Pope Huxley

by R. H. Hutton
The Spectator (January 29, 1870).

[135] We have so hearty an admiration for Professor Huxley, and so genuine an enjoyment of his great literary as well as scientific powers, that we need hardly apologize for protesting against any assumption of his which tends to diminish his legitimate influence. We believe we are not mistaken in supposing that amongst all our modern men of science there is not one who is so utterly opposed to the assumption of a tone of premature certainty; that Professor Huxley has been foremost, for instance, in declining to recognize the principles called "the conservation of matter" and "the conservation of force" as anything more than good working hypotheses,–that he has even reproached astronomers with having been in too great a hurry to assume the Copernican theory as absolutely certain,–that, in a word, he has set his face strongly against all attempts to ignore intellectual alternatives still so much as possible. In theory he is a great and even severe Agnostic,–who goes about exhorting all men to know how little they know, on pain of loss of all intellectual sincerity if they once consciously confound a conjecture with a certainty. Now, we heartily admire Professor Huxley for preaching this doctrine, which many of us must find at times a most bracing and strengthening teaching. But we want to ask what the temper of mind of the man who prophesies thus ought to be, and whether Professor Huxley teaches us practically by example precisely what he teaches us theoretically by precept. Should not, then, the man who prophesies as Professor Huxley prophesies, be very careful indeed to recognize in himself the same vast liability to error and tendency to anticipate the evidence of facts, which he recognizes in all men? That, of course, he will strenuously assert. But if so, may we not further ask whether his tone in controversy should not be one of a certain diffidence and of respect for the opinions and judgments of others, even when they are least in accordance with his own? Should not the habit of mind of such a teacher be suspense of judgment,–and suspense of judgment not only on the evidence of facts, but on the apparent indications of motive, – suspense of judgment not only on scientific, but on moral phenomena?–and, if so, then also habitual caution in the use of that slashing rapier of his, by which he pinks or tries to pink his literary adversaries, with results which, if they are not the fruits of an all but infallible judgment, must be very often indeed both injurious and unjust?

Quite recently, Professor Huxley delivered a very able and interesting lecture on Basques, Celts, and Saxons, the drift of which was to show that Celts and Saxons are, properly speaking, very much alike in all physical and moral qualities; that the conventional distinction between the tall, light-haired, blue-eyed Teuton and the short, black-haired, dark-eyed Celt is a blunder;–that the dark hair and dark eyes and low stature probably belong to the old Basque race of whose language there is no longer any trace except just on the Spanish border, and that the Basques have transmitted their physical peculiarities to very considerable numbers of persons speaking both Saxon and Celtic, without, however, thereby transmitting any very distinguishable moral characteristics which are more the result of circumstances and government than of race. Professor Huxley's thesis was, in short, that the Basque race had been pushed by invasion into the west of France, the west of England, and the west of Ireland, and had impressed its physical characteristics on the western races of all these countries; that the East of all of them still retains the tall, fair, light-haired physique of the old Saxon and Celt, and that the race is mixed in the central districts of these countries. He summed up by asserting that a "native of Tipperary is just as much or as little an Anglo-Saxon as a native of Devonshire." The lecture was full of Professor Huxley's characteristic ingenuity and power,–perhaps not quite so full as it should have been of his Agnosticism. Its language no doubt confounded at times a respectable but questionable "working hypothesis" with a probability so strong as to be not far from a scientific truth. Undoubtedly the working-men whom Professor Huxley was instructing must have gone away with the notion that one of the most learned ethnologists of the age believed that there was no material constitutional difference between the Celt and the Saxon, and without any solemn warning as to the precariousness of the grounds of that belief. Soon after the publication of the lecture, "A Devonshire Man" criticized it in the Pall Mall, with a view to prove that there is a great difference between Saxon and Celt, and that Devonshire, at least, is chiefly Saxon. He did not sign his name, but his letter was not marked, as far as we can see, by any positive acerbity of manner, though there was a taunt directed at the great range of Professor Huxley's dogmatic controversies,–a taunt which ran thus:–"Even Professor Huxley's enemies, if he has any, must admit that he is a very able man, and that his energy is, to say the least, quite equal to his judgment. If he has a fault, it is that, like Cæsar, he is ambitious. We all know what Sydney Smith said of Dr. Whewell,–'Science is his forte, but omniscience is his foible;' perhaps his playful wit would have passed the same kind of judgment, and with the same justice, on our ubiquitous Professor. He might have said, perhaps, that cutting up monkeys was his forte, and cutting up men was his foible. A little while ago he ran a muck at the Comtists, then he attacked the mathematicians; now he has undertaken to prove against all comers that there is no difference whatever, except in language, between the Teuton and the Celt." Perhaps the taunt was a little sharper than it need have been, considering that the attack on the Comtists was grounded [136] chiefly on Comte's classification of the sciences, and especially his treatment of Professor Huxley's own science, physiology. Nor can we imagine a subject on which Professor Huxley has more right to offer an opinion than on the physiological side, at all events, of ethnology. But no one, we think, will say that the taunt contained in the above letter was very bitter or one unjustifiable in a man who did not sign his name. Indeed, we have no scruple in saying, in spite of our anonymousness,–which will be no veil to Professor Huxley,–that we know no judgments so unfair and intolerant, and indicating so little suspense of judgment, as those passed by literary men who sign their names on the motives of literary men who don't. We do not know who "A Devonshire Man" may be. We can hardly conceive any personal reason for the anonymousness of his first letter, except probably literary habit, and the natural aversion some men feel to the sight of their own names in print. Certainly, it covered no scurrilousness, and no trembling ignorance. The letter contained, no doubt, some vague and doubtful generalities, and some indefiniteness of phrase where definition was needed and has since been in part supplied. But it was full of relevant suggestions, and really advanced much tending to show that Devonshire, at least, though not Cornwall, is far more Saxon than Celtic, and perhaps more Saxon than Tipperary, at least as tried by the test of language,–though we must admit that while "A Devonshire Man" is strong on the philological features of his own county, he is very weak on those of Tipperary, where he would find, we suspect, a stronger Saxon element than he expects. He also advanced arguments which are far from contemptible, to show that in Cæsar's time there was a marked moral distinction between Celt and Saxon, and that it is very like that which is still recognized. Had Professor Huxley been true to his own theories of intellectual modesty, he would have said in reply that this letter had done something towards inducing him to regard Devonshire as more Anglo-Saxon than Celtic,–that he himself would perhaps have been more correct if he had compared Cornwall with Tipperary instead of Devonshire,–that there were respectable reasons for supposing that a Celtic race existed in Cæsar's time with many of the moral characteristics of the Irish, but that it remains very doubtful if these characteristics are so much connected with physical organization as with political causes; probably that careful ethnologists would suspend their judgment.

But how does Professor Huxley reply? Very much in the tone of Papal bull,–containing violent censures–almost excommunications latæ sententiæ,–as well as dogmatic decrees. "Your correspondent, 'A Devonshire Man,'" he begins, "is good enough to say of me that 'cutting up monkeys is his forte, and cutting up men his foible.' With your permission I propose to cut up 'A Devonshire Man,' but I leave it to the public to judge whether, when so employed, my occupation is to be referred to the former or to the latter category,"–i.e., whether he is cutting up a monkey or a man. This is witty, but it is wit passing beyond all decent limits of personality. The Pope would never dream of hinting that Father Hyacinthe himself, and still less that Monseigneur Dupanloup, may be a monkey, simply for entertaining doubts as to the Pope's personal infallibility. And yet we submit that the difference between Mr. Huxley and "A Devonshire Man" practically turns much more on the degree of Mr. Huxley's ethnological fallibility than even on the amount of difference between Celt and Saxon; and also that the scientific difference between him and his opponent resembles much more nearly in its degree the difference between the Pope and the Gallican party, than it does the difference between the Church and an open rebel like Père Hyacinthe. But this is not all. In the conclusion of his letter Professor Huxley charges "A Devonshire Man" with having twitted him with the mathematical controversy in which he is engaged, "with no other object, that I can discover, except that of offense,"–and while declaring his perfect readiness to surrender to an open and loyal opponent who beats him in fair argument, concludes that:–"I confess my feeling is other towards an adversary who hides himself behind the hedge of a pseudonym, to fire off his blunderbuss of platitudes and personalities at a man who has made a grave and public statement on a matter concerning which he is entitled to be heard. And while fresh from 'tumbling' his man of science, 'A Devonshire Man' seems to me to be inconsistent in so haughtily repudiating all kinship with a 'Tipperary Boy.'" Now, we seriously put it to Professor Huxley whether this tone of bitterness and even virulence is worthy of the very strongest man amongst us who is labouring to preach to us all the gospel of suspense of judgment on all questions, intellectual and moral, on which we have not adequate data for a positive opinion? Does it not rather seem to presume the infallibility of which he is the honest and frank assailant? The intention to give offense which Professor Huxley assumes is to us quite invisible. And what right has any man to take for granted that anonymousness is a mere hedge behind which an adversary skulks from cowardice,–unless, his charges be so grave and personal as to demand the assumption of full personal responsibility, which, in this case, they certainly were not? Ought not the evangelist of human fallibility to impose strictly on his own judgment in every concern of life the law which he wishes us all to recognize,–and to admit that his assailant might, for instance, have had a dozen motives that would not be ignoble for not signing his name,–nay, even that his playful criticism on the number of Professor Huxley's controversies might fairly be due not to till-nature and the wish to give pain, but to a sincere belief (we think, for our own parts, a mistaken one) that even so superlatively able a man as Professor Huxley could not be a first-rate authority in so many different fields. If we are to learn the suspended judgment and intellectual humility of true science, it will hardly be from the example of one who does not shrink from hinting that a thinker may well be more monkey than man if he can regard Professor Huxley as a greater authority for the anatomy of either men or monkeys than for the ethnology of men, or of one who suggests a parallel between a temperate anonymous criticism on ethnological speculation and the act of a Tipperary Boy in "tumbling" his landlord.

We submit to Professor Huxley that his anonymous opponent,–of whom, as we have said, we know nothing,–sets him a good example in the exceeding good-temper of his last rejoinder, and that the Professor is gravely injuring the effect of his own sincerest teaching by the more than Papal arrogance of his recent tone in rebuke. In his great genius, of which his usually grand good-humour is the most conspicuous feature, we, like almost all the literary men of our country, feel a cordial pride. But we must warn him that if once the students of positive science whom he usually represents not only so worthily, but so nobly, begin to unite the attitude of moral infallibility with the intellectual attitude of agnostic suspense, they will soon, and very justly, lose half their influence with the English people. Men will begin to say that confidence in the methods of physical investigation, too exclusively pursued, intoxicates the brain of even the wisest men, and makes them fulminate opinions, conjectures, and prepossessions, as if they were laws of nature or of thought,–and that a grain of spiritual faith may have more effect in producing charity and humility than even such lucid and marvellous mastery of vast fields of science, and such noble and untiring benevolence in utilizing his knowledge for the benefit of his fellow-men, as have already earned for Professor Huxley a distinguished and even illustrious name.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University