Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/February 1875/Reply to the Critics of the Belfast Address

587548Popular Science Monthly Volume 6 February 1875 — Reply to the Critics of the Belfast Address1875John Tyndall



I TAKE advantage of a pause in the issue of this Address, to add a few prefatory words to those already printed.

The world has been frequently informed of late that I have raised up against myself a host of enemies; and considering, with few exceptions, the deliverances of the press, and more particularly of the religious press, I am forced sadly to admit that the statement is only too true. I derive some comfort, nevertheless, from the reflection of Diogenes, transmitted to us from Plutarch, that "he who would be saved must have good friends or violent enemies; and that he is best off who possesses both." This "best" condition, I have reason to believe, is mine.

Reflecting on the fraction I have read of recent remonstrances, appeals, menaces, and judgments—covering not only the world that now is, but that which is to come—it has interested me to note how trivially men seem to be influenced by what they call their religion, and how potently by that "nature" which it is the alleged province of religion to eradicate or subdue. From fair and manly argument, from the tenderest and holiest sympathy on the part of those who desire my eternal good, I pass by many gradations, through deliberate unfairness, to a spirit of bitterness which desires, with a fervor inexpressible in words, my eternal ill. Now, were religion the potent factor, we might expect a homogeneous utterance from those professing a common creed; while, if human nature be the really potent factor, we may expect utterances as heterogeneous as the characters of men. As a matter of fact we have the latter; suggesting to my mind that the common religion professed and defended by these different people is merely the accidental conduit through which they pour their own tempers, lofty or low, courteous or vulgar, mild or ferocious, holy or unholy, as the case may be. Pure abuse, however, I have deliberately avoided reading, wishing to keep, not only hatred, malice, and uncharitableness, but even every trace of irritation, far away from my side of a discussion which demands not only good temper, but largeness, clearness, and many-sidedness of mind, if it is to guide us even to provisional solutions.

At an early stage of the controversy a distinguished professor of the University of Cambridge was understood to argue—and his argument was caught up with amusing eagerness by a portion of the religious press—that my ignorance of mathematics renders me incompetent to speculate on the proximate origin of life. Had I thought his argument relevant, my reply would have been simple; for before me lies a printed document, more than twenty-two years old, bearing the signature of this same learned professor, in which he was good enough to testify that I am "well versed in pure mathematics."

In connection with his limitation of speculative capacity to the mathematician, the gentleman just referred to offered what he considered a conclusive proof of the being of a God. This solemn problem he knocked off in a single paragraph. It interests me profoundly to reflect upon the difference between the state of mind which could rest satisfied with this performance and that of the accomplished poet, and more than accomplished critic, who in "Literature and Dogma" pronounces the subject of the professor's demonstration "an unverifiable hypothesis." Whence this difference? Were the objective facts decisive, both writers would come to the same conclusion: the divergence is, therefore, to be referred to the respective subjective organs which take the outward evidence in. When I turn, as I have done from time to time for years, to the articles and correspondence in our theological journals, and try to gather from them what our religious teachers think of this universe and of each other, they seem to me to be as far removed from nineteenth-century needs as the priests of the Homeric period. Omniscience might see in our brains the physical correlatives of our differences; and, were these organs incapable of change, the world, despite this internal commotion, would stand still as a whole. But happily that Power which, according to Mr. Arnold, "makes for righteousness" is intellectual as well as ethical; and by its operation, not as an outside but as an inside factor of the brain, even the mistaken efforts of that organ are finally overruled in the interests of truth.

It has been thought, and said, that, in the revised Address as here published, I have retracted opinions uttered at Belfast. A Roman Catholic writer, who may be taken as representative, is specially strong upon this point. Startled by the deep chorus of dissent with which my dazzling fallacies have been received, he convicts me of trying to retreat from my position. This he will by no means tolerate. "It is too late now to seek to hide from the eyes of mankind one foul blot, one ghastly deformity. Prof. Tyndall has himself told us how and where this Address of his was composed. It was written among the glaciers and the solitudes of the Swiss mountains. It was no hasty, hurried, crude production; its every sentence bore marks of thought and care."

My critic intends to be severe: he is simply just. In the "solitudes" to which he refers I worked with deliberation; endeavoring even to purify my intellect by disciplines similar to those enjoined by his own Church for the sanctification of the soul. I tried in my ponderings to realize not only the lawful, but the expedient; and to permit no fear to act upon my mind save that of uttering a single word on which I could not take my stand, either in this or any other world.

Still my time was so brief, and my process of thought and expression so slow, that, in a literary point of view, I halted, not only behind the ideal, but behind the possible. Hence, after the delivery of the Address, I went over it with the desire, not to revoke its principles, but to improve it verbally, and above all to remove any word which might give color to the notion of "heat and haste." In holding up as a warning to writers of the present the errors and follies of the denouncers of the past, I took occasion to compare the intellectual propagation of such denouncers to that of thistle-germs; the expression was thought offensive, and I omitted it. It is still omitted from the Address. There was also another passage, which ran thus: "It is vain to oppose this force with a view to its extirpation. What we should oppose, to the death if necessary, is every attempt to found upon this elemental bias of man's nature a system which should exercise despotic sway over his intellect. I do not fear any such consummation. Science has already, to some extent, leavened the world, and it will leaven it more and more. I should look upon the mild light of science breaking in upon the minds of the youth of Ireland, and strengthening gradually to the perfect day, as a surer check to any intellectual or spiritual tyranny which might threaten this island than the laws of princes or the swords of emperors. Where is the cause of fear? We fought and won our battle even in the middle ages; why should we doubt the issue of a conflict now?"

This passage also was deemed unnecessarily warm, and I therefore omitted it. It was an act of weakness on my part to do so. For, considering the aims and acts of that renowned and remorseless organization which for the time being wields the entire power of my critic's Church, not only resistance to its further progress, but, were it not for the intelligence of Roman Catholic laymen, positive restriction of its present power for evil, might well become the necessary attitude of society as regards that organization. With some slight verbal alterations, therefore, which do not impair its strength, the passage has been restored.

My critic is very hard upon the avowal in my preface regarding atheism. But I frankly confess that his honest hardness and hostility are to me preferable to the milder but less honest treatment which the passage has received from members of other churches. He quotes the paragraph, and goes on to say: "We repeat this is a most remarkable passage. Much as we dislike seasoning polemics with strong words, we assert that this apology only tends to affix with links of steel to the name of Prof. Tyndall the dread imputation against which he struggles."

Here we have a very fair example of subjective religious vigor. But my quarrel with such exhibitions is that they do not always represent objective fact. No atheistic reasoning can, I hold, dislodge religion from the heart of man. Logic cannot deprive us of life, and religion is life to the religious. As an experience of consciousness, it is perfectly beyond the assaults of logic. But the religious life is often projected in external forms—I use the word in its widest sense—by no means beyond the reach of logic, which will have to bear—and to do so more and more as the world becomes more enlightened—comparison with facts. The subjective energy to which I have just referred is also a fact of consciousness not to be reasoned away. My critic feels, and takes delight in feeling, that I am struggling, and he obviously experiences the most exquisite pleasures of "the muscular sense" in holding me down. His feelings are as real as if his imagination of what mine are were equally real. His picture of my "struggles" is, however, a mere phantasm. I do not struggle. I do not fear the charge of atheism; nor should I even disavow it, in reference to any definition of the Supreme which he, or his order, would be likely to frame. His "links" and his "steel" and his "dread imputations" are, therefore, even more unsubstantial than my "streaks of morning cloud," and they may be permitted to vanish together.

What are the conceptions in regard to which I place myself in the position here indicated? The pope himself provides me with an answer. In the Encyclical Letter of December, 1864, his Holiness writes: "In order that God may accede more easily to our and your prayers, let us employ in all confidence, as our Mediatrix with Him, the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, who sits as a Queen on the right hand of her only-begotten Son, in a golden vestment, clothed around with various adornments."

In regard to this, as to other less pictorially anthropomorphic and sartorial conceptions of the Supreme, I stand in an attitude of unbelief; for, taken in connection with what is known of the extent, organization, and general behavior of this universe, they lack the congruity necessary to commend them to me as truth.

Soon after the delivery of the Belfast Address, the Protestant Bishop of Manchester did me the honor of noticing it; and, in reference to that notice, a brief and, I trust, not uncourteous remark was introduced into my first preface. Since that time the bishop's references to me have been very frequent. Assuredly this is to me an unexpected honor. Still a doubt may fairly be entertained whether this incessant speaking before public assemblies on emotional subjects does not tend to disturb that equilibrium of head and heart which it is always so desirable to preserve—whether, by giving an injurious predominance to the feelings, it does not tend to swathe the intellect in a warm haze, thus making the perception, and consequent rendering of facts, indefinite, if not untrue. It was to the bishop I referred in a recent brief discourse[2] as "an able and, in many respects, a courageous man, running to and fro upon the earth, and wringing his hands over the threatened loss of his ideals." It is doubtless to this sorrowing mood—this partial and, I trust, temporary overthrow of the judgment by the emotions—that I must ascribe a probably unconscious, but still grave, misrepresentation contained in the bishop's last reference to me. In the Times of November 9th, he is reported to have expressed himself thus: "In his lecture in Manchester, Prof. Tyndall as much as said that at Belfast he was not in his best mood, and that his despondency passed away in brighter moments." Now, considering that a verbatim report of the lecture was at hand in the Manchester Examiner, and that my own corrected edition of it was to be had for a penny, the bishop, I submit, might have afforded to repeat what I actually said, instead of what I "as much as said." I am sorry to add that his rendering of my words is a vain imagination of his own. In my lecture at Manchester there was no reference, expressed or implied, to my moods in Belfast.

To all earnest and honest minds acquainted with the paragraph of my first preface, on which the foregoing remark of Bishop Fraser, and similar remarks of his ecclesiastical colleagues, not to mention those of less responsible writers, are founded, I leave the decision of the question whether their mode of presenting this paragraph to the public be straightforward or the reverse.

These minor and more purely personal matters at an end, the weightier allegation remains—that at Belfast I misused my position by quitting the domain of science, and making an unjustifiable raid into the domain of theology. This I fail to see. Laying aside abuse, I hope my accusers will consent to reason with me. Is it not competent for a scientific man to speculate on the antecedents of the solar system? Did Kant, Laplace, and William Herschel, quit their legitimate spheres when they prolonged the intellectual vision beyond the boundary of experience, and propounded the nebular theory? Accepting that theory as probable, is it not permitted to a scientific man to follow up in idea the series of changes associated with the condensation of the nebulæ; to picture the successive detachment of planets and moons, and the relation of all of them to the sun? If I look upon our earth, with its orbital revolution and axial rotation, as one small issue of the process which made the solar system what it is, will any theologian deny my right to entertain and express this theoretic view? Time was when a multitude of theologians would be found to do so—when that arch-enemy of science which now vaunts its tolerance would have made a speedy end of the man who might venture to publish any opinion of the kind. But that time, unless the world is caught strangely slumbering, is forever past.

As regards inorganic Nature, then, I may traverse, without let or hinderance, the whole distance which separates the nebulae from the worlds of to-day. But only a few years ago this now conceded ground of science was theological ground. I could by no means regard this as the final and sufficient concession of theology; and at Belfast I thought it not only my right but my duty to state that, as regards the organic world, we must enjoy the freedom which we have already won in regard to the inorganic. I could not discern the shred of a title-deed which gave any man, or any class of men, the right to open the door of one of these worlds to the scientific searcher, and to close the other against him. And I considered it frankest, wisest, and in the long-run most conducive to permanent peace, to indicate without evasion or reserve the ground that belongs to Science, and to which she will assuredly make good her claim.

Considering the freedom allowed to all manner of opinions in England, surely this was no extravagant position for me to assume. I have been reminded that an eminent predecessor of mine in the presidential chair expressed a totally different view of the Cause of things from that enunciated by me. In doing so he transgressed the bounds of science at least as much as I did; but nobody raised an outcry against him. The freedom that he took I claim, but in a more purely scientific direction. And looking at what I must regard as the extravagances of the religious world; at the very inadequate and foolish notions concerning this universe entertained by the majority of our religious teachers; at the waste of energy on the part of good men over things unworthy, if I might say it without discourtesy, of the attention of enlightened heathens: the fight about the fripperies of Ritualism, the mysteries of the Eucharist, and the Athanasian Creed; the forcing on the public view of Pontigny Pilgrimages; the dating of historic epochs from the definition of the Immaculate Conception; the proclamation of the Divine Glories of the Sacred Heart—standing in the midst of these insanities, it did not appear to me extravagant to claim the public tolerance for an hour and a half for the statement of what I hold to be more reasonable views: views more in accordance with the verities which science has brought to light, and which many weary souls would, I thought, welcome with gratification and relief.

But to come to closer quarters. The expression to which the most violent exception has been taken is this: "Abandoning all disguise, the confession I feel bound to make before you is that I prolong the vision backward across the boundary of the experimental evidence, and discern, in that Matter which we, in our ignorance, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of every form and quality of life." To call it a "chorus of dissent," as my Catholic critic does, is a mild way of describing the storm of opprobrium with which this statement has been assailed. But, the first blast of passion being past, I hope I may again ask my opponents to consent to reason. First of all, I am blamed for crossing the boundary of the experimental evidence. I reply that this is the habitual action of the scientific mind—at least of that portion of it which applies itself to physical investigation. Our theories of light, heat, magnetism, and electricty, all imply the crossing of this boundary. My paper on the "Scientific Use of the Imagination" illustrates this point in the amplest manner; and in the lecture above referred to I have sought, incidentally, to make clear how in physics the experiential incessantly leads to the ultra-experiential; how out of experience there always grows something finer than mere experience, and that in their different powers of ideal extension consists for the most part the difference between the great and the mediocre investigator. The kingdom of science, then, cometh not by observation and experiment alone, but is completed by fixing the roots of observation and experiment in a region inaccessible to both, and in dealing with which we are forced to fall back upon the picturing power of the mind.

Passing the boundary of experience, therefore, does not, in the abstract, constitute a sufficient ground for censure. There must have been something in my particular mode of crossing it which provoked this tremendous "chorus of dissent."

Let us calmly reason the point out. I hold the nebular theory as it was held by Kant, Laplace, and William Herschel, and as it is held by the best scientific intellects of to-day. According to it, our sun and planets were once diffused through space as an impalpable haze, out of which, by condensation, came the solar system. What caused the haze to condense? Loss of heat. What rounded the sun and planets? That which rounds a tear—molecular force. For æons, the immensity of which overwhelms man's conceptions, the earth was unfit to maintain what we call life. It is now covered with visible living things. They are not formed of matter different from that of the earth around them. They are, on the contrary, bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh. How were they introduced? Was life implicated in the nebulæ—as part, it may be, of a vaster and wholly Incomprehensible Life; or is it the work of a Being standing: outside the nebulae, who fashioned it as a potter does his clay, but whose own origin and ways are equally past finding out? As far as the eye of science has hitherto ranged through Nature, no intrusion of purely creative power into any series of phenomena has ever been observed. The assumption of such a power to account for special phenomena has always proved a failure. It is opposed to the very spirit of science, and I therefore assumed the responsibility of holding up in contrast with it that method of Nature which it has been the vocation and triumph of science to disclose, and in the application of which we can alone hope for further light. Holding, then, that the nebulæ and all subsequent life stand to each other in the relation of the germ to the finished organism, I reaffirm here, not arrogantly, or defiantly, but without a shade of indistinctness, the position laid down in Belfast.

Not with the vagueness belonging to the emotions, but with the definiteness belonging to the understanding, the scientific man has to put to himself these questions regarding the introduction of life upon the earth. He will be the last to dogmatize upon the subject, for he knows best that certainty is here for the present unattainable. His refusal of the creative hypothesis is less an assertion of knowledge than a protest against the assumption of knowledge which must long, if not forever, lie beyond us, and the claim to which is the source of manifold confusion upon earth. With a mind open to conviction, he asks his opponents to show him an authority for the belief they so strenuously and so fiercely uphold. They can do no more than point to the Book of Genesis, or some other portion of the Bible. Profoundly interesting and indeed pathetic to me are those attempts of the opening mind of man to appease its hunger for a Cause. But the Book of Genesis has no voice in scientific questions. To the grasp of geology, which it resisted for a time, it at length yielded like potter's clay; its authority as a system of cosmogony being discredited on all hands by the abandonment of the obvious meaning of its writer. It is a poem, not a scientific treatise. In the former aspect it is forever beautiful; in the latter aspect it has been, and it will continue to be, purely obstructive and hurtful. To knowledge its value has been negative, leading, in rougher ages than ours, to physical, and even in our own "free" age, as exemplified in my own case, to moral violence.

To the student of cause and effect no incident connected with the proceedings at Belfast is more instructive than the deportment of the Catholic hierarchy of Ireland; a body usually wise enough not to confer notoriety upon an adversary by imprudently denouncing him. The Times, to which I owe nothing on the score of sympathy, but a great deal on the score of fair play, where so much has been unfair, thinks that the Irish cardinal, archbishops, and bishops, in their recent manifesto, promptly and adroitly employed a weapon which I, at an unlucky moment, had placed in their hands. The antecedents of their action cause me to regard it in a different light; and a brief reference to these antecedents will, I think, illuminate not only their proceedings regarding Belfast, but other doings which have been recently noised abroad.

Before me lies a document, bearing the date of November, 1873, but which, after appearing for a moment, unaccountably vanished from public view. It is a memorial addressed by seventy of the students and ex-students of the Catholic University in Ireland to the Episcopal Board of the University. This is the plainest and bravest remonstrance ever addressed by Irish laymen to their spiritual pastors and masters. It expresses the profoundest dissatisfaction with the curriculum marked out for the students of the university; setting forth the extraordinary fact that the lecture-list for the faculty of Science, published a month before they wrote, did not contain the name of a single professor of the Physical or Natural Sciences.

The memorialists forcibly deprecate this, and dwell upon the necessity of education in science: "The distinguishing mark of this age is its ardor for science. The natural sciences have, within the last fifty years, become the chiefest study in the world; they are in our time pursued with an activity unparalleled in the history of mankind. Scarce a year now passes without some discovery being made in these sciences which, as with the touch of a magician's wand, shivers to atoms theories formerly deemed unassailable. It is through the physical and natural sciences that the fiercest assaults are now made on our religion. No more deadly weapon is used against our faith than the facts incontestably proved by modern researches in science."

Such statements must be the reverse of comfortable to a number of gentlemen who, trained in the philosophy of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, have been accustomed to the unquestioning submission of all other sciences to their divine science of Theology. But something more remains: "One thing seems certain," say the memorialists, viz., "that if chairs for the physical and natural sciences be not soon founded in the Catholic University, very many young men will have their faith exposed to dangers which the creation of a school of science in the university would defend them from. For our generation of Irish Catholics are writhing under the sense of their inferiority in science, and are determined that such inferiority shall not long continue; and so, if scientific training be unattainable at our university, they will seek it at Trinity, or at the Queen's Colleges, in not one of which is there a Catholic professor of science."

Those who imagined the Catholic University at Kensington to be due to the spontaneous recognition on the part of the Roman hierarchy of the intellectual needs of the age, will derive enlightenment from this, and still more from what follows; for the most formidable threat remains. To the picture of Catholic students seceding to Trinity and the Queen's Colleges, the memorialists add this darkest stroke of all: "They will, in the solitude of their own homes, unaided by any guiding advice, devour the works of Häckel, Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and Lyell; works innocuous if studied under a professor who would point out the difference between established facts and erroneous inferences, but which are calculated to sap the faith of a solitary student, deprived of a discriminating judgment to which he could refer for a solution of his difficulties."

In the light of the knowledge given by this courageous memorial, and of similar knowledge otherwise derived, the recent Catholic manifesto did not at all strike me as a chuckle over the mistake of a maladroit adversary, but rather as an evidence of profound uneasiness on the part of the cardinal, the archbishops, and the bishops who signed it. They acted toward it, however, with their accustomed practical wisdom. As one concession to the spirit which it embodied, the Catholic University at Kensington was brought forth, apparently as the effect of spontaneous inward force, and not of outward pressure which was rapidly becoming too formidable to be successfully opposed.

The memorialists point with bitterness to the fact that "the name of no Irish Catholic is known in connection with the physical and natural sciences." But this, they ought to know, is the complaint of free and cultivated minds wherever the priesthood exercises dominant power. Precisely the same complaint has been made with respect to the Catholics of Germany. The great national literature and scientific achievements of that country in modern times are almost wholly the work of Protestants; a vanishingly small fraction of it only being derived from members of the Roman Church, although the number of these in Germany is at least as great as that of the Protestants. "The question arises," says a writer in a German periodical, "what is the cause of a phenomenon so humiliating to the Catholics? It cannot be referred to want of natural endowment due to climate (for the Protestants of Southern Germany have contributed powerfully to the creations of the German intellect), but purely to outward circumstances. And these are readily discovered in the pressure exercised for centuries by the Jesuitical system, which has crushed out of Catholics every tendency to free mental productiveness." It is, indeed, in Catholic countries that the weight of ultramontanism has been most severely felt. It is in such countries that the very finest spirits, who have dared, without quitting their faith, to plead for freedom or reform, have suffered extinction. The extinction, however, was more apparent than real, and Hermes, Hirscher, and Günther, though individually broken and subdued, prepared the way in Bavaria for the persecuted but unflinching Frohschammer, for Döllinger, and for the remarkable liberal movement of which Döllinger is the head and guide.

Though managed and moulded for centuries to an obedience unparalleled in any other country, except Spain, the Irish intellect is beginning to show signs of independence, demanding a diet more suited to its years than the pabulum of the middle ages. As for the recent manifesto where pope, cardinal, archbishops, and bishops, may now be considered as united in one grand anathema, its character and fate are shadowed forth by the vision of Nebuchadnezzar, recorded in the Book of Daniel. It resembles the image, whose form was terrible, but the gold, and silver, and brass, and iron of which rested upon feet of clay. And a stone smote the feet of clay, and the iron, and the brass) and the silver, and the gold, were broken in pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing-floors, and the wind carried them away.

There is something in Jesuitism profoundly interesting, and at the same time clearly intelligible, to men of strong intellects and determined will. The weaker spirits, of whom there are many among us, it simply fascinates and subdues. From the study of his own inward forces, and their possible misapplication, the really determined man can understand how possible it is, having once chosen an aim, to reach it in defiance of every moral restraint—to trample under foot, by an obstinate effort of volition, the dictates of honesty, honor, mercy, and truth; and to pursue the desired end, if need be, through their destruction. This force of will, relentlessly applied, and working through submissive instruments, is the strength of Jesuitism.

Pure, honest fanaticism often adds itself to this force, and sometimes acts as its equivalent. Illustrations of this are not far to seek, for the dazzling prize of England, converted to the true faith, is sufficient to turn weak heads. When it is safely caged, it is interesting to watch the operations of this form of energy. In a sermon on the Perpetual Office of the Council of Trent, preached before the Right Reverend Fathers assembled in Synod, the Archbishop of Westminster has given us the following sample of it: "As the fourth century was glorious by the definition of the Godhead and the Consubstantial Son, and the fifth by that of his two perfect natures, and the thirteenth by that of the procession of the Holy Ghost, so the nineteenth will be glorious by the definition of the Immaculate Conception. Right Rev. Fathers," continues this heated proselyte, "you have to call the legionaries and the tribunes, the patricians and the people, of a conquering race, and to subdue, change, and transform them one by one to the likeness of the Son of God. Surely a soldier's eye and a soldier's heart would choose by intuition this field of England for the warfare of the faith. It is the head of Protestantism, the centre of its movements, and the stronghold of its powers. Weakened in England, it is paralyzed everywhere; conquered in England, it is conquered throughout the world. Once overthrown here, all is but a war of detail: it is the key of the whole position of modern error." This is the propaganda which England has to stem. What mere stubble a dilettante ritualist or a weak-headed nobleman must be when acted upon by this fiery breath of fanaticism! The only wonder is that weak heads, which are so assiduously and deliberately sought out, are not more plentiful than they are.

Monsignor Capel has recently been good enough to proclaim at once the friendliness of his Church toward true science, and her right to determine what true science is. Let us dwell for a moment on the historic proofs of her scientific competence. When Halley's comet appeared in 1456, it was regarded as the harbinger of God's vengeance, the dispenser of war, pestilence, and famine, and, by order of the pope, all the church-bells in Europe were' rung to scare the monster away. An additional daily prayer was added to the supplications of the faithful. The comet in due time disappeared, and the faithful were comforted by the assurance that, as in previous instances relating to eclipses, droughts, and rains, so also as regards this "nefarious" comet, victory had been vouchsafed to the Church.

Both Pythagoras and Copernicus had taught the heliocentric doctrine—that the earth revolved round the sun. In the exercise of her right to determine what true science is, the Church, in the pontificate of Paul V., stepped in, and, by the mouth of the holy Congregation of the Index, delivered, on March 5, 1616, the following decree:

And whereas it hath also come to the knowledge of the said holy congregation that the false Pythagorean doctrine of the mobility of the earth and the immobility of the sum, entirely opposed to Holy Writ, which is taught by Nicolas Copernicus, is now published abroad and received by many—in order that this opinion may not further spread, to the damage of Catholic truth, it is ordered that this and all other books teaching the like doctrine be suspended, and by this decree they are all respectively suspended, forbidden, and condemned.

Though often quoted, I thought the never-dying flavor of this celebrated decree would not be disagreeable to some of my readers. It is pleasant to be able to say that the very doctrine here pronounced "false," "opposed to Holy Writ," and "damaging to Catholic truth," Science has persuaded even Monsignor Capel to accept.

But it is a constant tendency rather than a single fact which is chiefly important here, and a few jottings will show with sufficient plainness what this tendency has ever been. The fate of Giordano Bruno is referred to in my Belfast Address. For a further reference to him I would direct the reader to a brief passage in the Appendix to the same. The case of Galileo is also touched upon; and to this it may be added here that he died the prisoner of the Inquisition, which, true to its instincts, followed him beyond the grave, disputing his right to make a will, and denying him burial in consecrated ground.[3]

Again, the famous Academia del Cimento was established at Florence in 1657, and held its meetings in the ducal palace. It lasted ten years, and was then suppressed at the instance of the Papal Government. As an. equivalent, the brother of the grand-duke was made a cardinal. The Jesuits were less successful in Bavaria in 1759; for they did their best, but vainly, to prevent the founding of the Academy of Sciences in Munich. Their waning power was indicated by this fact, and in 1773 Pope Clement XIV. dissolved the order. The decree was to be "irrevocable;" the Society of Jesus was "never to be restored;" still, in 1814, an infallible follower of Clement, Pope Pius VII., undid the work of his equally infallible predecessor, and revoked his decree.

But why go back to 1456? Far be it from me to charge by-gone sins upon Monsignor Capel's Church, were it not for her practices today. The most applauded dogmatist of the Jesuits is, I am informed, Perrone. Thirty editions of a work of his have been scattered abroad in all lands by a society to which he belongs. His notions of physical astronomy are quite in accordance with those of 1456. He teaches boldly that "God does not rule by universal law.... that when God [obviously a Big Man] orders a given planet to stand still he does not detract from any law passed by himself, but orders that planet to move round the sun for such and such a time, then to stand still, and then again to move, as his pleasure may be." Jesuitism proscribed Frohschammer for questioning its favorite dogma that every human soul was created by a direct supernatural act of God, and for asserting that man, body and soul, came from his parents. This is the society that now strives for universal power; it is from it, as Monsignor Capel graciously informs us, that we are to learn what is allowable in science and what is not!

In the face of such facts, which might be multiplied at will, it requires extraordinary bravery of mind, or a reliance upon public ignorance almost as extraordinary, to make the claims made by Monsignor Capel for his Church.

A German author, speaking of one who has had bitter experience in this line, describes those Catholic writers who refuse to submit to the Congregation of the Index as outlawed; fair subjects for moral assassination.[4] This is very strong; and still, judging from my own small experience, not too strong. In reference to this point I would ask indulgence for a brief personal allusion here. It will serve a twofold object, one of which will be manifest, the other being reserved for possible future reference. Sprung from a source to which the Bible was specially dear, my early training was confined almost exclusively to it. Born in Ireland, I, like my predecessors for many generations, was taught to hold my own against the Church of Rome. I had a father whose memory ought to be to me a stay, and an example of unbending rectitude and purity of life. The small stock to which he belonged were scattered with various fortunes along that eastern rim of Leinster, from Wexford upward, to which they crossed from the Bristol Channel. My father was the poorest of them. Still, in his socially low but mentally and morally independent position, by his own inner energies and affinities, he obtained a knowledge of history which would put mine to shame; while the whole of the controversy between Protestantism and Romanism was at his finger's ends. At the present moment the works and characters which occupied him come, as far-off recollections, to my mind: Claude and Bossuet, Chillingworth and Nott, Tillotson, Jeremy Taylor, Challoner and Milner, Pope and McGuire, and others whom I have forgotten, or whom it is needless to name. Still this man, so charged with the ammunition of controversy, was so respected by his Catholic fellow-townsmen, that they one and all put up their shutters when he died.

With such a preceptor, and with an hereditary interest in the papal controversy, I naturally mastered it. I did not confine myself to the Protestant statement of the question, but made myself also acquainted with the arguments of the Church of Rome. I remember to this hour the interest and surprise with which I read Challoner's "Catholic Christian Instructed," and on the border-line between boyhood and manhood I was to be found taking part in controversies in which the rival faiths were pitted against each other. I sometimes took the Catholic side, and gave my Protestant antagonist considerable trouble. The views of Irish Catholics became thus intimately known to me, and there was no doctrine of Protestantism which they more emphatically rejected, and the ascription of which to them they resented more warmly, than the doctrine of the pope's personal infallibility. Yet, in the face of this knowledge, it was obstinately asserted and reasserted in my presence some time ago, by a Catholic priest, that the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope had always been maintained in Ireland.[5]

But this is an episode, intended to disabuse those who, in this country or the United States, may have been misled in regard to the personal points referred to. I now return to the impersonal. The course of life upon earth, as far as Science can see, has been one of amelioration—a steady advance on the whole from the lower to the higher. The continued effort of animated Nature is to improve its conditions and raise itself to a loftier level. In man, improvement and amelioration—depend largely upon the growth of conscious knowledge, by which the errors of ignorance are continually moulted and truth is organized. It is assuredly the advance of knowledge that has given a materialistic color, to the philosophy of this age. Materialism is, therefore, not a thing to be mourned over, but to be honestly considered—accepted if it be wholly true, rejected if it be wholly false, wisely sifted and turned to account if it embrace a mixture of truth and error. Of late years the study of the nervous system and of its relation to thought and feeling has profoundly occupied inquiring minds. It is our duty not to shirk—it ought rather to be our privilege to accept—the established results of such inquiries, for here assuredly our ultimate weal depends upon our loyalty to the truth. Instructed as to the control which the nervous system exercises over man's moral and intellectual nature, we shall be better prepared, not only to mend their manifold defects, but also to strengthen and purify both. Is mind degraded by this recognition of its dependence? Assuredly not. Matter, on the contrary, is raised to the level it ought to occupy, and from which timid ignorance would remove it.

But the light is dawning, and it will become stronger as time goes on. Even the Brighton Congress affords evidence of this. From the manifold confusions of that assemblage my memory has rescued two items which it would fain preserve: the recognition of a relation between Health and Religion, and the address of the Rev. Harry Jones. Out of the conflict of vanities his words emerge fresh, healthy, and strong, because undrugged by dogma, coming directly from the warm brain of one who knows what practical truth means, and who has faith in its vitality and inherent power of propagation. I wonder is he less effectual in his ministry than his more embroidered colleagues? It surely behooves our teachers to come to some definite understanding as to this question of health: to see how, by inattention to it, we are defrauded, negatively, by the privation of that "sweetness and light" which is the natural concomitant of good health; positively, by the insertion into life of cynicism, ill-temper, and a thousand corroding anxieties which good health would dissipate. We fear and scorn "materialism." But he who knew all about it, and could apply his knowledge, might become the preacher of a new gospel. Not, however, through the ecstatic moments of the individual does such knowledge come, but through the revelations of science, in connection with the history of mankind.

Why should the Roman Catholic Church call gluttony a mortal sin? Why should prayer and fasting occupy a place in the disciplines of a religion? What is the meaning of Luther's advice to the young clergyman who came to him, perplexed with the difficulty of predestination and election, if it be not that, in virtue of its action upon the brain, when wisely applied, there is moral and religious virtue even in a hydro-carbon? To use the old language, food and drink are creatures of God, and have therefore a spiritual value. The air of the Alps would be augmented tenfold in purifying power if this truth were recognized. Through our neglect of the monitions of a reasonable materialism we sin and suffer daily. I might here point to the train of deadly disorders over which science has given modern society such control—disclosing the lair of the material enemy, insuring his destruction, and thus preventing that moral squalor and hopelessness which habitually tread on the heels of epidemics in the case of the poor.

Rising to higher spheres, the visions of Swedenborg, and the ecstasy of Plotinus and Porphyry, are phases of that psychical condition, obviously connected with the nervous system and state of health, on which is based the Vedic doctrine of the absorption of the individual into the universal soul. Plotinus taught the devout how to pass into a condition of ecstasy. Porphyry complains of having been only once united to God in eighty-six years, while his master Plotinus had been so united six times in sixty years.[6] A friend who knew Wordsworth informs me that the poet, in some of his moods, was accustomed to seize hold of an external object to assure himself of his own bodily existence. The "entranced mind" of Mr. Page-Roberts, referred to so admiringly by the Spectator, is a similiar phenomenon. No one, I should say, has had a wider experience in this field than Mr. Emerson. As states of consciousness those phenomena have an undisputed reality, and a substantial identity. They are, however, connected with the most heterogeneous objective conceptions. Porphyry wrote against Christianity; Mr. Page-Roberts is a devout Christian. But notwithstanding the utter discordance of these objective conceptions, their subjective experiences are similar, because of the similarity of their finely-strung nervous organizations.

But, admitting the practical facts, and acting on them, there will always remain ample room for speculation. Take the argument of the Lucretian. As far as I am aware, not one of my assailants has attempted to answer it. Some of them, indeed, rejoice over the ability displayed by Bishop Butler in rolling back a difficulty on his opponent; and they even imagine that it is the bishop's own argument that is there employed. Instructed by self-knowledge, they can hardly credit me with the wish to state both sides of the question at issue, and to show, by a logic stronger than Butler ever used, the overthrow which awaits any doctrine of materialism which is based upon the definitions of matter habitually received. But the raising of a new difficulty does not abolish—does not even lessen—the old one, and the argument of the Lucretian remains untouched by any thing the bishop has said or can say.

And here it may be permitted me to add a word to an important controversy now going on. In an article on "Physics and Metaphysics," published in the Saturday Review more than fourteen years ago, I ventured to state thus the relation between physics and consciousness: "The philosophy of the future will assuredly take more account than that of the past of the relation of thought and feeling to physical processes; and it may be that the qualities of Mind will be studied through the organism as we now study the character of Force through the affections of ordinary matter. We believe that every thought and every feeling has its definite mechanical correlative in the nervous system—that it is accompanied by a certain separation and remarshaling of the atoms of the brain.

"This latter process is purely physical; and were the faculties we now possess sufficiently strengthened, without the creation of any new faculty, it would doubtless be within the range of our augmented powers to infer from the molecular state of the brain the character of the thought acting upon it, and, conversely, to infer from the thought the exact corresponding molecular condition of the brain. We do not say—and this, as will be seen, is all-important—that the inference here referred to would be an a priori one. What we say is, that by observing, with the faculties we assume, the state of the brain, and the associated mental affections, both might be so tabulated side by side, that if one were given, a mere reference to the table would declare the other.

"Given the masses of the planets and their distances asunder, and we can infer the perturbations consequent on their mutual attractions. Given the nature of a disturbance in water, air, or ether, and from the physical properties of the medium we can infer how its particles will be affected. The mind runs along the line of thought which connects the phenomena, and, from beginning to end, finds no break in the chain. But, when we endeavor to pass by a similar process from the phenomena of physics to those of thought, we meet a problem which transcends any conceivable expansion of the powers we now possess. We may think over the subject again and again—it eludes all intellectual presentation—we stand, at length, face to face with the Incomprehensible."

The discussion above referred to turns on the question: Do states of consciousness enter as links in the chain of antecedence and sequence which give rise to bodily actions and to other states of consciousness; or are they merely by-products, which are not essential to the physical processes going on in the brain? Now, it is perfectly certain that we have no power of imagining states of consciousness interposed between the molecules of the brain, and influencing the transference of motion among the molecules. The thought "eludes all mental presentation;" and hence the logic seems of iron strength which claims for the brain an automatic action, uninfluenced by states of consciousness. But it is, I believe, admitted by those who hold the automaton-theory that states of consciousness are produced by the marshaling of the molecules of the brain; and this production of consciousness by molecular motion is certainly quite as unthinkable as the production of molecular motion by consciousness. If, therefore, unthinkability be the proper test, we must equally reject both classes of phenomena. I, for my part, reject neither, and thus stand in the presence of two Incomprehensibles, instead of one Incomprehensible. While accepting fearlessly the facts of materialism dwelt upon in these pages, I bow my head in the dust before that mystery of the brain which has hitherto defied its own penetrative power, and which may ultimately resolve itself into a demonstrable impossibility of self-penetration.[7]

But, whatever be the fate of theory, the practical monitions are plain enough, which declare that on our dealings with matter depends our weal or woe, physical and moral. The state of mind which rebels against the recognition of the claims of "materialism" is not unknown to me. I can remember a time when I regarded my body as a weed, so much more highly did I prize the conscious strength and pleasure derived from moral and religious feeling, which, I may add, was mine without the intervention of dogma. The error was not an ignoble one, but this did not save it from the penalty attached to error. Saner knowledge taught me that the body is no weed, and that if it were treated as such it would infallibly avenge itself. Am I personally lowered by this change of front? Not so. Give me their health, and there is no spiritual experience of those earlier years—no resolve of duty, or work of mercy, no act of self-denial, no solemnity of thought, no joy in the life and aspects of Nature, that would not still be mine. And this without the least reference or regard to any purely personal reward or punishment looming in the future.

As I close these remarks, the latest melancholy wail of the Bishop of Peterborough reaches my ears. Notwithstanding all their "expansiveness," both he and his brother of Manchester appear, alas! to know as little of the things which belong to our peace as that wild ritualist who, a day or two ago, raised the cry of "excommunicated heretic!" against the Bishop of Natal. Happily we have among us our Jowetts and our Stanleys, not to mention other "brave men, who see more clearly the character and magnitude of the coming struggle; and who believe undoubtingly that out of it the truths of science will emerge with healing in their wings. Such men must increase, if the vast material resources of the Church of England are not to fall into the hands of persons who may be classed under the respective heads of weak and infatuated.

And now I have to utter a "farewell," free from bitterness, to all my readers—thanking my friends for a sympathy more steadfast, I would fain believe, if less noisy, than the antipathy of my foes; commending to these, moreover, a passage from Bishop Butler, which they have either not read or failed to take to heart. "It seems," saith the bishop, "that men would be strangely headstrong and self-willed, and disposed to exert themselves with an impetuosity which would render society insupportable, and the living in it impracticable, were it not for some acquired moderation and self-government, some aptitude and readiness in restraining themselves, and concealing their sense of things." In this respect, at least, his grace the Archbishop of Canterbury has set a good example.

  1. Preface to the seventh edition of the Address before the British Association at Belfast, with an Appendix on "Scientific Materialism," etc. D. Appleton & Co.
  2. See The Popular Science Monthly for January, 1875.
  3. Draper, "Trial of Galileo."
  4. See the case of Frohschammer as sketched by a friend in the Preface to "Christenthum und die moderne Wissenschaft." His enemies contrived to take his bread, in great part, away, but they failed to subdue him, and not even the Pope's nuncio could prevent five hundred students of the University of Munich from signing an address to their professor.
  5. On a memory which dates back to my fifteenth year, when I first read the discussion between Mr. Pope and Father McGuire, I should be inclined to rely for proof that the Catholic clergyman, in that discussion, and in the name of his Church, repudiated the doctrine of personal infallibility.
  6. See Dr. Draper's important work, "Conflict between Religion and Science."
  7. See Tyndall's "Fragments of Science," article "Scientific Materialism."