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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 49

The Mission Of Science [Discourses, 1st Series, No. 3]

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The Mission Of Science.


1st Series. No. 3.

J. A. & R. A. Reid, Printer. Providence:

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The Mission of Science.

The first man who burned his fingers did a very natural thing, and suffered for the benefit of humanity. He did not, however, establish the fact that all fire burns. He simply demonstrated the burning qualities of the particular fire with which he had to do. By and by a second, third, fourth, fifth man went through similar experiences, until sufficient evidence had been accumulated from special instances to verify the general truth. So that now not only a burnt child, but a child with burnt ancestors avoids the fire. That is to say, the experience of the past in this respect is a part of the stock of knowledge with which every child may set up in the business of life.

The first man who was drowned did an equally natural thing, and also suffered for human benefit. It took more than one, however, to establish the fact, now so well known, that whoso falls into the water must either sink or swim. Once it would have been folly to have affirmed such a thing. Now it is suicide not to recognize it and govern one's self accordingly.

It would be nothing strange if a man who had never heard of a locomotive, and was utterly ignorant of the power of steam, should think he could stop the train by a rail fence, or perchance his own body. But after he and some others equally ignorant had splintered a few rails and broken as many bones, the survivors would know that steam is a powerful agent, and that he is a wise man who looks out for the engine while the bell rings.

The first impression of this earth received through personal observation is that of a great circular plane, surmounted by a dome of substantial azure, studded with stars. Every morning, page 4 runs the familiar phrase—fittingly telling what seems the fact—every morning the sun rises, every evening it sets. All its movements, all the movements of the lights of night, to the unsophisticated, are ordered with reference to this little plane on which man lives his day and is then transported to an eternal home beyond the sky. How does it happen, that notwithstanding this appearance of things, so clear and unmistakable, every school-boy denies the old idea of the ancient philosophers that the earth is a flat disc swimming on the waters, and asserts that it is round like a ball or orange? How does it happen that while retaining the language of their forefathers, the youngest children now know that the sun does not rise and set in a revolution round the earth, but the earth itself revolves on an imaginary axis of its own, causing the alternation of day and night, and moves through its orbit round the sun, causing the steady succession of the seasons? How does it happen that the apparent fact of the earth's centrality in the planetary system is universally regarded as an illusion, it being held that the sun is the real centre and the earth but one of several members, and one of the smallest members too, of a company of spheres? "Knowledge is power," said Lord Bacon. It was because the knowledge of the ancients was exceedingly limited; it is because the first glance at things is extremely superficial, that such mistakes have been made. It is because, with increasing age in our own lives and in the life of the world, we learn to go beneath the surface to the foundations of knowledge, that we approximate ever nearer to the truth. When, in due course of time, it was discovered that the tops of towers, mountains, masts of ships, come into view first as we approach them, and that a man starting from a given point and traveling in a straight line would in time come round to the same point again; it was seen that the theory of a flat surface did not agree with the facts, and the truth of the earth's rotundity, which had long before dawned upon individual minds, was verified. By a similar process of experience the little idea of the earth as the one thing of creation to which all things else were made to minister, page 5 has given way to the great idea of the solar system, and hints to-day of a myriad of systems in which perchance many of our stars may be suns.

The same beginnings in abject ignorance, the same gradual improvement, may be observed in the progress of civilization, as shown in forms of government. Indeed, as Guizot has expressed it, the idea of progress, of development, appears the fundamental idea contained in the word civilization. Now, the first attempts at human government were, of course, crude and bungling. Two men discovering each other, the stronger subdued and enslaved, if he did not eat the weaker. Physical force was, for ages, the only method of control, and unfortunately is often the only method still. That is the primitive form of social order—the rule of muscle, producing despotism. And all barbarous forms—from chattel-slavery, up or down, as you may prefer—have grown out of the attempts of man to establish society. If the form has been bad, it has been because the men creating it have been but slightly developed from brutish conditions. Spencer says of the early history of government, "the one universal despotism was but a manifestation of the extreme necessity of restraint. Feudalism, serfdom, slavery—all tyrannical institutions, are merely the most vigorous kinds of rule, springing out of, and necessary to, a bad state of man. Restraint is for the savage, the rapacious, the violent; not for the just, the gentle, the benevolent. Dungeons for the felon; a straight-jacket for the maniac; crutches for the lame; stays for the weak-backed; for the infirm of purpose, a master; for the foolish, a guide; but for the sound mind, in a sound body, none of these." We have here a fair statement of the course of evolution in government to this date. Men at first so animal in their natures that nothing but physical power could command their respect. Farther on, the mind asserting itself and the idea of governing only the felon and the maniac by force prevailing. Later still, the recognition of the highest standard yet reached—that of supplementing weakness with strength, and overcoming vice and crime with love. But here again ob page 6 serve it is a growth in knowledge. The difference between a Roman Emperor or a Russian Czar and the President of the United States, and the difference between Roman and Russian subjects and citizens of the United States, is one of knowledge in the art of government. We know better how to govern ourselves than did the victims of Caligula and Nero. We know better how to govern ourselves than do the victims of the reign of Nicholas III. That is the reason why we have neither Emperor nor Czar, but only a President at Washington. Not that we individually have had much to say about it, but simply that in the progress of events we are the fruit of a long line of causes, such as have not gone before our less fortunate brothers; and hence are endowed at the start with a wealth of knowledge such as they do not possess.

If this course of thought suggests anything; if it leads us to any wise conclusion; it seems to me to be nothing less radical than this, viz.: That the evil in this world, whether material or spiritual, individual or social, is not a concrete, absolute fact over which man has no control, but is simply a condition through which all things pass from a lower to a higher life. In other words, evil is but good in the making. Or still otherwise stated, evil is the result of the bungling attempts of mankind to find and apply truth. The early Britons, many of whose villages were circles of huts hollowed out of side-hills, had very crude ideas of houses and cities compared with those which now prevail. Indeed, one only need remember the homes of a hundred years ago, and the log cabins in some places still extant, to realize the change which has taken place in architecture and carpentry within our own time. But the intention in constructing huts and cabins and old-fashioned New England houses was just as good, I may say precisely the same, as that which to-day builds our modern dwelling with all its conveniences. They were all steps toward a something better. And, investigate in whatsoever, realm you may, you will, I think, find this thought universally true. We are prone to think of some men and classes of men, as inherently bad, full of original and incurable page 7 sin. It is the ghost of the total depravity-devil. We say of the supporters of what we conceive to be barbarous institutions and laws, they are wicked and designing men, who ought to be morally, if not physically, condemned to prison and gibbet. Well, it is all natural, all true enough, perhaps, and yet we must not forget that our view is usually the near one, too near sometimes to see the conditions of our own period in their right relations. Chattel slavery was bad, any distinction in the law on account of race or sex is odious; always to be condemned; finally to be overcome; but for all that, it is true that these very distinctions are results of attempts at progress, and invariably in the large view of history to be so regarded. After admitting, if you please, the bad passions which govern men, doubtless many and grievous, it is still true that a vast majority of the race are doing on the whole about as well as they know how to do. In other words, what they need is not so much hanging by the neck until they be dead; not even moral condemnation until each of them feels as Warren Hastings did under the overwhelming invective of Burke, that he was the most culpable man on earth;—not that, but more light, more knowledge, more really deep insight into life and all its conditions. It is my belief that a close scrutiny of some of the various phases of our practical, every-day living will show this to be true.

Take for example the vices of trade,—and they are very generally admitted in as well as outside the counting-room,—what is the real truth concerning them at this very moment? I apprehend the average trader is about as honest as he can be, that is, as he knows how to be, in the present state of the world. He is one of many. He does not make the conditions which environ him, and cannot often, perhaps never entirely, control them. Failures are more than frequent in mercantile life, but no man wants to fail. Dealers in the same articles are constantly' underbidding each other, but no man wants to ruin his fellow,—it is only to the end that each may live and support his family. If our whole system of trade is one calculated to encourage fraud in prices and qualities, it is not because men are bad and enjoy such things, page 8 not because some men do not know better, but because the average intelligence has not evolved itself from what may be called the crude period. You may, if you choose, demand of a man that he shall make a martyr of himself and sacrifice his family rather than tell a lie or cheat his neighbor, but the radical difficulty is that it is impossible, or he honestly thinks it is, which amounts to the same thing, for him to avoid the one without doing the other. This only goes to show that we are in a crude condition concerning this matter of trade. Enough fingers have not yet been burned in the fire of competition to teach us the better way. What is needed, I say again, therefore, is not so much better intentions, as a greater degree of knowledge of how to deal with each other on a basis of integrity and justice.

Our recent history is full of illustrations of the truth I am trying to establish. Look for a moment at our courts. Can one conceive of a more bungling method of determining causes than that they often exemplify? A set of men suspected of some great crime are arrested and brought to trial. A jury of twelve men is impaneled, men not necessarily versed in law; not necessarily possessed of judicial minds; not necessarily above susceptibility to bribes. Before this jury appear two lawyers, or two sets of lawyers, whose business it is not to discover and defend the truth, but to do their level best, the one to prove the prisoner at the bar guilty, the other to prove him innocent, regardless of the truth. I have frequently said to legal friends, pray tell me how you justify this system of making the worse appear the better reason? They always answer that on general principles, it is right that both sides should have the best possible showing, and that the verdict following such showing is more likely to be just than that reached in any other way. Well, there is something in it, no doubt, but one cannot help feeling that it is a very crude effort to do a good thing. And we know how often an orator, with a bad cause, can move the twelfth juryman, thus defeating the ends of justice. Now the difficulty is not that our people are anxious that rogues should go free. They were not satisfied with the trial of the Malleys page 9 in New Haven; they were not satisfied with the first trial of the star-route thieves in Washington; but as yet they see no way of bettering their judicial system. They are beginning to realize its defects, and discussing most wisely, as it seems to me, some amendments to our jury laws; but what they want is more light. They want to know how to secure more fully a judiciary which shall decree substantial equity.

The same evil of ignorance is observable in legislation. The River and Harbor Bill passed at the last session of Congress has been made the text for a good many clerical and lay sermons. Many criticisms of its supporters have been wise and just. It comes in the line of my present thought to speak of one which was neither wise nor just. It has been said that no man was justified in supporting the bill if he recognized that there was even five per cent, of steal in it—by which is meant that ninety-five per cent, of honest, many of them immediately necessary, appropriations, should be defeated, rather than pass with them an appropriation amounting to five per cent, which is dishonest, and of course, unnecessary. As an abstract proposition that is sound, but as a practical proposition it is simply an absurdity. Its adoption would signify the suspension of all our public works for the want of legislation. The fact is, we have not yet learned how to legislate without the introduction of the trading element. No system of government has yet been established in which the honest men in politics and the honest men in halls of legislation are not in some small degree at the mercy of the rogues. Honest men voted for the bill in question as honest men repeatedly vote at the polls on a choice of evils, knowing that it contained bad appropriations, but believing them to constitute a smaller percentage of the whole bill than has usually been the case. I do not mention this to apologize for them, if indeed apology be needed, but simply to show one of the at present necessary evils of legislation. We may condemn it as much as we please—it ought to be condemned; but we shall not rid ourselves of it until we grow wiser in the art of making and administering law.

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There is one other example of this evil of ignorance which comes so near home that I must not omit to mention it here. I refer to our caucus system and home politics. That there is an alarming rule of professional politicians in this country to-day, all admit. That political slave-drivers are a nuisance, and at times danger to free institutions, none will deny. The great body of our honest, well-intentioned voters—and they constitute the majority—condemn machine politics, and would like to abolish it, but how to do it—that is the question. And, speaking as one who has taken part, at various times, in some practical attempts in this direction, I am bound to say it is a great question. It is not enough to condemn the good men who stay away from the caucus and the polls. You must show them how they can accomplish something by going to the caucus and the polls. We are not half so near self-government as we think. We have the theory. We have the inclination. We see that the force of events is driving us relentlessly—to some it may seem hopelessly—on, but as a people, we do not yet know how to govern ourselves successfully. What we need is not more critics, fault-finders, and prophets of evil; we need more teachers. We need to learn more in the art of administering upon our own affairs.

Clear, accurate knowledge then, is the great desideratum in all departments of life. It seems as if the constant, prolonged appeal of humanity went up without one dissenting voice—show us the way and we will walk in it. And it is the sublime mission of Science to do just that thing.

In the past this has been considered a universe of accidents, governed by a capricious God; but a new day has dawned. With the conception of law as universal and invariable, comes a new era in human history. The mighty summons has gone forth—Man, study thyself, study thy surroundings, fit them to thyself, fit thyself to them. Thou art no longer an ignorant, irresponsible victim; thou art an intelligent, moving will. Thou art lifted from the valley of humiliation and despair to the peaks of power and hope. Grovel no longer a suppliant at the feet of page 11 Jehovah; stand erect in wise cooperation with the unseen forces of the world.

From such an altitude we look forth to-day upon the duties and opportunities of life, and Science, which implies penetrating and comprehensive knowledge, is the teacher of teachers for which we wait. What it has already gained in its hitherto somewhat limited sphere pales before the vision of what it is yet to accomplish in new realms of human activity. We have a science of Astronomy, a science of Geology, a science of Mathematics, but we need most of all a science of Society. We have wandered off among the stars; we have gone deep into the bowels of the earth; no obstacle in the natural world has been too great for us to overcome. Shall we understand the character of the sun, ninety-five million miles away, shall we watch the planets in their courses, shall we calculate with perfect accuracy the coming of comets, and yet know nothing accurately of the laws which govern ourselves and the conditions under which we keep in our orbits? Shall we understand the materials of which the earth's crust is made, shall we analyze them, make them tell us history, and yet know nothing accurately of what is going on every day upon its surface? In all our relations we are much like boys playing games. It is so largely guess-work with us, even in the most serious matters But there are laws underlying our smallest actions not less omnipotent than those which govern the formation of minerals and the march of planets. It is the business of Science to discover these laws and to intelligently apply them.

I know many people think this is done to-day, and to a certain limited extent it is. Every reformer thinks, and not without some show of reason, that his particular reform is the radical one, sure to accomplish the desired end. Granting that all reforms have a wise basis, why is it that we do not secure more readily the objects at which they aim? Governor Oglesby, of Illinois, went down to Joliet one day to inspect the state prison. Why, said he, this is as fine-looking a body of men as you can see anywhere. But there they were felons; doomed to years of page 12 exile and degrading servitude; branded by the state as unsafe citizens; marked men for the rest of life. Go into the great penitentiary in Philadelphia, run on the solitary theory; go to our own prison at Cranston, you are impressed with the same thought. Usually, too, the best-looking men are those sentenced for the worst crimes and the longest terms. It is the testimony of many wardens that murderers are among the easiest prisoners to deal with. Now where is the difficulty? No amount of scolding about the administration of the present sys-tem reaches it. Whoso goes to Philadelphia or to Cranston expecting to see filth, suffering, brutality, staring him in the face, will be disappointed. The walls will look white, the floors scrupulously clean, the food healthy and abundant of its kind, the officers often as gentlemanly and attentive as could be wished. What then, asks the superficial observer, is the trouble? What have you to criticise? The trouble is that the whole system is unscientific. There is no relation of cause and effect in it. It is the practical application of the old Orthodox theology. It sets out with a mere opinion, rarely warranted by the facts, that there is an inherent difference between the men inside and those outside of jail; it has an opinion, nothing more or less, that an austere ruler presides over the destinies of men, making the way of the transgressor hard, and so it imitates this ruler in its dealings with crime. Let us see what Science would do under the same circumstances. The moment it obtained possession of the liberty of a man, it would ask, how can I fit him to regain at the earliest possible period that which he has forfeited? It is naturally his. Nothing but the protection of society warrants any interference with it. The first business then, is to restore it to him as soon as the safety of society will permit. To make this unsafe into a safe citizen—that is my object, says Science. In order to accomplish this supreme end I must seek the causes which have induced him to sin, and must always suit my treatment to the work to be done. But that is not the way most of us talk to-day. We say practically, these men of whom Governor Oglesby testifies they are as fine-looking page 13 as any body of men you can see anywhere; these men you may see for yourselves at any of the great prisons, and wonder they look so much like the rest of us; we say of them practically, they are failures; we know not what to do with them, and so we shut them up, though the figures prove what a moment's thought suggests, that this process of simply shutting men up unfits, rather than fits them for social relations and duties. Now, is it not a lamentable thing, when you think of it, amid all our advances in this nineteenth century of civilization, that instead of trying to reform our criminals, instead even of reforming the conditions which produce vice and crime, we are everywhere maintaining, at great expense, stone and iron cages for men, women and children, who look after all as if they had brains, and hearts, and consciences, very much like their more fortunate fellows? No thoughtful person can study our penal and correctional system without feeling how much it has been the outgrowth of passion, or at best, of the desire for temporary protection, rather than of deep philosophical thought, looking to ultimate safety and reform. Of course I do not mean to say it is not at times necessary to deprive men of their freedom. Society must protect itself—there can be no question about that. But this I do say—the scientific method of protection implies not only the suppression of the evil, it implies the removal of the causes of the evil. And this brings us to the thought that Science in dealing with criminality would scarcely stop in our prisons at all. In seeking causes it would go right out upon the street. It would go into the school-houses; into the homes alike of wealth and of poverty; it would ascertain how these victims of passion were educated; how they lived as little boys and girls; aye, back of that, how they were born. Science is thorough. It will not stop in its investigations until it has probed the bottom facts. We talk about exact sciences. I tell you, friends, living is to be an exact science, some day. If men want to produce certain qualities in cattle, they know how to get them. The breeding of beasts is no longer a thing of accident. It has a basis of knowledge. Shall we study how page 14 to make strong, vigorous oxen, and not how to make strong, vigorous children? Shall we fathom the effects of food, habits, climate, upon the dispositions of horses and cows, and remain in ignorance of their effects upon the dispositions of men and women? I look upon the struggles of the ages—the overthrow of tyrannies, the abolition of slavery in our own country' and elsewhere, the wresting of power from the hands of the few and placing it in the hands of the many—I look upon all of these struggles as the preliminary steps to the great scientific study of how to live. The first were negative, though necessary and admirable; the last is affirmative, outshining in its glory all that has gone before. How to bring the little child into the world under such conditions that he shall command good physical, mental and moral health; how to properly educate him from babyhood to manhood; how to make honesty, justice, equity, natural and easy; and dishonesty, injustice, and iniquity, unnatural and hard—that is the mighty problem which Science now proposes to solve. She summons us as her instruments to set out on voyages of discovery—the truth in all things the continent we seek, the spirit of impartial investigation and the courage to apply results, our jewels in the locker and our Columbus at the helm. But we shall have rough seas and despairing days. There is no royal road to learning, says one. Certainly there is no royal road in social evolution. How hard it is for us to learn that! How impatient we are at the slowness of human progress, and yet how little time and energy we give to that study which is a necessary condition of human progress. The methods of work in all branches of activity, industrial, social, political, in school, in church, in reform;—how superficial they often are; how little of real understanding of fundamental principles enters into them. The greatest things in this world are not clone on snap judgments. Men will become free about as fast as they are fit for freedom; men and women will together make a true state, as they together make a true home, about as soon as they are fit to make it; and people will find page 15 their heaven in something better than the smoke of tobacco and the fumes of liquor about as soon as they are fit for something better. We must learn the basic truths of justice before we can have just society. We must educate public opinion before legislative enactments are worth the paper on which they are written. In a word, we must enter into the scientific spirit, pursue scientific methods, command success before we can attain it. The situation that has not this duty is not to-day occupied by man. "Yes here," as Carlyle says, "in this poor, miserable, hampered, despicable Actual, wherein thou even now standest, here or nowhere is thy duty; here or nowhere is thy ideal; work it out therefrom, and working, believe, live, be free. Fool! the ideal is in thyself, the impediment too is in thyself: thy condition is but the stuff thou art to shape that same ideal out of. O thou that pinest in the imprisonment of the Actual, and criest bitterly to the gods for a kingdom wherein to rule and create, know this of a truth : the thing thou seekest is already with thee, here or nowhere, couldst thou only see! But it is with man's soul as it was with Nature: the beginning of Creation is—Light. Till the eye have vision, the whole members are in bonds. Divine moment, when over the tempest-tost soul, as once over the wild-weltering Chaos, it is spoken : Let there be light! The mad primeval discord is hushed; the rudely jumbled conflicting elements bind themselves into separate firmaments; deep silent rock foundations are built beneath; and the skyey vault with its everlasting luminaries above: instead of a dark, wasteful Chaos, we have a blooming, fertile, heaven-encompassed World."

Thinkest thou then, good friend, the greatest achievements of Science are in the Past? Oh no! grander than all it has yet accomplished in physics—will be its conversion of life, mentally, morally, spiritually, from the flat, barren plane of superstition to the spherical forms of Beauty and of Truth.

Come then, shrewd and cautious trader, come skillful mechanic, come lawyer and jurist, come school-teacher and minister, come intelligent mothers and fathers,—witnesses all to the page 16 suffering born of ignorance,—come and sound forth anew the decree, "Let there be Light!" For not as of old shall the edict go forth from some divine King sitting upon his throne in the heavens. It shall come rather from the heads, the hearts, the hands of divine men, engaged in the hard though worshipful labor of Earth.

So may we hope in time for the reign of a Science of Life, building upon a basis of universal knowledge the temple of universal harmony and joy.

The Index,

A Radical Journal,

Which aims to present the best thoughts of the day on all subjects relating to human welfare. It is the foe of superstition and the advocate of the religion of Reason and Humanity.

William J. Potter, Editor

B. F. Underwood, Editor

Among the contributors are Felix Adler, T. W. Higginson, D. A. Wasson, M. D. Conway, George Jacob Holyoake, F. M. Holland, John W. Chadwick, M. J. Savage, W. H. Spencer, Prof. W. D. Gunning. W. I. Gill, A.M., B. W. Ball, Mrs. E. D. Cheney, Mrs. C. H. Dall, Geo. Martin, Allen Pringle, W. D. Le Sueur, Anna Garlin Spencer, M. A. Hardaker. Sara A. Underwood.

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The Index,

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