There are those among them who have obeyed very faithfully St. Paul’s precept: “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life.” For they have discovered that they are engaged in a war — a veritable war — against the rulers of darkness, against ignorance and its twin children, fear and cruelty. Of that war they see neither the end nor even the plan. But they are ready to go on; ready, with Socrates, “to follow reason whithersoever it leads;” and content, meanwhile, like good soldiers in a campaign, if they can keep tolerably in a line, and use their weapons, and see a few yards ahead of them through the smoke and the woods. They will come out somewhere at last; they know not where nor when: but they will come out at last, into the daylight and the open field; and be told then — perhaps to their own astonishment — as many a gallant soldier has been told, that by simply walking straight on, and doing the duty which lay nearest them, they have helped to win a great battle, and slay great giants, earning the thanks of their country and of mankind.
And, meanwhile, if they get their shilling a-day of fighting-pay, they are content. I had almost said, they ought to be content. For science is, I verily believe, like virtue, its own exceeding great reward. I can conceive few human states more enviable than that of the man to whom, panting in the foul laboratory, or watching for his life under the tropic forest, Isis shall for a moment lift her sacred veil, and show him, once and for ever, the thing he dreamed not of; some law, or even mere hint of a law, explaining one fact; but explaining with it a thousand more, connecting them all with each other and with the mighty whole, till order and meaning shoots through some old Chaos of scattered observations.
Is not that a joy, a prize, which wealth cannot give, nor poverty take away? What it may lead to, he knows not. Of what use it may become, he knows not. But this he knows, that somewhere it must lead; of some use it will be. For it is a truth; and having found a truth, he has exorcised one more of the ghosts which haunt humanity. He has left one object less for man to fear; one object more for man to use. Yes, the scientific man may have this comfort, that whatever he has done, he has done good; that he is following a mistress who has never yet conferred aught but benefits on the human race.
What physical science may do hereafter I know not; but as yet she has done this:
She has enormously increased the wealth of the human race; and has therefore given employment, food, existence, to millions who, without science, would either have starved or have never been born. She has shown that the dictum of the early political economists, that population has a tendency to increase faster than the means of subsistence, is no law of humanity, but merely a tendency of the barbaric and ignorant man, which can be counteracted by increasing manifold by scientific means his powers of producing food. She has taught men, during the last few years, to foresee and elude the most destructive storms; and there is no reason for doubting, and many reasons for hoping, that she will gradually teach men to elude other terrific forces of nature, too powerful and too seemingly capricious for them to conquer. She has discovered innumerable remedies and alleviations for pains and disease. She has thrown such light on the causes of epidemics, that we are able to say now that the presence of cholera — and probably of all zymotic diseases — in any place, is usually a sin and a shame, for which the owners and authorities of that place ought to be punishable by law, as destroyers of their fellow-men; while for the weak, for those who, in the barbarous and semi-barbarous state — and out of that last we are only just emerging — how much has she done; an earnest of much more which she will do? She has delivered the insane — I may say by the scientific insight of one man, more worthy of titles and pensions than nine-tenths of those who earn them — I mean the great and good Pinel — from hopeless misery and torture into comparative peace and comfort, and at least the possibility of cure. For children, she has done much, or rather might do, would parents read and perpend such books as Andrew Combe’s and those of other writers on physical education. We should not then see the children, even of the rich, done to death piecemeal by improper food, improper clothes, neglect of ventilation and the commonest measures for preserving health. We should not see their intellects stunted by Procrustean attempts to teach them all the same accomplishments, to the neglect, most often, of any sound practical training of their faculties. We should not see slight indigestion, or temporary rushes of blood to the head, condemned and punished as sins against Him who took up little children in His arms and blessed them.
But we may have hope. When we compare education now with what it was even forty years ago, much more with the stupid brutality of the monastic system, we may hail for children, as well as for grown people, the advent of the reign of common sense.
And for woman — What might I not say on that point? But most of it would be fitly discussed only among physicians and biologists: here I will say only this: Science has exterminated, at least among civilised nations, witch-manias. Women — at least white women — are no longer tortured or burnt alive from man’s blind fear of the unknown. If science had done no more than that, she would deserve the perpetual thanks and the perpetual trust, not only of the women whom she has preserved from agony, but the men whom she has preserved from crime.
These benefits have already accrued to civilised men, because they have lately allowed a very few of their number peaceably to imitate Mr. Rarey, and find out what nature — or rather, to speak at once reverently and accurately, He who made nature — is thinking of, and obey the “voluntatem Dei in rebus revelatam.” This science has done, while yet in her infancy. What she will do in her maturity, who dare predict? At least, in the face of such facts as these, those who bid us fear, or restrain, or mutilate science, bid us commit an act of folly, as well as of ingratitude, which can only harm ourselves. For science has as yet done nothing but good. Will any one tell me what harm it has ever done? When any one will show me a single result of science, of the knowledge of and use of physical facts, which has not tended directly to the benefit of mankind, moral and spiritual, as well as physical and economic — then I shall be tempted to believe that Solomon was wrong when he said that the one thing to be sought after on earth, more precious than all treasure, she who has length of days in her right hand, and in her left hand riches and honour, whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace, who is a tree of life to all who lay hold on her, and makes happy every one who retains her, is — as you will see if you will yourselves consult the passage — that very Wisdom — by which God has founded the earth; and that very Understanding — by which He has established the heavens.
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