Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/March 1875/Spiritual Pirates

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PIO NONO has recently given to the world his infallible opinion concerning Tyndall and other modern scientists. To his apprehension they are "spiritual pirates, seeking to destroy the souls of men," and he undoubtedly has great faith in that high legal authority which says, "Pirates all nations are to prosecute."

From the Catholic stand-point the figure has a special significance. These fearless scholars have embarked upon the high-seas of scientific thought and research. Truth is the prize for which they seek. For its sake they are willing to float a flag which is always regarded as hostile by those who choose to remain forever anchored in the harbors of tradition and superstition. Along their track many a bright beacon has already been set, which marks the spot where some precious fragment has been redeemed and where some error has found its grave. But never has a ray of their light reached us without a struggle with the powers of darkness. Over all these highways of national and international thought the pope would gladly hold supreme jurisdiction. Free thought and free inquiry in almost any direction are fatal to some vital principle of Roman Catholicism. To match metaphors with his Holiness, they are spiritual sappers and miners, whose strokes tell fearfully among the foundation-stones of the Vatican.

We must concede consistency, at least, to this position of the Catholic Church. The genius of its religion is authority, and are not its subjects likely to lie stiller in the dark than when it is light about them? It is interesting and significant to notice how little its attitude toward theological or scientific inquiry has changed within the last three hundred years. Spencer in his philosophy of evolution, Darwin in his theory of natural selection, Tyndall in recasting the definitions of matter, are denounced in the spirit, and almost in the diction, of the sixteenth century. And how did it fare with Louis Agassiz, teacher, when he first ventured to assert the diverse origin of the human race? Some of us can remember. The overt acts of persecution which followed and tortured Galileo, Vesalius, and Giordano Bruno, are at present prudentially suppressed; but the spirit of the inquisitor still pursues the scientist into his laboratory or observatory, and insists that he bring thence nothing that does not harmonize with the creeds of to-day.

If the pope, Cardinal Cullen, the Dean of Manchester, and others under Catholic or High-Church influence and control, had gathered unto themselves all existing misapprehension, misrepresentation, and invective, in this direction, it were scarcely worth while to comment on a position so natural and a course so consistent with long-established precedent. But, unfortunately, it is not so. The alarm is sounded along our own shores, and the Presbytery of Belfast finds an echo in many of our so-called evangelical churches, and even in some of those which are miscalled liberal. Our preachers seem to delight in aiming a sarcasm or shaft of ridicule at the "advanced thinkers," not forgetting to add all possible irony to tone and inflection. One sacrifices his usual taste and discrimination, and selects the epithet Pickaninny to contain his sneer. "Pickaninny Tyndall!" Does it mean any thing? If so, what? Another makes a somewhat singular classification of "infidels," putting Voltaire, Hume, Tom Paine, and Tyndall, into the same category, and consigning them all to a common and speedy oblivion. Another, more in sorrow than in anger, speaks of the "ponderous sentences of unbelief" in the Belfast Address, but quotes none of them. In a newspaper article, written at Christmastide to inculcate "charity, in its largest, broadest, most comprehensive sense," we read that "Science throttles Religion in high places—or tries to." By these scared theologians, scientific men are declared to be trying to annihilate the Bible, to dethrone the Lord Christ, and to exterminate the living God. Similar latent motives have always been imputed to the fraternity, and it seems quite unnecessary to disclaim them, since their own minds are entirely preassured of the safety of Deity.

Now, sneers, innuendoes, and glittering generalities, may be convenient weapons with which to assail unwelcome arguments and conclusions, but they are certainly very ineffective. Such opposition will never end the controversy. The very animus of Protestantism is investigation, and shall New England Christians ally themselves with the pope in endeavoring to suppress its processes and ignore its results? It is only the new truth, the latest discovery, the undeveloped scheme, that is thus assailed and abused. After it has stood before the world a few decades—some other startling thought having in the mean time stepped to the front—it quietly takes its place among established facts or principles, Biblical interpretations adjust themselves, and its exponents, living or dead, are duly applauded and honored. A long catalogue of names might be cited in illustration, including, besides many scientists, some of the noblest reformers, whose diaries record every shade of treatment from their contemporaries, from the most virulent abuse to cordial recognition. What name stands fairer to-day than that of William Lloyd Garrison? And what living: man has been more defamed and reviled than was he while he stood in advance of public sentiment on the question of slavery? In the eyes of the American churches it was their "peculiar institution" which he was covertly attacking, making only a blind of the great Southern evil which his soul abhorred. All the familiar idioms of the sects were liberally used in his behalf, and he was "throttled" in Boston with something more tangible than rhetoric. So the fanatics and infidels of one generation become the heroes and philanthropists of the next.

The Concord clique of philosophers has been in past years most bitterly denounced in orthodox circles, and the patriotic old town itself has been called "the hot-bed of moral poison," and various other names equally expressive of the temper of their originators. But now, the leader and exemplar of that radical coterie, the revered and beloved Emerson, lectures acceptably before the theological students of Andover Seminary, while its chapel pulpit has recently been occupied by a prominent Unitarian clergyman, who, thirty years since, would have been shunned by the Faculty as a teacher of dangerous and pernicious doctrine.

Agassiz was no less a truth-seeker, his spirit was no less reverent, his purpose no less pure, when he broached his unscriptural theory, than when he bowed his head in silent worship at the opening of the Penikese School. Now, when the year returns, and he returns no more, we could almost canonize his memory. But why was he anathematized a quarter of a century ago? Simply because his position at that time represented the flood-mark of scientific investigation. It has changed place since then, and Tyndall now stands at its level, and must bear the surging of every tide.

Nothing is more acceptable to the honest thinker than intelligent criticism. Matthew Arnold said ten years ago that it was the great want of Europe. Worthy antagonism is always a valuable auxiliary in the cause of truth. Under its eye, eloquence is not allowed to pass for evidence, nor assertion for argument. It stimulates and reënforces the scholar, and extinguishes the pedant. It tends to prevent men from becoming so ardently in love with their own theories as to be blind to their defects. If it is able, as at the best it is, to set in motion a counter-current of thought, clear and forcible, it has attained its highest uses and becomes a real power. But the mind of the critic should be to the thought before it as the plane-mirror, reflecting it in true colors and exact proportions; otherwise, instead of just criticism, there follows either too liberal indorsement or undue stricture, according to the bias of the writer.

Thus adequately to examine the scientific positions of the day, with a view of supplementing or subverting them, requires an amount of special preparation which few who have worked in other fields of thought have been able to make; for a certain familiarity with scientific nomenclature and experiment, which is often acquired collaterally by the good student, though of great interest and value to its possessor, is not a reasonable basis for revision of principles, methods, and deductions. The arts are all closely akin, and Sir Joshua Reynolds was a fine connoisseur in his own department, and perhaps, like Titania's transient love, he had "a reasonable good ear in music;" but he probably could not have written a competent critique on the construction of Bach's fugues, or supplied the missing harmony to the original score of the "Messiah." For a correct exegesis of the Apocalypse, or the Book of Job, we should not go to the scientist, but to the trained and acute Biblicist; and when our thoughts are turned toward the sources and interpretations of natural phenomena, to whom shall we look for direction and guidance, but to those who have made these phenomena their life-long study? "Every one for his own."

If the destruction of these more recent theories, or their immediate and unreserved acceptance, were our only alternative, there might be some excuse for attacking them, even with the very unsuitable and impotent weapons with which most of us are furnished. But why can we not suffer ourselves to "make haste slowly" in regard to these questions which are so difficult, and, in a certain sense, so remote? The most enlightened scientists hold their views not rigidly, but flexibly, expecting them to undergo various modifications, as truth is gradually unsealed and error eliminated. They invite both scrutiny and correction; and, when argument is met by argument, proof with counter-proof, when premises are shown to be false, methods insufficient, or inferences illogical, none are more ready and generous in acknowledgment of mistakes. The absence of assertion is particularly noticeable in their writings. Their opinions are frequently prefaced with such phrases as "So far as I can discover," "Is it not probable," "Are we not justified in believing;" thus appealing to the intelligence and discernment of the reader, instead of seeming to compel his acquiescence. Darwin's first words in the second volume of the "Descent of Man" are, "I have fallen into a serious and unfortunate error;" and he frankly states that his explanation of certain coincidences is wholly erroneous. Does this candid admission detract from his general trustworthiness? Certainly not, to the equally candid reader. In summing up the main conclusions at the close of this elaborate work, he alludes to the still higher destiny which man may hope for in the distant future; but he instantly checks the incipient speculation with the characteristic utterance of the true devotee of science: "But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason allows us to discover it. I have given the evidence to the best of my ability."

These untiring students ask only unrestricted right of search and freedom of discussion. Shall this modest request be practically denied them? Shall the weak timidity and the unreasoning hostility of the sixteenth century forever repeat themselves in the presence of a fresh idea? Verily, a stranger in the world of thought fares hard at our hands. We are forgetful to entertain it until its wings appear, and that is not Scriptural hospitality.

Tyndall beautifully says: "Science desires not isolation, but freely combines with every effort toward the bettering of man's estate. The lifting of the life is the essential point." Are the sarcasms of the preacher an effort in the same direction? Will his animadversions tend to make his hearers more charitable in their judgments of others? Will his sneers at an opinion which differs from his own be likely to raise the standard of tolerance and Christian courtesy? Is a leaning toward the belief that matter contains the promise and potency of all terrestrial life, incompatible with the ordering of the individual life in accordance with high-toned Christian principles? Or will the rejection of the Darwinian theory be sure to free us from prejudice and cheap ambitions?

An excellent tonic, for a mind that is weary of this constant challenging of leading scientists to unequal contest, is one of their own "Lay Sermons." In reading their literature, one soon passes into an atmosphere which admits no element of petty strife. Their spirits are finely touched to fine issues, and they seem to have attained that splendor of expression which, Emerson says, carries with it the proof of great thoughts. Byron's "Corsair" left a name "linked to one virtue and a thousand crimes;" and perhaps even the pope would allow to these spiritual types of the same order the one virtue of an almost faultless style. It is not splendor of imagery, or mere ornament of any kind, that gives it its peculiar charm. It is the beauty of exquisite fitness, of perfect adaptation. Language seems sensitive to the fervor of their thought, and yields to them all its wonderful vividness. Let us not be withheld by fear, by the restraints of inherited conservatism not yet outgrown, or by misdirected pulpit influence, from studying the pages of any book, magazine, pamphlet, or newspaper, containing the selected thoughts of scientists, carefully prepared for the general reader. They furnish some of the best material for daily consideration and conversation. We find in them a centre and sequence of thought, and a natural cohesion of parts, which favorably distinguish them from many popular productions, both written and spoken. They not only show us facts, they teach us to generalize from such data, % and to put a proper relative value upon different ideas. They give us a clearer vision and an ampler horizon. They quicken the perceptions, mature the judgment, and purify the taste. And if, in his enthusiasm, a writer sometimes ventures beyond the limits of verified evidence, and gives one touch of imaginative coloring to the sober shades of reason and argument, can we not bear with it, when we remember with what infinite patience the world has for ages listened to baseless and useless conjectures, and sentimental fancies concerning heaven, its conditions, employments, and delights?

We are called to no decision upon these great questions, but let us study them, and draw from them all possible mental stimulus and moral force, and then be sure to give our personal influence in support of our highest convictions. The verdict rests with Time, and we know that under its slow, sure touch, all error must fall away, leaving Truth triumphant in the strength of her own immortality.