Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/May 1880/The Martyrdom of Science



THE history of human progress presents no feature more interesting yet more commonly overlooked and misrepresented than the treatment of discoverers and inventors. That these men have, as a rule, fared ill at the hands of their species is carelessly or grudgingly admitted. But the questions by whom have they been persecuted, and what may have been the motive of their enemies, are avoided even in works where we might expect them to be carefully discussed and fully answered. Such omission may be especially charged against Sir D. Brewster. His treatise is merely a biography of certain astronomers who have been, for anything the reader learns to the contrary, incidentally and casually afflicted by their contemporaries, and it omits the most striking instances of persecution. Nay, the very term "martyrs of science" is applied quite vaguely, and is made, e. g., in the work of M. Tissandier, to include three distinct classes of men. We have on the one hand personages whose love for research has cost them health and even life itself. We find physicists like Richmann, chemists like Gehlen, Mansfield, Chapman, who have been struck dead while engaged in some hazardous experiment. We read of naturalists like Marcgrave and the elder Wallace, geographers, navigators, and travelers, such as Cook, La Perouse, Franklin, Livingstone, meteorologists like Crocé-Spinelli, who in their ardor for discovery have succumbed to ungenial climates, to the attacks of savages, to hunger, tempest, or to an irrespirable atmosphere. All honor to these men, and to the noble army of which they may be taken as representatives! They have fallen in the cause of science, but they have undergone no persecution, and may hence be regarded as victims rather than martyrs.

We turn to another class: illustrious inventors and discoverers not a few have been clearly and decidedly persecuted; hunted down by mob-violence, imprisoned, or even judicially murdered; but these inflictions are to be traced not to their scientific discoveries, speculations, and writings, but to their religious or political opinions. When the house of Priestley was sacked and burned by the rabble of Birmingham, and when his very life was endangered, it was not the chemist and physicist but the so-called "Jacobin" and Socinian whom Midland roughdom sought to crush. It is not, we believe, generally known that the attack on Priestley's house was headed by the town-crier, a man of the name of Sugar, who rang his bell and exclaimed:

"Pile up the wood higher,

I am Sugar, the crier;
By my desire

This place was set on fire!"

This man and his doggerel are only worth our notice as proof of the official countenance lent to the outrage. It is utterly incredible that a town-crier would thus avowedly act as the ringleader of a mob unless sure of the connivance of his superiors.

If Campanella was put seven times to the torture, on one occasion for forty hours in succession; if he passed twenty-seven of the best years of his life in loathsome dungeons; if, after his release, he narrowly escaped the rage of a brutal populace, it was not as the champion of the Copernican system of astronomy, the refuter of mediæval Aristotelianism, but as a patriot who longed to deliver southern Italy from the tyranny of Spain, that he suffered. Still we may concede that like all the reformers of science he must have aroused the hatred and jealousy of many of the learned, who would doubtless use against him whatever influence they possessed.

Servetus was certainly a learned physician, and is by some ranked as one of the forerunners of Harvey. But his judicial murder by Calvin was due solely to his theological opinions. The merits of Bernard Palissy, not merely as the creator of modern fictile art, but as an able physicist, chemist, and geologist, can not be contested. He shocked the philosophasters and sophists of his day by maintaining that fossil shells were not, as was then supposed, mere freaks of Nature, but the remains of extinct animals. He dared to deny that stones were capable of growth. He pointed out the possibility of artesian wells. With an almost prophetic insight he foretold the evil consequences of the destruction of forests, and in our day not merely meteorologists and farmers, but governments find that he was in the right. But in spite of all his innovations in science and in industrial art—or rather in consequence of those very innovations—he was honored and protected by Catherine of Medicis and Henry III. That he was at last arrested, condemned to death, and allowed to die in the Bastile, was the consequence of his firm adherence to the doctrines of the Huguenots. Had it not been for his scientific greatness he would have perished earlier.

If Lavoisier perished on the scaffold amid the storms of the first Revolution, he merely shared the fate of his colleagues the fermiers généraux, none of whom were men of science. It is true that "the brutish idiot into whose hands the destinies of France had then fallen," as Professor Whewell justly remarks, declared that "the republic had no need of chemists." But these foolish words give us no right to assert, as a modern writer has done, that Lavoisier suffered death for his chemical ideas.

If Bailly likewise perished upon the scaffold, and if Condorcet poisoned himself to escape a similar fate, they died not as philosophers and mathematicians, but as victims of indiscriminate popular frenzy.

There are many other men whose names we are thus compelled to erase from the list of the martyrs of science—men whose inventions and discoveries have been of the highest order, but whose sufferings and death can not be justly looked on as a consequence of their achievements.

But there still remains a third and a too numerous class: thinkers and discoverers who have been persecuted in many cases to the death, not incidentally, but because of the very services they have rendered to science. Their persecutions have differed very much in nature and degree according to the age and the country in which they lived. In the dark ages it was practicable to arrest a troublesome thinker and to put an end to his researches, or at least to their promulgation, by the straightforward means of imprisonment, torture, banishment, and even death at the stake. Hypatia, of Alexandria, was seized by a mob of infuriated monks, who literally tore the flesh from her bones with fragments of pots, dragged her mangled remains outside the city, and there burned them. The Bishop Cyril, who had instigated the outrage, endeavored to screen the malefactors from justice. Virgilius, Bishop of Salzburg, was burned by Boniface, the papal legate, for asserting the existence of antipodes. Cornelius Agrippa, after much persecution, died at last of actual famine. Roger Bacon, perhaps the mightiest philosopher of the middle ages, of whom it has even been said that could he revisit the earth he would shake his head at the slowness of our progress since his death, suffered bitterly. He was first prohibited from lecturing at the University of Oxford and from communicating his researches to any one. The accession of Clemens IV. to the papal chair gave the illustrious sage a short respite, of which he availed himself to draw up three works, and to publish one of them, the "Opus Majus." Scarcely was this effected when the enlightened Pontiff died, and his successor was indifferent, if not formally hostile. Roger Bacon was summoned to appear at Paris before the legate Jerome of Ascoli, was convicted of heresy and witchcraft, and sentenced to imprisonment for life. His works were also condemned as impious, and all persons were forbidden to read them under pain of excommunication. It is certain that he remained ten years in a loathsome dungeon, and that his treatment, even in that rude age, was considered exceptionally harsh. Some say that he died in prison; others, that he was at length set free at the intercession of certain powerful nobles, and ended his days in England. He is said to lie buried at Oxford. We can wish that ancient university no greater boon than that his spirit may ever rest upon its professors.

Three centuries later Rome witnessed one of the foulest murders ever committed. Giordano Bruno, for upholding the teachings of modern astronomy, and especially for maintaining the immensity of the universe and the plurality of worlds, was burned to death in the Campo di Fiore on February 16, 1600. The words of the sentence passed upon him are significant: "Ut quam clementissime et citra sanguinis effusionem puniretur." Not less memorable was the reply of the hero-philosopher: "You feel more fear in pronouncing this sentence than I do in receiving it!"

One of the greatest merits of Bruno is his enunciation of the doctrine that on all scientific questions the Scriptures neither possess nor claim any authority, but embody merely the opinions current at the times when they were written. This proposition, from which follows as a corollary that the Church can have no claim to pronounce on the truth or falsehood of scientific theories, was afterward enforced at length by Galileo in his celebrated letter to the Dowager Grand Duchess Cristina of Tuscany. We can not help regretting that he, when brought before the inquisitors in the Convent of Minerva, did not act up to his profession by denying in toto the authority of the court. Had he done so his life would doubtless have been in great peril, but the enemies of science would have been deprived of much scope for sophistry. "E pur si muove" was well, but "non coram judice" would have been infinitely better. It is worthy of note that, unless we are misinformed, St. Augustine had warned the clergy against the attempt to exercise a jurisdiction over science.

As we approach modern times a change becomes manifest. Ecclesiastical bodies in the more civilized parts of Europe were deprived of civil power, and could no longer imprison, torture, or burn inventors and discoverers. But the old spirit faded away very slowly, and even in our days it still occasionally comes to light. Men of science, scientific works, and learned societies were, and still are, traduced, denounced, and held up to public hatred. Scarcely a capital step has been taken in any branch of research but it has been branded as atheistic. Dean Wren, the father of the celebrated architect, upheld the geocentric theory of the universe and the immovability of the earth in a strain worthy of Caccini or Scioppius. It was objected against the Royal Society that its "members neglected the wiser and more discerning ancients and sought the guidance of their own unassisted judgments, and that by admitting among them men of all countries and religions they endangered the stability of the English Church." It was urged that experimental philosophy was likely to lead to the overthrow of Christianity, and even to atheism. Among these writers a prominent place belongs to Henry Stubbs, of Warwick, and the Rev. Richard Cross, of Somerset, the latter of whom charged the Fellows of the Royal Society with "undermining the universities, destroying Protestantism, and introducing Popery"!

It would have been fortunate for Bruno, Galileo, and not a few of their colleagues, if the Inquisition and the Order of Jesus had taken the same view of the tendency of their researches. The discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton excited an outburst of hostility very similar to that which has in our own times greeted the theory of organic evolution. Then geology became the great bugbear; then followed the nebular hypothesis, till, as we have just hinted, anti-scientific jealousy concentrated itself upon the views of Darwin, Wallace, and their followers. If we read the controversial literature which has issued from the English press within the last half century, and note the motives therein imputed to men of science, we can scarcely doubt what would have been the fate of Buckland, Lyell, Sedgwick, Oken, Carus, Richard Owen, Darwin, had their enemies possessed as much power as malice. It must also be remembered that the practical applications of science and all attempts at its extension among the public have been met with a hostility no less pronounced. Franklin's lightning-conductor and Jenner's discovery of vaccination have been condemned from the pulpit as impious and blasphemous attempts to set aside the decrees of Heaven. A similar condemnation has since been pronounced against the use of anæsthetics, especially in midwifery.

The late Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, the London University, and the British Association, have each in turn passed through a tempest of abuse. The last-mentioned body, indeed, is still regularly "preached at" in every town which it visits.

In France the Chancellor, D'Aguesseau, refused a license to print Voltaire's "Letters on England," because the author therein expounded the discoveries of Newton, and disproved the vortex theory of Descartes. For adopting Locke's denial of innate ideas, a lettre de cachet was issued against Voltaire, and he was compelled to seek safety in flight. More recently the freedom of science seems to be recognized in France, Germany, and even in Italy. We must not, however, forget that the Roman Church has never formally retracted her claim to adjudicate upon scientific truth. An "Index" of proscribed books is still issued, and within the present century Pope Gregory, in an encyclical letter, characterized the freedom of the press as "deterrima ilia ac nunquam satis execranda et detestabilis libertas artis literariæ."

In Britain the anti-scientific spirit still lingers more decidedly than elsewhere. Its chief lurking-places are sometimes said to be among the clergy and country gentlemen. We are not sure that this view is correct. Passing through a street in one of our northern manufacturing towns, the present writer once heard a demagogue addressing a crowd on something which he contended must be put down. That something was science! We are bound to say that his listeners gave every mark of sympathy and approval. The manner in which inventors have often been treated in different parts of England seems to show that such feelings are widely spread. The country which first wins over her working-classes to favor invention and to become themselves inventors will command the industrial supremacy of the world. America is fast attaining this object by her patent system, which enables even a poor man to secure his property in an invention. Our statesmen, Whig and Tory alike, can scarcely be restrained from laying additional difficulties in the way of patent right.

If we now, summing up, seek to know who have been the chief persecutors of science, we shall find the conventional answers too narrow. Many persons have laid the chief blame upon Roman Catholicism. It is very questionable, however, whether other churches, if they had been as widely spread, and had possessed as great civil power and authority, might not have equaled or even exceeded Rome. The religious bodies of Britain, established or dissenting, have certainly been unsurpassed in the virulence of their attacks upon geology and upon the new natural history. We strongly suspect that the Church of Rome will be the first religious body to admit that the doctrines of evolution and of the high antiquity of the human race are not necessarily opposed to the teachings of the Scriptures. So-called infidels of various grades of opinion have contended that Christianity in any and every form is the persecutor of science. We would submit, on the contrary, that discovery was persecuted in heathen and democratic Athens, where all the influence of Pericles barely sufficed to save his friend the philosopher Anaxagoras from a worse fate than banishment. Nay, we may even venture to predict that modern "free-thought" will before long appear as the adversary of Science, and, if sufficiently powerful, as her persecutor.

The jealousy of the industrial classes we have already glanced at.

Lest we should feel tempted to ridicule the suicidal folly of the working-classes in thus seeking to repress improvement, let us remember that Science is sometimes her own persecutor. Men who have gained a high official position in universities and academies are often actuated by a jealousy very similar to that which we have traced among ecclesiastics. They establish a certain scientific orthodoxy, based often to a great extent on mere conjecture and assertion, and seek to frown down and to silence the unknown outsider who calls in question one of their dogmas, or who discovers a truth which they have overlooked. That any region of research should be officially tabooed is a humiliating circumstance. The dread of truth, the jealousy of discovery, is not confined to the Holy Inquisition, and no disestablishment of churches, no secularization of schools and colleges, not even the suppression of every religion—were such a step possible—would put an end to its action.—Journal of Science.