Karl Alois Kneller.

Christianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century online

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cause of it, he never set out to teach theologians or
to reform theology in the name of scientific progress.
"Modern discovery", he once wrote, "the laws which we
have brought to light, the paths which we have opened,
ought not to excite any prejudice against the older truth,
nor ought it presume to obstruct or draw men away
from the one way, trodden by so many feet."

Volta suffered no human respect to estrange him from
the exercises of religion. During his visit to Paris he
was scrupulous never to miss Mass, and it was the same
during his presence at the Assembly of Notables at
Lyons, although in this latter place (as his letters in-
form us) he had great difficulty in finding an "unsworn"
priest. When at home he went daily to Mass, and
received the Sacraments on all Feast-days. On Corpus
Christi he decorated his house and street for the passing
of the procession, took part in the public devotions
offered before an ancient Crucifix which stood in the
Church of the Annunciation, and in all those testimonies
of love and veneration practised by pious Catholics
towards the Mother of God, showed himself as ardent
as the humblest of his townsmen. He had over his
door a picture of the Blessed Virgin, and, when entering,
invariably raised his. hat in salutation. Every Saturday
a lamp was lighted before it, and if the servant forgot
to light it, Volta himself repaired the omission. From
his father and mother he had learned to recite the
Rosary every evening, and this practice he continued
throughout life.

We find still stronger evidence of his love for the
Christian belief in his earnest endeavours to implant and


confirm it in the hearts of others. Anyone visiting the
parish Church , San Donnino , on the afternoon of a
Feast-day would have found Volta in the midst of a
group of children to whom he was explaining the Cate-
chism. Precisely the same desire to do something for
the salvation of others gave birth to the remarkable
document in which he makes an express and solemn
Confession of Faith. Early in 1815 Canon Giacomo
Ciceri had in his care a dying man whom he vainly
sought to convert. Every appeal was met with the
reply that religion was only for the vulgar and the
rabble, and that men of science, among whom the
speaker counted himself, no longer concerned them-
selves with it. Ciceri instanced in disproof the name
of Volta, a man who certainly knew something about
science and yet was an exemplary Christian. The name
made an impression on the freethinker; he replied that
if Volta's religion was not a mere external show, but
a reality, he would be willing to make profession of
it. The Canon, who was acquainted with Volta, ap-
pealed to the latter to send a few lines to the poor
sinner and received the following response 1 :

1 "Non so chi mai possa dubitare della mia sincerita e costanza
in questa Religione che professo, che e la Cattolica, Apostolica, Ro-
mana, nella quale sono nato ed allevato, ed a cui mi sono attenuto
sempre si interiormente , che esteriormente. Ho ben mancato., pur
troppo, riguardo alle buone opere di Cristiano cattolico, e mi sono
fatto reo di molte colpe : ma per grazia speziale del Signore , non
ho mancato mai, per quanto mi dice la coscienza, di fede. Che se
quelle colpe e disordini miei hanno per avventura dato luogo ed
occasione a taluno di sospettare in me qualche incredulita, a titolo
di reparazione e ad ogni buon fine dichiaro a quel tale e ad ogni
altra persona, e sono pronto a dichiarare in ogni incontro ed a
qualunque costo, che ho sempre tenuto e tengo per unica , vera ed


"I do not understand how anyone can doubt the sincerity
and constancy of my attachment to the religion which I
profess, the Roman, Catholic and Apostolic religion in which
I was born and brought up, and of which 1 have always
made confession, externally and internally. I have, indeed,
and only too often, failed in the performance of those good
works which are the mark of a Catholic Christian, and I
have been guilty of many sins: but through the special
mercy of God I have never, as far as I know, wavered in
my faith. If my offences and transgressions have given
occasion to anyone to suspect me of disbelief, I here, by
way of reparation and for any other good purpose that
may be served, assure such or any other persons, and am
prepared to maintain this declaration in any circumstances,
cost what it may, that I have always believed and still be-
live the Holy Catholic faith to be the one true and infallible
religion : and I constantly give thanks to God, Who has
infused into me this belief in which I desire to live and die,
with the firm hope of eternal life.

In this faith I recognise a pure gift of God, a super-
natural grace ; but I have not neglected those human means

infallibile questa Santa Religione Cattolica, ringraziando senza fine il
buon Dio d'avermi infusa una tale fede, in cui mi propongo ferma-
mente di voler vivere e inorire con viva speranza di conseguire la
vita eterna. La riconosco si per un dono di Dio , per una fede
soprannaturale : non ho pero tralasciato i mezzi anchi umani di viep-
piu confermarmi in essa, sgombrare qualunque dubbio potesse sor-
gere a tentarmi , studiandola attentamente nei suoi fondamenti, rin-
tracciando colla lettura di libri si apologetici che contrari le ragioni
pro e contra, onde emergono gli argomenti piu validi, che la rendono
anche alia ragione naturale credibilissima, e tale che ogni animo non
pervertito da vizi, e da pasioni, ogni animo ben fatto non puo non
abbracciarla ed amarla. Possa questa protesta, che mi viene ricer-
cata, e che io di buon grado rilascio scritta e sottoscritta di mio
mano, ostensibile come si vuole ed a chiunque, giacche non erubesco
Evangelium, possa produrre qualche buon frutto." This confession
of faith was printed during Volta's life. The autographic copy was
extant until the burning of the Volta-exhibition at Como, 8 th July
1899. Cf. Grandi ante 575 f.


which confirm belief, and overthrow the doubts which at
times arise. I studied attentively the grounds and basis of
religion, the works of apologists and assailants, the reasons
for and against, and I can say that the result of such study
is to clothe religion with such a degree of probability, even
for the merely natural reason, that every spirit unperverted
by sin and passion, every naturally noble spirit must love
and accept it.

May this confession which has been asked from me and
which I willingly give, written and subscribed by my own
hand, with authority to show it to whomsoever you will,
for I am not ashamed of the Gospel, may it produce some
good fruit!

Milan. Jan. 6., 1815. Alexander Volta.

Such was the judgment of Christianity formed by a
man of whose intellectual greatness an eloquent token
is furnished in his discovery of the voltaic pile. In this
discovery nothing is to be assigned to chance, it was
wholly the outcome of piercing, logical, and patient
reflection. When, after years of study, Volta stepped
into his laboratory one day and built up his pile out
of pieces of silver, zinc and moistened cloth no other
physicist save himself could have foretold what would
result. But Volta was sure of his ground, and this
knowledge he owed to a supreme intellect and patient
inquiry. Starting from Galvini's more or less accidental
discovery of the twitching of a frog's muscle he had
been the only scientist to furnish a valid explanation
of the phenomenon. From this he had moved on step
by step, conquering one difficulty after another, till at
least "the most wonderful instrument of man's device"
stood out before his mental vision. This same piercing
vision was directed, as his Confession tells us, to a scru-
tiny of the reasons for and against Christianity, and his


conclusion was that from precisely such an examination
the strongest arguments for Christianity are to be de-
rived. The lesson from Volta's life is that there is no
mind so rich and lofty but can find perfect content
within the Christian dispensation.

Of the great Ampere, who, taking up Volta's work in
electricity, developed it in many directions, the same is
to be recorded. Andre Marie Ampere 1 was, accord-
ing to the judgment of all who knew him and as
his discoveries show, a man remarkable alike for acu-
teness and width of mind, a many-sided genius. His
point of departure in science was Oerstedt's accidental
discovery of the influence of a galvanic current on a
magnetised needle. This at once suggested to Ampere
a truth of much larger scope, namely, that magnetism
could be transformed into electricity, and that electric
currents in general exercised an influence on one another.
He devised apparatus for the investigation of this hypo-
thesis, and in a short time had established its truth, and
formulated the laws according to which currents attract
and repel one another, and cause deflections of magnetic
needles. These discoveries have proved inexhaustible
in their consequences, and mark the first step towards
a true understanding of earth-magnetism and of magne-
tism in general. While the general course of scientific
discovery is the establishment of the facts by one in-
vestigator, a general explanation of them by a second,
and an exact formulation of the laws governing them
by a third, in the case of electro-dynamics the three

1 For Ampere cf. our article in the Stimmen aus Maria-Laach LXI
(1901) 20 36 151 165. Cf. also two letters of Ampere's in the
Comptes rendus of the Academy of Science 92, Paris 1881, 398 954.


stages were performed by the single mind of Ampere.
"A man who possessed all the characteristics of scientific
genius, spacious vision, acuteness, and infallible accuracy
in deduction", is the estimate of Ampere given by
Clausius 1 , surely a competent judge. And Bertrand
says: "Ampere's essay .is- one of trie most wonderful
productions of modern science, and forms the foundation
of the vastest and most perfect construction erected
by natural philosophy since the time of Newton." 2

Science owes to Ampere other discoveries in addition
to those which have made his name immortal. He opened
his career with mathematical works of great brilliancy,
and it was, indeed, through these that he obtained his
position in Paris and Membership of the Academy of
Sciences. In Chemistry he had independently re-esta-
blished the important law discovered by Avogadro 3 in
1 8 1 1 but since then completely forgotten : and in the
controversy on the nature of chlorine he was a vigorous
upholder of the true view at a time when the greatest
specialists in Chemistry confessed themselves puzzled 4 .
In Zoology and Botany he was also thoroughly grounded.
But it was philosophy proper that interested him most,
and his last work was an essay in the classification of
the sciences.

Ampere's religious experience included an early period
of indifference, and after his return to Christianity a

1 Uber den Zusammenhang zwischen den grofien Agentien der
Natur, Bonn 1885, 1 8.

2 Eloges academiques, Paris 1890, 56.

3 H. Kopp, Die Entwicklung der Chemie in der neueren Zeit,
Munchen 1873, 354~357-

4 Ib. 473. A.-M. Ampere et J..-J. Ampere, Correspondance
et Souvenirs I, Paris 1875, 87.


period of great doubt and distress. These were however
merely stages in his development. At the time of his
great discoveries he was once more a zealous and con-
vinced Christian, and in this faith he remained to the
end. Ozanam, who lived for some time in Ampere's
household expresses himself unmistakably on this point.

"But over and above his scientific achievements there is
something more to be said: for us Catholics, this rare
genius has other titles to our veneration and love. He was
a brother in the Faith. . . . Religion presided over the
labours of his mind, shed its light over every field of his
thought: and it was from this sublime point of view that he
judged all things, even science itself. . . . This venerable head,
with all its wisdom and glory, bowed unreservedly before
the mysteries of the Divine Teaching. He knelt at the
same altar as Descartes and Pascal, side by side with poor
women and children, humbler in soul than the least of them.
No one could have observed more scrupulously the austere,
and yet sweet discipline of the Church. . . . But most beau-
tiful of all was the operation of Christianity in the interior
of his noble soul : that admirable simplicity, the modesty
of a genius which, knowing everything, was content to be
ignorant of its own greatness : that high scientific probity,
eager not after glory, but after truth alone, nowadays so
rare: that affable and communicative temper, pouring out
in familiar conversation treasures beyond count, so communi-
cative indeed that its ideas lay at the mercy of the pla-
giarist; finally that benevolence towards all he met. but
especially the young. . . . We know more than one, towards
whom he showed the care and affection of a father. I say
emphatically that those who knew only his intellect knew the
less perfect part of him. For if he thought deeply, he
loved more deeply still." l

Ampere's discussions with Ozanam hardly ever con-
cluded without some mention of the name of God."

1 Oeuvres completes de A.-F. Ozanam VIII 4 , Paris 1872, 89.


' 'Then Ampere took his broad brow between his hands
and cried out: 'How great God is, Ozanam, how great
God is! All our knowledge is absolutely nothing.'" 1
We add to Ozanam's testimony that of Sainte-Beuve,
a witness certainly not open to the charge of prejudice :

"The religious doubts and struggles of his early life had
ceased: or at least his trouble of mind was no longer so
acute. For years many things had been leading him back
to the faith and submission of mind which he had so well
expressed in 1803, in an affecting document which no doubt
he had often re-read in the interval. Interior sorrows, his
instinct for the infinite, active correspondence with his old
friend Father Barret 2 , the very atmosphere of the Restoration,
all drew him back. Throughout all the years that followed
down to the very end, we saw him effecting without effort
and in a fashion to arouse admiration and respect, a re-
conciliation and alliance of faith and science, of belief and
hope in human thought and adoration before the Reveal-
ed Word." 3

In Ampere's own writings we find many passages in
which he speaks of Nature as leading up to God:

"We can see only the works of the Creator but through
them we rise to a knowledge of the Creator Himself. Just
as the real movements of the stars are hidden by their
apparent movements, and yet it is by observation of the

1 Oeuvres completes de A.-F. Ozanam X 37.

2 Klemens Barret, one of Ampere's friends in Lyons, entered the
Society of Jesus in 1814, died 1848.

3 Les anciens doutes et les combats religieux avaient cesse. . . .
Jusqu'a la fin, et pendant les annees qui suivirent, nous 1'avons tou-
jours vu allier et concilier sans plus d'effort et de maniere a frapper
d'etonnement et de respect, la foi et la science, la croyance et 1'espoir
en la pensee humaine et 1'adoration envers la parole revelee (Sainte-
Beuve in his Introduction to Ampere's Essai sur la philosophic des
sciences II, Paris 1843, L )-


one that we determine the other: so God is in some sort
hidden by His works, and yet it is through them that we
discern Him and catch a hint of the Divine attributes."

One of the most striking evidences of the existence of
God is the wonderful harmony by which the universe is
preserved and living beings are furnished in their organi-
zation with everything necessary to life, multiplication, and
the enjoyment of all their powers, physical and intellec-
tual." l

The third of the great founders of the Theory of
Electricity was Michael Faraday 2 . His pre-eminence
in the science is certified by every authority. "Taking
him for all in all", says Tyndall, "I think it will be
conceded that Michael Faraday was the greatest ex-
perimental philosopher the world has ever seen/' Du
Bois-Reymond echoes these words almost literally. He
describes Faraday as "the greatest experimental philo-
sopher of all time". J. B. Dumas the famous chemist,
in his memorial speech to the French Academy of
Science on May i8 th 1868 characterised Faraday as "the
greatest scientist the Academy had ever counted among
its members" 3 .

1 Essai sur la philosophic des sciences II, Paris 1843, 2 4 f-

2 Bence Jones, The Life and Letters of Faraday 2 , 2 vols, Lon-
don 1870. John Tyndall, Faraday as a Discoverer, London 1868;
Fragments of Science 5 , London 1876, 246 267. J.-B. Dumas, Dis-
cours et Eloges Academiques I, Paris 1885, 51 124. Silvan us
P. Thompson, Michael Faradays Leben und Wirken. Autorisierte
Ubersetzung von Agathe Schiitte und Dr Heinrich Danneel,
Halle a. S. 1900.

* Tyndall, Faraday as a Discoverer 147. E. Du Bois-Rey-
mond, Reden, Zweite Folge, Leipzig 1887, 389 502. Dumas,
Discours I 53. Cf. v. M a r t i u s in the Sitzungsberichten der
Miinchener Akademie 1868, I 440: "Man hat Faraday den grofiten
Experimentator seiner Epoche genannt, und wohl mit Recht."


These estimates were more than justified, for at his
death (Aug. 25 th 1867), Faraday could look back on a long
series of discoveries any one of which was almost enough
to immortalize his name. It is impossible here to give
so much as a summary of them. To give an idea of
his work in Electricity it would, as Dumas says, "be
necessary to write a complete manual on the subject".
"There is nothing in this department of science that
Faraday did not investigate, complete, or recast : there is
a great deal of which he is the sole and absolute creator."
Tyndall arranges these discoveries in four groups, the
first of which relates to induction and outer currents,
the second to the chemical action of electricity and the
theory of the voltaic pile, the third to the influence of
the magnet on light-rays, and the fourth to the pheno-
mena of diamagnetism 1 .

Faraday as a worker in science was equally distin-
guished by supreme ability and steady perseverance. Born
at Newington Butts on Sept. 22 th 1791 of a poor family
of Irish origin, he was at the age of thirteen put to
work with a bookseller who employed him to deliver
newspapers, and taught him bookbinding. But he had
no taste for this occupation: wide and eager reading
among the books which came to him for binding aroused
in him a passion for science, and when in 1812 business
of his masters gave him an opportunity of hearing (from
the gallery) some lectures of the celebrated Sir Hum-
phry Davy his mind was definitely determined. In his
simplicity and inexperience he wrote straightway to the
President of the Royal Institute of Sciences at London
explaining his wish to be a scientist. Naturally enough

1 Dumas, Discours I 75. Tyndall, Faraday as a Discoverer 145.


he received no reply. He had, however, better success
with Davy to whom he submitted notes of the lectures
he had heard. He wished, he told Davy, to get out
of business because it is "a source of vice and self-
seeking" and to devote himself to the service of science
because "it makes men large-hearted and sympathetic".
The great scientist could not but laugh a little at the
naivete of the young book-binder, but he perceived his
rare intellectual power, and took him under his pro-
tection. In March 1813 he procured him the position
of Laboratory Assistant in the Royal Institute, and in
October of the same year took Faraday with him on
a long journey through France and Italy. After his
return in the April of 1815 Faraday continued his stu-
dies in Physics and Chemistry, and won his way step
by step to the topmost heights of honour and fame.

Faraday was a thorough and convinced Christian.
Like his father he belonged to the Glassites or Sande-
manians, a sect which, opposed alike to Anglicans and
Presbyterians, held that Christianity consists simply in
belief in the Divinity of Christ, that this belief is a gift
from God, and that it has for fruit and token obe-
dience to the law of Christ. A month after his marriage
in the year 1821 Faraday formally professed adherence
to this sect, appearing before the congregation and making
confession both of his sins and of his belief. In 1840
he attained the dignity of Elder, and in this capacity
preached a series of sermons, rough notes of which are
still extant 1 .

Faraday did not, as far as is known, engage in any
philosophic or apologetic studies on the foundations of

1 Jones, The Life and Letters of Faraday I 5 297; IT 99 ff.


Christianity. Neither did he seek to gain over converts
to his particular belief; indeed, it was only in reply to
questions on the subject that he spoke of religion in
ordinary conversation.

"There is no philosophy", he wrote on October 2 4 th 1844,
"in my religion. I am of a very small and despised sect
of Christians known as, if at all known, Sandemanians,
and our hope is founded on the faith that is in Christ. . . .
But though the natural works of God can never by any
possibility come in contradiction with the higher things that
belong to our future existence, and must with everything
concerning Him ever glorify Him, still I do not think it at
all necessary to tie the study of the natural sciences and
religion together, and in my intercourse with my fellows
creatures, that which is religious, and that which is philo-
sophical have ever been two distinct things." J

What makes these expressions invaluable in the pre-
sent connection is not the positive evidence they give
of the great scientist's attachment to Christianity. That
we must seek in other passages of his writings. The
point to be observed in the present passage is Faraday's
unambiguous statement that he never was able to per-
ceive any opposition between science and religion. We
find many other passages to the same effect in his works ;
occasionally he pushes his thought further and speaks
of nature as necessarily leading up to God. A few of
these passages may be quoted here.

In a lecture on Magnetism, delivered before Prince
Albert on February 26 th 1 849, he concludes with a rapid
sketch of the wonderful diffusion of magnetic energy
throughout the universe 2 :

1 Jones, The Life and Letters of Faraday II 191.

2 Ib. 239.


"What its great purpose is, seems to be looming in the
distance before us; the clouds which obscure our mental
sight are daily thinning, and I cannot doubt that a glorious
discovery in natural knowledge, and of the wisdom and
power of God in the creation, is awaiting our age, and that
we may not only hope to see it, but even be honoured to
help in obtaining the victory over present ignorance and
future knowledge."

In the year 1847 he concluded a series of lectures
at the Royal Institution in the following words:

"Our philosophy, feeble as it is, gives us to see in every
particle of matter, a centre of force reaching to an infinite
distance, binding worlds and suns together, and unchangeable
in its permanency. Around this same particle we see grouped
the powers of all the various phenomena of nature; the
heat, the cold, the wind, the storm, the awful conflagration,
the vivid lightning flash, the stability of the rock and the
mountain, the grand mobility of the ocean, with its mighty
tidal wave sweeping round the globe in its diurnal journey,
the dancing of the stream and the torrent, the glorious
cloud, the soft dew, the rain dropping fatness, the harmonious
working of all these forces in nature, until at last the mole-
cule rises up in accordance with the almighty purpose
ordained for it, and plays its part in the gift of life itself.
And therefore our philosophy, whilst it shows us these things
should lead us to think of Him Who hath wrought them;
for it is said by an authority far above even that which
these works present, that 'the invisible things of Him from
the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood
by the things that are made, even his eternal power and
God-head'." 1

Seven years later he repeats the same views in his
lecture on "Mental Education":

"High as man is placed above the creatures around him,
there is a higher and far more exalted position within his

Online LibraryKarl Alois KnellerChristianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century → online text (page 10 of 32)