Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/December 1899/Scientific Literature

Scientific Literature.

Owing to the increasing demands upon our space, authors and publishers are notified that hereafter the department of Scientific Literature, with the exception of Publications Received, will be discontinued.


The busy pen of Mr. John Fiske has produced another book marked by the qualities which the public has learned to associate with all his work—lucidity of expression, felicity of illustration, a large command of the conventional elements of literary composition, and a philosophy which, while very free and lightsome in its steps and paces, always has the luck to fetch up within easy hailing distance of a moderate orthodoxy. Mr. Fiske undertakes to conduct us on an excursion Through Nature to God[1] somewhat as Cook, of international fame, might undertake to see us safe from New York to the Holy Land. Of the two, we think Cook makes the surer thing of it; yet no one can deny that Mr. Fiske has done his best to trace the itinerary and encourage his excursionists to believe that they will "get there."

We may as well candidly confess that we have not much faith in the method followed in the work before us. The intention is to show that an analysis of Nature and of Nature's ways yields God; in other words, that we have only to carry out the processes of thought which an examination of the external world and of human history sets in motion in order to find God at the end of the argument. Thus, by searching, contrary to what Scripture has generally been held to imply, we find out both that God is and to some extent what he is. We prefer the older view. The world's greatest Teacher said simply, "God is a spirit." He did not say that this was a conclusion to which many lines of argument led. He did not hint at any kind of argument, but assumed the affirmation of God by the human consciousness. We venture to say that if Mr. Fiske's method were successful and we could argue ourselves into a belief in God, the result would be disastrous; for the God of argument, or even of analogy, is not the God of the human soul or conscience. We should have one conclusion more of science, but we should lose that for which no conclusion of science could make amends—our sense of the infinite and the possibility of faith.

Mr. Fiske discusses, in the early chapters of his book. The Mystery of Evil. He takes the familiar ground that evil is the necessary correlative, and in a manner the necessary condition, of good. We are placed in a universe that abounds in evil in order that by conquering it we may raise ourselves to a moral level otherwise impossible. On one page the author goes so far as to say that God, and not the devil, "is the creator of evil," but elsewhere he relaxes his boldness and speaks of evil being "permitted." One feels like asking. If good and evil are equally made by God, then which is which? When we speak of electricity as positive and negative we do not ascribe any superiority to one over the other. Nor do we say that centrifugal is a more commendable form of force than centripetal, or vice versa. "For strong and resolute men and women," we are told, "an Eden would be but a fool's paradise." This is not complimentary to our first parents in their primitive condition of innocence, and it puts the curse pronounced upon them in a somewhat equivocal light. There is also quite a rehabilitation of the "serpent," who, it seems, knew quite well what he was talking about and gave excellent advice. We wonder whether Mr. Fiske is really of opinion that it helps us to solve any of the practical problems of life to be told that without evil there could not be good. Men have known for centuries that it is good to fight evil, though what evil is essentially they have often been in doubt. Upon the latter point Mr. Fiske does not in the least attempt to enlighten us; and yet it should be rather a more hopeful enterprise to attempt to show us what is specifically evil and ought therefore to be resisted, than to vindicate evil in general as the indispensable condition of good, and something, therefore, which God was justified in making.

The second division of the book deals with The Cosmic Roots of Love and Self-Saerifice. We can not see that these roots are traced further back than the mother's affection for her offspring. Mother's love is doubtless an old story in the world by now, and perhaps as good a story as earth has to tell; but it seems to us that the "cosmic" character of it is not very apparent. We may believe that it was destined to come in the fullness of time, but this can be said equally of all that exists." I think it can be shown," says Mr. Fiske, "that the principles of morality have their roots in the deepest foundations of the universe; that the cosmic process is ethical in the profoundest sense; that, in that far-off morning of the world when the stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy, the beauty of self-sacrifice and disinterested love formed the chief burden of the mighty theme." All we can say in regard to this is that Mr. Fiske has not shown it. He has shown just what we all knew before—that love exists in the world, that it antagonizes selfishness, and that human beings are endowed with a moral and religious sense—but he has not made it plain that the meaning of the universe is to be found in these (as we regard them) higher developments. He has himself acknowledged that, on a broad view of the world-wide struggle for life, there are no moral elements to be seen.

Religion, as we hold, is its own justification. There is more of religion in one verse of the Psalms than in all the Theodicies that ever were written. "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God." Here is the whole essence of the matter—the affirmation of the human heart that there is something or some one beyond and above the mesh of circumstance and fact in which our lives are involved; something or some one who authenticates all that is good, and everlastingly condemns what is evil; something or some one to which or to whom the soul gravitates as to nothing else in the universe. When this affirmation is strong, religious life is strong; when it is weak, religious life is weak; should it cease entirely, then religion is dead. The book Mr. Fiske has given us is interesting from first to last—all his books are interesting—but it does not increase our knowledge, nor does it add to our knowledge faith.

  1. Through Nature to God. By John Fiske. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.