Search This Blog

Friday, April 25, 2014

Henry Drummond
The Speaker, June 22, 1901

Henry Drummond. By Cuthbert Lennox. London: Andrew Melrose. 2s. 6d.

Mr. Cuthbert Lennon has written a very interesting and intuitive life of Professor Drummond. As Drummond was, par excellence, the ambassador of religion to science, it might perhaps be desired that Mr. Cuthbert Lennox should have dwelt less upon the evangelistic aspect and more upon the scientific. To the mind which can be properly described as liberal, there is, of course, nothing more objectionable in an evangelist insisting upon religion than there is in a natural philosopher insisting upon science. But in the recent century the man of science has developed a vague prejudice against the language of theology, precisely the counterpart of the theologian's prejudice against the language of science. It is necessary to allow for these prejudices and to show consideration for the minor irrationalities of rationalism.

Mr. Cuthbert Lennox devotes considerable space to proving, in the teeth of orthodox objectors, that Drummond was a genuine Christian, a proposition that no one but a Scotch logician would, we should imagine, question, but he devotes far too little space to the more disputed matter of whether Professor Drummond can, properly speaking, be called a man of science. Great men of science, though commoner than Christians, are nevertheless, a small and exalted company, and I do not think that Professor Drummond can strictly be counted of their number. What is insufficiently realised is that he did not claim, or even aim at, any such position, that his work was of a different scope and order, the true and peculiar character of which is seldom grasped. He made very few mistakes in his life, but one of them was the title, The Ascent of Man. This gave the impression that the book was intended to be a pendant or even a counterblast to the great work of Darwin, and, of course, it can sustain no such comparison. But the two books are as different in their nature as Spencer's Ecclesiastical Institutions and Stevenson's Virginibus Puerisque. The Descent of Man is a vast and new theory, architecturally constructed and systematically unrolled. The Descent of Man is an essay in amplification and interpretation of certain accepted facts, pointing out their ethical and social bearing. It is as if one man wrote a book to prove that all mountains were volcanic and another man wrote a book on the moral spirit of mountaineers. The rhetorical method of Professor Drummond, his symbolic zoology, his wild parables from the plumage of the tropics and the abysses of the sea, his litanies of life and martyrologies of the beasts and flowers, all have a perfect appropriateness in an essay on the poetry of a certain biological fact.

The real glory of Professor Drummond lies in the fact that he possessed stores of scientific knowledge, a wealth of scientific examples, and that he did not possess the scientific spirit. He was not a biologist invading the world of religion; he was a poet invading and capturing the world of science. Almost every one of the calamities of humanity lies buried in a word; and the word "science" was a great calamity. The word "knowledge" includes the fact that the grass is green and the winter cold. The word "science," which is only knowledge in another language, is generally assumed to mean only some theory about the fertilisation of the rose and the solar origins of winter. Henry Drummond was a great poet who stepped across the unreal chasm. He realised that the greenness of the grass was as scientific as the period of the earth's rotation; he realised that the period of the earth's rotation was as poetical as the greenness of the grass. It was precisely, as I have said, because he took all these coarse, rude physiological facts and did not treat them scientifically that he was a great and significant man. He realised that the empires of science and poetry differed, not in area but in altitude, that it was possible to treat the oldest cathedral scientifically, that it was possible to treat the last discovered beetle poetically. He spoke of the most shapeless animalcule as respectfully as one might speak of the stars; he spoke of the most grotesque foetus, the wildest caricature in embryology as one might speak of the violets of spring. He did not enlarge the boundaries of knowledge, but he enlarged the boundaries of passion. He blessed the brutal monsters of the earth's beginning, and stroked the plesiodaurus like a pet. The immeasurable mammoth was to him what a poor blind groping puppy is to a kind-hearted child. This is the great work of Drummond, that he carried poetry into that vast mass of stupendous truths which are marked as prosaic because they have only recently been discovered. He never felt that the last discovered monkey was, as the phrase goes, the "new monkey." He always realised that the monkey was old, and that it was man that was new.

This merit of Drummond, that he realised poetically the facts of science, that he made a fairyland out of the hideous minutiae of biology, is not a small thing. It is a reversion to an old and sound principle of primitive humanity. The first facts of Nature discovered by men were immediately transformed into poetry. The flowers have become irrevocably poetical; if we tried hard for twenty-four hours we could not regard them as mere monstrous products of a biological law. The fact that the sea is blue or that the rose is red is just as scientific as any discovery about tides or stamina, but it has been finally absorbed into poetry. With the rise of physical science this poetic transformation, for some inconceivable reason, ceased. The microscope revealed patterns more perfect and resplendent than the pattern of the starry skies, but those patterns were not called beautiful. The telescope displayed starry systems which blossomed with the irradiating regularity of a single flower, but the systems were not called poetic. Neither pigmy constellations nor colossal flowers could fascinate the cowed and materialised human spirit. All these discoveries were only "science," and were therefore prosaic. It was Drummond who broke all this; he maintained that he was right in treating rhetorically facts so suggestive and sublime. His work and his triumph consist, as I have already said, in the fact that he did not approach science with the scientific mind.

The same view applies, of course, to Professor Drummond's view of the relations of science and religion, to which Mr. Lennox affords so much space. I do not doubt, since Mr. Lennox gives so convincing an account of it, that Drummond's work for religion, considered merely as a working human institution, was very great. But his greatest work for religion was simply this realisation that the subtler facts of Nature were quite as religious in their character as those which were more obvious. When the author of the greatest of religious poems, "The Book of Job," wishes to express the mysterious energy of the divine power, he merely gives a list of animals and the obvious sights of nature. He describes the horse, the eagle, the rain, the insolent calm of the crocodile and the hippopotamus. It was Professor Drummond's aim to carry this Old Testament view of Nature into the darkest corners of natural philosophy. In his eyes it was not only the stars and hills that praised the Lord; the infusorial and the Missing Link praised the Lord equally. His first great book was Natural Law in the Spiritual World. His second great book, The Ascent of Man, might reasonably have been called Spiritual Law in the Natural World. With him, in any case, there was no distinction between the two. One great constitution ruled the whole universe and before its justice the ape and the angel were equal. He made a splendid attempt to renew the early criticism of things, to write parables in which the pterodactyles were as natural as the birds, the mammoths as common as the sheep. He did something to unify the cosmos and make it all at once poetical and scientific. He was perhaps something greater than a great man of science.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.