Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/March 1881/Lingering Barbarism


Translated from the German of Carl Vogt by A. R. Macdonough.

THE striking feature of the present age is that outcropping of barbarism which has found in the persecution of the Jews an object for the full exercise of its passionate violence. It is our inheritance of centuries, hard to conquer, enduring as adamantine substance in those races that worked themselves out later than the rest into an existence worthy of man. Spite of all contradiction, I hold fast to this view, because it is true in its inmost core.

Just as an organism evolves, out of two mutually hostile tendencies, inheritance of character derived from ancestry, and acquirement of new advantages in the struggle for life through adjustment to its environment, so the special nature of a people builds itself up out of the inheritance bequeathed by its forefathers and the conquests it has won for itself in its contest for being. In a people's life, as in the individual's life, there are times when the one or the other of these striving forces steps into the foreground and thrusts the other back. Development does not advance with even flow, but by fits and starts—oftenest it is like that style of march in which two leaps are made backward after taking three forward.

We do leap—but it is backward, away into the middle ages, which we fancied we had got rid of.

The sign and token of our time contrasted with the middle ages is knowledge in contrast to belief; the exact method of research opposed to the sway of usurped authority; the free movement of forces all over the globe, as against limitation within narrow bounds and spaces; the peaceful, harmonious working of the nations toward high humane ends, as against their hostile rivalry to the end of subjection and ravage; the recognition of common human rights, as against the special claims of isolated castes and ranks. Whatever domain of political life we regard, we note everywhere the same tendency toward that reactionary groping after our inheritance from the middle ages.

Nor is this strange. One who clears his eyes from that whirlwind dust of glory flung abroad by warlike violence, and pictures pure fact to himself, sees that all its substantial results are due only to the systematic development and perfecting of material strength and power. He must logically come to the conclusion that the plant which has been so carefully nurtured and trained to the most vigorous productiveness can not wither down to its very root after this energetic effort. Victory always brings intoxication, and in its paroxysm those spirits are unchained which a sober and quiet life had fettered in the bonds of discretion. We insist on enjoying to the full the inheritance till now only partly spent.

Is it a matter for surprise, then, that Jewish persecution has found a foothold in the universities, among boys at their studies; that this German youth hurrahs for Treitschke, that Slavonic sprout, with his exclusive German utterances; or that their trainers in classics need to be reminded of good morals by paying them in the same coin they use to enlighten the babes and sucklings committed to their care?

Why should these boy-pupils, these buff-jerkined and jack-booted swaggerers, ingrained and inwrought in their very baby natures with the notion of distinction in ranks, not fall upon the "old-clo' peddler fellows," and all the more savagely because these dare to aim at becoming their rivals? How can one expect them to be just to descendants of an alien race, when it has been preached and crammed into them, from their breech-clout days, that the world's weal depends on their race alone; that their seed alone is called to lordship; and that all other nations in their rottenness are intended for nothing else but for service as their subjects and self-sacrifice to their mastery?

The root of the matter lies very much deeper. The world of antiquity, on which the education of our youth has been nourished since the middle ages, and is fed now, was founded on the institution of slavery; its whole existence would be as inconceivable apart from slavery as would be the aboriginal German world without woman's servile labor for her lazy lord and husband. The ancient German Tacitus drew was a hunter and fighter, stretched at odd times on his bear-skin, guzzling and gambling, while his Thusneldas and serfs did all the work for him, tilling the ground and sweating for his food. That was the German civilization which our students chant in their songs; and its traces are the tattoo-scars across their faces, of which they are so proud, though these are mere proofs of clumsiness, not signs of dangers met.

All the cultivation of the middle ages rested on so-called classical studies, which are bound up in the closest relations with barbarous and violent use of power. The Spanish mock stateliness of mediæval scholasticism is indivisible from the savagery of mediæval university life, and we have accepted it in these modern days along with the rest of our inheritance, and find it cherished and protected in our universities by the powers that be.

Our age strives and struggles for the recognition of the exact sciences which have thoroughly penetrated our life, as opposed to those systems of so called humanist education handed down to us from the middle ages. Unresting, unfaltering, exact science presses forward with its methods and results. It feeds and clothes us, multiplies our means of intercourse, controls our whole political and domestic economy, masters our thought and our feeling, and daily wins us new fruits of good in the struggle for existence. It knows no distinctions of peoples, castes, and nations; no qualification of territory or geographical restriction. There is no such thing as German steam-power, or Semitic electricity, or Roman magnetism; it bids any and every people welcome that will promote science and lend it help.

When we remember that the natural sciences began only about a century ago to strive for a place in the state; that before that date they had been nothing more than the private affair of exceptional minds; that for the first half of our century even they played absolutely no part in public education, but only ran a tolerated subcourse with it in the universities, and were utterly unnoticed both in the lower schools and in special seminaries; that in my younger days a man might be regarded as cultivated without having the faintest notion of any natural science whatever; and that it was made a reproach to men like Goethe that they took any interest in the sciences, and showed an active concern about them—when we think of all this, and compare with it the circumstances of our day, and the tendencies of our times, we understand at once why those authorities who would step backward into bygone ages prefer so-called classical education and favor all the influences that have clung to it since mediæval days—why they would restore to the word that authority which is claimed to-day by the fact, and why those who are still paddling about in that cultivation, handed down to us from the middle ages, seize on every straw they fancy able to keep them above water. An instinct tells these half-taught noodles that the ground is slipping away from them; that a day is rapidly drawing near when those branches of knowledge, which they assert as of universal need for every man who claims to be cultivated, shall be worthless except as specialities; when only one here and there will trouble himself about whether some crowned cowherd marched with his mates on a plundering slave-hunt, as in Homer's times; and when the knowledge of Nature and her laws must come to the front as always indispensable to a liberal education. Just as that man, a century or so ago, was looked on as wholly neglected and uneducated who had not toiled at his school-desk over the scanning of Latin verses, so will people no long time hence be surprised at the careless lack of training: in that man who has not mastered the mechanism of the telegraph or the laws of heat long before he takes his way to the university.

"My good man," wrote a Hessian landgrave at the beginning of the last century to his postmaster, who had cudgeled a royal messenger—"my good man, we have heard with the highest displeasure the steps you have presumed on in your inborn coarseness and clownishness." I don't know whether the Landgrave laid great stress on the word "inborn," but he certainly used it with the feeling that the case was one of inherited peculiarity. Now, in that day classical education held sole and undisputed rule; could it have pushed back heredity and stifled it by nobler growths?

Most surely not; and what classical training could not avail to do in centuries when it held sole sway, it is still more powerless to effect now that a rival has grown up beside it which it never through all time can prevail against.

While writing this, a pamphlet is sent me by a friend, entitled "Secession—Berlin, Julius Springer, 1881," in which the anonymous but certainly very intelligent author questions our political and financial conditions from his point of view. While this pamphlet is highly remarkable, as well for its contents as for its way of expressing them, it is perhaps yet more remarkable for that which it either hints or leaves unsaid—I mean, to speak plainly, for its indulgence toward that easy-going confidence with which some of the eminent minds of the past ten years have allowed themselves to believe that the whole nature of mankind is radically changed, because it has walked for a while with a varnished cane instead of a knotty club. I find in it an agreement with my doctrine partly gratifying and partly saddening, since I can hardly understand how an author of so much insight should not long ago have felt the scales drop from his eyes. "Wherever our glance falls," he says, "nothing strikes us but ideas, laws, institutions, that existed a century ago, and yet have been set aside for ten years past or more, by the course of culture and increasing insight. Reaction toward restrictions on our trade with foreigners followed by restrictions on domestic trade; next, fetters on personal liberty and freedom of action; then, backward steps to the stern penal codes of past ages, and to the proscriptive and coercive laws of a patriarchal world. The whole contrivance, piece by piece, is borrowed and brought out from the rusty arsenal of the good old times. Whatever is now devised is dug up from the deep and ever-deeper dust of centuries."

It is even so. Yet it may, perhaps, be said that, with a little less classical and philosophical training, and a little more education in natural science, it would probably earlier have become evident that, even without wishing or intending it, we were taking an active part in this disinterment from the dust of centuries. At all events, it is well that this conviction is now forcing its way: it is only to be hoped that it may gain clearer reality and wider range in those who have won it.

These things, however, press with light weight in the scales of the future, how lamentable soever they may be in the present. Whether a reactionary law the more or the less be made, whether the secessionists thrive or perish, it is of course a pitiable sign of the times that the student body here roar with applause at their hero gabbler Treitschke, there pledge themselves to the Jewish persecution, and raise dueling squabbles about it—a sign hardly compensated for by the indignation with which the cities kick Chaplain Stöcker's nauseous double-faced hypocrisy out of doors. But this does not touch the root of the matter, which lies in the training of our youth in increasing wastepaper scribblings and reactionary barbarism. Not much improvement can be hoped for in the present generation; we may check and repress, if we choose, the manifestations of their indwelling brutality, but can not hinder its secret permanence, amazing as such impulses seem to close observers. But all who are seriously devoted to progress may keep this truth fixed in view, that all elevation of classical studies at the expense of other branches of knowledge is a step backward into barbarism, and all furtherance of the exact sciences in the teaching of youth is a step forward toward civilization.

And, in this connection, I find great satisfaction in drawing attention to the address delivered at the opening of the Mason Science College, at Birmingham, by Huxley, the distinguished English scientist, and published in the number of "Nature" for October 7, 1880.

It seems that there arose in the mind of Sir Josiah Mason, an Englishman, apparently a money-getter of the purest type, the idea, certainly a most extraordinary one, of spending in his lifetime thousands of pounds, not in buying Krupp guns, but in establishing at Birmingham an amply endowed college, in which young persons might acquire "sound, extensive, and practical scientific knowledge." The founder of this institute leaves its managers all possible freedom as to the means for attaining this object, only binding teachers and pupils alike for all coming time in three particulars: Party politics of whatever nature are excluded; theology is shown the door once for all; and, in conclusion, it is expressly prescribed that the college shall make no provision for mere literary instruction and education.

There was something that did not occur to the mind of this Englishman, enriched by trade and industry, who felt that every step in his path of life was almost a stumble, by reason of his defective knowledge of the exact sciences. "It is not impossible," says Huxley, "that we shall hear this express exclusion of 'literary instruction and education' from a college which nevertheless professes to give a high and efficient education sharply criticised. Certainly the time was that the Levites of culture would have sounded their trumpets against its walls as against an educational Jericho."

The time has come, indeed, and the storm of indignation that arose, among the Levites of classical old England, is still echoing in the newspapers—a storm bursting not over the college alone, but specially over Huxley, so eminent in science, who dared in the course of his address to vindicate this idea.

"For those," he says, "who mean to make science their serious occupation, or who intend to follow the profession of medicine, or who have to enter early upon the business of life—for all these, in my opinion, classical education is a mistake; and it is for that reason that I am glad to see 'mere literary instruction and education' shut out from the curriculum of Sir Josiah Mason's college, seeing that its inclusion would probably lead to the introduction of the ordinary smattering of Latin and Greek. Nevertheless, I am the last person to question the importance of genuine literary education, or to suppose that intellectual culture can be complete without it. An exclusively-scientific training will bring about a mental twist as surely as an exclusive literary training. The value of the cargo does not compensate for the ship's being out of trim; and I should be very sorry to think that this scientific college would turn out none but lop-sided men. There is no need, however, that such a catastrophe should happen. Instruction in English, French, and German is provided, and thus the three greatest literatures of the world are made accessible to the student."

Such is the way of it under the government of the classical Homer-student, Gladstone! An Englishman, who is master of only three living languages and the exact sciences, is held to be as highly cultivated as a barrister who understands only English and some Latin and Greek, but has steered his way cleverly through Oxford or Cambridge!

But fancy for a moment that it should occur to the mind of some opulent Jew (such an idea surely would never strike a Christian German) to found such a "Mason's College" in Germany, on the plan of "no religious teaching, no politics, no Latin, and Greek." Shocking! How happy we are to have a Stöcker, a Treitschke, and a Putkammer, who would not suffer a poison-plant like that to spring on German soil!