The Romanes Lecture

Oxford Magazine May 1893

[376] It was hardly to be expected that so large an audience would gather together to hear Professor Huxley discourse of Evolution and of Ethics, as that which assembled to listen to the splendid rhetoric of the present Prime Minister. The Sheldonian last Thursday was full but not overfull, the temporary stand immediately behind the lecturer being the one part of the house which was left comparatively unoccupied. Crush there was none, either inside or outside–a fact for which the Curators are at liberty to indulge in quiet and decent self-congratulation. The lecture itself, of which we speak at greater length elsewhere was a model Romanes lecture–admirable in literary finish, vigorous, clear and impressive, neither too abstruse nor too popular for the audience. Its effect too was heightened by the impressive figure of the lecturer in the gorgeous D.C.L. robes, which set off so well the finely-cut features and the long grey hair of a keenly intellectual head.

In truth the lecture had but one defect; it was at times almost inaudible to that great majority of the audience which had not the good fortune to be able to get places in the area immediately in front of the Professor.

This partial inaudibility was due to two causes: firstly, the Professor, who has only recently recovered from an attack of influenza was in weak voice–so much so that we understand that he seriously thought of giving his lecture to some one else to read–-and secondly, the constant passing of men up and down stairs, over barriers and on to the temporary stand, seeking how they might approach closer to the lecturer, caused a considerable interruption. Had, however, the curators taken proper precautions, although they could not have strengthened the Professor’s voice, they might have very considerably weakened the noises with which he had to contend. When Mr. Gladstone lectured, straw was laid down in the Broad: but on Thursday carts and cabs (which, as it was the first-day of the Eights were naturally very numerous) came rattling over the cobbles without so much as a blade of grass to soften their aggressive resonance; why should a scientific man be denied the assistance accorded to a Cabinet Minister?

Again, had a body of efficient stewards been provided, it would have been possible to fill up the temporary stand with men from the gallery before the lecture began, of all noises the would-be stealthy clattering of boots upon boards is the most distracting. Why then were there no stewards provided who might have acted in such a case of emergency? Presumably for an answer to these questions we shall have to wait until next year when the circumstances will be all forgotten, and then we shall have the doubtful satisfaction of studying another optimistic official report, unless perhaps in the meantime the University have taken the necessary steps to secure more forethought, activity, and vigilance from its curators.

One last suggestion anent arrangements for the Romanes lecture and then we have done. Would it not be a wise policy in future to admit Undergraduates to the stand behind the lecturer as well as the Upper Gallery?. The lecture is avowedly of a popular character, and it is well that it should maintain its popularity with undergraduates. It is not, and it is not likely to become, an occasion for the display of wit such as that which is generally supposed to constitute the chief attraction of Encaenia. It offers undergraduates an opportunity which otherwise they do not have, or listening to one or other of our greatest living speakers or thinkers: such opportunities, if properly used, may give a stimulus worth a term of college lectures and of plodding toil for the schools. Hitherto the undergraduates have not been slow to avail themselves of these opportunities, but both this year and last year not all those who came to the doors were able to hear the lecturer. Last Thursday, no doubt, seats were empty; they were not the seats of the undergraduates.

It is rumored that some official or semi-official injunction has been laid upon the Romanes Lecturers to avoid two subjects–Politics and Religion. It would be difficult to say on which of the two Lecturers–this year’s or last year’s–this restriction must have pressed most heavily. Assuredly had it been observed au pied de la lettre the most striking and the most characteristic utterances of both would have disappeared. Both of them have, however, been skillful in avoiding an open transgression of the prescribed limitation. Mr. Gladstone was able to cast his impassioned plea for Conservative ways of thinking about Religion and Morals, for the spiritual view of life, for Ecclesiastical continuity, for reverent Theology in the form of an historical retrospect: Professor Huxley dexterously veiled his scathing attack upon all attempts to "vindicate" the ways of God to man" under the form of an investigation into the relations between Ethics and "theories of the Universe" as exhibited by Brahminism, by Buddhism, by Greek Stoicism, and lastly by the so-called "Evolutionary Ethics " of our time. Interesting as were many of his historical reflections, exquisitely finished as was the language in which they were expressed, it is his pronouncement on the last-mentioned subject that possesses most "actuality" and that will be received with the greatest interest; although nothing that he said or could have said could well be altogether new to those who have followed the various utterances of a thinker who assuredly has not left the public without the means of knowing his own mind. Still, the substance of his practical teaching has never perhaps been stated so trenchantly or so pithily. After exposing the vanity of the Stoic Theodicy and insinuating the vanity of all possible Theodicies, the Professor proceeded to show the absolute want of connexion between the Stoic Theology and the stoic Ethics. The Stoics were Evolutionists who professed to find ethical guidance in the following of Nature. And yet, "so far as I can discern, the ethical system of the Stoics, which is essentially intuitive, and reverences the categorical imperative as strongly as that of any later moralists, might have been just what it was if they had held any other theory; whether that of special creation on the one side, or that of the eternal existence of the present order on the other. To the Stoic, the cosmos had no importance for the conscience, except in so far as he chose to think it a pedagogue to virtue. The pertinacious optimism of our philosophers hid from them the actual state of the case. It prevented them from seeing that cosmic nature is no school of virtue, but the headquarters of the enemy of ethical nature. The logic of facts was necessary to convince them that the cosmos works through the lower nature of man not for righteousness but against it.

The application of this view of the Universe to the present position of Ethical thought is not far to seek. Modern pessimism and "modern speculative optimism with its perfectibility of the species, reign of peace, and lion and lamb transformation scenes" receive a passing quietus; and then the Lecturer comes to close quarters with that most marvellous product of the "cosmic process" in these latter days–"the ethics of evolution." What is really presented to us under this name, we are told, is rather "the evolution of ethics " than the ethics of evolution. Professor Huxley does not doubt that those who seek to explain "the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution" are "on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is so far as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about, but in itself it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before." The Professor’s vigorous sentences are the despair of those who for some years in their feeble way have been trying to say the same thing to successive relays of pupils bitten or in danger of being bitten by the fashionable craze for extracting moral guidance out of mysterious formulae alleged to be discovered by a comparative view of the ascending scale of life beginning with the "Protozoa" and ending (for all practical purposes) with the evolution of Mr. Herbert Spencer’s highest Ethical ideal, "the peaceful Arifura." "Fittest," the Professor proceeds, "has a connotation of best; and about "best" there hangs a moral flavour." In cosmic nature, however, what is "finest" depends upon the conditions. In a rapidly cooling hemisphere the fittest "might be nothing but lichens, diatoms, and such microscopic organisms as those which give red snow its colour;" while "the practice of what is ethically best–what we call goodness or virtue–involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint, &c. And then after a swashing blow at "the fanatical individualism of our day," the Professor comes to the point of his whole discourse. "Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, and still less in running away from it, but in combating it."

The inveterate habit of the "Greats" Tutor must be pleaded as an excuse if instead of following Professor Huxley further into his estimate (sober as it is) as to the probable issue of the combat to which he invites us, we glance (other readers will pardon us if we still have our most promising third-year Greats man in our eye) at the bearings of all this upon Professor Huxley’s "Ethical position." So far as we can see, Professor Huxley is an Intuitionist. "Some day, I doubt not, we shall arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty; but all the understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the force of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly." After this, the Professor could not well himself object to the name of intuitionist: and, for our own part, we shall venture to go a step further and style him a Rationalist, a believer in an a priori Moral Law discerned by Reason. Here perhaps the author of Huxley on Hume would reclaim, and indeed we cannot undertake to reconcile this ethical Rationalism with the Sensationalism of that ingenious work. But at all events the Professor is clear that it is not any induction from the cosmic process "or from the habits of the wolf and the hyena that has told him the difference between good and evil. And yet Professor Huxley knows the difference, and tells us that it is our "duty" to act upon it. And if a pars naturae like ourselves is thus able to rise up in rebellion against the "cosmic process" and to pronounce it (to a certain extent) "bad," and to call upon other parts of nature in the name of something termed "good" to stop it, we shall perhaps be pardoned if we insist on going further and drawing the astounding fact from inferences as to the "whence" and the "whither" alike of the "cosmic process" and of the mind that stops it–inferences wherein our great "malleus Theologorum" will no doubt decline to follow us.

But we will spare our readers any further discussions as to the ultimate philosophical consequences of adopting such a positive, a priori, rationalistic belief in a Moral Law as Professor Huxley (however Utilitarian an interpretation might be disposed to give to the content of that Law) unicompromisingly professes. We can only profess our humble admiration of the masculine vigour alike of Professor Huxley’s thought and of the language in which it is clothed. A more exquisitely finished academic discourse was never placed before any audience in any language. Professor Huxley’s Romanes Lecture deserves to be remembered as one of the most brilliant gems in the prose literature of the nineteenth century.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University