Karl Alois Kneller.

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

. (page 8 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 8 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

only that my leave-taking may be brief, without any long
and weary illness." 2

1 Briefwechsel II 364.

2 Ib. II 427. Similarly he writes to Gruithausen on 17. Nov.
1839: "Meine Gesundheit und meine Krafte nehmen jetzt stark ab,
und aller Wahrscheinlichkeit nach werde ich nicht lange mehr hie-
nieden weilen. Nun, wie Gott will ! Ich bin zum Abschiede aus
dieser Zeitlichkeit ebenso bereit als willig" (Wilhelm Olbers. Sein
Leben und seine Werke. Im Auftrage der Nachkommen herausgeg.
von Dr. C. Schilling I, Berlin 1894, 672). In his treatise on
Die Moglichkeit, daC ein Komet mit der Erde zusammenstoCen (und
sie zerstoren) konne , Olbers writes: "1st es nicht vermessen von
einem eingeschrankten Verstand , daC er entscheiden will , nur der
Plan des Weltgebaudes, der alle solche Katastrophen ausschlieCt, sei
der unendlichen Weisheit des Schopfers angemessen ? Kann es nicht
mit seinen unerforschlichen Absichten vielleicht ebensogut bestehen,


Bessel replies to this letter on October 28 th :

"Your last letter, my dear and venerated friend, gave
me such a shock that it took me a long time to recover
my self-possession. Everything we treasure on earth drops
away from us, or we drop away from it. ... But I continue
to hope, notwithstanding your last letter, that we may be
left together for a long time yet. ... I should be so lonely
if you left me, so lonely to be compelled so late in life to
learn to stand alone. God grant that we may remain unse-
parated for many a year to come, and that he who lives
the longer may find strength and calmness in his sorrow.
You know how closely 1 am knitted to you: I have never
been able and am not yet able, to think of a separation as
possible. Several years ago you regarded your condition as
hopeless, but Heaven averted what you then feared was
the end." 1

In other passages also, the great astronomer speaks
of God and Providence in language which is far from
being merely formal.

When in 1808 it was feared that Bessel would be called
away on military service, and Olbers offered, if the worst
came to the worst, to provide the 800 or 1000 thalers
necessary to pay a substitute, Bessel replied (Aug. 5 th ).

"I am learning to know more and more that the true
darlings of fortune are those whom Heaven has blessed
with a friend who accepts that name as something more
than a mere commonplace." 2 In the severe season of
1811, he writes to Olbers: "Let us enjoy what God,
Whose goodness is so infinitely beyond that of man, has given

daC ein Planet, wenn nun die groCe Erziehung seiner vernunftigen
Bewohner ganzlich vollendet ist, wenn alle physischen und moralischen
Krafte und Vollkommenheiten , deren seine Einrichtung fahig war,
sich nun vollig entwickelt und gleichsam abgebliiht haben, daO, sage
ich, dann ein Planet eine grofie Veranderung erleide, die seine bis-
herige Organisation zerstort, um einer neuen, vielleicht vollkommeneren
wieder Platz zu machen ?" (Ib. I 106.)

1 Briefwechsel II 364365. 2 Ib. I 184.


us." l On occasions of rejoicing he does not fail to express
his gratitude to Heaven, to wish his friend the blessing of
Heaven 2 , and he employs many other expressions native
to the Christian mind, which certainly would not have
flowed without protest from the pen of an enemy of religion.
"But this business must be completed", he writes in 1815
of a scientific work, "and so it shall be, God willing, in
the Spring." 3 . . . "Would to God, dear Olbers, that you
found in science . . . consolation for the sorrow that has
fallen upon you." 4 "God knows how hard it is for me to
be so near you and yet not able to visit you." 5 In writing
of the difficulties that were thrown in his way at the time
of his settlement in Konigsberg, he says 6 : "The whole
affair is an intrigue on the part of the old staif, who treat
us new men in a most unchristian way." 7

When after the death of Laplace, Biot was asked by
Professor Pritchard whom he regarded as his worthiest
successor he answered: "Were it not for my strong
personal attachment to him I would say without hesi-
tation : John Herschel." 8

1 Briefwechsel I 260: 3. Marz 1811.

2 Ib. I 234 250 281 359; II 116 152 323 332.

3 Ib. II 5: 24. Dezember 1815.

4 Ib. II 115: 15. April 1819. 5 Ib. II 275: 18. April 1825.

6 Ib. I 231 : 8. Juli 1810.

7 H. W. Brandes (f 1834), Professor at Leipzig, who discovered
the periodicity of the movements of the shooting stars in August,
concludes his popular Vorlesungen iiber die Astronomic (II, Leipzig
1827, 273) with the thought that the sight of the heaven may just as
well fill the spectator "mit Demut vor dem, der unzahlbare Welten
in den Ozean der Unendlichkeit aussate, als es ihn mit Freude er-
ftillt, zu bekennen , dass die Himmel die Ehre Gottes erzahlen und
die Erde voll ist von seiner Giite".

8 Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by Leslie Stephen
and Sidney Lee XXVI, London 1891, 267. Cf. besides the bio-
graphical article ib. 263 268. Ad. Quetelet in Annuaire de
1' Academic roy. des sciences de Belgique XXXVIII, Bruxelles 1872.


The name of Herschel has twice been borne by Astro-
nomers of the first rank; by William Herschel (173 8 1822)
the greatest discoverer of the 1 8 th century and one of
the greatest discoverers of all time, and by his son
John Frederick William Herschel (17921871)
who attained almost equal distinction. Biot's high opinion
of the younger Herschel was shared by others com-
petent to judge. R. Wolf 1 says that "in the province
of optics, mathematics, and astronomy he won before
long a name no less distinguished than that which he
had inherited", that "his father had in him a capable
successor, hardly inferior even to himself". Quetelet 2
declared that he stood among the masters of Astronomy
and the declaration was echoed by Arago. John Herschel
compiled a catalogue of the stars of the southern hemi-
sphere, and continued the researches of his father into
the structure of the stellar system, the constitution of
variable and double stars, the Milky Way and so on.

In regard to religion Herschel was not only a firm
believer but also a man of great personal piety 3 . Materia-
listic writers found no mercy at his hands, even though
they made a great parade of science. Buckle's "History
of Civilisation in England" angered him extremely. In
the book Buckle had employed the statistical works of
Herschel's correspondent Quetelet as evidence against
Free Will, and this fact, together with the favourable
way in which Buckle spoke of Quetelet, brought the
latter also under suspicion of atheism. Herschel im-
mediately wrote an urgent letter to Quetelet praying

1 Gesch. der Astronomic 505. 2 Ante.

3 His private life was one unbroken tenour of domestic affection
and unostentatious piety (Diet, of Nat. Biogr. 276).


for re-assurance on the point. Quetelet does not print
this letter in his biographical sketch of Herschel, but
nevertheless conveys clearly Herschel's detestation of
atheism, and his religious habit of mind 1 . Nor does
Herschel himself in his writings miss any opportunity
of declaring against materialism. Two of his lectures
"On Atoms", and "On the Origin of Force" 2 are directed
to prove that an explanation of the world by means
of atoms and motion alone is impossible, and that we
must of necessity call in the ideas of thought, reason,
will, motive, power, and design.

"Constituted as the human mind is, if nature be not inter-
pretable through these conceptions, it is not interpretable
at all ; and the only reason we can have for troubling
ourselves about it is the utilitarian one of bettering our
condition by subduing nature to use . . ., or the satisfaction
of that sort of curiosity which can find its gratification in
scrutinising everything and comprehending nothing. But if
these attributes of mind are not consentaneous, they are
useless in the way of explanation. Will without motive,
Power without Design, Thought opposed to Reason, would
be admirable in explaining a chaos, but would render little
aid in accounting for anything else." 8

1 Chez des personnes religieuses, la crainte de voir leurs croyances
se meler aux discussions scientifiques, et d'entendre contester des points
consideres comme solidement etablis , fait qu'elles jugent avec une
certaine defiance les ouvrages qui donnent lieu a ces craintes. Les
doctrines de"fendues par Buckle, dans son grand ouvrage "History of
civilisation in England", avaient un peu effarouche le bon et savant
Herschel , qui avait cru , d'apres la maniere favorable dont Buckle
m'avait juge, que je partageais ses opinions sur I'atheisme (Quetelet
ante XXXVIII 189).

2 John F. W. Herschel, Familiar lectures on Scientific Sub-
jects, London 1867, 452 459: on Atoms; 460 475: on the Origin
of Force.

8 Herschel, Familiar lectures 474475.


Materialistic theories can tell us nothing more defi-
nite than that in the beginning there were atoms, and
that these atoms "in obedience to the laws of their
nature" began to act one upon another, and thus pro-
duced the world as we know it. According to Herschel,
these are mere phrases, the emptiness of which appears
on serious examination , and the world-conception to
which they lead is no better than that which he ridi-
cules in the following words:

"In the beginning was nebulous matter or Akasch. Its
boundless and tumultuous waves heaved in chaotic wildness,
and all was oxygen, and hydrogen, and electricity. Such
a state of things could not possibly continue; and as it
could not possibly be worse, alteration was here synony-
mous with improvement." *

Unfortunately, says Herschel, the phenomena of nature
are a little too complicated for such hypotheses.

"The relations in which atoms stand to one another are
anything but simple ones. They involve all the 'ologies and
all the 'ometries, and in these days we know something of what
that implies. Their movements and interchanges, their hates
and loves, their attractions and repulsions, their correlations,
their what not, are all determined on the very instant.
There is no hesitation, no blundering, no trial and error.
A problem of dynamics that would drive Lagrange mad is
solved instanter. Solvitur ambulando. A differential equation
which, algebraically written out, would cover the earth, is
integrated in an eye-twinkle : and all the numerical calculation
worked out in a way to frighten Zerah Colburn, George
Bidder, or Jedediah Buxton. In short, these atoms are most
wonderful little creatures."

Only one explanation is adequate, that which Anaxa-
goras opposed to the dreams of the old Greek atomists :

1 Ib. 456 f.


"The presence of mind is what solves the whole diffi-
culty." i.

A name known even to those who are not specialists
in science is that of the great master of the theory of the
planets, Urbainjeanjoseph Leverrier (born 1 8 1 1
at Saint-L6, died 1877 at Paris, where he was Director
of the Observatory). Who indeed could fail to have
heard of the discovery of Neptune, the existence and
the location of which Leverrier demonstrated mathe-
matically, and which was thereupon actually discovered
by Galle of Berlin in the place indicated? The achieve-
ment compelled the admiration of all Europe. "It
was a discovery", said Piazzi Smith on the death of
Leverrier, "which almost took men's breath away for
the moment in astonishment and admiration : and showed
that the age of intellectual giants cast in the mould of
Newton and Laplace was not yet closed." 2 The name
of Leverrier was in every mouth, and honours and
distinctions were showered on him from every quarter.

And yet the discovery of Neptune is not perhaps
Leverrier's greatest service to Astronomy. Even without
his famous computation, Neptune must have been before
long discovered. But what science might not yet have
attained, were it not for Leverrier's mathematical genius,
his masterly grasp of every intricacy of celestial mecha-
nics, and his iron industry and perseverance, is the exact
determination of the theory of the planetary system as

1 "The presence of MIND is what solves the whole difficulty;
so far at least as it brings it within the sphere of our own con-
sciousness and into - conformity with our own experience of what
action is" (Herschel ante 458).

2 Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh IX (1877 to
1878) 489.


a whole. For it was this that Leverrier chose as the
main business of his life *.

The great Astronomer had begun his career in 1836
with some theses in chemistry. But three years later
we find him busy with astronomical calculations, a field
which he was not to abandon till death. In 1839 he
published a mathematical calculation of the variations
of the planets during the period 100000 B. C. to
100000 A. D., in which he perfected Laplace's im-
perfect proof that despite the disturbing influence of
the planets on one another, the planetary system can
never of its own intrinsic forces fall into disorder. In
1843 ne worked out the path of Mercury: in 1845
Arago, then Director of the Observatory, recommended
him to study the path of Uranus, the most distant of
the planets at that time known. By November of this
latter year he had worked out a full computation of the
path of that planet on the assumption that no influence
was operative save that of the planets already known.
In June 1846 there followed an essay in which the path
thus computed was compared with actual observations,
and it was shown that in order to explain the diver-
gences from the path it was necessary to posit the
existence of another planet lying outside Uranus. On
August 31 st 1846 Leverrier published a computation of

1 J. Bertrand, Eloge historique d'Urbain-Jean-Joseph Leverrier
lu dans la seance publique annuelle de 1' Academic des sciences du
10 mars 1879: Annales de 1'observatoire de Paris. Memoires XV,
Paris 1880, 3 22. F. Tisserand, Les travaux de Leverrier: ib.
23 43. Discours prononces a 1'inauguration de la statue de Leverrier,
a 1'observatoire de Paris, le jeudi, 27 juin 1889. Annuaire pour 1'an
1890 public par le Bureau des longitudes, Paris: Discours de
M. Fizeau 637 645, de M. le contre-amiral E. Mouchez 645
to 656, de M. Tisserand 657 667.


the path of this new body, the existence of which he
had thus deductively established. Subsequent obser-
vations proved that he was not deceived, and led to
the most remarkable of all the discoveries of Astro-

In the years 1844 1847 there appeared exhaustive
studies of certain of the comets which revolve about
the sun, those, namely, which are called after Lexell,
Faye, and De Vico. Leverrier traced up the history
of these comets, showed by colossal calculations how
their paths must have been, and must in the future be,
determined by the influence of the planets, especially
of Jupiter, and sought to ascertain when these comets
became associated with the solar system, and when they
will once again pass out of the sphere of influence of
the sun.

The planet tables then employed were not in com-
plete agreement with actual observations; the divergences
were slight , but still large enough to indicate some
mistake in the assumptions on which they were founded.
On July 2 nd 1849 Leverrier laid before the Academy
the "gigantic plan" of a new computation of these tables.
"This Herculean labour", as Tisserand calls it, "he con-
tinued down to his death, and he had the fortune and
glory to bring it by his sole efforts to a consummation."
Mercury, Venus, the Earth, and Mars occupied twenty
years: the other planets which presented still greater
difficulties were computed in a shorter space.

Amongst the honours bestowed on Leverrier for these
brilliant achievements were the dignity of Senator of
the Empire, and the Directorate of the Paris Obser-
vatory (1854). It may be doubted, however, whether
Leverrier was precisely the man for this latter position.


He worked, throughout the night "and grudged even
a few hours rest to his body, exhausted by continuous
labours of this kind. The result was a severe and
tedious illness, which had an unfavourable influence on
his character" 1 . Thus his subordinates found him a
hard taskmaker, and the exacting demands he made on
them were not mitigated by any courtesy or conside-
ration of manner. Under his Directorate the Obser-
vatory exhibited great activity, the results of which
are to be found in its publications, but the discontent
with Leverrier became so acute that in the year 1870
the Government removed him from his position. Three
years later he was, however, restored, for Leverrier
was one of those men who cannot be dispensed with.
Nor was it his staff alone that had experience of the
great savant's ability to make himself unpleasant. When
under the Third Republic orders were issued that
the motto "Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite" should be in-
scribed on all public buildings, and even on churches,
Leverrier refused to allow any other inscription over
the door of the Observatory except the single word
Observatoire, and the Government had to give him
his way 2 .

Leverrier was known in France as a "Clerical". "Under
the Empire", complained a Paris newspaper, on his re-
appointment, "he was a clericalising senator, pledged
no less deeply to the interests of the altar than to those

1 Mouchez: Discours prononces a 1'inauguration de la statue
de Leverrier 654.

2 Mac Mahon caused him one day to be requested to prepare the
observatory for the visit of the Shah of Persia. "Marechal, la science
n'illumine pas les sauvages", was his answer.

Kneller, Christianity. J


of the throne." l In a discourse pronounced at his
funeral, Tresca declared that the study of the heavens
had only confirmed and deepened his lively faith in
Christianity 2 . It was given to him, said Dumas on the
same occasion, to write the last word of the last page
of his immortal work in the last hour of his life, mur-
muring as he concluded: Nunc dimittis servum tuum,
Domine 3 . On June 5 th 1876 Leverrier laid before the
Academy the last instalment of his great work, con-
taining the tables of Jupiter and Saturn. Referring to
the speech in which J. B. Dumas had a few days be-
fore declared against materialism, he said :

"Throughout this protracted undertaking, lasting over
thirty years , we have had need to draw support from
the spectacle of one of the glories of creation, and from
the thought that our study tended to confirm us in the
imperishable truths of the spiritualistic philosophy. It was
then with profound emotion that I heard at the last meeting
of the Academy, our illustrious permanent Secretary re-affirm
those great principles which are the very source of the
purest science. That declaration will remain as an honour

1 Quoted from the Republique franchise by Pierre Larousse,
Grand dictionnaire universel du XTX e siecle X, Paris 1873, 445 :
Sous 1'Empire, il fut senateur clericalisant et non moins infeode aux
interets de 1'autel qu'a ceux de la dynastie.

2 La fin de ce savant, qui fut illustre avant 1'age, et par laquelle
on n'apprendra pas sans emotion, peut-etre, que 1'etude du ciel et
la foi scientifique n'avaient fait que consolider en lui la foi vive du
chretien, c'est la un exemple qui sera donne de bien haut a la con-
science publique et a la moralite de notre epoque (Comptes rendus
hebdomadaires des seances de I'Academie des sciences LXXXV
[1877] 589).

3 ... ecrivant le dernier mot de la derniere page de son reuvre
immortelle a la derniere heure de sa vie et murmurant pieusement
alors : Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine (ib. 582).


and an inspiration to French science: and I esteem it a
great happiness to have this opportunity of rising in the midst
of our Academy, and proclaiming my cordial adhesion to
his principles." 1

Among the foremost of contemporary French Astro-
nomers stood Herve Faye (f July 7 th 1902). In
1897 ne celebrated his golden Jubilee as Member of
the Academy, and Professor of the Polytechnic School :
and his scientific works are held in the highest esteem.

In his volume "On the Origin of the World" he sets
forth his ideas on the history of the solar system, and
in the spirit of a thorough believer expounds the relation
which exists between the narrative of creation given in
the Old Testament, and the cosmogonic conceptions of
modern science. The introductory chapter, "Science
and the Idea of God", shows how the study of nature
must lead up to a recognition of the existence of God.

Faye takes as his point of departure the feeling of wonder
and admiration which the starry heavens evoke in every
mind capable of any high emotion. No insight into the
mechanism of the stellar systems is needed to produce such
a feeling. "This impression vague though it appears to me
in my dull attempt to analyse it, has in it a deep satis-
faction. We feel exalted in mind, as it were, to a world

1 Durant cette longue entreprise , poursuivie pendant trente-cinq
annees , nous avons eu besoin d'etre soutenu par le spectacle d'une
des plus grandes oeuvres de la creation , et par la pensee qu'elle
affermissait en nous les verites imperissables de la Philosophic spiritua-
liste. C'est done avec emotion que nous avons entendu dans la derniere
seance de 1' Academic franchise, notre illustre Secretaire perpetuel af-
firmer ces grands principes qui sont la source meme de la science
la plus pure. Cette haute manifestation restera un honneur et une
force pour la science francaise. Je m'estime heureux que 1'occasion
se soit presentee de la relever au sein de notre Academic, et de lui
donner une cordiale adhesion (Comptes rendus LXXXII [1876] 1280).



raised far above the paltry things by which we are surrounded
on earth. We contemplate, we come to understand, in so
far at least as it falls within the scope of our senses, this
world which of itself does not understand anything. For
there are realities other than the body, other than ma-
terial things, other than this glittering world of stars. There
is thought, there is intellect. And as our human intellect
has not created itself, there must be in existence a higher in-
tellect from which ours derives. The nobler the conception
we frame of this higher intellect the nearer we approach
the truth. We run no risk of deceiving ourselves in regard-
ing it as the source of all existence, we trace back to it
all these celestial splendours which have stirred our imagi-
nations, and we find ourselves at last able to understand
and ready to accept the traditional formula : Almighty God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth." *

In an earlier part of this book we have treated at
length of eminent Italian astronomers who belonged to
various religious orders. We subjoin the names of two
eminent laymen.

Giovanni Sante Gasparo Santini, born in
1787, and occupied in astronomical research at Padua
from 1806 till his death in 1877, made important con-
tributions to science in the course of his long life. He
published a catalogue of the stars between the tenth
degree North and the tenth degree South latitude, and

1 . . . Et comme notre intelligence ne s'est faite elle-meme, il doit
exister dans le monde une intelligence superieure d'ou la notre derive.
Des lors , plus 1'idee qu'on se fera de cette intelligence superieure
sera grande, plus elle approchera de la verite. Nous ne risquons
pas de nous tromper en la considerant comme 1'auteur de toute choses,
en reportant a elle ces splendeurs des cieux qui ont eveille notre
pensee , et finalement nous voila tout prepares a comprendre et a
accepter la formule traditionnelle : Dieu, Pere tout-puissant, Createur
du ciel et de la terre (H. Faye, Sur 1'origine du monde. Theories
cosmogoniques des anciens et des modernes 3 , Paris 1896, 3).


computed the paths of no less than seventeen comets.
His name became widely known when his calculation
of the time of return of the Bialasch comet was verified
by the event. In many works of reference 'we' find' him
wrongly described as a priest. But although not a prfest>,
Santini was a deeply religious man, who all through life
preserved the faith of his childhood l .

A contemporary of Secchi's at Rome, Lorenzo
Respighi 2 , attained almost equal distinction in the
field of solar physics and on many questions even sur-

Online LibraryKarl Alois KnellerChristianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century → online text (page 8 of 32)