Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/July 1872/Editor's Table



IT will now scarcely be questioned that the law of progress in education is a tendency toward limitation of mental pursuits. Under the theory of education as a discipline, knowledge is held subordinate, but it is obviously rising in educational value, while it is beginning also to be understood that mental discipline may be acquired in any field of study by the vigorous and methodical exercise of the mental powers upon its subject-matter. But, with the increasing importance of knowledge, there comes a difficulty from its vast extent. Every thing cannot be learned; if some subjects are chosen, others must be passed by; indeed, but few can be taken, while many are left, and so study is inevitably specialized. This raises the further question of the rule of choice, or the relative value of the knowledges. What are the most necessary things to be generally studied, and which shall have the first place in any system of mental cultivation that goes beyond the barest rudiments? This we take to be now the urgent and fundamental problem of education.

Among the articles of our present number, we publish an abstract of an address before the theological students of Yale College, by Mr. Beecher, on the "Study of Human Nature." He presents, with his usual force, the claims of this subject upon students of his profession, but the reader will hardly fail to remark that his argument is much broader than its professional application. It is certainly necessary for clergymen, who aim to instruct and elevate their hearers, to understand their natures, if they would work effectually. It is, in fact, a simple business necessity; and, if neglected, it will entail the same consequences that ignorance of the material in which he works entails upon the artisan; that is, failure. But this necessity is a thousand times greater in the case of the teacher than in that of the preacher. For the teacher takes the human material directly in hand in its plastic period, to shape and in form, and he works at it day by day and all day long. That the study of human nature, systematic and prolonged, is incumbent upon the faithful teacher is self-evident, but what, then, shall we say of its necessity to the parents who give their life to the new being, and make those deep initial impressions that affect the unfolding nature more profoundly than all that is done afterward by teachers and preachers combined?

But it is not as fitting preachers, teachers, or parents, for their special functions, that we are now impelled to demand that the scientific study of human nature shall take a high and universal place in education. It should be done because this knowledge is of first and fundamental importance to all. Living in complex social relations, incessantly in contact with others, acting upon them and acted upon by them in innumerable ways that vitally involve the mutual welfare, it is certainly of the highest importance that each person shall comprehend the qualities of the natures that are thus brought into reaction. But it is needless to enforce the old injunction "know thyself," or to insist upon the correlative duty of knowing others also. The want will be freely admitted: the question is how it may be supplied.

Mr. Beecher maintains that "one of the prime constituents of clerical training should be a study of the human soul and body from beginning to end," and he insists furthermore that this study should he pursued by the method of science. The importance of this last requirement cannot be over-estimated. The study of man should be first of all scientific, because that is the only method which aims solely and supremely to arrive at the truth. It is well to study human nature for the sake of professional utility; but it is better to study it for the intrinsic and exalted character of the knowledge itself. It is more important to insist upon this, because on no subject is the bias of prejudice and prepossession so all-disturbing as here. Human beings should be studied exactly as minerals and plants are studied, with the simple purpose of tracing out the laws and relations of the phenomena they present. Men should be analyzed to their last constituents, physiological and mental. They should be observed in their characters and actions, in their general attributes and peculiar traits; they should be apprehended in their growth, in their normal and abnormal manifestations, in their relations to inferior life, in their social and sexual attributes, and in their relations to vocations and institutions, and the whole inquiry should be pursued in that unimpassioned spirit of true science which cares little what the facts may be, but every thing to know what they are.

Human nature is certainly a very comprehensive and complicated subject, and as a science it is, of course, profoundly imperfect. It is by no means to be taken up as one of the ordinary sciences, and pursued separately, like mathematics or electricity. Those branches of science upon which it chiefly depends are to be acquired first as a foundation, and then they are to be combined in the direct and practical study of man himself, in his totality, and as a subject of systematic observation. Human nature, like geology, is dependent upon other sciences for its data, and then it offers large additional questions of its own, which require a scientific training to deal with them. When the geologist has mastered the laws of physics, chemistry, mineralogy, meteorology, zoology, and botany, he then goes out to commence the practical study of the rocky masses which compose the earth's crust. In the same way the scientific student of human nature will first get an acquaintance with the principles of biology, which throw light upon man's physical constitution and relations, and then he must master psychology, or the science of feeling and intellect, as manifested in the grades of life, and these will prepare him to form a right conception of the individual man in his bodily and mental unity. All this, however, is of little account in itself, and is but a preparation for the direct study of human beings, their characters and actions, as matters of habitual and methodical observation. What is required of our enlightened educators is, to arrange the scientific curriculum with a view to this great end, and then to pursue the study into its higher and practical applications. If it be said that we can never know the truth about people, as half of them give their lives to the art of keeping up false appearances, the reply is, then study that fact first, and get a cool scientific expression of the extent, limits, and value of this source of error; a long stride will thus be taken toward the end we propose.

This study is undoubtedly great, complex, and difficult, but it is, nevertheless, intrinsically practicable. Thanks to science, the knowledge exists. An immense body of truth of the character here indicated has been wrought out, but education as yet ignores it. Between the vast system of facts and principles which science has established, and the state of the general mind, there is a gulf wider than the Pacific, and it is still daily widening; for, while there is greater activity now than ever before in the world of scientific inquiry, the masses of the people are doing little or nothing to avail themselves of it.

Complex and difficult the scientific study of human nature may he, but it is demanded by the imperative exigencies of the age. What is wanted is a better knowledge of human relations in the social state; and that resolves itself immediately into a better knowledge of the beings which exist in that state, for society is what its human units make it. Ignorance of men, of the nature of their weaknesses and vices, and the springs and laws of their action, is at the root of the chief impostures by which society is scourged. The quackeries of the platform, the bar, the state-house, and the pulpit, the gigantic swindles of speculators, and the frauds of petty traders, the omnipresent over-reachings and deceptions by which people are victimized in the intercourse of life, are but legitimate consequences of the gross and wide-spread ignorance of human nature. We are deafened with the discordant cries of political and social reformers; but here is where they must begin, if any thing valuable and permanent is to be accomplished in the way of reform.


Several thousand people assembled the other day in the Central Park to unveil the statue of Shakespeare. The ceremonies were impressive. The illustrious English poet, newly done in bronze, was celebrated prosaically by the most illustrious of American poets, and then he was glorified poetically by another distinguished American poet, while this effect was heightened by the fine vocalization of our eminent interpreter of the great dramatist, and altogether it was a most poetic and Shakespearian affair.

Such an event will suggest different reflections in different minds; we are in the mood of contemplating it chemically. As the symposium is ever qualified by the libations, it will be asked what they had to drink. As befitted the exaltation of the hour, they drank the invisible ether that is never conveyed in goblets—a solar distilment of the beautiful foliage of the park, and to this they owed all the inspiration of the occasion. The afflatus was an immediate effect of oxygen gas. It was through it and by it that the entire concourse lived, and moved, and had its poetic being. As the first condition of cerebral action is a constant stream of oxygenated blood driven through the brain, the broad current of thought and feeling in the assembled multitude was sustained by this element of the vital stream. That withdrawn, the prose of Bryant, the poetry of Stoddard, and the elocution of Booth, with the appreciative applause of the audience, would have suddenly and simultaneously ceased. For, whatever may be the case in other spheres of being, in this sphere the spiritual world of thought and feeling is created, instant by instant, by the chemical energy of oxygen. Let none accuse us of materialism, for this doctrine has high and sacred authority. In its account of human creation, the oldest scripture declares that God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul;" and the breath of life we now know to be oxygen gas.

But, for many thousands of years, it was not known. Humanity had run through a vast career before this truth was reached. Mighty empires had come and gone; great cities had been built and had perished; civilizations had risen and passed away; arts, literatures, philosophies, and religions, had become ascendant and had declined before men found out the constitution of the air—what and why they breathe.

We owe this most brilliant and important of modern discoveries to Dr. Joseph Priestley, of England. He was a clergyman and a chemist, and in 1768 he went to Leeds, and was settled as pastor over a large congregation. He happened to reside near a brewery, and "accidentally observed that the beer, during its fermentation in the vats, gave forth a remarkable aerial substance. The flame of a lighted stick immersed in it was at once extinguished, and the smoke floating on the top of the stratum showed that it was very heavy, a result which was perfectly confirmed by the observation that, invisible and intangible as it was, it could be poured from vessel to vessel like water; and in the vats, in which it originally occurred, it would overflow their edges, and descend to the floor, along which it would run like a stream, its course being readily tracked by the expedient of putting a lighted stick into it, and observing the extinction of the flame. Moreover, he found that it would dissolve in water, for, if dishes of that liquid were placed where it had access, an agreeably acidulous and sparkling fluid, soda-water, was formed; and, that the agent which brought all these results about possessed a physiological potency, was proved by the fatal fact, too often known in such manufactories, that, if by accident it was breathed, death at once took place."

This substance was then called "fixed air," and is familiarly known as carbonic-acid gas. It is now exactly a hundred years since Priestley published a pamphlet "On impregnating Water with Fixed Air," and a year later he received the Copley medal from the Royal Society for his "Observations on the Different Kinds of Air." In the year 1774, he made the splendid discovery of oxygen, and, in allusion to its power as the sustainer of life, he applied to it the epithet "vital air." When it is remembered that this wonderful substance is the active element of the atmosphere, and essential to the existence and activity of the entire living world; that it enters largely into the composition of all the natural objects around us, forming three-fourths the weight of all living things, half the weight of the rocky strata, and eight-ninths of the oceans; and, moreover, that it is an element of great chemical energy, and is involved in nearly every transformation of matter in the laboratory of Nature, and in the processes of the arts, we shall be prepared to comprehend the significance of its discovery. It has given us a new chemistry and a new physiology, and it probably carries the mind of man deeper into the order of Nature than any other single scientific revelation ever made.

But the great discoverer had his troubles. He carried his independence and power of thought into theology and politics, and his life of course became a turbulent battle with sects and parties. In relation to this part of Priestley's career, Dr. J. W. Draper has well remarked: We must not impute it to mental weakness, but rather to a pursuit of the truth, that in succession he passed through many phases of religious belief, and four different sects, the Presbyterian, Arminian, Arian, and Unitarian, received him as a votary. This is not the occasion nor the place to explain the causes which led him to this course. It is only for us to judge of so great a man with charity. But, imbued as he was with a deep religious sentiment, and feeling that even the most exalted objects of this life are not to be compared with the importance of another world, he regarded his philosophical pursuits as a very secondary affair, and gave much of his time and talent to controversial theology. He seems to have come to the conclusion that it was incumbent on him to make a religious war. As his biographer says, 'Atheists, Deists, Jews, Arians, Quakers, Methodists, Calvinists, Catholics, Episcopalians, had alike to combat him.' In more than a hundred volumes which he printed, each of these found an adversary of such force and vigor (and it was impossible with such a man that it could be otherwise), that their ablest theological writers were overmatched. By the established Church of England, he came to be regarded with such feelings, that instances occurred in which those who had successfully answered him were rewarded with the highest dignities; a circumstance which gave origin to his remark, that he appointed the bishops of England. Priestley forgot that the experience of all nations and of thousands of years has proved the utter impossibility of any one man convincing the whole human race, and converting them all to his views. He shut his eyes to that anarchy of opinion infesting the world, brought on in no small degree by such polemics as those in which he delighted. In an exact science, like chemistry, he could describe some new discovery, and every man in Europe at once admitted its truth. He never realized how different it is in politics and theology. The library of volumes he wrote on these topics has already dropped into that gulf of oblivion which has received all the works of the authors of the early and middle ages, and no man cares to learn what he wrote or what he thought of the matter. But not so with his philosophical labors: they stand out clear and distinct, monuments of the advance of the human mind in knowledge and power during the eighteenth century. His discovery of oxygen gas will last as long as the world endures."

But, if Priestley erred by meddling with men's political and religious opinions, he paid the full penalty of it. While living in Birmingham, the mob broke open and sacked his house. His philosophical instruments, most of them made by himself, were broken up; his library and original papers, the fruits of a frugal life, were destroyed, scraps of manuscript covered the floor several inches deep, and his books were strewn over the high-road for half a mile. His life was endangered; he was obliged to flee from the place with his family, and for three days one of the chief cities of the nation was the scene of riot. The blow was crushing. His society was avoided even by his philosophical associates, and, finding that further tranquillity in England was impossible, he resolved to come to America. He arrived in New York in January, 1794, and took up his residence in Northumberland, Pa., where he died in February, 1804.

Such was the career of the discoverer of oxygen; but, as Dr. Draper intimates, while oblivion has swallowed his theology and politics, his scientific fame grows brighter with the advance of knowledge. The rancorous feelings which drove him from his native country have subsided, and a more just generation is preparing to grant his memory the honor that is over-due. Subscriptions are being raised to erect a statue to Priestley in Birmingham.

Would it not be well for the country which gave him refuge to do the same? And apart from the question of doing justice to a great man's memory, which has been obscured for a century, what could be more fitting than to celebrate the centennial of a mighty discovery on August 1, 1874, by unveiling a monument to the illustrious discoverer?