Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/December 1892/New Chapters in the Warfare of Science: Chemistry and Physics I
XVIII.—FROM MAGIC TO CHEMISTRY AND PHYSICS.
By ANDREW DICKSON WHITE, LL.D., L. H. D.,
EX-PRESIDENT OF CORNELL UNIVERSITY.
IN all the earliest developments of human thought we find a tendency to ascribe mysterious powers over Nature to men and women especially gifted or skilled. Survivals of this view are found to this day among savages and barbarians left behind in the evolution of civilization, and especially is this the case among the tribes of Australia, Africa, and the Pacific coast of America; even in the most enlightened nations still appear, here and there, popular beliefs, observances, or sayings, drawn from this earlier phase of thought.
Between the prehistoric savage developing this theory, and therefore endeavoring to deal with the powers of Nature by magic, and the modern man who has outgrown it, appears a long line of nations struggling upward through it. As the hieroglyphs, cuneiform inscriptions, and various other records of antiquity are read, the development of this belief can be studied in Egypt, India, Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, and Phœnicia. From these countries it came into the early thought of Greece and Rome, but especially into the Jewish and Christian sacred books; both in the Old Testament and in the New we find magic, sorcery, and soothsaying constantly referred to as realities.
The first distinct impulse which lifted mankind toward a higher view of research into natural laws was given by the philosophers of Greece. It is true that philosophical opposition to physical research was at times strong, and that even a great thinker like Socrates considered certain physical investigations as an impious intrusion into the work of the gods; it is also true that Plato and Aristotle, while bringing their thoughts to bear upon the world with great beauty and force, did much to draw mankind away from those methods which in modern times have produced the best results.
Plato developed a world in which the physical sciences had little if any real reason for existing; Aristotle, a world in which the same sciences were developed not so much by observation of what is, as of speculation on what ought to be. From the former of these two great men came into Christian theology many germs of mediæval magic, and from the latter sundry modes of reasoning which aided in the evolution of these; yet the impulse to human thought given by these great masters was of inestimable value to our race, and one legacy from them was especially precious;—the idea that a science of Nature is possible, and that the highest occupation of man is the discovery of its laws. Still another gift from them was greatest of all, for they gave scientific freedom: they laid no interdict upon new paths; they interposed no barriers to the extension of knowledge; they threatened no doom in this life or in the next against investigators on new lines; they left the world free to seek any new methods and to follow any new paths which thinking men could find.
This legacy of belief in science, of respect for scientific pursuits, and of freedom in scientific research, was especially received by the school of Alexandria, and above all by Archimedes, who began, just before the Christian era, to open new paths through the great field of the inductive sciences by observation, comparison, and experiment.
The establishment of Christianity, though it began a new evolution of religion, arrested the normal development of the physical sciences for over fifteen hundred years. The cause of this arrest was twofold: First, there was created an atmosphere in which the germs of physical science could hardly grow;—an atmosphere in which all seeking for truth in Nature as truth was regarded as futile. The general belief derived from the New Testament Scriptures was, that the end of the world was at hand; that the last judgment was approaching; that all existing physical Nature was soon to be destroyed: hence, the greatest thinkers in the Church generally poured contempt upon all investigators into a science of Nature, and insisted that everything except the saving of souls was folly.
This belief appears frequently through the entire period of the middle ages, but during the first thousand years it is clearly dominant. From Lactantius and Eusebius, in the third century, pouring contempt, as we have seen, over studies in astronomy, to Peter Damian, the noted chancellor of Pope Gregory VII, in the eleventh century, declaring all worldly sciences to be "absurdities" and "fooleries," it becomes the atmosphere of thought.
Then, too, there was established a standard to which all science which did struggle up through this atmosphere must be made to conform—a standard which favored magic rather than science, for it was a standard of rigid dogmatism obtained from literal readings in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. The most careful inductions from ascertained facts were regarded as wretchedly fallible when compared with any view of Nature whatever given or even hinted at in any poem, chronicle, code, apologue, myth, legend, allegory, letter, or discourse of any sort which had happened to be preserved in the literature which had come to be held as sacred.
For twelve centuries, then, the physical sciences were thus discouraged or perverted by the dominant orthodoxy. Whoever studied Nature studied it either openly to find illustrations of the sacred text, useful in the "saving of souls," or secretly to gain the aid of occult powers, useful in securing personal advantage. Great men like Bede, Isidore of Seville, Rabanus Maurus, accepted the scriptural standard of science, and used it as a means of Christian edification. The views of Bede and Isidor on kindred subjects have been shown in former chapters; and typical of the view taken by Rabanus is the fact that in his great work on the Universe there are only two chapters which seem directly or indirectly to recognize even the beginnings of a real philosophy of Nature. A multitude of less-known men found warrant in Scripture for magic applied to less worthy purposes.
But after the thousand years to which the Church, upon supposed scriptural warrant, had lengthened out the term of the earth's existence had passed, "the end of all things" seemed further off than ever; and in the thirteenth century, owing to causes which need not be dwelt upon here, came a great revival of thought, so that the forces of theology and of science seemed arrayed for a contest. On one side came a revival of religious fervor, and to this day the works of the cathedral-builders mark its depth and strength; on the other side came a new spirit of inquiry incarnate in a line of powerful thinkers.
First among these was Albert of Bollstadt, better known as Albert the Great, the most renowned scholar of his time. Fettered though he was by the methods sanctioned in the Church, dark as was all about him, he had conceived ideas of better methods and aims; his eye pierced the mists of scholasticism; he saw the light, and sought to draw the world toward it. He stands among the great pioneers of physical and natural science; he aided in giving foundations to botany and chemistry; he rose above his time and struck a heavy blow at those who opposed the possibility of human life on opposite sides of the earth; he noted the influence of mountains, seas, and forests upon races and products, so that Humboldt justly finds in his works the germs of physical geography as a comprehensive science.
But the old system of deducing scientific truth from scriptural texts was renewed in the development of scholastic theology, and ecclesiastical power acting through thousands of subtle channels was made to aid this development. The old idea of the vast superiority of theology was revived. Though Albert's main effort was to Christianize science, he was dealt with by the authorities of the Dominican order, subjected to suspicion and indignity, and only escaped persecution for sorcery by yielding to the ecclesiastical spirit of the time, and working finally in theological channels by scholastic methods.
It was a vast loss to the earth; and certainly, of all organizations that have reason to lament the pressure of ecclesiasticism which turned Albert the Great from natural philosophy to theology, foremost of all in regret should be the Christian Church, and especially the Roman branch of it. Had there been evolved in the Church during the thirteenth century a faith strong enough to accept the truths in natural science which Albert and his compeers could have given, and to have encouraged their growth, this faith and this encouragement would to this day have formed the greatest argument for proving the Church directly under divine guidance; they would have been among the brightest jewels in her crown. The loss to the Church by this want of faith and courage has proved in the long run even greater than the loss to science.
The next great man of that age whom the theological and ecclesiastical forces of the time turned from the right path was Vincent of Beauvais. During the first half of the twelfth century he devoted himself to the study of Nature in several of her most interesting fields. To astronomy, botany, and zoology he gave special attention, but in a larger way he made a general study of the universe, and in a series of treatises undertook to reveal the whole field of science. But his work simply became a vast commentary on the account of creation given in the book of Genesis. Beginning with the work of the Trinity at the creation, he goes on to detail the work of angels in all their fields, and makes excursions into every part of creation, visible and invisible, but always with the most complete subordination of his thought to the literal statements of Scripture.
Could he have taken the path of experimental research, the world would have been enriched with most precious discoveries; but the force which had given wrong direction to Albert of Bollstadt, backed as it was by the whole ecclesiastical power of his time, was too strong, and in all the life labor of Vincent nothing appears of any permanent value. He reared a structure which the adaptation of facts to literal interpretations of Scripture, and the application of theological subtleties to Nature combine to make one of the most striking monuments of human error.
But the theological spirit of the thirteenth century gained its greatest victory in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. In him was the theological spirit of his age incarnate. Although he yielded somewhat at one period to love of natural science, it was he who finally made that great treaty or compromise which for ages subjected science entirely to theology. He it was who reared the most enduring barrier against those who in that age and in succeeding ages labored to open for science the path by its own legitimate methods toward its own noble ends.
He had been the pupil of Albert the Great, and had gained much from him. Through the earlier systems of philosophy, as they were then known, and through the earlier theologic thought, he had gone with great labor and vigor; and all his mighty powers, thus disciplined and cultured, he brought to bear in making a treaty or truce which was to give theology permanent supremacy over science.
The experimental method had already been practically initiated; Albert of Bollstadt and Roger Bacon had begun their work in accordance with its methods; but St. Thomas gave all his thoughts to bringing science again under the sway of theological methods and ecclesiastical control. In his commentary on Aristotle's treatise upon Heaven and Earth, he gave to the world a striking example of what his method could produce; illustrating all the evils which arise in combining theological reasoning and literal interpretation of Scripture with scientific facts, and this work remains to this day a monument of scientific genius perverted by theology.
The ecclesiastical power of the time hailed him as a deliverer; it was claimed that miracles were vouchsafed, proving that the blessing of Heaven rested upon his labors; and among the legends embodying this claim is that given by the Bollandists and immortalized by a renowned painter. The great philosopher and saint is represented in the habit of his order, with book and pen in hand, kneeling before the image of Christ crucified, and as he kneels the image thus addresses him: "Thomas, thou hast written well concerning me; what price wilt thou receive for thy labor?" The myth-making faculty of the people at large was also brought into play. According to a wide-spread and circumstantial legend, Albert, by magical means, created an android—an artificial man, living, speaking, and answering all questions with such subtlety that St. Thomas, unable to answer its reasoning, broke it to pieces with his staff.
To this day historians of the Roman Church like Rohrbacher, and historians of science like Pouchet, find it convenient to propitiate the Church by dilating upon the glories of St. Thomas Aquinas in thus making an alliance between religious and scientific thought, and laying the foundations for a "sanctified science"; but the unprejudiced historian can not indulge in this enthusiastic view: the results both for the Church and for science have been most unfortunate. It was a wretched delay in the evolution of fruitful thought; for the first result of this great man's great compromise was to close for ages that path in science which above all others leads to discoveries of value—the experimental method—and to reopen that old path of mixed theology and science which, as Hallam declares, "after three or four hundred years had not untied a single knot or added one unequivocal truth to the domain of philosophy"—the path which, as all modern history proves, has ever since led only to delusion and evil.
The theological path thus opened by these strong men became the main path for science during ages, and it led the world ever further and further from any fruitful fact or useful method. Roger Bacon's investigations already begun were discredited; worthless mixtures of scriptural legends with imperfectly authenticated physical facts took their place. Thus it was that for twelve hundred years the minds in control of Europe regarded all real science as futile, and diverted the great current of earnest thought into theology.
The next stage in this evolution was the development of an idea which acted with great force throughout the middle ages—the idea that science is dangerous. As we have seen in other chapters, there was evolved more and more a vivid sense of the interference of Satan with human affairs, and especially of the interference of the ancient gods whom St. Paul had explicitly declared to be devils, and who were naturally indignant at their dethronement. More and more suspicion attached to all men who attempted anything in the development of science. The old scriptural for the existence of sorcery and magic was brought in as a powerful argument against such men. The conscience of the time, therefore, acting in obedience to the highest authorities in the Church, and, as was supposed, in defense of religion, brought out a missile which it hurled against scientific investigators with deadly effect; the mediæval battlefields of thought were strewn with such; it was the charge of sorcery and magic—of unlawful compact with the devil. This missile was effective. We find it used against every great investigator of Nature in those times and for ages after. The list of great men in those centuries charged with magic, as given by Naudé, is astounding; it includes every man of real mark, and in the midst of them stands one of the most thoughtful popes, Sylvester II (Gerbert), and the foremost of mediæval thinkers on natural science, Albert the Great. It came to be the accepted idea that as soon as a man conceived a wish to study the works of God his first step must be a league with the devil.
The first great thinker who, in spite of some stumbling into theologic pitfalls, persevered in a truly scientific path, was Roger Bacon. His life and works seem until recently to have been generally misunderstood: he was formerly ranked as a superstitious alchemist who happened upon some inventions, but more recent investigation has shown him to be one of the great masters in the evolution of human thought. The advance of sound historical judgment seems likely to bring the fame of the two who bear the name of Bacon nearer to equality. Bacon of the chancellorship and of the Novum Organum may not wane, but Bacon of the prison-cell and the Opus Major steadily approaches him in brightness.
More than three centuries before Francis Bacon advocated the experimental method, Roger Bacon practiced it, and the results as now revealed are wonderful. He wrought with power in many sciences, and his knowledge was sound and exact. By him, more than by any other man of the middle ages, was the world brought into the more fruitful paths of scientific thought—the paths which have led to the most precious inventions; and among these are clocks, lenses, burning specula, telescopes, which were given by him to the world, directly or indirectly. In his writings are found formulæ for extracting phosphorus, manganese, and bismuth. It is even claimed, with much appearance of justice, that he investigated the power of steam, and he seems to have very nearly reached some of the principal doctrines of modern chemistry. But it should be borne in mind that his method of investigation was even greater than its results. In an age when theological subtilizing was alone thought to give the title of scholar, he insisted on real reasoning and the aid of natural science by mathematics; in an age when experimenting was sure to cost a man his reputation, and was likely to cost him his life, he insisted on experimenting, and braved all its risks. Few greater men have lived. As we read the sketch given by Whewell of Bacon's process of reasoning regarding the refraction of light, he seems divinely inspired.
On this man came the brunt of the battle. The most conscientious men of his time thought it their duty to fight him, and they fought him steadily and bitterly. His sin was not disbelief in Christianity, not want of fidelity to the Church, not even dissent from the main lines of orthodoxy; on the contrary, he showed in all his writings a desire to strengthen Christianity, to build up the Church, and to develop orthodoxy. He was attacked and condemned mainly because he did not believe that philosophy had become complete, and that nothing more was to be learned; he was condemned, as his opponents expressly declared, "on account of certain suspicious novelties"—"propter quasdam novitates suspectas."
Upon his return to Oxford, about 1250, the forces of unreason beset him on all sides. Greatest of all his enemies was Bonaventura. This enemy was the theologic idol of the period: the learned world knew him as the "seraphic Doctor"; Dante gave him an honored place in the great poem of the middle ages; the Church finally enrolled him among the saints. By force of great ability in theology he had become in the middle of the thirteenth century general of the Franciscan order; thus, as Bacon's master, his hands were laid heavily on the new teaching, so that in 1257 the troublesome monk was forbidden to lecture; all men were solemnly warned not to listen to his teaching, and he was ordered to Paris, to be kept under surveillance by the monastic authorities. Herein was exhibited another of the myriad examples showing the care exercised over scientific teaching by the Church. The reasons for thus dealing with Bacon were evident: First, he had dared attempt scientific explanations of natural phenomena, which, under the mystic theology of the middle ages, had been referred simply to supernatural causes. Typical was his explanation of the causes and character of the rainbow. It was clear, cogent, a great step in the right direction as regards physical science: but there, in the book of Genesis, stood the time-honored legend regarding the origin of the rainbow, supposed to have been dictated immediately by the Holy Spirit; and, according to that, the "bow in the cloud" was not the result of natural laws, but a "sign" arbitrarily placed in the heavens for the simple purpose of assuring mankind that there should not be another universal deluge.
But this was not the worst: another theological idea was arrayed against him,—the idea of satanic intervention in science; hence he was attacked with that goodly missile which with the epithets "infidel" and "atheist" has decided the fate of so many battles—the charge of magic and compact with Satan.
He defended himself with a most unfortunate weapon—a weapon which exploded in his hands and injured him more than the enemy. For he argued against the idea of compacts with Satan, and showed that much which is ascribed to demons results from natural means. This added fuel to the flame; to limit the power of Satan was deemed hardly less impious than to limit the power of God.
The most powerful protectors availed him little. His friend Guy Foulkes, having in 1265 been made pope under the name of Clement IV, shielded Bacon for a time; but the fury of the enemy was too strong, and when he made ready to perform a few experiments before a small audience, we are told that all Oxford was in an uproar. It was believed that Satan was about to be let loose. Everywhere priests, monks, fellows, and students rushed about, their garments streaming in the wind, and everywhere rose the cry, "Down with the magician!" and this cry, "Down with the magician!" resounded from cell to cell, and from hall to hall.
Another weapon was also used upon the battle-fields of science in that time with much effect. The Arabs had made many noble discoveries in science, and Averroes had, in the opinion of many, divided the honors with St. Thomas Aquinas; these facts gave the new missile—it was the epithet "Mohammedan"—this too was flung with effect at Bacon.
The attack now began to take its final shape. The two great religious orders, Franciscan and Dominican, then in all the vigor of their youth, vied with each other in fighting the new thought in chemistry and physics. St. Dominic solemnly condemned research by experiment and observation; the general of the Franciscan order took similar ground. In 1243 the Dominicans interdicted every member of their order from the study of medicine and natural philosophy, and in 1287 this interdiction was extended to the study of chemistry.
In 1278 the authorities of the Franciscan order, assembled at Paris, solemnly condemned Bacon's teaching, and the general of the Franciscans, Jerome d'Ascoli, afterward Pope, threw him into prison, where he remained for fourteen years. Though Pope Clement VI had protected him, Popes Nicholas III and IV, by virtue of their infallibility, decided that he was too dangerous to be at large, and he was only released at the age of eighty, but a year or two before death placed him beyond the reach of his enemies. How deeply the struggle had racked his mind may be gathered from that last affecting declaration of his, "Would that I had not given myself so much trouble for the love of science!"
The attempt has been made by sundry champions of the Church to show that some of Bacons utterances against ecclesiastical and other corruptions in his time were the main cause of the severity which the Church authorities exercised against him. This helps the Church but little, even if it be well based, but it is not well based. That some of his utterances of this sort made him enemies is doubtless true, but the charges on which St. Bonaventura silenced him, and Jerome of Ascoli imprisoned him, and successive popes kept him in prison for fourteen years, were "dangerous novelties" and suspected sorcery.
Sad is it to think of what this great man might have given to the world had ecclesiasticism allowed the gift. He held the key of treasures which would have freed mankind from ages of error and misery. With his discoveries as a basis, with his method as a guide, what might not the world have gained! Nor was the wrong done to that age alone; it was done to this age also. The nineteenth century was robbed at the same time with the thirteenth. But for that interference with science the nineteenth century would be enjoying discoveries which will not be reached before the twentieth, century. Thousands of precious lives shall be lost in this century, tens of thousands shall suffer discomfort, privation, sickness, poverty, ignorance, for lack of discoveries and methods which, but for this mistaken dealing with Roger Bacon and his compeers, would now be blessing the earth.
In two recent years sixty thousand children died in England and in Wales of scarlet fever; probably quite as many died in the United States. Had not Bacon been hindered, we should have had in our hands, by this time, the means to save two thirds of these victims; and the same is true of typhoid, typhus, cholera, and that great class of diseases of whose physical causes science is just beginning to get an inkling. Put together all the efforts of all the atheists who have ever lived, and they have not done so much harm to Christianity and the world as has been done by the narrow-minded, conscientious men who persecuted Roger Bacon, and closed the path which he gave his life to open.
But despite the persecution of Bacon and the defection of those who ought to have followed him, champions of the experimental method rose from time to time during the succeeding centuries. We know little of them personally; our main knowledge of their efforts is derived from the endeavors of their persecutors.
In 1317 Pope John XXII issued his bull, Spondent pariter, leveled at the alchemists, but really dealing a terrible blow at the beginnings of chemical science. That many alchemists were knavish is no doubt true, but no infallibility in separating the evil from the good was shown by the papacy in this matter. In this and in sundry other bulls and briefs we find Pope John, by virtue of his infallibility as the world's instructor in all that pertains to faith and morals, condemning real science and pseudo-science alike. In two of these documents, supposed to be inspired by wisdom from on high, he complains that both he and his flock are in danger of their lives by the arts of sorcerers; he declares that such sorcerers can send devils into mirrors and finger-rings, and kill men and women by a magic word; that they had tried to kill him by piercing his waxen image with needles, in the name of the devil. He, therefore, called on all rulers, secular and ecclesiastical, to hunt down the miscreants who thus afflicted the faithful, and he especially increased the powers of inquisitors in various parts of Europe for this purpose.
The impulse thus given to childish fear and hatred against the investigation of Nature was felt for centuries. More and more chemistry came to be known as one of the "seven devilish arts."
These declarations of Pope John were echoed for generation after generation, until nearly three hundred years later there came the yet more terrible bull of Pope Innocent VIII, known as Summis Desiderantes, which let inquisitors loose upon Germany, and armed them with the malleus maleficarum, to torture and destroy men and women by tens of thousands for sorcery and magic.
Under such guidance the secular rulers were naturally vigorous in the same policy. In 1380 Charles V of France forbade the possession of furnaces and apparatus necessary for chemical processes. Under this law the chemist John Barrillon was thrown into prison, and it was only by the greatest effort that his life was saved. In 1404 Henry IV of England issued a similar decree, and in 1118 the Republic of Venice followed these examples.
But champions of science still pressed on. The judicial torture and murder of Antonio de Dominis were not simply for heresy; his investigations in the phenomena of light were an additional crime. Pierre de la Ramee fell in the massacre of St. Bartholomew as a heretic, but his teachings had previously been stopped by a royal edict, sought by the Church on account of his breaking away from the old theological methods.
To question the theological view of physical science was, even long after the close of the middle ages, exceedingly perilous. We have seen in this chapter how one of Roger Bacon's unpardonable offenses was his argument against the efficacy of magic, and in chapters preceding how centuries afterward Wyer, Flade, Bekker, and a multitude of other investigators and thinkers suffered confiscation of property, loss of position, and even torture and death, for similar views. I will refer, then, to but one more case as typical.
In the last year of the sixteenth century the persecutions for witchcraft and magic were especially cruel in the western districts of Germany, the main instrument in them being Binsfeld, Suffragan Bishop of Treves.
At that time Cornelius Loos was a professor at the university of that city. He was a devoted churchman, and one of the most brilliant opponents of Protestantism, but he finally saw through the prevailing belief regarding occult powers, and in an evil hour for himself embodied his idea in a book entitled "True and False Magic." The book, though earnest, was temperate, but this helped him and his cause not at all. The texts of Scripture clearly sanctioning belief in sorcery and magic stood against him, and these had been confirmed by the infallible teachings of the Church and the popes from time immemorial; the book was stopped in the press, the manuscript confiscated, and Loos thrown into a dungeon.
The inquisitors having wrought their will upon him, in the spring of 1593 he was brought out of prison, forced to recant on his knees before the assembled dignitaries of the Church, and thenceforward kept constantly under surveillance, and at times in prison. Even this was considered too light a punishment, and his arch-enemy, the Jesuit Del Rio, declared that but for his death by plague he would have been finally sent to the stake. His manuscript, hidden away in the archives at Treves, was supposed to be lost until within the present decade. After three centuries what remains of it has been brought to light by an American scholar.