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For the Methodist Magazine and Quarterly Review.
Art. VI.- AN ADDRESS Before the Cuvierian Society of the Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn.,
July 31, 1838.
BY WILLIAM H. ALLEN, A. M., i Professor of Chimistry and Experimental Philosophy, in Dickinson College. Gentlemen of the Cuvierian Society,-In rising to address you and the audience favoring with their presence, I am conscious before whom I am to speak. I am to address many whose knowledge of that department of philosophy which this society is designed to promote, is far more extensive than my own; and who are infinitely more able than myself to do justice to the occasion. I need not inform you, therefore, that I stand here with no ordinary feelings of diffidence. I am consoled and encouraged, however, by the assurance that they who have advanced most deeply into the pene. tralia of nature, and who have been admitted most intimately to her sacred mysteries, will be most ready to extend indulgence to a votary yet in his noviciate, and most willing to excuse a tottering step in him who has but just trod upon the threshold of her temple.
It would be presumption in the pupil to arrogate the functions of the instructor. Equally presumptuous would it be in him who is now to address you to attempt the solution of some problem in natural science which has baffled the sagacity of the wisest men, merely to show how great a theme he dared to touch; or to broach some undigested theory to excite, perchance, the notice of an hour, and then to be buried with the thousands that have gone before, serving only to demonstrate the ingenious absurdity of their projectors. It were, indeed, a pleasing labor to sketch the history and progress of natural science from its early and feeble beginnings to its present colossal development. But there I perceive the footsteps of the veteran who stood in this place before me, and who spread out to your view the choicest flowers which adorned his pathway.* It better becomes me, just entering the great garden of nature, to confine myself to an humbler sphere. My object, therefore, in the present discourse, will be to present some of the motives to exertion which are placed before the philosopher of nature, and to show the spirit requisite to success in his pursuits.
All philosophy is founded on the study of relations. The relations which exist between man and his Maker, and the duties growing out of these relations, are the subjects of theological philosophy. The relations which exist between man and man, and the duties growing out of them, are the subjects of moral philosophy. The relations which exist between man and the material world, and between all material things, are the subjects of physical philosophy. In naming these great departments of knowledge it is not my intention to graduate them on a scale of value. The importance of each and all of them is known and admitted. Theology possesses claims on human attention strong as the hopes of immortality, solemn as the sanctions of eternity, fearful as the retributions of Omnipotence.
* See Dr. Jarvis's address before the Hartford Natural History Society, which he repeated at the Wesleyan University.
Moral science appeals to the present happiness of mankind, the order and well-being of society, the establishment and guardianship of public and private rights, the interpretation and application of natural law, the impartial administration of justice, and the regulation of human conduct in thousands of cases which statutes could never reach; and we readily admit that “her voice is the harmony of the world.” Physical science points to civilization, which she has pro. moted; to agriculture, commerce, and the mechanic arts, of which she is the common mother; to the accessions she has made to human comfort and convenience; to the powers of nature she has made subservient to man; and she exclaims, “ These are my trophies !”
The importance and value of each of these departments of study can be fully sustained and illustrated without derogating in the least from the others. Each is indispensable in its place to complete the structure of education. If one be neglected, a base, a shaft, or a capital is wanting in our column, and the perfection of our edifice is destroyed. I hope, therefore, though my remarks to-day be confined to one class of studies, I shall not be charged with blindness to the merits of others, nor prove myself the younger brother of the insect that thought the narrow leaf on which he existed the utmost extent of the universe.
The business of natural history is to describe and classify. It leaves to chimistry the study of elementary bodies and the laws of their combination, and applies itself to ascertain the properties and relations of all the productions of nature, both organic and inorganic, just as they come from her hand. To name the extent and, objects of this science is sufficient to show its importance; and before a society organized expressly for its cultivation to demonstrate its utility would seem a work of supererogation. It would hardly require argument to convince even an uninstructed man that he ought to be acquainted with the properties of those bodies, and the powers of those agents, by which he is constantly surrounded, and deprived of which he could not exist an hour. By every garment we put on, every particle of food that sustains us, every time we tread upon the earth, or open our eyes to the light-in a word, by every breath we draw, we are reminded of our relations to the natural world and of our dependence upon it. Yet no department of science has been assailed more violently on the charge of inutility, by those men who shape every action with reference to some immediate advantage, than that which introduces man to the beings and objects around him the glorious mechanism of the same almighty hand that created himself. Many a speculator on the capital bequeathed by philosophy, readily admits the utility of chimistry, mechanics, and astronomy; but meets the naturalist with, “ Cui bono?" What! to chase a butterfly with the ardor of an urchin! to gaze with rapture on an insect or a reptile! to inspect the birdtracks in the sandstones of your beautiful Connecticut with greater care than the western adventurer surveys the site of his future city! to delve for the fossil fishes of your valley with more perseverance than for a mine of gold! to preserve a petrified trilobite as the apple of your eye! to study the skeleton of the megatherium, and the structure of the plesiosanrus, with stronger emotion than a railroad locomotive or the anatomy of a steamboat! What benefit is the
world to derive from the knowledge that the opossum formerly existed in France, and the elephant in America ? How much richer is Europe because Cuvier spent his life in articulating the crumbling skeletons which he had rified from nature's ancient charnel-house? Dull business this to make money. The man whose only divinity is mammon, and who deems nothing useful or beneficial that does not cater for his appetites, or pander for his passions, natural history allures with no golden bribe. Let such men grovel. There are studies worthy of our pursuit for themselves alone-studies which elevate men above considerations of sordid jnterest, and which surround them with the elements of a new world. To him who is imbued with a philosophic spirit, the contemplation of truth is a sufficient reward of toil. He loves knowledge for its own sake. He claims the same right as others to pursue and enjoy what is to him the highest good. And if men who can appreciate neither his labors nor his motives approach to question or brand him as a votary of unprofitable pursuits, he can retire within himself, wrap himself around with the mantle of his own thoughts, and say, “Procul, O procul este, profani.”
The spirit of the old philosophy was selfish and exclusive. To use a favorite expression of our times, it was aristocratic. Having little sympathy with the mass of men, it sought rather to secure a blind veneration for its disciples than to promote the convenience, the comfort, or the improvement of the human race. It labored to make the few more than men, while it left the many less than men. The rival sects of the Greeks and the schoolmen of the middle ages wasted their great powers in subtle and endless speculations, and contributed little substantially useful to the world. Plato contemned the herd of vulgar geometricians who condescended to apply mathematical truth to practical purposes, and deemed the science degraded by such slavish and sordid applications. The Roman Seneca was indignant that philosophy had received the insulting eulogy of having assisted in the progress of some of the useful arts; and disdained to dignify with the appellation of philosophers men who happened to be guilty of mechanical inventions. Even Archimedes considered patriotism hardly an adequate apology for stooping from his loftier abstractions to construct those engines for the defence of his city which excited the astonishment of mankind.
On the contrary, the new philosophy, of which Lord Bacon was the founder, is decidedly democratic. While its object is truth, its spirit is philanthropic and diffusive. It looks to the elevation of the whole human family. It seeks so to apply every new truth that men shall be better off for its discovery. Now like most democracies this democratic philosophy has run into some excesses. Because Bacon taught a philosophy which has subserved the interests of the multitude, the multitude now clamor against all philosophy whose utility is not visible, tangible, and immediate. There is a strong tendency in the present age to elevate utility above the love of truth, the subaltern above the superior. The spirit of the Baconian philosophy is misapprehended. Its end is truth; and though it believes whatever is true is useful, and useful because true, yet it pursues truth, not because it is useful, but because it is true.
Were we permitted to yield so far to the spirit and prejudices of this age as to advocate the study of natural history from considerations of utility alone, there would be no “lack of argument" in its favor. We might point to every pharmacopæia, filled with the contributions of botany to medicine. We might point to the animals which have been domesticated; to the fruits and vegetables for the sustenance and clothing of men which have been transplanted and successfully cultivated far from the soil to which they were indigenous; and to the beds of coal, the veins of valuable ores, and the quarries of marble, granite, slate, and other building materials which have been discovered by the aid of this science. It has also literally fed the hungry, clad the naked, warmed the shivering, and healed the sick. Equally with mechanics, chimistry, and astronomy, it has contributed its share toward the advancement of those useful arts which, by supplying the increasing wants of men with diminished labor, afford them the time and the means for mental improvement, For though every man who practices a useful art does not necessarily understand the science on which it is based, yet the development of the law by the man of science usually precedes the application of the principle by the man of business. To illustrate: every builder does not understand the principles of architecture. An apprenticeship has taught him to imitate his models and move in the beaten track. But who gave him his models? Who struck out the lines of beauty, fixed the proportions of symmetry, and from the ideal fabric in his own mind reared the perfect structure for the builder to imitate? The veriest blockhead of a druggist's boy can now make matches that will kindle by friction; but did he perform so easy a labor who discovered the phosphorus in which they are dipped? Many processes perfectly simple and plain when once known, cost wearisome toil and patient thought to discover. Any navigator can now make a voyage to America. It required a Columbus to make the first.
Again: the conditions of our own existence, the structure and organization of our bodies, the influence of natural agents on our health and life, and the consequent importance of temperance, exercise, regular habits, fresh air, proper food, drink, sleep, clothing, and shelter, constitute a branch of physical knowledge intimately connected with our well-being in this life. Does any one, running, like the ancient sages, from utilitarianism to the opposite extreme, pronounce these matters of trivial moment, because they directly affect our bodies only? To eat, drink, dress, and sleep, are, we admit, rather vulgar employments; but we cannot survive a single week without them. So long, then, as they are indispensable to our existence, is it a small matter that they be properly done ? Facts abundantly prove that, as a general statement, when the body is in health the mind is active and vigorous; but when diseased, the mind sympathizes with it, droops, and languishes. If, then, the highest state of mental efficiency is usually found connected with the most perfect state of physical health, it follows that whatever injures our physical health will also diminish our mental efficiency. But a knowledge of our relations to the material world assures us that nothing so soon affects our health as the improper performance of those acts of daily recurrence which our own comfort and the desire of self-preservation oblige us to perform. He, therefore, who would preserve the powers of his mind in health and strength must attend to these vulgar things. If he do not, the neglected tenement
will be shattered and tumble into ruins, and the occupant will be crushed beneath the wreck. He has violated the conditions on which health and life are granted; and though his error were the error of ignorance, and not of design, he must pay the penalty of the infraction. In this manner how many whose anticipations once were bright, who gave ample promise of becoming ornaments of the age in which they lived, of adding something to the amount of human knowledge, and of enrolling their names among the benefactors of mankind, withered from the earth in the very beginning of their career! I will cite no example. To many present all aids of remembrance were unnecessary and obtrusive. Suggestion to them is more eloquent than language. You need no example so long as from beneath yonder marble monument " where sleeps the loved and lost of earth,” comes forth a silent voice to attest the truth of my words.*
Few perhaps would be disposed to question these general statements as to the utility of physical studies, but if we descend to the minuter details of science, objectors multiply. To devote a life to the examination of a single class of insects or plants which are apparently valueless, or to the study of the structure and habits of microscopic animalculæ, seems to most men an enormous waste of time. But who, I would ask, is to decide what may or may not prove useful hereafter? A discovery unimportant in itself may be the thread that shall guide to another, of inestimable value. To the true philosopher nothing is trivial. The oscillations of a chandelier led to the invention of the pendulum, and the fall of an apple to the discovery of the laws of gravitation. Even the pursuit of a visionary object may lead to important practical results. The alchemists for many centuries tantalized the world with delusive hopes of exhaustless riches and universal health. Though they failed to satisfy the expectations of cupidity, they were the inventors of useful apparatus, the discoverers of powerful agents, the fathers of experiment, and from the ashes of their exploded science modern chimistry has sprung.
While a science is yet progressive, and before its more remote and hidden relations have been traced, so far is the world from being able to judge of its utility, that the philosopher himself can seldom appreciate the full importance of his own labors. Little did the first observer of the properties of loadstone imagine that same attractive influence would afterward be used to direct the mariner on the ocean and the wanderer in the desert. The discovery of the properties of steam was apparently a matter of small consequence; but mark the applications of this knowledge in our age. Galvani observed that the contact of silver and steel produced contractions in animal fibres. Volta succeeded in developing the new agent in sufficient quantities to produce surprising results on the human system. Davy applied the same agent to deflagrate the most refractory bodies, and to overcome the most obstinate affinities. Oersted discovered its power to deflect the magnetic needle, and to magnetize the conductors along which it passed. Succeeding philosophers have developed the laws of electro-dynamics, and applied the principles of electro-magnetism to the production of rotary motion.
* Aaron H. Hurd, of Reach, Upper Canada, who died at the Wesleyan University, in 1836.
VOL. IX.-Oct., 1838.