Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/February 1887/Editor's Table
|←Correspondence||Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 February 1887 (1887)
IT is remarkable bow many able writers are devoting themselves now-a-days to proving that, under the influence of the scientific and philosophical theories most in vogue, modern society is rushing to destruction. It is also remarkable that, in spite of the clearness with which they discern the danger, not one of them comes forward with a single practical suggestion as to how it may be averted. Last year we had a novel from the pen of a leading French Academician, M. Octave Feuillet, the special object of which was to show how particularly destructive the doctrines of Darwin were to female virtue. The leading character, a certain freethinking and free-living viscount, marries an extremely estimable and rigidly orthodox lady, to whom at the time he is sincerely attached, but whose marked aversion to fashionable follies becomes in the course of time a weariness to him. He then falls in with a young lady who had been brought up by a scientific uncle in complete emancipation from all theological dogmas. This young woman, perceiving that the viscount has conceived a foolish passion for her, and would probably marry her were there no obstacle in the way, seizes a favorable opportunity of poisoning his wife. The plan succeeds perfectly, and the viscount finds himself now with a wife who is prepared to plunge with him into all excesses of gayety and frivolity. He finds, too, that he is not himself more completely emancipated from all severe notions of domestic virtue than is the lady to whom he has given his name and his title. In a word, the pace at which this interesting creature wants to go is as .much too fast for him as the pace at which he was going a few years earlier was too fast for his first wife, the gentle "Aliette." The latter had left him one child, a daughter; and retiring to the country for a few days to visit this child, he learns from an old servant, then on her death-bed, the whole story of the poisoning of his first wife by the woman whom he had made his second. He learned, also, that the thing had been so managed as to make him appear, in the eyes of the dying Aliette, an accomplice in the horrible crime. Conscience-stricken and overwhelmed with remorse, he rushes to Paris and succeeds in banishing the murderess from society and from the country. He himself shortly after dies broken-hearted, but not before he has abandoned his worldly philosophy and embraced the religion of "Aliette" — Roman Catholicism. Such is the narrative as constructed from the inner consciousness of M. Octave Feuillet. The moral is obvious—that the Roman Catholic faith is the only bulwark against immorality and the disintegration of society. Substantially the same lesson is that which Mr. Mallock has been trying to teach, and which Mr. W. S. Lilly enforces in his recent "Fortnightly Review" article on "Materialism and Morality."
Now, it strikes us that all this momentarily fashionable writing is conceived in a very idle strain. What the world wants is not a succession of jeremiads over the effects likely to be produced by the prevalence of certain opinions, but a demonstration of the truth in regard to those opinions. If the theories of Darwin are false, let their falsity be exhibited. If Mr. Spencer's wider scheme of evolution is illusive, let its illusiveness be proved. The press is as free for the opponents of these great thinkers as for their adherents. The platform is open to them; the pulpit as yet is theirs almost exclusively. They can have nothing, therefore, to complain of as to the conditions of the controversy; and yet in all their utterances we may detect a certain note of dissatisfaction, as if, somehow or other, the verdict were unjustly going against them. The verdict, however, will follow the evidence; and the world will not accept as evidence against a scientific theory the mere assertion that its moral effects are injurious. That assertion itself would have to be proved far otherwise than through the easily constructed mechanism of a novel with its puppet figures moving hither and thither at the will of the manipulator. To the earnest mind of the old Roman poet Lucretius the free, untrammeled study of Nature was the chief preservative against evil thoughts and practices; and how easy it would be for a skillful writer, adopting this hypothesis, to write a novel in which all the conditions and consequences of M. Feuillet's narrative would be reversed! No, there is no argument in this kind of thing. Evolution, as a system of thought, has not gained ground by the aid of the novelist, and it is not going to succumb to a novelist's attacks. It has gained ground because it has explained many things previously inexplicable and has shed light into every department of Nature and of thought. It can not, therefore, be dispossessed of the ground it has gained till a stronger than it appears, some view or theory that will explain more things than it can explain, and shed more light upon the problems of existence than it can shed. The whole question lies here in a nutshell. The thinking world is not fatally or irrevocably bound to the formulæ of Darwin and Spencer it adheres to them only for the service they render, and is prepared to lay them aside so soon as any superior generalizations are brought forward.
Supposing, however, that we admit that the moral results of the introduction of the new philosophy are not satisfactory; supposing it to be true that men, in their new-found liberty from certain external sanctions, are showing a great want of self-control and an indifference to all moral aims—what are we to conclude? Simply this, that the moral education of the race so far has been lamentably defective, that it has not sufficed to bring the lower impulses under subjection to the higher, that it has not taught the love of virtue for its own sake, that it has left men enslaved to purely personal hopes and fears and without any conception of the larger life in society—a life regulated by justice and sweetened by good-will—which is really attainable in greater or less degree by every normally constituted human individual. The evolution philosophy is, in a certain sense, a régime of freedom; and if a certain society, at a certain date, is found to be unfitted for it, we conclude, not that the régime of freedom is bad in itself, but that the society is backward and undeveloped. It is no condemnation of parliamentary institutions to say that they are not suited to Caffres or Malays. If it should be said that the doctrine of evolution is as much unsuited even to the most advanced societies of to-day as parliamentary institutions are to Caffres or Malays, we might reply, "The more's the pity, seeing the doctrine has come into the world, and has apparently come to stay." We should prefer, however, to traverse the assertion, and to say that the ready acceptance which is being given to the doctrine is primary evidence of its being suited to the needs of at least a large section of the community. Some may take it and abuse it, as they would any other doctrine, converting it, as certain sectaries a couple of centuries ago did the Christian doctrine of justification by faith, into a scheme of antinomianism. But this does not do away with the fact that the doctrine has an intellectual attraction for nearly all the more advanced minds, and that these therefore may reasonably be supposed to have some power of adapting themselves to it. In all periods of transition allowance must be made for the disorders incident to the unsettlement of men's minds. At the period of the Reformation these disorders were of the most alarming kind—far more alarming than anything we have to contemplate at the present moment. The duty of the hour, therefore, for those who accept the new ideas, is to face whatever may be the difficulties of the situation boldly, and to apply themselves to developing-and demonstrating all the useful truths that are deducible from the theory of evolution. The time has come to throw upon men in a distinct and emphatic manner the full responsibility for their own actions. Heretofore the teaching has been that unless men held to certain special doctrines and theories, they could not be expected to live pure or righteous lives; and under this teaching much moral weakness has been engendered. Today it is in order to proclaim to one and all that they must settle their opinions with themselves; but that, whatever they may think there is only one line of conduct that befits a man born into a civilized society, and that is a conduct marked by self-restraint, and a care for the good of the whole social organism. The prophets of evil are doing evil, and that continually. They are helping on that relaxation of morality which they deplore, seeing that they deny all moral authority to principles not founded on their own special dogmas. There is great need of an organized effort to antagonize the mischievous effect of their writings by preaching hope where they preach despair, and the progress of humanity through increasing knowledge where they announce the dissolution of all social bonds through the advent of a philosophy which has the misfortune of not being theirs.
Everybody nearly has been reading that wonderful tale of imaginary adventures, "King Solomon's Mines"; but perhaps not very many have noted the most startling and extraordinary fact recorded in it, one in comparison with which all the other marvels recorded are the merest commonplace. The gifted narrator tells us how, shortly after the sun had sunk in the west, there came a glow in the east, and presently "the crescent moon peeps above the plain and shoots its gleaming arrows far and wide." What do our astronomers say to this—the crescent moon rising in the east shortly after sunset? It won't do, Mr. H. Rider Haggard! We will believe your elephant stories, if you like, follow you into ghostly caves, and accept with a reasonable discount what else you tell us that is remarkable; but we don't believe that in South Africa, or anywhere else on this planet, the crescent moon rises in the east shortly after sunset. It can't be done as the solar system is arranged, and you should have left that out. Speaking seriously, it does seem extra-ordinary that a man who all his life has seen the crescent moon setting in the west shortly after the sun, should, even for a moment, imagine that he could see it rising in the east at the same time of day. Tom Hood has described a somewhat similar case for us in his "Love and Lunacy," where "Ellen" drives her astronomer-lover distracted by announcing that the moon is at the full, and that she is thinking of him; the fact being that the moon had been full just three weeks before, and that the object she took for the full moon was "the new illuminated clock." Of poor "Ellen" Hood tells us that—
"As often happens when girls leave their college.
She had done nothing but grow out of knowledge."
But here we have the same thing over again fifty years later, and on the part of a really clever writer; the only difference being, that whereas "Ellen" saw the full moon (or said she did) at a date when it was not to be seen, Mr. Haggard affirms that he saw the "crescent moon" rising about the hour when, if visible at all, it must really I have been setting. Popular education has been advancing during these fifty years; but it is still, we fear, the exception for people to be taught to interest themselves in even the more important phenomena of the physical world. If it could once be realized to how large an extent the intelligence of the community must depend upon the assimilation of true scientific knowledge, and how increasingly important it is becoming from year to year that the public mind should be fortified by intelligence against ill-digested and revolutionary theories, we believe a new impetus would be given to scientific instruction everywhere. We do not wish to make too much of the careless blunder into which the author of "Solomon's Mines" has fallen; but, seeing that such blunders are possible in such a quarter, teachers might well take some special pains to draw attention to the facts in this simple matter. Here, we may say in conclusion, a book like Miss Bowen's "Astronomy by Observation" is an excellent guide. As its title partly indicates, it summons the student to a close personal observation of the movements of the heavenly bodies, and thus brings the facts home to him more vividly than could be done by any amount of purely theoretical dissertation.