August 18, 1860.]
but he has always been a distinguished man. There have been some of these in every age,—now arriving at the conclusion that Water was the all-in-all in the universe; and now that it was Air; and now that it was Number: and then learning to see that there were different methods of pursuing the truths of Nature; and again, discovering what the true method really is; each one adding largely to our knowledge, and most of them opening some new region to human inquiry.
These men have been usually, and very properly, supposed venerable and admirable on other grounds than their superior knowledge, or their usefulness to mankind. There is, and always has been, a rooted persuasion in men’s minds that the loftiness of the pursuits of these philosophers must have an elevating effect on their characters. The persuasion is rational; and it may be said that, on the whole, it is justified by fact. It may be true that of the great students of nature through the whole historical period some have been vain, some rapacious, many jealous and irritable, and some malignant: but it is also true that the proportion of these unhappy men has not been larger than among any other class of distinguished persons; while it is certainly the general impression that these confidential servants of nature have been, for the most part, eminently serene in their habit of mind, unworldly from their habitual occupation by large ideas, happy in their eagerness about substantial realities of a noble and beautiful kind; grave and thoughtful from passing their hours out of hearing of the babbles and jests of the market, and pure and clear in heart and manners from living in the holy places of wisdom, instead of seeing and hearing the things that press upon other men’s notice wherever there is gossip, and passion, and idleness, and a police.
In the earliest days of science, it seems that philosophers were honoured and revered as well as admired: and if, up to this day, there have been savans notoriously greedy of praise, or of money, at least as much as of knowledge, we must suppose that they would probably have been more vain and rapacious in any other career. The irritability and jealousy which appear to be a more ordinary snare when the pursuit lies in the direction of discovery, is simply the form assumed by ambition in a department where there is less restraint imposed by custom and breeding than in the walks of worldly pursuit: and we see the same evils in a much aggravated form among students and professors of art and literature. At the same time, these evil tempers, though complained of by savans who are themselves not so happy as they should be, are so far from being generally considered characteristic of natural philosophers that we find that class indicated both by moralists and by common observers as the most simple-minded and amiable order of men of their time—whether that time be past or present.
If it is true that the man who has the best chance of wisdom and peace is (other things being equal) he who is born into a working-class, with means of intellectual cultivation when his handiwork is done, the natural philosopher must be regarded as blessed in the same way, while he has at the same time special advantages of his own. Like the intelligent artisan, he lays his grasp upon the substance of nature. The book-man, the professional student, the man of no particular calling, who is doomed to a life of pastime, can never exercise their faculties to the same sure and effectual result as the student who manipulates his materials, and verifies his course of thought by demonstration. The manipulating hand gives no education when the mind is unawakened; and the knowledge of words and abstract topics may leave a man intellectually feeble and misled, if he brings nothing to the test of actual handling. The studious artisan may have the advantage of both in regard to mental health; and under the same conditions with the studious artisan, but of a far higher order in the scale of advantage, is the Natural Philosopher.
The best case of all, and that which is the greatest blessing to everybody to contemplate, is that of the philosopher who, now supreme in that highest class of men, has passed into it from the other favoured condition. A man who once worked at day-labour for his bread, and so loved knowledge as to obtain it by intellectual toil which seemed better than rest and pleasure; thence passing by natural desert into the class of philosophers, and rising in it to the highest seat, ought to be morally elevated, ought to be serene, ought to be amiable, ought to be happy. And this is precisely the case, in all its points, of the chief Representative Man of the Natural Philosophers in our day.
Michael Faraday was born in the dwelling of a poor blacksmith in London. He must have had the handling of very hard realities, physical and moral, during his childhood; and it does not appear that he had much to do with books before becoming apprenticed to a bookbinder. If my readers have attended his lectures at the Royal Institution, they have probably heard him mention “the time when I was a bookbinder’s apprentice.” Critical observers who expect to find either pride or shame in a low-born man’s mention or concealment of his original rank, will be disappointed in Faraday’s case. He has something else to do than to spend thought on considerations of rank; and he is too simple to see that it can possibly signify—a man being what he is—whether he was born in a cottage or a manor-house. Faraday is neither proud nor ashamed of his birth and rearing. The reason for mentioning his apprenticeship is that at that time he had already instituted some experiments with an electrical machine and some other instruments of his own making. The lad was philosopher and mechanician in one, as far as he had yet gone; and his admirable use of his hands through life—his fingers being the speech of his purposes in his experiments—is probably owing to his being the son of a labouring man. If he could not have made his electrical machine and other instruments, his master would not have seen reason to point out his apprentice, Michael, to a member of the Royal Institution, Mr. Dance, when that gentleman wanted some books bound; and then the great first opening of Faraday’s career would have been no opening at all.
How he had obtained insight into the region of Natural History has never, as far as I know, been