The Belfast Address
( Originally Published 1916 )
AN impulse inherent in primeval man turned his thoughts and questionings betimes toward the sources of natural phenomena. The same impulse, inherited and intensified, is the spur of scientific action today. Determined by it, by a process of abstraction from experience we form physical theories which lie beyond the pale of experience, but which satisfy the desire of the mind to see every natural occurrence resting upon a cause. In forming their notions of the origin of things, our earliest historic (and doubtless, we might add, our prehistoric) ancestors pursued, as far as their intelligence permitted, the same course. They also fell back upon experience; but with this difference — that the particular experiences which furnished the warp and woof of their theories were drawn, not from the study of nature, but from what lay much closer to them—the observation of men. Their theories accordingly took an anthropomorphic form. To super-sensual beings, which, "however potent and invisible, were nothing but a species of human creatures, perhaps raised from among mankind, and retaining all human passions and appetites,'" were handed over the rule and governance of natural phenomena.
Tested by observation and reflection, these early notions failed in the long run to satisfy the more penetrating intellects of our race. Far in the depths of history we find men of exceptional power differentiating themselves from the crowd, rejecting these anthropomorphic notions, and seeking to connect natural phenomena with their physical principles. But, long prior to these purer efforts of the understanding, the merchant had been abroad, and rendered the philosopher possible; commerce had been developed, wealth amassed, leisure for travel and speculation secured, while races educated under different conditions, and therefore differently informed and endowed, had been stimulated and sharpened by mutual contact. In those regions where the commercial aristocracy of ancient Greece mingled with their Eastern neighbors, the sciences were born, being nurtured and developed by free-thinking and courageous men. The state of things to be displaced may be gathered from a passage of Euripides quoted by Hume. "There is nothing in the world; no glory, no prosperity. The gods toss all into confusion; mix everything with its reverse, that all of us, from our ignorance and uncertainty, may pay them the more worship and reverence." Now as science demands the radical extirpation of caprice, and the absolute reliance upon law in nature, there grew, with the growth of scientific notions, a desire and determination to sweep from the field of theory this mob of gods and demons, and to place natural phenomena on a basis more congruent with themselves.
The problem which had been previously approached from above was now attacked from below; theoretic effort passed from the super- to the subsensible. It was felt that to construct the universe in idea it was necessary to have some notion of its constituent parts—of what Lucretius subsequently called the "First Beginnings." Abstracting again from experience, the leaders of scientific speculation reached at length the pregnant doctrine of atoms and molecules, the latest developments of which were set forth with such power and clearness at the last meeting of the British Association. Thought, no doubt, had long hovered about this doctrine before it attained the precision and completeness which it assumed in the mind of Democritus,' a philosopher who may well for a moment arrest our attention. "Few great men," says Lange, a non-materialist, in his excellent "History of Materialism," to the spirit and to the letter of which I am equally indebted, "have been so despitefully used by history as Democritus. In the distorted images sent down to us through unscientific traditions, there remains of him almost nothing but the name of `the laughing philosopher,' while figures of immeasurably smaller significance spread themselves out at full length before us." Lange speaks of Bacon's high appreciation of Democritus-for ample illustrations of which I am indebted to my excel-lent friend Mr. Spedding, the learned editor and biographer of Bacon. It is evident, indeed, that Bacon considered Democritus to be a man of weightier metal than either Plato or Aristotle, though their philosophy "was noised and celebrated in the schools, amid the din and pomp of professors." It was not they, but Genseric and Attila and the barbarians, who destroyed the atomic philosophy. "For, at a time when all human learning had suffered shipwreck, these planks of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy, as being of a lighter and more inflated substance, were preserved and came down to us, while things more solid sank and almost passed into oblivion."
The son of a wealthy father, Democritus devoted the whole of his inherited fortune to the culture of his mind. He travelled everywhere; visited Athens when Socrates and Plato were there, but quitted the city without making himself known. Indeed, the dialectic strife in which Socrates so much delighted had no charm for Democritus, who held that "the man who readily contradicts, and uses many words, is unfit to learn anything truly right." He is said to have discovered and educated Protagoras the Sophist, being struck as much by the manner in which he, being a hewer of wood, tied up his fagots, as by the sagacity of his conversation. Democritus returned poor from his travels, was supported by his brother, and at length wrote his great work entitled "Diakosmos," which he read publicly before the people of his native town. He was honored by his countrymen in various ways, and died serenely at a great age.
The principles enunciated by Democritus reveal his uncompromising antagonism to those who deduced the phenomena of nature from the caprices of the gods. They are briefly these: 1. From nothing comes nothing. Nothing that exists can be destroyed. All changes are due to the combination and separation of molecules. 2. Nothing happens by chance; every occurrence has its cause, from which it follows by necessity. 3. The only existing things are the atoms and empty space; all else is mere opinion.
4. The atoms are infinite in number and infinitely various in form; they strike together, and the lateral motions and whirlings which thus arise are the beginnings of worlds.
5. The varieties of all things depend upon the varieties of their atoms, in number, size, and aggregation. 6. The soul consists of- fine, smooth, round atoms, like those of fire. These are the most mobile of all: they interpenetrate the whole body, and in their motions the phenomena of life arise.
The first five propositions are a fair general statement of the atomic philosophy, as now held. As regards the sixth, Democritus made his finer atoms do duty for the nervous system, whose functions were then unknown. The atoms of Democritus are individually without sensation; they combine in obedience to mechanical laws; and not only organic forms, but the phenomena of sensation and thought, are the result of their combination.
That great enigma, "the exquisite adaptation of one part of an organism to another part, and to the conditions of life," more especially the construction of the human body, Democritus made no attempt to solve. Empedocles, a man of more fiery and poetic nature, introduced the notion of love and hate among the atoms, to account for their combination and separation; and bolder than Democritus, he struck in with the penetrating thought, linked, however, with some wild speculation, that it lay in the very nature of those combinations which were suited to their ends (in other words, in harmony with their environment) to maintain themselves, while unfit combinations, having no proper habitat, must rapidly disappear. Thus, more than 2,000 years ago, the doctrine of the "survival of the fittest," which in our day, not on the basis of vague conjecture, but of positive knowledge, has been raised to such extraordinary significance, had received at all events partial enunciation.'
Epicurus, said to be the son of a poor schoolmaster at Samos, is the next dominant figure in the history of the atomic philosophy. He mastered the writings of Democritus, heard lectures in Athens, went back to Samos, and subsequently wandered through various countries. He finally returned to Athens, where he bought a garden, and surrounded himself by pupils, in the midst of whom he lived a pure and serene life, and died a peaceful death. Democritus looked to the soul as the ennobling part of man; even beauty, without understanding, partook of animalism. Epicurus also rated the spirit above the body; the pleasure of the body being that of the moment, while the spirit could draw upon the future and the past. His philosophy was almost identical with that of Democritus; but he never quoted either friend or foe. One main object of Epicurus was to free the world from superstition and the fear of death. Death he treated with indifference. It merely robs us of sensation. As long as we are, death is not; and when death is, we are not. Life has no more evil for him who has made up his mind that it is no evil not to live. He adored the gods, but not in the ordinary fashion. The idea of Divine power, properly purified, he thought an elevating one. Still he taught, "Not he is godless who rejects the gods of the crowd, but rather he who accepts them." The gods were to him eternal and immortal beings, whose blessedness excluded every thought of care or occupation of any kind. Nature pursues her course in accordance with everlasting laws, the gods never interfering. They haunt
The lucid interspace of world and world
Lange considers the relation of Epicurus to the gods subjective; the indication, probably, of an ethical requirement of his own nature. We cannot read history with open eyes, or study human nature to its depths, and fail to discern such a requirement. Man never has been, and he never will be, satisfied with the operations and products of the Understanding alone; hence physical science cannot cover all the demands of his nature. But the history of the efforts made to satisfy these demands might be broadly described as a history of errors—the error, in great part, consisting in ascribing fixity to that which is fluent, which varies as we vary, being gross when we are gross, and becoming, as our capacities widen, more abstract and sublime. On one great point the mind of Epicurus was at peace. He neither sought nor expected, here or hereafter, any personal profit from his relation to the gods. And it is assuredly a fact that loftiness and serenity of thought may be promoted by conceptions which involve no idea of profit of this kind. "Did I not believe," said a great man ' to me once, "that an Intelligence is at the heart of things, my life on earth would be intolerable." The utterer of these words is not, in my opinion, rendered less, but more, noble by the fact that it was the need of ethical harmony here, and not the thought of personal happiness hereafter, that prompted his observation.
There are persons, not belonging to the highest intellectual zone, nor yet to the lowest, to whom perfect clearness of exposition suggests want of depth. They find comfort and edification in an abstract and learned phraseology. To such people Epicurus, who spared no pains to rid his style of every trace of haze and turbidity, appeared, on this very account, superficial. He had, how-ever, a disciple who thought it no unworthy occupation to spend his days and nights in the effort to reach the clearness of his master, and to whom the Greek philosopher is mainly indebted for the extension and perpetuation of his fame. Some two centuries after the death of Epicurus, Lucretius' wrote his great poem, "On the Nature of Things," in which he, a Roman, developed with extraordinary ardor the philosophy of his Greek predecessor. He wishes to win over his friend Memnius to the school of Epicurus; and although he has no rewards in a future life to offer, although his object appears to be a purely negative one, he addresses his friend with the heat of an apostle. His object, like that of his great forerunner, is the destruction of superstition; and considering that men in his day trembled before every natural event as a direct monition from the gods, and that everlasting torture was also in prospect, the freedom aimed at by Lucretius might be deemed a positive good. "This terror," he says, "and darkness of mind, must be dispelled, not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and the law of nature." He refutes the notion that any-thing can come out of nothing, or that what is once begotten can be recalled to nothing. The first beginnings, the atoms, are indestructible, and into them all things can be resolved at last. Bodies are partly atoms and partly combinations of atoms; but the atoms nothing can quench. They are strong in solid singleness, and, by their denser combination, all things can be closely packed and exhibit enduring strength. He denies that matter is infinitely di-visible. We come at length to the atoms, without which, as an imperishable substratum, all order in the generation and development of things would be destroyed.
The mechanical shock of the atoms being, in his view, the all-sufficient cause of things, he combats the notion that the constitution of nature has been in any way deter-mined by intelligent design. The interaction of the atoms throughout infinite time rendered all manner of combinations possible. Of these, the fit ones persisted, while the unfit ones disappeared. Not after sage deliberation did the atoms station themselves in their right places, nor did they bargain what motions they should assume. From all eternity they have been driven together, and, after trying motions and unions of every kind, they fell at length into the arrangements out of which this system of things has been evolved. "If you will apprehend and keep in mind. these things, Nature, free at once, and rid of her haughty lords, is seen to do all things spontaneously of herself, without the meddling of the gods." '
To meet the objection that his atoms cannot be seen, Lucretius describes a violent storm, and shows that the invisible particles of air act in the same way as the visible particles of water. We perceive, moreover, the different smells of things, yet never see them coming to our nostrils. Again, clothes hung up on a shore which waves break upon, become moist, and then get dry if spread out in the sun, though no eye can see either the approach or the escape of the water-particles. A ring, worn long on the finger, becomes thinner; a water-drop hollows out a stone; the plowshare is rubbed away in the field; the street-pavement is worn by the feet; but the particles that disappear at any moment we cannot see. Nature acts through invisible particles. That Lucretius had a strong scientific imagination the foregoing references prove. A fine illustration of his power in this respect is his ex-planation of the apparent rest of bodies whose atoms are in motion. He employs the image of a flock of sheep with skipping lambs, which, seen from a distance, presents simply a white patch upon the green hill, the jumping of the individual lambs being quite invisible.
His vaguely grand conception of the atoms falling eternally through space, suggested the nebular hypothesis to Kant, its first propounder. Far beyond the limits of our visible world are to be found atoms innumerable, which have never been united to form bodies, or which, if once united, have been again dispersed—falling silently through immeasurable intervals of time and space. As everywhere throughout the All the same conditions are repeated, so must the phenomena be repeated also. Above us, below us, beside us, therefore, are worlds without end; and this, when considered, must dissipate every thought of a deflection of the universe by the gods. The worlds come and go, attracting new atoms out of limitless space, or dispersing their own particles. The reputed death of Lucre tius, which forms the basis of Mr. Tennyson's noble poem, is in strict accordance with his philosophy, which was severe and pure.