Karl Alois Kneller.

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putent , comme le disait un de nos anciens geometres, n'ont-ils pas
raison? Les deux axiomes, auxquels ils confient, n'entrament-ils pas
avec eux cette notion de la liberte morale, du devoir, de la justice
et de la responsabilite, qu'on n'a jamais pu faire sortir des theories


At the funeral of Dumas, Count D'Haussonville said:

"It was Dumas himself who, speaking of his own works,
declared : 'Above the sphere of the phenomena which we in-
vestigate, and about which we have so much to learn, there
is a higher sphere which is beyond the reach of our me-
thods. We are beginning to understand the life of the body ;
the life of the soul is in another order.' Many a time did
he affirm his religious belief; he now contemplates, face
to face, that reality to which he clung with such steadfast
hope." l

Although not so distinguished as Dumas, Theophile
Juste Pelouze (f 1866) is well known in the history of
Chemistry; his reputation is founded on analyses of various

fondees sur 1'egoisme? Fait pour vivre en societe", 1'homme, dont on
se plait a faire un animal , qu'on croit complimenter en 1'appelant
animal inventeur d'outils . . ., ne semble-t-il pas cree, en effet, pour
avoir le sentiment du divin pris dans son sens le plus large? Si la
face de nos premiers ancetres s'est tournee vers le firmament, dont
ils ignoraient encore les profondeurs, comme vers une patrie perdue,
les derniers de nos fils, apres en avoir sonde les mysteres accessibles,
n'eleveront-ils pas, a leur tour, le front vers le ciel etoile, comme
vers un patrie retrouvee? (Dumas, Discours II I29f.) The "old
Mathematician" quoted is Jacques Ozanam (f 1717), who re-
ferring to the theological disputes of his time said: "qu'il appartient
aux docteurs de Sorbonne de disputer, au Pape de prononcer, et aux
mathematiciens d'aller en paradis en ligne perpendiculaire". The de-
finition : "Homo est animal inerme sed instrumentificum", is ascribed
to Franklin. Cf. Thorn. A q. , S. th. i, q. 76, a. 5 ad 4, where
the same thought is found.

1 C'est lui-meme qui, parlant de ses propres travaux, disait: "Au
dessus de la sphere des phenomenes que nous etudions et ou nous
avons tant de decouvertes a poursuivre, il y a une sphere superieure
que nos methodes ne peuvent atteindre. Nous commengons a com-
prendre la vie des corps ; la vie de 1'ame est d'un autre ordre"
(Comptes rendus XCVIII, Paris 1884, 935). Maintes fois , vous
avez affirme vos convictions religieuses : vous contemplez maintenant
face a face les realites que vous avez esperees si fermement (ib. 944).


organic combinations and a comprehensive text-book of his
science. He died, as his friend, Abbe Moigno, testifies, a
"Christian and edifying death" 1 . Pierre Joseph Pelle-
tier (f 1842) also devoted himself to Organic Chemistry, and
by his discovery of quinine rendered an invaluable service
to medicine. He was, Cauchy tells us, a man thoroughly
Christian in his convictions and conceptions of life.

Dumas described as his great fellow-worker and rival
Justus Von Liebig (f 1873), and in Germany there
is certainly no name more widely known and honoured.
His strength lay not so much in pure science and
speculation as in the practical application of scientific
discoveries; he effected great improvements in certain
articles of food, and helped to lay the foundations of a
rational system of agriculture.

His efforts in this latter direction were for a long
time unsuccessful. He had studied the various field-
plants, and ascertained the food of which they stood in
need; and had analysed portions of the soil, and de-
termined what elements it was necessary to add to it
in the form of manures in order to furnish the various
crops with the requisite nourishment. There remained
one difficulty. The salts to be introduced into the soil
were highly soluble, and consequently liable to be washed
away by the rain. Liebig bent his mind to the problem
of combining these salts into compounds, more difficult
of solution ; his efforts were successful, the manures were
manufactured after his formulae and adapted to the soil.
They were wholly useless, and the inventor gained nothing
but the contempt of practical farmers. The disappoint-
ment was all the sorer to Liebig inasmuch as he was
for a long time unable to determine the cause. But

^es Mondes XIV, Paris 1867, 261. Cf. 222.
Kneller, Christianity. 13


he hit on it at last, and it became plain to him that
his attempt to make the salts in the manure insoluble
had frustrated everything. He had been anticipated by
nature which had endowed the soil with a remarkable
power of retaining undissolved the nutritive materials.
These cannot be washed away by the rain; but the
roots of the plants extract them from the soil. Let us
record what Liebig himself had to say regarding his
mistake, and the anticipating wisdom of the Creator.
For, as is said by his biographer in the Encyclopedia
of German Biography 1 , u Liebig's scientific standpoint
was indeed very far from that of materialism; he even
admitted, like his predecessors in physiology, the opera-
tion of vital force, and was a zealous deist and a thorough

"What gave me such real and persistent trouble was my
inability to understand why the manures worked so slowly
in thousands of cases which I observed, my ingredients
worked admirably when alone, but when I brought them
together they did not work.

"At last I discovered three years ago, after a fresh and
searching examination of all the facts, the cause. I had
been criminally forgetful of the wisdom of the Creator, and
had received my due punishment; I was attempting to im-
prove His work, and in my blindness I imagined that there
was a link missing from the marvellous chain of laws which
preserve life on the surface of the earth, and this link I
sought to make good weak and impotent worm that I am.
It was already provided for, and in such a wonderful fashion
that the human mind could hardly imagine the possibility
of such a law, howsoever the facts pointed to its existence.
For facts are dumb, or at least they speak to deaf ears
when they tell against our preconceived ideas! So it was

1 XVIII, Leipzig 1883, 603. The "indeed" ("zwar") in the pas-
sage quoted has no logical justification in this connection.


with me. I thought it necessary to make the alkalies in-
soluble lest they should be washed away by the rain ! I did
not know then that, as far as solution goes, the earth itself
holds them fast, for the law to which my study of soil had
led me is : 'It is in the outer crust of the earth, and under
the influence of the sun that organic life develops.' The
great Architect has endowed the particles of this crust
with the property of assimilating and holding fast all those
elements which are necessary to the life of plants, as a
magnet attracts and holds fast pieces of iron ; with this law
the Creator conjoined another, to the effect that the plant-
bearing soil is an immense purifying apparatus for the water,
and removes from it all substances injurious to man and
beast, all products of the corruption and decomposition of
the departed generations of plants and animals." 1

With the noteworthy relation here described we must
associate another contrivance no less wonderful.

Liebig had laid it down as the basis of practical agricul-
ture "that the air and the rain contribute every year more
nitrogenous food to the plants and the soil than the plants
need for their complete development". The fact is beyond
dispute, but "it became puzzling and inexplicable from the
moment that we came to know that the soil holds fast the
products of decomposition, among which ammonia finds a
place, and does not give off any of them through evapora-
tion. No other source was known, from which ammonia
could be derived except decomposition ; there was no re-
corded fact to suggest that it was possible for the nitrogen
of the atmosphere to assume a form in which it could supply
nutriment to plants". The origin of the ammonia to be
found in the soil remained quite unknown.

"I regard it then as a piece of great good fortune to
have come to know of Schonbein's latest discoveries which
explain this riddle, and put the mind in possession of a

1 J. v. Liebig, Die Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agrikultur
und Physiologic. Erster Teil : Der chemische ProzeC der Ernahrung
der Vegetabilien 8 , Braunschweig 1865, Einleitung 69 f.



new, and till then, inconceivable wonder. No chemist could
ever have been led by the facts as then known to suppose
that it was possible for the nitrogen of the atmosphere to
pass over into nitrate or nitrite of ammonia; now the simplest
experiment shows that every light, burning in the air, trans-
forms a certain amount of its nitrogen into nitrite of ammonia,
and that every process of rotting is a source both of nitric
acid and of ammonia, and that the mere evaporation of
water is enough to produce both classes of plant food.
The magnitude of the fact will be appreciated if we bear
in mind that the burning of a pound of coal or wood not
only restores to the atmosphere the elements necessary to
reconstitute this pound of wood, or in certain circumstances
this pound of coal, but that the process of combustion
also transforms a certain quantity of atmospheric nitrogen
into a food indispensable for the production of bread and

"Truly he alone recognises the power and wisdom of the
Creator who tries to follow out His thought in the great
book of nature, and everything else that men know or say
of him seems in comparison but an empty and idle speech." 1

In 1856 Liebig delivered a public lecture "On In-
organic Nature and Organic Life" 2 , in which he broke
a lance with those who attempt to exhibit physical
science as the stay and support of materialism. It is
not, he said, the true savants and discoverers who hold
up materialism as the necessary conclusion of their re-
searches. "Such assertions come from the dilettantes,
who, fresh from a stroll along the outer fringe of science,
take it upon themselves to inform the ignorant and
credulous masses how the world and how life came
into existence and how thoroughly man has unveiled

1 J. v. Liebig, Die Chemie 71 73.

2 Allgemeine Zeitung , Augsburg 1856, Nr. 24 25, p. 369 ff;
Wiener Kirchenzeitung 1856, 100 f 106 f.


the highest mysteries; and these same ignorant and
credulous masses believe them and not the real scien-
tists, just as they believed in the tables that walked,
talked, and wrote, and ascribed a special power to
old wood."

Of all the centenary feasts of the century, that which
took place on August 31** 1886 at Paris was among the
most remarkable. The hero of it, the great chemist
Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786 1889), attended
in person, and despite his great age he continued to
enjoy such excellent health that he was able to sit
out twenty-four eulogies in prose, and two in verse
without being any the worse for it ! His popularity was
so great as to make the affair practically a national festi-
val; every political party sent its chiefs; the first con-
gratulatory message was presented by the director of
the Chinese Education Commission on behalf of the
mandarins, and every country in Europe was represented.

Chevreul had won his reputation mainly by his ana-
lyses of fatty substances, and the importance of his
work for industry and commerce may be gathered from
two facts. He made possible the present wholesale
production of soap, and he replaced the filthy tallow-
candle of former days, the wick of which had to be
continually snuffed, by our present stearine candle. But
Chevreul's services were not limited to practical and utili-
tarian objects; in Theoretical Chemistry also he was a
pioneer of the first importance.

"It is not without difficulty", wrote the Berlin Academy to
him on his hundredth birthday l , "that we carry our imagina-
tion back to the time when, an almost isolated pioneer,

Sitzungsberichte 1886, 949 954.


with no other ally save courage and knowledge, you struck
into the unknown province of Organic Chemistry, and sought
and found paths through its immensity. . . . Your first care
was turned to the fuller development of elemental analysis.
Equipped with this powerful weapon, so greatly improved
by your efforts, you began your memorable study of fatty
bodies of animal origin. ... It is with the keenest interest
that we still read this classical work, uncertain whether to
admire more warmly the steady perseverance which established
one by one this endless series of facts, or the insight which,
gathering them all under one binding idea, reduced them
to a scientific whole."

Many discoveries of other famous chemists are spoken
of in the Berlin Address as direct results of Chevreul's.

"They are", runs the document, "fruits of the tree planted
by you. Nor is it a mere accident that France was the
scene and the author of these brilliant achievements; her
scientists had you before their eyes as a great exemplar.
Our Academy, on this your day of honour, has felt impelled
to call up in review your scientific career; but we have
been able merely to glance at a few of its most brilliant
moments. To form an adequate idea of your rich and
crowded life it would be necessary to trace the stream of
your creative activity along its whole course, as it flowed,
refreshing and fruitful, through every province of Chemistry
and the neighbouring sciences; it would be necessary to
recapitulate the innumerable investigations by which you
determined the nature of various minerals and salts, and
the composition of countless organic substances; it would
be necessary to read through your chemico-physiological
works . . . and your many contributions to the science of
public health, it would be necessary to follow your expedi-
tions into the borderland between Chemistry and Physics,
and gain from them an insight into the laws of the con-
trast of colours and the systematic determination and naming
of colours. ... It would be necessary to call back the days
when a cloud of fantastic delusions, whirled along by fashion,
threatened to enwrap the minds of men but was quickly dissi-
pated when you, holding up the book of history in your hand,


showed your contemporaries the errors of the present in
the mirrors of the past 1 . With such a picture of your
achievements in his mind, the student of your career would
set you in the first rank of those who have spread the fame
of France in science to the most distant quarters of the

The admiration and respect of Chevreul, conveyed in
these words and echoed on all sides, was manifested
anew three years later when on April 13* 1889, his
funeral took place. It was a State ceremony at the
cost of the State. Followed by innumerable represen-
tatives of academies and learned societies it proceeded
under military escort to Notre Dame, the portico and
interior of which were draped in black. Archbishop
Richard, himself, conducted the funeral service 2 .

A savant who laboured beyond the years of man in
the service of science has certainly a right to be heard
when he speaks of the philosophico-religious bearings
of modern discoveries. Happily Chevreul has spoken
his mind out expressly on the question of materialism.

"In an age when we hear it asserted more loudly than
ever that modern science leads to materialism, I have asked
myself whether a man who has lived in the midst of books,
and in his chemical laboratory, and has devoted his days
to the pursuit of truth, is not in duty bound to raise a
protest against such assertions, diametrically opposed as they
are to true science. That is the motive which impels me
to declare that I have never been either a materialist or a
sceptic, and to state my reasons.

1 Refers to Chevreul's : De la baguette divinatoire, du pendule
dit explorateur et des tables tournantes, au point de vue de 1'histoire,
de la critique et de la methode experimental, Paris 1854.

2 Cf. for example Allgemeine Zeitung, Miinchen 1889, 1573 1586.
Ib. (1886) for the birthday celebrations 3557 3573 3605.


"My first conviction is that of the existence, outside my-
self, of matter. Of this I have full certainty, and have there-
fore never been a sceptic.

"My second conviction is that of the existence of a Di-
vine Being, creator of a double harmony, the harmony which
governs the inanimate world and which is revealed by the
science of Celestial Mechanics, and that of molecular pheno-
mena, and the harmony which governs the organic living

"I have therefore never been a materialist, during any
portion of my life, my mind having never been able to regard
this double harmony as the product of chance. ..."

Chevreul develops his thought in greater detail. The
"harmony of the heavens" and the "harmony of mole-
cular changes" convince him of the existence of objective
reality; for it is absurd to regard the recurrent pheno-
mena of which Astronomy and Chemistry take cognizance
as processes going forward merely in the observing sub-
ject. As to the "harmony of organic life" he expresses
himself as follows:

"The first fact that strikes me in the history of organic
life is the transmission by living beings to their descendants
of their specific form. Monuments, hundreds of years older
than our Christian era, furnish us with pictures of many of
these forms and show that they were precisely what they
are now, and that in organ and function they have not
changed. . . .

"If we now turn from plants and animals to man, what
profound differences we find! Instinct is with him limited
to the first few years of life as he grows up his rational
faculties develop, and he alone is capable of perfection.
The young absorb and make use of the knowledge won by
their parents, enlarge it in their own time, and transmit it
to their successors. Man, I repeat, is alone among living
beings perfectible ; thanks to his intellectual faculties which
are so superior to those of even the best organised brute,
thanks to the consciousness which he possesses of his own


existence, his own ego, thanks to the moral sense by which he
distinguishes right from wrong, thanks above all to his
faculty of free-will.

"I recapitulate what I have been saying.

"The continuance of species in time and space ; the uni-
formity of organisms, as to structure and function, among
the individual members of each species; the perpetuation
of the wonderful instinctive faculties of animals, faculties
which faithfully direct and never deceive them these cannot
be the products of chance, and still less can the existence
of man be a product of chance.

"But when we contemplate the wisdom and foresight
which have presided over the constitution of the world, and
are made manifest in the mechanics of the heavens, in
molecular action, in the mutual dependence of the two
organic kingdoms, in the working of animal instinct, are we
not led to ask ourselves whether, at certain epochs of human
society, the marvellous spectacle of the non-living world and
of the living world outside man should not be to us less
an incentive to pride than a humiliating contrast to what I will
not describe in detail: namely that societies of the only
full-facultied being on earth, endowed with free-will, reason
and moral perception, should live in a state of perpetual
war with one another, and that this should continue from
the lowest grade of savagery up to the highest grade of
civilization, so that the greatest enemy of man is man?
How charged with bitter derision is, then, the teaching of
that Positivist school which employs the name of Humanity
in the sense in which the older systems employed that of
Divinity!" 1

1 ... Tel est le motif pour lequel , en disant qu'il n'a jamais
etc ni sceptique ni materialiste, il en expose les raisons.

La premiere opinion concerne la certitude que j'ai de 1'existence
de la matiere hors de moi-meme.

Je n'ai done jamais ete sceptique.

La seconde est une conviction de 1'existence d'un etre divin,
createur d'une double harmonie : 1'harmonie qui regit le monde in-
anime et que revelent d'abord la science de la Mecanique celeste


Chevreul's jubilee had a somewhat remarkable epi-
logue. The claims of religion to be represented at it
had been totally ignored by the promoters, and the
purely secular character of the celebration had been
dwelt on by a certain section of the press as a proof
that Chevreul was an unbeliever.

The allegation was warmly contested by the friends
of the savant. It was, said an article in the "Univers",
a direct contradiction of Chevreul's declared convictions.
In the course of the discussion an interesting incident

et la science des phenomenes moleculaires, puis 1'harmonie qui regit
le monde organise vivant.

Je n'ai done jamais ete materialiste, a aucune epoque de ma vie,
mon esprit n'ayant pu concevoir que cette double harmonic ainsi
que la pensee humaine ait ete le produit du hasard. . . .

L'homme, je le repete , est done perfectible, et Test seul parmi
les etres vivants, grace a ses facultes intellectuelles , si supe'rieures
a celles de la brute la mieux organisee, grace a la conscience qu'il
a de son existence propre, de son m o i , enfin grace au sens moral
d'apres lequel il discerne le bien du mal, grace enfin a son libre

Je me resume :

La perpetuite des especes dans 1'espace et le temps ;

La conservation des organes quant a leur structure et a leurs
fonctions dans les individus de chaque espece ;

La perpetuite des admirables facultes instinctives des brutes, facultes
qui les dirigent toujours, sans les tromper jamais ;

Ne peuvent etre le produit du hasard, pas plus que 1'existence
de 1'homme.

Mais en voyant cette sagesse prevoyante qui a preside a la
constitution du monde, sagesse que proclament la Mecanique celeste,
les actions moleculaires , la dependance mutuelle des deux regnes
organiques , les animaux et leurs instincts . . . et pourtant par une
amere derision, certaines bouches disent h u m a n i t e , comme d'autres
disent divinite (Comptes rendus LXXIX, Paris 1874, 631 ff).


was recalled. Three or four years before, Chevreul, while
on a trip in Dourdan, had missed his train; and the
local priest, to whom he had introduced himself, wrote
to say that the great chemist had spent the time of
his enforced wait, in the Catholic Church, and had re-
cited the Rosary before the Virgin's Altar *.

The outcome of the controversy was that Chevreul
himself made public declaration of his attitude towards
religion. In a letter to the Comte de Montravel who
had defended him in the Salut Public he proclaimed
his adherence to the faith. "I am no more than a
scientist; and those who know me, know that, born a
Catholic and of Christian parents, I live and wish to
die a Catholic." 2

Berzelius, Dumas, Liebig, Chevreul will remain for ever
the most brilliant names in the Chemistry of the nine-
teenth century. One and all they opposed materialism,
a fact sufficient in itself to redeem their science from
the reproach of atheism. We shall find their contention
amply corroborated if we turn to other leaders of chemi-
cal advance.

1 Cf. the daily papers, for example, Le Bien public, Lundi, 13 sep-
tembre 1886.

2 Paris, le 5 septembre. Monsieur. J'ai 1'honneur de repondre
a la lettre excellente que vous avez bien voulu m'adresser. Vous
avez parfaitement devine mes sentiments. Nous vivons dans un
temps et je suis a un age ou Ton- se mele souvent, a mon insu, de
me faire parler et ecrire. Je ne suis qu'un savant ; ceux qui me
connaissent savent que, ne Catholique et de parents Chretiens, je vis
et je veux mourir en Catholique. Recevez, monsieur, mes remercie-
ments et 1'assurance de ma consideration la plus distinguee. E. Chevreul
(printed in the Le Bien public of September 17 th 1886. Cf. for
instance The Tablet LXVIII, London, 25 th September 1886, 495;
Civilta cattolica, Ser. 14, IX, Roma 1891, 292 etc.).


Liebig's attempts to make his science practically
fruitful recall the work of a forerunner, not indeed
Liebig's equal in the field of pure science. Jean An-
toine Chaptal (1756 1832) had as a private citizen
done much to promote the industrial advance of his
country. Raised by Napoleon I. as Dumas by Na-
poleon III. - to the post of Minister of the Interior, he

Online LibraryKarl Alois KnellerChristianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century → online text (page 16 of 32)