The Romanticism of the Victorian Scientific Naturalists

The scientific naturalists were, according to Frank M. Turner, “successors to the eighteenth-century philosophes.” “Combing research, polemical wit, and literary eloquence,” Turner writes,  “they defended and propagated a scientific world view based on atomism, conservation of energy, and evolution.” Turner, however, in his “Victorian Scientific Naturalism and Thomas Carlyle” (1975), urges caution in showing the connection between nineteenth-century and eighteenth-century intellectuals. There is “considerable room for qualification in accepting contemporary or self-espoused views of the intellectual background of the scientific writers or in establishing a uniformitarian apostolic succession within naturalistic thought.”

These Victorian popularizers of science were all reared in a Christian home and attended clerically dominated universities, where scientific education was infused with metaphysics, idealism, and natural religion. Put succinctly, Turner reminds us that “Huxely as a boy would go off to the woods to deliver sermons from tree stumps. Tyndall had grown up amid the rigors of Irish Orange protestantism; Leslie Stephen, in a strict evangelical household. The latter had also taken holy orders. [And] Herbert Spencer’s childhood had been passed among liberal nonconformists in the provinces.”

There was, indeed, a gradual, transitional process to their more “naturalistic frame of mind.” Here Turner emphasizes the “rather unexpected influence of Thomas Carlyle on the naturalistic coterie.” Carlyle introduced German romanticism and idealism to the British, most well-known for his Sartor Resartus, published in 1836, but appearing in serial form from 1833-34 in Fraser’s Magazine. According to Turner, “Huxley, Tyndall, Morley, Galton, and even Spencer drew upon Carlyle’s wisdom in their early manhood.” Morley claimed that Carlyle “has done more than anybody else to fire men’s hearts with a feeling for right and an eager desire for social activity.” Huxley recalled “the bracing wholesome influence of his writings when, as a young man, I was essaying without rudder or compass to strike out a course for myself.” But highest praise came from Tyndall, writing: “I must ever gratefully remember that through three long cold German winters Carlyle placed me in my tub, even when ice was on its surface, at five o’clock every morning—not slavishly, but cheerfully, meeting each day’s studies with a resolute will, determined whether victor or vanquished not to shrink from difficulty.”

But Carlyle’s influence on the scientific naturalists went beyond mere temperament.  “Contemporaries of a rationlistic and naturalistic bent of mind,” Turner argues, “discovered the foundation for a view of nature, religion, and society that allowed them to regard themselves as thoroughly scientific and naturalistic without becoming either materialistic or atheistic and to accept secular society with good conscience and a finite universe without spiritual regret.”

The link between Carlyle and the scientific naturalists, Turner tells us, is social critique and the call for a new social and intellectual elite. “Carlyle believed the problems of Britain’s social and physical well-being should be addressed by leaders whose authority and legitimacy stemmed from talent, veracity, and knowledge of facts.” This appeal to a meritorious society characterized the “young guard’s” ambitious attempt to remove all aristocratic influence from the scientific societies. But this was not egalitarian enterprise. Like Carlyle, they “believed the new elite itself should formulate and direct policy. In Huxley’s words, “I should be very sorry to find myself on board a ship in which the voices of the cook and loblolly boys counted for as much as those of the officers, upon questions of steering, or reefing topsails.” In short, the naturalistic movement was a new elitist’s movement.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the thought and career of Galton. Indeed, Galton had nothing but contempt for democracy and equality. “I have no patience with the hypothesis,” he once wrote, “that babies are born pretty much alike…it is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretension of natural equality.” In Turner’s estimation, “a direct line of intellectual descent connects Carlyle’s demand for heroes and his devotion to great men with Galton’s eugenics.”

The scientist was the new hero, often represented in messianic imagery. This image of scientist as savor came, of course, with invectives against the current priesthood and clerical-scientist. In his Heroes and Hero Worship (1841), Past and Present (1843), and Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), Carlyle declared that the reigning “sham” priesthood should (and will) be replaced with a more industrious, honest, courageous, effective, and active intellectual leadership. By the mid-nineteenth century, the new scientific elite asserted themselves as this new intellectual leadership. In a letter to Charles Kingsley, for example, Huxley claimed that the “caste of priests must give way to a new order of prophets”: “Understand that this new school of prophets [he writes] is the only one that can work miracles, the only one that can constantly appeal to nature for evidence that it is right, and you will comprehend that it is no use to try to barricade us with shovel hats and aprons, or to talk about our doctrines being ‘shocking.'” The scientists thus were the new teachers of truth.

This Carlylean influence, Turner says, solves an apparent paradox. Although the scientific naturalists attacked the clergy and Christian doctrine, they remained men of deep moral and religious sensitivity. Carlyle had separated religion from spirituality. Religion was “wonder, humility, and work amidst the eternities and silences.” True religion was the “inner man.” Huxley likewise declared that “a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology.” Other members of the naturalistic coterie would concur. Carlyle had been a religious and philosophical agnostic long before Huxley coined the term. In a letter to Scottish author John Sterling, Carlyle proclaimed:

Assure yourself,  I am neither Pagan nor Turk, not circumcised Jew, but an unfortunate Christian individual resident at Chelsea in this year of Grace; neither Pantheist nor Pottheist, nor any Theist or ist whatsoever, having the most decided contempt for all manner of System-builders  and Sectfounders—so far as contempt may be compatible with so mild a nature; feeling well beforehand (taught by experience) that all such are and even must be wrong. By God’s blessing, one has got two eyes to look with; and also a mind capable of knowing, of believing: that is all the creed I will at this time insist on.

According to Turner, Carlyle statement “stood as a statement of Huxley’s, Tyndall’s, Spencer’s, or Stephen’s religious and metaphysical position.” The Victorian scientific naturalists’ philosophical skepticism, optimism, work ethic, and conceptions of force and matter, all belong to this Carlylean intellectual heritage. “Carlyle’s impetus provided the foundation for their moral commitment,” Turner concludes, “for the scientific publicists approached their age in the guise of the man of letters confident with Carlyle that ‘What he teaches, the whole world will do and make.'”

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