Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/March 1885/Editor's Table



IN a preceding article we used the expression, "healthy materialism," for that view of things which frankly recognizes and makes practical allowance for the dependence of psychical phenomena upon material conditions, without undertaking in the least to decide the question as to the relations ultimately existing between mind and matter. This view we represented as at once conservative and progressive: conservative, in the limits which it recognizes as set to intellectual activity and in the prudence it enjoins in regard to all intellectual operations; progressive, in the aid which it affords toward securing the proper material basis for all intellectual and moral effort, and in the economy of labor which thence results.

This is not the materialism, however, against which the world has so strong a prejudice. The greatest sticklers to-day for a spiritualistic philosophy would make no objection to acknowledging the facts on which materialism, in the sense above described, is founded—that health of body is, other things being equal, the best condition for health of mind; that a certain relation must be observed between physical nutrition and repair on the one hand and intellectual effort on the other; that the quality, both of thought and of feeling, depends largely on the condition of the physical functions, and so on. No, these truths have been too much ignored in the past, but they are widely advocated to-day by teachers of unblemished orthodoxy; nevertheless, a strong feeling against what is called "materialism" survives. The common feeling on the subject is that materialistic theories tend to rob human life of a certain dignity, to undo something that the ages have wrought. Men seem to exclaim, in the words of Shelley:

"... What can they avail?
They cast on all things surest, brightest, best,
Doubt, insecurity, astonishment."

The explanation and, as we think, the justification of this feeling lies in the fact that materialism as held, and more or less blatantly professed, by many, is in effect an attempt to explain higher orders of phenomena by lower, to ignore the complexities of existence, and to reduce everything to a kind of mechanical basis. Starting from the assumption that matter is not only the cause of everything, but is everything, they proceed to interpret matter according to the lowest and simplest properties it manifests. They want what Mr. Stallo calls a mechanical explanation of the universe; but, not content with that, they strive as much as possible to blind themselves to the fact that, while mechanical relations may lie at the basis of all things, in the actual evolution of the universe, relations of a much higher and more complex order have been established. We have heard men argue thus: "Matter is everything and everything is matter; morality can not inhere in or be any property of matter, therefore morality is an illusion, a prejudice, a superstition." Exception might of course be taken here to the major premise that matter is everything; matter, according to Mr. Spencer, not to mention less advanced thinkers, being simply one mode of the manifestation of the Unknowable Cause of all things. But, waiving this objection, and meeting the materialist on his own ground, we might say: "You affirm that matter is coextensive with existence, that whatever we have any knowledge of is some form of matter. Excellent! A good way, therefore, to get as comprehensive and adequate an idea as possible of what matter is, would be to consider it in all its forms; in other words, to consider its total outcome. Among the realities of existence, nothing is more real than thought and emotion. We must, therefore, make provision for these in our conception of matter. But thought and emotion give rise to morality; and, if matter is to include everything, then must we concede to it a certain moral element. Matter, therefore, is something which not only contains ' the promise and potency ' of every kind of human excellence, but which manifests itself in the highest phenomena of human life just as distinctly as in the laws of mechanics and physics. Our conception of matter is thus made to embrace and embody all that before had been divided between mind and matter. We can no longer, therefore, view matter as something essentially limited to lower and simpler manifestations. Our conception of it is enlarged and dignified just in proportion to what we have made it absorb. It is not apparent, therefore, that any dignity or value which before bad attached to man's mental and moral life is in any way impaired by your representation of it as a function of matter. You have simply by your definition raised matter to a level with the highest phenomena of the universe, and stamped it with the character of equivalence with those phenomena. We may not accept your metaphysics, but we do not think they touch the essential dignity of those parts of human life which, perhaps, it was your intention to degrade in our estimation."

The trouble with "materialists" of a certain stamp lies precisely hero: they think that by proclaiming the universality of matter they can bring everything down to the level of the lowest, i. e., the simplest, phenomena that matter displays; that they can dethrone love, rob honor of its luster, and virtue of its bloom. They say: Everything is matter, and matter should be interpreted in its lowest terms—in terms, say, of mechanics. But, if any partial interpretation is to be adopted, why interpret matter in its lowest rather than in its highest terms? As well ignore the laws of mechanics and physics and chemistry as the laws of mind, the laws of morality, the laws of society. "Materialism," in the sense indicated, is simply a willful tearing down of what nature has set up. In the realm of Nature, including the life of man, we discover an ascending series of laws and relations. The simplest and most universal relations are those of space and number. Above these, in complexity and speciality, are those of physics; above these, again, those of chemistry. And so we pass on to biology, psychology, and sociology. It would be the merest folly to take one's stand, say, on the laws of mathematics or mechanics, and to refuse to recognize any higher speciality or complexity in phenomena than these will account for. It would be folly for the chemist to refuse to hear of a science of physiology, simply because the problems and methods of physiology transcended those of his own science. It would be folly of the same kind for the physiologist to insist that his methods were adequate to the solution of all questions in psychology and ethics; or, on the other hand, to deny the validity of the methods employed in the latter sciences because they were not identical with those with which he was most familiar. We can conceive that, at the moment of the first formation of every higher science, there might be those who, in the supposed interest of established methods and canons, would call in question the phenomena upon which the new science was being constructed, or deny their special character. This would be "materialism" according to the conception of it here put forward—i. e., an insisting on the interpretation of phenomena in lower terms than are suited to their special character. "Materialism" in this sense stands in the way of scientific progress, for, while the Newtonian maxim, "Hypotheses non fingendæ sunt præter necessitatem" (hypotheses are not to be framed beyond our actual need for them), is a very valuable one, the whole life of science is bound up in the liberty to frame hypotheses according to our needs.

We are perhaps now in a position to understand why materialism, in one phase at least, has excited so much suspicion and aversion. The conservative and the progressive instincts of mankind are at once against it. Men do not wish to be argued out of their perceptions of beauty, or out of their admiration for the higher human sentiments and virtues. But they would be argued out of everything of the kind, if they once consented to the principle that the true expression for any given phenomenon is the lowest that it admits of. "Tell love it is but lust!" says Sir Walter Raleigh, or whoever was the author of that pessimistic poem, "The Lie," which has sometimes passed under Raleigh's name. Such is the inspiring message which the materialism we are now considering sometimes feels called upon to deliver to the world. Sexual attraction is the physical basis of love; ergo, all love must be mere physical appetite. But the world knows that upon that basis great and glorious things have been built, and that love in its higher forms bears about as close a resemblance to lust as the perfect flower does to the soil from which it springs, or the seed in which it once lay imprisoned. The reasonable request of decent people is that things be left as God or Nature has arranged them; that what has been raised, by no act of man's, into beauty and honor, should hold its status unassailed by the destructive hands of sophistical levelers. Teach us the truth, they say; show us the unity of Nature; show us the analogies of type and function that proclaim and illustrate that unity; but do not seek to promote a morbid confluence of all the elements of thought by trying to make us think in the same terms of the most diverse facts. It is in its character of the universal denier that materialism encounters such hostility. It does not want to recognize the accomplished facts of Nature in any region higher than the lowest. But the facts survive, and will survive, all attempts to deny their existence. Man has come, and man is an intellectual and moral being. This is the great, irreversible fact which gives the lie to all pessimistic theories, and which renders nugatory all attempts to see nothing in the universe but matter and motion.


That able quarterly, the "Bibliotheca Sacra," contains an article in its January issue which, considering the scholarly traditions of this old and high-toned periodical, is significant of wholesome progress. It is a defense of the claims of modern languages as against the ancient in the curriculums of college-study. The paper is entitled "A Plea for a Liberal Education," and is by James King Newton, Professor of the German and French Languages and Literature at Oberlin. For the benefit of such of our readers as may be interested in this important question, we present some of the considerations urged by this independent writer.

The ground taken by Professor Newton is substantially that which we have maintained throughout in "The Popular Science Monthly." Of course, he will be at once ranked, as we have been, among the enemies of the classics—a proceeding entirely without justification. He simply but firmly contends for the educational rights of German and French, as against the arrogant and extravagant pretensions put forward by the Greek and Latin. He neither denies the value or importance of the classical languages, nor contemplates their exclusion from the college curriculum; but he condemns the vicious educational theories that have been put forward to vindicate and maintain their overshadowing supremacy. He is not an enemy of the classical languages, who opposes them as mere blindly venerated superstitions; but he, on the contrary, is their best friend, who would reduce them from this injurious pre-eminence, and leave them to stand on their merits for what they are worth. As important parts of learning to those who devote themselves to scholarship, or as interesting subjects to those who are attracted by their tastes to pursue them, or as badges of distinction in culture to those who prize them for such a purpose, or as bread-and-butter studies for the clerical profession, the dead languages have their defensible uses; but as a superior means of training the human mind, to be forced on everybody who goes to college and aspires to a liberal education, and as, consequently, disparaging other subjects, and standing in the way of far more important knowledge, they are to be resisted and reprobated as of evil influence by every friend of sound and rational education.

In the progress of the modern classical controversy, the practical issue has been most sharply made between the Greek and the German, and this is the issue to which Professor Newton's paper is mainly devoted, although it takes up various collateral points. He says:

Almost without exception in this discussion, the Greek has counted itself, and been counted by its opponents, on the side of the abstract, the disciplinary; while the modern languages have ranged themselves, or been ranged by their opponents, upon the side of the practical merely; grouped in with the sciences as useful knowledge, but lacking all, or nearly all, disciplinary value. But there are not a few fallacies which place the modern languages in opposition to the ancient, that need to be exposed, in order that, in the scheme of a liberal modern education, they may secure their proper time and place. It can easily be shown that many of the arguments used in favor of Greek as against German, both as to discipline and culture, are as true of the German as of the Greek.

Professor Newton then takes up the question of the alleged superiority of the Greek over the German in cultivating the attention and training the memory, and thoroughly exposes the fallacy of the claim. In regard to the processes involved in the exercise of translation, he says:

I believe it can be shown that the power of analysis and the power of synthesis are as much needed, and as much cultivated, by a thorough mastery of the German as of the Greek. For what is translation as a mental process? It is necessary, in the first place, that the mind grasp a thought expressed in words whose relations are shown by terminations, or by order of arrangement, or by particles; by any one, or by all three of these. Then, in the second place, this thought must be wrought over in the mind, fused, and poured out again into the molds or forms of the language into which one is translating, in strict accordance with its vocabulary, its idiom, and its spirit. And the same use of the same faculties is required in every possible translation. But the facility acquired by long practice in translating from one language must not be compared with the stumbling efforts of a beginner in translating from another. Of course, the same proficiency in translating can not be gained in three terms of German as in twelve terms of Greek. And it is not knowing German to be able to work one's way through a foot-note, and just miss the point from not knowing the force of a modal auxiliary.

For various cogent criticisms made by Professor Newton on the alleged superiority of Greek for general disciplinary effect we have no space to speak, but must reproduce what he says about the study of English:

In all these later arguments in regard to the disciplinary efficiency of the Greek there is the insinuation, or the explicit statement, that all modern languages, the English especially, are worthless, or worse than worthless, for purposes of discipline. A writer in the "Atlantic Monthly" for January, 1884, has much to say on this subject, which has been more clearly said elsewhere; but he says plainly this one thing, which is often only hinted at or taken for granted: "The modern languages do not contain material out of which to construct a logical grammar like theirs" (the ancient languages). "What does English, French, or German grammar amount to? Simply débris of the classical languages, mixed with barbaric elements."

If this be true, we had better give up the study of Greek, and emulate the method of the Greeks, who made their language what it is by studying the Greek alone. They wrought upon it till it served their nicest uses. If our English be but a mixture of "débris" and "barbaric elements," it is high time for us to leave off studying other languages, both dead and living, and work upon our own until we make it somewhere nearly equal, as a thought-conveying medium, to the languages from which we are compelled to translate; for it is intellectual suicide to translate from a fine language into an incompetent one.

But this statement in regard to the English is not only not just, it is utterly false and misleading. We do, indeed, need to go to work upon it to realize what an incomparable language we have. Hear Jacob Grimm, prince among philologists:

No one of all the modern languages has acquired a greater force and strength than the English, through the derangement and relinquishment of its ancient laws of sound. The unteachable (nevertheless learnable) profusion of its middle-tones has conferred upon it an intrinsic power of expression, such as no other human tongue ever possessed. Its entire, thoroughly intellectual, and wonderfully successful foundation and perfected development issued from a marvelous union of the two noblest tongues of Europe, the Germanic and the Romanic. Their mutual relation in the English language is well known, since the former furnished chiefly the material basis, while the latter added the intellectual conceptions. The English language, by and through which the greatest and most eminent poet of modern times—as contrasted with ancient classical poetry—(of course I can refer only to Shakespeare) was begotten and nourished, has a just claim to be called a language of the world; and it appears to be destined, like the English race, to a higher and broader sway in all quarters of the earth. For in richness, in compact adjustment of parts, and in pure intelligence, none of the living languages can be compared with it—not even our German, which is divided even as we are divided, and which must cast off many imperfections before it can boldly enter on its career.

Yet, while foreigners are writing thus of our language, we are telling each other and our students—who happily do not always believe us—"that the Greek is more perfect; that the Latin is more polished; that the German is stronger; that the French and Italian are more musical; and we seem to be studying other languages, not to train ourselves to see and use the beauty and strength of our own, but only to cultivate a contempt for it.

Pursuing this idea of the claims of modern languages, Professor Newton quotes various authorities as to the great philological importance of their more systematic study, and he gives a strong passage from Max Müller in which it is declared that "before the tribunal of the science of language the difference between ancient and modern languages vanishes.…Where, except in these modern dialects, can we expect to find a perfectly certain standard by which to measure the possible changes which words may undergo, both in form and meaning, without losing their identity?…where, again, except in the modern languages, can we watch the secret growth of new forms, and so understand the resources which are given for the formation of the grammatical articulation of language?" Professor Newton says: "I have brought forward these arguments to show that there are reasons to be adduced for studying the modern languages, other than that they are so 'easy'; that there are reasons per se; and that in every college for either drill or culture the modern languages should have a respectable space and a respectful recognition. As it is now, every young man who elects the one term of French, or even the three terms of German, must count over against their being 'easy' the popular estimation that they are 'boarding school' studies."

Professor Newton is of opinion that the tenacious adherence to classical traditions in regard to the study of language is certain to prove injurious if not disastrous to our American colleges. Progress of knowledge, the spirit of the age, and the requirements of the American people must count for more than has been yielded to them if these institutions are to increase in influence and prosperity. He says;

The demands of our own polyglot people are to be heard, if we wish them to come to school. If we of the colleges decide that we wish no one to come but those who will take the one old road, the numbers in the colleges will not greatly increase, even though the population of our country quadruples. For we must judge of the future by the past in this matter. The population of the United States, as shown by the census, increased during the ten years, between 1870 and 1880, from thirty-eight and one half millions to fifty millions—an increase of twenty-three per cent. But the increase in number of students, for the same tune, in twenty of the oldest, leading colleges, was less than three and one half percent. Something is keeping the sons of our well-to-do common people out of the colleges. It is not the hard work. They work much harder on things that pay less in profit and position. It is not that they are not hungry for knowledge. They go greedily after husks even. But among the thousands of things they want to know and need to know, in order to have part in the life they are to lead, Greek seems to them of the least necessity. And it is because this bar of the Greek lies across the path to a college education that the crowd is turned from college halls. We of the cloisters may say, it should not seem of small importance to sensible people; but it does seem so. And we are causing thousands every year to lose all the rest of a college training, because we persist in making Greek the one, universal, inexorable test of admission to college.