Goldwin Smith *
WHAT is the sum of physical science? Compared with the comprehensible universe and with conceivable time, not to speak of infinity and eternity, it is the observation of a mere point, the experience of an instant. Are we warranted in founding anything upon such data, except that which we are obliged to found upon them—the daily rules and processes necessary for the natural life of man? We call the discoveries of science sublime; and truly. But the sublimity belongs not to that which they reveal, but to that which they suggest. And that which they suggest is, that through this material glory and beauty, of which we see a little and imagine more, there speaks to us a being whose nature is akin to ours, and who has made our hearts capable of such converse. Astronomy has its practical uses, without which man’s intellect would scarcely rouse itself to those speculations; but its greatest result is a revelation of immensity pervaded by one informing mind; and this revelation is made by astronomy only in the same sense in which the telescope reveals the stars to the eye of the astronomer.;
Science finds no law for the thoughts which, with her aid, are ministered to man by the starry skies. Science can explain the hues of sunset, but she can not tell from what urns of pain and pleasure its pensiveness is poured. These things are felt by all men, felt the more in proportion as the mind is higher. They are a part of human nature; and why should they not be as sound a basis for philosophy as any other part? But if they are, the solid wall of material law melts away, and through the whole order of the material world pours the influence, the personal influence, of a spirit corresponding to our own.
Again, is it true that the fixed or the unvarying is the last revelation of science? These risings in the scale of created beings, this gradual evolution of planetary systems from their center—do they bespeak mere creative force? Do they not rather bespeak something which, for want of an adequate word, we must call creative effort, corresponding to the effort by which man raises himself and his estate? And where effort can be discovered, does not spirit reign again?
A creature whose sphere of vision is a speck, whose experience is a second, sees the pencil of Raphael moving over the canvas of the transfiguration. It sees the pencil moving over its own speck, during its own second of existence, in one particular direction, and it concludes that the formula expressing that direction is the secret of the whole.
There is truth as well as vigor in the lines of Pope on the discoveries of Newton:
– “Superior beings when of late they saw.
– A mortal man unfold all Nature’s law,
– Admired such wisdom in the earthly shape,
– And showed a Newton as we show an ape”.
If they could not show a Newton as we show an ape, or a Newton’s discoveries as we show the feats of apish cunning, it was because Newton was not a mere intellectual power, but a moral being, laboring in the service of his kind, and because his discoveries were the reward, not of sagacity only, but of virtue. We can imagine a mere organ of vision so constructed by omnipotence as to see at a glance infinitely more than could be discovered by all the Newtons, but the animal which possessed that organ would not be higher than the moral being.
Reason, no doubt, is our appointed guide to truth. The limits set to it by each dogmatist, at the point where it comes into conflict with his dogma, are human limits; its providential limits we can learn only by dutifully exerting it to the utmost. Yet reason must be impartial in the acceptance of data and in the demand of proof. Facts are not the less facts because they are not facts of sense; materialism is not necessarily enlightenment; it is possible to be at once chimerical and gross.
We may venture, without any ingratitude to science as the source of material benefits and the training school of inductive reason, to doubt whether the great secret of the moral world is likely to be discovered in her laboratory, or to be revealed to those minds which have been imbued only with her thoughts, and trained in her processes alone. Some, indeed, among the men of science who have given us sweeping theories of the world, seem to be not only one-sided in their view of the facts, leaving out of sight the phenomena of our moral nature, but to want one of the two faculties necessary for sound investigation. They are acute observers, but bad reasoners. And science must not expect to be exempt from the rules of reasoning. We can not give credit for evidence which does not exist, because if it existed it would be of a scientific kind; nor can we pass at a bound from slight and precarious premises to a tremendous. conclusion, because the conclusion would annihilate the spiritual nature and annul the divine origin of man.
* Goldwin Smith (1823–1910), Professor of history in Oxford 1858–66; in Cornell University in 1868 and in Toronto in 1871