Essay on Science

Mr Elliott

Dear Sir

As the Attic Society, I am told, received favorable some letters of Electromagus, founded on his late lecture; I am induced to submit to them the inclosed Essay, which is a kind of corollary to those lectures. It is a mode of writing that is new to me, and the reception if may meet with may serve to guide me in future attempts.

I remain, dear Sir
Your faithful servant

Philemon Beauclerc

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not, the Pierian Spring.”


This celebrated couplet of perhaps the best maker of couplets in our language has so long been quoted and admitted as sound doctrine, that an Essayist who sets out with disputing it seems liable to the charge of temerity. Yet the more general diffusion of acquirements of every species, with the elegance and the usefulness (unlimited to sex, age, or rank) which they shed over modern society, have done much to prove that “a little learning” is better than none at all: and I do not despair of being able to demonstrate the danger of the other alternative of the poet, and that it may be possible to “drink” too “deep”. I shall now however only attempt to show that there is a middle period, in which mankind, applauding the depths to which they fancy they have penetrated, depart from the sound notions formed by the application of common sense to that elementary portion of science which suffices to give it a right direction, and wander on in a maze of refinement and error, till a happy circumstance, or a stroke of superior genius, brings out the clue to the real depths of the subject, and they are astonished to find how nearly they had once arrived at this point, and how far they had strayed from it since.

I think it will be allowed that in the matters of taste and feeling; and even of judgment, in cases where instant demonstration is possible, and a long and regular deduction is not required; we often seize upon truth as it were instinctively at the first blush: we then, after some study or reflection, veer to a less sound opinion till at length, by going really deep, our mature judgment confirms the first apprehension. I have frequently experienced this on points of conduct, in matters of taste, and in attempts at criticism.

In Astronomy and Philosophy this process has been gone through by mankind on a great scale. How often have the opinions of the vulgar, or the traditions of the earliest and most simple ages, been derided and refuted (as was then thought) by philosophers deemed sages in their own day, and self-applauding pendants in a later! And how often the juster reasoning or accurate experiments of a more enlightened age do but confirm what the learned of a middle period thought they had exploded!

But the strongest illustration of this view of the progress of science may, I think, be drawn from the controversy as to the materiality of heat, light, and electricity, and in truth it is this controversy which struck out the train of thought here attempted to be developed. Tell an Englishman, uninitiated in the intricacies at which physical science in its wondrous and rapid march has already again arrived; possessing little more that sound sense and elementary knowledge; and accustomed to admire the rigid adherence of his countrymen to exact experiment, precise reasoning, and mathematical exactness of demonstration, in contradistinction to the supposed proneness of the philosophers of the Continent to indulge in fanciful theory and unbounded assertion: tell him that in believing these prime agents to be material he is forfeiting in a manner the name of Englishman, and supporting the darling hypothesis of France against Dalton, Davy, Brande, in short against worthies whose progress in science he most admires, and to whom he looks up as guides and instructors: and his astonishment will be excited that able men who so profoundly investigate matter, and appear in the way to elucidate so many of its hidden properties, should puzzle the brains of themselves and others by denying the materiality of the agents that produce the most important changes upon it, and without which it could hardly exist in its actual forms.

May not our philosophers of the present day have entered a second period of visionary learning? They have destroyed many useless structures, cleared away much rubbish, and shown that the simplest systems are not only the most beautiful and comprehensible, but the most agreeable with truth. It no tonly raises our ideas, nay our feelings of the wisdom, power, and beneficence of the Deity, but it brings us as much nearer as frail and finite beings may come to an understanding of His ways and works; to contemplate the universe as a lovely and wonderful fabric, composed of a very small number of primitive principles or species of matter, created at first in a state of chaos as in a vast storehouse, and reduced to order, usefulness, and beauty by three grand material agents, light, heat, and electricity; and these set in motion by the Divine Mind in a mode which is not to be fathomed, any more than the mode of union and mutual action of mind and body which we all feel within ourselves; an union which is not the less self-evident from being incomprehensible, and which furnishes the best answer I know of to the sceptic who scruples at believing what is revealed or proved to him because he cannot fully comprehend it. I shall never forget the sublime feeling which filled my mind, on first learning the wonderful progress of modern chemistry in reducing the number of elementary substances: it seemed to afford a satisfactory point on which to rest in reflecting on the wonders of creation, and I thought that the beautiful simplicity of the Mosaic account ought equally to satisfy the child and the philosopher. I can conceive an infinite mind and I can conceive a plastic matter, capable of receiving any form or action at the hand of omnipotence: but my ideas are hurt and bewildered with the shock of vibratory and rotatory motions which it seems difficult to connect with the one or with the other; begun I can’t tell from what; continued I can’t tell wherefore; and acting I can’t tell how. It is like contemplating the Vortices of Descartes after the clear and beautiful order of the Copernican System.

Every person possessing that warmth of imagination which leads a man to combine his feelings with his reasonings will rejoice at having lived in an age when science had not only descended to instruct and to cheer every various walk of life, but had risen so far into sublime and majestic simplicity. In the name of all such I implore her distinguished votaries to pause before they destroy this source of delight; before they imagine modes of accounting for phenomena, which are themselves as difficult to comprehend and to account fro as the phenomena they profess to explain. Let them beware how they tarnish the renown they have required, or waste the time they might have employed to its extension, in patient and laborious research; by framing fanciful systems, which, if not destroyed in a few years by themselves may but serve to retard the progress of the next generation, who may have them to get rid of before they can pursue the path so brilliantly marked out of them by the present.