Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/May 1879/Editor's Table
IT is announced that Herbert Spencer has ceased writing upon his "Sociology," and begun the "Principles of Morality," the last of his series; and it is inferred from this that, having found his "Synthetic Philosophy" overgrown and unmanageable, he has abandoned a part of it in order to finish the rest. This is an entire misapprehension. He has never had his great work so completely in command as now. His suspension of labor upon the sociological division is but temporary, and he anticipates a part of the final ethical discussion for reasons quite other than those assigned. The step has been taken in consequence of Mr. Spencer's uncertain health, and from an apprehension that he might break down before reaching its concluding part. Regarding "The Principles of Morality" as the most important portion of his undertaking, to which all the preceding works are preliminary, he felt it to be of great importance to prepare such a statement of his ethical views as will show the bearing of the previous parts of his system upon that subject. He accordingly some months ago stopped work upon the second volume of the "Sociology," and began "The Data of Ethics," the first portion or ground-work of "The Principles of Morality." This is now so nearly finished that it may be expected to appear in a small volume of two hundred and fifty pages in the course of the spring, when Mr. Spencer will resume the course of his labors upon "The Principles of Sociology."
The appearance of a new book upon morals is now so common a thing as in itself to be hardly noteworthy. But the publication of such a work, at the present time, by the most eminent expositor of the doctrine of evolution, and the* only man who has dealt with that doctrine as the basis of a comprehensive philosophy which is broadly founded upon the results of modern science, and treated throughout with reference to the ultimate establishment of the principles of right and wrong in human conduct—such a book will be certain to attract wide attention.
Morality, as is well known, is a subject that has been hitherto kept in very close connection with theological beliefs. It has been generally taught by the dogmatic method, and as based upon supernatural sanctions, so that the theologians have come to be regarded as its legitimate custodians. Not only is the inculcation of morality a conceded prerogative of the pulpit, but the regular teaching of it, in nearly all our higher education, is also in the hands of the divines. In an interesting and instructive paper published in "Mind," by Mr. G. Stanley Hall, on "Philosophy in the United States," the writer remarks of the three hundred non-Catholic colleges in the country as follows: u In nearly all these institutions certain studies, aesthetic, logical, historical, most commonly ethical, most rarely psychological, are roughly classed as philosophy, and taught during the last year almost invariably by the president." To this it may be added that the president is almost invariably a doctor of divinity. These theological expounders of studies "most commonly ethical" ever insist upon the vital interdependence of theology and morals. It is taught that they are bound up together indissolubly and are subject to a common fate, and this is the way the subject is regarded by the great mass of people in the community.
But we are now called upon to take into account a most important fact. There is an undeniable and widely spread decay of theological dogmas affecting all classes of society. The old adherence to traditional beliefs is weakening, and men are falling away from their creeds. The ancient sphere of belief and faith is invaded by science, and is being inexorably circumscribed. This is notorious, and is acknowledged by eminent religious authorities.
In a paper of remarkable candor and significance, by the Rev. Phillips Brooks, of Boston, in the March number of the "Princeton Review" on "The Pulpit and Modern Skepticism," the writer admits that the phenomena of doubt "are thick around us in our congregations, and thicker still outside our congregations, in the world." This skepticism he recognizes as "a very pervading thing. It evidently can not be shut up in any guarded class or classes. Life plays upon faith every where. Ideas change and develop in all sorts and conditions of men; and the occupants of pulpits have their doubts and disbeliefs as well as others." Again, "a large acquaintance with clerical life has led me to think that almost any company of clergymen, gathering together and talking freely to each other, will express opinions which would greatly surprise and at the same time greatly relieve the congregations who ordinarily listen to these ministers."
And again: "How many men in the ministry to-day believe in the doctrine of verbal inspiration which our fathers held, and how many of us have frankly told the people that we do not believe it, and so lifted off their Bible's page the heavy cloud of difficulties and inconsistencies which that doctrine laid there? How many of us hold that the everlasting punishment of the wicked is a clear and certain truth of revelation? But how many of us who do not hold that have ever said a word to tell men that we thought they might be Christians, and yet keep a hope for the souls of all God's children?"
Dr. Brooks remarks still further: "There must be no lines of orthodoxy inside the lines of truth. Men find that you are playing with them and will not believe you even when you come in earnest. I know what may be said in answer. I know the old talk about holding the outworks as long as we can, and then retreating to the citadel, and perhaps there has hardly been a more mischievous metaphor than this. It is the mere illusion of a metaphor. The minister who tries to make people believe that which he questions, in order to keep them from questioning that which he believes, knows very little about the certain workings of the human heart, and has no real faith in truth itself. I think that a great many teachers and parents now are just in this condition. They remember that they started with a great deal more belief than they have now. They have lost much, and still have much to live by. They think that their children, too, must start believing so much that they can afford to lose a great deal and still have something left, and so they teach these children what they have themselves long ceased to believe. It is a most dangerous experiment."
We have quoted these frank and impressive passages because they will have weight as coming from a distinguished religious teacher. They reveal no secret, and state nothing that observing persons did not know before; but they bring out clearly the degree to which religious dogmas are already discredited and secretly abandoned, and they painfully illustrate the insincerity and duplicity that have resulted.
But what we have here to note is simply the acknowledgment of the extent to which theology is losing its hold upon the general mind, and untenable articles of religious faith are being abandoned. It is this crumbling theological system that has been hitherto offered us as the foundation of morals. Religion and morality, as we have said, are held to be bound up in a common fate, and to the great majority of people religion means orthodox theology. These will therefore naturally think that, when their articles of faith are discredited, morality must be discredited also. We are thus forced by the critical exigencies of thought to meet the question, Is morality to fall with the decaying authority of supernaturalism, or does it really rest upon another and more immutable foundation? In fact, the broad issue is, Does morality belong to the domain of theology or to the domain of science, and is it to be treated by theological methods or by the methods of science? Answers to these questions are now imperatively demanded.
It may be objected that this is an empty requirement, as we already have a distinctly recognized ethical science cultivated by rational methods—the utilitarian system, based upon experience, and rejecting all theological implications. It is true that there is a strong tendency of thought in this direction, but it is neither the prevailing mode of viewing the subject, nor does it make any claim to be based upon the results of modern science. Mr. Sidgwick's recent book, "Methods in Ethics," in which he undertakes to examine and criticise the grounds of ethical systems, does not deal with the relations of modern science to the subject, and in this respect it was disappointing to many. Those familiar with the drifts of recent inquiry perceive that the course it has taken and the results it has attained must profoundly affect the philosophy of morals, if indeed they do not give us a "New Ethics"; but Mr. Sidgwick seems but little more conscious of any such movement than were Bentham and Mill. He is not of course to be blamed, as he deals with past systems, but his work is proof that no close relation between general science and ethics has hitherto been systematically traced out.
The most far-reaching and radical revolution in thought of which we have yet had experience consists in the extensive acceptance of the doctrine of evolution. That this doctrine has fundamental relations with morality is undeniable. Those theological teachers who hold that religion and morality are so unified that they must stand or fall together are fond of insisting that evolution is fatal to both. This is very much like a desperate abandonment of both to destruction, for the theory is making headway at a rate unprecedented in the historical growth of opinion. It has been developed by studious scientific men, and promulgated like any other scientific conclusion to which they have been led by the established processes of investigation and the established rules of logic. All our science is pervaded by it, and there is no hope that it can be arrested. It is therefore important to know what it is going to carry away, what it is going to leave, and what it is going to give. Will it subvert morality, or will it lead to a higher morality?
The answer to this question we can not regard as doubtful. If evolution be true, and man's ethical nature is no exception to the general constitution of things, then evolution is the agency that has developed morality in the past and brought it to its present condition. Assuming that the principles of right and wrong and the laws which regulate human conduct are rooted in the natural order, the sciences of nature which explain that order must have close bearings upon the philosophy of human conduct, while the profoundest interpretation of the method of the universe that has yet been attained, and which throws a flood of new light upon the nature of man and the development of humanity, must certainly aid us in the study of human activities in their highest aspects.
At any rate, we desire to have a report upon the present state of knowledge on this important subject, and we want it from a man authorized to speak. Mr. Spencer's book on "The Data of Ethics" may be expected to give us the scientific groundwork of the subject in connection with the principle of evolution, and it can not fail to prove helpful to many minds, both by the instruction it will afford and by the solicitude it will dispel in the present state of transitional opinion.
We print this month the last of a short series of very interesting articles on astronomical subjects by Professor Daniel Vaughan, of Cincinnati. Before we had received from him the corrected proofs of the last article, news came that he was dead. We were of course startled by this intelligence, as his death is a profound loss to American science, and we knew that he was by no means a very old man, and were not aware of his failing health. But there now come to us certain painful disclosures regarding his life, of which it is desirable to take notice.
Daniel Vaughan was born in Ireland, of wealthy parents, about the year 1821. He had a good education from a tutor, and at the village school, and was noted for mathematical ability. He came to this country at the age of sixteen, and went directly West, becoming the teacher in a country school in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Here he studied in seclusion, and made great proficiency in the higher branches of scientific study; but, famishing for books and intelligent associations, he went to Cincinnati twenty-five years ago, mainly attracted by its library privileges. He now pursued a wide course of scientific inquiry with great vigor and enthusiasm, devoting himself mainly to astronomy and to the larger aspects of natural phenomena, which he treated with the freedom and independence of a strong original thinker. He was master of the German, French, Italian, and Spanish languages, and also of ancient and modern Greek. He wrote one or two volumes upon mathematics and astronomy, and contributed numerous papers to the proceedings of learned societies, and to scientific periodicals at home and abroad. An example of the wide range of his studies and publications is afforded by the following list of papers and articles which appeared at different times and in different publications:
Professor Vaughan was a correspondent of various eminent scientific men abroad, who had a high opinion of his abilities, and many of his papers, were translated into the Continental languages.
One might suppose that so learned and accomplished a man, whose name gave distinction abroad to the great city of his adoption, would have been favored and honored by its intelligent and public-spirited citizens, and placed in a position so independent as to afford the best play to his remarkable powers. There is wealth to squander in Cincinnati on all projects and in all ways, as becomes a boasting city of the West in hot rivalry with St. Louis and Chicago, so that one would think it might fitly have taken decent care of its most illustrious scientific man. But it turns out that Professor Vaughan was most scandalously neglected; he led a life of pinched privation, was left to get a precarious subsistence by private teaching, and was cheated out of his earnings by the colleges in which he lectured and who got the benefit of his eminent name. We do not like to say that Professor Vaughan literally starved to death in Cincinnati, but he led a life of suffering and want, which the past inclement winter brought to a close in a hospital, and we are told that "an autopsy revealed the wreck of his vital system and proved that the long and dreadful process of freezing and starving had dried up the very sources of life."
We gather the main particulars here given from an article in the "Cincinnati Commercial" of April 7th, written by Mr. William M. Corry, a friend of Professor Vaughan, and subjoin from his communication the following extracts:
Mr. Corry indignantly adds: "There can be no doubt that the city has incurred a deep and lasting reproach by permitting such a treasure to be destroyed prematurely by disease and actual want, and that she should be told of it, and should suffer the consequences."
There is, however, this palliation for the conduct of the Cincinnatians. Professor Vaughan was modest, shrinking, and unobtrusive, and kept his miseries to himself. "He would not give his address to his friends, nor permit them to ferret him out and ascertain with their own eyes his actual condition. Nor would he make any explanation, much less ask or accept any pecuniary assistance." That is, he did not choose to submit to the mortification of becoming an object of charity. No doubt there were plenty of people who would have given alms, if it had been solicited, but the man's self-respect would not permit the degradation. It is said he neglected himself, and his townsmen merely imitated his example; but this is rather a cold-blooded apology for leaving a man of genius to penury, rags, and starvation. Read over the list of subjects upon which he thought and wrote, and read the first paper in this "Monthly," which shows the quality of his work, and then say how much vigor a man would have left to fight his Cincinnati neighbors in the competitions of money-making. He was incompetent to make money by his very vocation, and this must have been perfectly well known. Why was not a proper place made for Professor Vaughan, in which he could have given his services to the public, and been so fairly paid for it that he could have lived in a way to favor his best work? The answer is, that there was not sufficient appreciation of science among the people; and very likely, if by special exertion he had been put into a comfortable place, some miserable mountebank who knew better how to manage the public would have got the position away from him.
- Reprinted in "The Popular Science Monthly Supplement," New Series, No. 1.