Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/February 1899/Editor's Table
THE NEW SUPERSTITION.
THE death of a prominent man of letters in the hands of certain individuals of the "Christian Science" persuasion has given rise to a good deal of serious discussion as to the principles and practices of that extraordinary sect. That a considerable number of persons should have banded themselves together to ignore medical science, and apply "thought" as a remedy for all physical ills, has excited no little alarm and indignation in various quarters. Some of the severest criticisms of this outbreak of irrationality have come from the religious press, which takes the ground that, while the Bible doubtless contains numerous accounts of miraculous healing, it nevertheless fully recognizes the efficacy of material remedies. A "beloved physician" is credited with the authorship of one of the gospels and of the book of Acts. An apostle recommends a friend to "take a little wine for his stomach's sake and his often infirmities." The man who was attacked by robbers had his wounds treated in the usual way. The soothing effect of ointments is recognized; and the disturbing effects of undue indulgence in the wine cup are forcibly described. The peculiar character of a miracle, it is contended, lies in the fact that it passes over natural agencies; but, because these may be dispensed with by Divine Power, they are not the less specifically efficacious in their own place. These, and such as these, are the arguments which are urged by the representatives of orthodox religion against the new heresy, or, as we have called it, "the new superstition." To argue against it on scientific grounds would be almost too ridiculous. When people make a denial of the laws of matter the basis of their creed, we can only leave them to work it out with Nature. They will find that, like all the world, they are subject to the law of gravitation and to the laws of chemistry and physics. If one of them happens to be run over by a railway train the usual results will follow; and so of a multitude of conceivable accidents. A Christian Scientist who "blows out the gas" will be asphyxiated just like anybody else; and if he walks off the wharf into the water he will require rescue or resuscitation just as if he were a plain "Christian" or a plain "scientist." Like Shylock, he is "fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases" as the rest of the community; and little by little the eternal course of things will chastise his extravagant fancies into reasonable accord with facts.
To tell the truth, we have not much apprehension that the health of the community will suffer, or the death rate go up, as the result of this new craze. On the contrary, we rather expect that any influence it may have in these respects will, on the whole, be for the better; and for a very simple reason: The laws of health are not so difficult to master, and, as every adherent of "Christian Science" will be anxious to reflect credit on it by the satisfactory condition of his or her personal health, we quite believe that in the new sect more diseases will be avoided than incurred. Moreover, the elevated condition of mind of these enthusiasts makes in itself for health, so long as it does not turn to hysteria. We certainly can not refuse all sympathy to people who make it a principle to enjoy good health. Of course, if they were thoroughly consistent, they might do mischief in direct proportion to their numbers. A "Christian Science" school board who did not believe in ventilating or adequately warming school rooms, holding that it made no difference whether the children breathed pure air or air laden with carbon dioxide and ptomaines, or whether or not they were exposed to chills and draughts, would be about as mischievous a body of men as could well be imagined. If "Christian Science" in the house means an indifference to the ordinary physical safeguards of health, it will quickly make a very evil repute for itself. But, as we have already said, we do not anticipate these results. Having undertaken to avoid and to cure diseases by "thinking truth," we believe our friends of the new persuasion will think enough truth to get what benefit is to be got from cleanliness, fresh air, and wholesome food—and that will be quite a quantity.
We publish on another page a letter from a correspondent who thinks that much injustice is done to Emerson in the remarks we quoted in our December number from Mr. J. J. Chapman's recent volume of essays. What Mr. Chapman said was, in effect, that Emerson had not placed himself in line with the modern doctrine of evolution—that he was probably "the last great writer to look at life from a stationary standpoint." Mrs. Alexander says in reply that Emerson was an evolutionist before Darwin, having learned the doctrine from Goethe and made it a fundamental principle of his philosophy. No one
who has read Mr. Chapman's essay could think for a moment that there was any intention on his part to deal ungenerously or unfairly with the great writer of whom America is so justly proud; nor would many readers be disposed to question his competence to pronounce a sound judgment upon his subject. There must, therefore, it seems to us, be some way of reconciling the verdict of Mr. Chapman with the claims set forth in our correspondent's letter.
The true statement of the case doubtless is that Emerson received the doctrine of evolution—so far as he received it—as a poet. He welcomed the conception of a gradual unfolding of the universe, and a gradually higher development of life; but it dwelt in his mind rather as a poetical imagination than as a scientific theory. The consequence was that he was still able to speak in the old absolute manner of many things which the man of science can only discuss from a relative standpoint. When, for example, Emerson says, "All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being in which they lie—an immensity not possessed and that can not be possessed"—he may be uttering the sentence of a divine philosophy, or the deep intuition of a poet; but he is not speaking the language of science, nor evincing any sense of the restrictions which science might place on such expressions of opinion. Certainly he is not at the standpoint of evolution; and it is very hard to believe that the views he announces could in any way be harmonized with, say, Mr. Spencer's Principles of Psychology. Or take such a passage as the following: "All the facts of the animal economy—sex, nutriment, gestation, birth, growth—are symbols of the passage of the world into the soul of man, to suffer there a change and reappear a new and higher fact. He uses forms according to the life, and not according to the form. This is true science. The poet alone knows astronomy, chemistry, vegetation, and animation, for he does not stop at these facts, but employs them as signs. He knows why the plain or meadow of space was strewn with those flowers we call suns and moons and stars; why the great deep is adorned with animals, with men, and gods; for in every word he speaks he rides on them as the horses of thought." Now, we should be sorry to crumple one leaf in the laurel wreath of the poet; but is there much sense in saying that he is our only astronomer, or that he could inform us why suns and planets were disposed through space so as to make the forms we see? We do not think Goethe held these ideas; if he did, they were certainly not part of his evolution philosophy. The doctrine of evolution is not at war, we trust, with poetic inspiration; but if it teaches anything, it teaches that the world is full of infinite detail, and that without a certain mastery of details general views are apt to be more showy than solid. It also brings home to the mind very forcibly that one can only be sure of carefully verified facts, and, even of these, ought not to be too sure. It teaches that time and place and circumstance are, for all practical purposes, of the essence of the things we have to consider; that nothing is just what it would be if differently conditioned. There is nothing of which Emerson discourses with so much positiveness as the soul, an entity of which the serious evolutionist can only speak with all possible reserve. The evolutionist labors to construct a psychology; but Emerson has a psychology ready-made, and scatters its affirmations with a liberal hand through every chapter of his writings. That these are stimulating in a high degree to well-disposed minds we should be sorry to deny. They are a source, which for many long years will not run dry, of high thoughts and noble aspirations. No one has more worthily or loftily discoursed of the value of life than has the New England philosopher; and for this the world owes him a permanent debt of gratitude. But he was not an evolutionist in the modern sense—that is, in the scientific sense. If, as Mr. Chapman says, he was the last great writer to look at life from a stationary standpoint, then we can only add that the old philosophy had a golden sunset in his pages.