Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/October 1885/New Chapters in the Warfare of Science: Physical Sciences I

Popular Science Monthly Volume 27 October 1885  (1885) 
New Chapters in the Warfare of Science: Physical Sciences I by Andrew Dickson White




OCTOBER, 1885.





IN all the development of astronomy few things are more interesting than the growth of a true doctrine of comets. Hardly anything throws a more vivid light upon the danger of using isolated texts of Scripture to preserve beliefs which observation and thought have superseded, and upon the folly of arraying ecclesiastical power against scientific discovery.

Out of the ancient world had come a mass of beliefs regarding comets, meteors, and eclipses; these were universally held to be portents sent directly from heaven for the warning of mankind. As to stars and meteors, they were generally thought to presage happy events, especially births of gods, heroes, and great men. So firmly rooted was this idea that we constantly find among the ancient nations notices of lights in the heavens heralding the birth of persons of note. The sacred books of India show that the births of Crishna[1] and of Buddha[2] were announced by such heavenly lights. The sacred books of China reveal similar appearances at the births of Yu, the founder of the first dynasty, and of the inspired sage Lao-tse.[3] In the Jewish legends a star appeared at the birth of Moses,[4] and was seen by the Magi of Egypt,[5] who informed the king; and when Abraham was born an unusual star appeared in the east. The Greeks and Romans held similar traditions.[6] A heavenly light accompanied the birth of Æsculapius, and the births of various Cæsars were heralded in like manner.

As to the nature of these heavenly bodies, the fathers of the Christian Church were divided. Origen thought them living creatures possessed of souls, and the belief was thought warranted by the beautiful Song of the Three Children which the Anglican communion has so wisely retained in its liturgy. Other fathers of the Church thought the stars abiding-places of the angels, and that shooting-stars were moved by angelic hands. Philo Judæus believed the stars beneficent spirits, and this belief was widely held by Jews, Greeks, and Christians. Among the Mohammedans we have curious examples of the same tendency toward a kindly interpretation of stars and meteors, in the belief of certain Mohammedan teachers that meteoric showers are caused by good angels hurling missiles to drive evil angels out of the sky.[7]

As to eclipses, they were regarded in a very different light, and were supposed to express the distress of Nature at earthly calamities. The Greeks believed that darkness overshadowed the earth at the deaths of Prometheus, Atreus, Hercules, Æsculapius, and Alexander the Great. The Roman legends held that, at the death of Romulus, there was darkness for six hours. The lives of the Cæsars give portents of all three kinds; for, at the death of Julius, the earth was shrouded in darkness, the birth of Augustus was heralded by a star, and the downfall of Nero by a comet. Nor has this mode of thinking ceased in modern times. A similar claim was made at the execution of Charles I, and Increase Mather thought an eclipse in Massachusetts an evidence of the grief of Nature at the death of President Chauncey, of Harvard College.[8] Traces of this feeling have come down to our own times. The beautiful story of the sturdy Connecticut statesman who, when his associates in the General Assembly were alarmed by a general eclipse, and thought it the beginning of the day of judgment, ordered in candles, purposing in any case to be found doing his duty, marks probably the last noteworthy effect of the old belief in the civilized world.

In these beliefs regarding meteors and eclipses there was little calculated to do harm by arousing that superstitious terror which is the worst breeding-bed of cruelty. Far otherwise was it with the beliefs regarding comets. During many centuries they brought terrors which developed the direst superstition and fanaticism; the ancient records of every continent are full of these. One great man, indeed, in the Roman Empire had the scientific instinct and prophetic inspiration to foresee that at some future time the course of comets would be found in accordance with natural law.[9] But this thought of Seneca was soon forgotten; such an isolated utterance could not stand against the mass of superstition which upheld the doctrine that comets are "signs and wonders." The belief that every comet is a ball of fire, flung from the right hand of an angry God to warn the groveling dwellers of earth, was received into the early Church, transmitted through the middle ages to the Reformation period,[10] and in its transmission and reception was made all the more precious by supposed textual proofs from Scripture. The great fathers of the Church committed themselves unreservedly to this doctrine. Tertullian[11] declared that "comets portend revolutions of kingdoms, pestilence, war, winds, or heat." Origen[12] insisted that they indicate "catastrophes and the downfall of empires and worlds." The Venerable Bede,[13] so justly dear to the English Church, made in the ninth century a similar declaration. St. Thomas Aquinas,[14] the great light of the universal Church in the thirteenth century, whose works the Pope now reigning commends as the center of all university instruction, accepted and handed down the same opinion. The sainted Albert the Great,[15] the most noted genius of the mediæval Church in natural science, received and developed this theory.

By these men a science was developed out of scriptural texts and the principles of morals, and so firmly rooted in Scripture and theology that it flourished for seventeen centuries.

The main evils thence arising were two: First, the paralysis of self-help, and the arousing of fanaticism; and, secondly, the strengthening of ecclesiastical and political tyranny.

As to the first of these evils—the paralysis of self-help—instead of wise statesmanship striving to avert war, instead of scientific observation and reason striving to avert pestilence, instead of social science taking proper measures against famine, we constantly see, at the appearance of a comet, all Christendom, from pope to peasant, whining before various fetiches, trying to bribe them to remove these signs of God's wrath, and planning to wreak this supposed wrath of God upon misbelievers.

As to the second of these evils—the strengthening of ecclesiastical and civil despotism—examples appear on every side. It was natural that hierarchs and monarchs whose births were announced by stars, or whose deaths were announced by comets, should regard themselves as far above the common herd, and be so regarded by mankind; that passive obedience should thus be strengthened, and that the most monstrous assumptions of authority by such men should be considered simply as manifestations of the divine will. Shakespeare makes Calphurnia say to Cæsar:

"When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes."[16]

Galeazzo, tyrant of Milan, expressing satisfaction on his death-bed that his approaching end was of such importance as to be heralded by a comet, is a type of many thus encouraged to prey upon mankind.[17]

But, for the retention of this belief, there was a moral cause. No doubt myriads of good men in the Christian Church, down to a recent period, saw in the appearance of comets not merely an exhibition of "signs in the heavens" foretold in Scripture, but also divine warnings to repentance and improvement of life of vast value to humanity—warnings, indeed, so precious that they could not be dispensed with without danger to the moral government of the world. Reasons, then, partly scriptural, partly theological, led men to cherish the belief in the portentous character of comets as absolutely essential, religiously and morally. To say nothing of the many examples in the earlier mediæval period, comets in the tenth century strengthened the belief in the approaching end of the world, and increased the distress and terror of all Europe. The charters of that age constantly refer to this. In the middle of the eleventh century a comet was thought to accompany the death of Edward the Confessor, and to presage the Norman Conquest; the traveler in France to-day may see this belief as it was then wrought in the Bayeux tapestry.[18]

Nearly every decade of years saw Europe plunged into alarm by appearances of this sort; but the culmination was reached in 1456. At that time, the Turks, after ages of effort, had made good their footing in Europe. A large statesmanship or generalship might have kept them out; but, while different religious factions were disputing over petty shades of dogma, the Turks had advanced, had taken Constantinople, and were pressing on to secure their foothold in Europe. Now came the full bloom of this superstition. A comet appeared. The Pope of that period, Calixtus III, was a man of more than ordinary ability, but saturated with the ideas of his time. By virtue of his position as the infallible head of Christendom, he publicly and solemnly anathematized both the Turks and the comet, bidding all the faithful beseech the Almighty to turn the monster in the heavens away from the Christians and against the Turks. In the litany was incorporated the prayer, "From the Turk and the comet, good Lord deliver us." Thence, it is generally supposed, dates the midday Angelus, the bell calling the faithful to prayer against the powers of evil.

Never was the object of a papal fulmination more unfortunately chosen; for the Turk has held Constantinople from that day to this, and the comet, being that now known under the name of Halley, so far from heeding the infallible anathema, has returned imperturbably at short periods ever since.[19]

But this superstition went still further. It became more and more incorporated into what was considered "scriptural science" and "sound learning." The encyclopedic statements exhibiting the science of the middle ages and the Reformation period furnish abundant proofs of this.[20]

Yet scientific truth was slowly undermining the structure: the inspired prophecy of Seneca had not been forgotten: even as far back as the ninth century, in the midst of the "sacred learning" so abundant at the court of Charlemagne and his successors, we find a scholar protesting against the doctrine.[21]

So, too, in the sixteenth century we have Paracelsus writing to Zwingle against it; and, in the century following, men like De Gamon and Pierre Petit taking similar ground.[22]

At first this skepticism only aroused the horror of theologians and increased the vigor of ecclesiastics; both asserted all the more strenuously what they conceived to be scriptural truth. During the sixteenth century France felt the influence of one of her greatest men on the side of this superstition. Jean Bodin, so far before his time in political theories, was as far behind it in religious theories: the same reverence for the mere letter of Scripture which made him so fatally powerful in supporting the witchcraft delusion led him to support this theological theory of comets; but with a difference—he thought them the souls of men wandering in space, bringing famine, pestilence, and war.[23]

In England, too, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was at least literary acquiescence in this received doctrine of comets. Both Shakespeare and Milton recognize it, whether they fully accept it or not. Shakespeare makes the Duke of Bedford, lamenting at the bier of Henry V, say:

"Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky;
And with them scourge the had revolting stars,
That have consented unto Henry's death."

Milton, speaking of Satan preparing for combat, says:

". . . On the other side,
"Incensed with indignation, Satan stood
Unterrified, and like a comet burned,
That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge
In the Arctic sky, and from its horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war."

Even as late as the end of the seventeenth century (1688) we have English authors of much power battling for this supposed scriptural view.

But it was in Germany that this superstition took its strongest hold. The same depth of feeling which produced in that country the most terrible growth of the witchcraft persecution brought superstition to its highest development regarding comets. In one of his Advent sermons, Luther had declared strongly in favor of it. A little later Arietus declared, "The heavens are not merely given us for our pleasure, but also as a warning for the correction of our lives, and of the wrath of God."[24] Lavather showed that comets are signs of death or calamity, and cited proofs from Scripture. Catholic and Protestant strove together for the glory of asserting the doctrine, and in the same seventeenth century Fromundus, the eminent Professor and Doctor of Theology at the University of Louvain, who so strongly opposed the rotundity of the earth, supported no less vigorously the prophetic character of comets. So, too, as late as 1680, we have Voigt declaring that the comet of that year clearly presages the downfall of the Turkish Empire, and stigmatizing as "atheists and epicureans" all who do not believe comets to be God's warnings.[25]

But the great efforts in behalf of this doctrine throughout Europe were made in the pulpits, and especially in the Protestant pulpits. Out of the mass of such sermons which were widely circulated, I will select just one as typical, and it is worthy of careful study, as showing the dangers of applying theological methods to scientific fact. Conrad Dieterich was during the first half of the seventeenth century a Lutheran ecclesiastic of the highest authority. His ability as a theologian had made him Archdeacon of Marburg, Professor of Philosophy and director of studies at the University of Giessen, and finally "Superintendent," exercising functions of an episcopal character in the Lutheran regions of Southwestern Germany. In the year 1620, on the second Sunday in Advent, in the great Cathedral of Ulm, he developed the orthodox doctrine of comets in a sermon, taking up the questions: 1. What are comets? 2. What do they indicate? 3. What have we to do with their significance? This sermon marks an epoch. Delivered in that center of Protestant Germany, and by a prelate of the highest standing, it was immediately printed, prefaced by three laudatory poems from different men of note, and sent forth to drive back the scientific, or, as it was supposed, the "godless," view of comets. The preface shows that Dieterich was sincerely alarmed by the tendency to regard comets as natural appearances. His text was taken from the twenty-fifth verse of the twenty-first chapter of St. Luke: "And there shall be signs in. the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring." As to what comets are, he cites a multitude of ancient philosophers, and, finding that they differ among themselves, he uses a form of argument very common from that day to this, declaring that this difference of opinion proves that there is no solution of the problem save in revelation, and insisting that they are "signs especially sent by the Almighty to warn the earth." An additional proof of this he finds in the forms of comets. One, he says, took the form of a trumpet; another, of a spear; another, of a goat; another, of a torch; another, of a sword; another, of an arrow; another, of a saber; still another, of a bare arm; and so on. From these forms of comets he infers that we may divine their purpose. As to their creation, he quotes John of Damascus and other great church authorities in behalf of the idea that each comet is a star newly created at the divine command out of nothing, and that it indicates the wrath and punishment of God. As to their purpose, having quoted largely from the Bible and from Luther, he winds up by insisting that, as God can make nothing in vain, comets must have some distinct object: then from Isaiah and Joel among the prophets, from Matthew, Mark, and Luke among the Evangelists, from Origen and St. John Chrysostom among the fathers, from Luther and Melanchthon among the Reformers, he draws various texts more or less conclusive to prove that comets indicate evil and only evil, and he cites Luther's Advent sermon, to the effect that, though comets may arise in the course of nature, they are still signs of evil to mankind.

In answer to the theory of certain naturalists, that comets are made up of "a certain fiery, warm, sulphurous, saltpetery, sticky fog," he declares, "Our sins, our sins! they are the fiery heated vapors, the thick, sticky, sulphurous clouds which rise from the earth toward heaven before God."

Throughout the sermon contempt was poured over all men who simply investigated comets as natural objects, and special attention was called to the fact that a comet then in the heavens resembled a long broom or bundle of rods; and Dieterich declared that he and his hearers would only consider it rightly "when we see standing before us our Lord God in heaven as an angry father with a rod for his children."

In answer to the question, what comets signify, he commits himself entirely to the idea that they indicate the wrath of God, and therefore calamities of every sort. Page after page is filled with the record of evils following comets. Beginning with the creation of the world, he insists that the first comet brought on the deluge of Noah. He cites a mass of authorities ranging from Moses and Isaiah to Albert the Great and Melanchthon, in support of the view that comets precede earthquakes, famines, wars, pestilences, and every form of evil. Page after page is filled with this sort of historical proof. He makes some parade of astronomical knowledge as to the greatness of the sun and moon, but relapses soon into his old line of argument. Conjuring his audience not to be led away from the well-established belief of Christendom and the principles of their fathers, he comes back to his old figure of speech, insists that "our sins are the inflammable material of which comets are made," and winds up with a most earnest appeal to the Almighty to spare his people.[26]

It can be easily understood that such an authoritative utterance as this must have produced a great effect throughout Protestant Christendom, and in due time we see its working in New England. That same tendency to provincialism which, save at rare intervals, has been the bane of Massachusetts thought from that day to this, appeared; and in 1664 we have Samuel Danforth arguing from the Bible that comets are "portentous signals of great and notable changes," and arguing from history that they "have been many times heralds of wrath to a secure and impenitent world." He cites especially the comet of 1652, which appeared just before Mr. Cotton's sickness, and disappeared after his death.[27] Morton also, in his memorial, recording the death of John Putnam, alludes to the comet of 1652 as "a very signal testimony that God had then removed a bright star and a shining light out of the heaven of his church here into celestial glory above."[28] Again he speaks of another comet, insisting that "it was no fiery meteor caused by exhalation, but it was sent immediately by God to awaken the secure world," and goes on to show how in that year "it pleased God to smite the fruits of the earth, namely, the wheat in special, with blasting and mildew, whereby much of it was spoiled and became profitable for nothing, and much of it worth little, being light and empty. This was looked upon by the judicious and conscientious of the land as a speaking providence against the unthankfulness of many. . . as also against voluptuousness and abuse of the good creatures of God by licentiousness in drinking and fashions in apparel, for the obtaining whereof a great part of the principal grain was oftentimes unnecessarily expended."[29]

But in 1680 a stronger man than either of these seized upon the doctrine and wielded it with power. Increase Mather, so open always to ideas from Europe, and always so powerful for good or evil in the colonies, preached his sermon on "Heaven's Alarm to the World, . . . wherein is shown that fearful sights and signs in the heavens are the presages of great calamities at hand." The texts were taken from the book of Revelation: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp"; also, "Behold, the third woe cometh quickly."[30]

In this as in various other sermons he supported the theological cometary theory, fully. He insists that "we are fallen into the dregs of time," and that the day of judgment is evidently approaching. He explains away the words of Jeremiah, "Be not dismayed at signs in the heavens," and shows that comets have been forerunners of nearly every form of evil. Having done full justice to evils thus presaged in scriptural times, he begins a similar display in modern history by citing blazing stars which foretold the invasions of Goths, Huns, Saracens, and Turks, and warns gainsayers by citing the example of Vespasian, who, after ridiculing a comet, soon died. The general shape and appearance of comets, he thinks, betoken their purpose, and cites Tertullian to prove them "God's sharp razors on mankind whereby he doth poll, and his scythe whereby he doth shear down multitudes of sinful creatures." At last, rising to a fearful height, he declares: "For the Lord hath fired his beacon in the heavens among the stars of God there; the fearful sight is not yet out of sight. The warning piece of heaven is going off. Now then if the Lord discharge his murdering pieces from on high, and men be found in their sins unfit for death, their blood shall be upon them." And again, in an agony of supplication, he cries out: "Do we see the sword blazing over us? Let it put us upon crying to God, that that judgment be diverted and not return upon us again so speedily. . . . Doth God threaten our very heavens? O pray unto Him, that He would not take away stars and send comets to succeed them."[31]

But even in the midst of all his arguments appears an evident misgiving. The thoughts of Newton in science and Bayle in philosophy were evidently tending to accomplish the prophecy of Seneca. Mather's alarm at this is clear. His natural tendency is to uphold the idea that a comet is simply a fire-ball flung from the hand of an avenging God at a guilty world, but he evidently feels obliged to yield something to the scientific spirit; hence, in the discourse concerning comets, published in 1682, he declares: "There are those who think that, inasmuch as comets may be supposed to proceed from natural causes, there is no speaking voice of heaven in them beyond what is to be said of all other works of God. But certain it is that many things which may happen according to the course of nature are portentous signs of divine anger and prognostics of great evils hastening upon the world." He then notices the eclipse of August, 1672, and adds: "That year the college was eclipsed by the death of the learned president there, worthy Mr. Chauncey; and two colonies, namely, Massachusetts and Plymouth, by the death of two governors, who died within a twelvemonth after. . . . Shall, then, such mighty works of God as comets are be insignificant things?"

Vigorous as his argument is, we see skepticism regarding "signs" continuing to invade the public mind; and, in spite of his threatenings, about twenty years after, we find a remarkable evidence of this progress in the fact that this skepticism has seized upon no less a personage than that colossus of orthodoxy, his thrice illustrious son, Cotton Mather himself; and him we find, in 1726, despite the arguments of his father, declaring in his "Manuductio": "Perhaps there may be some need for me to caution you against being dismayed at the signs of the heavens, or having any superstitious fancies upon eclipses and the like. . . . I am willing that you be apprehensive of nothing portentous in blazing stars. For my part, I know not whether all our worlds, and even the sun itself, may not fare the better for them."[32]

Curiously enough, for this scientific skepticism in Cotton Mather, there was a cause identical with that which had developed superstition in the mind of his father. The same provincial tendency to receive implicitly any new idea from abroad wrought upon both, plunging one into superstition and drawing the other out of it. First among the more important reasonings against the prevailing superstition were those of Gassendi. Early in the seventeenth century, by strictly scientific process, he arrived at the conclusion that comets are outside the earth's atmosphere, and then made a strong argument from common sense that there is nothing to prove them hostile to the happiness of mankind.[33]

But, toward the end of the same century, the subject was taken up by Pierre Bayle. He attacked the old theory from the side of philosophy. While professor at the University of Sedan he had observed the alarm caused by the comet of 1680, and he now brought all his reasoning powers to bear upon it. Thoughts deep and witty he poured out in volume after volume; Catholics and Protestants were alike scandalized: Catholic France spurned him, and Jurieu, the great reformed divine, tried hard to have Protestant Holland do likewise. Though Bayle did not touch immediately the mass of mankind, he wrought with power upon men who gave themselves the trouble of thinking. It was indeed unfortunate for the Church that theologians, instead of taking the initiative in this matter, left it to Bayle; for, in tearing down the pretended scriptural doctrine of comets, he tore down much else: of all men in his time, no one so thoroughly prepared the way for Voltaire.

The whole argument of Bayle is rooted in the prophecy of Seneca. He declares, "Comets are bodies subject to the ordinary law of nature, and not prodigies amenable to no law." He shows historically that there is no reason to regard comets as portents of earthly evils. As to the fact that such evils occur after the passage of comets across the sky, he compares the person believing that comets cause these evils to a woman looking out of a window into a Paris street, and believing that the carriages pass because she looks out. As to the accomplishment of some predictions, he cites the shrewd saying of Henry IV, to the effect that "the public will remember one prediction that comes true better than all the rest that have proved false"; finally, he sums up by saying: "The more we study man, the more does it appear that pride is his ruling passion, and that he affects grandeur even in his misery. Mean and perishable creature that he is, he has been able to persuade men that he can not die without disturbing the whole of nature and obliging the heavens to put themselves to fresh expense in order to light his funeral pomp. Foolish and ridiculous vanity! If we had a just idea of the universe, we should soon comprehend that the death or birth of a prince is too insignificant a matter to stir the heavens."[34]

This great philosophic champion of right reason was followed by a literary champion hardly less famous; for Fontenelle now gave to the French theatre his play of "The Comet," and a point of capital importance in France was made by rendering the army of ignorance ridiculous.[35]

But the heart of the position held by the so-called "religious" party was not really touched until about the beginning of the eighteenth century. Then it was that the announcement of Doerfel as to the parabolic paths of certain comets, and the publication of Halley's "Synopsis" and "Tables" foreshadowed a final victory, and the complete accomplishment of the prophecy of Seneca. This victory was fully gained when Halley, observing the times of the comet which now bears his name, made his calculations, predicted the period of its return, and the prediction was fulfilled.

Still more evident was this victory when Clairaut, in France, foretold the exact time when the coming comet would reach its perihelion, and his prediction also proved true. Then it was that a Roman heathen philosopher was proved more infallible and more directly under divine inspiration than a Roman Christian pontiff; for the very comet which the traveler finds to-day depicted on the Bayeux tapestry as portending destruction to Harold and the Saxons at the Norman invasion of England, and which was anathematized by Pope Calixtus as portending evil to Christendom four centuries later, was found to be, as Seneca had prophesied, a heavenly body obeying the great laws of the universe, and coming at regular periods. Thenceforth the whole ponderous enginery of superstition, with its citations of proof-texts regarding "signs in the heavens," its theological reasoning to show the moral necessity of cometary warnings, and its ecclesiastical fulminations against the "atheism, godlessness, and infidelity" of scientific investigation, was seen by all thinking men to be as weak against the scientific method as Indian arrows against needle-guns. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Cassini, Doerfel, Halley, and Clairaut had gained the victory.[36]

And still even good men looked longingly back to the old belief. It was so hard for them to give up the doctrine of "signs in the heavens," seemingly based upon Scripture, and exercising such a healthful moral tendency! As is always the case under such circumstances, votaries of "sacred science" appeared, and these exerted the greatest ingenuity in averting the new doctrine; but their voices gradually died into silence, though far within our own century Joseph de Maistre echoed them in declaring his belief that comets are special warnings of evil.

There did, indeed, still linger one little cloud-patch of superstition, arising from the supposed fact that comets had really been followed by a marked rise in temperature. Even this poor basis for the belief that comets might, after all, affect earthly affairs was swept away. Science won here another victory, for Arago, by thermometric records carefully kept at Paris from 1735 to 1781, proved that comets had produced no effect upon temperature. Among multitudes of similar examples he showed that, in some years when several comets appeared, the temperature was lower than in other years when few or none appeared. In 1737 there were two comets, and the weather was cool; in 1765 there was no comet, and the weather was hot; through the whole fifty years it was shown that comets were sometimes followed by hot weather, sometimes by cool, and that no rule was deducible. The victory of science was complete at every point.[37]

But in this whole history there was one little exhibition so curious as to be worthy of notice, though its permanent effect upon thought was small. Whiston and Burnet, so devoted to what they considered sacred science, had determined that in some way comets must be instruments of divine wrath. One of them maintained that the deluge was caused by the tail of a comet striking the earth; the other put forth the theory that comets are places of punishment for the damned—in fact, "flying hells." Both these theories were soon discredited.

Perhaps this theory can best be met by another which, if not fully established, appears much the better based of the two; namely, that in 1868 the earth passed directly through the tail of a comet, with no deluge, no sound of any wailings of the damned, with slight appearances here and there, only to be detected by the keen sight of the meteorological or astronomical observer.[38] In our own country superstitious ideas regarding comets continued to have some little currency;[39] but their life was short. The tendency shown by Cotton Mather, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, toward acknowledging the victory of science was completed by the utterances of Winthrop, professor at Harvard. In 1759 he published two lectures on comets, and in these he simply and clearly revealed the truth, never scoffing, but reasoning quietly and reverently. In one passage he says, "To be thrown into a panic whenever a comet appears, on account of the ill effects which some few of them might possibly produce, if they were not under proper direction, betrays a weakness unbecoming a reasonable being."[40]

The victory was, indeed, complete. Happily, none of the fears expressed by Conrad Dieterich or Increase Mather were realized. No catastrophe has ensued either to religion or morals. In the realm of religion, the Psalms of David remain no less beautiful, the great utterances of the Hebrew prophets no less powerful; the Sermon on the Mount, "the first commandment and the second which is like unto it," the definition of "pure religion and undefiled," by St. James, appeal no less to the deepest things in the human heart. In the realm of morals, too, serviceable as the idea of fire-brands thrown by the right hand of an avenging God to scare a naughty world might seem, any competent historian must find that the destruction of the old theological cometary theory was followed by moral improvement rather than by deterioration. We have but to compare the general moral tone of society to-day, wretchedly imperfect as it is, with that existing in the time when this superstition had its strongest hold, to make ourselves sure of this. We have only to compare the court of Henry VIII with the court of Victoria, the reign of the late Valois and earlier Bourbon princes with the present French Republic, the period of the Medici and Sforzas and Borgias with the period of Leo XIII and Humbert, the monstrous wickedness of the Thirty Years' War with the ennobling patriotism of the Franco-Prussian struggle, and the despotism of the miserable German princelings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the reign of the Emperor William.

The gain is not simply that mankind has arrived at a clearer conception of law in the universe; not merely that thinking men see more clearly that we are part of a system not requiring constant patching and arbitrary interference; but perhaps best of all is the fact that science has cleared away one more series of dogmas which tend to debase rather than to develop man's whole moral and religious nature. In this emancipation from terror and fanaticism, as in so many other results of scientific thinking, we have a proof of the inspiration of those great words, "The truth shall make you free."

  1. For stars at the birth of Crishna, see Maurice's "History of Hindostan," vol. ii, p. 336; also Cox's "Aryan Mythology" (London, 1870), vol. ii, p. 133; also "Vishnu Purana," Wilson's translation, b. v, chap. iii.
  2. For lights at the birth, or rather conception, of Buddha, see Bunsen's "Angel Messiah," pp. 22, 23–33; also, Alabaster, "Wheel of the Law," illustrations of Buddhism (London, 1871), p. 102; also, Edwin Arnold's "Light of Asia" (London, 1881), p. 3; also, "Life of Gaudama, the Burmese Buddha," by Bishop Bigandet (London, 1880), p. 30; also, Oldenberg's "Buddha," English translation, part i, chap. i.
  3. For Chinese legends regarding stars at the births of Lao-tse and Yu, see Horton's "History of China," i, 137.
  4. As to traditions regarding stars at the births of Moses and Abraham, see Calmet's "Fragments," part viii; also, the Rev. Baring-Gould's "Legends of Old Testament Characters" (London, 1871), chap, xxiv; also, Farrar's "Life of Christ" (American edition), chap. iii.
  5. For the general subject, see Higgins's "Anacalypsis"; also, Hooykaas, Ort and Kuehnen (the Bible for learners), vol. iii.
  6. For similar appearances in Greece and Rome, see Bell's "Pantheon," article "Æsculapius"; also, Luc. i, 529; Suet. Cæs., 88; Seneca, "Nat. Quæst.", i, 1; Virgil's "Eclogues," 9, 47.
  7. As to movement of stars by angels, see Leopardi, "Errori Popolari."
    As to the feeling of the fathers, see Origen's "De Principiis," vol. i, p. 129; also Philo Judæus.
    As to meteoric showers caused by struggles between good and bad angels, see Watson and Guillemin on Comets.
    For Atreus, et al, see Cox's "Tales of Ancient Greece," pp. 41, 61, 62; Higgins's "Anacalypsis," vol. i, p. 322; Bell's "Pantheon," article "Atreus."
    For the legend regarding darkness at the death of Romulus, see Higgins, vol. i, pp. 616, 617.
    For legends regarding portents at the birth, death, and downfall of the Cæsars, see Suetonius, Vit. xii Cæs., cap. xxxvi; also, Josephus, book xiv, chap, xii, and note.
    Also, for these and similar cases, see Virgil, Ovid, Pliny, and other Roman historians and poets; also, Higgins, as above; Gibbon's "Rome," vol. i, pp. 159, 590; Farrar's "Life of Christ," p. 52.
    On Nero, see Tacitus's "Annals," book xiv, chap. xxii.
    For portents at the death of Charles I, see sermon preached before Charles II, cited in Lecky's "History of England in the Eighteenth Century," vol. i, p. 65.
    For the belief in general, see Leopardi, "Errori Popolari," cap. xi.
    For eclipses, Phra Rahu, et al., see Alabaster, "Wheel of the Law," p. 11.
  8. He thought, too, that it might have something to do with the deaths of sundry civil functionaries of the colony. See his discourse concerning comets, 1682.
  9. See Watson "On Comets," p. 46, with Glaisher's translation of Seneca's prediction.
  10. For this feeling in antiquity see Guillemin, "The World of Comets," translated by Glaisher, chaps. i and ii; also Watson "On Comets," preliminary chapters.
  11. For Tertullian, see "Ad Scapul," 3.
  12. For Origen, see "De Principiis," i, 754; also Maury, "Legendes pieuses du Moyen Age," p. 203, and note.
  13. For Bede, see his "De Natura Rerum," chap. xxiv.
  14. For St. Thomas Aquinas, see Maury, "La Magie et l'Astronomie," p. 181.
  15. For Albert the Great, see "Alb. Mag.," lib. i, tract. iii, chaps. x and xi; also ibid., "Super sex principiis Gilberti Porretani"; also "Tractatus primus de causis impressionum," etc. The copy I have used is in the Cornell University Library.
  16. "Julius Caesar," act ii, scene ii.
  17. For Galeazzo, see Guillemin "On Comets."
  18. For effects of comets in the eleventh and following centuries, see "Chronicles" of Raoul Glaber, William of Nangis, and others passim.
    For the Bayeux tapestry, see Bruce, "Bayeux Tapestry elucidated" (London, 1856), Plate VII, and text, p. 86; also Guillemin, p. 24; also Champion, p. 89. This tapestry, wrought by the wife of William the Conqueror and her ladies, is now preserved in the town museum of Bayeux.
  19. The usual statement is that Calixtus excommunicated the comet by a papal bull. A statement to this effect is made by such authorities as Arago, Guillemin, Watson, and many others; and this suggested the shrewd parallel made on a noted occasion by President Lincoln. An examination of various Bullaria has as yet failed to discover any formal bull; and, though this by no means proves that such a bull was not issued, it is most likely that the utterance of the Pope was in the nature of a general anathema, an appeal to Christian peoples against the comet, as stated in the "Historia B. Platinæ de vitis Pontificum, Coloniæ, MDC," p. 317, for which I am indebted to Dr. Gilette, Librarian of the Union Theological Seminary, New York.
  20. See Vincent de Beauvais, and the various editions of Reisch's "Margarita Philosophica."
  21. See Champion, p. 156; also Leopardi, "Errori Popolari," p. 165.
  22. For these exhibitions of skepticism, see Champion, pp. 155, 156.
  23. See Champion, p. 89; also a vague citation in Baudrillart, "Vie de Bodin," p. 360.
  24. See Mädler, "Geschichte der Astronomie," vol. ii.
  25. For Fromundus and Voigt, see Mädler, p. 399; also Lecky, "Rationalism in Europe," vol. i, p. 28.
  26. See "Ulmische Cometen Predigt, von dem Cometen, so nechst abgewischenen 1618 Jahrs im Wintermonat erstenmahls in Schwabensen lassen, Dannach folgende Gehalten zu Ulm," etc. Durch Conrad Dicterich, Ulm, 1620.
    For a life of the author of the book, see article, "Dieterich," in the "Allgeraeine Deutsche Biographie."
  27. See S. Danforth (1664), "An Astronomical Description of the late Comet or Blazing Star, together with a Brief Theological Application thereof." (Collections in the Massachusetts Historical Society Library.)
  28. See Morton's "Memorial," pp. 251, 252.
  29. Ibid., pp. 309, 310.
  30. Rev. viii, 10, and xi, 14.
  31. See "Heaven's Alarm to the World," Boston, 1682. (In President Sparks's collection, Cornell University Library.)
  32. See "Manuductio," pp. 54, 55.
  33. For Gassendi, see Mädler, ii, 397, and Champion, 93–95.
  34. For special points of interest in Bayle's argument, see Bayle, "Pensées Diverses," Amsterdam, 1749, pp. 79, 102, 134, 206.
    For the response to Jurieu, see "Continuation des Pensées Diverses," Rotterdam, 1705; also Champion, p. 164; also Lecky, as above; also Guillemin, pp. 29, 30.
  35. See Fontenelle, cited in Champion, p. 167.
  36. See Mädler, as above; also, Guillemin, Walson, and Grant's "History of Astronomy"; also, Delambre, Proctor, article "Astronomy" in "Encyclopædia Britannica," and others.
  37. For the writings of several on both sides, and especially those who sought to save, as far as possible, the sacred theory of comets, see Mädler, ii, p. 384, et seq.
  38. See Guillemin and Watson.
  39. See sermon of Israel Loring, of Sudbury, published in 1722 (Professor M. C. Tyler's manuscript notes).
  40. See Professor J. Winthrop on comets (Professor Tyler's manuscript notes, pp. 15 and 16).