Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/November 1900/Discussion and Correspondence

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DISCUSSION AND CORRESPONDENCE.

SCIENTIFIC AND LITERARY HISTORIANS.

The address of Mr. Thomas Ford Rhodes, president of the American Historical Association, on the subject of history, delivered before the midwinter meeting of that body, and published in the 'Atlantic Monthly' for February, has gone forth to the world with a high degree of authority and impressiveness. Nevertheless, there are some members of the Association—the writer humbly trusts enough to make a large majority—for whom the president does not speak, and who dissent widely from his views.

Mr. Rhodes begins by representing himself as an advocate 'holding a brief for history,' and proceeds to make important concessions to those who refuse it a place in the front rank of subjects of human thought. "It is not the highest form of intellectual endeavor; let us at once agree that it were better that all the histories ever written were burned than for the world to lose Homer and Shakespeare." One more concession yields "to the mathematical and physical sciences precedence in the realm of intellectual endeavor over history." But, having admitted so much, Mr. Rhodes is still of the opinion that the historian's place in the field remains secure. Why he thinks so ia not made quite clear. It is true enough that there has never been 'so propitious a time for writing history as in the last forty years '; that 'there has been a general acquisition of the historic sense '; that 'the methods of teaching history have so improved that they may be called scientific'; and that 'the theory of evolution is firmly established.' There is, however, in all this nothing to attract the youth conscious

??of intellectual strength and brimming with energy and courage to a study which cannot claim to rank among the highest forms of intellectual endeavor. Shall we suppose that the historian's 'place in the field remains secure' only because the giants do not care to wander that way? If so, those who love history better than they love the historians will find little satisfaction in this security.

But, following Mr. Rhodes further, one finds the apparent gist of his contention to be that the new thought throughout the country, which has resulted in better work in almost every direction, has had no such result in historiography; that "with all our advantages" we do not "write better history than was written before 1859, which we may call the line of demarcation between the old and the new," and that Thucydides and Tacitus are still the best models for the historian. The whole address appears to breathe the spirit of a somewhat over-reverent devotion to the Classics, and the hearers may well have imagined that they were listening to an appeal for the study of Greek and Latin. When the Lord of the vineyard comes, there will no doubt be a sufficiently grave indictment against the keepers of the historical portion for the waste they have made of the last eighteen hundred years; but it is hard to believe that they will be found guilty of having failed to improve on the methods of the classical writers.

Has science, then, done nothing for history? Somewhat, even according to Mr. Rhodes himself. In addition to acknowledgments already quoted, he goes on to say: "The publication of the 'Origin of Species,' in 1859, converted it (the theory of evolution) from a poet's dream and philosopher's speculation to a well-demonstrated scientific theory. Evolution, heredity, environment, have become household words, and their application to history has influenced every one who has had to trace the development of a people, the growth of an institution, or the establishment of a cause." Yet it seems that this has not enabled us to equal the excellence of two or three writers who flourished more than two-thirds of the way back to the dawn of European civilization. Let us at least be frank with ourselves, if such be the fact, and not refuse to recognize the disheartening nature of the conclusion.

There are some iconoclasts, however, who will not accept it; and, if they allowed the barbarian that is in them to speak out, in spite of their high respect and deference for Mr. Rhodes, it would probably assert that there is little hope for the elevation of history to the highest rank of intellectual endeavor by champions so imbued with the spirit of the past. He that would show the subject worth the attention of the most gifted, the strongest and the most penetrating minds can be no worshipper before the marble god of the Classics. He must—difficult as the task would seem to Mr. Rhodes—write history better than Thucydides or Tacitus wrote it. But this is, after all, not so difficult if the proper meaning is given to the words. There are several men living who do it. This I fully believe; and I wish to say that the assertion is made in no spirit of defiance to the standards of my generation, but rather in the spirit of respect for these standards as I see them.

There seems, in fact, to lie some subtle poison in the classics whereby their devotees become intoxicated. Their admiration for the ancient languages and literatures, for the civilizations in which their chosen work lies, appears to grow until they lose faith in the present and depreciate it correspondingly. Modern education, which is aimed to fit, rather than to unfit men for the life they must live, to adjust them to their environment rather than to put them out of harmony therewith, would not be wholly unjustified in entering its caveat for all who undertake the study of Greek and Latin.

"If indeed there haunt
About the moulder'd lodges of the Past
So sweet a voice and vague, fatal to men,
Well needs it we should cram our ears with wool
And so pace by."

These expressions are not prompted by any sympathy with materialism. I am well aware that humanity fed upon such meat will never be great. But must we look back over two thousand years to find ideals—even in the matter of history writing? It will be a sad day, if it ever come, when the teaching of Greek and Latin shall fail in our universities and men shall cease to study them; but it is certainly unnecessary that the classical measuring rod shall be laid to all the dimensions of modern thought. Shall we not be free? Shall there never be a literary mortmain to lift the dead hand of the classics and leave us at liberty to render service where it is due?

Wherein lies the hitherto unequaled excellence of Thucydides and Tacitus? Not in their superior 'accuracy, love of truth and impartiality'; for 'Gibbon and Gardiner among the moderns possess equally the same qualities.' Mr. Rhodes would doubtless deprecate any suggestion of placing his own name in this honorable company, but I believe it would occur at once to those who are familiar with his works. Certainly it is not difficult for the unprejudiced reader to see in him a conscientious and brave fidelity to the truth that can be found in a higher degree in no historian, ancient or modern.

Nor does the advantage of the classical historians lie "in the collection of materials, in criticism and detailed analysis, in the study of cause and effect, in applying the principle of growth, of evolution," in all of which 'we certainly surpass the ancients.' This with characteristic fairness Mr. Rhodes admits, but it is still his conviction that we have not risen to the classical standard of historiography.

Where, then, is the advantage in favor of Thucydides and Tacitus? The answer of their advocate is that they "are superior to the historians who have written in our century, because, by long reflection and studious method, they have better digested their materials and compressed their narrative. Unity in narration has been adhered to more rigidly. They stick closer to their subject. They are not allured into the fascinating by-paths of narration, which are so tempting to men who have accumulated a mass of facts, incidents and opinions."

Lest this discussion should resolve itself into an unprofitable difference about words, it may be worth while to consider just at this point the meaning of 'better history,' as Mr. Rhodes uses the term. He can hardly mean better from the scientific standpoint; for he admits that our historical science is superior to the ancient. If, therefore, we put that into the history we write, we shall make it better in so far at least. No doubt he means better from the standpoint of historiographic art.

Here lies, I take it, the crux of the controversy. Here begins the divergence between the scientific and the literary historians. They differ as to the relative values of the elements they represent, and this difference rests upon another still more fundamental as to the relative values of ancient and modern thought. This will serve to explain the objections I have already made to the attitude of Mr. Rhodes. I would not deny the justice nor the propriety of judging any historical work from the artistic standpoint. It would not be going too far to say that no history which fails when brought to such a test can be called good. But there is no art that can neglect its fundamental science. Other things being equal, that is the best history—even from the artistic point of view—which gives the clearest explanation of the unfolding of national life; and in this respect modern historiography is beyond all comparison superior to ancient. It is, therefore, not conclusive of the preeminent excellence of Thucydides and Tacitus to show the admirable proportion and conciseness of their narratives. If the historians of the present century show some loss in this respect, they do more than make it up by gain in others. It is not enough that the ancient writers of history told so well what they saw and understood; there was so much that they did not see and understand. If historical literature is to be distinguished from other forms and have canons peculiar to itself at all, its expository completeness must be considered in estimating it as good or bad.

It must be confessed, however, that the indictment of Mr. Rhodes against modern historians for prolixity is well-deserved. It could be sustained not only against the historians, but against nearly all book-makers of our time, and is far graver than his degree of emphasis would indicate. Life is short, and there is continually more to be crowded into it. The literature of almost every field of progressive thought is outgrowing the capacity of its workers, who are striving in truly reckless fashion to add thereto each what he can. Conciseness and proportion are, if not the most priceless jewels of all literature, at least their most useful and attractive setting. Blessed is he, and a benefactor of his race, who can deliver his message in few words, and for the rest keep silent.

One other point made by Mr. Rhodes deserves attention, namely, the advantage of writing contemporaneous history. Three difficulties lie in the way of it: First, that of getting the perspective; second, that of so far removing one's prejudices as to see the truth; third, that of telling the truth as seen, in spite of popular prejudice. If they can be overcome, the history of any epoch can be written best by those belonging to it. Mr. Rhodes has himself shown how this can be done. But I do not think that he has established the superiority of Thucydides and Tacitus over modern historians. Their work may excel in conciseness and proportion, but that of the moderns has a more than compensatory advantage in deeper insight and clearer exposition. Partisans of either may fail to see that the shield is silver on one side and gold on the other; or, seeing this, they may fail to agree as to which is the golden side. "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind."

George P. Garrison.
University of Texas.
 

THE RETARDATION OF SCIENCE.

We hear a good deal about the advancement of science. There are huge associations which make it the object of their existence; there are universities, colleges, societies, museums, institutes and laboratories which reckon this as at least one of their aims; and the individual scientific workers, even those who look upon science as

"The milch-cow of the field,
Their only care to calculate how much
butter she will yield"—

Even they, we say, profess to regard science as 'the goddess great,' and base their claim to honor on the service they have rendered to her. And, at this turning year of time, as we indulge in self-complaisant retrospect, we boast that, as a result of all this, science really has advanced. Contradictions, inconsistencies, harkings back: these we frankly admit; but the shattered theories line an onward path, and the discovered errors are lamps on the way of truth. We do well to rejoice; but we shall not do ill to look also at the other side of the shield. Might we not be advancing more rapidly, surely and easily? Are there not opposing forces which combine to effect the retardation of science?

Space need not be occupied by insisting on the inertia of governments, composed of ministerialists rather than statesmen on the lethargy and ignorance of the mass of people; on the curse of Babel, or on any such obvious hindrances to progress. But every scientific student knows that many of the difficulties in his way have no necessity in the nature of things, and that many of them are raised by scientific men themselves. We expect to meet with difficulties when we read a foreign language, but we resent having to ferret out an author's meaning when he publishes in our own tongue. This is what one has to do too often, for a vast number, if not the majority, of scientific men write abominably. It is all very well for the chemist in a factory, or the electrician to a lighting company, to be careless about the parts of speech; it hurts no one except himself and his employer. But for the student who makes researches in pure science, the case is altered. The object of the former is to earn his daily bread, and the sooner the better; the object—professed, at least—of the latter is to enlighten the world. A man may be a profound investigator, and may penetrate far into the mystery of the unknown, but if he cannot give an intelligible report to his colleagues, his travels in the undiscovered country will be disregarded. Worse than this, his fellow-workers waste valuable time in trying to read his riddles or very likely are led astray by his bungling presentation of veritable facts, and so science is retarded.

We do not propose to arouse the anger of our scientific friends by quoting elegant extracts from their writings to support our contention. We pass over the phraseology, to consider the general plan and the details of the arrangement. There are, it is true, masters in science who are also masters of method. But they have gained their mastery of the latter, as of the former, in the school of experience. This would be all very well were it not that we others have to suffer during their apprenticeship. Their immature essays, with all the faults of a beginner, have to be read and reckoned with, and are just as much part of the self-styled literature of science as are their magna opera. This would not be worth a complaint were it inevitable; but that is just what it is not. If only scientific people in general could be got to care a little about these things, and if only their opinion could be organized and brought to bear more directly on the evil-doers, improvement would soon follow. The fact is that we are too content to muddle along, and what is everybody's business is nobody's business. Hence the student fresh from college, or while still a pupil, is set to attack some problem in science, which, with the help of his professor, he solves in a satisfactory manner. Then he must print, and here, too often, the help of the professor seems to be lacking. The student has had next to no training in the composition of scientific articles and none in the preparation of work for the press. He does not know how to find the previous literature, and when found he does not know how to quote it. Having no experience in the use of other men's writings, he does not know what to insert, what to omit, or what faults to avoid. He is, perhaps, a good draughtsman, but his media have been pencil and paint, and he has no idea how to do black-and white work for the photo-engraver. He begins with a title in the style of the eighteenth century, that takes up three lines and leaves you in the dark as to the contents of his paper. Full of enthusiasm and imbibed knowledge, he either plunges into his subject without explaining what his subject is, or else he introduces it by a lengthy 'history,' mostly copied from the last worker that preceded him. He ends with a nicely rounded period, but you search in vain for a summary of his results.

One cannot be hard on the poor young fellow, who doubtless will do well enough in time; but one can protest against the nonchalance that permits this state of things. There are two sources from which a remedy may spring, and to each we herewith make appeal. First, let the colleges provide instruction in the technique of authorship, just as they provide it in the technique of research. This will not help to swell the flood of publication, too great already; rather it will diminish it, by entailing more rigorous preparation on would-be authors. Let the student be taught the conventional rules that govern the formal aspect of his science, just as he is taught the laws of chemical combination or dental formulae. In zoology and botany, for instance, he should be taught the rules of nomenclature, or at least those generally followed, and taught how to write the names of animals and plants in the accepted manner. He should be made to study the classical memoirs of great masters from the noint of view of presentation—of manner rather than of matter. And even then he should not be turned loose on an unwilling public, but should be practised in writing and drawing for the press, in proof-correcting and so forth. The examiners of doctoral theses should consider their style and arrangement no less than their contents, and, if necessary, should insist on formal alterations being made before they give permission to publish. So much for the universities. The second source of help lies in the editors, whether of independent periodicals or of publishing societies. The editor has, by tacit agreement, great powers. But in the case of publications devoted to pure science, those powers often seem to be very little used. There is a prejudice against interfering with an author's statement of his case; for here the substance is regarded as everything and the form as nothing, and an editor fears lest, in re-shaping the form, he may hack away an essential portion of the substance. This delicacy is likely to be more appreciated by the author in question than by his readers. The editors of purely scientific publications labor, of course, under a peculiar disadvantage in that both the contribution and the publication of matter are voluntary offices with no binding contract; the editor is often only too glad to get 'copy,' and dare not risk offending a contributor. But the experience of many years in the conduct of many classes of publications has led us to the conviction that the authors most likely to be offended by judicious editing are those whose services can best be spared. Many, and especially beginners, often express their gratitude for editorial advice, and in most cases an editor has only to act suaviter in modo to be able to proceed fortiter in re. Moreover, in the case of the more serious and technical papers, these positions of author and editor are often reversed, since it is not so easy for an author to get his memoir published, especially with the requisite illustrations. Here, then, the editor has the whip hand, and his power is enhanced if he be acting for a learned society of which the author is a member. In brief, editors, as a rule, have the power, and we beg them to use it. Not every author can have a university training, but all (except the few rich and foolish enough to publish for themselves) must submit their manuscripts to the blue pencil of an editor. We want to see that blue pencil used.

But this leads us to another unfortunate influence tending to retard science, and that is the ignorance and incompetence of editors. We speak as one of the fraternity. How can an editor know the conventions of physicists, of zoologists, of botanists, of chemists, of geologists and all the rest? Specialization has proceeded so far that the editor of a general scientific journal nowadays must have, some may think, either enormous learning or vast audacity. But this is not quite a fair view of the case. Most scientific journals of any importance are, like other journals, run by a large staff of specialists in cooperation with one managing editor. Theoretically, at least, this is the case, as may be seen by reference to the covers of the 'American Journal of Science,' the 'American Naturalist,' 'Science,' and many more. If all these associate editors could be got to do editorial work, the supposed difficulty would vanish. Sorrowfully we admit that even editors do not always act rightly, and that 'Editor, edit thyself!' may be a true reproach. But the realization of a defect goes half-way towards curing it.

To put in few words what we have tried to make clear in these notes: Among the causes tending to retard science is carelessness as regards form and expression. The prevalence of this carelessness is largely due to want of training, and this defect can be remedied. We appeal, therefore, to teaching bodies to insist on instruction in the methods of scientific authorship: and we appeal to editors to exercise their powers in all questions of grammar, lucidity, arrangement and the formal conventions of each science.

An Editor.