Victorian Britain

Transforming the Dominant Idea of Religion

In the Preface to his Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), son of famous headmaster of Rugby School Rev. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), asserts that “the world is fast going away from old-fashioned people.” Culture and Anarchy, it has been said, is an attack on English narrowness, on Victorian parochialism and philistinism. Arnold saw his fellow Englishmen consumed with themselves, a markedly individualistic and liberal attitude. The creed of the Victorian, he quipped, was “do as one likes.” Arnold considered himself a “liberal of the future,” thus justifying himself in his critique of contemporary liberalism.

In his chapter on “Hebraism and Hellenism,” Arnold writes

Everywhere we see the beginnings of confusion, and we want a clue to some sound order and authority. This we can only get by going back upon the actual instincts and forces which rule our life, seeing them as they really are, connecting them with other instincts and forces, and enlarging our whole view and rule of life.

In the first chapter, “Sweetness and Light,” Arnold claims that “religion” is the most “important manifestation of human nature,” more central to culture than art and poetry. But because Victorian society was at the “beginnings of confusion,” Arnold thinks it is time to transform this “dominant idea of religion.” This central element in human nature can never be abandoned. It is, he writes

the greatest and most important of the efforts by which the human race has manifested its impulse to perfect itself,—religion, that voice of the deepest human experience,—does not only enjoin and sanction the aim which is the great aim of culture, the aim of setting ourselves to ascertain what perfection is and to make it prevail; but also, in determining generally in what human perfection consists, religion comes to a conclusion identical with that which culture,—culture seeking the determination of this question through all the voices of human experience which have been heard upon it, of art, science, poetry, philosophy, history, as well as of religion, in order to give a greater fulness and certainty to its solution.

We see here the beginnings of Arnold’s equating of “religion with morality.” These ideas foreshadowed his later definition of “religion” in Literature and Dogma (1873). There he writes,

Religion, if we follow the intention of human thoughts and human language in the use of the word, is ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling; the passage from morality to religion is made when to morality is applied emotion. And the true meaning of religion is thus not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion. And this new elevation and inspiration of morality is well marked by the word ‘righteousness.’ Conduct is the word of common life, morality is the word of philosophical disquisition, righteousness is the word of religion.

Here Arnold united the themes in his earlier “Hebraism and Hellenism.”

In the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold was merely one of many attempting to redefine Christianity by moralizing religion.  Theologians, writers, and even men of science employed a vague, moralizing notion of “religion” in order to re-describe the essential features of Christianity. We see this particularly in the scientific naturalists, including the so-called co-founders of the “Conflict Thesis,” John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Draper, for instance, saw the politicization of Christianity as the end of “religion.” “True religion,” he maintained, is found in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Its doom came with Constantine. According to White, a pure and undefiled religion in found in the “recognition of ‘a Power in the universe, not of ourselves, which makes for righteousness,’ and in the love of God and of our neighbor.”

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Visions of Science: Thomas Carlyle

Scottish doctor and chemist Andrew Ure (1778-1857), in his The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), proclaimed his era as “distinguished from every preceding age by an universal ardour of enterprise in arts and manufactures.” And of all the nations, “Great Britain may certainly continue to uphold her envied supremacy, sustained by her coal, iron, capital, and skill, if, acting on the Baconian axiom, ‘Knowledge is Power,’ she shall diligently promote moral and professional culture among all the ranks of her productive population.” He praised the “physico-mechanical” philosophy for all the blessings it has bestowed on society, “ameliorating the lot of mankind.” The manufacturer, through his factory of machines, and through the manipulation of nature, has produced “articles of necessity, convenience, or luxury, by the most economical and unerring means.” Ure compared the factory “to the muscular, the nervous, and the sanguiferous systems of an animal.” The machine has replaced the human. “Machinery, with little or no aid of the human hand,” he writes, “dispenses entirely with manual labour.”

Ure’s enthusiasm for the “Iron Man,” the great industrial and manufacturing revolution of the early decades of the nineteenth century, was shared by many. But there is another side to the story, of course. The factory was also the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s 1808 poem. Hell had risen, with fog, mud, nightmare, darkness, and squalor, and engulfed the earth. Michael Thomas Sadler (1780-1835), British Tory MP and evangelical Anglican, decried the sorry lot of the factory worker, especially children. He put together a committee to investigate the poor conditions of the factories. He was awarded with much resistance from Whig politicians, who put together their own committee to investigate the findings of Sadler’s committee! The plight of the poor was no match for ideas of progress.

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

In his last chapter, James Secord explores the work of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who, in his well-known Sartor Resartus, serialized in Fraser’s Magazine from 1833-34, and published in a single volume in 1838, satirized men of science and their ideas and hopes of progress. Carlyle appears to be an odd selection in a book that discusses the work of science popularizers such as Davy, Babbage, Herschel, Somerville, Lyell, and Combe. But it is a fitting end, for Carlyle’s writings influenced—perhaps unexpectedly—the next generation of the men of science, the scientific naturalists.

Sartor begins by asking why, in a “our present advanced state of culture, and how the Torch of Science has now been brandished and borne about,” why has “little or nothing of the fundamental character, whether in the way of Philosophy or History, has been written on the subject of Clothes” (my emphasis). This was, of course, ironical. The author digresses into the great advances of science, declaring that “to many Royal Society, the Creation of a World is little more mysterious than the cooking of a dumpling.” Indeed, he goes on, “Man’s whole life and environment have been laid open and elucidated; scarcely a fragment or fibre of his Soul, Body, and Possessions, but has been probed, dissected, distilled, dessicated, and scientifically decomposed: our spiritual Faculties, of which it appears there are not a few, have their Stewarts, Cousins, Royer Collards: every cellular, vascular, muscular Tissue glories in its Lawrences, Majendies, Bichats.” All this deep and glorious scientific work, and yet no science of clothes!

But there is hope, for “Germany, learned, indefatigable, deep-thinking Germany comes to our aid.” While the Philosophy of Clothes languishes among the English, there is a man in Germany, a Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (“god-born devil-dung”) of Weissnichtwo (“know-not-where”), who has published a treatise expressly on the subject, Die Kleider, ihr Werden un Wirken (“Clothes, their Origin and Influence). Kindly, Teufelsdröckh has sent a copy of this work to the present editor and narrator of Sartor. The rest of Sartor discusses the “difficulties,” “reminiscences,” and “characteristics” of Die Kleider.

According to Secord, Sartor is a parody, an ironic “inversion of the reflective scientific treatises that flourished around 1830,” an ad absurdam extension of mechanical philosophy as another author puts it. Many commentators have pointed out the similarities between Carlyle’s Sartor and Jonathan Swift’s (1667-1745) Tale of a Tub (1704) or Gulliver’s Travels (1726). But as Secord notes, although Carlyle indeed drew from these genres, he only did so “to undermine them, to demonstrate the impossibility of drawing sharp lines between different literary forms.” But of all literary forms, Carlyle unremittingly mocks the literature of scientific reflection. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, in the American edition of Sartor (Boston, 1837):  “the manifest design of the work…is, a Criticism upon the Spirit of the Age,—we had almost said, of the hour, in which we live; exhibiting, in the most just and novel light, the present aspects of Religion, Politics, Literature, Arts, and Social Life.” It is a work, he continues, which will find its “way to the heart of every lover of virtue.”

Most contemporary readers, however, were confused by the work. At times prolix, paradoxical, and personal, many readers were puzzled and even angered by Carlyle’s mockery of Whiggism, with its talk of “Progress of the Species, Dark Ages, Prejudice, and the like.” Indeed, talk of the progress of science “finds small favour with Teufelsdröckh.”

In a chapter entitled “Natural Supernaturalism,” Carlyle calls for the “birth of a spiritually vital science that would release the human potential for action.” Here the “editor” discusses how Teufelsdröckh’s Philosophy of Clothes has attained “transcendentalism.” Teufelsdröckh asks whether a miracle is simply a violation of the Laws of Nature? But what, exactly, are the Laws of Nature? They are the fixed, unalterable rule of the Universe. But Sartor asks, “What those same unalterable rules, forming the complete Statute-Book of Nature, may be possibly be?

They stand written in our Works of Science, say you; in the accumulated records of Man’s Experience?—Was Man with his Experience present at the Creation, then, to see how it all went on? Have any deepest scientific individuals yet dived down to the foundations of the Universe, and gauged everything there? Did the Maker take them into His counsel; that they read His ground-plan of the incomprehensible All; and can say, This stands marked therein, and no more than this? Alas, not in anywise! These scientific individuals have been nowhere but where we also are; have seen some hand breadths deeper than we see into the Deep that is infinite, without bottom as without shore.

Laplace’s Book on the Stars, wherein he exhibits that certain Planets, with their Satellites, gyrate round our worthy Sun, at a rate and in a course, which, by greatest good fortune, he and the like of him have succeeded in detecting,—is to me as precious as to another. But is this what thou namest ‘Mechanism of the Heavens,’ and ‘System of the World’; this, wherein Sirius and the Pleiades, and all Herschel’s Fifteen thousand Suns per minute, being left out, some paltry handful of Moons, and inert Balls, had been—looked at, nick-named, and marked in the Zodiacal Way-bill; so that we can now prate of their Whereabout; their How, their Why, their What, being hid from us, as in the signless Inane?

System of Nature! To the wisest man, wide as is his vision, Nature remains of quite infinite depth, of quite infinite expansion; and all Experience thereof limits itself to some few computed centuries and measured square-miles. The course of Nature’s phases, on this our little fraction of a Planet, is partially known to us: but who knows what deeper courses these depend on; what infinitely larger Cycle (of causes) our little Epicycle revolves on? To the Minnow every cranny and pebble, and quality and accident, of its little native Creek may have become familiar: but does the Minnow understand the Ocean Tides and periodic Currents, the Trade-winds, and Monsoons, and Moon’s Eclipses; by all which the condition of its little Creek is regulated, and may, from time to time (unmiraculously enough), be quite overset and reversed? Such a minnow is Man; his Creek this Planet Earth; his Ocean the immeasurable All; his Monsoons and periodic Currents the mysterious Course of Providence through AEons of AEons.

We speak of the Volume of Nature: and truly a Volume it is,—whose Author and Writer is God. To read it! Dost thou, does man, so much as well know the Alphabet thereof? With its Words, Sentences, and grand descriptive Pages, poetical and philosophical, spread out through Solar Systems, and Thousands of Years, we shall not try thee. It is a Volume written in celestial hieroglyphs, in the true Sacred-writing; of which even Prophets are happy that they can read here a line and there a line. As for your Institutes, and Academies of Science, they strive bravely; and, from amid the thick-crowded, inextricably intertwisted hieroglyphic writing, pick out, by dexterous combination, some Letters in the vulgar Character, and therefrom put together this and the other economic Recipe, of high avail in Practice. That Nature is more than some boundless Volume of such Recipes, or huge, well-nigh inexhaustible Domestic-Cookery Book, of which the whole secret will in this manner one day evolve itself, the fewest dream.

There is an obvious and quite deliberate echo of God’s response to Job in the Hebrew Bible: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38.4-7).

Lest we think Carlyle a Luddite or anti-scientific, we should recall, as Secord reminds us, that he excelled in mathematics while at the University of Edinburgh; indeed his first job was teaching mathematics at Annan Academy, a preparatory school for boys in Scotland. He was also a paid assistant of David Brewster (1781-1868), one of the founding members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. “Carlyle’s ability to mock the developing traditions of scientific writing,” Secord writes, “drew on long experience of teaching, translating, and reviewing.”

Carlyle had become disillusioned from with contemporary science at a young age. In an 1822 article he had written for Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopedia on the French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, Carlyle ridiculed Pascal’s famous calculator as “a wonderful but useless proof of its author’s ingenuity.” When he began pursuing studies in mineralogy, Carlyle was introduced to the work of Goethe, Schelling, and other writers of German Romanticism. Against the utilitarian philosophies of British thinkers, Carlyle was enraptured dynamic Naturphilosophie.  He came to see mechanics as limited, “focused on applications, and based on experiment and observation; dynamics was primary, vital, and grounded in intuition.” Carlyle saw a need to reform natural philosophy once again, for contemporary philosophers and mathematicians were “turning so-called ‘useful knowledge’ into a Pascal-like engine for the mechanical transformation of every area of life.” This “mechanization” was the “Signs of the Times,” and it will drastically and poisonously alter every aspect of society.

Secord transitions from Sartor to the wider context to help us better grasp Carlyle’s denigration of the “Age of Machinery.” At the urging of Lord Brougham, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) was founded in 1826 with the concerted goal of communicating every piece of “useful” information available to the working classes. But according to Carlyle, the “world of bookselling and publishing was as completely corrupted by mechanism as the rest of British society.” He mocked the SDUK in an 1833 article in Fraser’s Magazine. Fraser’s was known its satirical bite, for railing “against the utopian impracticality of schemes for universal education.” According to Secord, every “issue had articles mocking radicals and the reforming Whigs, especially their support for utilitarian political economy.” The new learning would only distract the worker. Ultimately, these aspirations were impractical. Worse yet, the new learning would endanger traditional values, “the schoolmaster peddling reason could be succeeded by the demagogue preaching irreligion and democracy.” In short, a periodical like Fraser’s was an ideal place for Carlyle to publish his Sartor.

In his call to reform science, Carlyle’s Sartor “became a spiritual guide for thousands of readers in Europe and America, especially [Secord tells us] young men in search of a creed to replace traditional Christianity.” The high calling of the man of science appealed, for example, to readers like Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall. Both Huxley and Tyndall rejected materialism as a philosophy of life: “The evolution of matter and of life need not lead to a world devoid of spirit and governed solely by material processes.” As Sartor declares, the new men of science could “stand peaceful on his scientific watch-tower,” a truly “spiritual observatory.”

Visions of Science: Mary Somerville

Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his remarkable Inventing the Flat Earth (1991), wrote that the “Flat Error,” the myth that medieval thinkers insisted that the earth was flat, continues to survive because, firstly, we wittingly or unwittingly “repeat and propagate errors of fact or interpretation”; secondly, we are often led by our “biases more than by the evidence”; thirdly, we blindly privilege certain systems over others; fourthly, our assumptions about “progress” leads us to “devalue the past in order to convince ourselves of the superiority of the present”; and finally, such “myths” take on a “life of their own, creating a ‘cycle of myths’ reinforcing one another.” Most recently, Maria Popova, the author of the usually excellent Brainpickings blog, in celebrating the life of Mary Somerville (1780-1872), has fallen into such blunders. On her Twitter account, Popova claimed that the word “scientist” was coined for a woman, that being Somerville. She then links the tweet to a specious article with an entirely misleading hook:

Not only did Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville (December 26, 1780—November 28, 1872) defy the era’s deep-seated bias against women in science, she was the very reason the word “scientist” was coined: When reviewing her seminal second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which Somerville wrote at the age of 54, English polymath and Trinity College master William Whewell was so impressed that he thought it rendered the term “men of science” obsolete and warranted a new, more inclusive descriptor to honor Somerville’s contribution to the field.

Thony Christie, at The Renaissance Mathematicus, has done a fine job debunking Popova’s claim, and has himself written some insightful comments about Somerville. In brief, Whewell did not coin the word “scientist” on Somerville’s behalf. Besides, according to Sydney Ross’ excellent article, “Scientist: The Story of a Word” (1962), British men of science detested the word. “To them,” Ross wrote, “the word scientist implied making a business of science; it degraded their labours of love to a drudgery for profits or salary.” The Duke of Argyll regarded the word with “great dislike,” as did Grant Allen and Lord Rayleigh. John Lubbock had never used it himself, and preferred the old word “philosopher.” And Thomas Henry Huxley was quite unequivocal: “To any one who respects the English language, I think ‘Scientist’ must be about as pleasing a word as ‘Electrocution.'”

Mary Somerville

The Brilliant Mary Somerville

At any event, another insightful guide is, of course, James Secord’s Visions of Science (2014), particularly his fourth chapter, which is dedicated to Mary Somerville. Since my knowledge of Somerville was very limited, after reading Secord’s chapter I spent most of the day reading various articles and works on Somerville, some already cited in Secord, and some not. Besides the ones cited in Secord, which I will mention below, I have found useful Elizabeth C. Patterson’s “Mary Somerville,” The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 4, no. 4 (1969); Claire Brock’s “The Public Worth of Mary Somerville,” British Society for the History of Science, vol. 39, no. 2 (2006); and Patricia Fara’s “Mary Somerville: A Scientist and her Ship,” vol. 32, no. 3 (2008). In addition, some contemporary sources, for example, “Mrs. Mary Somerville, The Leisure Hour (Oct 7, 1871); “Mrs. Somerville,” The Illustrated Review (Dec 1872); The Morning Post (Dec 2, 1872); The Times (Dec 2, 1872); “Mrs. Somerville,” The Saturday Review (Dec 7, 1872); The Athenaeum (Dec 13, 1873); The British Quarterly Review (Jan, 1874); “Mary Somerville,” The Quarterly Review (Jan, 1874);The Academy (Jan 3, 1874); “Mary Somerville,” Chambers’s Journal (Jan 17, 1874); “Mary Somerville,” Good Words (Dec, 1875); “Mary Somerville,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Jun, 1888); and finally “An Evening with Mrs. Somerville,” The Leisure Hour (Nov, 1892), have also increased my understanding of Mary Somerville’s life and work.

Secord is an authority on Somerville. In addition to this chapter, Secord is the editor of a nine-volume Collected Works of Mary Somerville, published by Thoemmes Continuum Press (2004). Of course, her most well-known works were The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831) and On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834). “Connexion” is the operative word. After the discovery of the relation between electricity and magnetism in the 1820s, Secord tells us, “there were tantalizing indications of a unity underlying all physical phenomena.” The prospects of a “theory of everything” loomed large mid-century. The great physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79), in his article “The Correlation of Physical Forces, Nature (1874), recognized this as Somerville’s aim, writing: “Mrs. Somerville’s book on the ‘Connection of the Physical Sciences’ was published in 1834 and had reached its eight edition in 1849. This fact is enough to show that there already existed a widespread desire to be able to form some notion of physical science as a whole.” According to Somerville, mathematics was the “most promising source of ultimate unity.”

Henry Brougham had approached Somerville in 1827 to write an accessible version of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s massive five-volume Traité de mécanique céleste (1798-1827) for English readers. Brougham, as we have seen, had an “almost unlimited hope for the possibilities of readers achieving enlightenment through self-education.” How best to make such a complex text accessible, he had no doubt that Somerville was up to the task. Brougham saw her as “someone who exemplified in her person the virtues of self-help that would be required more widely in the population if the proposed work was to succeed.”

Secord goes on to give a brief biography of Somerville, drawn from her own Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville, edited by her daughter Martha Somerville and published by John Murray in 1874. She was the only daughter of Admiral Sir William Fairfax, who initially opposed her natural curiosity. According to Patterson, she “grew up in the freedom of a hearty outdoor life, which fostered a robust constitution and an abiding interest in and love of plants and animals, but with so little formal education.” All together, Somerville had only twelve months of formal schooling. But she was an “Edinburgh belle,” attracting the best circles of Edinburgh society. Her first husband had a “low opinion of the capacity of…[the female] sex,” but “had neither knowledge of nor interest in science of any kind.” He died in 1807. As a widow, she developed genial relationships with leading intellectuals. In 1812 she married again, this time to the more liberal-minded William Somerville, an army doctor and later physician to the Royal Hospital. William and Mary were enthusiastic travelers, making frequent Continental tours, where they both enjoyed the company of many European savants.

When Brougham approached Somerville, many other women had become well-known popularizers of science. Maria Edgeworth, Sarah Trimmer, Priscilla Wakefield, Jane Marcet, and Margaret Bryan were active popularizers during the first half of the nineteenth century. Bernard Lightman, in his erudite Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007) has called this group of female popularizers the “maternal tradition,” for they addressed themselves to an audience of uninformed women and children. Later, mid-century, the “maternal tradition” was redefined by a “golden age” of female popularizers of science, such as Arabella Buckley, Phebe Lankester, Sarah Bowdich Lee, Mary Ward, Anne Pratt, Anne Wright, Margaret Gatty, Rosina Zornlin, Mary Roberts, Jane Loudon, Elizabeth Twining, Lydia Becker, Mary Kirby, and others still. But as both Lightman and Secord point out, Somerville did not belong to the “maternal tradition.” She was atypical, writes Lightman, in the sense that she “addressed knowledgeable adults, including men.”

Indeed, her original publisher, Brougham’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, refused to publish her Mechanism because they feared it was too technical and voluminous. John Murray, who was a cordial friend of the Somervilles, published it in 1831, including her later Connexion in 1834. Both texts are made for drudgery reading, however. Dense, abstruse, and full of technical terms such as “apsides,” “ellipse,” “cosine,” “isogeothermal,” “perturbations,” “eccentricities,” leading to an extensive glossary, they are demanding reading. Somerville, moreover, continually revised her Connexion, later editions becoming “longer, more authoritative, didactic, and ponderous.” But as Secord points out, “the value of Somerville’s labours would not be in making French celestial mechanics accessible to the millions, but as a symbol.”

She had a “reforming zeal,” and was liberal minded both in politics and religion. She stressed the interconnections and interdependences found in nature. In some editions of her Connexion, a quotation from Francis Bacon appears on the title page, “No natural phenomenon can be adequately studied in itself alone—but, to be understood, it must be considered as it stands connected with all Nature.”

But the “most obvious and immediate significance of Connexion,” Secord tells us, “was theological.” Somerville had shown that the mathematical laws of French celestial mechanics need not lead to atheism or materialism. As Secord puts it, “the connected explanation of these laws provided by science is not seen as support for a thorough-going materialism, as it had been by Laplace, but rather as evidence of God’s all-knowing foresight.” Indeed, the Connexion closes with a profound declaration that mathematics is the highest form of theology:

These formulae, emblematic of Omniscience, condense into a few symbols the immutable laws of the universe. This mighty instrument of human power itself originates in the primitive constitution of the human mind, and rests upon a few fundamental axioms which have eternally existed in Him who implanted them in the breast of man when He created him after His own image.

Somerville had been raised within a Scottish Presbyterian tradition, but she “never could find God in formal church-going.” Rather, she found the “divine transcendence of God’s power” in the language of mathematics. Later in life she would became sympathetic toward the rational religion of the Unitarians. As Secord aptly puts it, “Somerville may have abandoned traditional Christianity, but she had replaced this by a passionate faith in a God who could be best understood through mathematics.” One final interesting element of Somerville’s thought that Secord draws our attention to is her ready acceptance of commercial progress and imperial expansion. As Fara also shows, “Somerville gave her name to a ship that carried British products around the world, and portrayed herself as an ideal role model for women and also an exemplar of European civilization.” Her Whig political leanings, her transcendent theology, and her rejection of the divinity of Christ, were combined with an English imperial ideology that viewed English society as civilization, progress, and the future of mankind.

Visions of Science: Humphry Davy

Secord - Visions of ScienceMy Christmas gift this year was James A. Secord’s recent Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age (2014). After reading Secord’s magisterial Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (2000) earlier in the year, I have looked forward to Secord’s next big book. And Visions is a big book, not so much in page number (a mere 306, including endnotes, whereas Victorian Sensation was a massive 624) as in topic. Secord focuses on a series of remarkable books published in the early decades of nineteenth-century Britain. He discusses seven in total: Humphry Davy’s (1778-1829) Consolations in Travel (1830), Charles Babbage’s (1791-1871) Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), John Herschel’s (1792-1871) Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), Mary Somerville’s (1780-1872) On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Charles Lyell’s (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830-33), George Combe’s (1788-1858) Constitution of Man (1828), and Thomas Carlye’s (1795-1881) Sartor Resartus (1836). I have read all but Somerville’s On the Connexion this past year in my research, so Secord’s insights on these works is a much welcomed aid.

Initially, the selection may appear odd. But Secord is interested in the great transformation of the sciences during this period. “Science,” he says, “was changing from a relatively esoteric pursuit into one known to have profound consequences for the everyday life of all men and women.” Each of the above authors, in this respect, had something profound to say about the future of science. Each author, in his and her own way, had stressed the need of science “as a remedy for the country’s social, political, and religious malaise.” More importantly, each author “projected a vision of the future.”

Secord sets up his project with a short introduction. Modern science emerged in Britain within a Christian atmosphere of apocalyptic and millennial ideas and hopes. But at the same time, Secord writes, “there was a sense of limitless possibility through projections of the future economy based on machines.” These utopian hopes were of course embodied within the new science. There was a danger in the new science, however. As Secord notes, “Paris was the scientific capital of the world in the 1820s.” But in the British mind, French science was associated with the naturalism or materialism of the philosophes. More importantly, concerns over the new science was directly associated with the shock of the French Revolution. Science had to be domesticated and disassociated from anything that smacked of the French, both from its “godless libertarianism” and its guillotines.

This was achieved by some of the authors that Secord discusses. They constructed an image of science as offering a way forward, as mending the current political tensions between the Tories, Ultras, and Whigs. This was a push toward reform, but not simply a reform in politics. It was an attempt to reform all aspects of society, knowledge, science, and religion. And this could only be achieved with what Secord calls “the mechanisms of intellect”; that is, the transformation of the production and availability of knowledge. The steam-powered printing press played a central role in the diffusion of the new knowledge. But so did the creation of new institutions, clubs, and societies, such as the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) in 1826. According to Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham (1778-1867), one of the founding members of the SDUK, the new science could be used as a route to political reform. In his short 1825 tract, Practical Observations upon the Education of the People trumpeted the new science as “nothing less than the complete reformation of society through knowledge.” Obstacles to self-improvement, says Brougham, are chiefly “want of money, and want of time.” He therefore promoted “cheap publications.” But more than that, he called for the publication of “our best authors upon ethics, politics, and history, and promote cheap editions of them in Numbers, without waiting until the demand was such as to make the sale a matter of perfect certainty.” To this end, new ambitious publishers emerged with the goal of diffusing the new knowledge to all classes of society, such as Archibald Constable, John Murry, the well-known Longman company, and most recently the enterprising brothers William and Robert Chambers. In short, these new books popularized science by using philosophy, religion, and history, thus rousing “metascientific” discourse. For “happily the time is past and gone,” writes Brougham in his Practical Observations, “when bigots could persuade mankind that the lights of philosophy were to be extinguished as dangerous to religion; when tyrants could proscribe the instructors of the people as enemies to their power.” Indeed, “it is preposterous to imagine that the enlargement of our acquaintance with the laws which regulate the universe, can dispose to unbelief.”

Humphry Davy

A young Humphry Davy (1778-1829)

Secord’s first chapter deals with Davy’s interesting Consolations in Travel. Davy was a well-known and well-regarded Cornish chemist, inventor, and president of the Royal Society. Davy’s book is constructed as a dialogue between Onuphrio (a liberal aristocrat), Ambrosio (a liberal Roman Catholic), Eubathes (a physiologist and naturalist), Philaethes (the narrator), and a “Unknown” stranger. The dialogue partners discuss the laws of history, divine progression, happiness, and the enlightenment of society.

According to Secord, Davy’s Consolations in Travel was modeled off of Boethius’ classic Consolation of Philosophy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (a close friend of Davy) Consolations and Comforts from the Exercise of and Right Application of the Reason, the Imagination, and the Moral Feelings, and, perhaps more covertly, French philosopher Comte de Volney’s The Ruins: A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. Boethius and Coleridge were safe, but Volney was dangerous grounds. Davy thus takes Volney’s narrative and transforms it for English conservatism. Whereas Volney sees “kingcraft and priestcraft” as passing away, “to be replaced by a faith unified around a God known not through Scripture or dogma, but the laws of nature,” Davy has each character in his dialogue acknowledge the value in religion, including Christianity. The skeptical aristocrat Onuphrio, for example, declares: “I consider religion as essential to man, and belonging to the human mind in the same manner as instincts belong to the brute creation, a light, if you please, of revelation to guide him through the darkness of this life, and to keep alive his undying hope of immortality.” But this is a new kind of Christianity. Onuphrio, for example, does not see Christianity as occupying a more privileged place than other religious traditions. Even Ambrosio, the Catholic in the dialogue, envisions a “creed fitted for the most enlightened state of the human mind and equally adapted to every climate and every people.”

After the men retire, Philaethes, the narrator, experiences a vision. In the vision Philaethes is guided by “Genius” through a journey on the history of humanity. Genius explains to him how civilization has progressed from the barbarous to higher states of being. This has been achieved in two ways. First, and most recently, by the invention of the printing press. “I looked, and saw,” says Philaethes, “that in the place of the rolls of papyrus libraries were no filled with books. ‘Behold,’ the Genius said, ‘the printing press; by the invention of Faust the productions of genius are, as it were, made imperishable, capable of indefinite multiplication, and rendered an inalienable heritage of the human mind. By this art, apparently so humble, the progress of society is secured.” Second, the progress of civilization has been accomplished by great men. “It sometimes happens,” Genius discloses to Philaethes, “that a gigantic mind possess supreme power and rises superior to the age in which he is born…but such instances are very rare; and, in general, it is neither amongst sovereigns nor the higher classes of society, that the great improvers or benefactors of mankind are to be found.” Davy than adumbrates a list of such men: “Anaxagoras, Archimedes, Roger Bacon, Galileo Gallilei, in their deaths or their imprisonments, offer instances of this kind, and nothing can be more striking than what appears to have been the ingratitude of men towards their greatest benefactors.” Genius goes on to reveal the laws of history, society, and spiritual natures to Philaethes.

In another dialogue, while the characters are exploring the ruins of the temples of Paestum, they encounter an “Unknown” stranger who introduces the topic of geology to their discussions, a touchy subject for both British scientists and religious believers at the time. Ambrosio believes in a single creation, but is not a scriptural literalist. Onuphrio promotes the cyclical geological theory of James Hutton. What all speakers agree on, however, is that there is no evidence for the transmutation of species, a position advocated by more radical thinkers Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Philalethes argues that “all philosophy must begin from a foundation of faith, and that this can be validated not only by studying God’s works, but also by drawing parallels between the infinite mind of the divine and the mind of man.” It is interesting how the revelation of Scripture is replaced by a revelation of nature, or natural theology, in Davy’s dialogue.

Secord notes how some early reviews of Davy’s Consolations in Travel were highly critical. In general, however, Davy’s short book was well received. And what these more charitable reviewers focused on, from the Literary Gazette to La Belle Assemblée, was Davy’s spirit of progress. What is interesting about Davy, however, is that he was not at all enthusiastic about the spread or diffusion of scientific knowledge. In a letter to his wife, for example, he wrote:

I become, however, every day more sceptical as to the use of making or endeavoring to make the people philosophers. Happiness is the great object of existence, and knowledge is a good only so far as it promotes happiness; few persons ever attain the Socratic degree of knowledge to know their entire ignorance, and scepticism and discontent are the usual unripe fruits of this tree—the only fruits which the people can gather; but I will say no more, knowing how unpopular my arguments will be; yet I could say much.

According to Secord, Davy’s vision of universal history and the progress of European civilization “become a commonplace, moving from speculation to assumption as the century progressed.” The scientific sage of the philosophes had become a “scientific, Christian philosopher” in Davy. But this philosopher was not a philosophy of the people. Rather, he was the provincial, aristocratic gentlemen of science. According to Davy, with the help of “great men in history and in science” civilization will be reborn, “rising towards infinite wisdom.”

Anti-Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Anti-catholicThe last few days I have been exploring anti-Catholicism in the nineteenth century. Hugh McLeod, in his Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914 (2000), in his chapter on “Identity,” observed that a general feature of nineteenth-century Protestantism was marked by a pervasive anti-Catholicism. A number of other scholars have also noted a pronounced anti-Catholicism in the Victorian era. An older, but still useful, study of this tradition is E.R. Norman’s Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England (1968). In more recent times, historian of religion John Wolffe’s The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain 1829-1860 (1991), Hartmut Lehmann’s “Anti-Catholic and Anti-Protestant Propaganda in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America and Europe” (1991), and D.G. Paz’s Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian Britain (1993) offer additional insight. More recently, Marjule Anne Drury’s 2001 review article, “Anti-Catholicism in Germany, Britain, and the United States,” in Church History (2001), provides a helpful bibliography of the transnational character of anti-Catholic discourse then raging in the nineteenth century. Finally, in a series of fascinating articles in the 2013 issue of European Studies, demonstrate how “anti-Catholicism was a transnational cultural phenomenon, and similarly negative accusations and stereotypes regarding Catholicism existed in a number of countries.” In their introduction to the issue, Yvonne Maria Werner and Jonas Harvard provide a brief outline of the origins of anti-Catholicism in early modern Europe, beginning with the principle cuius region, eius religions of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. According to Werner and Harvard, “anti-Catholicism as well as anti-Protestantism was…part of the legal and cultural system of the time, and in several countries it was bound up closely with questions of monarchical succession.” By the nineteenth century, with religion increasingly becoming a “private matter,” anti-Catholicism began “shifting to target the Catholic Church and the papacy on matters of national integrity, progress and modernity.” Or, as John Wolffe puts it in his article in the issue, in England “much of the animus that had earlier been directed against the Roman Catholic Church was now focused on ritualist clergymen in the Church of England, who were seen as advancing Popery by subverting the Protestantism of the establishment from within.”Griffin - Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Opposition to “popery” was of course not a new feature of life in nineteenth-century Europe. Fear of Catholicism extends as far back as Protestantism itself. A number of historical events in the nineteenth century, however, increased the intensity of anti-Catholic sentiment. The passing of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act; the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement in the 1830s, led by John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Edward Bouverie Pusey; Newman’s Tract XC in 1841 and later his conversion to Catholicism in 1845; the “no Popery” movement of 1850-51; Irish immigration; the notorious pastoral letter, “Flaminian Gate,” from Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Nicholas Wisemen; and a lecture entitled “The Decline of Protestantism, by John Hughes, Catholic Archbishop of New York, all played a role in increasing hostilities between Protestants and Catholics.

Anti-Catholicism was undoubtedly a significant feature of the Victorian period. It was manifested in sermons, petitions, tracts, pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines. But as other recent scholarship has demonstrated, it was decisively through fiction that anti-Catholicism was largely disseminated. Susan Griffin’s Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (2004) and Diana Peschier’s Nineteenth-Century Anti-Catholicism Discourses (2005) persuasively argue that the Victorian novel dramatized the supposed evils of Catholicism. As Griffin argues, the Protestant obsession with Rome was “distilled to provide Victorians with a set of political, cultural, and literary tropes through which they defined themselves as Protestant and therefore normative.” From Sarah Josepha Hale, Charlotte Bronte, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry James, Frances Trollope, and Charles Kingsley, Victorian fiction provided plots, characters, and imagery for an anti-Catholic imagination.

The New Theodicy of the Scientific Naturalists

I have come across several references to Frank Turner’s “The Secularization of the Social Vision of British Natural Theology” recently, so I decided to read it myself. The essay is part of the collection of essays under the heading “Shifting Boundaries” in his Contesting Cultural Authority (1993).

In this essay Turner traces the “demise” of classical British natural theology and how it was replaced by a “secular” theodicy. Classical British natural theology was always circumscribed and supported by a vision of commercial society. According to Turner, “British natural theology had addressed itself to both nature and society.” John Ray’s The Wisdom of God in the Creation (1691), for example, had a strongly supported economic expansion. The material world was indeed governed by God; but more importantly, it was “created intentionally for human uses.” “God placed humans beings on the earth,” Turner summarizes, “to realize or exploit the potentialities that inhered in the rest of the creation.” Thus Ray justified trade, commercial transactions, and the “dominion” of the earth for the benefit of mankind. This argument is also found in Lynn White Jr.’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” (1967), who maintained that orthodox Christian belief led western civilization to exploit the natural resources of the world.

In addition to Ray, William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) and the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-40) similarly used natural theology to support the emerging industrial order. Paley’s “Divine Watchmaker” analogy “reflected the eighteenth-century fascination with machinery,” transforming God into “a skilled and ingenious English engineer.” Moreover, the authors of the Bridgewater treatises “presented natural theology as confirming the general superiority of humankind over the rest of the creation and as pointing toward modern European civilization as the end and natural state of humankind.”

But the “civilizing” effect of industrialization in early nineteenth-century Britain was becoming a problem for natural theologians. The writings of Dickens, Carlyle, Mayhew and others revealed how industrialization had brought on the conflagration of the earth. In Bleak House (1853), for example, Dickens depicted the hellish results of the industrial age—an earth engulfed with fog, mud, darkness, squalor, poverty, and disease. In short, a nightmare. England had become Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” Mayhew’s contributions to the Morning Chronicle between 1849 and 1850 revealed the consequences of rampant industrialization, and Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) adds the spiritual dimension:

British individual existence [he writes] seems fast to become one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive…These scenes, which the Morning Chronicle is bringing home to all minds of men…ought to excite unspeakable reflections.

To many of these writers, industrialization only reveled a “reign of death.” The world, as Hardy put it, was “God-forgotten.”

To deal with commercial society, British natural theologians had to develop a theodicy. According to Turner, Paley justified the evils and suffering caused by industry on utilitarian grounds. In the grand scheme of things, Paley seems to say “It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water, teem with delighted existence.” The hierarchical character of English society encouraged competition, which was good, and poverty only further induced one to work. What ultimately gave Paley comfort in the face of such social ills was human immortality. Turner writes, “lives of individuals on earth must be regarded as probationary for a life to come in which rewards and punishments would be meted out.” Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) argued similarly. The disparity between food production and population was a terrible injustice, but “actual justice lay in the hereafter.” The authors of the Bridgewater treatises likewise concurred.

Turner then turns to the rising authority of the scientific naturalists. To gain a hearing, the scientific naturalists had to dissociate themselves from the more radical opinions of a group of London medical men, who wholly rejected religion of any kind. Thus scientific naturalists such as Darwin, for instance, had used natural theology—particularly the kind the authors of the Bridgewater treatises had provided—to underpin his understanding of the natural world. It was only much later, in his The Descent of Man (1871), according to Turner, that Darwin began attacking classic British natural theology, and specifically its philosophical anthropology. By stripping away all of the unique qualities of humankind, Darwin “portrayed a brutish human past and a materialistic interpretation of human historical development.” But in doing so Darwin merely provided a new social vision that, in the final analysis, “paralleled the social argument of the traditional natural theology.”

Thus, at the end of the day, the scientific naturalists continued the “whiggish” analysis of the natural theologians, supporting “the fundamental character of contemporary British and European society.” What was truly unique about the scientific naturalist approach, however, is how they interpreted Baconianism. As Turner writes, “Although Francis Bacon had pointed to the double revelation of divine knowledge through both nature and the scriptures, he had also urged natural philosophers to resist the temptation to pose unanswerable questions and questions that had no practical import on the human condition” (my emphasis). On the one hand, natural theologians embraced Bacon’s first precept, but ignored his second. The scientific naturalists, on the other hand, ignored his first but embraced his second. Huxley’s “new nature,” for example, “accomplished Bacon’s goal of abandoning the pursuit of literally useless questions.”

But in placing the “God question” completely outside the natural realm, “humankind emerged as the creator.” This was the new theodicy of the scientific naturalists. In his Romanes Lecture of 1893, Huxley rejected the suffering in nature:

Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.

The suffering caused by the “cosmic process” must be opposed. We must fight against nature. This fight was the “new” ethical order, a new societal cooperation that would replace competition and eventually end human suffering.

Phrenology, the Origins of Scientific Naturalism, and Herbert Spencer’s “Religion of the Heart”

Wyhe - PhrenologyOver the weekend I came across several interconnecting books and themes. The first was John van Wyhe’s excellent Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), which traces the origins of scientific naturalism back to British phrenology. In this book Wyhe takes the “social interests” approach, resting on the “common-sense assumption,” he writes in his introduction, “that people are disposed to like or dislike, to adopt or reject ideas according to their coherence or usefulness to social interests.” Wyhe wants to argue that phrenology, “the science of the mind,” was hugely diffused before and after Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was this “phrenological naturalism” that fed the stream of the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. What is more, the professional and religious controversies that followed the surge of phrenological works “were often personal competition for status and authority between individuals, rather than manifestations of group conflicts.” In saying this he follows the work of Adrian Desmond, James Moore, John Brooke, Peter Bowler, Frank Turner, and others. The “‘science and religion’ conflict,” he writes, was  about “personal competition between individuals for status and authority.”

According to Wyhe, phrenology had its roots in the German work of physicians Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), before greatly expanding in Britain in the 1820s with the work of George Combe (1788-1858). Gall was a rather eccentric individual. He not only amassed a large collection of human skulls, he also saw himself as somehow superior to the rest of mankind. Gall used his phrenological studies, his system schädellehre (“doctrine of the skull”) or “the physiology of the brain,” to proffer the notion that Nature should be seen as the ultimate arbiter. Spurzheim became Gall’s patron, student, and eventually dissecting assistant. Early in the century, Spurzheim composed his Philosophical catechism of the natural laws of man, which attempted to apply “immutable law” to mankind. Most of this work was borrowed from the work of French revolutionary writer Constantin Francois de Volney (1757-1820), his The law of nature (1793). Volney rejected revelation and called for the worship of Nature. According to Wyhe, Volney taught that “Man’s happiness increased the more he acted in accordance with the law of nature and that science was necessary to know the ‘facts’ of nature.” Spurzheim himself was anti-clerical and, like Volney, was strongly deistic.

According to Wyhe, Combe “revered Spurzheim.” His The Constitution of Man (1828), he says, “should be recognized as the major British work on progress in the years before [Robert Chambers’] Vestiges of the natural history of creation appeared in 1844.” Wyhe modifies and reproduces a chart found in James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), demonstrating the remarkable popularity of Combe’s work:

Wyhe Chart (2)

Used with permission

Its sales were tremendous. But even more remarkable is Wyhe’s claim that the “crux of the book’s provocativeness was its effectiveness as an alternative to Christianity.” It was an attempt to provide an “alternative for the traditional Christian system as a guide of conduct, and especially beliefs of the fallen state of Nature and Man, the sufficient and necessity of the Bible as a guide to daily living and as a moral, philosophical, and epistemological authority.” According to Combe, if man devoted himself to obeying the “‘doctrine of the natural laws,’ all would live in a happier, healthier world and experience the greatest possible joys and satisfactions as civilization, and individuals, progressed ever further towards perfection.” To secularists like George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), Combe’s Constitution was “a new Gospel of Practical Ethics.” For Combe, god became Natural Law.

It should be clear that Combe’s Constitution was not simply a textbook on phrenology. It was the formation of a new “sect”; a new creed or worldview of the naturalists.

Another interesting fact about Combe is that he was one of the earliest narrators of the much maligned—at least, among contemporary historians of science—”conflict thesis” between religion and science. In his On the Relation between Science and Religion, first published as a pamphlet in 1847, Combe foresaw a “new faith” arising, one that would recognize natural laws as the providential instructor of humanity. “Science,” he says, has banished the “belief in the exercise, by the Deity…of special acts of supernatural power, as a means of influencing human affairs,” and in its place has “presented a systematic order of nature, which man may study, comprehend, and follow, as a guide to his practical conduct. In point of fact, the new faith [he says] has already partially taken the place of the old.” This has been no easy task. Since the “days of Galileo to the present time, religious professors have too often made war on science, on scientific teachers, and on the order of nature.” What we need, says Combe, is a “new Reformation” and a “new creed,” one which will “harmonize with a sound Natural Religion.” As Wyhe observes, this narrative of conflict would be taken up later in the century by scientific writers such as Huxley—but also Tyndall, Spencer, Draper, and White, among others.

One of the more salient features of Combe’s Constitution was his optimistic view of progress. Progress was mankind’s salvation. According to Wyhe, “Combe’s engine of progress, like that of Condorcet, Lord Kames and later of the historian H.T. Buckle, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, was natural law, and especially the increased knowledge of natural law.” Nature was naturally progressive. Man was naturally progressive. But ignorance of science stymied progress; it was mankind’s “chief cause of suffering.” And like the other authors Wyhe lists, Combe saw mankind as “arranged in a hierarchical scale of superiority and inferiority.” In Combe’s view, the bottom rung of the hierarchy began with non-Europeans (i.e., those with “dark skins”), and led to western Europeans (i.e., particularly himself).

Despite its extraordinary popularity (e.g., British sales in 1893 reached approximately 125,000 copies), Combe’s work was not without its critics. Indeed, according to Wyhe, “the controversies over Vestiges and The origin of species really pale in comparison with those over Constitution.” Evangelicals and members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society were particularly critical. Most were concerned that Combe’s new philosophy would somehow replace Christianity or, even worse, God. Another was where to find the source of morality in a completely naturalized cosmos. Yet another was Combe’s claims of natural progress and the “infinite perfectibility of Man.”

Nevertheless, many—secular and religious—found ways to lessen the more radical implications of Combe’s philosophy. Most importantly, Combe’s Constitution appealed to a recent surge of popular scientific texts that trumpeted the “overarching cosmology of progress through natural law.” This idea of progress, as many scholars have pointed out, had religious foundations. Indeed, Combe himself claimed that his work “fulfilled the Bridgewater goal” of demonstrating the “power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” But just who or what god was, Combe never says.

Taylor - The Philosophy of Herbet SpencerIn many ways, Combe and his Constitution cleared the way for Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. In fact, my other reading over the weekend, Michael W. Taylor’s The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (2007) and Mark Francis’ Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (2007), both mention the important influence of Combe’s work on Spencer. Taylor comments on how Spencer used several  doctrines found in Combe, particularly that “happiness requires man to obey the natural laws,” and that “disobedience as surely brings its punishment in the one case, as in the other.” In short, “Spencer’s mature moral philosophy was founded on the same conception of the beneficence of the laws of nature that was to be discovered in the writings of predecessors like Combe, Hodgskin, and Chambers.”

Francis - Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern LifeIn his book, Francis thinks Spencer has been misinterpreted, and thus offers a reappraisal. He portrays Spencer as an oversensitive man filled with feeling. In this sense Spencer was not unlike Luther, a prophet of the new century calling for a New Reformation not only in science, but also morality and religion. Members of the New Reformation, including Spencer, held strongly to a metaphysical belief in the Unknown, were often called “spiritualists,” and were behind the weekly journal, The Leader.

Francis rejects the notion that Spencer was the progenitor of Social Darwinism. Spencer’s evolutionary theory, he says, “(i) did not focus on species change; (ii) did not draw on natural selection or competition; and (iii) did not accept the modern individuals or societies would continue to make progress through struggle for survival.”

Most interestingly, however, Francis highlights Spencer’s religious background, and how religion continued to play a prominent role in his writings, where one can find a “reservoir of religious meaning.” Spencer wanted to create a “new morality and metaphysics with which to replace both orthodox Christianity and materialistic positivism.” He rejected Comte’s alleged scientific rationalism for a “religion of the heart.” Science must have some religious aim.

These three remarkable works continue to complicate and even problematize conventional views of the scientific naturalists. The lives and ideas of this coterie were often messy, incomplete, inconsistent, and contradictory.  In other words, they were human.

 

The Age of Scientific Naturalism

John Tyndall died of poisoning. From 1890-93, this enthusiastic mountaineer found himself bedridden, struggling with illness. He was in the habit of taking doses of chloral hydrate at night to help him with his insomnia, and every other day some sulphate of magnesia for his constipation. Near the end, his wife, Louisa, 25 years his junior, administered the dosages to him.

In 1893, on a Monday morning, Tyndall asked Louisa for a spoonful of magnesium. It was dark, and his beside table was littered with bottles. Louisa took a bottle a poured a spoonful, serving it to his lips. He took a big gulp and, tasting it, said, “there is a curious sweet taste.” Immediately Louisa realized she had accidentally given him a spoonful of chloral. She turned to him and said, “John, I have given you chloral.” He replied, “yes, my poor darling, you have killed your John” (see account in “Mrs. Tyndall’s Fatal Error,” New York Times, 1893).

The great physicist John Tyndall died that same evening. Stricken with guilt, Louisa spent the rest of her life attempting to resurrect him. She collected his journals, correspondence, and all unfinished writings for the purpose of publishing a massive Life and Letters. No Life and Letter ever came to fruition. She died in 1940 at the age of 95.

Lightman and Reidy - The Age of Scientific NaturalismThe current volume under review is a renewed attempt to resurrect the life and work of John Tyndall. Edited by Bernie Lightman and Michael S. Reidy, The Age of Scientific Naturalism: Tyndall and his Contemporaries (2014), the essays in this collection originate from two conferences specifically organized around the work of Tyndall, including the “Evolutionary Naturalism Conference” held at York University in 2011 and “John Tyndall and Nineteenth-Century Science Workshop and Conference” held at Montana State University in 2012. Publisher Pickering & Chatto (publishers of the current volume) will also begin publishing Tyndall’s correspondence in 16 volumes, beginning in 2015.

The Age of Scientific Naturalism is divided into three parts. Part I, “John Tyndall,” highlights Tyndall’s “unflinching defence of a naturalistic world view” and the role he played “within the contested nature of science in the Victorian era.” Tyndall was known for his “flamboyant lectures, which mixed practised showmanship with extravagant experiments,” presenting “science as an exhilarating spectacle.” The essays in this first part stress Tyndall’s research and the construction of his public persona. Elizabeth Neswald’s opening essay, “Saving the World in the Age of Entropy,” connects Tyndall with philosophical threads and ideological biases of the mid-nineteenth century, particularly German naturaphilosophie. In his work, for example, Tyndall marginalized the law of entropy in “favour of a balanced world of cycles,” in much the same way that German materialists did, proposing a “living nature in an eternal process of becoming.” Tyndall emphasized “the role of the sun in supporting life,” and drew “a picture of a nature embodying organic unity.” This verges on “nature worship,” and Neswald emphasizes that Victorian religious agnosticism “differed little from Christian theology.” According to Neswald, “for Tyndall…god was nature.” Following the work of Ruth Barton, Stephen S. Kim, and Tess Cosslett, Neswald notes that “the use of religious language in works of popular science was widespread in this period,” and that Tyndall’s language was particularly indebted to the “natural supernaturalism” of Thomas Carlyle. “Tyndall’s private writings, his journals and letters, reveal a view of nature and the universe that sees a creative power that could not be fully comprehended through science alone.” In a letter to his close friend Thomas Archer Hirst, for instance, Tyndall writes that “the universe is a body with life within it, and among it, and through it, permeating its every fiber…Everything in nature is in the act of becoming another thing.” These sentiments were due to Tyndall’s reading of “German philosophers,” which he “imbibed them through the interpretations and writings of Thomas Carlyle, who himself was deeply indebted to German idealist and romantic philosophies.” Indeed, Tyndall was very much encrusted within this tradition, so much so that modern interpretations, such as viewing him as a progenitor of global warming, become problematic, as Joshua Howe shows in the following essay, “Getting Past the Greenhouse.” Howe criticizes the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom for co-opting Tyndall as a forefather of modern climate science. Also criticizing recent “histories” of global warming, Howe writes that the “biography of global warming is ahistorical.” Such “presentist biography,” he argues, “has consequences for the way we understand the role of science in the twenty-first-century politics of climate change.” These stories “feed myths and misunderstandings about contemporary and historical issues, both academic and otherwise.” Jeremiah Rankin and Ruth Barton, in the next essay, “Tyndall, Lewes and Popular Representations of Scientific Authority in Victorian Britain,” compare the popular science writings of Tyndall and those of literary critic George Henry Lewes, showing how porous the boundaries between public and private science, the laboratory and the field, and the popularizer and practitioner, were during the mid-Victorian period. Both Tyndall and Lewes, they argue, “pursued scientific research, wrote for the periodical press, addressed topics beyond their specialist expertise, and devoted considerable effort to popularizing a naturalistic version of science.” Indeed, both men used many of the “same tropes in their self-representation as reliable and authoritative expositors of science.”

Part II, “Scientific Naturalism,” examines scientific naturalism itself, demonstrating that science was still in a state of flux in the late-nineteenth century. But this set of essays attempt to move beyond Frank Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974). Who were the “scientific naturalists” turns out to be an increasingly complex question. Looking at some of the “less obvious scientific naturalists,” these essays go beyond the myopic focus on Huxley and Tyndall, and examine the complex personalities of Herbert Spencer, William Kingdon Clifford, William Huggins, and Alfred Newton. Spencer, for example, planted his philosophical roots in the soil of naturaphilosophie and evolutionary deism. According to Michael Taylor, in his “Herbert Spencer and the Metaphysical Roots of Evolutionary Naturalism,” Spencer underscored the “popular and fluid definitions of scientific naturalism.” Rather than an empiricist and materialist, Taylor argues, Spencer’s philosophical system reveals “elements of transcendentalism and rationalism, as well as an awareness of the limits of knowledge that verged on mysticism.” Spencer undoubtedly had metaphysical sources, such as Erasmus Darwin and Robert Chambers’ “evolutionary deism,” which “articulated a vision of cosmic evolution that presented a story of progress from the nebulae to human society.” Another metaphysical source was German transcendental biology or naturaphilosophie. Despite his neglect in contemporary works, Spencer’s impact on Victorian intellectual life was immense. Taylor persuasively argues that “Spencer’s evolutionary naturalism had its roots deep in metaphysical theories that were far removed from empiricism and materialism.” Josipa Petrunic follows with an essay on the “Evolutionary Mathematics” of Clifford and his beliefs in the Spencerian process of evolution, which included the search for a foundation for a new morality within scientific naturalism. In the end, according to Petrunic, Clifford became a “more thoroughgoing evolutionary naturalist than either Huxley or Tyndall, as well as many others amongst the older generation who founded the X-Club.” Robert W. Smith’s essay, “The ‘Great Plan of the Visible Universe,'” looks at astronomer Huggins who, although rejecting traditional natural theology, sought a conception of the unity of nature founded upon divine design. A leading pioneer in the development of astrophysics, Huggins’ work, according to Smith, was shaped by deep “religious sensibilities.” However, this was only the Huggins of the mid-1860s. This early Huggins “saw very powerful evidence of design when he viewed the heavens.” Yet by the 1880s and 1890s, Huggins’ opinions had decidedly shifted to something more resembling Turner’s “Scientific Naturalist.” Unfortunately, why this shift occurred, says Smith, is rather obscure. Jonathan Smith, in the final essay in this section, “Alfred Newton: The Scientific Naturalist Who Wasn’t,” shows how Newton applied Darwinism to his own work in ornithology, but was “restrained and cautious in his public endorsement of Darwinism.” Indeed, he did not “share the broader agenda of scientific naturalism.” Newton was a clear example that “one could be a Darwinian without being a scientific naturalist.”

Part III, “Communicating Science,” looks at the disparate “modes of communication, including public lectures, scientific meetings, personal correspondence, newspaper editorials, pamphlets, and even town-hall meetings and church gatherings” that supported science during the Victorian period. Janet Brown, in the opening essay, “Corresponding Naturalists,”offers an engaging “correspondence-history” of the scientific naturalists, and “how epistolary exchange helped shape the very foundation of modern science, with its emphasis on evaluation, adjudication, authentication, prioritization and distribution of the latest scientific research” (my emphasis). In the same vein, Melinda Baldwin’s essay, “Tyndall and Stokes,” offers a more detailed examination of the epistolary exchange between Tyndall and mathematician and theologian George Gabriel Stokes. Although Tyndall and Strokes “differed radically in upbringing, temperament and religious orientation,” these ideological differences did not prevent them from maintaining a friendship, thus problematizing the notion of an antagonism between science and religion at the time. Baldwin demonstrates the central role their correspondence played in shaping the physical sciences in the Victorian period. The Tyndall Correspondence Project has found some two hundreds letters between Tyndall and Stokes, and it seems that Stokes, Baldwin suggests, “shaped both Tyndall’s papers and Tyndall’s idea about scientific theories.” In other words, Tyndall respected Stokes’ scientific expertise, consulted him on scientific theories, and even called on him to review some of his essays. Stokes was a member of the North British physicists, which have been portrayed as the great antagonists of the scientific naturalists. But the Tyndall-Stokes correspondence suggests a more complex picture. Bernie Lightman concludes with an essay on the “Science at the Metaphysical Society.” Much of what he has to say here depends on the research of Alan Willard Brown’s masterful The Metaphysical Society: Victorian Minds in Crisis, 1869-1880 (1947), but Lightman distinguishes himself from Brown’s politically idealistic philosophy. Most importantly, Lightman shows that religious members of the Society were not anti-science; rather, “they simply had their own definition of what it was, the role it should play in society, and the broader ramifications of its findings.”

This set of essays, along with those in Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2014) complicates our conventional understanding of Victorian naturalists. “The contest for cultural authority,” Lightman concludes in The Age of Scientific Naturalism, “was not only between the Anglican clergy and scientific naturalists. Feminists, socialists and others were claiming that they were qualified to provide leadership, and that contemporary science supported their claims.” Furthermore, the scientific naturalists were not mere “agnostics,” in the contemporary sense of the term, as “rationalists.” Their ideas, and ideals, were infused with metaphysics, a romantic sense of nature, and, indeed, a deep reforming spirit, of knowledge, society, and religion.

Victorian Scientific Naturalism

A numDawson and Lightman - Victorian Scientific Naturalismber of books of recent date have made significant contributions to our understanding of the Victorian coterie known as the scientific naturalists. A comprehensive survey of the last few decades of scholarship in this field can be found in Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman’s introduction to their Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity (2014). Dedicated to Frank Miller Turner, who was one of the first scholars to use “scientific naturalism” as a historiographic category to describe a group of Victorian intellectuals—such as, e.g., Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, William Kingdon Clifford, Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, John Lubbock, Edward Tylor, George H. Lewes, E. Ray Lankester, Henry Maudsley, Frederic Harrison, Leslie Stephen, John Morley, Grant Allen, and Edward Clodd—with the supposed common goal of redefining nature, humanity, society, and science, Dawson and Lightman have collected a group of essays first presented at a workshop on “Revisiting Evolutionary Naturalism: New Perspectives on Victorian Science and Culture” at York University in 2011.

They begin their introduction with an etymological survey of “scientific naturalism,” showing that long before Huxley used it in his Essays upon Some Controverted Questions (1892), it was employed by American evangelicals in the 1840s as a pejorative epithet. In the 1860s and 70s,  Scottish Free Church theologian David Brown and journalist and owner of the Contemporary Review William Brightly Rands also complained that scientific naturalism was the cause of “an inescapable sense of melancholy” and “moral decay” of their time. Only at the turn of the decade, in a letter published in the Secular Review, scientific naturalism was used, seemingly for the first time, as an “entirely positive designation for the scientific rejection of all nonmaterial phenomena.”

Returning to Huxley, Dawson and Lightman highlight his attempt to give the term a lengthy intellectual lineage. More interesting, however, is Huxley’s claim that the Bible is “the most democratic book in the world,” and that its strength lies in its “ethical sense,” and as such the “human race is not yet, possibly may never be, in a position to dispense with it.” In short, Huxley’s strategy was to make scientific naturalism “unimpeachably respectable, scrupulously cleansed of all the deleterious ethical and political connotations it had accrued since first coming into usage in the 1840s.”

Indeed, Huxley’s usage matched earlier connotations of the scientific naturalist, which simply meant being an expert and specialist practitioner of the life sciences. This leads Dawson and Lightman to suggest that scientific naturalism and scientific naturalist were “actor’s categories for much of the nineteenth century,” polemical constructs “employed by both evangelicals and secularists even before it was taken up by the archpolemicist Huxley.”

Dawson and Lightman then turn to twentieth and twenty-first developments. The work of Frank Turner is of course mentioned. But they also point out Robert M. Young’s collection of essays in Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture (1985), where an overarching theme of continuity is pronounced, “pointing out that while natural theology was built on an explicitly theological theodicy, scientific naturalism similarly rested on a secular theodicy based on biological conceptions and the assumptions of the uniformity of nature.” Two years later Lightman published his The Origins of Agnosticism (1987), which argued that “there were many vestiges of traditional religious thought embedded in Victorian agnosticism” and the “possibility that agnositicism originated in a religious context.” They also mention the influential work of Ruth Barton, especially her essays on the X-Club, John Tyndall, and the origins of the scientific journal, Nature.

More recently, historians of science have begun marginalizing Turner’s notion of an emerging, professional scientific elite. Adrian Desmond’s The Politics of Evolution (1989), Ann Secord’s “Science in the Pub” (1994), James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), John van Wyhe’s Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), and Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007), pushed “back the establishment of a secular naturalistic tendency in British science into the 1830s and 1840s,” essentially placing the scientific naturalists on the periphery. We should add here Lightman’s own collection of essays on Evolutionary Naturalism in Victorian Britain (2009), which examined the enduring strength of religion in the late nineteenth century and the vestiges of religious thought among the scientific naturalists, the problems of communicating their message to the general public, and Victorian critics of scientific naturalism and their strong resemblance to postmodern criticism.

Despite being pushed to the periphery in modern scholarship, Huxley and the scientific naturalists continue to fascinate. Paul White’s Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (2003) demonstrates that Huxley’s self-identity was “drawn, in part, from his understanding of domesticity, literature, and religion.” Dawson‘s own Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability (2007) shows how advocates of scientific naturalism constructed “their model of professional scientific authority in line with their opponents’ standards of respectability.” Here again we should also add Lightman and Machael S. Reidy’s The Age of Scientific Naturalism (2014), which focuses on physicist John Tyndall, but also contains exemplary essays on Herbert Spencer and the metaphysical roots of his evolutionary naturalism, William Clifford’s use of Spencerian evolution, and many others.

“The time is right,” writes Dawson and Lightman, “to return to those canonical figures, in the light of the new scholarly agendas, and reevaluate their status as icons of the Victorian scientific scene.” With a focus on “forging friendships,” “institutional politics,” “broader alliances,” and “new generations,” this volume of essays offers “new perspectives on Victorian scientific naturalism that…produce a radically different understanding of the movement centering on the issues of community, identity, and continuity.”

Scientific Epistemology as Moral Narrative

The latest hierology is hitting the big screen in November, director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything.  Based on the trailer, the film sets out to tell the “love story” between world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and his (first) wife, Jane Wilde. Nevermind that Wilde and Hawking divorced in 1995, after years of what she has called absolute “misery” (but which had little to do with his motor neuron disease ). The same year they were divorced, moreover, Hawking married one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whom he also later divorced in 2006.

Upon watching the trailer, however, one of course only sees Hawking’s nobler traits. At least that is how the narrative unfolds. This reminds me of George Levine’s fascinating book, Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England (2002). In this book Levine examines the narratives underlying Victorian scientific epistemology, which he locates in themes of self-sacrifice, self-denial, self-effacement, self-abnegation—in other words, in dying to self. “There is something in our culture,” he writes,” that drives it to find things out, even at the risk of life.” This is the central metaphor underlying Western culture’s quest for truth as well as the underlying narrative of scientific epistemology. The narrative of renunciation is found, for example, in Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes; in the dying-to-know narrative of Thomas Carlyle, which he seems to have derived from Goethe and a “rigid Calvinism”; in John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, John Tyndall, Thomas Henry Huxley, Anthony Trollope, and Francis Galton, among others; and finally in the autobiographical texts of Mary Somerville, Harriet Martineau, and Beatrice Webb.

Levine - Dying to KnowThis “new” narrative of science was also the “new” narrative of morality. Levine argues that the narrative of scientific epistemology had ethical underpinnings, which are still present in discussions today: the notion that to gain reliable knowledge, observers must die as individuals. The scientist must repress his or her desires, emotions, and “everything merely personal, contingent, historical, [and] material that might get in the way of acquiring knowledge.” Paradoxically, then, “all who rightly touch philosophy, study nothing else than to die, and to be dead.”

“The model for scientific investigation,” Levine writes, “is heroic, self-humiliation; the seeker of natural knowledge puts aside worldly things, the idols of theater, cave, and marketplace, and prepares to submit to the blows of reality for the sake of a pilgrimage to the promised land of pure knowledge, human enrichment, and material progress.” In short, universal, valid, and objective knowledge required a kind of pilgrimage from “humanness.”

This narrative of pursuing knowledge, a secular pilgrim’s progress, however, cannot be fully trusted. Levine cites philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that the narrative of repudiation is impossible, for the language we use is part and parcel of the same intellectual inheritance we are trying to repudiate! In other words, these narratives were often self-serving and disingenuous. Nevertheless, what emerged from writers such as Bacon and Descartes, Herschel and Whewell, and from Huxley, Tyndall and the scientific naturalists, is a narrative of scientific epistemology, a kind of “heroic epistemology.”

The Victorian narrative of scientific epistemology, much like the one we see in the trailer on Hawking, implies moral rigor: impartiality, patience, self-denial, the rejection of authority for experience, a strong intellectual independence, a willingness to face the facts, no matter how detrimental to tradition—in short, the total surrender of self to the thing being studied. Levine demonstrates that the story of dying-to-know has become the dominant story in our times and that the propagation of that story allows science to displace religion as the ultimate authority for all knowledge.

But in an ironic twist, as Steven Shapin has shown in various works, but which Levine only hints at, the narrative of scientific epistemology is undeniably intertwined with the religious—and particularly the Christian—ideal of self-renunciation: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9.23).