Professor Huxley Speaks out

Review of Essays upon some Controverted Questions

The Oxford Magazine February 1893

[194] Except for a "Prologue" and a reprint of his address oil? Palaeontology, delivered at the British Association meeting of 1881, Prof. Huxley's new volume, of over 600; pages, consists entirely of articles which have appeared in The Nineteenth Century and (one of them) in The Fortnightly Review between 1885 and 1891. The principal subjects of his polemic, perhaps we should rather say of his vivisection, are Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Lilly, Dr. Wace, and the Duke of Argyll. It should be added, however, that Mr. F. Harrison's "Positivism" receives a due share of destructive criticism, while on the other hand three sermons by three bishops are highly commended. Prof. Huxley tells us that many years ago some one sent him an anonymous letter, abusing him heartily for his want of moral courage in not speaking out! (P. 489). Nobody, however anonymous, can blame Prof. Huxley for that defect now. Some of those who most sympathise with his opinions are likely rather to blame him for speaking at too great length and with too much vehemence for the purposes of effective controversy. Still more are they likely to regret that so much of his skill as an anthropologist and as a historical critic should be wasted on antagonists who (whatever their other good qualities may be) are certainly not strong in these departments of learning. The Essay (IV) on the anthropological evidence supplied by the Book of Judges and Samuel, the admirably written account of Eginhard's History of the Translation of the Blessed Martyrs of Christ, SS. Marcellinus and Petrus (Essay X), and the comparison of Hasisadra's with Noah's Flood (Essay XVI) are worth, even for purposes of controversy, all the detailed attacks on the attempts of reconcilers to harmonize Genesis with geology.

Those who disagree with Prof. Huxley's point of view are very likely to accuse him of carelessness about wounding the feelings of religious persons by the persistence with which he discusses the question of the Gadarene swine. Such an accusation would be a great injustice to Prof. Huxley. He tells us explicitly that he "thought it needless to select for illustration those particular instances which were likely to be most offensive to persons of [195] another way of thinking" (P- 489). And every fair-minded antagonist should give Prof. Huxley full credit for his delicacy and self-restraint in this matter.

The eminent biologist is sure to be reminded by theological critics of the old proverb about the cobbler: but Prof. Huxley has always been much more than a specialist, and, in an interesting moment of autobiography, he tells us that as a boy, devouring all sorts of books, he was permanently impressed by two works–Guizot's History of Civilisation, and Sir William Hamilton's essay On the Philosophy of the Unconditioned (p. 353 ). Fortunately Hamilton's travesty of Kant, being supplemented in Prof. Huxley's case by much other metaphysical reading, has not had that narrowing effect on his philosophy which it has had on that of Mr. Herbert Spencer; but it is s interesting to have revealed to us the first source of that "Agnosticism " which Prof. Huxley shares with the orthodox Dean Mansel (p. 353 note). Throughout the greater part of this volume Prof. Huxley is speaking, not as a student of natural science, but as a historical and philosophical critic. And no one can read even these controversial essays in at all a fair spirit without seeing that, had Prof. Huxley not been a great biologist, he would have won no inconsiderable place in the ranks either of scientific historians or of metaphysicians, or, had fate so willed, of polemical divines. Yet here and there, even to a sympathetic reader, his logic or his language seems a little open to attack. Thus (on p. 427 note) lie argues that if you "believe in" a person you must necessarily "believe him." Surely not: you may believe in a person as honest, just, loving, &c., and yet not believe him when he speaks on matters on which lie is imperfectly informed. Prof. Huxley himself believes in the Bible as an instrument of popular education (see p. 51), but he would hardly allow that he "believed" the Bible, and would probably say that "believing a collection of miscellaneous literature" was a phrase with no clear meaning. On p. 534, at the end of an ingenious adaptation of a passage from the Bampton Lecture of 1859 for the use of some Bampton Lecturer of the future, come these words: "No longer in contact with fact of any kind, Faith stands now and for ever proudly inaccessible to the attacks of the infidel." This is evidently meant for a reductio ad absurdum of some recent theology: and many, perhaps most, ecclesiastics would say that it was. But if by "facts" he meant particular historical events, not moral ideas or ideals, the sentence, though ill worded, would express the views of some very serious thinkers, and of some philosophers with whom Prof. Huxley is a good deal in sympathy. And it expresses the view of Prof. Huxley himself, when be believes it possible to retain (i. e. have faith in) the highest ethical ideals of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, while discarding the "cosmogonies, demonologies and miraculous interferences" contained in them (see p. 53)

In discussing the evidence of Josephus respecting the population of Gadara (Essay XIV), Prof. Huxley may have shown himself a more critical scholar than Mr. Gladstone; but it is too evidently the desire to make a point against a political adversary which has led him to pose as Mr. Legality, and to deal in so unhistorical a spirit with the question of property rights involved in the tale of the Gadarene swine. The difficulty, which we believe a worthy farmer once put before his parson in the form of the question, "Who paid for them pigs?" did not apparently occur to the minds of the narrators; but though the law-abiding Prof. Huxley may think it very shocking to put devils (or, let us say, strychnine) into other people's pigs whether these people were Jews or Greeks–is it so certain that a devout Jew of the first century would have thought so? Prof. Huxley has surely enough of the historical spirit to admire the heroic and saintly qualities of many Protestants and Puritans who directly or indirectly destroyed many valuable works of art, which they regarded as idolatrous, without paying any compensation to the owners. Besides, Prof. Huxley knows that according to the law of England, which seems in this matter of property to provide him with his sole standard of right and wrong for all periods and circumstances, a bailee is not liable for damages to property which occur "by the act of God"; so that, even had the narrators of the story looked at the property rights in question with the eyes of an English lawyer, they might have doubted whether there was any case for legal remedies, where property had been destroyed by the divinely sanctioned act of many devils.

To refer to some smaller matters: on p. 21 is one of those slips in expression which are strange when they occur in so careful a writer: "But whether it is more to the credit of the courage, than to the intelligence of the thirty-eight, &c." (The curious reader may look at a passage in Prof. Huxley's Hume p. 24, where that philosopher is, according to all grammatical rules, raised to the episcopal bench) By obvious misprints Philip’s "God" is made [Greek phrase] and Dante’s Lucifer is said to have "capricious" jaws on p. 206.

Among the many "good things" may be noted the remark: "Tolerably early in life I discovered that one of the unpardonable sins in the eyes of most people, is for a man to presume to go about unlabelled " (p. 2,24)–-the excuse for inventing the word " Agnostic." The description of Science as the poor Cinderella of the schools and universities, over whom her elder sisters, Philosophy and Theology, have so long dominated (p. 234, 235), is an excellent piece of writing–however much "Museum" votes may mar Oxford appreciation of it. Finally here is the definition given by the Sunday scholar: "Faith is the power of saying you believe things which are incredible."


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University