Autobiography and Selected Essays by Thomas Henry Huxley

This etext was prepared by Donald Lainson, Note: The notes at the end of the book were originally referenced by page number. I have instead inserted numbers within the text in the format and cross-referenced these to the appropriate notes. AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND SELECTED ESSAYS by THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY Edited, with introduction and notes by
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This etext was prepared by Donald Lainson,

Note: The notes at the end of the book were originally referenced by page number. I have instead inserted numbers within the text in the format [xx] and cross-referenced these to the appropriate notes.




Edited, with introduction and notes by Ada L. F. Snell Associate Professor Of English
Mount Holyoke College

Riverside College Classics
Copyright 1909




The Life of Huxley

Subject-matter, Structure, and Style of Essays

Suggested Studies











The purpose of the following selections is to present to students of English a few of Huxley’s representative essays. Some of these selections are complete; others are extracts. In the latter case, however, they are not extracts in the sense of being incomplete wholes, for each selection given will be found to have, in Aristotle’s phrase, “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” That they are complete in themselves, although only parts of whole essays, is due to the fact that Huxley, in order to make succeeding material clear, often prepares the way with a long and careful definition. Such is the nature of the extract A Liberal Education, in reality a definition to make distinct and forcible his ideas on the shortcomings of English schools. Such a definition, also, is The Method of Scientific Investigation.

The footnotes are those of the author. Other notes on the text have been included for the benefit of schools inadequately equipped with reference books. It is hoped, however, that the notes may be found not to be so numerous as to prevent the training of the student in a self-reliant and scholarly use of dictionaries and reference books; it is hoped, also, that they may serve to stimulate him to trace out for himself more completely any subject connected with the text in which he may feel a peculiar interest. It should be recognized that notes are of value only as they develop power to read intelligently. If unintelligently relied upon, they may even foster indifference and lazy mental habits.

I wish to express my obligation to Miss Flora Bridges, whose careful reading of the manuscript has been most helpful, and to Professor Clara F. Stevens, the head of the English Department at Mount Holyoke College, whose very practical aid made this volume possible.

A. L. F. S.




Of Huxley’s life and of the forces which moulded his thought, the Autobiography gives some account; but many facts which are significant are slighted, and necessarily the later events of his life are omitted. To supplement the story as given by him is the purpose of this sketch. The facts for this account are gathered entirely from the Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, by his son. For a real acquaintance with Huxley, the student should consult this source for himself; he will count the reading of the Life and Letters among the rare pleasures which have come to him through books.

Thomas Henry Huxley was born on May 4, 1825. His autobiography gives a full account of his parents, his early boyhood, and his education. Of formal education, Huxley had little; but he had the richer schooling which nature and life give an eager mind. He read widely; he talked often with older people; he was always investigating the why of things. He kept a journal in which he noted thoughts gathered from books, and ideas on the causes of certain phenomena. In this journal he frequently wrote what he had done and had set himself to do in the way of increasing his knowledge. Self-conducted, also, was his later education at the Charing Cross Hospital. Here, like Stevenson in his university days, Huxley seemed to be idle, but in reality, he was always busy on his own private end. So constantly did he work over the microscope that the window at which he sat came to be dubbed by his fellow students “The Sign of the Head and Microscope.” Moreover, in his regular courses at Charing Cross, he seems to have done work sufficiently notable to be recognized by several prizes and a gold medal.

Of his life after the completion of his medical course, of his search for work, of his appointment as assistant surgeon on board the Rattlesnake, and of his scientific work during the four years’ cruise, Huxley gives a vivid description in the autobiography. As a result of his investigations on this voyage, he published various essays which quickly secured for him a position in the scientific world as a naturalist of the first rank. A testimony of the value of this work was his election to membership in the Royal Society.

Although Huxley had now, at the age of twenty-six, won distinction in science, he soon discovered that it was not so easy to earn bread thereby. Nevertheless, to earn a living was most important if he were to accomplish the two objects which he had in view. He wished, in the first place, to marry Miss Henrietta Heathorn of Sydney, to whom he had become engaged when on the cruise with the Rattlesnake; his second object was to follow science as a profession. The struggle to find something connected with science which would pay was long and bitter; and only a resolute determination to win kept Huxley from abandoning it altogether. Uniform ill-luck met him everywhere. He has told in his autobiography of his troubles with the Admiralty in the endeavor to get his papers published, and of his failure there. He applied for a position to teach science in Toronto; being unsuccessful in this attempt, he applied successively for various professorships in the United Kingdom, and in this he was likewise unsuccessful. Some of his friends urged him to hold out, but others thought the fight an unequal one, and advised him to emigrate to Australia. He himself was tempted to practice medicine in Sydney; but to give up his purpose seemed to him like cowardice. On the other hand, to prolong the struggle indefinitely when he might quickly earn a living in other ways seemed like selfishness and an injustice to the woman to whom he had been for a long time engaged. Miss Heathorn, however, upheld him in his determination to pursue science; and his sister also, he writes, cheered him by her advice and encouragement to persist in the struggle. Something of the man’s heroic temper may be gathered from a letter which he wrote to Miss Heathorn when his affairs were darkest. “However painful our separation may be,” he says, “the spectacle of a man who had given up the cherished purpose of his life . . . would, before long years were over our heads, be infinitely more painful.” He declares that he is hemmed in by all sorts of difficulties. “Nevertheless the path has shown itself a fair one, neither more difficult nor less so than most paths in life in which a man of energy may hope to do much if he believes in himself, and is at peace within.” Thus relieved in mind, he makes his decision in spite of adverse fate. “My course of life is taken, I will not leave London–I WILL make myself a name and a position as well as an income by some kind of pursuit connected with science which is the thing for which Nature has fitted me if she has ever fitted any one for anything.”

But suddenly the long wait, the faith in self, were justified, and the turning point came. “There is always a Cape Horn in one’s life that one either weathers or wrecks one’s self on,” he writes to his sister. “Thank God, I think I may say I have weathered mine–not without a good deal of damage to spars and rigging though, for it blew deuced hard on the other side.” In 1854 a permanent lectureship was offered him at the Government School of Mines; also, a lectureship at St. Thomas’ Hospital; and he was asked to give various other lecture courses. He thus found himself able to establish the home for which he had waited eight years. In July, 1855, he was married to Miss Heathorn.

The succeeding years from 1855 to 1860 were filled with various kinds of work connected with science: original investigation, printing of monographs, and establishing of natural history museums. His advice concerning local museums is interesting and characteristically expressed. “It [the local museum if properly arranged] will tell both natives and strangers exactly what they want to know, and possess great scientific interest and importance. Whereas the ordinary lumber-room of clubs from New Zealand, Hindu idols, sharks’ teeth, mangy monkeys, scorpions, and conch shells– who shall describe the weary inutility of it? It is really worse than nothing, because it leads the unwary to look for objects of science elsewhere than under their noses. What they want to know is that their ‘America is here,’ as Wilhelm Meister has it.” During this period, also, he began his lectures to workingmen, calling them Peoples’ Lectures. “POPULAR lectures,” he said, “I hold to be an abomination unto the Lord.” Working-men attended these lectures in great numbers, and to them Huxley seemed to be always able to speak at his best. His purpose in giving these lectures should be expressed in his own words: “I want the working class to understand that Science and her ways are great facts for them–that physical virtue is the base of all other, and that they are to be clean and temperate and all the rest–not because fellows in black and white ties tell them so, but because there are plain and patent laws which they must obey ‘under penalties.'”

Toward the close of 1859, Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was published. It raised a great outcry in England; and Huxley immediately came forward as chief defender of the faith therein set forth. He took part in debates on this subject, the most famous of which was the one between himself and Bishop Wilberforce at Oxford. The Bishop concluded his speech by turning to Huxley and asking, “Was it through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey?” Huxley, as is reported by an eye-witness, “slowly and deliberately arose. A slight tall figure, stern and pale, very quiet and grave, he stood before us and spoke those tremendous words. . . . He was not ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.” Another story indicates the temper of that time. Carlyle, whose writing had strongly influenced Huxley, and whom Huxley had come to know, could not forgive him for his attitude toward evolution. One day, years after the publication of Man’s Place in Nature, Huxley, seeing Carlyle on the other side of the street, a broken, pathetic figure, walked over and spoke to him. The old man merely remarked, “You’re Huxley, aren’t you? the man that says we are all descended from monkeys,” and passed on. Huxley, however, saw nothing degrading to man’s dignity in the theory of evolution. In a wonderfully fine sentence he gives his own estimate of the theory as it affects man’s future on earth. “Thoughtful men once escaped from the blinding influences of traditional prejudices, will find in the lowly stock whence man has sprung the best evidence of the splendour of his capacities; and will discover, in his long progress through the past, a reasonable ground of faith in his attainment of a nobler future.” As a result of all these controversies on The Origin of Species and of investigations to uphold Darwin’s theory, Huxley wrote his first book, already mentioned, Man’s Place in Nature.

To read a list of the various kinds of work which Huxley was doing from 1870 to 1875 is to be convinced of his abundant energy and many interests. At about this time Huxley executed the plan which he had had in mind for a long time, the establishment of laboratories for the use of students. His object was to furnish a more exact preliminary training. He complains that the student who enters the medical school is “so habituated to learn only from books, or oral teaching, that the attempt to learn from things and to get his knowledge at first hand is something new and strange.” To make this method of teaching successful in the schools, Huxley gave practical instruction in laboratory work to school-masters.

“If I am to be remembered at all,” Huxley once wrote, “I would rather it should be as a man who did his best to help the people than by any other title.” Certainly as much of his time as could be spared from his regular work was given to help others. His lectures to workingmen and school-masters have already been mentioned. In addition, he lectured to women on physiology and to children on elementary science. In order to be of greater service to the children, Huxley, in spite of delicate health, became a member of the London School Board. His immediate object was “to temper book-learning with something of the direct knowledge of Nature.” His other purposes were to secure a better physical training for children and to give them a clearer understanding of social and moral law. He did not believe, on the one hand, in overcrowding the curriculum, but, on the other hand, he “felt that all education should be thrown open to all that each man might know to what state in life he was called.” Another statement of his purpose and beliefs is given by Professor Gladstone, who says of his work on the board: “He resented the idea that schools were to train either congregations for churches or hands for factories. He was on the Board as a friend of children. What he sought to do for the child was for the child’s sake, that it might live a fuller, truer, worthier life.”

The immense amount of work which Huxley did in these years told very seriously on his naturally weak constitution. It became necessary for him finally for two successive years to stop work altogether. In 1872 he went to the Mediterranean and to Egypt. This was a holiday full of interest for a man like Huxley who looked upon the history of the world and man’s place in the world with a keen scientific mind. Added to this scientific bent of mind, moreover, Huxley had a deep appreciation for the picturesque in nature and life. Bits of description indicate his enjoyment in this vacation. He writes of his entrance to the Mediterranean, “It was a lovely morning, and nothing could be grander than Ape Hill on one side and the Rock on the other, looking like great lions or sphinxes on each side of a gateway.” In Cairo, Huxley found much to interest him in archaeology, geology, and the every-day life of the streets. At the end of a month, he writes that he is very well and very grateful to Old Nile for all that he has done for him, not the least “for a whole universe of new thoughts and pictures of life.” The trip, however, did no lasting good. In 1873 Huxley was again very ill, but was under such heavy costs at this time that another vacation was impossible. At this moment, a critical one in his life, some of his close scientific friends placed to his credit twenty-one hundred pounds to enable him to take the much needed rest. Darwin wrote to Huxley concerning the gift: “In doing this we are convinced that we act for the public interest.” He assured Huxley that the friends who gave this felt toward him as a brother. “I am sure that you will return this feeling and will therefore be glad to give us the opportunity of aiding you in some degree, as this will be a happiness to us to the last day of our lives.” The gift made it possible for Huxley to take another long vacation, part of which was spent with Sir Joseph Hooker, a noted English botanist, visiting the volcanoes of Auvergne. After this trip he steadily improved in health, with no other serious illness for ten years.

In 1876 Huxley was invited to visit America and to deliver the inaugural address at Johns Hopkins University. In July of this year accordingly, in company with his wife, he crossed to New York. Everywhere Huxley was received with enthusiasm, for his name was a very familiar one. Two quotations from his address at Johns Hopkins are especially worthy of attention as a part of his message to Americans. “It has been my fate to see great educational funds fossilise into mere bricks and mortar in the petrifying springs of architecture, with nothing left to work them. A great warrior is said to have made a desert and called it peace. Trustees have sometimes made a palace and called it a university.”

The second quotation is as follows:–

I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur, territory does not make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs true sublimity, and the terror of overhanging fate, is, what are you going to do with all these things? . . .

The one condition of success, your sole safeguard, is the moral worth and intellectual clearness of the individual citizen. Education cannot give these, but it can cherish them and bring them to the front in whatever station of society they are to be found, and the universities ought to be, and may be, the fortresses of the higher life of the nation.

After the return from America, the same innumerable occupations were continued. It would be impossible in short space even to enumerate all Huxley’s various publications of the next ten years. His work, however, changed gradually from scientific investigation to administrative work, not the least important of which was the office of Inspector of Fisheries. A second important office was the Presidency of the Royal Society. Of the work of this society Sir Joseph Hooker writes: “The duties of the office are manifold and heavy; they include attendance at all the meetings of the Fellows, and of the councils, committees, and sub-committees of the Society, and especially the supervision of the printing and illustrating all papers on biological subjects that are published in the Society’s Transactions and Proceedings; the latter often involving a protracted correspondence with the authors. To this must be added a share in the supervision of the staff officers, of the library and correspondence, and the details of house-keeping.” All the work connected with this and many other offices bespeaks a life too hard-driven and accounts fully for the continued ill- health which finally resulted in a complete break-down.

Huxley had always advocated that the age of sixty was the time for “official death,” and had looked forward to a peaceful “Indian summer.” With this object in mind and troubled by increasing ill- health, he began in 1885 to give up his work. But to live even in comparative idleness, after so many years of activity, was difficult. “I am sure,” he says, “that the habit of incessant work into which we all drift is as bad in its way as dram-drinking. In time you cannot be comfortable without stimulus.” But continued bodily weakness told upon him to the extent that all work became distasteful. An utter weariness with frequent spells of the blues took possession of him; and the story of his life for some years is the story of the long pursuit of health in England, Switzerland, and especially in Italy.

Although Huxley was wretchedly ill during this period, he wrote letters which are good to read for their humor and for their pictures of foreign cities. Rome he writes of as an idle, afternoony sort of place from which it is difficult to depart. He worked as eagerly over the historic remains in Rome as he would over a collection of geological specimens. “I begin to understand Old Rome pretty well and I am quite learned in the Catacombs, which suit me, as a kind of Christian fossils out of which one can reconstruct the body of the primitive Church.” Florence, for a man with a conscience and ill-health, had too many picture galleries. “They are a sore burden to the conscience if you don’t go to see them, and an awful trial to the back and legs if you do,” he complained. He found Florence, nevertheless, a lovely place and full of most interesting things to see and do. His letters with reference to himself also are vigorously and entertainingly expressed. He writes in a characteristic way of his growing difficulty with his hearing. “It irritates me not to hear; it irritates me still more to be spoken to as if I were deaf, and the absurdity of being irritated on the last ground irritates me still more.” And again he writes in a more hopeful strain, “With fresh air and exercise and careful avoidance of cold and night air I am to be all right again.” He then adds: “I am not fond of coddling; but as Paddy gave his pig the best corner in his cabin–because ‘shure, he paid the rint’–I feel bound to take care of myself as a household animal of value, to say nothing of other points.”

Although he was never strong after this long illness, Huxley began in 1889 to be much better. The first sign of returning vigor was the eagerness with which he entered into a controversy with Gladstone. Huxley had always enjoyed a mental battle; and some of his fiercest tilts were with Gladstone. He even found the cause of better health in this controversy, and was grateful to the “Grand Old Man” for making home happy for him. From this time to his death, Huxley wrote a number of articles on politics, science, and religion, many of which were published in the volume called Controverted Questions. The main value of these essays lies in the fact that Huxley calls upon men to give clear reasons for the faith which they claim as theirs, and makes, as a friend wrote of him, hazy thinking and slovenly, half-formed conclusions seem the base thing they really are.

The last years of Huxley’s life were indeed the longed-for Indian summer. Away from the noise of London at Eastbourne by the sea, he spent many happy hours with old-time friends and in his garden, which was a great joy to him. His large family of sons and daughters and grandchildren brought much cheer to his last days. Almost to the end he was working and writing for publication. Three days before his death he wrote to his old friend, Hooker, that he didn’t feel at all like “sending in his checks” and hoped to recover. He died very quietly on June 29, 1895. That he met death with the same calm faith and strength with which he had met life is indicated by the lines which his wife wrote and which he requested to be his epitaph:–

Be not afraid, ye waiting hearts that weep; For still He giveth His beloved sleep,
And if an endless sleep He wills, so best.

To attempt an analysis of Huxley’s character, unique and bafflingly complex as it is, is beyond the scope of this sketch; but to give only the mere facts of his life is to do an injustice to the vivid personality of the man as it is revealed in his letters. All his human interest in people and things–pets, and flowers, and family- -brightens many pages of the two ponderous volumes. Now one reads of his grief over some backward-going plant, or over some garden tragedy, as “A lovely clematis in full flower, which I had spent hours in nailing up, has just died suddenly. I am more inconsolable than Jonah!” Now one is amused with a nonsense letter to one of his children, and again with an account of a pet. “I wish you would write seriously to M—-. She is not behaving well to Oliver. I have seen handsomer kittens, but few more lively, and energetically destructive. Just now he scratched away at something M—- says cost 13s. 6d. a yard and reduced more or less of it to combings. M—- therefore excludes him from the dining-room and all those opportunities of higher education which he would have in MY house.” Frequently one finds a description of some event, so vividly done that the mere reading of it seems like a real experience. An account of Tennyson’s burial in Westminster is a typical bit of description:–

Bright sunshine streamed through the windows of the nave, while the choir was in half gloom, and as each shaft of light illuminated the flower-covered bier as it slowly travelled on, one thought of the bright succession of his works between the darkness before and the darkness after. I am glad to say that the Royal Society was represented by four of its chief officers, and nine of the commonalty, including myself. Tennyson has a right to that, as the first poet since Lucretius who has understood the drift of science.

No parts of the Life and Letters are more enjoyable than those concerning the “Happy Family,” as a friend of Huxley’s names his household. His family of seven children found their father a most engaging friend and companion. He could tell them wonderful sea stories and animal stories and could draw fascinating pictures. His son writes of how when he was ill with scarlet fever he used to look forward to his father’s home-coming. “The solitary days–for I was the first victim in the family–were very long, and I looked forward with intense interest to one half-hour after dinner, when he would come up and draw scenes from the history of a remarkable bull-terrier and his family that went to the seaside in a most human and child-delighting manner. I have seldom suffered a greater disappointment than when, one evening, I fell asleep just before this fairy half-hour, and lost it out of my life.”

The account of the comradeship between Huxley and his wife reads like a good old-time romance. He was attracted to her at first by her “simplicity and directness united with an unusual degree of cultivation,” Huxley’s son writes. On her he depended for advice in his work, and for companionship at home and abroad when wandering in search of health in Italy and Switzerland. When he had been separated from her for some time, he wrote, “Nobody, children or anyone else, can be to me what you are. Ulysses preferred his old woman to immortality, and this absence has led me to see that he was as wise in that as in other things.” Again he writes, “Against all trouble (and I have had my share) I weigh a wife-comrade ‘trew and fest’ in all emergencies.”

The letters also give one a clear idea of the breadth of Huxley’s interests, particularly of his appreciation of the various forms of art. Huxley believed strongly in the arts as a refining and helpful influence in education. He keenly enjoyed good music. Professor Hewes writes of him that one breaking in upon him in the afternoon at South Kensington would not infrequently be met “with a snatch of some melody of Bach’s fugue.” He also liked good pictures, and always had among his friends well-known artists, as Alma-Tadema, Sir Frederick Leighton, and Burne-Jones. He read poetry widely, and strongly advocated the teaching of poetry in English schools. As to poetry, his own preferences are interesting. Wordsworth he considered too discursive; Shelley was too diffuse; Keats, he liked for pure beauty, Browning for strength, and Tennyson for his understanding of modern science; but most frequently of all he read Milton and Shakespeare.

As to Huxley’s appearance, and as to the impression which his personality made upon others, the description of a friend, Mr. G. W. Smalley, presents him with striking force. “The square forehead, the square jaw, the tense lines of the mouth, the deep flashing dark eyes, the impression of something more than strength he gave you, an impression of sincerity, of solid force, of immovability, yet with the gentleness arising from the serene consciousness of his strength–all this belonged to Huxley and to him alone. The first glance magnetized his audience. The eyes were those of one accustomed to command, of one having authority, and not fearing on occasion to use it. The hair swept carelessly away from the broad forehead and grew rather long behind, yet the length did not suggest, as it often does, effeminacy. He was masculine in everything–look, gesture, speech. Sparing of gesture, sparing of emphasis, careless of mere rhetorical or oratorical art, he had nevertheless the secret of the highest art of all, whether in oratory or whatever else–he had simplicity.”

Simplicity, directness, sincerity,–all these qualities describe Huxley; but the one attribute which distinguishes him above all others is love of truth. A love of truth, as the phrase characterizes Huxley, would necessarily produce a scholarly habit of mind. It was the zealous search for truth which determined his method of work. In science, Huxley would “take at second hand nothing for which he vouched in teaching.” Some one reproached him for wasting time verifying what another had already done. “If that is his practice,” he commented, “his work will never live.” The same motive made him a master of languages. To be able to read at first hand the writings of other nations, he learned German, French, Italian, and Greek. One of the chief reasons for learning to read Greek was to see for himself if Aristotle really did say that the heart had only three chambers–an error, he discovered, not of Aristotle, but of the translator. It was, moreover, the scholar in Huxley which made him impatient of narrow, half-formed, foggy conclusions. His own work has all the breadth and freedom and universality of the scholar, but it has, also, a quality equally distinctive of the scholar, namely, an infinite precision in the matter of detail.

If love of truth made Huxley a scholar, it made him, also, a courageous fighter. Man’s first duty, as he saw it, was to seek the truth; his second was to teach it to others, and, if necessary, to contend valiantly for it. To fail to teach what you honestly know to be true, because it may harm your reputation, or even because it may give pain to others, is cowardice. “I am not greatly concerned about any reputation,” Huxley writes to his wife, “except that of being entirely honest and straightforward.” Regardless of warnings that the publication of Man’s Place in Nature would ruin his career, Huxley passed on to others what nature had revealed to him. He was regardless, also, of the confusion and pain which his view would necessarily bring to those who had been nourished in old traditions. To stand with a man or two and to do battle with the world on the score of its old beliefs, has never been an easy task since the world began. Certainly it required fearlessness and determination to wrestle with the prejudices against science in the middle of the nineteenth century–how much may be gathered from the reading of Darwin’s Life and Letters. The attitude of the times toward science has already been indicated. One may he allowed to give one more example from the reported address of a clergyman. “O ye men of science, ye men of science, leave us our ancestors in paradise, and you may have yours in Zoological gardens.” The war was, for the most part, between the clergy and the men of science, but it is necessary to remember that Huxley fought not against Christianity, but against dogma; that he fought not against the past,–he had great reverence for the accomplishment of the past,–but against unwillingness to accept the new truth of the present.

A scholar of the highest type and a fearless defender of true and honest thinking, Huxley certainly was: but the quality which gives meaning to his work, which makes it live, is a certain human quality due to the fact that Huxley was always keenly alive to the relation of science to the problems of life. For this reason, he was not content with the mere acquirement of knowledge; and for this reason, also, he could not quietly wait until the world should come to his way of thinking. Much of the time, therefore, which he would otherwise naturally have spent in research, he spent in contending for and in endeavoring to popularize the facts of science. It was this desire to make his ideas prevail that led Huxley to work for a mastery of the technique of speaking and writing. He hated both, but taught himself to do both well. The end of all his infinite pains about his writing was not because style for its own sake is worth while, but because he saw that the only way to win men to a consideration of his message was to make it perfectly clear and attractive to them. Huxley’s message to the people was that happiness, usefulness, and even material prosperity depend upon an understanding of the laws of nature. He also taught that a knowledge of the facts of science is the soundest basis for moral law; that a clear sense of the penalties which Nature inflicts for disobedience of her laws must eventually be the greatest force for the purification of life. If he was to be remembered, therefore, he desired that he should be remembered primarily as one who had helped the people “to think truly and to live rightly.” Huxley’s writing is, then, something more than a scholarly exposition of abstruse matter; for it has been further devoted to the increasing of man’s capacity for usefulness, and to the betterment of his life here on earth.



From the point of view of subject-matter, structure, and style, Huxley’s essays are admirably adapted to the uses of the student in English. The themes of the essays are two, education and science. In these two subjects Huxley earnestly sought to arouse interest and to impart knowledge, because he believed that intelligence in these matters is essential for the advancement of the race in strength and morality. Both subjects, therefore, should be valuable to the student. In education, certainly, he should be interested, since it is his main occupation, if not his chief concern. Essays like A Liberal Education and The Principal Subjects of Education may suggest to him the meaning of all his work, and may suggest, also, the things which it would be well for him to know; and, even more, a consideration of these subjects may arouse him to a greater interest and responsibility than he usually assumes toward his own mental equipment. Of greater interest probably will be the subjects which deal with nature; for the ways of nature are more nearly within the range of his real concerns than are the wherefores of study. The story of the formation of a piece of chalk, the substance which lies at the basis of all life, the habits of sea animals, are all subjects the nature of which is akin to his own eager interest in the world.

Undoubtedly the subjects about which Huxley writes will “appeal” to the student; but it is in analysis that the real discipline lies. For analysis Huxley’s essays are excellent. They illustrate “the clear power of exposition,” and such power is, as Huxley wrote to Tyndall, the one quality the people want,–exposition “so clear that they may think they understand even if they don’t.” Huxley obtains that perfect clearness in his own work by simple definition, by keeping steadily before his audience his intention, and by making plain throughout his lecture a well-defined organic structure. No X-ray machine is needful to make the skeleton visible; it stands forth with the parts all nicely related and compactly joined. In reference to structure, his son and biographer writes, “He loved to visualize his object clearly. The framework of what he wished to say would always be drawn out first.” Professor Ray Lankester also mentions Huxley’s love of form. “He deals with form not only as a mechanical engineer IN PARTIBUS (Huxley’s own description of himself), but also as an artist, a born lover of form, a character which others recognize in him though he does not himself set it down in his analysis.” Huxley’s own account of his efforts to shape his work is suggestive. “The fact is that I have a great love and respect for my native tongue, and take great pains to use it properly. Sometimes I write essays half-a-dozen times before I can get them into proper shape; and I believe I become more fastidious as I grow older.” And, indeed, there is a marked difference in firmness of structure between the earlier essays, such as On the Educational Value of the Natural History Sciences, written, as Huxley acknowledges, in great haste, and the later essays, such as A Liberal Education and The Method of Scientific Investigation. To trace and to define this difference will be most helpful to the student who is building up a knowledge of structure for his own use.

According to Huxley’s biographer in the Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, the essays which represent him at his best are those published in 1868. They are A Piece of Chalk, A Liberal Education, and On the Physical Basis of Life. In connection with the comment on these essays is the following quotation which gives one interesting information as to Huxley’s method of obtaining a clear style:–

This lecture on A Piece of Chalk together with two others delivered this year, seems to me to mark the maturing of his style into that mastery of clear expression for which he deliberately labored, the saying exactly what he meant, neither too much nor too little, without confusion and without obscurity. Have something to say, and say it, was the Duke of Wellington’s theory of style; Huxley’s was to say that which has to be said in such language that you can stand cross-examination on each word. Be clear, though you may be convicted of error. If you are clearly wrong, you will run up against a fact sometime and get set right. If you shuffle with your subject, and study chiefly to use language which will give a loophole of escape either way, there is no hope for you.

This was the secret of his lucidity. In no one could Buffon’s aphorism on style find a better illustration, Le style c’est l’homme meme. In him science and literature, too often divorced, were closely united; and literature owes him a debt for importing into it so much of the highest scientific habit of mind; for showing that truthfulness need not be bald, and that real power lies more in exact accuracy than in luxuriance of diction.

Huxley’s own theory as to how clearness is to be obtained gets at the root of the matter. “For my part, I venture to doubt the wisdom of attempting to mould one’s style by any other process than that of striving after the clear and forcible expression of definite conceptions; in which process the Glassian precept, first catch your definite conception, is probably the most difficult to obey.”

Perfect clearness, above every other quality of style, certainly is characteristic of Huxley; but clearness alone does not make subject-matter literature. In addition to this quality, Huxley’s writing wins the reader by the racy diction, the homely illustration, the plain, honest phrasing. All these and other qualities bring one into an intimate relationship with his subject. A man of vast technical learning, he is still so interested in the relation of his facts to the problems of men that he is always able to infuse life into the driest of subjects, in other words, to HUMANIZE his knowledge; and in the estimation of Matthew Arnold, this is the true work of the scholar, the highest mission of style.



Although fully realizing that the questions here given are only such as are generally used everywhere by instructors in English, the editor has, nevertheless, included them with the hope that some one may find them helpful.

The studies given include a few general questions and suggestions on subject-matter, structure, and style. The questions on structure are based on an analysis of the whole composition and of the paragraph; those on style are based on a study of sentences and words. Such a division of material may seem unwarranted; for, it may be urged, firmness of structure depends, to a certain extent, upon sentence-form and words; and clearness of style, to a large extent, upon the form of the paragraph and whole composition. The two, certainly, cannot be in justice separated; and especially is it true, more deeply true than the average student can be brought to believe, that structure, “MIND, in style” as Pater phrases it, primarily determines not only clearness, but also such qualities of style as reserve, refinement, and simple Doric beauty. Since, however, structure is more obviously associated with the larger groups, and style with the smaller, the questions have been arranged according to this division.

I. Suggestions for the Study of Subject-Matter.

1. To whom does Huxley address the essay?

2. Can you see any adaptation of his material to his audience?

3. How would A Piece of Chalk be differently presented if given before a science club?

4. Does Huxley make his subject interesting? If so, how does he accomplish this?

5. Is the personality of Huxley suggested by the essays? See Life and Letters, vol. ii, p. 293.

II. Suggestions for the Study of Structure.

A. Analysis of the whole composition.

1. State in one complete sentence the theme of the essay.

2. Analyze the essay for the logical development of the thought.

a. Questions on the Introduction.
In the introduction, how does the author approach his material? Does he give the main points of the essay? Does he give his reasons for writing?
Does he narrow his subject to one point of view? Is the introduction a digression?

b. Questions on the Body.
Can you find large groups of thought? Are these groups closely related to the theme and to each other? Do you find any digressions?
Is the method used in developing the groups inductive or deductive? Is the method different in different groups? Are the groups arranged for good emphasis in the whole composition?

c. Questions on the Conclusion.
How does the author conclude the essay? Does the conclusion sum up the points of the essay? Are any new points suggested?
Is the thought of the whole essay stated? Do you consider it a strong conclusion?

3. Make out an outline which shall picture the skeleton of the essay studied. In making the outline express the topics in the form of complete statements, phrase the thought for clear sequence, and be careful about such matters as spacing and punctuation.

B. Analysis of paragraph structure.

1. Can a paragraph be analyzed in the same manner as the whole composition?

2. Can you express the thought of each paragraph in a complete sentence?

3. Can you find different points presented in the paragraph developing the paragraph topic, as the large groups of the whole composition develop the theme?

4. Are the paragraphs closely related, and how are they bound together?

5. Can any of the paragraphs be combined to advantage?

6. Read from Barrett Wendell’s English Composition the chapter on paragraphs. Are Huxley’s paragraphs constructed in accordance with the principles given in this chapter?

7. Is the paragraph type varied? For paragraph types, see Scott and Denny’s Paragraph Writing.

C. Comparative study of the structure of the essay.

1. Do you find any difference between Huxley’s earlier and later essays as regards the structure of the whole, or the structure of the paragraph?

2. Which essay seems to you to be most successful in structure?

3. Has the character of the audience any influence upon the structure of the essays?

4. Compare the structure of one of Huxley’s essays with that of some other essay recently studied.

5. Has the nature of the material any influence upon the structure of the essay?

III. Suggestions for the Study of Style.

A. Exactly what do you mean by style?

B. Questions on sentence structure.

1. From any given essay, group together sentences which are long, short, loose, periodic, balanced, simple, compound; note those peculiar, for any reason, to Huxley.

2. Stevenson says, “The one rule is to be infinitely various; to interest, to disappoint, to surprise and still to gratify; to be ever changing, as it were, the stitch, and yet still to give the effect of ingenious neatness.”

Do Huxley’s sentences conform to Stevenson’s rule? Compare Huxley’s sentences with Stevenson’s for variety in form. Is there any reason for the difference between the form of the two writers?

3. Does this quotation from Pater’s essay on Style describe Huxley’s sentences? “The blithe, crisp sentence, decisive as a child’s expression of its needs, may alternate with the long- contending, victoriously intricate sentence; the sentence, born with the integrity of a single word, relieving the sort of sentence in which, if you look closely, you can see contrivance, much adjustment, to bring a highly qualified matter into compass at one view.”

4. How do Huxley’s sentences compare with those of Ruskin, or with those of any author recently studied?

5. Are Huxley’s sentences musical? How does an author make his sentences musical?

C. Questions on words.

1. Do you find evidence of exactness, a quality which Huxley said he labored for?

2. Are the words general or specific in character?

3. How does Huxley make his subject-matter attractive?

4. From what sources does Huxley derive his words? Are they every- day words, or more scholarly in character?

5. Do you find any figures? Are these mainly ornamental or do they re-enforce the thought?

8. Are there many allusions and quotations? Can you easily recognize the source?

7. Pater says in his essay on Style that the literary artist “begets a vocabulary faithful to the colouring of his own spirit, and in the strictest sense original.” Do you find that Huxley’s vocabulary suggests the man?

8. Does Huxley seem to search for “the smooth, or winsome, or forcible word, as such, or quite simply and honestly, for the word’s adjustment to its meaning”?

9. Make out a list of the words and proper names in any given essay which are not familiar to you; write out the explanation of these in the form of notes giving any information which is interesting and relevant.

D. General questions on style.

1. How is Huxley’s style adapted to the subject-matter?

2. Can you explain the difference in style of the different essays by the difference in purpose?

3. Compare Huxley’s way of saying things with some other author’s way of saying things.

4. Huxley says of his essays to workingmen, “I only wish I had had the sense to anticipate the run these have had here and abroad, and I would have revised them properly. As they stand they are terribily in the rough, from a literary point of view.”

Do you find evidences of roughness?



And when I consider, in one view, the many things . . . which I have upon my hands, I feel the burlesque of being employed in this manner at my time of life. But, in another view, and taking in all circumstances, these things, as trifling as they may appear, no less than things of greater importance, seem to be put upon me to do.–Bishop Butler to the Duchess of Somerset.

The “many things” to which the Duchess’s correspondent here refers are the repairs and improvements of the episcopal seat at Auckland. I doubt if the great apologist, greater in nothing than in the simple dignity of his character, would have considered the writing an account of himself as a thing which could be put upon him to do whatever circumstances might be taken in. But the good bishop lived in an age when a man might write books and yet be permitted to keep his private existence to himself; in the pre-Boswellian [2] epoch, when the germ of the photographer lay concealed in the distant future, and the interviewer who pervades our age was an unforeseen, indeed unimaginable, birth of time.

At present, the most convinced believer in the aphorism “Bene qui latuit, bene vixit,”[3] is not always able to act up to it. An importunate person informs him that his portrait is about to be published and will be accompanied by a biography which the importunate person proposes to write. The sufferer knows what that means; either he undertakes to revise the “biography” or he does not. In the former case, he makes himself responsible; in the latter, he allows the publication of a mass of more or less fulsome inaccuracies for which he will be held responsible by those who are familiar with the prevalent art of self-advertisement. On the whole, it may be better to get over the “burlesque of being employed in this manner” and do the thing himself.

It was by reflections of this kind that, some years ago, I was led to write and permit the publication of the subjoined sketch.

I was born about eight o’clock in the morning on the 4th of May, 1825, at Ealing, which was, at that time, as quiet a little country village as could be found within a half-a-dozen miles of Hyde Park Corner. Now it is a suburb of London with, I believe, 30,000 inhabitants. My father was one of the masters in a large semi- public school which at one time had a high reputation. I am not aware that any portents preceded my arrival in this world, but, in my childhood, I remember hearing a traditional account of the manner in which I lost the chance of an endowment of great practical value. The windows of my mother’s room were open, in consequence of the unusual warmth of the weather. For the same reason, probably, a neighbouring beehive had swarmed, and the new colony, pitching on the window-sill, was making its way into the room when the horrified nurse shut down the sash. If that well- meaning woman had only abstained from her ill-timed interference, the swarm might have settled on my lips, and I should have been endowed with that mellifluous eloquence which, in this country, leads far more surely than worth, capacity, or honest work, to the highest places in Church and State. But the opportunity was lost, and I have been obliged to content myself through life with saying what I mean in the plainest of plain language, than which, I suppose, there is no habit more ruinous to a man’s prospects of advancement.

Why I was christened Thomas Henry I do not know; but it is a curious chance that my parents should have fixed for my usual denomination upon the name of that particular Apostle with whom I have always felt most sympathy. Physically and mentally I am the son of my mother so completely–even down to peculiar movements of the hands, which made their appearance in me as I reached the age she had when I noticed them–that I can hardly find any trace of my father in myself, except an inborn faculty for drawing, which unfortunately, in my case, has never been cultivated, a hot temper, and that amount of tenacity of purpose which unfriendly observers sometimes call obstinacy.

My mother was a slender brunette, of an emotional and energetic temperament, and possessed of the most piercing black eyes I ever saw in a woman’s head. With no more education than other women of the middle classes in her day, she had an excellent mental capacity. Her most distinguishing characteristic, however, was rapidity of thought. If one ventured to suggest she had not taken much time to arrive at any conclusion, she would say, “I cannot help it, things flash across me.” That peculiarity has been passed on to me in full strength; it has often stood me in good stead; it has sometimes played me sad tricks, and it has always been a danger. But, after all, if my time were to come over again, there is nothing I would less willingly part with than my inheritance of mother wit.

I have next to nothing to say about my childhood. In later years my mother, looking at me almost reproachfully, would sometimes say, “Ah! you were such a pretty boy!” whence I had no difficulty in concluding that I had not fulfilled my early promise in the matter of looks. In fact, I have a distinct recollection of certain curls of which I was vain, and of a conviction that I closely resembled that handsome, courtly gentleman, Sir Herbert Oakley, who was vicar of our parish, and who was as a god to us country folk, because he was occasionally visited by the then Prince George of Cambridge. [4] I remember turning my pinafore wrong side forwards in order to represent a surplice, and preaching to my mother’s maids in the kitchen as nearly as possible in Sir Herbert’s manner one Sunday morning when the rest of the family were at church. That is the earliest indication I can call to mind of the strong clerical affinities which my friend Mr. Herbert Spencer [5] has always ascribed to me, though I fancy they have for the most part remained in a latent state.

My regular school training was of the briefest, perhaps fortunately, for though my way of life has made me acquainted with all sorts and conditions of men, from the highest to the lowest, I deliberately affirm that the society I fell into at school was the worst I have ever known. We boys were average lads, with much the same inherent capacity for good and evil as any others; but the people who were set over us cared about as much for our intellectual and moral welfare as if they were baby-farmers. We were left to the operation of the struggle for existence among ourselves, and bullying was the least of the ill practices current among us. Almost the only cheerful reminiscence in connection with the place which arises in my mind is that of a battle I had with one of my classmates, who had bullied me until I could stand it no longer. I was a very slight lad, but there was a wild-cat element in me which, when roused, made up for lack of weight, and I licked my adversary effectually. However, one of my first experiences of the extremely rough-and-ready nature of justice, as exhibited by the course of things in general, arose out of the fact that I–the victor–had a black eye, while he–the vanquished–had none, so that I got into disgrace and he did not. We made it up, and thereafter I was unmolested. One of the greatest shocks I ever received in my life was to be told a dozen years afterwards by the groom who brought me my horse in a stable-yard in Sydney that he was my quondam antagonist. He had a long story of family misfortune to account for his position, but at that time it was necessary to deal very cautiously with mysterious strangers in New South Wales, and on inquiry I found that the unfortunate young man had not only been “sent out,” but had undergone more than one colonial conviction.

As I grew older, my great desire was to be a mechanical engineer, but the fates were against this and, while very young, I commenced the study of medicine under a medical brother-in-law. But, though the Institute of Mechanical Engineers would certainly not own me, I am not sure that I have not all along been a sort of mechanical engineer in partibus infidelium.[6] I am now occasionally horrified to think how very little I ever knew or cared about medicine as the art of healing. The only part of my professional course which really and deeply interested me was physiology, which is the mechanical engineering of living machines; and, notwithstanding that natural science has been my proper business, I am afraid there is very little of the genuine naturalist in me. I never collected anything, and species work was always a burden to me; what I cared for was the architectural and engineering part of the business, the working out of the wonderful unity of plan in the thousands and thousands of diverse living constructions, and the modifications of similar apparatuses to serve diverse ends. The extraordinary attraction I felt towards the study of the intricacies of living structure nearly proved fatal to me at the outset. I was a mere boy–I think between thirteen and fourteen years of age–when I was taken by some older student friends of mine to the first post- mortem examination I ever attended. All my life I have been most unfortunately sensitive to the disagreeables which attend anatomical pursuits, but on this occasion my curiosity overpowered all other feelings, and I spent two or three hours in gratifying it. I did not cut myself, and none of the ordinary symptoms of dissection-poison supervened, but poisoned I was somehow, and I remember sinking into a strange state of apathy. By way of a last chance, I was sent to the care of some good, kind people, friends of my father’s, who lived in a farmhouse in the heart of Warwickshire. I remember staggering from my bed to the window on the bright spring morning after my arrival, and throwing open the casement. Life seemed to come back on the wings of the breeze, and to this day the faint odor of wood-smoke, like that which floated across the farm-yard in the early morning, is as good to me as the “sweet south upon a bed of violets.”[7] I soon recovered, but for years I suffered from occasional paroxysms of internal pain, and from that time my constant friend, hypochondriacal dyspepsia, commenced his half century of co-tenancy of my fleshly tabernacle.

Looking back on my “Lehrjahre,”[8] I am sorry to say that I do not think that any account of my doings as a student would tend to edification. In fact, I should distinctly warn ingenuous youth to avoid imitating my example. I worked extremely hard when it pleased me, and when it did not–which was a very frequent case–I was extremely idle (unless making caricatures of one’s pastors and masters is to be called a branch of industry), or else wasted my energies in wrong directions. I read everything I could lay hands upon, including novels, and took up all sorts of pursuits to drop them again quite as speedily. No doubt it was very largely my own fault, but the only instruction from which I ever obtained the proper effect of education was that which I received from Mr. Wharton Jones, who was the lecturer on physiology at the Charing Cross School of Medicine. The extent and precision of his knowledge impressed me greatly, and the severe exactness of his method of lecturing was quite to my taste. I do not know that I have ever felt so much respect for anybody as a teacher before or since. I worked hard to obtain his approbation, and he was extremely kind and helpful to the youngster who, I am afraid, took up more of his time than he had any right to do. It was he who suggested the publication of my first scientific paper–a very little one–in the Medical Gazette of 1845, and most kindly corrected the literary faults which abounded in it, short as it was; for at that time, and for many years afterwards, I detested the trouble of writing, and would take no pains over it.

It was in the early spring of 1846, that, having finished my obligatory medical studies and passed the first M. D. examination at the London University,–though I was still too young to qualify at the College of Surgeons,–I was talking to a fellow-student (the present eminent physician, Sir Joseph Fayrer), and wondering what I should do to meet the imperative necessity for earning my own bread, when my friend suggested that I should write to Sir William Burnett, at that time Director-General for the Medical Service of the Navy, for an appointment. I thought this rather a strong thing to do, as Sir William was personally unknown to me, but my cheery friend would not listen to my scruples, so I went to my lodgings and wrote the best letter I could devise. A few days afterwards I received the usual official circular acknowledgment, but at the bottom there was written an instruction to call at Somerset House on such a day. I thought that looked like business, so at the appointed time I called and sent in my card, while I waited in Sir William’s ante-room. He was a tall, shrewd-looking old gentleman, with a broad Scotch accent–and I think I see him now as he entered with my card in his hand. The first thing he did was to return it, with the frugal reminder that I should probably find it useful on some other occasion. The second was to ask whether I was an Irishman. I suppose the air of modesty about my appeal must have struck him. I satisfied the Director-General that I was English to the backbone, and he made some inquiries as to my student career, finally desiring me to hold myself ready for examination. Having passed this, I was in Her Majesty’s Service, and entered on the books of Nelson’s [9] old ship, the Victory, for duty at Haslar Hospital, about a couple of months after I made my application.

My official chief at Haslar was a very remarkable person, the late Sir John Richardson, an excellent naturalist, and far-famed as an indomitable Arctic traveller. He was a silent, reserved man, outside the circle of his family and intimates; and, having a full share of youthful vanity, I was extremely disgusted to find that “Old John,” as we irreverent youngsters called him, took not the slightest notice of my worshipful self either the first time I attended him, as it was my duty to do, or for some weeks afterwards. I am afraid to think of the lengths to which my tongue may have run on the subject of the churlishness of the chief, who was, in truth, one of the kindest-hearted and most considerate of men. But one day, as I was crossing the hospital square, Sir John stopped me, and heaped coals of fire on my head by telling me that he had tried to get me one of the resident appointments, much coveted by the assistant surgeons, but that the Admiralty had put in another man. “However,” said he, “I mean to keep you here till I can get you something you will like,” and turned upon his heel without waiting for the thanks I stammered out. That explained how it was I had not been packed off to the West Coast of Africa like some of my juniors, and why, eventually, I remained altogether seven months at Haslar.

After a long interval, during which “Old John” ignored my existence almost as completely as before, he stopped me again as we met in a casual way, and describing the service on which the Rattlesnake was likely to be employed, said that Captain Owen Stanley, who was to command the ship, had asked him to recommend an assistant surgeon who knew something of science; would I like that? Of course I jumped at the offer. “Very well, I give you leave; go to London at once and see Captain Stanley.” I went, saw my future commander, who was very civil to me, and promised to ask that I should be appointed to his ship, as in due time I was. It is a singular thing that, during the few months of my stay at Haslar, I had among my messmates two future Directors-General of the Medical Service of the Navy (Sir Alexander Armstrong and Sir John Watt-Reid), with the present President of the College of Physicians and my kindest of doctors, Sir Andrew Clark.

Life on board Her Majesty’s ship in those days was a very different affair from what it is now, and ours was exceptionally rough, as we were often many months without receiving letters or seeing any civilised people but ourselves. In exchange, we had the interest of being about the last voyagers, I suppose, to whom it could be possible to meet with people who knew nothing of fire-arms–as we did on the south coast of New Guinea–and of making acquaintance with a variety of interesting savage and semi-civilised people. But, apart from experience of this kind and the opportunities offered for scientific work, to me, personally, the cruise was extremely valuable. It was good for me to live under sharp discipline; to be down on the realities of existence by living on bare necessaries; to find out how extremely well worth living life seemed to be when one woke up from a night’s rest on a soft plank, with the sky for canopy and cocoa and weevilly biscuit the sole prospect for breakfast; and, more especially, to learn to work for the sake of what I got for myself out of it, even if it all went to the bottom and I along with it. My brother officers were as good fellows as sailors ought to be and generally are, but, naturally, they neither knew nor cared anything about my pursuits, nor understood why I should be so zealous in pursuit of the objects which my friends, the middies,[10] christened “Buffons,” after the title conspicuous on a volume of the Suites a Buffon,[11] which stood on my shelf in the chart room.

During the four years of our absence, I sent home communication after communication to the “Linnean Society,”[12] with the same result as that obtained by Noah when he sent the raven out of his ark. Tired at last of hearing nothing about them, I determined to do or die, and in 1849 I drew up a more elaborate paper and forwarded it to the Royal Society.[13] This was my dove, if I had only known it. But owing to the movements of the ship, I heard nothing of that either until my return to England in the latter end of the year 1850, when I found that it was printed and published, and that a huge packet of separate copies awaited me. When I hear some of my young friends complain of want of sympathy and encouragement, I am inclined to think that my naval life was not the least valuable part of my education.

Three years after my return were occupied by a battle between my scientific friends on the one hand and the Admiralty on the other, as to whether the latter ought, or ought not, to act up to the spirit of a pledge they had given to encourage officers who had done scientific work by contributing to the expense of publishing mine. At last the Admiralty, getting tired, I suppose, cut short the discussion by ordering me to join a ship, which thing I declined to do, and as Rastignac,[14] in the Pere Goriot [15] says to Paris, I said to London “a nous deux.” I desired to obtain a Professorship of either Physiology or Comparative Anatomy, and as vacancies occurred I applied, but in vain. My friend, Professor Tyndall,[16] and I were candidates at the same time, he for the Chair of Physics and I for that of Natural History in the University of Toronto, which, fortunately, as it turned out, would not look at either of us. I say fortunately, not from any lack of respect for Toronto, but because I soon made up my mind that London was the place for me, and hence I have steadily declined the inducements to leave it, which have at various times been offered. At last, in 1854, on the translation of my warm friend Edward Forbes, to Edinburgh, Sir Henry de la Beche, the Director-General of the Geological Survey, offered me the post Forbes vacated of Paleontologist and Lecturer on Natural History. I refused the former point blank, and accepted the latter only provisionally, telling Sir Henry that I did not care for fossils, and that I should give up Natural History as soon as I could get a physiological post. But I held the office for thirty-one years, and a large part of my work has been paleontological.

At that time I disliked public speaking, and had a firm conviction that I should break down every time I opened my mouth. I believe I had every fault a speaker could have (except talking at random or indulging in rhetoric), when I spoke to the first important audience I ever addressed, on a Friday evening at the Royal Institution, in 1852. Yet, I must confess to having been guilty, malgre moi, of as much public speaking as most of my contemporaries, and for the last ten years it ceased to be so much of a bugbear to me. I used to pity myself for having to go through this training, but I am now more disposed to compassionate the unfortunate audiences, especially my ever friendly hearers at the Royal Institution, who were the subjects of my oratorical experiments.

The last thing that it would be proper for me to do would be to speak of the work of my life, or to say at the end of the day whether I think I have earned my wages or not. Men are said to be partial judges of themselves. Young men may be, I doubt if old men are. Life seems terribly foreshortened as they look back and the mountain they set themselves to climb in youth turns out to be a mere spur of immeasurably higher ranges when, by failing breath, they reach the top. But if I may speak of the objects I have had more or less definitely in view since I began the ascent of my hillock, they are briefly these: To promote the increase of natural knowledge and to forward the application of scientific methods of investigation to all the problems of life to the best of my ability, in the conviction which has grown with my growth and strengthened with my strength, that there is no alleviation for the sufferings of mankind except veracity of thought and of action, and the resolute facing of the world as it is when the garment of make- believe by which pious hands have hidden its uglier features is stripped off.

It is with this intent that I have subordinated any reasonable, or unreasonable, ambition for scientific fame which I may have permitted myself to entertain to other ends; to the popularization of science; to the development and organisation of scientific education; to the endless series of battles and skirmishes over evolution; and to untiring opposition to that ecclesiastical spirit,[17] that clericalism, which in England, as everywhere else, and to whatever denomination it may belong, is the deadly enemy of science.

In striving for the attainment of these objects, I have been but one among many, and I shall be well content to be remembered, or even not remembered, as such. Circumstances, among which I am proud to reckon the devoted kindness of many friends, have led to my occupation of various prominent positions, among which the Presidency of the Royal Society is the highest. It would be mock modesty on my part, with these and other scientific honours which have been bestowed upon me, to pretend that I have not succeeded in the career which I have followed, rather because I was driven into it than of my own free will; but I am afraid I should not count even these things as marks of success if I could not hope that I had somewhat helped that movement of opinion which has been called the New Reformation.[18]


This time two hundred years ago–in the beginning of January, 1666– those of our forefathers who inhabited this great and ancient city, took breath between the shocks of two fearful calamities: one not quite past, although its fury had abated; the other to come.

Within a few yards of the very spot [20] on which we are assembled, so the tradition runs, that painful and deadly malady, the plague, appeared in the latter months of 1664; and, though no new visitor, smote the people of England, and especially of her capital, with a violence unknown before, in the course of the following year. The hand of a master has pictured what happened in those dismal months; and in that truest of fictions, The History of the Plague Year, Defoe [21] shows death, with every accompaniment of pain and terror, stalking through the narrow streets of old London, and changing their busy hum into a silence broken only by the wailing of the mourners of fifty thousand dead; by the woful denunciations and mad prayers of fanatics; and by the madder yells of despairing profligates.

But, about this time in 1666, the death-rate had sunk to nearly its ordinary amount; a case of plague occurred only here and there, and the richer citizens who had flown from the pest had returned to their dwellings. The remnant of the people began to toil at the accustomed round of duty, or of pleasure; and the stream of city life bid fair to flow back along its old bed, with renewed and uninterrupted vigour.

The newly kindled hope was deceitful. The great plague, indeed, returned no more; but what it had done for the Londoners, the great fire, which broke out in the autumn of 1666, did for London; and, in September of that year, a heap of ashes and the indestructible energy of the people were all that remained of the glory of five- sixths of the city within the walls.

Our forefathers had their own ways of accounting for each of these calamities. They submitted to the plague in humility and in penitence, for they believed it to be the judgment of God. But, towards the fire they were furiously indignant, interpreting it as the effect of the malice of man,–as the work of the Republicans, or of the Papists, according as their prepossessions ran in favour of loyalty or of Puritanism.

It would, I fancy, have fared but ill with one who, standing where I now stand, in what was then a thickly peopled and fashionable part of London, should have broached to our ancestors the doctrine which I now propound to you–that all their hypotheses were alike wrong; that the plague was no more, in their sense, Divine judgment, than the fire was the work of any political, or of any religious sect; but that they were themselves the authors of both plague and fire, and that they must look to themselves to prevent the recurrence of calamities, to all appearance so peculiarly beyond the reach of human control–so evidently the result of the wrath of God, or of the craft and subtlety of an enemy.

And one may picture to one’s self how harmoniously the holy cursing of the Puritan of that day would have chimed in with the unholy cursing and the crackling wit of the Rochesters and Sedleys,[22] and with the revilings of the political fanatics, if my imaginary plain dealer had gone on to say that, if the return of such misfortunes were ever rendered impossible, it would not be in virtue of the victory of the faith of Laud,[23] or of that of Milton; and, as little, by the triumph of republicanism, as by that of monarchy. But that the one thing needful for compassing this end was, that the people of England should second the efforts of an insignificant corporation, the establishment of which, a few years before the epoch of the great plague and the great fire, had been as little noticed, as they were conspicuous.

Some twenty years before the outbreak of the plague a few calm and thoughtful students banded themselves together for the purpose, as they phrased it, of “improving natural knowledge.” The ends they proposed to attain cannot be stated more clearly than in the words of one of the founders of the organisation:–

“Our business was (precluding matters of theology and state affairs) to discourse and consider of philosophical enquiries, and such as related thereunto:–as Physick, Anatomy, Geometry, Astronomy, Navigation, Staticks, Magneticks, Chymicks, Mechanicks, and Natural Experiments; with the state of these studies and their cultivation at home and abroad. We then discoursed of the circulation of the blood, the valves in the veins, the venae lacteae, the lymphatic vessels, the Copernican hypothesis, the nature of comets and new stars, the satellites of Jupiter, the oval shape (as it then appeared) of Saturn, the spots on the sun and its turning on its own axis, the inequalities and selenography [24] of the moon, the several phases of Venus and Mercury, the improvement of telescopes and grinding of glasses for that purpose, the weight of air, the possibility or impossibility of vacuities and nature’s abhorrence thereof, the Torricellian experiment [25] in quicksilver, the descent of heavy bodies and the degree of acceleration therein, with divers other things of like nature, some of which were then but new discoveries, and others not so generally known and embraced as now they are; with other things appertaining to what hath been called the New Philosophy, which from the times of Galileo at Florence, and Sir Francis Bacon [26] (Lord Verulam) in England, hath been much cultivated in Italy, France, Germany, and other parts abroad, as well as with us in England.”

The learned Dr. Wallis,[27] writing in 1696, narrates in these words, what happened half a century before, or about 1645. The associates met at Oxford, in the rooms of Dr. Wilkins, who was destined to become a bishop; and subsequently coming together in London, they attracted the notice of the king. And it is a strange evidence of the taste for knowledge which the most obviously worthless of the Stuarts shared with his father and grandfather, that Charles the Second was not content with saying witty things about his philosophers, but did wise things with regard to them. For he not only bestowed upon them such attention as he could spare from his poodles and his mistresses, but, being in his usual state of impecuniosity, begged for them of the Duke of Ormond; and, that step being without effect, gave them Chelsea College, a charter, and a mace: crowning his favours in the best way they could be crowned, by burdening them no further with royal patronage or state interference.

Thus it was that the half-dozen young men, studious of the “New Philosophy,” [28] who met in one another’s lodgings in Oxford or in London, in the middle of the seventeenth century, grew in numerical and in real strength, until, in its latter part, the “Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge” had already become famous, and had acquired a claim upon the veneration of Englishmen, which it has ever since retained, as the principal focus of scientific activity in our islands, and the chief champion of the cause it was formed to support.

It was by the aid of the Royal Society [29] that Newton [30] published his Principia. If all the books in the world, except the Philosophical Transactions, [31] were destroyed, it is safe to say that the foundations of physical science would remain unshaken, and that the vast intellectual progress of the last two centuries would be largely, though incompletely, recorded. Nor have any signs of halting or of decrepitude manifested themselves in our own times. As in Dr. Wallis’s days, so in these, “our business is, precluding theology and state affairs, to discourse and consider of philosophical enquiries.” But our “Mathematick” is one which Newton would have to go to school to learn; our “Staticks, Mechanicks, Magneticks, Chymicks, and Natural Experiments” constitute a mass of physical and chemical knowledge, a glimpse at which would compensate Galileo [32] for the doings of a score of inquisitorial cardinals; our “Physick” and “Anatomy” have embraced such infinite varieties of beings, have laid open such new worlds in time and space, have grappled, not unsuccessfully, with such complex problems, that the eyes of Vesalius [33] and of Harvey [34] might be dazzled by the sight of the tree that has grown out of their grain of mustard seed.

The fact is perhaps rather too much, than too little, forced upon one’s notice, nowadays, that all this marvellous intellectual growth has a no less wonderful expression in practical life; and that, in this respect, if in no other, the movement symbolised by the progress of the Royal Society stands without a parallel in the history of mankind.

A series of volumes as bulky as the “Transactions of the Royal Society” might possibly be filled with the subtle speculations [35] of the Schoolmen;[36] not improbably, the obtaining a mastery over the products of mediaeval thought might necessitate an even greater expenditure of time and of energy than the acquirement of the “New Philosophy”; but though such work engrossed the best intellects of Europe for a longer time than has elapsed since the great fire, its effects were “writ in water,”[37] so far as our social state is concerned.

On the other hand, if the noble first President of the Royal Society could revisit the upper air and once more gladden his eyes with a sight of the familiar mace, he would find himself in the midst of a material civilisation more different from that of his day, than that of the seventeenth was from that of the first century. And if Lord Brouncker’s [38] native sagacity had not deserted his ghost, he would need no long reflection to discover that all these great ships, these railways, these telegraphs, these factories, these printing-presses, without which the whole fabric of modern English society would collapse into a mass of stagnant and starving pauperism,–that all these pillars of our State are but the ripples and the bubbles upon the surface of that great spiritual stream, the springs of which only, he and his fellows were privileged to see; and seeing, to recognise as that which it behoved them above all things to keep pure and undefiled.

It may not be too great a flight of imagination to conceive our noble revenant [39] not forgetful of the great troubles of his own day, and anxious to know how often London had been burned down since his time and how often the plague had carried off its thousands. He would have to learn that, although London contains tenfold the inflammable matter that it did in 1666; though, not content with filling our rooms with woodwork and light draperies, we must needs lead inflammable and explosive gases into every corner of our streets and houses, we never allow even a street to burn down. And if he asked how this had come about, we should have to explain that the improvement of natural knowledge has furnished us with dozens of machines for throwing water upon fires, any one of which would have furnished the ingenious Mr. Hooke, the first “curator and experimenter” of the Royal Society, with ample materials for discourse before half a dozen meetings of that body; and that, to say truth, except for the progress of natural knowledge, we should not have been able to make even the tools by which these machines are constructed. And, further, it would be necessary to add, that although severe fires sometimes occur and inflict great damage, the loss is very generally compensated by societies, the operations of which have been rendered possible only by the progress of natural knowledge in the direction of mathematics, and the accumulation of wealth in virtue of other natural knowledge.

But the plague? My Lord Brouncker’s observation would not, I fear, lead him to think that Englishmen of the nineteenth century are purer in life, or more fervent in religious faith, than the generation which could produce a Boyle,[40] an Evelyn,[41] and a Milton. He might find the mud of society at the bottom, instead of at the top, but I fear that the sum total would be as deserving of swift judgment as at the time of the Restoration.[42] And it would be our duty to explain once more, and this time not without shame, that we have no reason to believe that it is the improvement of our faith, nor that of our morals, which keeps the plague from our city; but, again, that it is the improvement of our natural knowledge.

We have learned that pestilences will only take up their abode among those who have prepared unswept and ungarnished residences for them. Their cities must have narrow, unwatered streets, foul with accumulated garbage. Their houses must be ill-drained, ill- lighted, ill-ventilated. Their subjects must be ill-washed, ill- fed, ill-clothed. The London of 1665 was such a city. The cities of the East, where plague has an enduring dwelling, are such cities. We, in later times, have learned somewhat of Nature, and partly obey her. Because of this partial improvement of our natural knowledge and of that fractional obedience, we have no plague; because that knowledge is still very imperfect and that obedience yet incomplete, typhoid is our companion and cholera our visitor. But it is not presumptuous to express the belief that, when our knowledge is more complete and our obedience the expression of our knowledge, London will count her centuries of freedom from typhoid and cholera, as she now gratefully reckons her two hundred years of ignorance of that plague which swooped upon her thrice in the first half of the seventeenth century.

Surely, there is nothing in these explanations which is not fully borne out by the facts? Surely, the principles involved in them are now admitted among the fixed beliefs of all thinking men? Surely, it is true that our countrymen are less subject to fire, famine, pestilence, and all the evils which result from a want of command over and due anticipation of the course of Nature, than were the countrymen of Milton; and health, wealth, and well-being are more abundant with us than with them? But no less certainly is the difference due to the improvement of our knowledge of Nature, and the extent to which that improved knowledge has been incorporated with the household words of men, and has supplied the springs of their daily actions.

Granting for a moment, then, the truth of that which the depreciators of natural knowledge are so fond of urging, that its improvement can only add to the resources of our material civilisation; admitting it to be possible that the founders of the Royal Society themselves looked for not other reward than this, I cannot confess that I was guilty of exaggeration when I hinted, that to him who had the gift of distinguishing between prominent events and important events, the origin of a combined effort on the part of mankind to improve natural knowledge might have loomed larger than the Plague and have outshone the glare of the Fire; as a something fraught with a wealth of beneficence to mankind, in comparison with which the damage done by those ghastly evils would shrink into insignificance.

It is very certain that for every victim slain by the plague, hundreds of mankind exist and find a fair share of happiness in the world by the aid of the spinning jenny. And the great fire, at its worst, could not have burned the supply of coal, the daily working of which, in the bowels of the earth, made possible by the steam pump, gives rise to an amount of wealth to which the millions lost in old London are but as an old song.

But spinning jenny and steam pump are, after all, but toys, possessing an accidental value; and natural knowledge creates multitudes of more subtle contrivances, the praises of which do not happen to be sung because they are not directly convertible into instruments for creating wealth. When I contemplate natural knowledge squandering such gifts among men, the only appropriate comparison I can find for her is to liken her to such a peasant woman as one sees in the Alps, striding ever upward, heavily burdened, and with mind bent only on her home; but yet without effort and without thought, knitting for her children. Now stockings are good and comfortable things, and the children will undoubtedly be much the better for them; but surely it would be short-sighted, to say the least of it, to depreciate this toiling mother as a mere stocking-machine–a mere provider of physical comforts?

However, there are blind leaders of the blind, and not a few of them, who take this view of natural knowledge, and can see nothing in the bountiful mother of humanity but a sort of comfort-grinding machine. According to them, the improvement of natural knowledge always has been, and always must be, synonymous with no more than the improvement of the material resources and the increase of the gratifications of men.

Natural knowledge is, in their eyes, no real mother of mankind, bringing them up with kindness, and, if need be, with sternness, in the way they should go, and instructing them in all things needful for their welfare; but a sort of fairy god-mother, ready to furnish her pets with shoes of swiftness, swords of sharpness, and omnipotent Aladdin’s lamps,[43] so that they may have telegraphs to Saturn, and see the other side of the moon, and thank God they are better than their benighted ancestors.

If this talk were true, I, for one, should not greatly care to toil in the service of natural knowledge. I think I would just as soon be quietly chipping my own flint axe, after the manner of my forefathers a few thousand years back, as be troubled with the endless malady of thought which now infests us all, for such reward. But I venture to say that such views are contrary alike to reason and to fact. Those who discourse in such fashion seem to me to be so intent upon trying to see what is above Nature, or what is behind her, that they are blind to what stares them in the face in her.

I should not venture thus to speak strongly if my justification were not to be found in the simplest and most obvious facts,–if it needed more than an appeal to the most notorious truths to justify my assertion, that the improvement of natural knowledge, whatever direction it has taken, and however low the aims of those who may have commenced it–has not only conferred practical benefits on men, but, in so doing, has effected a revolution in their conceptions of the universe and of themselves, and has profoundly altered their modes of thinking and their views of right and wrong. I say that natural knowledge, seeking to satisfy natural wants, has found the ideas which can alone still spiritual cravings. I say that natural knowledge, in desiring to ascertain the laws of comfort, has been driven to discover those of conduct, and to lay the foundations of a new morality.

Let us take these points separately; and first, what great ideas has natural knowledge introduced into men’s minds?

I cannot but think that the foundations of all natural knowledge were laid when the reason of man first came face to face with the facts of Nature; when the savage first learned that the fingers of one hand are fewer than those of both; that it is shorter to cross a stream than to head it; that a stone stops where it is unless it be moved, and that it drops from the hand which lets it go; that light and heat come and go with the sun; that sticks burn away in a fire; that plants and animals grow and die; that if he struck his fellow savage a blow he would make him angry, and perhaps get a blow in return, while if he offered him a fruit he would please him, and perhaps receive a fish in exchange. When men had acquired this much knowledge, the outlines, rude though they were, of mathematics, of physics, of chemistry, of biology, of moral, economical, and political science, were sketched. Nor did the germ of religion fail when science began to bud. Listen to words which, though new, are yet three thousand years old:–

. . . When in heaven the stars about the moon Look beautiful, when all the winds are laid, And every height comes out, and jutting peak And valley, and the immeasurable heavens Break open to their highest, and all the stars Shine, and the shepherd gladdens in his heart.[44]

If the half savage Greek could share our feelings thus far, it is irrational to doubt that he went further, to find as we do, that upon that brief gladness there follows a certain sorrow,–the little light of awakened human intelligence shines so mere a spark amidst the abyss of the unknown and unknowable; seems so insufficient to do more than illuminate the imperfections that cannot be remedied, the aspirations that cannot be realised, of man’s own nature. But in this sadness, this consciousness of the limitation of man, this sense of an open secret which he cannot penetrate, lies the essence of all religion; and the attempt to embody it in the forms furnished by the intellect is the origin of the higher theologies.

Thus it seems impossible to imagine but that the foundations of all knowledge–secular or sacred–were laid when intelligence dawned, though the superstructure remained for long ages so slight and feeble as to be compatible with the existence of almost any general view respecting the mode of governance of the universe. No doubt, from the first, there were certain phenomena which, to the rudest mind, presented a constancy of occurrence, and suggested that a fixed order ruled, at any rate, among them. I doubt if the grossest of Fetish worshippers ever imagined that a stone must have a god within it to make it fall, or that a fruit had a god within it to make it taste sweet. With regard to such matters as these, it is hardly questionable that mankind from the first took strictly positive and scientific views.

But, with respect to all the less familiar occurrences which present themselves, uncultured man, no doubt, has always taken himself as the standard of comparison, as the centre and measure of the world; nor could be well avoid doing so. And finding that his apparently uncaused will has a powerful effect in giving rise to many occurrences, he naturally enough ascribed other and greater events to other and greater volitions and came to look upon the world and all that therein is, as the product of the volitions of persons like himself, but stronger, and capable of being appeased or angered, as he himself might be soothed or irritated. Through such conceptions of the plan and working of the universe all mankind have passed, or are passing. And we may now consider what has been the effect of the improvement of natural knowledge on the views of men who have reached this stage, and who have begun to cultivate natural knowledge with no desire but that of “increasing God’s honour and bettering man’s estate.”[45]

For example, what could seem wiser, from a mere material point of view, more innocent, from a theological one, to an ancient people, than that they should learn the exact succession of the seasons, as warnings for their husbandmen; or the position of the stars, as guides to their rude navigators?[46] But what has grown out of this search for natural knowledge of so merely useful a character? You all know the reply. Astronomy,–which of all sciences has filled men’s minds with general ideas of a character most foreign to their daily experience, and has, more than any other, rendered it impossible for them to accept the beliefs of their fathers. Astronomy,–which tells them that this so vast and seemingly solid earth is but an atom among atoms, whirling, no man knows whither, through illimitable space; which demonstrates that what we call the peaceful heaven above us, is but that space, filled by an infinitely subtle matter whose particles are seething and surging, like the waves of an angry sea; which opens up to us infinite regions where nothing is known, or ever seems to have been known, but matter and force, operating according to rigid rules; which leads us to contemplate phaenomena the very nature of which demonstrates that they must have had a beginning, and that they must have an end, but the very nature of which also proves that the beginning was, to our conceptions of time, infinitely remote, and that the end is as immeasurably distant.

But it is not alone those who pursue astronomy who ask for bread and receive ideas. What more harmless than the attempt to lift and distribute water by pumping it; what more absolutely and grossly utilitarian? Yet out of pumps grew the discussions about Nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum; and then it was discovered that Nature does not abhor a vacuum, but that air has weight; and that notion paved the way for the doctrine that all matter has weight, and that the force which produces weight is co-extensive with the universe,–in short, to the theory of universal gravitation and endless force. While learning how to handle gases led to the discovery of oxygen, and to modern chemistry, and to the notion of the indestructibility of matter.

Again, what simpler, or more absolutely practical, than the attempt to keep the axle of a wheel from heating when the wheel turns round very fast? How useful for carters and gig drivers to know something about this; and how good were it, if any ingenious person would find out the cause of such phaenomena, and thence educe a general remedy for them. Such an ingenious person was Count Rumford;[47] and he and his successors have landed us in the theory of the persistence, or indestructibility, of force. And in the infinitely minute, as in the infinitely great, the seekers after natural knowledge of the kinds called physical and chemical, have everywhere found a definite order and succession of events which seem never to be infringed.

And how has it fared with “Physick” and Anatomy? Have the anatomist, the physiologist, or the physician, whose business it has been to devote themselves assiduously to that eminently practical and direct end, the alleviation of the sufferings of mankind,–have they been able to confine their vision more absolutely to the strictly useful? I fear they are the worst offenders of all. For if the astronomer has set before us the infinite magnitude of space, and the practical eternity of the duration of the universe; if the physical and chemical philosophers have demonstrated the infinite minuteness of its constituent parts, and the practical eternity of matter and of force; and if both have alike proclaimed the universality of a definite and predicable order and succession of events, the workers in biology have not only accepted all these, but have added more startling theses of their own. For, as the astronomers discover in the earth no centre of the universe, but an eccentric [48] speck, so the naturalists find man to be no centre of the living world, but one amidst endless modifications of life; and as the astronomers observe the mark of practically endless time set upon the arrangements of the solar system so the student of life finds the records of ancient forms of existence peopling the world for ages, which, in relation to human experience, are infinite.

Furthermore, the physiologist finds life to be as dependent for its manifestation of particular molecular arrangements as any physical or chemical phenomenon; and wherever he extends his researches, fixed order and unchanging causation reveal themselves, as plainly as in the rest of Nature.

Nor can I find that any other fate has awaited the germ of Religion. Arising, like all other kinds of knowledge, out of the action and interaction of man’s mind, with that which is not man’s mind, it has taken the intellectual coverings of Fetishism or Polytheism; of Theism or Atheism; of Superstition or Rationalism. With these, and their relative merits and demerits, I have nothing to do; but this it is needful for my purpose to say, that if the religion of the present differs from that of the past, it is because the theology of the present has become more scientific than that of the past; because it has not only renounced idols of wood and idols of stone, but begins to see the necessity of breaking in pieces the idols built up of books and traditions and fine-spun ecclesiastical cobwebs: and of cherishing the noblest and most human of man’s emotions, by worship “for the most part of the silent sort” at the Altar of the Unknown.

Such are a few of the new conceptions implanted in our minds by the improvement of natural knowledge. Men have acquired the ideas of the practically infinite extent of the universe and of its practical eternity; they are familiar with the conception that our earth is but an infinitesimal fragment of that part of the universe which can be seen; and that, nevertheless, its duration is, as compared with our standards of time, infinite. They have further acquired the idea that man is but one of innumerable forms of life now existing on the globe, and that the present existences are but the last of an immeasurable series of predecessors. Moreover, every step they have made in natural knowledge has tended to extend and rivet in their minds the conception of a definite order of the universe–which is embodied in what are called, by an unhappy metaphor, the laws of Nature–and to narrow the range and loosen the force of men’s belief in spontaneity, or in changes other than such as arise out of that definite order itself.

Whether these ideas are well or ill founded is not the question. No one can deny that they exist, and have been the inevitable outgrowth of the improvement of natural knowledge. And if so, it cannot be doubted that they are changing the form of men’s most cherished and most important convictions.

And as regards the second point–the extent to which the improvement of natural knowledge has remodelled and altered what may be termed the intellectual ethics of men,–what are among the moral convictions most fondly held by barbarous and semi-barbarous people?

They are the convictions that authority is the soundest basis of belief; that merit attaches to a readiness to believe; that the doubting disposition is a bad one, and scepticism a sin; that when good authority has pronounced what is to be believed, and faith has accepted it, reason has no further duty. There are many excellent persons who yet hold by these principles, and it is not my present business, or intention, to discuss their views. All I wish to bring clearly before your minds is the unquestionable fact, that the improvement of natural knowledge is effected by methods which directly give the lie to all these convictions, and assume the exact reverse of each to be true.

The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, scepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin. And it cannot be otherwise, for every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority, the cherishing of the keenest scepticism, the annihilation of the spirit of blind faith; and the most ardent votary of science holds his firmest convictions, not because the men he most venerates hold them; not because their verity is testified by portents and wonders; but because his experience teaches him that whenever he chooses to bring these convictions into contact with their primary source, Nature– whenever he thinks fit to test them by appealing to experiment and to observation–Nature will confirm them. The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification.

Thus, without for a moment pretending to despise the practical results of the improvement of natural knowledge, and its beneficial influence on material civilisation, it must, I think, be admitted that the great ideas, some of which I have indicated, and the ethical spirit which I have endeavoured to sketch, in the few moments which remained at my disposal, constitute the real and permanent significance of natural knowledge.

If these ideas be destined, as I believe they are, to be more and more firmly established as the world grows older; if that spirit be fated, as I believe it is, to extend itself into all departments of human thought, and to become co-extensive with the range of knowledge; if, as our race approaches its maturity, it discovers, as I believe it will, that there is but one kind of knowledge and but one method of acquiring it; then we, who are still children, may justly feel it our highest duty to recognise the advisableness of improving natural knowledge, and so to aid ourselves and our successors in our course towards the noble goal which lies before mankind.


The business which the South London Working Men’s College has undertaken is a great work; indeed, I might say, that Education, with which that college proposes to grapple, is the greatest work of all those which lie ready to a man’s hand just at present.

And, at length, this fact is becoming generally recognised. You cannot go anywhere without hearing a buzz of more or less confused and contradictory talk on this subject–nor can you fail to notice that, in one point at any rate, there is a very decided advance upon like discussions in former days. Nobody outside the agricultural interest now dares to say that education is a bad thing. If any representative of the once large and powerful party, which, in former days, proclaimed this opinion, still exists in the semi-fossil state, he keeps his thoughts to himself. In fact, there is a chorus of voices, almost distressing in their harmony, raised in favour of the doctrine that education is the great panacea for human troubles, and that, if the country is not shortly to go to the dogs, everybody must be educated.

The politicians tell us, “You must educate the masses because they are going to be masters.” The clergy join in the cry for education, for they affirm that the people are drifting away from church and chapel into the broadest infidelity. The manufacturers and the capitalists swell the chorus lustily. They declare that ignorance makes bad workmen; that England will soon be unable to turn out cotton goods, or steam engines, cheaper than other people; and then, Ichabod! Ichabod![50] the glory will be departed from us. And a few voices are lifted up in favour of the doctrine that the masses should be educated because they are men and women with unlimited capacities of being, doing, and suffering, and that it is as true now, as it ever was, that the people perish for lack of knowledge.

These members of the minority, with whom I confess I have a good deal of sympathy, are doubtful whether any of the other reasons urged in favour of the education of the people are of much value– whether, indeed, some of them are based upon either wise or noble grounds of action. They question if it be wise to tell people that you will do for them, out of fear of their power, what you have left undone, so long as your only motive was compassion for their weakness and their sorrows. And, if ignorance of everything which is needful a ruler should know is likely to do so much harm in the governing classes of the future, why is it, they ask reasonably enough, that such ignorance in the governing classes of the past has not been viewed with equal horror?

Compare the average artisan and the average country squire, and it may be doubted if you will find a pin to choose between the two in point of ignorance, class feeling, or prejudice. It is true that the ignorance is of a different sort–that the class feeling is in favour of a different class and that the prejudice has a distinct savour of wrong-headedness in each case–but it is questionable if the one is either a bit better, or a bit worse, than the other. The old protectionist theory is the doctrine of trades unions as applied by the squires, and the modern trades unionism is the doctrine of the squires applied by the artisans. Why should we be worse off under one regime than under the other?

Again, this sceptical minority asks the clergy to think whether it is really want of education which keeps the masses away from their