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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/January 1893/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 42‎ | January 1893

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
ANCIENT AND MODERN SUPERSTITIONS.

IN the interesting work by M. Maspero, entitled Ancient Egypt and Assyria, a translation of which has lately been published in this country (Appletons), a vivid description is given of the way in which, in the fourteenth century b. c., an Egyptian physician would have proceeded to cope with a serious case of disease. Psarou, an officer of high rank, has fallen sick. His wife Khait—here let us quote the author's words—"summons an exorcist to see her husband. Nibamon is unequaled in Thebes for his skill in curing the most violent headaches. He arrives toward evening, accompanied by two servants; one carries his black book, the other a casket filled with the necessary ingredients for manufacturing every variety of talisman on the spot—clay for modeling, plants, dried or freshly culled, consecrated linen, black or red ink, small figures in wax or baked earth. One glance at the patient tells him the cause of the illness: a dead man visits Psarou every night and is slowly devouring him. After a few moments' reflection he takes a little clay, mixes some blades of grass with it, and kneads the whole into a rather large ball, over which he recites in a low tone one of the most powerful incantations contained in his book." Returning next day to ascertain how the sick man is faring, the exorcist finds that the symptoms are worse than the day before. "These incidents distress Nibamon, but do not surprise him. The evil spirits are always unwilling to leave their prey, and always endeavor to dispute it inch by inch with the magician who opposes them. The ghost driven from the head now attacks the stomach, and he will only yield to a new spell." The second incantation succeeds no better than the first, and in a few days the man is dead.

Such were the superstitions of ancient times. Did the exorcists lose their credit because their spells produced no effect? By no means. "Whatever recoveries took place would be set down to their credit, while failure to cure would be ascribed to occult causes into which it was either vain or impious to inquire. Had any one in those days proposed a statistical test of the physical efficacy of incantations in the cure of sickness, by tabulating the cases in which such measures had been resorted to and those in which they had not been resorted to, and striking a percentage of recoveries under one and the other system, there would have been a fourteenth-century b. c. anticipation of the execration which a kindred proposition of Prof. Tyndall's met with a dozen or more years ago. Lucky indeed would the ancient skeptic have been, had he escaped with no more unpleasant consequences than averted gazes and a scolding all round. Yet what other method than the statistical could any one now suggest for proving or disproving the efficacy of the incantation business?

Could the ancient Egyptian exorcist be revived in our times it would not be difficult, in the very heart of civilization to introduce him to quarters where he would feel that his art might still be pursued with much pecuniary and social success. There are hundreds of thousands of our fellow-citizens who are willing to pay hard and honestly earned money for medals and charms of one kind and another which by virtue of some ecclesiastical benediction are supposed to have the most remarkable specific properties. One medal will give success in agricultural operations, another in domestic matters; others are efficacious in the sick-room. The Egyptian exorcist sought to place his patient under the protection of different divinities, and thus to scare away the malignant ghosts that were preying on him. To-day he would find that, in lieu of the divinities whose names he was accustomed to invoke, there were hosts of others, or at least of semi-divinities, with names strange to him, who were credited with exercising tutelary powers exactly similar to those of Isis and Osiris, of Amen and Horus, and the rest. And he would find that the idea of verification as in any way applicable to such pretended powers was just as odious to-day, alike to the victims of delusion and to the priestly class, as it could have been in his own day and generation.

Yet verification will triumph. Slowly but surely the world will come into the conviction that beliefs which shun verification, and practices which can not be brought to the test of utility, have no claim to respect. The edifice of superstition seems still all too solid; but the structure of ordered knowledge which science is building is growing in extent day by day, and little by little is expropriating the ground on which the temple of intellectual darkness has been reared. The gains of science are definitive gains, the losses of superstition are definitive losses. The human mind will never resign to occult and arbitrary agencies any sphere of phenomena which has once been reduced to law. Still, there is much to be done in helping individual minds to cast off their fetters, and to put on instead the wholesome restraints of reason and moral self-control.

"The sensual and the dark rebel in vain,
 Slaves by their own compulsion."

The bonds of superstition will only be irretrievably broken when the truths of science are welcomed and honored, not alone for the mastery they give over the outward world, but for the clearer light they throw upon questions of moral obligation.

 

 
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD IN POLITICS.

The Popular Science Monthly is not a political journal, at least as the word "political" is commonly understood. In the wider and truer sense of the word it is political just in the same degree as it is industrial, commercial, educational, and a dozen other things as well; that is to say, it is interested in the political, as in the industrial, educational, etc., development of the country, and believes that in the extension and application of scientific modes of thought the key to the best possible political and other development will be found. If any recent change in the aspect of our national politics has caused us satisfaction it is in no sense from a party point of view—for parties we utterly ignore—but because, as it seems to us, the change is one which tends to place our national life upon a more natural and rational basis than that which it has occupied for many years past, and to favor the growth of a healthy individualism throughout the whole social organism. We have not hesitated in the past to speak of the false and hurtful relations which a general policy of what is commonly called "protection," but what, as Mr. Spencer points out, should properly be called "aggression," establishes between the national Government and various more or less powerful private interests; and it is not unnatural, therefore, if we now rejoice at the prospect of at least a very sensible abatement of the evils of that system. But we rejoice still more to think of the ulterior and indirect results of the approaching change in our national policy. True intellectual manhood has not been attained until men have learned to trust Nature, to test all opinions and schemes by the touchstone of natural law, and, as a necessary result, to despise swaddling clothes and leading strings and all the paraphernalia of creeping childhood or timorous imbecility. We see before us, as we believe, a prospect of manhood for the American people—such a manhood as they have never before attained to—one of the chief signs of which will be a proud confidence in themselves, and, in connection and through harmony therewith, a noble and generous bearing toward all other nations. Heretofore men politically prominent among ourselves have not been ashamed to suggest that the best policy for us was the one that wrought most evil to other countries, and have thus fed and stimulated all that was meanest and most malignant in the minds of those whom they addressed. There has thus been cultivated among a people which ought, from its advantages of position, to be the most cosmopolitan and broadly philanthropic of all nations a tone of feeling more petty and parochial than could perhaps be found in any other community of the modern world. The mark has, however, been overshot, and the better feeling and better sense of the American people are now, we may trust, about to assert themselves. To be too sanguine in regard to the coming change would only lead to disappointment; but that in the main a better spirit will preside over our national life in the future we confidently believe. Once let the American people make fair trial of themselves under a régime of liberty, and nothing will lure them back to the lame and sinister devices which have been so delusively put forward in the past as the props and safeguards of national prosperity.

But not in the political sphere alone, as we have already hinted, is progress to be anticipated. The moment is propitious for an advance all along the line. It is science that has won the battle of liberty, and science should reap its reward in a fuller recognition of its claims. When we say that science has won the battle of liberty, what we mean is that the full, ample, and exhaustive discussion of economical questions that has taken place before the American people has brought certain conclusions into a clear light; the truth has forced its way through the mists of sophistry and all the obstructions that selfishness and prejudice could place in its path. The result, the great result, is that many minds have been opened to the recognition that in the recent election it was not a party that triumphed, but a principle, a truth, that vindicated itself. Hence the conclusion will inevitably be drawn that in the region of human action there are principles capable of demonstration; in other words, that science, which points the way to demonstrations and is itself built on demonstrations, is the proper guide of life. The applications of this conclusion are too numerous to point out on the present occasion; but we may hope that many such applications will spontaneously suggest themselves to our readers, and that, in such efforts as we ourselves may make hereafter to bring home the lesson, we may have many zealous helpers. The less we can all think of party and the more we can think of principles at the present crisis the better it will be; for it is upon the thorough comprehension and acceptance of a principle, and not on the triumph of a party, that the future welfare of the American people depends.

 

 
GOOD ROADS AND COUNTRY LIFE.

An unmistakable demand for good common roads is being heard in all parts of the United States. This demand is rapidly growing in volume and is taking on the systematic organization which is essential to the success of such a movement. That bad roads in this country cause an enormous loss of money each year to those who use them may be clearly proved, but this fact is veiled from many persons because they have never known anything better. Just how loss arises from bad roads is being shown very ably in the magazine, Good Roads, now in its second year, which is edited by Mr. Isaac B. Potter, of New York. The farmers are the greatest sufferers. Where wagon wheels sink hub-deep in mud at some seasons, a farmer who has much hauling to do must keep one or two more horses than he would need if he had only hard, even roads to go over, and his loss in the wear and tear of horseflesh, harnesses, and wagons is a heavy tax on his income. It often happens that a farmer finds the roads absolutely impassable with a loaded wagon just at the time when some of his produce would bring the highest price if he could haul it to a railroad, and he is forced to wait and take a lower price later. Livery-stable keepers and all other owners and users of horses and vehicles suffer from bad roads in similar ways.

The welfare and prosperity of a district that has bad roads suffer in many respects. If getting about for business or recreation is unreasonably difficult, its inhabitants tend to crowd into the towns and cities rather than live in the more wholesome conditions of the open country. Manufacturing concerns are often driven to place themselves in the villages and draw their employees to them there, when, but for the one item of teaming over bad roads, they could be carried on to better advantage in the country. Good roads would keep the employees of these concerns and the other persons above mentioned in the farming districts, thus making these districts more thickly settled and increasing the value of their lands.

In order to obtain better roads two things are necessary. The first is to create a general conviction that the improvement of our highways is imperative, and that money wisely expended for this purpose is sure to return. The second requisite is to place all road making and mending under the charge of competent road-builders. Various efforts to secure these ends are being made, and the aid of county and State authorities, and even of the national Government, has been invoked to further the movement. While it is very desirable that the highways of adjoining localities should be under some central supervision, so that they may be made to form a connected whole, it may yet be questioned whether the national Government could be an effective agency in road improvement. Why, for instance, should the dwellers beyond the Mississippi and on the Pacific coast be taxed to maintain in Washington a school for road engineers and a museum of road construction that few, if any, of these distant communities could derive any benefit from? A more practicable scheme would be to have instruction in road engineering given at each of the State Colleges of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. In a country showing such wide differences in soil, rainfall, temperature, and topography between different sections as the United States does, road-building can be taught and administered far more efficiently by the State or the county than by the nation.

There is need of much intelligent care in framing legislation in the interest of the movement for better roads. Annoying prohibitions should be no part of the policy of the road reformers. For instance, large loads carried on wheels having narrow felloes and tires do great damage to roads; hence it has been proposed to prohibit narrow tires on heavy wagons. A much better policy is that adopted in Michigan, of giving a reduction of one half their road taxes to those who will use broad tires. The movement for good roads shows a lusty vigor. The success that it has already achieved is splendid testimony to the efficiency of voluntary association of individuals, and if its leaders continue to carry it on without the paralyzing patronage of the General Government it is likely to attain great results.