Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/October 1898/Editor's Table

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Editor's Table.


CIVILIZATION, whether considered as a result or as a process, may be defined as the improvement of individual lives through social intercourse. It is obvious that the isolated individual can not elevate or develop himself. Growth through society is the law of human nature; and the founder of Positivism had some very plausible reasons for speaking of humanity in the widest acceptation of the term as the "Grand Être." The individual realizes his powers in part through family life, further through national life, and still further through participation in the whole life, past and present, of the human race.

At the same time civilization, as we all know, does not go on continuously. Nations in the past have had their rise, their development, and their decay. They have had their rise when circumstances have compelled special social aggregations; their development during the period when, on the whole, individual characters were improving under social action; and their decay when the latter process has been reversed—when, upon the whole, men and women are receiving more harm than good from their social environment and their general intercourse with one another. Various reasons have been assigned for the decay of the older civilizations. An explanation which, so far as it goes, would apply to all cases is that men have not increased in virtue as they have increased in knowledge and power, and that they have consequently succumbed to temptations arising from the very successes they have achieved in social organization. If this theory is at all correct, a really stable civilization will only be founded when men have acquired the virtues necessary to enable them to use, as not abusing, the varied advantages accruing from their possession of advanced knowledge with its accompanying power over the resources of Nature.

This point of view seems to us, provisionally at least, a serviceable one; and we are therefore prompted to ask the question whether among the most favored nations of to-day public and private virtue is advancing as fast as material development, or whether there is any danger that modern civilization will, some generations hence, perish through the very abundance of the enjoyments and facilities of all kinds which it is furnishing, and will continue more and more to furnish, to the men and women of these latter times. In a word, are we able to stand up against the temptations that our industrial and scientific and artistic development is throwing in our way? If we are able, how will it be with our children and grandchildren?

It would be idle and ridiculous at this moment to predict evil of modern society; but it is not predicting evil to point out that, here and there, our moral forces, in the great Vanity Fair of the world as it is to-day, seem to be weakening. We think, for example, that few well-informed persons will deny that the conditions of business at the present time are anything but reassuring. The question which men who wish to be honest are asking themselves is whether business will much longer be possible at all except for the managers of huge capitals. There is much in the conditions of the industrial world, particularly in relation to the treatment of the wage-earning class, which is abhorrent to humane employers; but these very men see no escape for themselves from practices and policies which in their hearts they utterly condemn, save in a complete abandonment of the field of business competition. If some of our leading men of business would speak out frankly all they know, they could a tale unfold which, if not as grewsome as that of the ghost in Hamlet, would be full of baleful significance. The late Mr. Glad.stone, toward the end of a long life of most varied experiences, said in reply to the question of a friend that the most serious evil he saw in the world to-day was the prevailing lust of wealth. This was not said lightly, but, as we are told, with an accent of great concern. Socialism and militarism, the aged statesman thought, were both less threatening evils than the accursed thirst for gold. To-day we are breeding up a race of men hardened in advance for the conflict before them. What the practice of the market requires them to do, that they are prepared to do; and whoever else burdens himself with scruples when business is to be done, they will give way to no such weakness. That is not only their secret thought, but almost their open profession. We find in this readiness of the young to accept eagerly the worst that the world of business can teach them a very discouraging sign of the times.

And whence this fierce and deadly determination to amass wealth at all costs? Why, wealth to-day means so much: there are so many more ways than there used to be of displaying and enjoying it, and so much of social distinction attends the possession of it. A man who has no wealth cuts so small a figure in the world. He may be this or that, but who cares much for him if he has no money to spend? So the mammon-worshipers reason, according to the light, or the darkness, that is in them.

This is undoubtedly a weak spot in our civilization. In reply to the question, How is this generation standing up against the seductions of wealth? the answer must be plain and to the point—it is not standing up well at all. The sacrifice of truth and honor to the making of money is widespread, and men justify themselves by the law of self-protection.

It is not only in the sphere of commerce that the spirit which we have described is paramount. It is seen in the professions, even the highest; and money everywhere is becoming the norm and standard by which everything is judged. Its corrupting power in the region of art is one of the main motives of Count Tolstoi's recent book.

Among the striking results of modern scientific development none is more conspicuous than the enormous increase which has taken place in the facilities for travel and communication. The telegraph has established a universal exchange of news, and the columns of our daily papers are overloaded in the attempt to place it all under our eye. We are supposed to be all very "busy men" nowadays, though we do not work so long hours as our fathers and grandfathers; and consequently everything which is brought to our attention is comminuted, peptonized, and otherwise prepared with a view to the utmost economy of effort in consumption. No newspaper would be so barbarous as to give us a narration of any matter, however interesting, without cutting it up into nice little morsels, each with its own catching title. Literature is more and more taking* on the forms suited not so much to busy as to idle people; and college courses are planned less with a view to general culture than to enabling each individual to jump at once on the very thing-he wants, or thinks he wants, for the purposes of a practical career.

What has the mental result of it all been? The part which science has played has been to greatly enlarge our means of obtaining knowledge. It rested with this generation to use these enlarged means for wise or for foolish purposes; and we fear it is not possible to read the more widely circulated of our daily papers without concluding that, to a very large extent, the gift of science in bringing us so marvelously into touch with all the ends of the earth, and in cheapening so extraordinarily the means of information, has resulted far otherwise than could have been wished. Our vast intellectual advantages have culminated in the advent and reign of the Yellow Journal, to spread whose malodorous froth over the surface of the land whole forests are tumbled annually into the pulp mill.

When we speak of intellectual advantages, our "magnificent public-school system" should not be forgotten. It probably is as magnificent as the people's taxes expended by the people's politicians can make it; but does it educate? That is a question about which our most prominent educators can never entirely agree. It seems to us to be just a case in which, if the people could rise to the level of their opportunity, they might reap an enormous advantage; but the people do not effectively demand the best education for their children, and they do not get it. They effectively demand not a training for life, not a true education for the mind, but an education for business. Even in our higher institutions of learning, calculations in relation to business largely predominate. And the result is that high authorities in the educational world write articles on "The Increasing Illiteracy of the American People," and experienced professors explain how it is that all the instruction they give to their pupils in English language and literature can not overcome their corrupt habits of speech. But this is not the worst; the worst is that to thousands and thousands what is called education is rather a spur to lawless desires than an aid in the government of life.

The problem of the Sphinx is therefore confronting us as it has confronted other races and periods: how to stand up against the sun of our own prosperity. When it has been a question of enduring the storm and the blast, humanity has never failed; but when the victory over hardship has been won. then another battle has begun, in which, from a national standpoint, the forces of integration and progress have too often suffered defeat. We are enduring the strain of that conflict now, and while it is impossible not to hope for victory, the signs are many that the victory—which must take the form of the establishment of a true moral equilibrium in modern society—will not be achieved without difficulty.


The meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently held in Boston was in many respects a notable one. Marking as it did the completion of the first half century of the life of the association, it afforded a suitable opportunity for taking stock of the progress of science in this country during the last fifty years and for estimating the influence of the association as a leading factor in such progress. The attendance was unusually large, including, along with many distinguished names, members from nearly all parts of the United States and Canada. A good many papers were read possessing, as a rule, a high order of merit, while, fortunately, not a few of them were couched in language that could be readily understood by an intelligent listener, and thus gave added interest to the proceedings.

The association was welcomed by Governor Wolcott in behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Mayor Quincy representing the city of Boston, and President Crafts, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the sessions were held. Though brief, the addresses were in each instance thoughtful and impressive and were heard with keen appreciation by the large audience present at the opening session. A marked feature of all of them was the emphasis with which the speakers dwelt upon the value of science as an agency in education, and the great services it had rendered and was yet to render to the community at large in the improvement of the material conditions of life and the elevation of the intellectual and moral tone of society.

The citizens of Boston, as is their wont, received the association with open arms, sparing nothing in the way of hospitality and good feeling to make the occasion an enjoyable and profitable one to the nine hundred members who were present at the meeting. Wherever the latter appeared, whether in street car, hotel, or at special reception, all were made to feel that they were the honored guests of the city, meeting with a courtesy and consideration that alone would have been a fair return for the trouble and expense their pilgrimage had cost them.

The opportunities provided for social intercourse and recreation were numerous and varied. One day it was a steamboat excursion down the harbor, which could not have been better timed, as it did much to mitigate the effects of the extreme heat which afflicted the city. Another day the entire association was taken to Salem, where, after being bounteously dined, the members were shown the many places of interest, historic and scientific, for which that old city is celebrated. As the guests of Harvard University a day was also given to a visit to Cambridge. Here, under the guidance of members of the faculty, the laboratories, museums, and other features of scientific and educational interest belonging to the university were thrown open for observation. Lunch and tea were served in the great Memorial Hall, and the occasion was fittingly closed with an able address by President Eliot, delivered in Sanders Theater in the evening. Receptions given by Governor Wolcott, Mrs. J. C. Phillips, Mrs. William B. Rogers, the trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts, and the officers of the Boston Public Library were another form of contribution to the enjoyment of the members which was much appreciated. These, with a dinner given by Mayor Quincy to the principal officers of the association and foreign guests, and numerous minor excursions to various points of interest in the neighborhood of Boston, represent but incompletely the hearty and abounding hospitality with which the association was entertained. The kindly and cordial attentions that were everywhere showered upon them could not fail of their effect on the spirits of the visitors. This was seen in their beaming countenances, the uniform jollity that prevailed in spite of the excessive heat, and the felicitations that were heard on every hand at the phenomenal success of the meeting.

In view of this general satisfaction at the manner in which the members had been received and taken care of, and also at the amount and quality of the work done, it may appear a little ungracious to call attention to what seems to us an unfortunate omission in the management cf the meeting; and we certainly should not allude to it were it not that, in our opinion, it betrays a growing tendency to abandon, or at least to dwarf, one of the principal objects of the organization.

What we refer to is the lack of provision on the part of the association for the popular evening lectures that were instituted by its founders as a part of its educational work, and that for a good many years formed one of the most attractive features of its meetings.

In the earlier days of the association, and always in the British Association to the present time, popular lectures on subjects of public interest have had a prominent place in the proceedings. Usually given in the evening, they need not interfere with the daily routine, and always, when provided for, they have drawn crowded and intelligent audiences from among the people of the neighborhood, arousing interest in scientific matters that came near being enthusiasm, and so contributing directly and effectually to the object we have specified.

What was done in furtherance of this purpose at the Boston meeting can hardly be said to have been the work of the association. There were, to be sure, two interesting lectures in Huntington Hall the same evening on the value of scientific applications in municipal public works, as illustrated by what had been done in Boston; but these were delivered for Boston, and by two citizens of Boston, the Hon. H. H. Sprague and the Hon. George G. Crocker, and should properly be placed to the credit of Boston, thus increasing rather than diminishing the indebtedness of the association. The same may be said of President Eliot's instructive address before the association at Cambridge, which was indeed a type of what these evening lectures should be, and, in our opinion, was one of the most valuable contributions, at least so far as the public is concerned, to the proceedings of the entire meeting; but it was a part of the entertainment offered by Boston.

The tendency of the association away from its important educative purpose is further indicated by the abolition of the general sessions at the opening of the daily proceedings. These often became occasions for exceedingly entertaining discussions of subjects of general scientific interest, in which the more prominent and experienced members were expected to and habitually did take part. Even the strongest advocates of more room for technical papers acknowledge that the work of the association has of late attracted less and less of popular attention. Whatever force may be given to the plea that many of its most eminent members have been drawn away to the American Academy of Sciences, the fact remains that the time was when, with not half its present membership, the meetings were of far greater public interest than they are to-day; and there was never any difficulty, when they were sought, in finding men abundantly equipped to interest and instruct an intelligent popular gathering. As scientific investigators multiply and research is extended, the number of technical papers presented to the association may be fairly expected to increase; but the number of topics the public will want to hear about will increase with them and if the technicalities are permitted to crowd out the more popular and edifying features, the educational influence of the association, on the people at large can not fail to be seriously impaired, if it is I not altogether destroyed.