Karl Alois Kneller.

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

. (page 17 of 32)
Online LibraryKarl Alois KnellerChristianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century → online text (page 17 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

found still wider scope for his activity. The great de-
velopment of industry and commerce in the France of
that day, the superb Alpine roads over the Simplon,
Mont-Cenis, and Mont-Genevre were Chaptal's work,
and carried his name over Europe.

Born in a village of Southern France, and educated
by religious, he preserved all his life the faith of his

"I maintain then, for a thorough study of his works has
convinced me of it", writes one of his successors in the
Chemistry Chair at Montpellier, "that Chaptal's greatness of
character sprang from the Christian principles in which he
was educated. His incessant labour, his ardent charity of
which I have cited instances, had their inspiration in a
living Christian faith. It was his conviction that nothing
great and enduring can be created save by men who accept
the spiritual interpretation of life, and that doubt, unless it
be the merely methodic doubt of Descartes, is a force that
disintegrates and dissolves. . . . He had observed that at
the head of every department of knowledge there stand
believers , Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas ; Co-
pernicus, Galilei, Kepler, Newton; Descartes, Pascal, Leib-
niz, Euler; Lavoisier, Ampere, Biot." i

1 A. Be champ, Eloge hist, de J.-A. Chaptal, prononce a la
seance de rentree des facultes et de 1'ecole superieure de pharmacie
le 15 novembre 1866, Paris-Montpellier 1866, 51. For Chaptal
cf. Flour ens, Recueil des Eloges III, Paris 1862, 159 ff.


Towards the end of his life Chaptal was reduced to
the brink of poverty by the extravagance of his son,
whose debts he considered himself morally bound to
discharge. In spite of this he presented to the parish
church of his native place a picture for the Altar of
the Blessed Virgin, and a silver monstrance.

"I have", he wrote to the parish priest, "a great af-
fection for the place in which I was born, and for the
church in which I was baptised." Chaptal's old servant
remained faithful to him in his days of trial, and after
the death of his master had the funeral orations and
reviews of his life collected and published at his own
cost a fact as honourable to the one as it is sug-
gestive of the lovable character of the other 1 .

On Liebig's pronouncement 2 against materialism a
friend of his wrote to him as follows (Feb. 17 th 1856):

"As you can imagine, I was more than a little interested
in what you had to say lately on contemporary materialism.
It is a word spoken in its hour, and it gives me all the
greater satisfaction inasmuch as I have the utmost detesta-
tion of that crude and mindless theory, and have on oc-
casion publicly opposed it. Little as I relish Hegelianism,
I had rather a thousand times accept it than the philosophy
of Vogt. For I had rather regard myself as a particle of
God, than as a bundle of filth." 3

The writer, who thus declared his agreement with
Liebig, was the celebrated chemist Christian Friedrich
Schonbein of Basle (1799 1868). Sprung from a

1 Ib. 49 54. 2 Ante p. 196.

3 "Denn lieber will ich mich fur ein Stuck Gott als fur einen
Dreckklumpen angesehen wissen" (Justus v. Liebig und Christian
Friedrich Schonbein. Briefwechsel 1853 1868. Herausgeg. von
Georg W. A. Kahlbaum und Eduard Thon, Leipzig 1900,


deeply religious family of Pietists who lived at Metzingen
in Wiirttemberg, he entered a chemical factory as ap-
prentice at the age of fourteen, gave himself up with
the greatest zeal to the study of theoretical science,
during his spare time, and in 1822 proceeded to the
University of Tubingen and later to that of Erlangen.
During his professorate at Basle (1828 1868) he distin-
guished himself not so much by quantitative analysis
or by the broaching of new theories as mainly by the
discovery of a long series of remarkable facts. We may
instance e. g. the transformation of ordinary cotton into
gun-cotton and collodion, the transformation of oxygen
into ozone, the transformation of iron in the so-called
passive condition 1 .

There is an interesting story told of Schonbein's early
years. It seems that in the ballot for military service
he drew an unfavourable number, and was obliged to
take his place in the ranks. When the military oath
was tendered to him he refused to take it. "Let your
speech be always Yea, Yea, Nay, Nay", it was written;
and he would be loyal without any oath. The attention
of the king was drawn to Schonbein by this incident;
he summoned the young man to his presence, and gave
him help in the prosecution of his studies.

Whether the story is true or not 2 , it is certainly in

1 On this account people called him in jest a kind of magician.
The enthusiastic sportsman Fr. v. Kobell once wrote to him : "Sie
verwandeln mit ihren faustischen Kiinsten so vieles ; konnten Sie
doch auch die Englander in Gemsen verwandeln, da ware die Schweiz
ein anderes Land" (Kahlbaum und Thon, Briefwechsel 100).

2 It is denied in the pamphlet: Christian Friedrich Schonbein.
Ein Blatt zur Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts von Georg W. A.
Kahlbaum und Ed. Schaer, Leipzig 1899, 20.


accord with Schonbein's character and principles. There
is no difficulty in finding expressions of his attitude
towards Christianity and materialism. Thus he writes
during his student years from Erlangen :

"Professor Schubert is kindness itself - ohl how tho-
roughly at home I feel in this society he unites the pro-
foundest erudition with the liveliest attachment to Christianity ;
he would certainly win your heart. I will only say that in
a word we live like brothers." l

Another letter of Schonbein's written about this time
may also be cited. He wrote in 1820 to an old friend
of his:

"He is guilty of idolatry who in the strict sense of the
words lives only for science. How often I myself have com-
mitted this frightful crime, how many commit it without re-
cognising its vileness and the punishment it deserves 1"

A contemporary of Schonbein's, author of a bio-
graphical sketch of his career, comments on this passage 2 :
"This conviction, although expressed in a form which
in later years he would scarcely have employed, he
preserved in essence all his life." For although in his
latter years he broke with the Pietists he remained a
believer till the last.

"With great firmness", continues the writer, "and on many
occasions more especially in an academic publication of

1 Verhandlungen der Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesell-
schaft in Einsiedeln am 24., 25. und 26. August 1868. 52. Jahres-
versammlung. Jahresbericht 1868, Einsiedeln, 209. G. H. v. Schubert
(1780 1860), Professor of Science in Erlangen from 1819, and in
Munich from 1827. His chief work is Geschichte der Seele, Stutt-
gart 1830, 5. ed. 1878.

- Verhandlungen der Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesell-
schaft ante 217.


the year 1853: 'On the Significance and Aim of Natural
Science' , he opposed that theory which attempts to derive
the endless variety of the world, living and non-living, from
the blind sport, which a blinder chance wages with a sea
of atoms. He maintained that the world is the admirable
and purposive creation of a God, infinite at once in power
and in wisdom; and despite the popularity of materialistic
systems, and the evil odour into which teleology had fallen,
he held to his convictions unwaveringly. Conceiving, as he
did, that science consists essentially in a knowledge of the
relations of purpose and mutual adaptation existing between
the different elements of nature, he came quite naturally to
conclude a purely scientific paper on Hydrogen with a dis-
cussion of the teleological significance of the properties of
that gas. . . . Schonbein's philosophy led him to approach
science with the greatest modesty and reverence. 'However
splendid' , he wrote , 'the fabric of human science may
seem to be, no one realises so well as the real scientist
how incomplete and fragmentary it is, and how inadequate
it must always remain in comparison with the actual pro-
cess of reality.' " 1

These convictions remained with Schonbein all his
life. Scoutetten records a meeting with the Basle sa-
vant at Schinznach in June 1 867 :

"In the course of a walk along the Aar, we reached a
point from which a beautiful view was to be seen. Schon-
bein came to a sudden stop like one transported out of
himself, and raising his hand to heaven he exclaimed : How
beautiful it is! How could anyone look without delight on
the snowy summits of those mountains, on that river which
issues from their flank to carry life far and wide, and in
the end to be caught up in vapour to the clouds from which
it has come? Such life and movement, such interweaving
and concatenation of phenomena must evoke our admiration.
Yes! everything in nature reveals a God, Whose wisdom

1 Verhandlungen der Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesell-
schaft 218 219.


and power humble our pride and urge us on to labour and
study; for, in his works, we have learned to know and to
worship him." 1

Schonbein published in 1855 a diary of a journey
through Germany and Austria 2 , some passages of which
may appropriately be quoted. The opinions of so lucid
and independent a mind on science, politics, religion
and creeds cannot but be interesting.

"But who, then, can doubt that nature which floods our
minds with the conception of a supreme Intelligence is really
the manifestation of such an Intelligence? But if nature
really is what we maintain it to be, if in it, and through
it, the kingdom, power and wisdom of God are revealed,
then it assumes for man an incomparably nobler significance
as leading him to that knowledge in which he finds his
greatest and purest joy, and the richest element of his
existence. This is the knowledge of the first and final cause
of all things, of the source and root of all life, Whose will
and good pleasure have called man into being.

"There are, indeed, men who think in their narrow-
mindedness that the deeper the human mind has penetrated
into the secrets of nature , the more comprehensive its
grasp and mastery of the outer world, the more oblivious
it becomes of the source of all things. Many have gone
so far as to say that the pursuit of science necessarily leads
to atheism. The assertion is absolutely groundless. He, who
lives in daily and hourly contemplation of the processes of
nature, will not merely believe, he will see and come to be
profoundly convinced that there is no corner of reality,

1 ... tout dans la nature nous revele un Dieu dont la sagesse
et la puissance humilient notre orgueil et commandent 1'etude et
le travail, car c'est dans ses oeuvres que nous apprenons a le con-
naitre et a 1'honorer (Les Mondes XVIII 764).

2 Menschen und Dinge. Mitteilungen aus dem Reisetagebuch eines
deutschen Naturforschers, Stuttgart 1855. (Appeared anonymously.)

Kneller, Christianity. 14


however insignificant, but manifests in glorious and wonderful
wise the Divine life." l . . .

On the dignity of man he writes 2 :

"Although man is not indeed the centre of the universe,
he is assuredly the noblest of the inhabitants of the earth.
If nature has energised through immeasurable spaces, has
called into operation the mightiest forces, has created and
destroyed innumerable living beings, has made whole worlds
and again unmade them, in order that, at the end of the
process, man might appear on the earth, it cannot but be
that such a being possesses a significance and a mission of
supreme importance. And although the earth itself be, as
it undoubtedly is, no more than a pin-point in the universe,
its physical insignificance in no way lessens the greatness
of its noblest inhabitant; for the true worth and dignity of
things depend, not on their extension through time and
space, but on their essential nature, the character of their
activity, the degree of life and mind manifested by them."

Towards the Catholic Church Schonbein was not un-

"I do not conceal the fact", he writes 3 , "that I envy the old-
est of the Churches many superiorities which she possesses over
her younger rivals. She has preserved institutions, customs,
and forms which are not only admirable in themselves, and
founded on the deep needs of humanity, but possess also
the dignity of age, a title to veneration which cannot be
estimated too highly.

"There could not be an opinion narrower or more ground-
less than that which regards the Catholic Church as an in-
stitution built up by the avarice and love of domination of
crafty priests. That their conduct was often determined by
motives of self-aggrandisement, that they did many things
absolutely un-Christian and indefensible, we freely admit, and
we certainly do not seek to represent here black as white.

1 Menschen und Dinge 26 29. 2 Ib. 96.

3 Ib. 186188.


But, despite these blots, the Catholic Church remains one of
the most wonderful phenomena of human history, a mar-
vellous marriage of the genius of the East with that of the
West, a joint organism whose various points are adjusted
and unified with incomparable insight.

"To understand and appreciate at its full worth an in-
stitution of such power and antiquity is not easy. It is im-
possible to anyone who approaches the task in the temper
of a bigot, whether his bigotry be on the side of belief or
on that of disbelief. For it demands a knowledge of fact,
an insight into the whole nature of man, a freedom of mind,
which are but seldom found combined in one man; and
the majority of writers on the subject show themselves at
every step the slaves of office, interest, party-spirit, and

''What I find most admirable in the Catholic Church,
what is indeed unique in it, is its antiquity. What human
institution is there, as vast as this Church, that could have
maintained itself so long? The Roman Empire, like the
other World-Empires, has fallen ; revolution has shaken Europe,
again and again, to its bases; systems of philosophy have
followed one another to oblivion ; tempests of hostility have
broken over the Church itself, and threatened it with de-
struction. The Church has survived them all, and stands to-
day impregnable as of old.

"This activity and stability must have a still firmer basis
than Peter, the rock ; this Church of nearly two thousand
years must have something in it which is independent of
the passing hour, and in deep harmony with the needs
of human nature, above all with its weakness and imperfec-
tion; for how else, with all its hostilities to what we count
reason and intellect, could it have endured for so long?
Its strength must be drawn from some deep lying source,
the discovery of which is eminently an object for philosophic

Much of Schonbein's criticism indicates that he knew
Catholicism only from the outside, but the above passage
shows how deep an impression even this external view



must make on a mind that is capable of independent
thought. The Catholic religious orders also provoke
Schonbein's admiration. He makes a long detour in
order to visit Kremsmunster, and gives a very friendly
description of the Monastery 1 . The sight of the great
buildings of the Benedictines draws from his pen many
a word of spontaneous admiration 2 .

Our account of Schonbein may fitly conclude with
a criticism passed by the great chemist on the science
of the 19 th century 3 .

"This corruption in the minds of the peoples, from what
does it spring? From this above all, that man has severed
the bond which must unite temporal with eternal, if human
relations are to remain loyal and stable ; from this, that man
has become too external and sensual in his views, has turned
his eyes away from the world of spirit, and sought to make
his home in the world of matter, and to that end has en-
deavoured to shake off the dominion of religion and morality.
And this profound sensuality, this defection from spiritual
things, this sceptical indifference towards the supreme laws
and forces of reality have taken possession not of a mind
here and there, but of millions in all classes of society."

We quoted above a speech made at the funeral of
Dumas, in which praise was given to Dumas for his
religious habit of mind, and in which the speaker de-
clared his own belief in those eternal realities which
to his dead friend had become truths of sight. The
orator was the Alsatian, Karl Adolf Wurtz, one of
the great chemists of France, who followed Dumas to
the grave in the same year, 1884. Wurtz was a Pro-
testant of the Liberal school, and it is consequently not

1 Menschen und Dinge 191 203. 2 Ib. 142 208.
3 Ib. 288.


easy to arrive at a precise account of his religious
tenets. The speech in question is however enough in
itself to show that the study of chemistry had not over-
thrown his belief in the spirituality and immortality of
the soul.

"Wurtz", writes A. W. Von Hofmann J , "remained all his
life a loyal adherent of the Augsburg Confession in which
he was educated. The practical good sense, which he showed
in all the affairs of the Protestant congregation to which he
belonged, secured his election to the Consistory as well as
to various Synods, and in these his vote was always cast in
favour of free inquiry. No wonder, then, that it was con-
sidered a piece of great good fortune, to have secured the
co-operation of the eminent scientist in the organisation of the
Protestant Faculty (on its transfer after the war from Strass-
burg to Paris). And although his life's work had been done
in a very different field, he helped on the new corporation
with no less ability than enthusiasm, and the governing body
had no hesitation in making him president of a section for
the advancement of theological studies. Wurtz afforded a
fresh proof, although the example of Faraday had been proof
enough, that science and religion are not, as certain writers
pretend, irreconcilable enemies."

In the sketch which the chemist and mineralogist
Charles Friedel gives of the life of Wurtz he celebrates
his sincere patriotism. His whole life was given for
the advancement of his country; the measures which
he advocated as making for that end were civil free-
dom, universal education, the cultivation of the scien-
tific spirit, and moral progress "which latter he held
to be safe only in the hands of Christianity". A
Christian patriot, he was also a Christian scientist.

1 Zur Erinnerung an vorangegangene Freunde. Gesammelte Ge-
dachtnisreden III 304.


"As a savant and thinker Wurtz had not, in minutely
specialised research, lost the faculty of viewing things as a
whole; the great discoveries he had seen streaming out of
his retort did not bring him to believe that everything could
be explained by chemical or physical changes, and that
there is no reality other than that which impinges on our
senses." l . . .

"The alliance of science and religion which is so often
treated as a chimera he knew by personal experience to
be possible ; he had seen it realised in many eminent fellow-
workers, and he appreciated it both for religion, which it
renders more human, and for science, to which it gives wings
and an impulse towards the ideal." 2

Wurtz himself had publicly declared his views con-
cerning the relation of science to religious belief. At
the meeting of French Scientists held at Lyons in 1874,
he delivered the opening speech on the atomic struc-
ture of the universe. The last words contain a con-
fession of faith.

"Such is the order of nature; and as science more and
more penetrates it, we come to appreciate at once the sim-
plicity of the means employed, and the infinite diversity of
the results. Thus beneath the corner of the veil, which it
permits us to raise, we catch a hint of the profound harmony
of the plan of the world. As to first causes they remain
inaccessible. They lie in a sphere which is not that of
science, but which the human mind will always be eager to
enter and explore. For so the human mind is made, and

1 Bulletin de la Societe chimique de Paris XLIII, Paris 1885, LXXI.

2 L' alliance de la science et de la religion qu'on traite souvent
de chimere, il la savait possible par son experience personnelle, il
1'avait vue realised chez bien des hommes e~minents, et il en sentait
tout le prix, a la fois pour la religion qu'elle rend plus humaine,
et pour la science a laquelle elle donne des ailes pour s'e"lever
vers 1'ideal (Ib. xxv. Quoted in the Revue des quest, scient. L,
Louvain 1901, 94).


you will not succeed in altering it. In vain will science
expound the structure of the world, and the order of pheno-
mena; the mind aspires higher, and in its instinctive belief
that things do not contain in themselves their origin, con-
tinuance, and purpose, is led to subordinate them to a First
Cause, a unique and universal cause, God." l

Charles Friedel (1832 1899), fr m l %?6 Professor
at the Sorbonne, whose account of his teacher and
countryman Wurtz we have just quoted, was himself
"a man of much eminence in chemistry" 2 . Friedel was
a loyal Protestant. The Louvain chemist, Louis Henry,
who, as he tells us, enjoyed his friendship for forty years,
says that Wurtz's declaration at Lyons in 1874 repre-
sented Friedel's philosophy also 3 .

1 Tel est 1'ordre de la nature, et a mesure que la science y penetre
davantage , elle met a jour , en meme temps que la simplicite des
moyens mis en oeuvre, la diversite infinie des resultats. Ainsi, a
travers ce coin du voile qu'elle nous permet de soulever, elle nous
laisse entrevoir tout ensemble 1'harmonie et la profondeur du plan
de 1'univers. Quant aux causes premieres, elles demeurent inacces-
sibles. La commence un autre domaine que 1'esprit humain sera tou-
jours empresse d'aborder et de parcourir. II est ainsi fait, et vous
ne le changerez pas. C'est en vain que la science lui aura revele
la structure du monde et 1'ordre de tous les phenomenes : il veut
remonter plus haut, et dans la conviction instinctive que les choses
n'ont pas en elles-memes leur raison d'etre, leur support et leur
origine, il est conduit a les subordonner a une cause premiere, uni-
que , universelle , Dieu (quoted by M. S e p e t in Revue des quest,
hist. XVI 2, Paris 1874, 602; by L. Henry in the Academic
R. de Belgique, Bulletin de la classe des sciences 1899, Bruxelles
1899, 336).

2 Thus the obituary notice in the Zentralblatt fur Mineralogie,
Geologic und Palaontologie, Jahrgang 1900, Stuttgart 1900, 53.

3 L. Henry, Notice sur Charles Friedel, ante. After quoting
the words p. 214, ed. 2, selected from Wurtz's discourse, Henry
P- SS^) says: J'ose affirmer que cette philosophic si fortement et si


Louis Henry himself, who celebrated his jubilee
at Louvain in 1900, declared himself a "Christian who
knew how to rise above nature and render honour to
the Author of nature" 1 .

"A man of a profoundly religious disposition" is also the
account given of Karl Remigius Fresenius who died
in 1897 2 . "And this did not abandon him in his days of
trial", we read, "but kept him constant and loyal to his
faith." 3 Although his religious enthusiasm may seem to
Catholics in some respects misdirected he was a member
of the Protestant Union and leader of the Church Liberals
in Nassau it shows at all events how little atheism and
materialism can appeal to the authority of the most famous
of the younger chemists of Germany. For Fresenius was a
master ; his hand-book of quantitative analysis ran to sixteen
editions in Germany, and was translated into every European
language and into Chinese.

We may add yet another name here, that of Henri
Sainte-Claire Deville 4 . He began his career with
Organic Chemistry and contributed to the discovery of
aniline dyes, but his chief work was done in Inorganic
Chemistry. His labours were of great practical fruitfulness.

eloquemment exprimee etait celle que professait Friedel lui-meme.
Cf. Revue ties quest, scient. L, Louvain 1901, 95: Le double cha-
ractere d'eminent chimiste et de chretien sincere se retrouve dans
Friedel comme dans Wurtz son maitre.

1 Revue des quest, scient. XLVIII, Louvain 1900, 223.

2 Bericht der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft , XXX. Jahrg.,
Bd. II, Berlin 1897, 1 355-

3 Allgemeine deutsche Biographic XLVIII, Leipzig 1904, 742.

4 Jules Gay, Henri Sainte-Claire Deville. Sa vie et ses travaux,
Paris 1889 (Reprinted separately from Cosmos 1886). D. Gernez,

Online LibraryKarl Alois KnellerChristianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century → online text (page 17 of 32)