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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 29


Ladies and Gentlemen—We live in and form a part of a system of things of immense diversity and perplexity which we call Nature, and it is a matter of the deepest interest to all of us that we should form just conceptions of the constitution of that system and of its past history. With relation to this Universe, man is in extent little more than a mathematical point, in duration but a fleeting shadow. He is a reed shaken in the winds of force; but, as Pascal long ago remarked, although a reed, he is a thinking reed, and, in virtue of that wonderful capacity of thought, he has a power of framing to himself a symbolic conception of the Universe, which, although doubtless highly imperfect, and although wholly inadequate as a picture of that great Whole, yet is sufficient to serve him as a guide-book in his practical affairs. It has taken long, indeed, and accumulations of often fruitless lab our, to enable man to look steadily at the glaring phantasmagoria of Nature, to notice her fluctuations, and what is regular among her apparent irregularities; and it is only comparatively lately, within the last few centuries, that there has emerged the conception of a pervading order and a definite force of things, which we term the course of Nature.

But out of this contemplation of Nature, and out of man's thoughts concerning her, there has in these later times arisen that conception of the constancy of Nature to which I have referred, and that at length has become the guiding conception of modern thought. It has ceased to be almost conceivable to any person who has paid attention to modern thought, that chance should have any place in the Universe, or that events should follow anything but the natural order of cause and effect. We have come to look upon the present as the child of the past and as the parent of the future; and as we have excluded chance from any share or part in the order of things, so in the present order of Nature men have come to neglect, even as a possibility, the notion of any interference with that order; and whatever may be men's speculative notions upon these points, it is quite certain that every intelligent person guides his life and risks his fortune upon the belief that the order of Nature is constant, and the relation of cause to effect unchanged.