Page images
PDF
EPUB

valuable step of reducing to a system the method of investigation adopted by those eminent men, generalizing it, and extending its application to all matters of contingent truth, exploding the errors, the absurd dogmas, and fantastic subtleties of the ancient schools, above all, confining the subject of our inquiry, and the manner of conducting it, within the limits which our faculties prescribe. Nor is this great law of gradual progress confined to the physical sciences; in the moral it equally governs.

Before the foundations of political economy were laid by Hume and Smith, a great step had been made by the French philosophers, disciples of Quesnai; but a nearer approach to sound principles had signalized the labours of Gournay, and those labours had been shared and his doctrines patronized by Turgôt, when chief minister.

Again, in constitutional policy, see by what slow degrees, from its first rude elements, the attendance of feudal tenants at their lord's court, and the summons of burghers, to grant supplies of money, the great discovery of modern times in the science of practical politics has been effected, the representative scheme which enables States of any extent to enjoy popular government, and allows mixed monarchy to be established, combining freedom with order-a plan pronounced by the statesmen and writers of antiquity to be of hardly possible formation, and wholly impossible continuance. The globe itself, as well as the science of its inhabitants, has been explored according to the law which forbids a sudden and rapid leaping forward, and decrees that each successive step, prepared by the last, shall facilitate the next. Even Columbus followed several successful discoverers on a smaller scale, and is by some believed to have had, unknown to him, a predecessor in the great exploit by which he pierced the night of ages, and unfolded a new world to the eyes of the old. The arts afford no exception to the general law. Demos

thenes had eminent forerunners, Pericles the last of them. Homer must have had predecessors of great merit, though doubtless as far surpassed by him as Fra Bartolomeo and Pietro Perugino were by Michael Angelo and Raphael. Dante owed much to Virgil ; he may be allowed to have owed, through his Latin Mentor, not a little to the old Grecian; and Milton had both the orators and poets of the ancient world for his predecessors and his masters. The art of war itself is no exception to the rule. The plan of bringing an overpowering force to bear on a given point had been tried occasionally before Frederick II. reduced it to a system; and the Wellingtons and Napoleons of our own day made it the foundation of their strategy, as it had also been previously the mainspring of our naval tactics. It has oftentimes been held that the invention of logarithms stands alone in the history of science, as having been preceded by no step leading towards the discovery. There is, however, great inaccuracy in this statement, for not only was the doctrine of infinitesimals familiar to its illustrious author, and the relation of geometrical to arithemetical series well known, but he had himself struek out several methods of great ingenuity and utility (as that known by the name of Napier's Bones) -methods that are now forgotten, eclipsed as they were by the consummation which has immortalized his name. So the inventive powers of Watt, preceded as he was hy Worcester and Newcomen, but far more materially by Causs and Papin, had been exercised on some admirable contrivances, now forgotten, before he made the step which created the steam-engine anew-not only the parallel motion, possibly a corollary to the proposition on circular motion in the Principia, but the separate condensation, and above all, the governor, perhaps the most exquisite of mechanical inventions : and now we have those here present who apply the like principle to the diffusion of knowledge, aware, as they must be, that its expansion has the same happy effect naturally of preventing mischief from its excess, which the skill of the great mechanist gave artificially to steam, thus rendering his engine as safe as it is powerful.

The grand difference, then, between one discovery or invention and another, is in degree, rather than in kind; the degree in which a person, while he outstrips those whom he comes after, also lives, as it were, before his age. Nor can any doubt exist that, in this respect, Newton stands at the head of all who have extended the bounds of knowledge. The sciences of dynamics and of optics are especially to be regarded in this point of view; but the former in particular; and the completeness of the system which ħe unfolded, -its having been at the first elaborated and given in perfection,-its having, however new, stood the test of time, and survived, nay gained by, the most rigorous scrutiny-can be predicated of this system alone, at least in the same degree. That the calculus, and those parts of dynamics which are purely mathematical, should thus endure for ever, is a matter of course. But his system of the universe rests partly upon contingent truths, and might have yielded to new experiments and more extended observation. Nay, at times it has been thought to fail, and further investigation was deemed requisite to ascertain if any error had been introduced—if any circumstance had escaped the notice of the great founder. The most memorable instance of this kind is the discrepancy supposed to have been found between the theory and the fact in the motion of the lunar apsides, which about the middle of the last century occupied the three first analysts of the age. The error was discovered by themselves to have been their own in the process of their investigation; and this, like all the other doubts that were ever momentarily entertained, only led in each instance to new and more brilliant triumphs of the system. The prodigious superiority in this cardinal point of the Newtonian to other discoveries, appears manifest upon examining almost any of the chapters in the history of science. Successive improvements have, by extending our views, constantly displaced the system that appeared firmly established. To take a familiar instance, how little remains of Lavoisier's doctrine of combustion and acidification, except the negative positions, the subversion of the system of Stahl. The substance having most eminently the properties of an acid (chlorine) is found to have no oxygen at all, while many substances abounding in oxygen, including alkalis themselves, have no acid property whatever; and without the access of oxygenous or of any other gas,' heat and flame are produced in excess.

The doctrines of free trade had not long been promulgated by Smith, before Bentham demonstrated that his exception of usury was groundless; and his theory has been repeatedly proved erroneous on colonial establishments, as well as his exception to it on the navigation laws; and the imperfection of his views on the nature of rent is undeniable, as well as on the principle of population. In these, and such instances as these, it would not be easy to find in the original doctrines the means of correcting subsequent errors, or the germs of extended discovery. But even if philosophers finally adopt the undulatory theory of light, instead of the atomic, it must be borne in mind that Newton gave the first elements of it by the well-known proposition in the 8th section of the Second Book of the Principia, the scholium to that section also indicating his expectation that it would be applied to optical science; wbile M. Brot has shown how the doctrine of fits of reflection and transmission tallies with polarization, if not with undulation also. But the most marvellous attribute of Newton's discoveries, is that in which they stand out prominent among all the other feats of scientific reRearch, stamped with the peculiarity of his intellectual character; they were, their great author lived, before his age, anticipating in part what was long after wholly accomplished, and thus unfolding some things which at the time could be but imperfectly, others not at all, comprehended; and not rarely pointing out the path and affording the means of treading it, to the ascertainment of truths then veiled in dark

ness.

He not only enlarged the actual dominion of knowledge, penetrating to regions never before explored, and taking with a firm hand indisputable possession; but he showed how the bounds of the visible horizon might be yet further extended, and enabled his successors to occupy what he could only descry; as the illustrious discoverer of the new world made the inhabitants of the old cast their eyes over lands and seas for distant from those he had traversed; lands and seas which they could form to themselves no conception of, any more than they had been able to comprehend the course by which he led them on his grand enterprise. In this achievement, and in the qualities which alone made it possible, inexhaustible fertility of resources, patience unsubdued, close meditation that would suffer no distraction, steady determination to pursue paths that seemed all but hopeless, and unflinching courage to declare the truths they led to, how far soever removed from ordinary apprehension,-in these characteristics of high and original genius, we may be permitted to compare the career of those great men. But Columbus did not invent the mariner's compass, as Newton did the instrument which guided his course and enabled him to make his discoveries, and his successors to extend them by closely following his directions in using it. Nor did the compass suffice to the great navigator without making any observations, though he dared to steer without a chart; while it is certain that by the philosopher's instrument his discoveries were extended over the whole system of the universe, deterniining the masses, the forms, and the motions of all its parts, by the mere inspection of abstract calculations and formulas analytically deduced.

« EelmineJätka »