Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/January 1896/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Editor's Table.


IT is freely alleged in various quarters, occasionally with regret but more frequently with more or less exultation, that the present is a period of intellectual reaction. Science, it is said by some, has been moving too fast and has not made good its more advanced positions. It has attacked questions that were beyond its grasp, and has had to retire in discomfiture. It has made promises to mankind which it has not fulfilled, and which evidently it is not going to fulfill. Its watchwords have lost their power—so we are assured—and the able doctrines of the past are in a fair way to recover their former prestige and influence. It is needless to say that we do not accept this view of the situation. In cosmic and in human affairs there is certainly a law of rhythm, as Mr. Spencer has so copiously proved in a celebrated chapter; but rhythm is one thing and reversal of a main movement is another. There will come times when men will in a measure tire of speculation, and seek rather to rest in a partial conclusion than to pursue further voyages of discovery into the unknown; and such a time may be expected after a period of active and rapid theoretical advance. At such a moment of lull it is not surprising if the Philistines of the intellectual world, who had been more or less in hiding while the forward movement was at its greatest intensity, should venture from their fastnesses and indulge in a few songs of triumph; but this need not disturb the serenity of the army of progress. In due time the order to march will be given, and then the Philistines—will keep out of the way.

Such, we think, is the situation at the present time. The third quarter of the century as a period of almost if not of quite unparalleled scientific activity. It gave birth to the most important work of Spencer, Darwin, and the rest of the evolutionist school. It brought important discoveries in chemistry and biology, and rendered a great deal of so-called orthodox opinion in many departments of knowledge forever obsolete. The impetus of this great movement lasted undiminished for several years longer, and, if it has now slackened in any degree, it is that the specific need of the present day is rather a careful survey and classification of the results already obtained than a further development of theory. We want to know just where we are before we start again. To say that no opinions which were held with a good deal of confidence ten or twenty years ago have undergone any modification would be foolish. That is not the way in which science advances; it advances through constant rectification of its observations and adjustments of its point of view. A change of opinion may involve loss, perhaps fatal loss, to a system of thought founded on authority, but it means no loss to science, whose vitality can never be impaired by additional knowledge. As Mr. Spencer has lately found occasion to say, there may be much difference of opinion as to how species originate, but this does not in the least invalidate the great law of evolution, which finds illustrations on every page of the book of Nature. The heritage of Darwin may be divided, but at least no part of it is in possession of an antiscientific or antinaturalistic school. All who to-day grapple with the question of the origin of species do so on a basis of purely scientific observation and reasoning; and even if the problem had to be given up as too obscure—and it is quite possible that we do not even yet know how obscure it is—it would still remain a problem of science, not a problem of theology or metaphysics.

One most important characteristic of science is that it can never really be idle. If it is not doing one thing, it is doing another; and its humbler work—or what seems so—may be not less useful, may indeed be more useful, than its more ambitious efforts. There is no department of natural knowledge that is not day by day receiving accretions which all go to better in some way the position of man upon the earth. It will do no harm if for a time there is less vague talk in regard to the theoretical conquests of science: but there need be no abatement of the confidence with which we hold that science is the power which transforms impressions of sense into conclusions of reason, which alone throws light on the constitution of the world in which we live, and which confers upon all human effort its highest possible efficiency. Knowing this, we know that the so-called "bankruptcy of science" is a contradiction in terms, the flippant invention of those with whom the wish is father to the thought. In a word, all is well; for whether the time be seed-time or harvest, whether the field, as we see it, be lying fallow or carrying a bounteous crop, science, the one abiding power and principle of fertility, is present with mankind, and its promise will not fail.


In the October number of the International Journal of Ethics Prof. William James, of Harvard, comes forward with his contribution to the much-discussed question, "Is Life Worth Living?" The conclusion, a sufficiently simple one, at which Prof. James arrives, is that life may be made worth living; but he only arrives at this very true conclusion after a considerable amount of laborious and, in our opinion, not wholly sound argumentation. It may be worth while, therefore, to go over the ground—so far as it can be done within our narrow limits—and see what view can reasonably be taken of the whole subject.

We are told by the writer mentioned that there are two recognizable sources of pessimism—or, in other words, of the feeling that life is not worth living—sensualism and overstudy, particularly of an abstract kind. It seems to us that a statement of this kind irresistibly suggests the corollary that pessimism, with its sickening dou.bts as to the value of life, may be avoided by avoiding its causes. Then, if so, why discuss it as if it were a substantive system of philosophy? It either is or is not a pathological condition: if it is, let us seek to remove it; if it is not, then it is all right. "It is a remarkable fact," says Prof. James at a later point in his article, "that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem, on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest. The sovereign source of melancholy is repletion." Very true again; but what is the lesson? Simply that we should not abandon ourselves to repletion, and that in the interest of our children we should not satiate them with enjoyments. But elsewhere (page 7) the professor tells us that "pessimism is essentially a religious disease," consisting, in the form at least in which it attacks over-reflective minds, "in nothing but a religious demand to which there comes no normal religious reply." This, of course, sounds very philosophical; but it does not seem to be quite in agreement with the proposition so distinctly laid down, that pessimism may spring either from sensualism or from overstudy—"grubbing," as the writer expresses it, "in the abstract root of things." Supposing he who has been so "grubbing" stops doing it, or stops doing it in excess, and, by proper attention to hygiene, gets himself into capital physical and mental condition, what then becomes of the religious disease? Will it not vanish with its cause?

We fail to see, however, why pessimism should be considered as a religious disease in the case of the overstudious man and not i n that of the over-sensual? By different routes both have arrived at the same goal—exhaustion; and it is hard to see why the pessimism of the one should have a more religious character than that of the other. Each has been brought through his own injudicious courses into the same morbid condition of mind; each, consequently, on the strength of his own feelings asserts that life is not worth living; and each says what is not true. Each in his own way has disturbed, if not destroyed, the natural balance of his faculties and functions, so placing himself in a wrong and painful relation to the world in which he lives; and the true remedy would therefore seem to lie in undoing, if it be at all possible, the mischief that has been done. To trace pessimism, as Prof. James does, to certain specific causes, and then to propose to cure it by the application of a religious theory, is a little too much like trying to stay a pestilence by prayer instead of by sanitary measures. Supposing that a pestilence due to natural causes could be stayed by prayer, it would require a perpetual miracle to keep it from breaking out again so long as those causes were not removed. Therefore, before we can follow Prof. James in seeking a religious remedy for pessimism, we must unlearn the lesson he has himself taught us, that its origin may be found in such avoidable errors as undue self-indulgence (repletion), sensualism, and overstudy. A dyspeptic takes very gloomy views of human affairs, but what is the use of arguing with him? What he wants is new life in his digestive organs. Pessimism, as a creed, will only deserve to be argued with when it can be shown that it claims its victims, not less among those who have wisely husbanded their powers and in every way respected the laws of life, than among those who have wasted their substance and set the laws of life at defiance.

It is evident that Prof. James has been so far affected by the pessimism of studious souls as to have conceived a very unfavorable opinion of the apparent order of the universe. He does not, however, give us as clearly to understand as we could wish wherein this somewhat extensive institution fails to meet his private views—what he would like it to be that it is not, or not to be that it is. He quotes with evident sympathy some appalling verses by the author of The City of Dreadful Night—verses which would have almost sent a shudder through the rebellious soul of Omar Khayam himself; and he tells us that he fairly rejoices over the downfall of that form of natural religion—fit only for backward and barbaric peoples—which consists in "the worship of the God of Nature, simply taken as such." "There were times," he says, "when Leibnitzes, with their heads buried in monstrous wigs, could compose Theodicies, and when stall-fed officials of an established church could prove by the valves of the heart and the round ligament of the hip joint the existence of a 'Moral and Intelligent Contriver of the World.' But those times are past, and we of the nineteenth century, with our evolutionary theories and our mechanical philosophies, already know Nature too impartially and too well to worship unreservedly any god of whose character she can be an adequate expression. . . . To such a harlot" (as Nature) "we owe no moral allegiance. . . . If there be a divine spirit of the universe. Nature, such as we know her, can not possibly be its ultimate word to man." This, on the whole, does not seem to us very convincing writing for a Harvard professor. The "monstrous wig" of Leibnitz did not so stifle his brains as to prevent his discovery of an admirable form of the calculus; and, among the "stall-fed officials of an established church," the first that occurs to mind—certainly the most illustrious—was precisely he who pointed out (Samuel Butler was his name) the many difficulties and perplexities which confront us in our study of the order of Nature. What special advantage flows from calling Nature a "harlot" we are at a loss to imagine; but we do not find it hard to imagine what evil may ensue therefrom. If that Ultimate Power into communion with which the professor is so anxious to bring us has really given us a harlot world in which to pass our probation—well, it would really seem as if, to put it mildly, our education has not been well provided for. Human parents do not choose such associations for their sons and daughters. And yet, in spite of its harlotry, "this world of Nature," we are told, "is a sign of something more spiritual and eternal than itself." It is also spoken of as "a mere sign or vision of a many-storied universe in which spiritual forces have the last word," and this in spite of the assertion made in the same sentence, that "circumstances on the natural plane" create the strongest presumption that life is not worth living. Verily, "too much grubbing in the abstract root of things" does produce a somewhat tangled condition of the understanding, as well as an ugly bent toward pessimism.

If we once settle it in our minds that pessimism, or, as Prof. James otherwise describes it, the suicidal tendency, is a disease, there is only one question worth discussing in connection with it, and that is how to prevent it. It seems to us that the way is indicated with great clearness and simplicity by the philosopher who, anticipating the Harvard professor by over two thousand years, briefly announced that "much study is a weariness of the flesh." What does that philosopher further teach? He teaches the lesson that has never yet sunk deeply enough into the general mind, that youth is the time when the character should be fortified against the trials and disappointments of later life. His simple but expressive language may perhaps be not improperly recalled; "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them." Will any one say that the doctrine of evolution has rendered such advice as this obsolete? It would be a shallow person, in our opinion, who would raise such an objection. What the preacher saw and felt was that youth was a period which, if rightly used, would establish the whole life on sure foundations. The remembering of one's Creator means little if it does not mean acquiring a knowledge of and reverence for the laws which ought to govern human life, the formation of sound physical and intellectual habits, and of pure and wholesome associations. It means, if it means anything, the discerning of a true ideal of life, and the earnest and loyal adoption of that ideal as something to be sacredly guarded to life's end. Youth is the one period of life that is fully capable of this, and therefore it is in youth and only in youth that our nature can be rendered, as it were, immune against pessimism. Prof. James may say that this is taking a religious view of life, and that so far we agree with him. We claim that if our view is religious it is also scientific, inasmuch as it takes, or aims at taking, full account of all the conditions of the problem. The difference between us, however, is, as we think, real and important. He prescribes religion somewhat as a doctor would a drug, as a tonic for exhausted minds. We postulate a certain view and government of life, not as a remedy for existing disease, but as the condition and guarantee of mental, moral, and physical health. And—what we think is not unimportant—our point of view exempts us from all temptation to malign the world, which is the theater of our efforts, or to perform a war dance over the downfall of natural theology. We believe Prof. James could preach a much better and more useful sermon from the verse above quoted than he has done in the essay that has been the subject of our remarks. Or, if he wants a classical authority, let him take the words of Sophocles, who says that, "of those whose lives are kept in the right course, the majority are saved through obedience." Here we have the true counter-blast to pessimism in a simple declaration of the law of life: whoso heeds it is wise; whoso heeds it not will not be won to happiness by argument.


We commend to the attention of our readers an article in this number of the Monthly, by President Jordan, of Stanford University, on the subject of "Scientific Temperance." An organization noted more, perhaps, for its emotional than for its rational impulses has, it seems, taken into its own hands the direction of what shall be taught in the schools of the country regarding the effects of alcohol on the human system. If such teachings were characterized by that avoidance of excess which is so desirable where the appetite for drink is concerned, there would be little occasion to complain. Indeed, we believe an honest zeal in the cause of temperance is entitled to the highest respect and to a wholehearted support. There is no denying that much the greater part of the crime and misery with which society is afflicted is caused by the use of alcohol in one form or another, and it has always been the practice of this magazine to aid in the enlightenment of the public on this class of questions whenever the facts warranted such a course. But, on the other hand, we are equally ready to condemn a kind of teaching that tends to dwarf the truth, or to dress it up in a fictitious garb, no matter how good in itself the object may be that it is sought to promote.

In the present case, with the desire apparently to make the instruction concerning the effects of stimulants and narcotics more potent for good, altogether erroneous ideas are conveyed to the pupil regarding the science of the subject. What is tacitly represented as the established results of scientific research is embodied in so-called scientific textbooks as a part of the truths of physiology, but this so much exceeds the facts that the pupil, if not actually misled, is likely to carry away distorted impressions, or wholly lose sight of the modicum of truth which science has been able to work out of the problem. If it were the science of the matter pure and simple that our reformers were after, the two pages of the Indiana text-book that President Jordan quotes would amply cover the ground, and leave space for a few facts that bear the other way, which as a part of the results of research deserve to be impartially presented. Such a treatment might fitly be labeled "scientific," and escape the charge of false pretense. On the contrary, to give the subject sixty pages out of four hundred, with its moral and social aspects lugged in, and to call that "human physiology," is a lesson in deceit that should be denied a place in our public schools. No competent physiologist would make such a book, and no conscientious teacher of science, if permitted the right of choice, would place it in the hands of his pupils, yet either is certainly better fitted to judge what shall be taught as physiology than the indifferent legislator or the reckless reformer.

From the point of view of the temperance cause itself the case seems little better. The false notions of physiology that this kind of instruction is calculated to foster are sure sooner or later to react. The child learns the pseudo facts. They are so striking and so frequently reiterated that he remembers them. But at a later period he discovers that some of them are doubtful, that others were greatly exaggerated, and that not a few were wholly erroneous. Further study will only confirm this conclusion, when it is not unlikely that he will go to the other extreme and reject all he has learned on the subject as unworthy of respect—a state of mind the very opposite of the one intended. But this is not the worst of it. The discredit into which it tends to bring the study of physiology itself is still more unfortunate. The widespread ignorance of this subject is responsible for a vast amount of suffering and disease, much of which might be avoided and some perhaps removed were a knowledge of physiology more generally diffused. To convey such knowledge uncolored and without exaggeration is a worthy object; but to falsify it, calling the falsification science, and compel its acceptance as such by authority of law, is very much like causing the state to join hands with the counterfeiter, and is scarcely entitled to more respect.