Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 21.djvu/684

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

the greatest masters of language; M. Dumas still pursues his valuable researches in chemical science, and he combines with them an eloquence and elegance in literary composition not unworthy of his scientific renown; M. Pasteur has carried to their farthest limit the investigations of physiology, and has rendered incalculable services to mankind by tracing to their sources the germs of life, and of the diseases which affect life; M. Taine must be placed among the best French writers left to us since the extinction of the great historians, critics, and orators of the last generation. By a fortunate accident three of these eminent persons were called upon to take part on two memorable occasions beneath the dome devoted to the public sittings of the French Institute. That building, dedicated to letters, to science, to art, and to criticism, may be regarded as the last refuge and asylum of the genius and culture of France. It has resounded for two centuries to the voices of the great leaders of thought and eloquence of former generations; it still collects within its walls whatever is best and noblest in French society. This institution alone survives the great cataclysm which has swept away thrones, and churches, and orders, and constitutional government. The National Institute, and especially the oldest branch of it, the French Academy, still pursues its calm and dignified course, unshaken by despotism, by sedition, by popular tumults, by the violence of war, or by the scourge of revolution. Even during the siege of Paris we believe that its sittings were scarcely interrupted. Beneath the customary forms of academic compliments, which are in themselves idle ceremonies, it is not difficult to trace in its proceedings the language of earnest thought and warm feeling; and we shall have occasion to show that the great conflict of the age between faith and science, between the intellect and the senses, between spiritualism and materialism, between mind and matter, between the finite and the infinite, was the real subject of the discourses delivered on the occasions to which we now particularly refer.

But there was in this encounter a peculiar contrast. M. Littré, to whose memory the speech of M. Pasteur was devoted, was himself a Comtist; his philosophy was entirely negative; he denied everything which could not be brought within the evidence of the senses. These agnostic opinions were strenuously assailed by the eminent man of science whose duty it was to relate the touching history of his life. M. Taine, who had been elected to the Academy two years before in the place of M. de Loménie, disclaimed all adherence to Comtism, and spoke with very little respect of its founder, but his language was not less skeptical; it was a distant echo of the philosophy of the eighteenth century, which destroyed all beliefs and planted nothing in their place; it was an avowal of the supremacy of matter over mind, which is characteristic of ail his own writings. To him M. Dumas replied with great force and point. The great chemist told him that all the researches of the present generation into the secrets of the material