Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/April 1873/Science and Public Affairs
MR. CHAIRMAN: There is a legend well known to most of us—and which has an advantage over most legends in that it is substantially true—that a very distinguished man of science in this country was once approached by an eminent practical man, and urged to turn his great powers in scientific investigation and exposition to effect in making a fortune.
And, to the great surprise of that man of business, the man of science responded, "But, my dear sir, I have no time to waste in making money."
Of all the recent great results of science, I think, sir, that those words have struck deepest and sped farthest in the average carnal mind on our side the Atlantic.
"No time to waste in making money!" I have stood sir, in the presence of a very eminent man of affairs—one whose word is a power in the great marts of the world, and watched him as he heard for the first time this astonishing dictum. He stood silent—apparently in awe. The words seemed to reverberate among; the convolutions of his brain, and to be reëchoed far away, back, from depth to depth, among the deepest recesses of his consciousness—"No time to waste in making money!"
The honored guest of this evening comes among us as another of those men who, in following a very high vocation, have given no thought to money-getting.
Of course, indirectly, his brilliant discoveries have, in many cases, aided to heap up gold in the world's coffers, but that has not been the direct object of his life-work. As to the money value of most of his discoveries, you might as well try to fix the worth of a fixed star, or a baby. His career has been that of a seeker for new truth—and an eloquent proclaimer of it; and it is in this apostolate that he has been so warmly welcomed in this great metropolis of money-making.
The toast, sir, to which you ask me to speak is, "The Relation of Science to Political Progress."
Now, sir, I maintain that the true spirit of scientific research—incarnate before us in our honored guest—embracing as it does zeal in search for truth, devotion to duty which such a search imposes, faith in good as the normal and necessary result of such a search that such a spirit is, at this moment, one of the most needed elements in the political progress of our country.
I might go on to show how usefully certain scientific methods might be brought to bear on the formation of political judgments, and in determining courses of political action. I might show how even a very moderate application of scientific principles would save us from what is constantly going on in municipal, State, or national legislation—the basing of important statutes to-day, on the supposition that two and two make four, and to-morrow on the theory that two and two make forty; but the hour is late, and I spare you; I will confine myself simply to the value, in our political progress, of the spirit and example of our honored friend, and of those like him.
What is the example which reveals that spirit? It is an example of zeal—zeal in search for the truth, sought for truth's sake—and not for the sake of material advantage; it is an example of thoroughness—of the truth sought in its wholeness, not in dilutions or adaptations, or suppressions, supposed to be healthy for this man's mind, or that man's soul; it is an example of bravery—the fearlessness that leads a truth-seeker to brave all outcry and menace; it is an example of devotion to duty; without which, for a steady force, as Prof. Tyndall just now observed, no worthy scientific work can be accomplished; and, finally, an example of faith—of a high and holy faith that the results of earnest truth-seeking cannot be other than good—faith that truth and goodness are inseparable—faith that there is a Power in the universe which forbids any honest truth-seeking to lead to lasting evil. A faith, this is, which has had its "noble army of martyrs" from long before Roger Bacon down to this present—martyrs not less real than that devoted saint, from whom, as I understand, our guest takes his name, who perished in the flames as a martyr to religious duty.
What I maintain then, is, that this zeal for truth as truth, this faith., in the good as forever allied to the true, this devotion to duty as the result of such faith and zeal, constitute probably the most needed element at this moment in the political regeneration of this country, and that, therefore, the example of our little army of true devotees of science has an exceeding preciousness.
Said a justly-distinguished senator to me yesterday, in Washington: "The true American idea of education is to give all children a good and even start; then to hold up the prizes of life before them; then to say to them: 'Go in and win; let the smartest have the prizes.'"
Who of the common herd shall dispute the conclusions of a senator beneath the great cast-iron dome at Washington?—But here, in this presence, I may venture to say that such a theory of education is one of the main causes of our greatest national clanger and disgrace. No theory can be more false, or, in the long-run, more fatal. Look at it for a moment:
We are greatly stirred, at times, as this fraud or that scoundrel is dragged to light, and there rise cries and moans over the corruption of the times; but, my friends, these frauds and these scoundrels are not the "corruption of the times." They are the mere pustules which the body politic throws to the service. Thank God, that there is vitality enough left to throw them to the surface! The disease is below all this; infinitely more wide-spread.
What is that disease? I believe that it is, first of all, indifference—indifference to truth as truth; next, skepticism, by which I do not mean inability to believe this or that dogma, but the skepticism which refuses to believe that there is any power in the universe strong enough, large enough, good enough, to make the thorough search for truth safe in every line of investigation; next, infidelity, by which I do not mean want of fidelity to this or that dominant creed, but want of fidelity to that which underlies all creeds, the idea that the true and the good are one; and, finally, materialism, by which I do not mean this or that scientific theory of the universe, but that devotion to the mere husks and rinds of good, that struggle for place and pelf, that faith in mere material comfort and wealth, which eats out of human hearts all patriotism, and which is the very opposite of the spirit that gives energy to scientific achievement.
The education which our senatorial friend approved leads naturally to just this array of curses.
On the other hand, I believe that the little army of scientific men furnish a very precious germ from which better ideas may spring.
And we should strengthen them. We have already multitudes of foundations and appliances for the dilution of truth—for the stunting of truth—for the promotion of half-truths—for the development of this or that side of truth.
We have no end of intellectual hot-house arrangements for the cultivation of the plausible rather than the true; and therefore it is that we ought to attach vast value to the men who with calmness and determination seek the truth, in its wholeness, on whatever line of investigation, not diluting it or masking it.
Their zeal, their devotion, their faith, furnish one of those very protests which are most needed against that low tone of political ideas which in its lower strata is political corruption. Their life gives that very example of a high spirit, aim, and work, which the time so greatly needs.
In this view, then, sir, do I most heartily welcome our friend as a strong leader—not only in scientific, but in political and general progress. His influence has spread far beyond his lecture-room; nay, it shall spread far beyond those who have read or shall read his lectures.
I might speak of his quickening influence on one body of men—five hundred strong—assembled in one of our newer institutions of learning. But that influence extends far beyond those who stand in institutions of learning. The reverence for scientific achievement, the revelation of the high honors which are in store for those who seek for truth in science—the inevitable comparison between a life devoted to that great pure search, on one hand, and a life devoted to place-hunting or self-grasping on the other—all these shall come to the minds of thoughtful men in lonely garrets of our cities, in remote cabins on our prairies, and thereby shall come strength and hope for higher endeavor.
And, Mr. Chairman, as this influence for good spreads and strengthens, I have faith that gratitude will bring in results for political good of yet another kind.
Many predecessors of our friend have, as literary men, strengthened the ties that bind together the old land and the new; and I trust that love, admiration, and gratitude, between men of science on both sides the Atlantic, which our guest has done so much to arouse, may add new cords and give strength to old cords which unite the hearts of the two great English-speaking nations.
- Address at the Farewell Banquet to Professor Tyndall.