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Chapter 4: a world outside of science

It is a commonplace saying — and I think it is Quintilian who recommends that in treating every important subject we should begin from the commonplace, though this is indeed not difficult — that we live in an age of science. We are assured without ceasing, and it is, within just limits, perfectly true, that modern science has transformed the world of thought. The world of action it has certainly transformed. Scientific mechanics are keeping pace, in the most astounding way, with abstract science; and we are all, as has been said, “gazing into the light of the future, our profoundest curiosity quivering under the currents of new thought as a magnet vibrates in the grasp of an induction-coil.” The wonders of the Arabian Nights are the commonplaces of living and moving.

It is the crowning beauty of these wonders [29] that they have gone hand in hand with the progress of democracy, and have placed themselves at its service. A hundred years ago, when a prince wished to travel, he could at best only order clumsy horses to be attached to a clumsy state carriage in the hope of accomplishing, unless torrents or highwaymen interfered, thirty miles a day. It was not until the people got ready to ride that steeds swifter than the wind and stronger than the storm were harnessed in, and glittering bands of steel were spread in twin extension across the continent, that the carriages which bore the people might not swerve from their triumphant way. Two hundred years ago, if a king wished to convey to a distance the news of war or peace, or of the birth of an heir, he could do it best by lighting vast bonfires on successive hills, as in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus (τοιοίδε λαμπαδηφόρων νόμοι), until the tale was told. It was not until the people became as important as princes that all these lavish and clumsy fires were condensed into one little electric spark; and wires covered the land in a network of tracery, or sank below the ocean, that the humblest of the nation could telegraph to other lands and climes the news of war and peace in his household, or the [30] birth of an heir to his modest throne. Nay, even while we dwell on these achieved wonders, we are all waiting eagerly for the time when all their apparatus shall be superseded, and laid away in museums of obsolete lumber; and we are all living in expectation of what a day may bring forth. Those of us who in youth saw men still habitually striking a fire with flint and steel may yet live to see nearly every material convenience of life served by absolutely invisible forces. Yes, it is the age of science; beneficent or baleful, saving or slaying, its sway has come.

With this has naturally come a shifting of the old standards of education, and the claim that science, as such, is exclusively to rule the world. An accomplished German savant, long resident in this country, once told me that in his opinion poetry, for instance, was already quite superseded, and music and art must soon follow. Literature, he thought, would only endure, if at all, as a means of preserving the results of science, probably in the shape of chemical formulae. He was a most agreeable man, who always complained that he had made a fatal mistake in his career through rashly taking the whole of the Diptera, or two-winged insects, for his scientific task; whereas to have [31] taken charge of any single genus, as the gnats or the mosquitoes, would have been enough, he thought, for the life-work of a judicious man.

We smile at this as extravagance, and yet we have, by the direct confession of the great leader of modern science, the noble and large-minded Darwin, an instance of almost complete atrophy of one whole side of the mind at the very time when its scientific action was at its highest point. Up to the age of thirty, Darwin tells us, he took intense delight in poetry --Milton, Byron, Scott, Wordsworth, and Shelley-while he read Shakespeare with supreme enjoyment. Pictures and music also gave him much pleasure. But at sixty-seven he writes that “for many years he cannot endure to read a line of poetry” ; that he has lately tried Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated him; and that he has almost lost all taste for pictures and music. This he records, not with satisfaction, but with “great regret” ; 1 he would gladly have it otherwise, but cannot. It is simply that one whole side of his intellectual being was paralyzed; a loss which all the healthy enjoyment of the [32] other side of his nature could scarcely repay. Yet it is possible that the lesson of Darwin's limitations may be scarcely less valuable than that of his achievements. By his strength he revolutionized the world of science. By his weakness he gave evidence that there is a world outside of science.

We cannot, on the one side, deny that Darwin represented the highest type of scientific mind. Nor can we, on the other, deny the value and validity of what he ignored. Of the studies that became extinguished in him, we can say, as Tacitus said when the images of Brutus and Cassius were not carried in the procession: Eo magis praefulgebant quia non visebantur; or, as Emerson yet more tersely translates it, “They glared through their absences.” It would be easy to multiply testimonies from high scientific authority to this limitation and narrowing of the purely scientific mind. One such recent testimony may be found in an important report of the head of the chemical department of Harvard University, Prof. Josiah P. Cooke; and another in that very remarkable paper in the Forum entitled “The education of the future,” by a man who singularly combines within himself the scientific and literary gifts-Clarence King, [33] formerly Director of the United States Geological Survey. After weighing more skilfully than I have ever seen it done elsewhere the strength and weakness of the literary or classical training of the past, he thus deals with the other side: “With all its novel powers and practical sense, I am obliged to admit that the purely scientific brain is miserably mechanical; it seems to have become a splendid sort of self-directed machine, an incredible automaton, grinding on with its analyses or constructions. But for pure sentiment, for all that spontaneous, joyous Greek waywardness of fancy, for the temperature of passion and the subtle thrill of ideality, you might as well look to a cast-iron derrick.” 2 For all these, then, we must come back, by the very testimony of those scientific leaders who would seek to be whole men also, to the world outside of science.

If there be an intellectual world outside of science, where is the boundary-line of that world? We pass that boundary, it would seem, whenever we enter the realm usually called intuitive or inspirational; a realm whose characteristic it is that it is not subject to processes or measurable by tests. The yield of [34] this other world may be as real as that of the scientific world, but its methods are not traceable, nor are its achievements capable of being duplicated by the mere force of patient will. Keats, in one of his fine letters, classifies the universe, and begins boldly with “things real, as sun, moon, and passages of Shakespeare.” Sun and moon lie within the domain of science; and at this moment the astronomers are following out that extraordinary discovery which has revealed in the bright star Algol a system of three and perhaps four stellar bodies, revolving round each other and influencing each other's motions, and this at a distance so great that the rays of light which reveal them left their home nearly fifty years ago. The imagination is paralyzed before a step so vast; yet it all lies within the domain of science, while science can tell us no more how Macbeth or Hamlet came into existence than if the new astronomy had never been born. It is as true of the poem as of the poet--Nascitur non fit. We cannot even define what poetry is; and Thoreau says that there never yet was a definition of it so good but the poet would proceed to disregard it by setting aside all its requisitions.

Shelley says that a man cannot say, “ ‘I will [35] compose poetry.’ The greatest poet even cannot say it, for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.” 3 In the same way Schiller wrote to Korner that what impressed him when he sat down to write was usually some single impulse or harmonious tone, and not any clear notion of what he proposed writing. “These observations,” he says, “arise from an ‘Ode to Light’ with which I am now busy. I have as yet no idea what the poem will be, but a presentiment; and yet I can promise beforehand that it will be successful.” 4

So similar are the laws of all production in the imaginative arts that we need only to turn to a great musician's description of the birth of music to find something almost precisely parallel. In a letter from Mozart, lately condensed by Professor Royce5 : he writes: “My [36] ideas come as they will, I don't know how, in a stream.... If I can hold on to them, they begin to join on to one another, as if they were bits that a pastry cook should join on in his pantry. And now my soul gets heated, and if nothing disturbs me the piece grows larger and brighter, until, however long it is, it is all finished at once, so that I can see it at a glance.” In both arts, therefore, there occurs something which it is hardly extravagant to call inspiration, or direct inflow from some fountain unknown, and lying wholly outside of all science. There is absolutely no point at which science can even begin to investigate it, because the first essential of scientific observation — the recurrence of similar phenomena under similar conditions — is wanting. Coleridge's poem of “Kubla Khan” was left hopelessly a fragment by the inconvenient arrival of a man from Porlock; but there is no ray of evidence that its continuation could have been secured by placing Coleridge, at the same hour next day, before the same table, with the same pens and paper, and planting a piece of artillery before the front door to compel every resident of Porlock to keep his distance.

We have now the key to that atrophy on [37] one side of Darwin's nature. It was in his case the Nemesis of Science — the price he paid for his magnificent achievements. Poetry is not a part of science, but it is, as Wordsworth once said, “the antithesis of science” ; it is a world outside. Thus far, as a literary man, I am entitled to go, and feel myself on ground with which I am tolerably familiar. But the suggestion irresistibly follows-and it is surely a momentous one--if poetry represents a world outside of science, is there nothing else outside? This question I must leave specialists to answer, hazarding only a few hints which are confessedly those of a layman only.

There is unquestionably much in common between the poetic impulse, the impulse of religious emotion, and the ethical or moral instinct, if instinct it be. So plain is this, that the mere attempt to recognize in either of these anything outside of science is met at the outset with suspicion by those who have risked their all on the faith that science includes all. This was strikingly seen, for instance, in the Brooklyn Ethical Association, the other day, when Dr. Lewis G. Janes, in a valuable address on “Life as a fine art,” had allowed himself to say that “the art-impulse, spontaneous, vital, creative, breaks through [38] the bonds of constraining legalism and restores the soul to freedom.” He was at once taken to task by his stricter associates, and was assured that this was by no means “psychological science or evolution,” but that he had “given poetry and rhetoric in the place of cold facts and scientific deductions.” 6 From their point of view, the critics were perfectly right. It is a very dangerous thing to admit that there is a world outside of science. Once recognize thus much, and then, after the art-impulse has burst through and claimed its place in that world, who knows but the devout impulse, at least, may also take its place by the side of the art-impulse, and the soul be restored to freedom in good earnest?

If the devout impulse thus takes its place with the poetic, in a world outside of science, the question must inevitably follow, whether the ethical emotion is to take its place there also. At present, as we know, the followers of Herbert Spencer claim to have utterly captured, measured, and solved it from the point of view of science; and they dismiss the whole conception of Intuitive Morals as completely [39] as Bentham thought he had annihilated the word ought, when he said frankly fifty years ago that it was meaningless, and should be expunged from the English language, or at least from the vocabulary of morals.7 It is claimed by Mr. Spencer's ablest American advocate that “the moral sense is not ultimate, but derivative, and that it has been built up out of slowly organized experiences of pleasure or pain.” 8 But if no possible experience of pleasure or pain, as it passes, can give us the slightest key to the sacredness and strength that lie in the word ought, how can that strength or sacredness be found by multiplying such pleasure or pain into millions of instances, or centuries of time, or countless generations of men? If it is perfectly supposable, and perhaps [40] known to our personal experience, that a man may do what he simply recognizes as right, although it appears likely to cause only pain and not pleasure to every person concerned in the matter, present or to come, then how can any accumulation of pleasurable experience culminate in the word right, any more than the utmost efforts bestowed by horticulture upon the production of the potato, which is a tuber, can culminate in converting it into an orange, which is a fruit? If this is all that the most modern phase of science can offer, it seems to me an involuntary admission that science has here stepped beyond its limits, and that it maybe necessary to remand not only poetry and religion, but even ethics, to the world that lies outside of it.

Yet on these points I should hardly venture an opinion, in consideration of the fact that there are so many who have devoted their lives to these especial investigations. My whole aim has been to assert from the point of view of literature that a world outside of science exists. This done, I must leave the delineation of its boundaries to those whose studies have extended far more profoundly than mine into the astronomy of the soul.


1 I. e, by his son, Am. ed. pp. 30, 81.

2 The Forum, March, 1892, p. 29.

3 Defense of poetry, Essays and Letters, Am. ed. i. 56.

4 Corresp. of Schiller and Korner, II. 173.

5 The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, p. 456.

6 Brooklyn Ethical Association, Essays on Evolution, pp. 411, 429.

7 “The talisman of arrogance, indolence, and ignorance is to be found in a single word, an authoritative imposture, which in these pages it will be frequently necessary to unveil. It is the word ‘ought’ -‘ ought or ought not,’ as circumstances may be. In deciding ‘ You ought to do this,’ ‘ You ought not to do it,’ is not every question of knowledge set at rest? If the use of the word be admissible at all, it ‘ought’ to be banished from the vocabulary of morals.” Bentham's Deontology, i. 31, 32.

8 Mr. John Fiske, in Essays of Brooklyn Ethical Society, p. 94.

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