An Address To Students
( Originally Published 1916 )
THERE is an idea regarding the nature of man which modern philosophy has sought, and is still seeking, to raise into clearness; the idea, namely, of secular growth. Man is not a thing of yesterday; nor do I imagine that the slightest controversial tinge is imported into this address when I say that he is not a thing of 6,000 years ago. Whether he came originally from stocks or stones, from nebulous gas or solar fire, I know not, if he had any such origin, the process of his transformation is as inscrutable to you and me as that of the grand old legend, according to which "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." But, however obscure man's origin may be, his growth is not to be denied. Here a little and there a little added through the ages have slowly transformed him from what he was into what he is. The doctrine has been held that the mind of the child is like a sheet of white paper, on which by education we can write what characters we please. This doctrine assuredly needs qualification and correction. In physics, when an external force is applied to a body with a view of affecting its inner texture, if we wish to predict the result, we must know whether the external force conspires with or opposes the internal forces of the body itself; and in bringing the influence of education to bear upon the new-born man his inner powers also must be taken into account. He comes to us as a bundle of inherited capacities and tendencies, labelled "from the indefinite past to the indefinite future" ; and he makes his transit from the one to the other through the education of the present time. The object of that education is, or ought to be, to provide wise exercise for his capacities, wise direction for his tendencies, and through this exercise and this direction to furnish his mind with such knowledge as may contribute to the usefulness, the beauty, and the nobleness of his life.
How is this discipline to be secured, this knowledge imparted? Two rival methods now solicit attention—the one organized and equipped, the labor of centuries having been expended in bringing it to its present state of perfection; the other, more or less chaotic, but becoming daily less so, and giving signs of enormous power, both as a source of knowledge and as a means of discipline. These two methods are the classical and the scientific method. I wish they were not rivals ; it is only bigotry and short-sightedness that make them so; for assuredly it is possible to give both of them fair play. Though hardly authorized to express an opinion upon the subject, I nevertheless hold the opinion that the proper study of a language is an intellectual discipline of the highest kind. If I except discussions on the comparative merits of Popery and Protestantism, English grammar was the most important discipline of my boyhood. The piercing through the involved and inverted sentences of "Paradise Lost"; the linking, of the verb to its often distant nominative, of the relative to its distant antecedent, of the agent to the object of the transitive verb, of the preposition to the noun or pronoun which it governed, the study of variations in mood and tense, the transpositions often necessary to bring out the true grammatical structure of a sentence—all this was to my young mind a discipline of the highest value, and a source of unflagging delight. How I rejoiced when I found a great author tripping, and was fairly able to pin him to a corner from which there was no escape ! As I speak, some of the sentences which exercised me when a boy rise to my recollection. For instance, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear" ; where the "He" is left, as it were, floating in mid-air without any verb to support it. I speak thus of English because it was of real value to me. I do not speak of other languages because their educational value for me was almost insensible. But knowing the value of English so well, I should be the last to deny, or even to doubt, the high discipline involved in the proper study of Latin and Greek.
That study, moreover, has other merits and recommendations. It is, as I have said, organized and systematized by long-continued use. It is an instrument wielded by some of our best intellects in the education of youth; and it can point to results in the achievements of our foremost men. What, then, has science to offer which is in the least degree likely to compete with such a system? I cannot better reply than by recurring to the grand old story from which I have already quoted. Speaking of the world and all that therein is, of the sky and the stars around it, the ancient writer says, "And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good." It is the body of things thus described which science offers to the study of man. There is a very renowned argument much prized and much quoted by theologians, in which the universe is compared to a watch. Let us deal practically with this comparison. Supposing a watch-maker, having completed his instrument, to be so satisfied with his work as to call it very good, what would you under-stand him to mean? You would not suppose that he referred to the dial-plate in front and the chasing of the case behind, so much as to the wheels and pinions, the springs and jewelled pivots of the works within—to those qualities and powers, in short, which enable the watch to perform its work as a keeper of time. With regard to the knowledge of such a watch he would be a mere ignoramus who would content himself with outward inspection. I do not wish to say one severe word here to-day, but I fear that many of those who are very loud in their praise of the works of the Lord know them only in this outside and superficial way. It is the inner works of the universe which science reverently uncovers; it is the study of these that she recommends as a discipline worthy of all acceptation.
The ultimate problem of physics is to reduce matter by analysis to its lowest condition of divisibility, and force to its simplest manifestations, and then by synthesis to construct from these elements the world as it stands. We are still a long way from the final solution of this problem; and when the solution comes, it will be more one of spiritual insight than of actual observation. But though we are still a long way from this complete intellectual mastery of nature, we have conquered vast regions of it, have learned their polities and the play of their powers. We live upon a ball of 8,000 miles in diameter, swathed by an atmosphere of unknown height. This ball has been molten by heat, chilled to a solid, and sculptured by water. It is made up of substances possessing distinctive properties and modes of action, which offer problems to the intellect, some profitable to the child, others taxing the highest powers of the philosopher. Our native sphere turns on its axis, and revolves in space. It is one of a band which all do the same. It is illuminated by a sun which, though nearly a hundred millions of miles distant, can be brought virtually into our closets and there subjected to examination. It has its winds and clouds, its rain and frost, its light, heat, sound, electricity, and magnetism. And it has its vast kingdoms of animals and vegetables. To a most amazing extent the human mind has conquered these things, and revealed the logic which runs through them. Were they facts only, without logical relationship, science might, as a means of discipline, suffer in comparison with language. But the whole body of phenomena is instinct with law; the facts are hung on principles, and the value of physical science as a means of discipline consists in the motion of the intellect, both inductively and deductively, along the lines of law marked out by phenomena. As regards the discipline to which I have already referred as derivable from the study of languages—that, and more, is involved in the study of physical science. Indeed, I believe it would be possible so to limit and arrange the study of a portion of physics as to render the mental exercise involved in it almost qualitatively the same as that involved in the unravelling of a language.
I have thus far confined myself to the purely intellectual side of this question. But man is not all intellect. If he were so, science would, I believe, be his proper nutriment. But he feels as well as thinks; he is receptive of the sublime and beautiful as well as of the true. Indeed, I believe that even the intellectual action of a complete man is, consciously or unconsciously, sustained by an undercurrent of the emotions. It is vain to attempt to separate the moral and emotional from the intellectual. Let a man but observe himself, and he will, if I mistake not, find that in nine cases out of ten, the emotions constitute the motive force which pushes his intellect into action. The reading of the works of two men, neither of them imbued with the spirit of modern science—neither of them, indeed, friendly to that spirit—has placed me here to-day. These men are the English Carlyle and the American Emerson. I must ever gratefully remember that through three long cold German winters Carlyle placed me in my tub, even when ice was on its surface, at five o'clock every morning—not slavishly, but cheerfully, meeting each day's studies with a resolute will, determined whether vie-for or vanquished not to shrink from difficulty. I never should have gone through Analytical Geometry and the Calculus had it not been for those men. I never should have become a physical investigator, and hence without them I should not have been here today. They told me what I ought to do in a way that caused me to do it, and all my consequent intellectual action is to be traced to this purely moral source. To Carlyle and Emerson I ought to add Fichte, the greatest representative of pure idealism. These three unscientific men made me a practical scientific worker. They called out "Act!" I hearkened to the summons, taking the liberty, however, of determining for myself the direction which effort was to take.
And I may now cry "Act!" but the potency of action must be yours. I may pull the trigger, but if the gun be not charged there is no result. We are creators in the intellectual world as little as in the physical. We may remove obstacles, and render latent capacities active, but we cannot suddenly change the nature of man. The "new birth" itself implies the pre-existence of a character which requires not to be created but brought forth. You cannot by any amount of missionary labor suddenly transform the savage into the civilized Christian. The improvement of man is secular—not the work of an hour or of a day. But though indubitably bound by our organizations, no man knows what the potentialities of any human mind may be, requiring only release to be brought into action. There are in the mineral world certain crystals—certain forms, for instance, of fluor-spar, which have lain darkly in the earth for ages, but which nevertheless have a potency of light locked up within them. In their case the potential has never become actual—the light is in fact held back by a molecular detent. When these crystals are warmed, the detent is lifted, and an outflow of light immediately begins. I know not how many of you may be in the condition of this fluor-spar. For aught I know, every one of you may be in this condition, requiring but the proper agent to be applied—the proper word to be spoken—to remove a detent, and to render you conscious of light and warmth within yourselves and sources of both to others.
The circle of human nature, then, is not complete with-out the are of the emotions. The lilies of the field have a value for us beyond their botanical ones—a certain lightening of the heart accompanies the declaration that "Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." The sound of the village bell has a value beyond its acoustical one. The setting sun has a value beyond its optical one. The starry heavens, as you know, had for Immanuel Kant a value beyond their astronomical one. I think it very desirable to keep this horizon of the emotions open, and not to permit either priest or philosopher to draw down his shutters between you and it. Here the dead languages, which are sure to be beaten by science in the purely intellectual fight, have an irresistible claim. They supplement the work of science by exalting and refining the aesthetic faculty, and must on this account be cherished by all who desire to see human culture complete. There must be a reason for the fascination which these languages have so long exercised upon powerful and elevated minds-a fascination which will probably continue for men of Greek and Roman mold to the end of time.
In connection with this question one very obvious danger besets many of the more earnest spirits of our day the danger of haste in endeavoring to give the feelings repose. We are distracted by systems of theology and philosophy which were taught to us when young, and which now excite in us a hunger and a thirst for knowledge not proved to be attainable. There are periods when the judgment ought to remain in suspense, the data on which a decision might be based being absent. This discipline of suspending the judgment is a common one in science, but not so common as it ought to be elsewhere. I walked down Regent Street some time ago with a man of great gifts and acquirements, discussing with him various theological questions. I could not accept his views of the origin and destiny of the universe, nor was I prepared to enunciate any definite views of my own. He turned to me at length and said, "You surely must have a theory of the universe." That I should in one way or another have solved this mystery of mysteries seemed to my friend a matter of course. "I have not even a theory of magnetism'' was my reply. We ought to learn to wait. We ought assuredly to pause before closing with the advances of those expounders of the ways of God to men, who offer us intellectual peace at the modest cost of intellectual life.
The teachers of the world ought to be its best men, and for the present at all events such men must learn self-trust. By the fulness and freshness of their own lives and utterances they must awaken life in others. The hopes and terrors which influenced our fathers are passing away, and our trust henceforth must rest on the innate strength of man's moral nature. And here, I think, the poet will have a great part to play in the future culture of the world. To him, when he rightly understands his mission, and does not flinch from the tonic discipline which it assuredly demands, we have a right to look for that heightening and brightening of life which so many of us need. To him it is given for a long time to come to fill those shores which the recession of the theologic tide has left exposed. Void of offence to science, he may freely deal with conceptions which science shuns, and become the illustrator and interpreter of that Power which, as has hitherto filled and strengthened the human heart.
Let me utter one practical word in conclusion—take care of your health. There have been men who by wise attention to this point might have risen to any eminence—might have made great discoveries, written great poems, commanded armies, or ruled states, but who by unwise neglect of this point have come to nothing. Imagine Hercules as oarsman in a rotten boat; what can he do there but by the very force of his stroke expedite the ruin of his craft? Take care then of the timbers of your boat, and avoid all practices likely to introduce either wet or dry rot among them. And this is not to be accomplished by desultory or intermittent efforts of the will, but by the formation of habits. The will no doubt has sometimes to put forth its strength in order to crush the special temptation. But the formation of right habits is essential to your permanent security. They diminish your chance of falling when assailed, and they augment your chance of recovery when overthrown.