Literature and Science1

The Nineteenth Century August 1882
Matthew Arnold

[216] No wisdom, nor counsel, nor understanding, against the Eternal says the Wise Man. Against the natural and appointed course of things there is no contending. Ten years ago I remarked on the gloomy prospect for letters in this country, inasmuch as while the aristocratic class, according to a famous dictum of Lord Beaconsfield, was totally indifferent to letters, the friends of physical, science on the other hand, a growing and popular body, were in active revolt against them. To deprive letters of the too great place they had hitherto filled in men’s estimation, and to substitute other studies for them, was now the object, I observed, of a sort of crusade with the friends of physical science–a busy host important, in itself, important because of the gifted leaders who march at its head, important from its strong and increasing hold upon public favour.

I could not help, I then went on to say, I could not help being moved with a desire to plead with the friends of physical science on behalf of letters, and in deprecation of the slight which they put upon them. But from giving effect to this desire I was at that time drawn off by more pressing matters. Ten years have passed, and the prospects of any pleader for letters have certainly not mended. If the friends of physical science were in the morning sunshine of popular favour even then, they stand now in its meridian radiance. Sir Josiah Mason founds a college at Birmingham to exclude ‘mere literary instruction and education;’ and at its opening a brilliant and charming debater, Professor Huxley, is brought down to pronounce their funeral oration. Mr. Bright, in his zeal for the United States, exhorts young people to drink deep of ‘Hiawatha;’ and the Times–which takes the gloomiest view possible of the future of letters, and thinks that a hundred years hence there will only be a few eccentrics reading letters and almost every one will be studying the natural sciences–the Times, instead of counselling Mr. Bright’s young people rather to drink deep of Homer, is for giving them, above all, ‘the works of Darwin and Lyell and Bell and Huxley,’ and for nourishing them upon the voyage of the ‘Challenger.’ Stranger still, a brilliant man [217] of letters in France, M. Renan, assigns the same date of hundred years hence, as the date by which the historical and critical studies, in which his life has been passed and his reputation made will have fallen into neglect, and deservedly so fallen. It is the regret of his life, M. Renan tells us, that he did not himself originally pursue the natural sciences, in which he might have forestalled Darwin in his discoveries.

What does it avail, in presence of all this, that we find one of your own prophets, Bishop Thirlwall, telling his brother who was sending a son to be educated abroad that he might be out of the way of Latin and Greek: ‘I do not think that the most perfect knowledge of every language now spoken under the sun could compensate for the want of them’? What does it avail, even, that an august lover of science, the great Goethe, should have said ‘I wish all success to those who are for preserving to the literature of Greece and Rome its predominant place in education’? Goethe was a wise man, but the irresistible current of things was not then manifest as it is now. No wisdom, nor counsel, nor understanding, against the Eternal!

But to resign oneself too passively to supposed designs of the Eternal is fatalism. Perhaps they are not really designs of the Eternal at all, but designs–let us for example say–of Mr. Herbert Spencer. Still the design of abasing what is called ‘mere literary instruction and education,’ and of exalting what is called ‘sound, extensive, and practical scientific knowledge,’ is a very positive design and makes great progress. The Universities are by no means outside its scope. At the recent congress in Sheffield of elementary teachers–a very able and important body of men whose movements I naturally follow with strong interest–at Sheffield one of the principal speakers proposed that the elementary teachers and the Universities should come together on the common ground of natural science. On the ground of the dead languages, he said, they could not possibly come together; but if the Universities would take natural science for their chosen and chief ground instead, they easily might. Mahomet was to go to the mountain, as there was no chance of the mountain’s being able to go to Mahomet.

The Vice-Chancellor has done me the honour to invite me to address you here to-day, although I am not a member of this great University. Your liberally conceived use of Sir Robert Rede’s lecture leaves you free in the choice of a person to deliver the lecture founded by him, and on the present occasion the Vice-Chancellor has gone for a lecturer to the sister University. I will venture to say that to an honour of this kind from the University of Cambridge no one on earth can be so sensible as a member of the University of Oxford. The two Universities are unlike anything else in the world, and they are very like one another. Neither of them is inclined to [218] go hastily into raptures over her own living offspring or over her sister’s; each of them is peculiarly sensitive to the good opinion of the other. Nevertheless they have their points of dissimilarity. One such point, in particular, cannot fail to arrest notice. Both Universities have told powerfully upon the mind and life of the nation. But the University of Oxford, of which I am a member, and to which I am deeply and affectionately attached, has produced great men, indeed, but has above all been the source or the centre of great movements. We will not now go back to the middle ages; we will keep within the range of what is called modem history. Within this range, we have the great movements of Royalism, Wesleyanism, Tractarianism, Ritualism, all of them having their source or their centre in Oxford. You have nothing of the kind. The movement taking its name from Charles Simeon is far, far less considerable than the movement taking its name from John Wesley. The movement attempted by the Latitude men in the seventeenth century is next to: nothing as a movement; the men are everything. And this is, in truth, your great your surpassing distinction: not your movements, but your men. From Bacon to Byron, what a splendid roll of great names you can point to! We, at Oxford, can show nothing equal to it. Yours is the University not of great movements, but of great, men. Our experience at Oxford disposes us, perhaps, to treat movements, whether our own, or extraneous movements such as the present, movement for revolutionising education, with too much respect. That disposition finds a corrective here. Masses make movements, individualities explode them. On mankind in the mass, a movement, once started, is apt to impose itself by routine; it is through the insight, the independence, the self-confidence of powerful single minds that its yoke is shaken off. In this University of great names, whoever wishes not to be demoralised by a movement comes into the right air for being stimulate to pluck up his courage and to examine what stuff movements are really made of.

Inspirited, then, by this tonic air in which I find myself speaking, I am boldly going to ask whether the present movement for ousting letters from their old predominance in education, and for transferring the predominance in education to the natural sciences, whether this brisk and flourishing movement ought to prevail, and whether it is likely that in the end it really will prevail. My own studies have been almost wholly in letters, and my visits to the field of the natural sciences have been very slight and inadequate, although those sciences strongly move my curiosity. A man of letters, it will perhaps be said, is quite incompetent to discuss the comparative merits of letters and natural science as means of education. His incompetence, however, if he attempts the discussion but is really incompetent for it, will be abundantly visible; nobody will be taken in; he will have plenty of sharp observers and critics to save mankind [219] from that danger. But the line I am going to follow is, as you will soon discover, so extremely simple, that perhaps it may be followed without failure even by one who for a more ambitious line of discussion would be quite incompetent.

Some of you may have met with a phrase of mine which has been the object of a good deal of comment; an observation to the effect that in our culture, the aim being to know ourselves and the world, we have, as the means to this end, to know the best which has been thought and said in the world. Professor Huxley, in his discourse at the opening of Sir Josiah Mason’s college, laying hold of this phrase, expanded it by quoting some more words of mine, which are these: ‘Europe is to be regarded as now being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working to a common result; and whose members have for their common outfit a knowledge of Greek, Roman and Eastern antiquity, and of one another. Special local and temporary advantages being put out of account, that modern nation will in the intellectual and spiritual spheres make most progress, which most thoroughly carries out this programme.’

Now on my phrase, thus enlarged, Professor Huxley remarks that I assert literature to contain the materials which suffice for making us know ourselves and the world. But it is not by any means clear, says he, that after having learnt all which ancient and modern literatures have to tell us, we have laid a sufficiently broad and deep foundation for that criticism of life which constitutes culture. On the contrary, Professor Huxley declares that he finds himself ‘wholly unable to admit that either nations or individuals will really advance, if their common outfit draws nothing from the stores of physical science. An army without weapons of precision and with no particular base of operations, might more hopefully enter upon a campaign on the Rhine, than a man devoid of a knowledge of what physical science has done in the last century, upon a criticism of life.’

This shows how needful it is, for those who are to discuss a matter together, to have a common understanding as to the sense of the terms they employ,–how needful, and how difficult. What Professor Huxley says, implies just the reproach which is so often brought against the study of belles lettres, as they are called: that the study is an elegant one, but slight and ineffectual; a smattering of Greek and Latin and other ornamental things, of little use for any one whose object is to get at truth. So, too, M. Renan talks of the ‘superficial humanism’ of a school-course which treats us as if we were all going to be poets, writers, orators, and he opposes this humanism to positive science, or the critical search after truth. And there is always a tendency in those who are remonstrating against the predominance of letters in education, to understand by letters belles lettres, and by belles [220] lettres a superficial humanism, the opposite of science or true knowledge.

But when we talk of knowing Greek and Roman antiquity, for instance, which is what people have called humanism, we mean a knowledge which is something more than a superficial humanism, mainly decorative. ‘I call all teaching scientific,’ says Wolf, the critic of Homer, ‘which is systematically laid out and followed up to its original sources. For example: a knowledge of classical antiquity is scientific when the remains of classical antiquity are correctly studied in the original languages.’ There can be no doubt that Wolf is perfectly right, that all learning is scientific which is systematically laid out and followed up to its original sources, and that a genuine humanism is scientific.

When I speak of knowing Greek and Roman antiquity, therefore, as a help to knowing ourselves and the world, I mean more than a knowledge of so much vocabulary, so much grammar, so many portions of authors, in the Greek and Latin languages. I mean knowing the Greeks and Romans, and their life and genius, and what they were and did in the world; what we get from them, and what is its value. That, at least, is the ideal; and when we talk of endeavouring to know Greek and Roman antiquity as a help to knowing ourselves and the world, we mean endeavouring so to know them as to satisfy this ideal, however much we may still fall short of it.

The same as to knowing our own and other modern nations, with the aim of getting to understand ourselves and the world. To know the best that has been thought and said by the modern nations, is to know, says Professor Huxley, ‘only what modern literatures have to tell us; it is the criticism of life contained in modem literature.’ And yet ‘the distinctive character of our times,’ he urges, ‘lies in the vast and constantly increasing part which is played by natural knowledge.’ And how, therefore, can a man, devoid of knowledge of what physical science has done in the last century, enter hopefully upon a criticism of modern life?

Let us, I say, be agreed about the meaning of the terms we are using. I talk of knowing the best which has been thought and uttered in the world; Professor Huxley says this means knowing literature. Literature is a large word; it may mean everything written with letters or printed in a book. Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia are thus literature. All knowledge that reaches us through books is literature. But by literature Professor Huxley means belles lettres. He means to make me say, that knowing the best which has been thought and said by the modern nations is knowing their belles lettres and no more. And this is no sufficient equipment, he argues, for a criticism of modern life. But as I do not mean, by knowing ancient Rome, knowing merely more or less of Latin belles lettres, and taking no account of Rome’s military and political and legal and ad[221]ministrative work in the world; and as, by knowing ancient Greece, I understand knowing her as the giver of Greek art, and the guide to a free and right use of reason and to scientific method, and the founder of our mathematics and physics and astronomy and biology–I understand knowing her as all this, and not merely knowing certain Greek poems, histories, and speeches–so as to the knowledge of modern nations also. By knowing modern nations, I mean not merely knowing their belles lettres, but knowing also what has been done by such men as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin. ‘Our ancestors learned,’ says Professor Huxley, ‘that the earth is the centre of the visible universe, and that man is the cynosure of things terrestrial; and more especially was it inculcated that the course of nature had no fixed order, but that it could be, and constantly was, altered.’ But for us now, says Professor Huxley, ‘the notions of the beginning and the end of the world entertained by our forefathers are no longer credible. It is very certain that the earth is not the chief body in the material universe, and that the world is not subordinated to man’s use. It is even more certain that nature is the expression of a definite order, with which nothing interferes.’ ‘And yet,’ he cries, ‘the purely classical education advocated by the representatives of the humanists in our day gives no inkling of all this!’

In due place and time we will perhaps touch upon the question of classical education, but at present the question is as to what is meant by knowing the best which modern nations have thought and said. It is not knowing their belles lettres merely that is meant. To know Italian belles lettres is not to know Italy, and to know English belles lettres is not to know England. Into knowing Italy and England there comes a great deal more, Galileo and Newton amongst it. The reproach of being a superficial humanism, a tincture of belles lettres, may attach rightly enough to some other disciplines; but to the particular discipline recommended when I proposed knowing the best that has been thought and said in the world, it does not apply. In that best I certainly include what in modern times has been thought and said by the great observers and knowers of nature.

There is, therefore, really no question between Professor Huxley and me as to whether knowing the results of the scientific study of nature is not required as apart of our culture, as well as knowing the products of literature and art. But to follow the processes by which those results are reached ought, say the friends of physical science, to be made the staple of education for the bulk of mankind. And here there does arise a question between those whom Professor Huxley calls with playful sarcasm ‘the Levites of culture,’ and those whom the poor humanist is sometimes apt to regard as its Nebucbadnezzars.

The great results of the scientific investigation of nature we are agreed upon knowing, but how much of our study are we bound to give to the processes by which those results are reached? The results [222] have their visible bearing on human life. But all the processes, too, all the items of fact, by which those results are established, are interesting. All knowledge is interesting to a wise man, and the knowledge of nature is interesting to all men. It is very interesting to know, that from the albuminous white of the egg the chick in the egg gets the materials for its flesh, bones, blood, and feathers, while from the fatty yolk of the egg it gets the heat and energy which enable it at length to break its shell and begin the world. It is less interesting, perhaps, but still it is interesting, to know that when a taper burns, the wax is converted into carbonic acid and water. Moreover, it is quite true that the habit of dealing with facts which is given by the study of nature is, as the friends of physical science praise it for being, an excellent discipline. The appeal is to observation and experiment; not only is it said that the thing is so, but we can be made to see that it is so. Not only does a man tell us that when a taper burns the wax is converted into carbonic acid and water, as a man may tell us, if he likes, that Charon is in his boat on the Styx, or that Victor Hugo is a truly great poet; but we are made to see that the conversion into carbonic acid and water does really happen. This reality of natural knowledge it is, which makes the friends of physical science contrast it, as a knowledge of things, with the humanist’s knowledge, which is, say they, a knowledge of words. And hence Professor Huxley is moved to lay it down that ‘for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education.’ And a certain President of the Section for Mechanical Science in the British Association is, in Scripture phrase, ‘very bold,’ and declares that if a man, in his education, ‘has substituted literature and history for natural science, he has chosen the less useful alternative.’ Whether we go these lengths or not, we must all admit that in natural science the habit gained of dealing with facts is a most valuable discipline, and that every one should have some experience of it.

But it is proposed to make the training in natural science the main part of education, for the great majority of mankind at any rate. And here, I confess, I part company with the friends of physical science, with whom up to this point I have been agreeing. In differing from them, however, I wish to proceed with the utmost caution and diffidence. The smallness of my acquaintance with the disciplines of natural science is ever before my mind, and I am fearful of doing them injustice. The ability of the partisans of natural science makes them formidable persons to contradict. The tone of tentative inquiry, which befits a being of dim faculties and bounded knowledge, is the tone I would wish to take and not to depart from. At present it seems to me, that those who are for giving to natural knowledge, as they call it, the chief place in the education of the majority of mankind, leave one important thing out of their account–the constitution of [223] human nature. But I put this forward on the strength of some facts not at all recondite, very far from it; facts capable of being stated in the simplest possible fashion, and to which, if I so state them, the man of science will, I am sure, be willing to allow their due weight.

Deny the facts altogether, I think, he hardly can. He can hardly deny, that when we set ourselves to enumerate the powers which go to the building up of human life, and say that they are the power of conduct, the power of intellect and knowledge, the power of beauty, and the power of social life and manners–he can hardly deny that this scheme, though drawn in rough and plain lines and not pretending to scientific exactness, does yet give a fairly true account of the matter. Human nature is built up by these powers; we have the need for them all. This is evident enough, and the friends of physical science will admit it. But perhaps they may not have sufficiently observed another thing: namely, that these powers just mentioned are not isolated, but there is in the generality of mankind a perpetual tendency to relate them one to another in divers ways. With one such way of relating them I am particularly concerned here. Following our instinct for intellect and knowledge, we acquire pieces of knowledge; and presently, in the generality of men, there arises the desire to relate these pieces of knowledge to our sense for conduct, to our sense for beauty, and there is weariness and dissatisfaction if the desire is balked. Now in this desire lies, I think, the strength of that hold which letters have upon us.

All knowledge is, as I said just now, interesting; and even items of knowledge which from the nature of the case cannot well be related, but must stand isolated in our thoughts, have their interest. ‘Even lists of exceptions have their interest. If we are studying Greek accents, it is interesting to know that pais and pas, and some other monosyllables of the same form of declension, do not take the circumflex upon the last syllable of the genitive plural, but vary, in this respect from the common rule. If we are studying physiology, it is interesting to know that the pulmonary artery carries dark blood and the pulmonary vein carries bright blood, departing in this respect from the common rule for the division of labour between the veins and the arteries. But every one knows how we seek naturally to combine the pieces of our knowledge together, to bring them under general rules, to relate them to principles; and how unsatisfactory and tiresome it would be to go on for ever learning lists of exceptions, or accumulating items of fact which must stand isolated.

Well, that same need of relating our knowledge which operates here within the sphere of our knowledge itself, we shall find operating, also, outside that sphere. We feel, as we go on learning and knowing, the vast majority of mankind feel the need of relating what we have learnt and known to the sense which we have in us for conduct, to the sense which we have in us for beauty.

[224] The prophetess Diotima explained to Socrates that love is, in fact, nothing but the desire in men that good should be for ever present to them. This primordial desire it is, I suppose–this desire in men that good should be for ever present to them–which causes in us the instinct for relating our knowledge to our sense for conduct and to our sense for beauty. At any rate, with men in general the instinct exists. Such is human nature. Such is human nature; and in seeking to gratify the instinct we are following the instinct of self-preservation in humanity.

Knowledges which cannot be directly related to the sense for beauty, to the sense for conduct, are instrument-knowledges; they lead on to other knowledge, which can. A man who passes his life in instrument-knowledges is a specialist. They may be invaluable as instruments to something beyond, for those who have the gift thus to employ them; and they may be disciplines in themselves wherein it is useful to every one to have some schooling. But it is inconceivable that the generality of men should pass all their mental life with Greek accents or with formal logic. My friend Professor Sylvester, who holds transcendental doctrines as to the virtue of mathematics, is far away in America; and therefore, if in the Cambridge Senate House one may say such a thing without profaneness, I will hazard the opinion that for the majority of mankind a little of mathematics, also, goes a long way. Of course this is quite consistent with their being of immense importance as an instrument to something else; but it is the few who have the aptitude for thus using them, not the bulk of mankind.

The natural sciences do not stand on the same footing with these instrument-knowledges. Experience shows us that the generality of men will find more interest in learning that when a taper bums the wax is converted into carbonic acid and water, or in learning the explanation of the phenomenon of dew, or in learning how the circulation of the blood is carried on, than they find in learning that the genitive plural of pais and pas does not take the circumflex on the termination. And one piece of natural knowledge is added to another and others to that, and at last we come to propositions so interesting as the proposition that ‘our ancestor was a hairy quadruped furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in his habits.’ Or we come to propositions of such reach and importance as those which Professor Huxley brings us, when he says that the notions of our forefathers about the beginning and the end of the world were all wrong, and that nature is the expression of a definite order with which nothing interferes.

Interesting, indeed, these results of science are, important they are, and we should all be acquainted with them. But what I now wish you to mark is, that we are still, when they are propounded to us and we receive them, we are still in the sphere of intellect and [225] knowledge. And for the generality of men there will be found, I say, to arise, when they have duly taken in the proposition that their ancestor was ‘a hairy quadruped furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in his habits,’ there will be found to arise an invincible desire to relate this proposition to the sense within them for conduct and to the sense for beauty. But this the men of science will not do for us, and will hardly, even, profess to do. They will give us other pieces of knowledge, other facts, about other animals, and their ancestors, or about plants, or about stones, or about stars; and they may finally bring us to those ‘general conceptions of the universe which have been forced upon us,’ says Professor Huxley, ‘by physical science.’ But still it will be knowledge only which they give us; knowledge not put for us into relation with our sense for conduct, oar sense for beauty, and touched with emotion by being so put; not thus put for us, and therefore, to the majority of mankind, after a certain while unsatisfying, wearying.

Not to the born naturalist, I admit. But what do we mean by a born naturalist? We mean a man in whom the zeal for observing nature is so strong and eminent that it marks him off from the bulk of mankind. Such a man will pass his life happily in collecting natural knowledge and reasoning upon it, and will ask for nothing, or hardly anything, more. I have heard it said that the sagacious and admirable naturalist whom we have lately lost, Mr. Darwin, once owned to a friend that for his part he did not experience the necessity for two things which most men find so necessary to them–poetry and religion; science and the domestic affections, he thought, were enough. To a born naturalist, I can well understand that this should seem so. So absorbing is his occupation with nature, so strong his love for his occupation, that he goes on acquiring natural knowledge and reasoning upon it, and has little time or inclination for thinking about getting it related to the desire in man for conduct, the desire in man for beauty. He relates it to them for himself as be goes along, so far as he feels the need; and he draws from the domestic affections all the additional solace necessary. But then Darwins are very rare. Another great and admirable master of natural knowledge, Faraday, was a Sandemanian. That is to say, he related his knowledge to his instinct for conduct and to his instinct for beauty by the aid of that respectable Scottish sectary, Robert Sandeman. And for one man amongst us with the disposition to do as Darwin did in this respect, there are fifty, probably, with the disposition to do as Faraday.

Professor Huxley holds up to scorn mediaeval education, with its neglect of the knowledge of nature, its poverty of literary studies, its formal logic devoted to ‘showing how and why that which the Church said was true must be true.’ But the great mediaeval Universities were not brought into being, we may be sure, by the zeal for giving a jejune and contemptible education. Kings have [226] been our nursing fathers, and queens have been our nursing mothers, but not for this. Our Universities came into being because the supposed knowledge delivered by Scripture and the Church so deeply engaged men’s hearts, and so simply, easily, and powerfully related itself to the desire for conduct, the desire for beauty–the general desire in men, as Diotima said, that good should be for ever present to them. All other knowledge was dominated by this supposed knowledge and was subordinated to it, because of the surpassing strength of the hold which it gained upon men’s affections by allying itself profoundly with their sense for conduct and their sense for beauty.

But now, says Professor Huxley, conceptions of the universe fatal to the notions held by our forefathers have been forced upon us by physical science. Grant to him that they are thus fatal, that they must and will become current everywhere, and that every one will finally perceive them to be fatal to the beliefs of our forefathers. The need of humane letters, as they are truly called, because they serve the paramount desire in men that good should be for ever present to them,–the need of humane letters to establish a relation between the new conceptions and our instinct for beauty, our instinct for conduct, is only the more visible. The middle age could do without humane letters, as it could do without the study of nature, because its supposed knowledge was made to engage its emotions so powerfully. Grant that the supposed knowledge disappears, its power of being made to engage the emotions will of course disappear along with it–but the emotions will remain. Now if we find by experience that humane letters have an undeniable power of engaging the emotions, the importance of humane letters in man’s training becomes not less, but greater, in proportion to the success of science in extirpating what it calls ‘mediaeval thinking.’

Have humane letters, have poetry and eloquence, the power here attributed to them of engaging the emotions, and how do they exercise it? and if they have it and exercise it, how do they exercise it in relating the results of natural science to man’s sense for conduct, his sense for beauty? All these questions may be asked. First, have poetry and eloquence the power of calling out the emotions? The appeal is to experience. Experience shows us that for the vast majority of men, for mankind in general, they have the power. Next, how do they exercise it? And this is perhaps a case for applying the Preacher’s words: ‘Though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea, further, though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.’ Why should it be one thing, in its effect upon the emotions, to say, ‘Patience is a virtue,’ and quite another thing, in its effect upon the emotions, to say with Homer,2 [orig. Greek] [227] ‘for an enduring heart have the destinies appointed to the children of men’? Why should it be one thing, in its effect upon the emotions, to say with Spinoza, Felicitas in eo consistit quod homo suum esse conservare potest–‘Man’s happiness consists in his being able to preserve his own essence,’ and quite another thing, in its effect upon the emotions, to say, ‘What is a ‘Man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, forfeit himself?’ How does this difference of effect arise? I cannot tell, and I am not much concerned to know; the important thing is that it does arise and that we can profit by it. But how, finally, are poetry and eloquence to exercise the power of relating the results of natural science to man’s instinct for conduct, his instinct for beauty? And here again I answer that I do not know how they will exercise it, but that they can and will exercise it I am sure. I do not mean that modern philosophical poets and modem philosophical moralists are to relate for us the results of modern scientific research to our need for conduct, our need for beauty. I mean that we shall find, as a matter of experience, if we know the best that has been thought and uttered in the world, we shall find that the art and poetry and eloquence of men who lived, perhaps, long ago, who had the most limited natural knowledge, who had the most erroneous conceptions about many important matters, we shall find that they have in fact not only the power of refreshing and delighting us, they have also the power,–such is the strength and worth, in essentials, of their authors’ criticism of life,–they have a fortifying and elevating and quickening and suggestive power capable of wonderfully helping us to relate the results of modem science to our need for conduct, our need for beauty. Homer’s conceptions of the physical universe were, I imagine, grotesque; but really, under the shock of bearing from modern science that ‘the world is not subordinated to man’s use, and that man is not the cynosure of things terrestrial,’ I could desire no better comfort than Homer’s line which I quoted just now, [original Greek] ‘for an enduring heart have the destinies appointed to the children of men.’

And the more that men’s minds are cleared, the more that the results of science are frankly accepted, the more that poetry and eloquence come to be studied as what they really are–the criticism of life by gifted men, alive and active with extraordinary power at an unusual number of points; so much the more will the value of humane letters, and of art also, which is an utterance having a like kind of power with theirs, be felt and acknowledged, and their place in education be secured.

Let us, all of us avoid as much as possible any invidious comparison between the merits of humane letters, as means of education, and the [228] merits of the natural sciences. But when some President of a Section for Mechanical Science insists on making the comparison, and tells us that ‘he who in his training has substituted literature and history for natural science has chosen the less useful alternative,’ let us say to him that the student of humane letters only, will at least know also the great general conceptions brought in by modern physical science; for science, as Professor Huxley says, forces them upon us all. But the student of the natural sciences only, will, by our very hypothesis, know nothing of humane letters; not to mention that in setting himself to be perpetually accumulating natural knowledge, he sets himself to do what only specialists have the gift for doing genially. And so he will be unsatisfied, or at any rate incomplete, and even more incomplete than the student of humane letters.

I once mentioned in a school-report how a young man in a training college, having to paraphrase the passage in Macbeth beginning,

turned this line into, ‘Can you not wait upon the lunatic?’ And I remarked what a curious state of things it would be, if every pupil of our primary schools knew that when a taper burns the wax is converted into carbonic acid and water, and thought at the same time that a good paraphrase for

was, ‘Can you not wait upon the lunatic?’ If one is driven to choose, I think I would rather have a young person ignorant about the converted wax, but aware that ‘Can you not wait upon the lunatic?’ is bad, than a young person whose education had left things the other way.

Or to go higher than the pupils of our primary schools. I have in my mind’s eye a member of Parliament who goes to travel in America, who relates his travels, and who shows a really masterly knowledge of the geology of the country and of its mining capabilities, but who ends by gravely suggesting that the United States should borrow a prince from our Royal Family and should make him their king, and should create a House of Lords of great landed proprietors after the pattern of ours; and then America, he thinks, would have her future happily secured. Surely, in this case, the President of the Section for Mechanical Science would himself hardly say that our member of Parliament, by concentrating himself upon geology and mining and so on, and not attending to literature and history, had ‘chosen the more useful alternative.’

If then there is to be separation and option between humane letters on the one band, and the natural sciences on the other, the great majority of mankind, all who have not exceptional and overpowering aptitudes for the study of nature, would do well, I cannot but think, to choose [229] to be educated in humane letters rather than in the natural sciences. Letters will call out their being at more points, will make them live more.

And indeed, to say the truth, I cannot really think that humane letters are in danger of being thrust out from their leading place in education, in spite of the array of authorities against them at this moment. So long as human nature is what it is, their attractions will remain irresistible. They will be studied, more rationally, but they will not lose their place. What will happen will rather be that there will be crowded into education other matters besides, far too many; there will be, perhaps, a period of unsettlement and confusion and false tendency; but letters will not in the end lose their leading place. If they lose it for a time, they will get it back again. We shall be brought back to them by our wants and aspirations. And a poor humanist may possess his soul in patience, neither strive nor cry, admit the energy and brilliancy of the partisans of physical science, and their present favour with the public, to be far greater than his own, and still have a happy faith that the nature of things works silently on behalf of the studies which he loves, and that, while we shall all have to acquaint ourselves with the great results reached by modem science, and to give ourselves as much training in its disciplines as we can conveniently carry, yet the majority of men will always require humane letters, and so much the more as they have the more and the greater results of science to relate to the need in man for conduct, and to the need in him for beauty.

And so we have turned in favour of the humanities the No wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel, against the Eternal! which seemed against them when we started. The ‘hairy quadruped furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in his habits’ carried hidden in his nature, apparently, something destined to develop into a necessity for humane letters. The time warns me to stop; but most probably, if we went on, we might arrive at the further conclusion that our ancestor carried in his nature, also, a necessity for Greek. The attackers of the established course of study think that against Greek, at any rate, they have irresistible arguments. Literature may perhaps be needed in education, they say; but why on earth should it be Greek literature? Why not French or German? nay, ‘has not an Englishman models in his own literature of every kind of excellence?’ As before, it is not on any weak pleadings of my own that I rely for convincing the gainsayer; it is on the constitution of human nature itself and on the instinct of self-preservation in humanity. The instinct for beauty is set in human nature, as surely as the instinct for knowledge is set there, or the instinct for conduct. If the instinct for beauty is served by Greek literature as it is served by no other literature, we may trust to the instinct of self-preservation [230] in humanity for keeping Greek as part of our culture. We may trust to it for even making this study more prevalent than it is now. As I said of humane letters in general, Greek will come to be studied more rationally than at present; but it will be increasingly studied as men increasingly feel the need in them for beauty, and how powerfully Greek art and Greek literature can serve this need. Women will again study Greek, as Lady Jane Grey did; perhaps in that chain of forts, with which the fair host of the Amazons is engirdling this University, they are studying it already. Defuit una mihi symmetria prisca, said Leonardo da Vinci; and he was an Italian. What must an Englishman feel as to his deficiencies in this respect, as the sense for beauty, whereof symmetry is an essential element, awakens and strengthens within him! what will not one day be his respect and desire for Greece and its symmetria prisca, when the scales drop from his eyes as he walks the London streets, and he sees such a lesson in meanness as the Strand, for instance, in its true deformity! But here I have entered Mr. Ruskin’s province, and I am well content to leave not only our street architecture, but also letters and Greek, under the care of so distinguished a guardian.

1 Address delivered as ‘The Rede Lecture’ at Cambridge.
2 Iliad, xxiv. 49.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University