Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/November 1885/Modern Science and Modern Thought

950561Popular Science Monthly Volume 28 November 1885 — Modern Science and Modern Thought1885S. Laing


By S. LAING, M. P.


On yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of Nature, sins of will,
Defeets of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroyed,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shriveled in a fruitless tire,
Or but subserves another's gain.

Behold, we know not anything.
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the light;
And with no language but a cry.


The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope through darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.


"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarpèd cliff and quarried stone
She cries, "A thousand types are gone;
I care for nothing, all shall go.

"Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more." And he, shall he.

Man, her last work, who seemed so fair,

Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who rolled the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed.
And love Creation's final law—
Though Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed—

Who loved, who suffered countless ills.
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or sealed within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime.
Were mellow music matched with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?

Behind the veil, behind the veil.
Tennyson, In Memoriam.
(By kind permission of Lord Tennyson.)

These noble and solemn lines of a great poet sum up in a few words what may be called "the Gospel of Modern Thought." They describe what is the real attitude of most of the thinking and earnest minds of the present generation. On the one hand, the discoveries of science have so far established the universality of law, as to make it impossible for sincere men to retain the faith of their ancestors in dogmas and miracles. On the other, larger views of man and of history have shown that religious sentiment is an essential element of human nature, and that many of our best feelings, such as love, hope, conscience, and reverence, will always seek to find reflections of themselves in the unseen world. Hence faith has diminished and charity increased. Fewer believe old creeds, and those who do, believe more faintly; while fewer denounce them, and are insensible to the good they have done in the past and the truth and beauty of the essential ideas that underlie them.

On the Continent, and especially in Catholic countries, where religion interferes more with politics and social life, there is still a large amount of active hostility to it, as shown by the massacre of priests by the French Communists; but, in this country, the old Voltairean infidelity has died out, and no one of ordinary culture thinks of denouncing Christianity as an invention of priestcraft. On the contrary, many of our leading minds are at the same time skeptical and religious, and exemplify the truth of another profound saying of Tennyson:

"There is more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds."

The change which has come over modern thought can not be better exemplified than by taking the instance of three great writers whose works have produced a powerful influence—Carlyle, Renan, and George Eliot. They were all three born and brought up in the very heart of different phases of the old beliefs—Carlyle, in a family which might be taken as a type of the best qualities of Scottish Presbyterianism, bred in a west country farmhouse, under the eye of a father and mother whom he loved and revered, who might have been the originals of Burns's "Cotter's Saturday Night," or the descendants of the martyrs of Claverhouse. His own temperament strongly inclined to a stern Puritanical piety; his favorite heroes were Cromwell and John Knox; his whole nature was antipathetic to science. As his biographer, Froude, reports of him, "He liked ill men like Humboldt, Laplace, and the author of the 'Vestiges.' He refused Darwin's transmutation of species as unproved; he fought against it, though I could see he dreaded that it might turn out true." And yet the deliberate conclusion at which he arrived was that "he did not think it possible that educated honest men could even profess much longer to believe in historical Christianity."

The case of Renan was equally remarkable. He was born in the cottage of Breton peasants of the purest type of simple, pious. Catholic faith. Their one idea of rising above the life of a peasant was to become a priest, and their great ambition for their boy was that he might be so far honored as one day to become a country curé. Young Renan, accordingly, from the first day he showed cleverness, and got to the top of his class in the village school, was destined for the priesthood. He was taken in hand by priests, and found in them his kindest friends; they sent him to college, and in due time to the Central Seminary where young men were trained for orders. All his traditions, all his affections, all his interests, led in that direction, and yet he gave up everything rather than subscribe to what he no longer believed to be true. His conversion was brought about in this way: Having been appointed assistant to a professor of Hebrew, he became a profound scholar in Oriental languages; this led to his studying the Scriptures carefully in the original, and the conclusion forced itself upon him that the miraculous part of the narrative had no historical foundation. Like Carlyle, the turn of his mind was not scientific, and while denying miracles he remained keenly appreciative of all that was beautiful and poetical in the life and teaching of Jesus, which he has brought more vividly before the world in his writings than had ever been done by orthodox commentators.

George Eliot, again, was brought up in yet another phase of orthodox Christianity—that of middle-class nonconformist Evangelicalism. She embraced this creed fervently, and, as we see in her "Dinah," retained a keen appreciation of all its best elements. But as her intellect expanded and her knowledge widened, she too found it impossible to rest in the old belief, and, with a painful wrench from a revered father and loving friends, she also passed over from the ranks of orthodoxy. She also, after a life of profound and earnest thought, came to the conclusion recorded of her by an intimate friend and admirer, Mr. Myers:

"I remember how at Cambridge, I walked with her once in the Fellows' Garden of Trinity, on an evening of rainy May; and she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men—the words God, Immortality, Duty—pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. Never, perhaps, had sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing law. I listened, and night fell; her grave, majestic countenance turned toward me like a Sibyl's in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp, one by one, the two scrolls of promise, and left me the third scroll only, awful with inevitable fates."

Such instances as these can not be the result of mere accident. As long as skepticism was confined to a limited number of scientific men, it might be possible to think that it was merely the exaggeration of a particular train of thought pursued too exclusively. But when science has become the prevailing mode of thought, and has been brought home to the minds of all educated persons, it is no longer possible to represent it as an exceptional aberration. And where the bell-wethers of thought lead the way, the flock will follow. What the greatest thinkers think to-day, the mass of thinkers will think to-morrow, and the great army of non-thinkers will assume to be self-evident the day after. This is very nearly the case at the present day; the great thinkers have gone before, the mass of thinkers have followed, and the still greater mass of non-thinkers are wavering and about to follow. It is no longer, with those who think at all, a question of absolute faith against absolute disbelief, but of the more or less shade of "faintness" with which they cling to the "larger hope."

This is nowhere more apparent than in the writings of those who attempt to stem the tide which sets so strongly against orthodoxy. They resolve themselves mainly into one long wail of "oh the pity of it, the pity of it!" if the simple faith of olden times should disappear from the world. They show eloquently and conclusively that science and philosophy can not satisfy the aspirations or afford the consolations of religion. They expose the hollowness of the substitutes which have been proposed, such as the worship of the unknowable, or the cult of humanity. They win an easy triumph over the exaggerations of those who resolve all the historical records of Christianity into myths or fabulous fulfillment of prophecies, and they wage fierce battles over minor points, as whether the first quotations from the Gospels are met with in the first or second half of the second century. But they nowhere attempt to grapple with the real difficulties, and show that the facts and arguments which converted men like Carlyle and Renan are mistaken facts and unsound arguments. Attempts to harmonize the Gospels, and to prove the inspiration of writings which contain manifest errors and contradictions, have gone the way of Buckland's proof of a universal deluge, and of Hugh Miller's attempt to reconcile Noah's ark and the Genesis account of creation with the facts of geology and astronomy. Not an inch of ground that has been conquered by science has ever been reconquered in fair light by theology.

This great scientific movement is of comparatively recent date. Darwin's "Origin of Species" was only published in 1859, and his views as to evolution, development, natural selection, and the prevalence of universal law, have already annexed nearly the whole world of modern thought, and become the foundation of all philosophical speculation and scientific inquiry.

Not only has faith been shaken in the supernatural as a direct and immediate agent in the phenomena of the worlds of matter and of life, but the demonstration of the "struggle for life" and "survival of the fittest" has raised anew, and with vastly augmented force, those questions as to the moral constitution of the universe and the origin of evil, which have so long exercised the highest minds. Is it true that "love" is "Creation's final law," when we find this enormous and apparently prodigal waste of life going on; these cruel internecine battles between individuals and species in the struggle for existence; this cynical indifference of Nature to suffering? There are, approximately, 3,000,000,000 of deaths of human beings in every century, of whom at least twenty per cent, or 720,000,000, die before they have attained to clear self-consciousness and conscience. What becomes of them? Why were they born? Are they Nature's failures, and "cast as rubbish to the heap"?

To such questions there is no answer. We are obliged to admit that as the material universe is not, as we once fancied, measured by our standards and regulated at every turn by an intelligence resembling ours; so neither is the moral universe to be explained by simply magnifying our own moral ideas, and explaining everything by the action of a Being who does what we should have done in his place. If we insist on this anthropomorphic concept ion, we are driven to this dilemma. Carlyle bases his belief in a God, "the infinite Good One," on this argument: "All that is good, generous, wise, right—whatever I deliberately and forever love in others and myself, who or what could by any possibility have given it to me, but One who first had it to give? This is not logic; this is axiom."

But how of the evil? No sincere man looking into the depths of his own soul, or at the facts of the world around, can doubt that along with much that is good, generous, wise, and right, there is much that is bad, base, foolish, and wrong. If logic compels us to receive as an axiom a good author for the former, does not the same logic equally compel us to accept the axiom that the author of the latter must have been one who "first had it in himself to give"? That is, we must accept the theory of a God who is half good, half evil; or adopt the Zoroastrian conception of a universe contested by an Ormuzd and Ahriman, a good and evil principle, whose power is, for the present at any rate, equally balanced.

From this dilemma there is no escape, unless we give up altogether the idea of an anthropomorphic deity, and adopt frankly the scientific idea of a First Cause, inscrutable and past finding out; and of a universe whose laws we can trace, but of whose real essence we know nothing, and can only suspect or faintly discern a fundamental law which may make the polarity of good and evil a necessary condition of existence. This is a more sublime as well as more rational belief than the old orthodox conception; but there is no doubt that it requires more strength of mind to embrace it, and that it appears cold and cheerless to those who have been accustomed to see special providences in every ordinary occurrence, and to fancy themselves the special objects of supernatural supervision in all the details of daily life. Hopes and fancies, however, are powerless against facts; and the world is as surely passing from the phase of orthodox into that of scientific belief as youth is passing into manhood, and the planet which we inhabit from the fluid and fiery state into that of temperate heat, progressive cooling, and final extinction as the abode of life. In the mean time, what can we do but possess our souls in patience, follow truth wherever it leads us, and trust, as Tennyson advises, that in the long run everything will be for the best, and "every winter turn to spring"?

  1. From Chapter VII of a work, under this title, published by Chapman & Hall, London, 1885,