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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/February 1889/Sketch of John B. Stallo

PSM V34 D448 John Bernard Stallo.jpg


JOHN B. STALLO is among the notable examples which this generation presents of men who, while busy in professional and public affairs, have at the same time shown themselves masters in scientific and philosophic thought. His published essays have given him place among the foremost thinkers and critics of his time, while he has achieved an equal eminence in his career of law and politics. In introducing the first of a series of his articles which afterward resulted in the "Concepts," the late Prof. Youmans remarked in the "Monthly" for October, 1873: "It has long been the honor and boast of the British bar that Mr. Justice Grove, the author of 'The Correlation of Forces,' belonged to it; it is equally to the credit of the legal profession in this country that a member of it has cultivated scientific philosophy to such excellent purpose as is proved by the articles we are now publishing."

John Bernard Stallo is of German origin, and was born at Sierhausen, Oldenburg, March 16, 1823. His ancestors, on both his father's and mother's side, were schoolmasters, and all of them persons of only moderate means. He inherited, particularly from his father's side, a thirst for knowledge and an inclination to scientific studies. These traits were particularly marked in his uncle, Franz Joseph Stallo, who, while a prosperous book printer and binder at Damme, made a number of useful discoveries in physics and mechanics. He is accredited with having introduced peat-burning and the cultivation of buckwheat into his district, and with having promoted the irrigation of the heaths and the sowing of fir-seeds upon them, whereby they were transformed from barren moors into profitable pine-woods. He finally, however, began to advocate views that brought him into conflict with the authorities, and emigrated, followed by a number of his countrymen, in 1831, to the United States, where he attempted to found a colony at a place to which he gave the name of Stallotown, in Auglaize County, Ohio. His career and the prosperity of the colony were cut off, two years afterward, by the ravages of the cholera.

Mr. Stallo's grandfather, an honorable old Friesian, although he had passed his seventieth year when he became his grandson's teacher, took a great interest in the child's development, and rejoiced not a little when he found him, before the end of his fourth year, able to read and to work out simple arithmetical examples. His father gave him particular instruction in mathematics, his favorite study, and took care that he should learn the ancient languages, and French as well—which, out of respect to the old gentleman's national prejudices, had to be taught secretly from the grandfather. In his fifteenth year, young Stallo was sent as a free pupil to the normal school at Vechta, where he also enjoyed the advantage of the instructions of the professors in the gymnasium—an institution in high repute. In a short time he had gained sufficient knowledge of the languages and mathematics to fit him for entrance into the university, but his father had not the means to send him there. The alternative was then presented to him of continuing the chain of schoolmasters in his family, or of emigrating to America. He chose the latter.

He came to this country in 1839, bearing letters of introduction from his father and grandfather to clergymen and teachers in Cincinnati. He at once found a position in a private school in that city, and there he composed and published his first literary work, a German spelling and reading book, which appeared without an author's name. There had been great need of such a book in the lower school classes, and, as this one seemed admirably adapted to its purpose, it soon became popular and passed through many editions. It attracted the attention of the directors of the newly founded Roman Catholic St. Xavier's College, and they, finding also how good a mathematician the author was, appointed Stallo Professor of the German Language, to the duties of which post were added also those of teaching mathematics and the ancient languages. Physical and chemical science being highly esteemed in this institution, and its library being well supplied with books on those subjects, Stallo improved his leisure hours in studying them.

In the fall of 1843 Mr. Stallo became Professor of the Higher Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry in St. John's College, Fordham, a position which he held till 1847, when he returned to Cincinnati and entered upon the study of the law.

He was admitted to the bar in 1849, and came rapidly into a large practice. In 1853 he was appointed by the Governor of Ohio to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of Justice Stanley Matthews as judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Hamilton County, and was elected by the people in the same year to that office for the full term. After discharging the duties of this position for two years, with satisfaction to the bar and the public, he resigned it in 1855, in order to continue his more lucrative practice. He thus lived, an eminent and respected citizen of Cincinnati, one of whom the German element especially was proud, prominent in the rational discussion of all questions of public interest, and active in all measures for advancing the public welfare, till, in 1885, he was appointed by President Cleveland to be the diplomatic representative of the United States at the court of the King of Italy.

According to Koerner's "German Element in America," the study of the higher mathematics, in which his professorial positions engaged him, led him logically to the investigation of the German philosophy, and consequently to the cultivation of those habits of thought which are exemplified in his principal published works. The first fruit of these reflections appeared in the book entitled "General Principles of the Philosophy of Nature, with an Outline of some of its Recent Developments among the Germans, embracing the Philosophical Systems of Schelling and Hegel, and Oken's System of Nature," which was published in Boston in 1848.

The credit is given to this publication, by an eminent scientific author, of having marked an epoch in the education of American thinkers. The views then expressed by the author have been modified and in part rejected by his riper experience; but they were not the less full of suggestion and inspiration, giving a new conception of nature, and opening unexplored vistas of thought to the student. This was at a time when the conception of unity and organic plan in nature, though already seen by poets like Goethe, had scarcely entered into the minds of English-speaking students of science. The second part of this early volume of Stallo's was not less welcome to such inquirers from the fact that it included brief expositions of the philosophic views of Kant, of Fichte, and of Schelling, serving as an introduction to a more complete analysis of Hegel's system than had yet appeared in English. To all this was added a carefully digested summary of the physiophilosophy of Lorenz Oken, a work then unknown to most English and American students, although an authorized English translation of it appeared at about the same time, published by the Royal Society, and its views were already influencing the teachings of Richard Owen, of London, then the great master in natural history.

Speaking of this work in the preface to the "Concepts," the author says that it was written when he "was under the spell of Hegel's ontological reveries; at a time when I was barely of age, and still seriously affected with the metaphysical malady which seems to be one of the unavoidable disorders of intellectual infancy. The labor expended in writing it was not, perhaps, wholly wasted, and there are things in it of which I am not ashamed, even at this day; but I sincerely regret its publication, which is in some degree atoned for, I hope, by the contents of the present volume."

A personal friend of the author's describes the book as characterized by an erroneous method, resulting from the passion for freedom in thought and inquiry which was unconsciously its impelling principle—a work composed "in his philosophic heyday, when he tried to turn his conceptions into corresponding facts, to discover truth by creating it."

The work has, nevertheless, left its mark in scientific literature. The direction given by it, both by Stallo's own outline of philosophy and by his introduction to the thoughts of the great German thinkers represented in it, was soon apparent in the writings of several of the new generation of students. In none, perhaps, is this more clearly shown than in the writings of T. Sterry Hunt, whose papers from 1852 bear frequent evidence to the great influence of Stallo's teachings. It is worthy of note that Dr. Hunt's recent work—"A New Basis for Chemistry"—is dedicated to J. B. Stallo, "citizen, jurist, and philosopher," and that the author says in his preface that the volume in question was at that early period a source of inspiration to him.

The results of Judge Stallo's riper thought were given in his second and, so far, his greatest book, "The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics," a work which at once gave him a worldwide reputation and placed him in the foremost rank among scientific thinkers. The development of the views embodied in this book can be traced, we think, in the author's occasional addresses and his contributions to periodicals in the English and German languages, of which we have only a few at hand; but those few present evident foreshadowings of what was afterward to be given permanent form in the "Concepts." Among them are a paper on "Materialism," contributed apparently as a part of a series of "Philosopliical Researches" to the periodical "Atlantis" in 1855; a memorial address on Alexander von Humboldt (1859); the earlier papers of the "Concepts," which were published in "The Popular Science Monthly" in 1873 and 1874; and a "Reply to some Criticisms on the 'Concepts,'" in a later number. In introducing the first of the articles in the "Monthly" (October, 1873), which was on "The Theory of the Atomic Constitution of Matter," the editor of this journal, Prof. E. L. Youmans, said, "The depth and force of the criticism are only equaled by the clearness of the conceptions and the precision and felicity of the statement."

This work is a thoroughgoing criticism of the theories and concepts by which modern scientific philosophy seeks to coordinate the facts of physics, chemistry, and astronomy. In the main this philosophy assumes all phenomena to be reducible to mechanics, and holds that the ultimate elements at which physical analysis arrives are mass and motion; the physical unit being an atom, hard, inelastic, inert, and passive. Since the concept of atoms defines them as absolutely simple, it follows that they must of necessity be equal. Yet here chemistry at once speaks in contradiction, for the atoms, or units, currently so named, differ radically in properties and characteristics. In a review of modern theories of the phases of energy, or modes of motion, we are shown the difficulties which attend the assumption of an ether as the vehicle whereby radiant energy is transferred. From the instantaneous propagation of gravitation through space, it is argued that no medium whatever may be needful for its communication. The kinetic theory of gases is next examined, which theory is shown to involve greater difficulties than it clears up. Next in order the author proceeds to define the conditions of true hypothesis, which in his view should both accord with all known facts and simplify them. He shows how modern theorists have neglected this canon, and supposed they were explaining a fact when they were only dwarfing it, or stating it in new terms. He finds more difficulty in understanding an atom than the mass which it goes to make up.

No portion of the "Concepts" is more striking than its chapter on the relation of thought to things. We are pointed to the fallacy which makes mind the measure of nature, and conceivability the test of truth. The author demonstrates how the historical order in which human knowledge has arisen has largely molded scientific conceptions—for example, in its being supposed that the solid form of matter, the first known and most familiar, is more simple than the gaseous. And because impact is the common mode of propagating motion, ideas as to the propagation of motion universally are curiously limited to the conception of impact. Although, the influence of the metaphysics of the middle ages is nominally discarded by modern scientists, yet that influence is distinctly traced in their modern seeking after the absolute in time, space, and motion. This, too, while it is clear that relativity is the law of both nature and thought. Judge Stallo concludes his book with a caustic criticism of the theory that space can exist in more than three dimensions. That theory he shows to involve the attribution to space of the very properties by the absence of which alone it is distinguishable from matter. He avers the search for properties in space, pseudo-sphericity and the like, to be without warrant from physics, mathematics, or logic.

While thus subjecting modern hypotheses to radical and often adverse criticism. Judge Stallo never for a moment drops into an injudicial tone. Such partial and tentative value as these hypotheses may possess he cheerfully accords them, but he maintains that the progress of individual sciences has far outstripped the unifying power of a philosophy whose roots are imbedded in ancient and discredited metaphysics. Throughout his life the themes treated in the "Concepts"' have occupied the author's mind, and been the objects of his study. He may in the future present further consideration of the fundamental problems of scientific philosophy, as a sequel to the "Concepts."

It was to be expected that such a volume as the "Concepts" should have a noteworthy reception in the world of science, and at the hands of leading reviewers. Mr. A. W. Reinhold, in the London "Academy," commended it highly. So did "The American Engineer's" critic. Prof. Tait, in "Nature," and the reviewers of the "Critic" and the "Nation," did not admire its analysis, or deem its conclusions sound.

A close friend of Judge Stallo's, who has furnished us with an analysis of his character—Mr. C. H. Goddard, of Marietta, Ohio—credits him with great facility in turning from the study of one thing to the study of another; in learning retentively all kinds of facts, principles, opinions, hypotheses, and words; in analyzing these and using the results of his analyses; and in expression, whether by speech or in writing; "but only an intimate friend," he adds, "could appreciate the seemingly effortless impulse with which he has done the most that he has accomplished outside of his legal practice." He is distinguished among his friends by the breadth of his sympathies, and this is exemplified in many personal and patriotic attachments, and acts growing out of them; in freedom from envy or jealousy, and in the catholicity of his æsthetic tastes; but in nothing more than in his love for knowledge and for rational freedom. Of these, his love for rational freedom is dominant. He has always been ready to leave the search for knowledge to go to the defense of freedom of thought and action, but never to give that up for any other consideration. This trait has been shown publicly in his answer to Orestes A. Brownson's attack upon the Hungarian revolutionists; in his eulogy of Thomas Jefferson as an apostle of the rational freedom of individual men in government; in his speech, after the Republican presidential nomination of 1856, when he urged his fellow-Germans to support Fremont; in his argument against the assumption that our Government is founded upon the Christian religion, as in derogation of the rights of non-Christian citizens; and in many other addresses and in newspaper articles and law cases.

It was also strikingly manifested in his presiding over a public meeting addressed by Wendell Phillips, when the orator was made a mark for missiles, and Judge Stallo stood by his side and bore the brunt of the assault with him. This was in 1862, when Mr. Phillips was invited to speak in Cincinnati in favor of emancipation. A bitter prejudice existed against him because he had been a disunionist. Judge Stallo had been invited to introduce him, but declined, because, his sympathies never having been with Mr. Phillips, he was not the proper man to perform that office. But when he was informed that other men whom he had mentioned as more suitable had declined, because they were afraid of a mob, he consented, saying, "That is enough, gentlemen—I will be there." Mr. Phillips, after being introduced, was at once assailed with a shower of disagreeable and dangerous missiles. One of them hit Judge Stallo. "During the turmoil and uproar," said Judge Stallo, telling the story several years afterward, "Mrs. Stallo, with Mrs. Schneider, sat behind a fellow who had risen and aimed a big stone at the speaker. As he threw his hand back to fire the stone, Mrs. Stallo, who entered heart and soul into the spirit of the hour, and had no thought but to stand by her friends in the stormy crisis, reached over and hit the fellow's wrist a hard blow, making him drop the stone and howl with pain. He looked around to see his assailant, and Mrs. Stallo was up and ready for him, but gentlemen hastened to her side, and the fellow moved away." In the law case of Rothgeb vs. Mauck and Others, Judge Stallo maintained the right of an infidel to have a temperately worded declaration of his sentiments recorded upon his tombstone and admitted to the cemetery. In a case in which certain action of the Board of Education of Cincinnati was involved, he opposed the enforcement of the singing of hymns and the reading of the Bible in the public schools, because they were objected to by a part of the citizens who were taxed to support the schools. The reading was enjoined by the local Superior Court, but this decision was overruled by the State Supreme Court.

Judge Stallo's liberality has likewise been exemplified, Mr. Goddard says, "by his political relations, by the ease with which he would change from supporting to opposing, or from opposing to supporting, one of the existing parties, or keep aloof from political action, or help to form a new party, and yet show adhesion to well-rooted convictions." His attitude toward politics is compared in Koerner's "German Element" to that of the tangent to the circle, which only touches it at one place; he has entered the political field as if from without, only on great vital questions, but then works indefatigably in support of what he considers the right views, by word and writing. He was a Democrat till the contest arose over the extension of slavery into the Territories, 1854-1856, through which and through the war he ardently supported the Republican side. He co-operated with the Liberal-Republican movement till Greeley was nominated, when, finding his views on the tariff antagonized by the candidate, he withdrew from its further support. He advocated the election of Tilden and of Cleveland, in the belief that the time had come for a change in administrative policy.

In the days of his life in Cincinnati, Judge Stallo was accustomed to pass his evenings at home, in his library, in social intercourse with his family or such friends as might call in, where he would converse, Mr. Goddard tells us, in English, German, or French, as his interlocutor might prefer, on whatever subject might come up; and with great interest on the discoveries and tendencies in natural science and mathematics, or questions of philosophy, or of political and social interest at home or abroad, or on history and art and literature and men. While not all men could enjoy his favorable opinion, of some he spoke with great reverence, especially of Darwin, whose whole bearing toward truth and toward other scientific men called from him the expression," I have many heroes, but Darwin is my saint." These conversations were often illuminated by bright flashes of wit, and illustrations drawn from extensive reading; but, whatever his subject or mood, his talk was simple and direct, and marked him versatile and acute, learned and accomplished.